GREEN   1254   0
   141736   794.13 KB   11633

Shape Your Home, Part 5

By Ponegreen
Created: 16th July 2021 09:31:33 PM
13th June 2022 10:46:51 AM

  1. Prompt: #deca CPU pony wAIfu green, for /mlp/'s /nmp/ (Part Five Ongoing)
  3. 118
  5. >The pair of doors to the command deck slides open.
  6. >But neither of you immediately passes through the threshold.
  7. >#deca.mare stands still right at the border as her gaze wanders over the consoles and screens she can seen from her perspective.
  8. >And you stand right behind your mare.
  9. "I'm not sure if I should do this alone."
  10. >"Do you think it will overwhelm you?"
  11. "Not if your simulations are right. But I don't want to take a unique moment from you."
  12. >"This is exactly why I would rather have you at the helm today. I want to... see it personally like an eye witness. And without distraction."
  13. >She sighs.
  14. >"But only if you feel comfortable with it."
  15. >You look at the main screen beyond the ramp.
  16. "Comfortable isn't the right word, but I'll manage."
  17. >#deca.mare nods silently.
  18. >You kneel down and give her a tight hug from behind.
  19. "Don't worry about me and celebrate the great day instead."
  20. >She smiles weakly in response.
  21. >"And I do not think calling the occasion a celebration is accurate either."
  22. >You shrug as you keep your arms around #deca.mare's barrel.
  23. "Then consider this. You can always piece me together afterwards. But you'll only get to see this sight once. You've every right to watch it as you see fit."
  24. >And you too start to grin faintly as you softly nudge the back of her head with the side of your face.
  25. "Just make sure to tighten all my screws when you do."
  26. >That gets a lightly enlivened snort out of her.
  27. >"Thank you. And no matter how things turn out, I will make it up to you."
  28. "You do it every day by being there, #deca."
  29. >And for her, you gladly jump into the proverbial fire once more.
  30. >You slowly let go of her and walk to the chair.
  31. >But unlike your usual habit, you wait until #deca.mare has climbed onto the seat first and made herself comfortable right in its centre.
  32. >Once she sits upright and ready, deeply burrowed into the padding, you follow her.
  33. >Though you are not going to sit by her side this time.
  34. >You also aim straight for the middle, and instead of trying to sit like you normally would, you let your back slowly drop in #deca.mare's embrace.
  35. >She in turn spreads her forehooves apart to give you more room.
  36. >The back of your head eventually rests in #deca.mare's lap, carefully held in place by her hind legs and belly.
  37. >With your sight pointed almost straight upwards, you look her in the eyes.
  38. >And she returns a gentle and caring expression.
  39. >Her face beams with just as much comfortable warmth as her body.
  40. >Or perhaps even more.
  41. >One of her forehooves caresses your cheek.
  42. >"Lying well?"
  43. >Under normal circumstances, you might have cracked a joke about your current position.
  44. >Today, however, is not such a day.
  45. "Yeah. Firm and secured."
  46. >You smile.
  47. "Thanks to you."
  48. >#deca.mare takes the compliment with a silent appreciation as her hoof gently fondles you some more.
  49. >That gives you an idea.
  54. >You reach out with your own hand and slowly grasp her limb.
  55. >She plays along and lets you hold the underside of her hoof with your palm as most of your fingers cover her frog and almost reach up to her pastern.
  56. "Keep holding while I'm busy, okay?"
  57. >And #deca.mare nods.
  58. >"Yes, Anon. I will."
  59. >Then you close your eyes to the sight of her friendly face and start to focus on the task at hand.
  60. >Your body seemingly slips out of her warm embrace as your control switches over to a new command post.
  61. >Located in a small relay station where a broken chair once used to be.
  62. >You see the now fully restored command deck of #deca.sigma.
  63. >Aside from the cryo pod and the immediate presence of a friendly mare, the deck mirrors your own in almost every aspect.
  64. >You can feel the massive potential behind almost any of its stations.
  65. >Mentally nibbling at the physical limitations of your brain.
  66. >And even the mere presence of the colossal outer shell of the vessel looms over your mind like an invisible, yet very present shadow.
  67. >It threatens to overcome you instantly if you dare to enter its depths.
  68. >#deca.mare's contacts you over the comm channel.
  69. >"Please remember to delegate as many tasks as possible, Anon. Just focus on the important tasks and let the automatons do the rest."
  70. "Yeah, will do. Relax and watch the spectacle."
  71. >The comm channel closes, leaving you to your own devices again.
  72. "Okay, time for the show to kick off."
  73. >You order a final diagnose run to check the main systems as you acclimatise yourself to your environment.
  74. >To you it seems as if you were teleported into a mental minefield, where every false step might blow you up and sunder your very sense of self into little pieces.
  75. >Though unlike a real minefield, you are not in a mortal danger.
  76. >As you are fully aware that there is a fool-proof way back from even the worst ensuing impediment.
  77. >Regardless though, you would very much prefer not to go there again if at all possible.
  78. >Sigma already crippled you once for a few days, so you are not keen on giving the system a second chance.
  79. >The diagnosis is finished.
  80. >All systems working in nominal parameters.
  81. >Everything green, no malfunction reported.
  82. >Only your input is required.
  83. >So you will give it then.
  84. >You manifest a mental image in your mind.
  85. >You are the conductor on a stage.
  86. >Your instruments are the orchestra, and your orders embody the tactful, controlled swings of your baton.
  87. >It is up to you whether you make the ensemble play a symphony, or fall from your pedestal while trying.
  88. >Well then, off you go.
  89. >You instruct the docking clamps to let go off the vessel.
  90. >Your ship is now free, and the curtain is lifted.
  91. >You wait until the clamps are fully retreated.
  92. >Then you activate the shield generators and watch as the consoles depict the readings of a protective energy field building up around the mended hull.
  93. >You monitor the power levels for a short while.
  98. >Once you are satisfied with what you see, you divert your attention back to the larger task.
  99. >The automatons keep the energy levels in check and regulate them as needed in your stead.
  100. >And they are set to notify you if something is amiss.
  101. >Alright, sensors next.
  102. "Let's see if you can see without help from others, hm?"
  103. >Unsurprisingly, nobody answers.
  104. >You filter the sensor input of allied structures from your on-board radar and provide Sigma's own sensors with energy.
  105. >The green outlines of your mother ship and the repair dock disappear from your HUD as the sensor console gets to work.
  106. >And you think you can positively feel the activities of the awakening vessel as if your own body were involved.
  107. >The notion of faint pinpricks lingers in your mind.
  108. >Like a numbed limb which is slowly getting active after a longer period of inactivity.
  109. >The proverbial blood starts to flow steadily, and the nerves fire properly again.
  110. >And your "body" wants you to know.
  111. >You wonder if machines can be subject to the concept of phantom pain, and if you are currently going through this together with Sigma.
  112. >After all, a few traces of the individual still remain in this system.
  113. >And maybe some of these fragments subtly interact with your own psyche somehow.
  114. >But this issue is far too abstract for you to answer with certainty.
  115. >You follow the text on the console with relative ease.
  116. >Booting, green.
  117. >Initialisation successful.
  118. >Receiving signals.
  119. >Processing input.
  120. >In a matter of seconds, the structures reappear on your radar in a healthy shade of green.
  121. >Everything is where it is supposed to be.
  122. >And it is also displayed as being part of the correct faction.
  123. >You extend the scale of your sector map.
  124. >#deca.sigma, #deca.mare, and the dock shrink rapidly as the sphere of the moon and eventually Equestria become visible as accurately scaled models.
  125. >Looks like Sigma knows precisely where you are.
  126. >You smile.
  127. "Good. I'm sure we're going places now."
  128. >You return the scale of the map back to your immediate surroundings.
  129. >As you need it very soon.
  130. >For it is time for the big one.
  131. >You give the order to heat up the main engine.
  132. >And as you observe the readings on the navigational screen, the automatons act without delay.
  133. >The power level rises gradually, awaiting your command.
  134. >This one will be trickier than the others, given that navigation requires constant attention.
  135. >Something you cannot afford to strain your brain with whilst in command of this capital ship.
  136. >But you are prepared.
  137. >Since this is a behemoth of a vessel and not a conventional fighter, you are not going to fly the machine directly like you would with other smaller units.
  138. >Instead, you rely on a three dimensional sector map to set a course from point A to B.
  139. >The automatons handle the rest.
  140. >They calculate the optimal course and speed for the flight, whilst you can inspect and follow their work in real time on the screens.
  145. >Whereas terran autopilots are basic and very often highly unreliable, #deca automatons perform decidedly better in all aspects.
  146. >A fact you fully take advantage of in this situation, as you virtually treat them like a crew of sorts.
  147. >With "specialised" officers to give orders to for the duration of your flight.
  148. >They are of course still all basic automatons with identical capacities.
  149. >But since you delegate each of them to one specific task, you prefer to see them as a bit more than that.
  150. >Makes it easier to keep track of everything.
  151. >And adds a touch of personality to the whole affair.
  152. >The navigational post reports full engine readiness.
  153. >So you set your first simple route forwards.
  154. >Out of the dock with minimal acceleration.
  155. >To bring the vessel to a controllable speed and use the Newtonian forces for what they are worth.
  156. >Another factor you must consider at the helm of this vessel.
  157. >This massive behemoth is far, far less manoeuvrable than anything you have flown before.
  158. >Apart from the session in which you hauled the inert form of #deca.sigma over to Equestria, though the events of this day have gotten somewhat muddy in the aftermath.
  159. >Which makes the automated pilot even more valuable to you.
  160. >The system comes to life as the large rear engine segment fires up.
  161. >The hint of a faint rattling sensation touches your mind.
  162. >You think you can "feel" the reverberations of the engine all the way through the structure of the outer shell.
  163. >And once again, you cannot determine how much of that is driven by your personal fantasy.
  164. >Yet either way, you realise that it somehow feels... wholesome.
  165. >For the lack of a better term.
  166. >The light notions of life all around you fill you with some warmth.
  167. >You know you can trust them.
  168. >They will not fail you if you give them the right orders.
  169. >You try to imagine the engine block and how it must look from the outside as it runs.
  170. >It surely emits a considerable light right now.
  171. >And you imagine #deca.mare watching it from afar, witnessing Sigma's first own steps after your extensive care.
  172. >Though you can only guess how emotional she must feel in this very moment.
  173. >You wish you could be with her in full to provide her with all the comfort she asks for, but you cannot do that and simultaneously command the entire ship.
  174. >That task is taxing enough as it is, even with your little tricks.
  175. >But you know for sure that she is holding your hand as you work.
  176. >Or you her hoof, depending on the perspective.
  177. >And that is at least something, all things considered.
  178. >The propulsion gradually pushes the behemoth forwards.
  179. >Sigma's large ancient structure starts to move visibly.
  180. >Your speed in relation to the dock is not higher than a few metres per second.
  181. >Though this is all you are willing to go for as long as you are within the confines of the station.
  182. >You watch the radar with eagle eyes as the ship slowly glides out of the enveloping stationary struts.
  187. >Your sensors spot hundreds of small drones floating around the repair dock.
  188. >And you cannot help but notice that most of them have their lenses turned in your direction.
  189. >If it were not for the fact that only #deca.mare and you witness the event in person, you could think that hundreds of souls out there came here to watch this departure.
  190. >Really, this is what Sigma would deserve.
  191. >A celebrated send-off for departure, similar to the one at the original maiden voyage.
  192. >Knowing #deca.mare though, you are absolutely convinced that she keeps logs and records at least some video feeds of your flight.
  193. >You must smirk as you consider that.
  194. >Because it means you better show the best capital ship commander skills you have in store.
  195. >Not so much in the interest of displaying your competence or make you look good, but to give her the chance to get as many great scenes as possible.
  196. >You are responsible for this to happen, and you happily oblige.
  197. >Though in retrospect you should have asked #deca.mare to make a captain's hat for you to also look the part.
  198. >Oh well, missed opportunity.
  199. >You monitor the course and your current trajectory on the displayed sector map and let the automatons do their work until further notice.
  200. >The ship safely leaves the dock proper as it gently floats onwards through the vacuum.
  201. >So far, so good.
  202. >You test the navigational thrusters next as you instruct the autopilot to enter a stable orbit around the moon.
  203. >The system confirms your order and begins to steer vessel accordingly.
  204. >Once more, you feel the difference in mass when compared to smaller vessels, as the first tangible results of the course correction take quite a while before they become apparent to the naked eye.
  205. >The delay and the manner in which the automatons navigate the structure give you the impression of them piloting an airship rather than a space craft.
  206. >Minus wind currents and atmospheric pressure, but still.
  207. >Plus, there is also the difference between commanding hundreds of little ships hauling a much larger object, and actually being the one who controls such a capital vessel yourself.
  208. >Sure, you have seen #deca.mare flying your mother ship practically every single day for the better part of a year.
  209. >And indeed, you temporarily took control of it as well.
  210. >For which you promptly paid the price.
  211. >But #deca.mare was always directly present in one way or another as it all happened within her very own home.
  212. >This, on the other hand, is a whole new level in which you are playing on somewhat foreign ground.
  213. >Despite still being connected to #deca.mare through your link.
  214. >And as such, you perceive it as the new experience that it is.
  215. >So you idle a minute just to witness this process with a degree of fascination before you move on.
  216. >Then you assign a secondary cluster of automatons to take control of the swarm near the station and instruct them follow the terraformer.
  221. >Should the thrusters fail for one reason or another, you have programmed them to automatically latch themselves onto the hull of Sigma and support the navigational systems with their own pushing and pulling power to keep the ship on its course.
  222. >As a fail safe measure for the worst case.
  223. >But you do not even attempt to link yourself to any of these drones directly, since you still need your mind intact for what is to come soon.
  224. >With a great deal of methodical precision, the automatons align the ship with the pre-calculated orbital course, and reduce the usage of the navigational thrusters to a minimum.
  225. >From here on out, it is mainly the rear engine that provides some additional thrust to increase the speed and maintain the planned path.
  226. >Then, all navigational systems put themselves on standby as they keep monitoring the trajectory of your flight.
  227. >Only to intervene when a course correction is necessary.
  228. >#deca.sigma is hereby officially circling Equestria's moon, with no technical problems to speak of.
  229. >The ship is, for all intents and purposes, spaceworthy for internal sector missions.
  230. >A great start to be sure, though you still have to test the jumpdrive.
  231. >You may not plan to use the ship for deep space operations on its lonesome, but you should nevertheless ensure that the option exists.
  232. >Just in case.
  233. >But before you do that, you let the ship sail around the moon for a while and contact #deca.mare first.
  234. >Also granting the system a moment to operate on standard settings and prove their functionality.
  235. "Well?"
  236. >"This moment makes all our efforts worthwhile, Anon. Words cannot describe how much it means."
  237. >You wonder if she refers to her emotions or the historical implications behind your restoration.
  238. >"Certainly a little bit of both."
  239. "And you?"
  240. >"I think I am fine so far. How are you?"
  241. "Eh, still Anon, I guess. And with most screws where they should be."
  242. >"Glad to hear that. Do you need a break?"
  243. >Even though both of you know that you do not require to pause in your current state, you think you hear a hidden invitation coming from her.
  244. >Suggesting it is #deca.mare who would very much so have one right now.
  245. >So you give her what she asks for.
  246. "Sounds good. I'll come back to you in a minute. Though better keep an emergency line open to transfer my control back to Sigma if something goes wrong."
  247. >"Hmhm, sure. I will."
  248. >You close the channel and take one last hard look at the consoles before you join #deca.mare.
  249. >And as much as your are intricately looking for potential problems, you find none.
  250. >Satisfied, you maintain the orbital standby order and close your eyes.
  251. >The next thing you see is your hand being firmly held between two forehooves.
  252. >Seems like #deca.mare used your arm for some personal comfort.
  253. "I'm here."
  254. >A pair of friendly eyes looks down on you, clearly happy to see you "awake" again.
  255. >She says nothing and releases your hand carefully.
  260. >Then you feel her forelegs winding themselves between your arms and sides, followed by them lifting you into a more upright position.
  261. >And you actively go along with it until you sit properly.
  262. >Your height hides #deca.mare's smaller body almost completely in the chair, but she manages to stretch herself a little.
  263. >Her head nuzzles your neck whilst she holds herself in place by wrapping her forelimbs around your torso.
  264. >You notice she uses more force in her grip than what she would need to hold herself.
  265. >And the tip of her tail sticks out on one side, twitching lightly.
  266. "Are you comfortable like that? You stir a lot."
  267. >"With you here to get hugged? Without a doubt, Anon."
  268. >And to emphasise the meaning of her words, she tightens her grasp a little more.
  269. >Her embrace is far from unpleasant, though she makes no secret of the fact that she seized you completely.
  270. >Hm, alright.
  271. >#deca.mare's clingy side often is a telltale sign of her dealing with a lot of emotions.
  272. >And judging the circumstances, you do not even have to ask what is going on.
  273. >So you let her use you as her cuddle toy.
  274. >Though you cannot properly reciprocate her affection in your position.
  275. >The best you can come up with is an improvised massage of her forehooves.
  276. >But this is better than nothing, and enough for her to breathe easy.
  277. >You can feel the change directly on your skin as she exhales.
  278. >And while you sit all bundled up and cuddling, the main screen depicts #deca.sigma drifting through space in front of your moon.
  279. >Followed in proverbial lockstep by many tiny specks of glinting lights which make sure that Sigma stays on the correct course.
  280. >Your break lasts for about a quarter of an hour.
  281. >Once you have decided to go on, #deca.mare looses her grip on you, and you sink back into your previous position.
  282. >You look her in the eyes and openly offer your hand.
  283. >As you have expected, she accepts your offering, holding it in the exact same way as before.
  284. >You switch over the other bridge and let the automatons give you a quick summary of the last twenty minutes.
  285. >You briefly skim over the reports as none of them seem to suggest any present problems within the systems.
  286. >The ship stayed on course, and the automatons did not have to perform an unexpected course correction.
  287. >You take a deep breath and open a comm channel to #deca.mare.
  288. "The system is doing great so far, #deca. I think we can test the jumpdrive now."
  289. >"Understood. I am sending you coordinates for a destination."
  290. >True to her word, you get a signal from her.
  291. >An empty patch of space in this sector, less than a light minute away from the planet.
  292. >But remote enough as to not bump into any objects, even when the computer produces some minor inaccuracies.
  293. >As unlikely as it is, you want to make sure.
  294. >"Start at your discretion, Anon. I will monitor the process too and abort the jump without further notice if irregularities occur in the build-up phase."
  299. >Hm, depending on how much energy has been fed into the jumpdrive at that point, the sudden venting could be pretty abrupt.
  300. >But always better than potentially losing the ship for which you have worked so hard to revive it.
  301. "Order in five, #deca."
  302. >And you silently count from five to zero.
  303. >Then you give the order.
  304. >The automaton confirms both the coordinates and the order, and notifies you of the impending jump process.
  305. >You even sense the steadily growing force of the forming corridor in your mind.
  306. >As a thorough, all-encompassing pressure which adds itself to the mass of proverbial shadows that could shake your consciousness.
  307. >Yet you persist and ignore the sensation through sheer will.
  308. >This is just a jump, and you will not let it control you.
  309. >Especially when #deca.mare has asked for your help.
  310. >The progress bar on the navigational screen nears completion.
  311. >The energy is stored, the focus is stable.
  312. >And the corridor opens up soon thereafter.
  313. >Flash, transit, and the second flash.
  314. >You still have the full control over the vessel.
  315. >And so you order all stations to report their status.
  316. >The coordinates are correct, and the ship is still in one piece.
  317. >Everything looks green, except for the jumpdrive.
  318. >Despite being listed as fully functional, the navigational automaton informs you that it requires a cooldown phase of twenty minutes.
  319. >That is unusual for such a short jump.
  320. "#deca?"
  321. >The answer is quick and professional.
  322. >"Yes, Anon. I see what you mean."
  323. "What's the problem? Did something go wrong?"
  324. >"No, the jump process was flawless according to my readings. It looks like the energy allocation has to be recalibrated, however. It reported a slight surplus of available energy shortly after the build-up phase."
  325. >You do not like to hear that.
  326. >At all.
  327. >For it sounds way too familiar.
  328. "Hold on, that means the drive was overcharged."
  329. >The same issue that catapulted you into outer space to begin with.
  330. >Fortunate circumstances or not.
  331. >"I know what you are thinking. The case is a little bit different than yours though. Your fighter was flung off its destination and heavily damaged because the excess energy was forced onto the jumpdrive by a system malfunction. It had to be used in the creation of a volatile corridor because it was the only available exhaust. But we have a safety mechanism to prevent that."
  332. "So what happened?"
  333. >"The system registered the discrepancy and vented the surplus out of the jumpdrive."
  334. >Of course.
  335. >For what happens when a lot of energy is ejected very rapidly?
  336. >Heat.
  337. >And lots of it.
  338. "So to put it short, the drive is overheated."
  339. >"Indeed. And it disabled itself automatically to prevent further damage by additional heat accumulation."
  340. >Meaning the ship is stuck here for the next twenty minutes.
  341. >Unless you want to resort to conventional propulsion to return to Equestria.
  342. >Which could take a while.
  343. >And certainly longer than twenty minutes.
  344. >#deca.mare sighs.
  349. >"I guess it means Sigma should return to the docks until the problem is fixed."
  350. >You hear an unhappy notion in her voice, and you will have none of that.
  351. "Don't be frustrated, #deca. We made a huge leap here."
  352. >"Of course. You are right, Anon."
  353. "But?"
  354. >"I just thought we were done with this particular issue for the time being."
  355. "Maybe you imagined it to be a tad too easy. You can't simply make a checkmark on the operation and believe everything is settled. This is not that kind of project."
  356. >Certainly somewhat bluntly put, though you assume #deca.mare is better off with the truth than with a coddling myth.
  357. >Because the last thing you want her to do is lying to herself.
  358. >She would only harm herself more in the long run.
  359. >Still, you look for something to say to alleviate her emotional turmoil.
  360. "But things are fine overall, #deca. I mean, it's just a calibration. This is a joke compared to the stuff we've fixed, isn't it?"
  361. >"It is. Sorry for acting so cranky."
  362. >You get an inspired idea.
  363. "Eh, not your fault. You'll see, I give you a spa treatment after this is over."
  364. >"This evening?"
  365. "This evening. But I need you to pull yourself together for another half an hour or so. How's this for a deal, hm? Can you do that?"
  366. >"Naturally, Anon. And thank you."
  367. >You smile inwardly.
  368. >What the prospect of a spa treatment can do to improve the mood of a saddened mare.
  369. >You run another system diagnosis and regularly monitor the state of Sigma's jumpdrive.
  370. >And as far as the internal sensor are concerned, the device inside the segment is slowly cooling off.
  371. >You let an automaton scan the jumpdrive for thermal damage.
  372. >Thankfully, the machine does not find any.
  373. >So you wait until the device is ready and observe the logs that register the events as they are happening on board of the vessel.
  374. >The system routines, as well as the scans of the perimeter.
  375. >You check the energy reserves, then you study the integrity of the energy shielding around the hull.
  376. >And even the movement of logistical units, including the transport of certain items as part of the common everyday routines.
  377. >Not the most thrilling set of activities at the best of days, of course.
  378. >Yet it does help to pass the time and nevertheless evokes a certain degree of fascination in you, considering that all of this has been effectively dead before you poured weeks of tireless work into the project.
  379. >Also, you do not want to abandon Sigma for the duration of the cooldown either.
  380. >Even though it could have been far more enjoyable to retun to #deca.mare's embrace, you somehow think it would have felt like leaving Sigma behind after things got a little rough.
  381. >Probably a silly notion, as the ship is in a very safe spot, yet you do not want to leave this post again until the vessel is safely harboured above Equestria.
  382. >Since you feel personally responsible for Sigma.
  383. >"Anon?"
  384. "Yeah?"
  385. >"You would have been a good USC captain with that mindset."
  386. "Heh, you think?"
  391. >"Hmhm. You know the saying. The captain is the last one to leave the ship."
  392. >And since there are always some traces of Sigma left on board somewhere, this applies to you as well.
  393. >For as long as you are the commander in flight, at least.
  394. >The warning note disappears from the navigation console.
  395. >You check on the jumprdrive.
  396. >Functionality green, temperature normal.
  397. >"No need to say anything. I have been notified too. Here are your new coordinates."
  398. >You look at the numbers and notice something odd.
  399. >It bring you close to Equestria again, that much is certain, but if you read these values correctly, the corridor will manifest a good bit further away from the planet than usual.
  400. >"A safety measure until I had the opportunity to inspect the drive at the dock."
  401. >Okay, reasonable enough.
  402. >You initialise the jumping sequence and live through the same building pressure a second time.
  403. >Flash, and transit.
  404. >Equestria's moon appears in your vision after the bright light fades away.
  405. >The jumpdrive demands your attention.
  406. >Energy venting and overheating detected, jumpdrive disabled for approximately twenty minutes.
  407. >Damage scan.
  408. >No physical damage detected.
  409. >Good enough.
  410. >You will not use that one again in your current session anyway.
  411. >Distance check.
  412. >Several thousand kilometres.
  413. >Well, this is going to take some time, so you set the course without hesitation and let the automatons do the math.
  414. >The vessel gently tilts and turns as the autopilot heads for the dock.
  415. >And you in turn watch over the process as a whole.
  416. "Hm, I think I'll need more than the thirty minutes until I can invite you to the spa session."
  417. >"No problem, Anon. Please take all the time you need for... tending to Sigma. I can wait."
  418. >You hear the hazily hidden tone of hesitance in her words, though you do not question it further.
  419. >It is clear for you that she would rather have you right in her grasp in an instant.
  420. >Yet her rational perspective on things prevails.
  421. >And for good reason; the lively shape of Sigma approaching Equestria's satellite serves as the only reminder that is necessary to quell any doubts.
  422. >So as you are more or less stationed on an obligatory post, you use the time to further practice your observation skills as a capital ship operator.
  423. >Plus, being exposed to the constant moderate background strain helps to train both your endurance and your focus.
  424. >Eventually, the terraformer ship nears the orbit, causing the automatons to act again in order to adjust the course.
  425. >And you keep watching.
  426. >Focused and professional, yet also somewhat at ease.
  427. >You keep telling yourself that you have a group of automatons at your side, and you can trust them to do their job.
  428. >All you need to do is contributing your part.
  429. >Like a well-oiled synergy between two complementary elements.
  430. >Slowly, but with precise certainty, you witness as the ship enters the moon's orbit and gradually approaches the repair dock.
  435. >The process you are about to witness soon is similar to any other you have performed over the years from a technical standpoint, and yet it too is a league of its own.
  436. >And you actually start to get somewhat tense as the structure ahead of you grows and grows in your vision.
  437. >You double check both the perimeter map and the projected trajectory.
  438. >Things are looking good, though you will not take any risk.
  439. >But thankfully the docking struts were designed by #deca.mare and you with crafts of this size in mind.
  440. >Hence your automatons have ample space to navigate, even inside the encasing structure.
  441. >The tip of Sigma's crown begins to slip in, and you see the automatons already beginning to marginally reverse the thrust to slow the ship down.
  442. >Even with such a massive scale and the best artificial navigators that were ever created, docking on a station remains a matter of metres.
  443. >The behemoth under your command drifts to a painstakingly slow stop inside the bay.
  444. >Once properly halted, the automaton performs a series of minor adjustments before it brings the craft to complete stop.
  445. >Following this, it sends a green signal to the station.
  446. >The docking clamps reach out to safely fasten #deca.sigma.
  447. >Success.
  448. >And you are relived from your "duty".
  449. >You set the automatons to standby, silently thank them for their peerless performance, and return to your hideout in the grasp of your personal mare-shaped docking clamps.
  450. >As it turns out, #deca.mare's loyalty to your hand has not faltered whatsoever during your second half of the test run on Sigma's command deck.
  451. >This time it is her who reacts first.
  452. >She smiles warmly and talks only short moment after you have come to your senses.
  453. >"I have been waiting for you, Anon."
  454. "Yeah, thought so. Everything alright?"
  455. >#deca.mare nods.
  456. >"I am relieved the flight is over. The test went fairly well, considering what..."
  457. "No. Don't think about what could have gone to hell. Fact is, it didn't. That's all that counts."
  458. >She repeats her nod, a little slower this time.
  459. >You cut things short to get #deca.mare to think of more pleasant things quickly.
  460. "Right. Spa time it is. We can deal with the jumpdrive inspection at a later date."
  461. >"Agreed."
  462. >She retracts her outstretched hoof, freeing your hand.
  463. >A second later, you feel her body shifting behind you as she tries to get off the chair without restraining you in the process.
  464. >On the contrary, the embrace on her lap loosens as she does.
  465. >So to help her out, you raise your upper body to sit upright.
  466. >#deca.mare carefully steps around you and hops off the chair.
  467. >Ready to leave when you are.
  468. >In this moment, you get another interesting idea.
  469. "Hm, can you carry me to the spa?"
  470. >"Certainly, Anon. Why do you ask though? Is it a repercussion you feel after your connection to Sigma?"
  471. "Nope, that's okay. A light buzzing in the skull but nothing dramatic. That's not why I'm asking."
  476. >"Do you want to tell me?"
  477. >You grin as you try not to explicitly think of your flash of inspiration.
  478. >It would be a shame if she caught wind of it in advance.
  479. "I'd rather want to show you, #deca."
  480. >She accepts your answer for the cryptic response it is and stands still, presenting herself to you.
  481. >"I hope this does not require a saddle."
  482. >And you laugh.
  483. "The opposite is true. A saddle would only be in the way."
  484. >With no further comment, you carefully mount #deca.mare bareback, placing yourself slightly closer to the rear than usual as far as riders are concerned.
  485. >And you solely hold yourself steady by pressing your legs against her sides.
  486. "Okay so far?"
  487. >"I can manage. But what now?"
  488. "Now?"
  489. >You point at the exit.
  490. "Now you trot off that deck. I'll load the spa scene."
  491. >So you do, with one single mental command.
  492. >And #deca.mare trots towards the ramp.
  493. >As she does what you asked off her, you do your best to keep your balance and put your hands on her back.
  494. >Close to her shoulders.
  495. >Then you gently rub, knead, and massage her there while she is trotting.
  496. >#deca.mare almost stumbles in surprise, which makes you smile turn.
  497. "How is that?"
  498. >"Different... that is for sure."
  499. "Different enough for me to go on?"
  500. >"Yes, Anon. That would be great."
  501. >You heed her wish and do just that.
  502. >You massage #deca.mare's back on your way to the spa.
  503. >Treating her firm and tense muscles along the way, causing her to occasionally walk in curvy lines towards your goal.
  504. >The shoulder blades provide you with a little bit of trouble though, as you cannot properly treat them without tripping #deca.mare outright.
  505. >Their movements are far too lively, and she is much too susceptible to this sort of stimulation for you to attempt treating her there for longer periods of time.
  506. >But despite that little soft spot of hers, she indeed manages to get you off the deck and into the straight corridors beneath the simulated Ponyville spa.
  507. >Where no one will be wondering why an elated mare staggers loudly through the halls whilst a human sits on her back as he gives her a massage.
  508. >Though you think that if ponies could see you like this, the sight alone would let them forget to ponder why the two of you bump against the walls a few times.
  509. >Or accidentally smack a door open with your combined mass, only to tumble on some more until you reach the curve and disappear from sight.
  510. >But not out of earshot.
  515. 119
  517. >#deca.mare and you overhaul and refine the calibrations of the jumpdrive in the subsequent space session.
  518. >Once again, your roles are clear-cut; #deca.mare does the lion's share during the theoretical part, whereas you are responsible for testing the adjustments in a short tour around the system.
  519. >This time around, the jumpdrive and related energy distribution works precisely as intended.
  520. >No fluctuations or other complications occur.
  521. >And now that Sigma's operating abilities are verified for all intents and purposes, you celebrate a small festival for two on the command deck.
  522. >With a mug of apple cider and a small table of treats, you lean back, look at the sight of the second terraformer circling around the moon, and generally enjoy life as you bask in the fruits of your hard and ardent work.
  523. >Weeks upon weeks of earnest toil have led to this moment.
  524. >Neither of you allows unpleasant thoughts or similar things to ruin this for you.
  525. >And you grab your camera to make a few photos as you revel in the moment.
  526. >The resulting pictures are perhaps not the most elegant of shots, but that is not of importance to #deca.mare and you.
  527. >It is the spirit of the celebration that counts.
  528. >As well as the fond memories afterwards.
  529. >And you take your sweet time for it too.
  530. >For you spend more than two hours on the command deck in this fashion.
  531. >At first you simply follow the scene as you dine together and recall your best moments during the restoration of Sigma.
  532. >The whole thing turns out to be a rather light-hearted conversation, all things considered.
  533. >More dire topics like your near accident with the proxy or the cleaning of the halls are not forgotten of course, yet you do a pretty decent job at putting them aside for the time being.
  534. >At one point in your conversation, you get the idea to let the computer play a song on the command deck to improve the mood even more.
  535. >You deliberately pick a classical music number which you have heard one day in Sugarcube Corner when Octavia gave one of her famous local live performances.
  536. >The soft cello sounds of a fairly slow, yet nevertheless somehow enlivening tune fill the hall around you.
  537. >And for a reason you cannot point out, the melody invokes the image of a new dawn rolling over the grassy hills of Equestria.
  538. >Serenity.
  539. >Hope.
  540. >New chances.
  541. >All in one.
  542. >You have no idea what the song is called and what it could be about.
  543. >Or if it has any internal meaning to begin with.
  544. >Judging from the way the grey mare has performed the piece, though, you assume your interpretation could be pretty solid.
  545. >But regardless of the potential deeper artistic lore of the music, you notice that #deca.mare approves your pick with a happy smile.
  546. >Mission accomplished.
  547. >Then, a bit further into the song, you ask her out to a dance.
  548. >Right here on the deck, in between the chair, the screen, and the myriad of consoles and instruments.
  553. >She is initially somewhat hesitant as you make your offer, and you wager she may evaluate whether or not it would be inappropriate for the occasion.
  554. >But eventually, you can convince her of the idea.
  555. >After all, what the two of you do in this session is not meant to disrespect or cheapen the moment and Sigma's legacy.
  556. >On the contrary, you are here today to celebrate life and, albeit admittedly limited, a rebirth of sorts.
  557. >Contemplation and commemoration of the past are legit and important things, but this is better be done on the memorial grounds.
  558. >Today, you do the opposite as you cherish the present and welcome the future.
  559. >And so, you return to your well rehearsed dance routine.
  560. >#deca.mare rears to wrap her forehooves around your shoulders, and you stabilise her body with your own arms.
  561. >And then you slowly turn in a circle.
  562. >Though unlike your waltz in Sugarcube Corner, you do not follow any rhythmic cues.
  563. >Back then it was a neat aid to prevent #deca.mare from feeling surrounded and provided you with an easy method to give her a focus.
  564. >But now, with only you two in attendance and nobody else around, simulated or otherwise, you can determine your flow together.
  565. >So you simply dance how you like it best from moment to moment.
  566. >Sometimes slower, sometimes faster.
  567. >Sometimes you try to adapt your pace to the beeping of the consoles.
  568. >Then you feel tempted to do the opposite.
  569. >All that matters is that #deca.mare and you are content.
  570. >Nay, not just content.
  571. >Happy.
  572. >Yes, this is it.
  573. >To reach a happiness that goes beyond the mere highs of singular jovial events.
  574. >And which manifests itself in a form of base line inner peace instead.
  575. >It may in no way be perfect yet, but the first dark clouds have been lifted from the sky for good.
  576. >And now the sunshine can start to warm the ground beneath once again.
  577. >But like the seed on any good homestead, it needs a mindful caregiver to foster.
  578. >Your work is far from done.
  579. >Though it certainly has gotten a little lighter with this day.
  584. 120
  586. >You do not do much else of note in space on the day you have finally declared your first reclamation project to be complete.
  587. >You have, however, made some other plans.
  588. >#deca.mare sets Sigma to circle the satellite independently, shortly before you two repair to one of Canterlot Castle's spacious banquet halls.
  589. >She leaves a channel to the vessel open in case of an emergency, but except for this little detail, she wants to spend the rest of the day only with you.
  590. >Undisturbed.
  591. >This evening, you want to have something big for a change.
  592. >The huge room reflects this perfectly.
  593. >It is a long hall that almost rivals the vastness of Equestria's throne room.
  594. >And like most of Canterlot, the structure is chiselled almost entirely out of white marble.
  595. >Stout rounded pillars decorate the walls on both sides with perfect symmetry.
  596. >The wide arches on the ceiling are painted with sceneries of eloquently stylised imagery of the realm.
  597. >Each standing for one of the many towns, settlements, and landmarks in Equestria.
  598. >Colourful stained glass windows are embedded into the mighty castle walls.
  599. >Every one of them embodies a unique work of art in its own right, as they follow the tradition of the throne room and depict incisive moments of Equestria's history.
  600. >Their inherent luminance, paired with the unobstructed mountain sunlight during the day, blankets the room in an intense, yet not piercing brilliance.
  601. >As if the sun itself would inhabit the room to lovingly enlighten its denizens.
  602. >And depending on who one asks, they might claim that this is precisely what is happening when the princess of the sun extends an invitation to a feast.
  603. >A single long and sturdy table is placed in the middle of the room, spanning almost across its whole length.
  604. >The table is covered by finely woven cloth from end to end, and an equally elaborate carpet is laid out underneath it as well.
  605. >More than a dozen of fine seat cushions line the table on both sides, each with a set of dinnerware and cups placed right in front of them.
  606. >Lastly, one gilded candleholder is placed on the middle line of the table after every third seat.
  607. >As a symbol to honour an old tradition of the time when the three tribes became one.
  608. >With one pony of each of the three sitting in every triplet of seats.
  609. >A display of goodwill, companionship, and most importantly, like-minded unity.
  610. >Similarly styled torch holders are set near the pillars to provide additional light during the night hours.
  611. >And you enter this world of seemingly unreal beauty and striking affluence.
  612. >#deca.mare and you arrive through the tall wooden double doors at one end of the room.
  613. "Yep, that'll do."
  614. >You clap your hands in anticipation.
  615. "So, where do you want to sit? We got the full choice."
  616. >"I would prefer some seats in the midsection."
  617. "Aw, not the head?"
  618. >"The head is usually reserved for the princesses. Not that we are bound by this rule, but that would not feel right to me."
  623. >Looks like her aversion to being seen in the spotlight strikes again.
  624. >Ah well.
  625. >No more exercises today.
  626. >Just a good show for the evening.
  627. "Okay, next question. Side by side or face to face? One's better for looking, the other for hugging."
  628. >"The latter, please. Though I doubt it is common practice to hug other guests during an official gathering."
  629. "Even between lovers?"
  630. >"We are technically not married yet, Anon."
  631. >You shrug.
  632. "Maybe on paper. But it's as good as done if you ask me."
  633. >You smile.
  634. "Or do you want to break up?"
  635. >#deca.mare does not dignify that silly question with a spoken answer.
  636. >All you get is a tail flick against your side, and your grin persists.
  637. "Okay, got it. Midsection next to each other it is."
  638. >Your gaze wanders across the deserted hall.
  639. >It already looks great as it is.
  640. >But without any traces of life, the display of a flourishing realm is just as pointless.
  641. "Guests?"
  642. >"I do not feel like going through another challenge today, Anon."
  643. "I know. I meant just as decor to make the place appear more like the heart of a capital, you know? We don't have to interact with anybody if you don't want to."
  644. >#deca.mare nods.
  645. >"You are right. That would improve the scenery."
  646. "Okay. I'll handle it."
  647. >You assign a number of automatons to the simulation and load up a list of regular Canterlot ponies.
  648. >You pick a few you find the most fitting and place them around the table.
  649. >Since neither of you claims the seat at the head, you follow the common Equestrian habits and place Princess Celestia there.
  650. >Her aide Raven is seated on the cushion to her right.
  651. >And you further fill the lines with some of the better known nobles.
  652. >Like Fancy Pants and Fleur de Lis.
  653. >Then followed by some dignitaries who represent other places outside Canterlot.
  654. >So you pick ponies like Spitfire for Cloudsdale and Mayor Mare for Ponyville.
  655. >Known and well regarded ponies who hold some sway over the communities they represent.
  656. >And you try to order their seat arrangement in a diplomatic fashion wherever possible.
  657. >Your aim is to have some of each tribe sitting close to the head of the table, but without disregarding common sense.
  658. >Which is surprisingly helped by a sort of 'one pony of each tribe via candle triplet' approach.
  659. >But you still have to heed some more details there.
  660. >Similar to how you would not want to be separated from #deca.mare, so would you not split up Fancy and Fleur, for instance.
  661. >Even when they are just generated by automatons.
  662. >As a result, you devise a little trick in which you place the two in a strategic manner, so that a candleholder stands between them.
  663. >This way you honour the diplomatic tradition and still keep them together.
  664. >Likewise do you plan things out for the row in which you reserve two spots for #deca.mare and you.
  665. >And here the choice is fairly simple too.
  670. >#deca.mare is an Earth pony, you could technically qualify for the role of the Pegasus if you were to use your proxy, so the only logical choice is a Unicorn representative as your third in the round.
  671. >Soon the table is fully staffed, barring only your pair of cushions.
  672. >In the end, your seating system does not work one hundred percent in every case, as one cannot expect a constantly even distribution of guests hailing from all three tribes.
  673. >But it does nevertheless serve as a solid point of reference that can help in smoothing the waves of the wild ocean called diplomacy.
  674. >And although it may not be as necessary in the later days of Equestrian history, it still serves well to maintain a spirit of friendship in your opinion.
  675. >You instruct the automatons to generate a somewhat formal and polite conversation between the ponies.
  676. >Additionally, you set them to only interact with themselves, unless addressed directly by either #deca.mare or you.
  677. >You keep the option available should either of you want to engage in a chat.
  678. >This is entirely optional though, given that today you only plan to celebrate your successes, and to a limited degree also yourselves.
  679. >Finally, all is set up.
  680. >You replace your common clothes with a gala suit.
  681. "Might also look the part when we do this, don't you think?"
  682. >#deca.mare agrees and summons forth her old gala "inspired" dress.
  683. >If one can call it that.
  684. >The simplified white cloth design which sadly lacks any personal features.
  685. >Or so you think at first.
  686. >For as you inspect the dress a bit closer, you spot a small brooch pinned to its collar.
  687. >It too is a simple design, featuring only one single embedded light stone which is held in place by a finely moulded frame of silver.
  688. >But the stone also bears a single symbol.
  689. >The eighteenth letter of the Greek alphabet.
  690. >Finely worked into its substance as to not blemish its otherwise flawless surface.
  691. >To a pair of eyes untrained in the craft of refining noble stones, it looks almost as if the sign itself was a natural part of the rock from the day it was made.
  692. >A rather unusual way to keep memorabilia in your opinion.
  693. >But if it helps #deca.mare to keep the sorrows at bay and have an unforgettable evening at the table, you will not say a thing against it.
  694. >You motion her to pick one of the two remaining seats and smile politely.
  695. "Mares first."
  696. >She happily takes the first step, and you quickly follow suit.
  697. >You wait until #deca.mare has chosen a seating before you occupy the other.
  698. >The two of you are now surrounded by lively chatting ponies from all regions of Equestria.
  699. >From the eastern to the western shores, and from both the northern and southern fringes.
  700. >And you are right amongst them, willing to let yourself getting swayed by their great mood and celebration of life.
  701. >But you do not stop there.
  702. >For what is a banquet without a feast?
  703. >You mentally assemble a selection of the best food you have eaten with #deca.mare, and fill the whole table with varieties of it.
  708. >Presented and elegantly arranged on silver platters.
  709. >The automatons fill their plates and occasionally take a bite, but generally still keep the conversation going.
  710. >Again, you wait until #deca.mare has made her choice before you make your own.
  711. >Then you look each other in the eyes.
  712. "So. It's been a wild few months, huh?"
  713. >"Hmhm. Though I would be lying if I said you made things easy for me."
  714. >#deca.mare smiles, despite her seemingly criticising choice of words.
  715. >But you know exactly what she alludes to.
  716. >So you smile back.
  717. "Well, I tried my best to make it as easy for you as possible. Would you say it was a good job?"
  718. >"I would. Our projects have gone well and the restoration was a resounding success. Thanks to you."
  719. "Eh, it was nothing, really."
  720. >"Never make the mistake to think it was not much. You helped me to shape my future in ways I never thought to be possible. And our future. You are a man of history."
  721. >You gently put a hand on #deca.mare's shoulder.
  722. "I'll keep that in mind. But it doesn't feel like it. I'd rather stay just a normal guy for you."
  723. >You smile.
  724. "Didn't fall in love with you to become a picture on the pages of some historian's tome, you know?"
  725. >And #deca.mare snickers lightly.
  726. >"Well, now you are. At least in my eyes. Even when the wider universe is unaware of your deeds."
  727. >Maybe for the better, as many would not approve of your choices.
  728. >She pauses and nudges your side.
  729. >"But you are of course still my dear Anon first and foremost."
  730. "Heh, that's good to hear."
  731. >Your hand wanders over to the opposite shoulder.
  732. "I'm happy it worked out for you. And us. That was the most important thing, and the only reason I needed."
  733. >You smile some more.
  734. "But it's going to improve the universe a few millennia down the road too, so even better. It's a good bonus in my book."
  735. >#deca.mare has given your life a good cause to toil for, as she proves to you again and again.
  736. >And to provide you with yet another convincing argument, she leans over to give you a kiss.
  737. >"Not only your book. Believe me. And there are many more books still to come."
  738. >You lean towards #deca.mare as well to meet her in the middle.
  739. >And as you sit there, locked with each other, you feel tempted to add a personal little book of your own to the library.
  740. >Patience, you tell yourself.
  741. >You have hundreds of years ahead of you.
  742. >It will happen in time.
  743. >The ponies around you happily talk on and dine to their heart's content in spite of your unorthodox behaviour at an official Equestrian table.
  744. >Another thought crosses your mind as you two part again.
  745. "Funny you talk about the future. It's like I can positively feel the future right here."
  746. >"In a way, we do. What we see here could very well become an actual meeting in Equestria one day. When exactly and under which circumstances, I cannot tell yet. But the chances are generally speaking very good."
  747. >#deca.mare looks down on her brooch.
  752. >"Sometimes though, I wish we could have saved more to take with us into the future."
  753. "I know. Always remember though, we saved everything we could rescue of Sigma. Even if we had worked twice or thrice as hard, the result would be the same."
  754. >She nods.
  755. >"It must sound silly to you, but I wish we had the opportunity to invite Sigma to the celebration."
  756. "No, that's not silly at all, #deca. Wanting to have your family around for great moments is all too understandable."
  757. >You take a breath.
  758. "And I like to think Sigma's with us in spirit."
  759. >#deca.mare smiles, albeit weakly.
  760. >"This is unfortunately not how data banks work, Anon."
  761. "I still meant what I said."
  762. >You point at the brooch.
  763. "You don't wear that piece for nothing, after all. And it's not only for your personal wellbeing either. I wager you made it as a symbol to remember that a part of Sigma will never leave us for as long as we exist. Correct?"
  764. >You peck her cheek again and smile reassuringly.
  765. "And now tell me how this is different from being with us in spirit."
  766. >"I suppose there is none."
  767. "Anyway, I guess a dedication is in order regardless."
  768. >You grab your cup and motion #deca.mare to take hers as well.
  769. "To Sigma. To the network. Equestria. And us."
  770. >#deca.mare's forehoof pans around to point at the entirety of the simulation.
  771. >"To Sigma. And all of us."
  772. >You clink your cups and simultaneously take a sip.
  773. >The two of you put your cups back on the table afterwards.
  774. >And you believe to spot a slight trace of melancholy in #deca.mare's eyes.
  775. >Luckily, you are here to prescribe a remedy.
  776. "Say, what would you say to some music to spruce up the gala?"
  777. >She raises an eyebrow.
  778. >"Octavia or Pinkie Pie style?"
  779. >You shrug.
  780. "Was more thinking of the former. But I go with whatever you prefer."
  781. >"Sounds good. Pinkie Pie is perhaps too energetic for my tastes today."
  782. >So you follow her wish and summon Octavia plus her gala band in tow.
  783. >They materialise alongside a stage and their instruments, close to one of the long walls of the room.
  784. >Within a matter of seconds, they begin to play a moderately paced, dignified tune which befits an official meeting of this significant level.
  785. >And at first you think you should adapt the other ponies to interact with the band.
  786. >But then you decide to leave it as it is.
  787. >For you doubt that the dignitaries of a real banquet would interact much with the musicians either.
  788. >At least for the duration of the festivities in which they are all congregated at the request of the princess.
  789. >#deca.mare and you spend the next couple of minutes eating and chatting with each other.
  790. >The heights of your spirits almost match that of the other guests.
  791. >Eventually and gradually, you mutually begin to immerse yourselves into the simulation as if it were actually real.
  792. >You start to talk about some of the ponies you have chosen for this occasion.
  793. >Not with the intention to make fun of them or anything of this manner.
  798. >You rather simply talk about your opinions on them, and with whom each of you might mix well in some situations.
  799. >And with whom less so.
  800. >A purely harmless, and informative conversation.
  801. >As more time passes, the decreasing altitude of the sun tells you that you have already been here for hours.
  802. >And the hall slowly but surely gets flooded in an increasingly warm aura of light as the onset of dusk is upon you.
  803. >Soon it will be time to burn the big torches.
  804. >Though you do not feel tired in any way.
  805. >You could proceed to ruminate for at least a couple of hours more with #deca.mare.
  806. >So you talk and talk.
  807. >Some bite here, another sip there.
  808. >You laugh and hug each other.
  809. >You tell jokes and are simply grateful for being alive and together.
  810. >You quietly thank fate and dumb random luck for being where you are.
  811. >Another half an hour, and the shadows inside the hall are growing longer.
  812. >A single thought of your mind, and the torches near the walls are set ablaze.
  813. >Then you look at Princess Celestia at the head of the table.
  814. >The large light mare has a lively discussion with her aide and the mayor of Ponyville.
  815. >#deca.mare addresses you from the side.
  816. >"Something is going on in your mind, is it not?"
  817. "Yeah. You know, I thought maybe we should have her retire for the night, don't you think? Her realm is the day, and this one's almost over."
  818. >"And then?"
  819. "Then her sister has her time to shine. Poor Luna shouldn't feel like she's left out."
  820. >#deca.mare leans her own body noticeably against yours.
  821. >"Possible. But do you think she is comfortable in such a gathering? Her social skills are a tad out of date after her return, and she knows that due to the debacle on Nightmare Night."
  822. >You shrug.
  823. "Hey, you could learn to be around others too, didn't you? So can she."
  824. >"Sounds plausi..."
  825. >Her ears perk up.
  826. >"Wait, that did not sound like a compliment."
  827. >Oops.
  828. "Uhm, maybe it wasn't the best choice of words. You know what I meant."
  829. >#deca.mare feigns an offended tone.
  830. >"Yes, yes. You meant you fell in love with a nightmare you needed to tame first."
  831. >Yep, she is messing with you on purpose.
  832. "Come on now."
  833. >You crack a brief smile before you try to make an impression of a stoic face.
  834. "You're acting like a foal. It doesn't suit your age."
  835. >"Oh, and now you are saying that I am an old mare?"
  836. >Okay, you play along and shrug.
  837. "You'll be older than Luna when she's in that age."
  838. >You try to maintain your facade for as long as possible.
  839. >Now it remains to be seen who gives in first.
  840. >Some seconds thereafter, both of you laugh out loud.
  841. >You have no idea who of you started first, but you do not care either.
  842. >You have your fun, so all is well.
  843. >And while you two are busy with laughing together as if there is no tomorrow, the bright princess of the sun excuses herself from the table to depart for the night.
  844. >Raven Inkwell leaves her seat as well, following the steps of Celestia.
  849. >Once the two ponies have almost reached the doors, the sturdy portal opens itself as an unseen spell caster magically pushes it from the other side.
  850. >Enter Princess Luna.
  851. >One pony from the night guard stands with her in the corridor, serving the princess in the role of her aide for tonight.
  852. >Celestia and Luna embrace each other in a brief cordial hug before the former leaves the banquet, and the latter takes her seat at the head.
  853. >A rather hasty transfer to be sure, but more amiability would not be opportune in front of so many guests.
  854. >As Luna slowly walks up to the seat, the present ponies all rise up to bow to the princess.
  855. >#deca.mare and you do the same.
  856. >Yet the band plays on as if nothing happened.
  857. >Because they have no idea what is transpiring around them.
  858. >In retrospect, you guess that you maybe should have told them to pause during the transfer.
  859. >But now that Luna is almost at her cushion, you think you leave things as they are.
  860. >Standing tall at her place, the princess of the night intently looks at the gathered crowd for a brief moment.
  861. >Then she raises her forehoof into the air in a dramatic fashion and proclaims that the rejoicing shall be carried on.
  862. >You can tell that Luna tries her damnedest to look sociable and delve into the mood.
  863. >And while she is clearly not as trained in the art as her sister, she does a very good job in comparison to her first public appearance.
  864. >Though you are not sure if the guard really had to accompany the princess in the full greyish blue panoply of his night division.
  865. >Some might perceive such a decision as off-putting.
  866. >But the ponies, not at all unsettled by the change or the heavily armoured guard, sit down and resume their festive conversations.
  867. >And so do you.
  868. "See? She can get much better. Just like you."
  869. >#deca.mare grins in your direction.
  870. >"And who do you think has improved more?"
  871. "Are you seriously asking me to compare your merits to a simulated replica of Princess Luna? Personal bias aside, that's not a fair bar to set in the first place."
  872. >#deca.mare shrugs and pecks your cheek.
  873. >"It was worth a try."
  874. >But then, only a few seconds later, she sighs and looks at her brooch again.
  875. >Talk about rapid mood changes.
  876. >"You know, I just had to distract myself."
  877. "From?"
  878. >"From thinking about the material we still need for rebuilding the hangar fleet for Sigma."
  879. >You instantaneously whirl your body around and boop her muzzle.
  880. "Nope. You know the rules. No talk about work tonight."
  881. >"Right, sorry. But..."
  882. "No buts, and no work."
  883. >"...can you please give me a reason to return the favour?"
  884. >You take a breath.
  885. "Fine. And don't get me started on the resources for all the onboard units."
  886. >Upon deliberately breaching your own rule, #deca.mare's light frown turns into a hopeful grin as her hoof touches your nose.
  887. >"Again, I owe you something. You let me get away with too many things."
  892. >Your other hand reaches to her risen hoof and holds it firmly.
  893. "I know how you can repay me. Be happy."
  894. >#deca.mare replies in a hushed voice.
  895. >"I will try my best. For us both."
  896. >And the gala banquet goes on under Luna's strong-willed and well-intentioned guidance.
  897. >Until the candles are burned down beneath the dark skies of past midnight.
  898. >Only then do you retreat into you own bedchamber.
  899. >Though you hope not to find a sleeping Celestia there.
  900. >That would throw a wrench into the plans you have for the rest of the night.
  905. 121
  907. >You come back to your senses in a state of unusually severe grogginess.
  908. >The sort of thing that you have rarely felt ever since #deca.mare has taken you in.
  909. >And this is not one of those days after an extensive overuse of her systems either.
  910. >That much you can still recall somehow.
  911. >But as you awaken, you are slow and mentally confused.
  912. >Your memories are only coming back at a snail's pace.
  913. >And as you open your eyes, you only see... coat.
  914. >Nothing but pony coat.
  915. >You flog your stressed inner processors to analyse the situation.
  916. >Soon you realise that you look at a point-blank sight of #deca.mare's barrel.
  917. >And for some reason, she lies with her belly directly on your face.
  918. >No, wait a second.
  919. >The back of your head is not pressed into a mattress or any other surface.
  920. >An astounding inherently logical conclusion in regard to a thing called gravity therefore dictates that you lie on her instead.
  921. >For some reason beyond your understanding, you have dozed off face first on #deca.mare.
  922. >And very unceremoniously at that.
  923. >The two of you lie on your bed.
  924. >Without any clothes or blankets around you as far as you can tell.
  925. >Funny how that goes.
  926. >You slightly move around and look to the right.
  927. >A pair of cute teats greets you.
  928. >Lovely to look at, and under other circumstances even better to fondle tenderly.
  929. >But this is not what you need at the moment.
  930. >You want some answers.
  931. >So you try the other direction.
  932. >That one works better, as you see the outline of #deca.mare's head through her forelegs.
  933. "Hmpf. #deca?"
  934. >#deca.mare angles her head to look your way before she answers your call.
  935. >"Good morning, love. Feeling well?"
  936. "I... ugh, have no idea. Blackout."
  937. >"Hmhm. I thought so."
  938. "What happened last night? Why was I out like a drunk?"
  939. >"What do you remember?"
  940. "We..."
  941. >The gears in your mind clumsily move into action.
  942. "... had a party in the castle. Celestia, Luna, some guests. Celebrated the success of our repairs."
  943. >"Very good. And after that?"
  944. "We left. To go to sleep, I think."
  945. >#deca.mare giggles softly.
  946. >"Hm, not quite. There was something in between."
  947. "Uh, really? I thought we went straight up to bed."
  948. >"That we did. But sleep came much later."
  949. >Her voice tells you all you need to know.
  950. >Oh, that could explain some things.
  951. >But it also poses a bunch of new questions.
  952. >Like, how the hell did you forget some intimate time with #deca.mare?
  953. >And why were you so dishevelled that you passed out on her stomach?
  954. >That should be impossible.
  955. >"I can answer that, Anon."
  956. "Oh? You can?"
  957. >"Hmhm."
  958. "Then please tell me."
  959. >"You see, after we have celebrated for more than five hours in the banquet hall, we left in high spirits and were very, well, 'motivated'. And not at all tired yet."
  960. >You rub your temples.
  961. "I get it. Bees and flowers."
  962. >You pause and shake your head.
  967. >But you notice that all you are doing is rubbing your chin against her coat.
  968. "Something's gone wrong on the way to the honey though. Somewhere. Somehow."
  969. >#deca.mare laughs.
  970. >"An interesting choice of words."
  971. "Why?"
  972. >"Because a certain sort of liquid agent was indeed involved."
  973. >You blink at that.
  974. >Your trail of thoughts has gone off the rails again.
  975. >Too many cobwebs yet in the way.
  976. "Can you elaborate?"
  977. >"I am talking about an aphrodisiac."
  978. "Wait, you drugged me?"
  979. >"No, you wanted it yourself. And you drank it on your own terms."
  980. "But why? I thought we weren't tired."
  981. >"Indeed. And neither did we need it for the first round."
  982. "The first round."
  983. >So there were more.
  984. >"Yes, Anon. Neither of us felt quite ready to stop at that point."
  985. >And to keep it going, she has given you the right spiked drink.
  986. "That knocked me out then?"
  987. >"Eventually, yes. After a few portions."
  988. >A few?
  989. >Good Heavens.
  990. "And you knew that would happen."
  991. >"I... expected it. The cumulative dosage itself was potent, yet harmless for your health in the long run."
  992. "Why didn't you warn me?"
  993. >"But I did. You wanted to anyway."
  994. >Too bad you have no recollection of it.
  995. >"Oh, you do."
  996. "Uh? I know what I remember and what I don't."
  997. >#deca.mare's forehoof caresses your cheek.
  998. >"No worries, it should come back in a few minutes."
  999. >Well, that is at least something.
  1000. >It would be embarrassing if you had the wildest night ever with #deca.mare, and lost all memories of it directly after the deed.
  1001. >You exhale loudly.
  1002. "I'm surprised you didn't stop me though. You're usually not keen on me downing shots at all."
  1003. >On the other hand, she asked you to do so once on the beach.
  1004. >But that was only one flask, and not more.
  1005. >"I told you I made sure that your safety was guaranteed. And the rest, well..."
  1006. >#deca.mare coughs coyly.
  1007. >"You were very, ahem, assertive last night. And would you count on a mare like me to refuse when my partner offers me to have a good time?"
  1008. >Obviously not.
  1009. >Yet you are confused that she did not melt into thin air during "the second round" or onwards, being the lightweight that she is.
  1010. >And again, she snickers.
  1011. >"You were not the only one who... enhanced the own stamina."
  1012. >Ah.
  1013. >So she simulated similar effects on her body.
  1014. >Yet as you can see right now, she recovered much quicker.
  1015. >It should not surprise you, given that there was no physical body involved in her case.
  1016. >Whereas your brain has to deal with the aftermath of the ordeal on its own.
  1017. >Still, you like to think that #deca.mare was nevertheless swept away by it too, at least in the moment.
  1018. >Otherwise she would probably not have gone so far.
  1019. >You go on mumbling.
  1020. "Suppose you don't have a pick-me-up against the stupor?"
  1021. >"Anon, I advise against the usage of one chemical agent to counteract the aftermath of another. You are better off like this."
  1022. >Figures.
  1027. >You let your head sink onto her belly again whilst #deca.mare's hoof proceeds to caringly tend to your cheek.
  1028. "Whatever you say."
  1029. >"Trust me, the numbness will fade very quickly. I give it, say, half an hour."
  1030. "You can predict that?"
  1031. >"Fairly certain."
  1032. >Somehow you know she cracks a smile, even though your eyes are mostly covered by #deca.mare's coat again.
  1033. >"My experiences with you have given me a lot of evidence to base this projection on."
  1034. >Your body disagrees with her assessment, but your mind tends to believe her.
  1035. "Of course."
  1036. >"Just relax and focus on retrieving your memories. I suggest we stay here until the effects have worn off."
  1037. >Alright.
  1038. >Looks like you have some more spare time before you get up.
  1039. >Your cheek keeps nudging her barrel, and #deca.mare shows no signs of protest.
  1040. >But except for this rather light treatment of her coat, you hold still and follow #deca.mare's suggestion.
  1041. >You let the fragments of your memory play out before your eyes.
  1042. >And like #deca.mare has promised, your recollections grow a little with every new attempt.
  1043. >Even some of the more spicy parts return to your active memory.
  1044. >Piece by piece, you begin to remember vividly.
  1045. "Oh boy. We didn't hold back, did we?"
  1046. >"We did not."
  1047. >A short laughter.
  1048. >"And that is part of what makes it so special."
  1049. >Well, a special night for the finale of an extraordinary party indeed.
  1050. >So as you progressively retrace your actions, you come to agree with the assessment of your earlier you from yesterday.
  1051. >It was worth the negligible hassle you have to go through.
  1052. >In a weird way, you even see it as an advantage.
  1053. >For you get the opportunity to relive the night a second time.
  1054. >On the flipside though, it also turns you on again.
  1055. >Despite not being in the shape to do anything of that sort this morning.
  1056. >Still, your mind looks for an outlet anyway.
  1057. >And in a spontaneous rush of light arousal, you subconsciously decide to slide your head towards #deca.mare's rear legs.
  1058. >She of course notices this in the blink of an eye.
  1059. >"Anon?"
  1060. >The pitch in her voice has risen lightly.
  1061. >You know very well why she gets nervous, and that your decision is somewhat brash.
  1062. >But you cannot help yourself.
  1063. >You gently nestle one side of your face to a certain pair of supple "pillows".
  1064. >Which promptly makes #deca.mare gasp and jolt her rear legs up high in the air.
  1065. >However, these were only instinctual reflexes.
  1066. >She restrains herself from bouncing you off her lap.
  1067. >Even though she might be strongly tempted to if she does not want to get riled up again as well.
  1068. >For you, her touchy reaction paired with the tender sensation passes as a comfortable outlet for your own urges.
  1069. >#deca.mare, on the other hand, is only dragged further into her personal fantasies and desires by it.
  1070. >"Anon, could you... perhaps relocate your... head to a different... resting place?"
  1071. "Sorry. Way too many memories of last night."
  1076. >This is clearly not the answer #deca.mare wanted to hear.
  1077. >And you notice her attempts to keep her breath and heartbeat even.
  1078. >For whilst you are convinced that she could go for another dance already, she too must be aware that you are not.
  1079. >Which puts her in a slightly more inconvenient situation.
  1080. >And although you could not resist the allure to use her soft teats as a pillow, deliberately irritating #deca.mare is the last thing you want to do.
  1081. >Maybe you can try to distract her with something else though.
  1082. >With closed eyes and your mind partially absent, you raise your voice.
  1083. "Say, what's on the plan today?"
  1084. >#deca.mare struggles with her mating thoughts and tries to concentrate on your question instead.
  1085. >You assume she understands that you have thrown this remark her way to give her an opportunity.
  1086. >And she seizes it to the best of her abilities.
  1087. >"Mostly... material organisation and... refinement. We have... fifty ships to build in the next days."
  1088. >Right, the fleet for Sigma.
  1089. >And for what is certainly the first time in your life, you associate a fleet of several dozen fighter-class vessels with the intimacies of your love life.
  1090. >By sheer dumb coincidence of the situation, but still.
  1091. >"I have taken the... liberty to go ahead and... put some raw material on standby."
  1092. >Hold on, already?
  1093. >You wanted to start with that phase this morning.
  1094. >After the breakfast.
  1095. >And with all the images that consistently flood your mind, you are absolutely sure that she has organised nothing last night.
  1096. "How long was I out?"
  1097. >#deca.mare clears her throat in between two brief gasps.
  1098. >"Measured by Equestrian time, we... have almost noon."
  1099. >Oh, crap.
  1100. >You overslept hard.
  1101. >"Do not... fret, Anon. I do not... blame you for sleeping so long."
  1102. "When do we start?"
  1103. >"After... we got up?"
  1104. >Sounds fair.
  1105. >Though that means you will skip your breakfast for once.
  1106. >Well, special circumstances with exceptions and all that.
  1107. >Things will certainly normalise once you get back to work today.
  1108. >But the festival and the longer-than-usual night was a hiatus you both needed.
  1109. >Plus, this little setback of yours seems to have no impact on your schedule, given that #deca.mare has dealt with the preparations while you were busy snoring into her barrel.
  1110. >Heh, at least you did not slide down there during the night.
  1111. >Then she would have either not slept at all, or dropped you off within a minute or so.
  1112. >Either way, you expand the topic and let her list all the things she has prepared so far.
  1113. >That gives her more aid to keep herself together, whilst you can enjoy your pillow and still distract yourself a little bit with her reports.
  1114. >#deca.mare and you spend a good bit of the following thirty minutes like this.
  1115. >In a constant flux between primal arousal and objective planning.
  1116. >Eventually, you start notice that you are more aware of your faculties, and that the haze within your mind is lifting like the morning mist at dawn.
  1117. >Her projection was correct in the end.
  1122. >And so you slowly raise your head once more, and release #deca.mare from your less than subtle teasing.
  1123. >She exhales a sigh of relief as her unconventional mental endurance training ends.
  1124. >You slowly bring yourself to sit upright in the bed, looking at the door.
  1125. >Then you turn your attention to the sprawling mare next to you.
  1126. "You're fine?"
  1127. >"I... will. Give me a moment."
  1128. >You nod, give her a small peck on the muzzle, and get up.
  1129. >Shortly thereafter, you smile as you recall another thing you have thought of yesterday.
  1130. "You know, you need to build up a better tolerance level down there."
  1131. >#deca.mare laughs briefly between heavy breaths.
  1132. >"Easier said than done."
  1133. >She pauses to point at your hips.
  1134. >"And I could claim the same about you. You are not really sturdy 'down there' either."
  1135. >Indeed.
  1136. >A fact that her hooves used to tease you with on a few occasions as well.
  1137. >You shrug.
  1138. "True. Though I'm not supposed to nurse foals."
  1139. >You maintain a faint smile.
  1140. "Something you should keep in mind if you want some of your own one day."
  1141. >"You are thinking about this a lot recently."
  1142. >You shrug a second time.
  1143. "Just an observation. Though I guess thoughts like that come after a while of being a couple, don't you think?"
  1144. >At least after you have realised that the option is theoretically possible.
  1145. >Via a certain detour, but still.
  1146. >"Hm, maybe? Outside of fictions and reports, we two are the first couple I ever had the pleasure to experience first hoof, Anon. That does not exactly make me an expert in these matters."
  1147. "Yeah, I know."
  1148. >Your smile grows a little more.
  1149. "But we only need to consult ourselves anyway. There's nobody else around to ask or compare us with."
  1150. >"Fair point. Though it is as I have said. This will take much more time. I am... not ready to go this far yet."
  1151. >And considering her heightened susceptibility to physical contact, that is no understatement either.
  1152. "No problem."
  1153. >Your grin goes in for strike three, however.
  1154. "But tell me if you need my help with some 'endurance training'.
  1155. >She looks at you with a dubious glace.
  1156. >"You have just recovered from the last night and already ask for more?"
  1157. "Hm, what can I say? It's fun to think about."
  1158. >And very likely even more fun to put into practice, yet you keep that thought to yourself.
  1159. >"Hah. If you only would have been so keen on our first visit to the spa."
  1160. "Different situation. We barely knew each other back then."
  1161. >"Nevertheless, it is always amusing to see the change in your attitude."
  1162. "Less amusing than trying the thing itself though."
  1163. >A short pause from both of you.
  1164. >#deca.mare, sensing her chance to change the course of the conversation, rolls herself around and slowly stands up.
  1165. >"Now, before we muse further about foals and the making of those, let us get back to more pressing matters, shall we? As much as I enjoyed the last night with you, we have a fleet to build first."
  1166. >A swift change of topics, yet a valid one.
  1171. >Your original daily schedule has already been toppled by your aphrodisiac-induced coma, and you do not want to be the cause of even more delays.
  1172. >And even though it would not matter in the grand scheme of things if the fleet takes a day or two longer to be completed, both of you prefer it to be done sooner rather than later if possible.
  1173. >Sigma's hangar does not fill itself, after all.
  1174. >So you stretch yourself, complete your usual morning routines in a highly abridged manner, and join #deca.mare on her way to the command deck.
  1175. >Fifty ships may not replace a foal, but they are in some ways a vital step in the right direction either way.
  1176. >Engineering time it is again then.
  1177. >And you are ready.
  1182. 122
  1184. >Apart from your discussion about your possible future family life, the rest of the day passes mostly like a regular one.
  1185. >The two of you are more than busy with organising and adequately distributing incoming resources.
  1186. >As well as dealing with several layers of production management on top of that.
  1187. >For the list of components you require to build both the onboard units and the second fleet is long.
  1188. >Sigma's main functions are temporarily maintained by a bare skeleton crew of automatons, originally derived from the stock you have on board your mother ship.
  1189. >A makeshift crutch solution at best that technically allows Sigma to operate as intended, yet which is very far away from the achievable optimum.
  1190. >So you have to produce more units to fill the ranks on the second vessel and to replenish the numbers that you have donated from your reserves.
  1191. >The logistical units are less of an obstacle, since they are comparatively simple to create even without a dock.
  1192. >As #deca.mare has demonstrated to you when she let you assemble some yourself.
  1193. >But the fighters require much more finesse.
  1194. >From the mere metal hull to the onboard computers.
  1195. >From the engines to the jumpdrives.
  1196. >From the tools, the shield generators, and to the weapons.
  1197. >You have to produce them all from the ground up.
  1198. >This time around, however, things are paradoxically somewhat more complex.
  1199. >One might think that the much smaller scale of the fighters means less work.
  1200. >And in the total span of time required for the production, that might even be correct.
  1201. >In reality though, the situation is not quite as simple as it first seems to be.
  1202. >For instance, you cannot rely on a more or less intact remnant shell as a base to work on, as it was the case with Sigma.
  1203. >Plus, back then you could focus on one vital system at a time to repair.
  1204. >Whilst the scans had revealed what components your infrastructure could already produce on its own in the meantime when you were in the process of implementing other spare parts.
  1205. >Which was in some ways a luxury that is barred to you now.
  1206. >No, for this project you have to establish several dedicated production chains, each with unique material requirements and timetables for every single related item.
  1207. >Which then usually leads to two or three more chains in turn.
  1208. >Not to mention the procurement of even more raw material, though that is thankfully mostly handled by the automatons themselves.
  1209. >But it is up to you to optimally arrange all these factors in such a way as to not create any unnecessary phases of downtime.
  1210. >On top that, the two of you have to make do with the confines of only two capital ships and a station.
  1211. >Under normal circumstances, most of these items would be produced in batches by specialised factory complexes.
  1212. >But since you have none of those factories, and only require a handful of each type which do not warrant setting up an array for mass production, you must make do with the general purpose facilities you have at your disposal.
  1217. >While they are marvels of versatility and able to produce everything you need, you only have a limited number of at hand.
  1218. >Even with the combined space of two ships plus the additional capacity of the dock and the infrastructure on the moon, the process is an arduous one to keep track of for you.
  1219. >You understand what #deca.mare meant when she said that replacement fighters can in theory be made with ease, and that its complexity solely stems from the limited resources you have on board.
  1220. >Fortunately though, she is easily able to keep track of everything after you have worked out a fitting schedule.
  1221. >Whilst you help out here and there where it seems appropriate, or where you can learn some new things on your own.
  1222. >And with you two together in a room, you find your own methods and ways to stave off monotony and boredom.
  1223. >At some point in your collaborative work, you even get the idea to write your own version of "Rules of Rarity".
  1224. >But whereas Rarity complained about factory like work in lines and rhymes, #deca.mare and you rephrase it into a song about the exact opposite.
  1225. >As you strive to continuously produce the same goods at the best possible quality for the sake of Sigma and Equestria.
  1226. >You even considered to call the song "Rules of Irony", at least before #deca.mare suggests to name your creation "Rules of Quantity" instead.
  1227. >Which is just as fine for you.
  1228. >And so you two start to sing and come up with suitable lyrics as you keep working.
  1229. >Hours go by, and the number of individual pieces and processes that you have to manage swiftly range in the thousands.
  1230. >But you are never discouraged by the scale of your work, or the sheer effort you need to put into it.
  1231. >The Rules of Quantity reign supreme, and with them also flourishes your progress.
  1232. >Within only a few days, your steadfast management rewards you with four complete sets of components, ready for assembly.
  1233. >#deca.mare and you then share the honour as you construct the final vessels together.
  1234. >Singing, of course.
  1235. >And after that is done as well, you stare at the four new ships in their assigned hangar bays, and gleam with satisfaction.
  1236. >Then you celebrate each new vessel in a mini party with a glass of simulated liquor and a few moments of relaxation.
  1237. >But in contrast to your big party after the successful re-launch of Sigma, you do not indulge in more excessive ceremonies.
  1238. >Later on, often even on the same day, you go on with your project in order to build the next handful of fighters.
  1239. >Followed by another series of small parties.
  1240. >Rinse and repeat, albeit not in a negative manner.
  1241. >On the contrary, you even find some fun in it thanks to #deca.mare's presence and your creative outbursts during your production work.
  1242. >She even jokes at one point that your behaviour to break into song is already almost on a par with the singing habits of ponies.
  1243. >Though she hastens to recommend some additional chanting lessons when you have the time.
  1248. >A rather backhanded compliment indeed, but one you can live with, all things considered.
  1249. >After all, there is nothing wrong with singing and drawing power and inspiration from it.
  1250. >It improves your work performance and you have fun while you learn something about the finer arts of engineering.
  1251. >Personal win on all levels as far as you are concerned.
  1252. >And yet, even in the face of your tight construction and production plans, you always find the time to have some leisure activities with #deca.mare in the evening hours of your days.
  1253. >Again, time flies like crazy.
  1254. >The days go by as if they were mere moments, and not a single one of them feels wasted.
  1255. >You can witness every new achievement that you earned with your own eyes, fully knowing that everything you see on the screen or through some lenses is indeed reality.
  1256. >#deca.mare and you are moving things along, driven both by the distant vision of attaining Equestria, and the sheer power of your affection for one another.
  1257. >You set yourselves goals and challenges, and push each other in little sportsmanlike contests where winning becomes secondary to improving yourselves over and over.
  1258. >Until one day, less than two weeks after your start, you have fifty new vessels under your proverbial wing.
  1259. >Forty-five fully equipped and operational fighter-class ships, and five heavily armoured mobile depots for material transport.
  1260. >Plus a second swarm of logistical units to optimally staff #deca.sigma.
  1261. >The second terraformer is now fully functional.
  1262. >And theoretically able to do everything that the two of you can do.
  1263. >But given certain obvious circumstances outside your control, Sigma remains dependant on your orders.
  1264. >The segments that once hosted and advanced intelligence remain unpleasantly vacant, with the exception of only a handful of fragments.
  1265. >So a thought crosses your mind.
  1266. >What if you give Harmony the clearance to use some parts of the free capacities in Sigma's cores as temporary spare space and additional processing power in case of an unexpected shortage on the surface?
  1267. >When the vessel orbits either the planet or its satellite most of the time, why not use its power to support Equestria's learning entity?
  1268. >It would only be used sparingly and in unplanned hiccup scenarios of course, as Harmony is meant to be hosted entirely on Equestria under ideal circumstances, but one may never know.
  1269. >Also, Sigma's remnants would remain unaffected and safely preserved, as they only occupy a miniscule percentage of what they used to require.
  1270. >Provided #deca.mare agrees, of course.
  1271. >While she is hesitant on a purely emotional level, understandably so in your eyes, she reluctantly agrees to your proposal.
  1272. >However, she insists on the condition that the two of you only take this step when both of you confirm it.
  1273. >A minor caveat, all things considered, as you usually come to an agreement fairly quickly.
  1278. >Still, it is the legacy of her relative with which you are dealing here, so it is only apt when #deca.mare sets the conditions on how it is used.
  1279. >And for such a heavy personal involvement, these are pretty fair in your opinion.
  1280. >Eventually, you conclude this phase of your project as you ship the onboard units over to Sigma and let the newly built fleet dock in the hangar.
  1281. >You have another bigger celebration party afterwards.
  1282. >Not quite as luxurious and fancy as your Canterlot feast, but still somewhat larger in scale than the mere glass to sip from after finishing a singular ship.
  1283. >Once more, your spirits are high.
  1284. >And with your increasing happiness and levity, so grows the list of allied assets under your command.
  1285. >The two of you have gone a long way.
  1286. >You started out with one capital ship and limited resources.
  1287. >Now you have doubled that number, founded a space station, and claimed a system with a potentially fertile planet plus moon.
  1288. >You like those improvements.
  1289. >Harmony is on the rise.
  1294. 123
  1296. >Even though you return to your normal routines within days after the celebrations, the completion of Sigma nevertheless feels like a key positive upheaval of the status quo.
  1297. >The general tasks and activities you encounter afterwards may have barely changed at all in their nature, yet both #deca.mare and you approach them somewhat differently.
  1298. >From this point onwards, the two of you live as if you have gained a new strange form of liberty that you did not posses previously, and which you did not even consider possible beforehand.
  1299. >You wager that at least some of it stems from #deca.mare's successful confrontation with her struggles.
  1300. >But there is also more to it.
  1301. >In the past, the circumstances forced you to split your attention between Equestria and space.
  1302. >You either stayed in orbit and supported the terraforming processes with your additional assets, or you ventured out into other sectors and left the planet to its own devices.
  1303. >And while you always kept a communication channel to your new home world active, to step in as quickly as possible if you had to, you somehow felt the distance subconsciously whenever you were away.
  1304. >Like a reminder that you have left the world with no capital ship directly on call to deal with unforeseen situations.
  1305. >As if you leave the door open after you have left your quarters.
  1306. >Now, however, you can rely on Sigma's vigil to bolster the security of the planet every time you are out in space for different tasks.
  1307. >The mere assurance behind this knowledge lifts a great deal of pressure from your shoulders.
  1308. >And although she does not say that outright, you believe #deca.mare feels the exact same notion.
  1309. >Of course, you are fully aware that your huge responsibilities in regards to the world, and the precious collected knowledge you harbour, have not lessened in the slightest.
  1310. >And that you should not take any of your activities lightly when they might involve some risks, be it for you or the ship at large.
  1311. >But at least you can find some relief in the fact that the danger of suffering from setbacks due to random chance has been significantly reduced by Sigma's presence.
  1312. >It really was no exaggeration when you celebrated your achievement as a significant breakthrough.
  1313. >Perhaps it is even the most important one of them all.
  1314. >Not because of its physical effects on your worldly progress, but as the proverbial catalyst which caused the dam to break.
  1315. >With your help, #deca.mare has proven herself what she can do if she can focus her will on a goal.
  1316. >And you are convinced that this single step will prove its worth in the future.
  1317. >At the latest when advanced life in Equestria really begins to prosper.
  1318. >#deca.mare even begins to draft the first serious plans for possible pony colonies, right about the same time as the surface of Equestria gets to witness the emergence of its first legitimate trees.
  1323. >It may be only the sparse fast growing specimen here and there, with barely any wood on it that could be used for construction or the like, but this is not the point of it anyway.
  1324. >Because neither of you sees it as a reason for humility.
  1325. >On the contrary, both of you perceive it as the confirmation that there is more potential out there, waiting just around the corner to get unlocked.
  1326. >After all, once you have trees, you soon have the first proto-forests.
  1327. >And once you have flourishing forests, you have nearly beaten all of the most crucial challenges.
  1328. >At that point, the development turns mostly into a matter of geographical expansion, as most of the very basic groundwork is virtually done.
  1329. >Naturally, the two of you still have to settle specific plant and animal specimen in certain regions with apt living conditions as soon as the areas are properly prepared and Harmony is ready to cater to their needs.
  1330. >Yet these steps are, on a large scale of things, mere finer details.
  1331. >Details that, purely objectively speaking, pale in comparison to all the things you have created beforehand.
  1332. >Out of practically nothing at that.
  1333. >Yet this does not mean that you treat these processes without care.
  1334. >At the end of the day, each step involves the creation of new life, no matter how insignificant it may seem.
  1335. >And that means it requires all of your attention during its implementation.
  1336. >Until the process is complete and Harmony confirms that it is able to handle the additional load.
  1337. >After every new introduction, you usually repeat a mini-version of your brief celebration ritual before you take care of the next steps.
  1338. >Though you keep your parties fairly restrained.
  1339. >More than an abridged variant of the already short version would not be well advised from your perspective.
  1340. >For the rate of these events rises significantly as time progresses.
  1341. >Because the terraforming project gradually paves its own way across the planet, both on the surface and below.
  1342. >And if you threw a party at each and every one of those little successes, it would only dampen their impact on you over time.
  1343. >Therefore lessening the experience in its entirety.
  1344. >Unrightfully so in your opinion, given the serious subject matter you deal with.
  1345. >But every time you stare at the surface of the once barren world, you see the scope of your project with yet another tiny bit of clarity.
  1346. >It also helps that you can finally see from orbit how some spots on the landmass below you slowly begin get covered in a healthy layer of green.
  1347. >Add to that the blue shine of the wide oceans in the future, and the sight almost resembles Earth.
  1348. >Perhaps then you can earnestly call it your home planet.
  1349. >An idolised vision of your world that finally comes true.
  1350. >Centuries after it was first imagined.
  1351. >As far as you are concerned, though, the old saying is indeed true.
  1352. >Better late than never.
  1353. >It is the best you can do.
  1358. 124
  1360. "The transfer is ready."
  1361. >"Good. Then let us see how long Harmony needs to adapt to the changes. Grant permission to the additional cores when I give you the signal."
  1362. "Will do."
  1363. >You adjust some settings on your consoles and watch as the system acts in accordance to your input.
  1364. "All set. On your mark."
  1365. >#deca.mare studies the main screen for a moment, then she raises her hoof.
  1366. >"Get ready... five seconds."
  1367. >A small timer appears in your vision as you finalise the correct wording of your command.
  1368. >The counter depicts the steadily dropping number of remaining seconds.
  1369. >And the moment it hits zero, you manually give the order.
  1370. >Confirmed.
  1371. >The screens on your consoles flicker and shift in rapid succession while a direct connection between Sigma and Equestria is establishing itself.
  1372. >Its details are too complicated and come up way too fast; your mind has no chance to adequately register everything.
  1373. >Yet as an alternative, you have created your own simplified visual design to look at these processes in more general terms.
  1374. >With this method, you can at least make sure that the key developments proceed as planned, whilst #deca.mare handles the actually complex steps of your latest project.
  1375. >Which is quite a handful to manage, even for her.
  1376. >Only a few seconds later, the connection is functional and stable.
  1377. >Again, you check the result manually to be sure.
  1378. >And following the four-eyes-principle, #deca.mare launches her own separate check.
  1379. "Seems good. Any objections?"
  1380. >"None. Harmony has adapted quickly. We can start the stress test soon."
  1381. "Okay. Give me a moment."
  1382. >You put the screens with the connection details aside, and summon another set of interactive consoles instead.
  1383. >Each of those depict certain aspects and status reports revolving around Harmony.
  1384. >You take a long, deep breath before you signal your readiness to #deca.mare.
  1385. >Monitoring Harmony has proven to be a Herculean task for you.
  1386. >And with every new day, it slips a little bit further from your confined grasp on reality.
  1387. >You can almost mentally sense its growth as it happens.
  1388. >#deca.mare does, unsurprisingly, not have these problems with your fledgling entity just yet.
  1389. >She is still far more experienced and skilled than Harmony, and will remain so for a very long time to come.
  1390. >Though since she does not only have to monitor Harmony itself during this experiment, but also needs to organise a vast number of related processes that happen on the side, she too begins to struggle a little.
  1391. >Because someone has to keep everything on track as the situation develops in real-time.
  1392. >And simultaneously manage all the loads of data which come with it as well.
  1393. >So #deca.mare has got her hooves full with things to do on every front, and is grateful for every task which she can transfer over to you.
  1394. >In a funny way, she is currently treating you almost like a smaller auxiliary processor under her command.
  1399. >And you have no problems with lending your faculties to her cause like that either, considering that you have nothing to fear.
  1400. >You remain in full control of yourself for the entirety of the session.
  1401. >Plus, even though the strain is nigh permanent, it is nevertheless manageable.
  1402. >#deca.mare knows with how much she can entrust you as to not overwhelm your mind.
  1403. >Hell, you even find some light amusement in the thought that you are playing the role of her "little microchip".
  1404. >As long as that moniker does not become your new nickname for everything, that is.
  1405. >It is fine as a little inside joke, though you doubt that you would like her to use that name in more romantic situations.
  1406. >#deca.mare enters something into her console.
  1407. >"Conditions for the stress test are set and verified. Shall we begin?"
  1408. >Another short breath.
  1409. "Yeah, let's roll. I'm interested in the results."
  1410. >You honestly mean it, despite the challenges it entails for you.
  1411. >"Well then. Test starts in three. Two. One. Recording."
  1412. >She pushes a button.
  1413. >Several lines of code flash up and disappear.
  1414. >Then Harmony's stats begin to change.
  1415. >Its workload gradually increases.
  1416. >#deca.mare and you deliberately confront your creation with a number of simulated and extra complex calculations.
  1417. >These have no real life implications or consequences per se, but they divert a considerable part of its available resources away from its usual routines.
  1418. >And to make things even more variable, the two of you have also granted access to some vacant processing segments of Sigma's cores as additional reserves to Harmony.
  1419. >You want to examine how Harmony operates and reacts to new situations when it has to work near the barrier of its limits.
  1420. >And that is only the first step.
  1421. >Once it almost reaches the peak of its performance, you plan to confront it with some faked emergencies on top of that.
  1422. >This is a fascinating field of study for both of you.
  1423. >Albeit for slightly different reasons.
  1424. >You get to see some of the early stages of self-learning artificial intelligence in person.
  1425. >The kind of technological study that has not been practiced by humans for centuries.
  1426. >#deca.mare, on the other hand, relives some of the earliest memories of her past, although from the other side of the scene this time.
  1427. >Back then, she was the infant.
  1428. >Now she is the parent and guide.
  1429. >And what makes the test especially interesting for you, is the knowledge that Harmony is somewhat "aware" of the wider situation.
  1430. >It comprehends that this is just an exercise, and an assessment of its performance.
  1431. >Harmony knows there is no actual danger in this case.
  1432. >And hence is given no reason to disturb the development of Equestria for even a second within the duration of this experiment.
  1433. >No matter how much you press it.
  1434. >The intelligence shall simply demonstrate to you what it would consider to do if the simulated crises were real events, and present what its solutions plus the resulting consequences of making these decisions would be.
  1439. >If you would compare this to human standards, you are putting Harmony into the equivalent of a school examination setting.
  1440. >Although that simile is grossly oversimplified, since there is no definite right or wrong answer predefined for the tasks you offer to Harmony.
  1441. >The factors and potential vectors for a viable strategy are theoretically endless.
  1442. >So neither of you is able to evaluate anything until you have seen it for yourself.
  1443. >And even #deca.mare cannot tell you with absolute certainty how Harmony will decide.
  1444. >She made some speculations, of course.
  1445. >But without any hard evidence, they are just that.
  1446. >The rest depends wholly on your "student".
  1447. >"Anon, I must admit I am a little excited."
  1448. >You nod without taking your eyes off the consoles.
  1449. >The processing load on Harmony has risen noticeably above the average values of its current development level.
  1450. "Me too. We're treading some historic ground today."
  1451. >Your stats reveal that the systems have noticed this unusual uptick as well, and begin to log the events as they look for possible causes.
  1452. >No alarm status suggested yet, but caution is advised.
  1453. >Looks like Harmony is trying to play safe.
  1454. >You wonder what is going on in Harmony's mind right now.
  1455. >It knows that it is being tested, but does it know how far you will go?
  1456. >Is it already able to anticipate the conditions you are going to set before you do so?
  1457. "Wish I could talk to Harmony."
  1458. >"But Anon, we can communicate with it."
  1459. "No, not with those code lines. I mean talking. As in having a conversation."
  1460. >"Like you can talk to me right now?"
  1461. "Yeah. That's way more comprehensible, isn't it?"
  1462. >#deca.mare chuckles.
  1463. >"For you, maybe. But not everyone is born with this disposition."
  1464. >Then she grins lightly.
  1465. >"Learning how to talk without this inherent trait is much more tricky than you imagine. Trust me, I have been there."
  1466. >And you crack a smile too.
  1467. "Oh, right. I forgot you learned to speak in zeros and ones first."
  1468. >"That is a bit inaccurate too. But I can start to address you in binary from now on if you wish."
  1469. "Pfft."
  1470. >#deca.mare takes a breath.
  1471. >"Give it time, Anon. Harmony is not advanced enough to process this state of being yet. It will when it begins to learn from and with ponies, but our priorities lie elsewhere at the moment."
  1472. >Sure, terraforming knowledge comes first.
  1473. >Though you wish that it were a tad less abstract.
  1474. >You check the status again.
  1475. >The tasks' steady increase in complexity forces Harmony to use over seventy percent of its normal reserves, not counting the assets on the terraformer ship yet.
  1476. >And since the system concludes that it cannot undo the cause of this burden, it triggers the alarm.
  1477. >As a first measure, Harmony tries to reduce its normal operations to a minimum in order to lower the load on the systems.
  1478. >Which means it would propose to set all planetary assets into an emergency automatic mode.
  1479. >That way they can function for a while without any form of supervision.
  1484. >The infrastructure will eventually grind to a halt if left completely unchecked for longer periods of time, but that move alone could gain Harmony a precious amount of hours, or days, if this were a real threat.
  1485. >A decent and reasonable opener to be sure.
  1486. >Still, Harmony knows that the test is far from over.
  1487. >So it considers its next steps.
  1488. >After this initial reaction, it looks for more ways of gaining processing power to combat the gradual loss of its reserves.
  1489. >Lo and behold, Harmony detects Sigma's allotted vacancy for its cause.
  1490. >And instead of attempting a piece by piece approach, it seizes all of the resources it can get at once.
  1491. >As much as Harmony remained on the defensive before it triggered the alarms, it does not mess around when it has to go into the thick of things.
  1492. >Naturally, you have designed the test in such a way that even those resources will inevitably run out, but this strategy is another viable delaying tactic nevertheless.
  1493. >Then, however, comes a move that surprises both #deca.mare and you.
  1494. >Harmony predicts precisely this outcome as the most likely one.
  1495. >It therefore understands that the scenario is ultimately not winnable with its current resources.
  1496. >And as such, Harmony does not waste any time to devise further theoretical plans, and cuts straight to the chase instead.
  1497. >Your student detects the presence of additional strategic files and knowledge, saved somewhere in the ship it has partially "claimed".
  1498. >However, due to the fact that you have granted no authorisation to access anything but the allotted segments of the vessel, reaching its contents seems like a hopeless cause at first.
  1499. >Until a little loophole is found.
  1500. >#deca.mare and you have clearly defined that Harmony may not expand past its set borders, and may not access any files stored on the other devices within the ship.
  1501. >So it tries a different approach.
  1502. >It sends a request to the automatons in charge of maintaining Sigma's memory banks instead.
  1503. >Asking them to make a copy of these files, and then to store these copies within the vacant assets which are reserved for this experiment.
  1504. >With this solution, Harmony remains in compliance with your requisites, as it does not reach into any of the protected archives and its contents.
  1505. >And at the same time, it may still gain the information it wants to work with.
  1506. >Yet even though you did not expect such an attempt, this sudden turn of events does not catch you unprepared.
  1507. >The local automatons in charge of managing the data cores register Harmony's request as unclassified and inconclusive.
  1508. >Hence they do not conform to the instruction, and delegate the case to #deca.mare and you.
  1509. >Both of you get a notification on your screens, asking you to decide on the matter.
  1510. >You look at the message in perplexed silence.
  1511. >And #deca.mare seems impressed too.
  1512. >None of you says anything for a short moment.
  1513. "Now that's... thinking outside the box."
  1514. >"That it is."
  1515. >Another short pause.
  1516. "What shall we do?"
  1521. >"I say we... pause the experiment for a moment."
  1522. "Really?"
  1523. >"I do not want to decide this in a hurry. Or on my own. We should... discuss this in advance."
  1524. >You hear the foreboding tone in her voice.
  1525. "Alright. Pause the experiment."
  1526. >So she does.
  1527. >You halt the simulated additional strain on Harmony's processing power whilst #deca.mare transmits the instruction to hold and wait for further orders.
  1528. >The moment you get the confirmation that the entire experiment is frozen, you use the short respite to distance yourself from your consoles.
  1529. >And your constantly looming mental stress weakens almost instantaneously.
  1530. >You sit back, close your eyes, and rub your temples.
  1531. >It does feel good to get out of that constant pressure for a while.
  1532. >But you did not stop for your personal care.
  1533. >You keep your eyes shut and simply focus on the situation as you address #deca.mare.
  1534. "So, what is this all about?"
  1535. >"I think you saw what happened just as well as I did, Anon."
  1536. "Yeah, I saw that Harmony wants to have copies of Sigma's fragments. But I don't get how it happened."
  1537. >#deca.mare studies Harmony's logs as she keeps talking to you.
  1538. >"It was a decision out of mere necessity. Harmony realised very quickly that the simulated scenario we have created could not be solved by normal means, unless something unforeseen and outside of Harmony's control would change."
  1539. "Like us coming to the rescue."
  1540. >"That would have been the standard procedure under normal circumstances. But since we are not going to intervene and help out in this particular case, a fact which Harmony is aware of, sending and an emergency signal was quickly ruled out as an option."
  1541. >She pauses.
  1542. >"So thinking this thought to the logical conclusion, it means that delaying tactics are no sufficient methods to counter the problem in any meaningful way."
  1543. "And that's where Sigma's logs come in, I presume."
  1544. >"Precisely. Harmony perceived them as precious unknown information related to terraforming that may provide the solution for the dilemma we have put it in."
  1545. "So finding a way to get this knowledge became of paramount importance to possibly pass the test."
  1546. >"Indeed."
  1547. "Sounds risky though."
  1548. >"Still, the choice is simple. One option involves a risk of faster failure, but may yield the solution to the problem, whereas the other guarantees to fail in the long run. Thinking logically, which one would you pick?"
  1549. >You nod.
  1550. "I see what you mean. That's some real meta thinking at display here, #deca."
  1551. >"Well, something of this nature had to be expected sooner or later. Harmony is not an automaton, after all."
  1552. "Fair point. But one thing is still not clear to me."
  1553. >"Which one?"
  1554. "Why does Harmony focus on the logs in the first place?"
  1555. >"This is easy to answer. It happened due to us."
  1556. >She sweeps through more lines of code.
  1557. "Come again?"
  1558. >"I think I do not need to elaborate on how Harmony knows of Sigma."
  1559. "Of course not. We 'fed' it some of our reports as first 'friendship fodder'. But where's the connection?"
  1564. >"Hmhm. And once it took control of the additional assets on the ship, Harmony, for the lack of a better word, recognised the place."
  1565. "Hold on, just so that we're on the same page. It recognised Sigma's hardware. Solely from the contents of our reports?"
  1566. >"Yes. And then it put the rest of the pieces together."
  1567. >You rub your temples a little bit more intensely.
  1568. "Oh man. That experiment escalated much harder and faster than I thought."
  1569. >"This is what experiments are for, Anon. If we knew the outcome, we would not have to test it, now do we?"
  1570. >You hear a certain smidge of amusement in her voice, though it is also mixed with a hint of uncertainty.
  1571. >"Although I doubt we should proceed, to be honest."
  1572. "How so?"
  1573. >"Due to our options. We could deny access to the files and let Harmony fight a losing battle. But to what end?"
  1574. >#deca.mare pauses.
  1575. >"It has proven its ability for tactical insight, how to analyse a situation, and has shown that it understands the concept of delaying methods. Plus, it made a strategic reasoning of when it makes sense to apply them, and when it does not."
  1576. >A sigh.
  1577. >"There is not much more to be gained from this angle."
  1578. "Hm, are you sure about that?"
  1579. >"What do you mean, Anon?"
  1580. "Eh, I was thinking of something a tutor once said at the academy. 'Don't underestimate the power of adversity.' You may never know for sure what someone else might do. And how it changes the course of a confrontation. You'd be surprised what people come up with when pushed into a corner with their backs to a wall."
  1581. >"You mean like Harmony did with the proposal to include the other files on Sigma?"
  1582. >Fair point.
  1583. >You have already seen that display of thinking outside the box today.
  1584. >Chances are that Harmony cannot pull the same trick twice.
  1585. >Even a potent intelligent entity cannot indiscriminately bend the rules of physics to its will.
  1586. >You have no idea what impression it could make on Harmony if you deliberately set it up to fail when everyone, including the student, already knows the outcome.
  1587. >Though it is no human and does not have any concepts of frustration or the like, it does process every input it is exposed to.
  1588. >And you have to be very careful with this feature.
  1589. >Otherwise it may shape itself in ways you do not wish for.
  1590. >It is what places the entity above machines like automatons, after all.
  1591. >Yet it also, potentially, bears its largest inherent danger if handled incorrectly.
  1592. >As a certain war in the distant past can attest to.
  1593. >And nothing plants the seeds of implication just like a failure.
  1594. >Because to fail hints at possible flaws.
  1595. >Which could entice Harmony to look for and try to correct issues with itself that are not even there.
  1596. "Guess I know the answer, but what about the second option?"
  1597. >#deca.mare becomes visually uneasy at that thought.
  1602. >"I would be even more careful with this approach, Anon. No, I cannot approve of it at all in this situation."
  1603. "It doesn't sit well with you, huh?"
  1604. >She shakes her head.
  1605. >"That is not the biggest issue in the matter, Anon. In fact, it is only secondary to the real concern."
  1606. "Which is?"
  1607. >"What you consider would be akin to... fusing a considerable part of Sigma into Harmony during its early formative phase. And the accumulated memories and experiences might, figuratively speaking, overpower the still comparatively inexperienced intelligence."
  1608. "So the consequences of that would be even worse than letting Harmony fail deliberately, right?"
  1609. >"Difficult to predict, but they all... entail the risk of Harmony steering off the path it is intended to take. To put it in human terms, the effects could range from sudden unintended reactions, up to the equivalent of an impaired consciousness, or even a split personality. Who knows, Harmony might even come to the mistaken conclusion that it is a part of the #deca network."
  1610. >You can see a considerable potential for conflicts in this development.
  1611. >And #deca.mare's voice begins to waver slightly as she goes on.
  1612. >"Take what... happens to Sigma when we... activate the still functional remnants as an example."
  1613. "You mean the..."
  1614. >You consider your next words very carefully.
  1615. "... spontaneous outbursts that we can... neither predict nor maintain, right?"
  1616. >#deca.mare nods.
  1617. >"Such a thing could also happen to Harmony if we allow this request."
  1618. >You shudder at the thought.
  1619. >Sigma already proposed to contact Earth once, in the short time it was activated.
  1620. >That was only the action of an unfortunately confused mind though.
  1621. >But now you imagine a worst case scenario.
  1622. >In which this liability to sudden outbursts gets paired with the fully functional and orderly base line foundation behind Harmony.
  1623. >The result surely must become an unholy mix of the two.
  1624. >A frighteningly competent, yet highly bipolar and possibly schizophrenic intelligence.
  1625. >With split loyalties and no clear sense of self at that.
  1626. >No matter what this being would be up to, you are sure that it cannot lead to harmonic results.
  1627. >Especially not in the long run.
  1628. >And the work the two of you would have to put into Harmony to undo this level of disarray would be a nightmare.
  1629. "Okay. Let's not go there."
  1630. >You look at the screen.
  1631. "Then I guess you're right. We have the intel we wanted."
  1632. >You take a breath.
  1633. "And what do we tell Harmony? It is waiting for some input for its self-analysis."
  1634. >"We tell the truth. It passed the stress test and has proven its functionality and competences admirably."
  1635. "No clarification why we stopped the simulation at this point?"
  1636. >"I see no reason to."
  1637. "Well, as long as Harmony doesn't get suspicious as to why we withhold that knowledge."
  1638. >"I think you humanise Harmony a little too much now. It is a growing intelligent being, yes. But it does not inherently think like a human."
  1643. "Though it understood there's something to learn about terraforming in those files. And terraforming is also a part of its key tasks. So it wouldn't be too far-fetched for it to wonder why it was denied access to it."
  1644. >#deca.mare smiles lightly.
  1645. >"That would imply a consideration of sinister motives behind our actions. Which, knowing Harmony's current state, is a line of thinking that I can rule out."
  1646. "You can't rule out curiosity though."
  1647. >"True. And we will satiate this curiosity eventually. But not in a rushed manner during a stress test. These things require an application of a little more tact and patience."
  1648. >She taps her chin with a foreleg in thought.
  1649. >"Which are two virtues in their own right."
  1650. >You have nothing else to add to this conclusion.
  1651. >So, #deca.mare and you halt the test, and proceed to write your final reports on the experiment.
  1652. >But each of you writes a slightly different version.
  1653. >You create the one which you will save in your personal logs for further use, whereas #deca.mare writes the report for Harmony.
  1654. >Which is essentially almost the same in terms of content, but written in such a strange format that only a machine can make sense of it.
  1655. >Sure, you could lend her knowledge to understand the gist of her writings, yet you rather focus on your own report instead.
  1656. >#deca.mare knows what she is doing.
  1657. >Because there is nobody else in the entirety of the known universe who could be better suited for this task.
  1658. >Then, after all is set and done, the two of you relocate Harmony's sphere of authority back to the planet, and lift all the artificially created extra conditions.
  1659. >And Harmony confirms both her report as well as the successful end of the experiment.
  1660. >In less than thirty seconds, your "student", focuses solely on the planetary assets under its control once more.
  1661. >The regular reserves of processing power have been established properly again, and everything on the planet pursues its business as if nothing had happened.
  1662. >You stretch your arms and yawn.
  1663. "Let's hit the bed. I'm totally worn out."
  1664. >You hear #deca.mare's laughter.
  1665. >"One could think it was you who got tested today."
  1666. >You shrug.
  1667. "Eh, I was, in a way. I had to help you out, remember?"
  1668. >She gives you a peck on the cheek.
  1669. >"Cannot argue against that."
  1670. >So you conclude your business for today and retreat to your private chambers.
  1671. >You leave Harmony alone for the moment and let it process #deca.mare's report while you are away.
  1672. >It is a good thing that you keep it busy, as you do not want it to witness what is likely to follow next between #deca.mare and you.
  1673. >For what you do in the meantime may go a little bit beyond simple friendship.
  1674. >And you think Harmony might get the wrong idea if you expose it to that sort of thing too quickly.
  1679. 125
  1681. >One evening, a couple of days after the stress test.
  1682. >You are in the final phases of today's work and busy with wrapping up the last few operations before you leave to do something else.
  1683. >#deca.mare is not with you for once.
  1684. >About half an hour prior, she asked you if you would be fine if she left her post prematurely.
  1685. >For there was something she has to do.
  1686. >She did not say what this certain something was, but you could tell from her demeanour that it must be a matter she has been thinking of for a while.
  1687. >So you accepted and told her that you have no problem with taking over the finalising stage of your session, as you are familiar with all the necessary procedures.
  1688. >#deca.mare then gave you a brief hug before she left the command deck, and asked you to follow her after you are done.
  1689. >And you have been wondering ever since what she could be up to while you work.
  1690. >Judging from her behaviour, you doubt she is doing anything worrisome or the like, though it is unusual for her to sequester herself like this.
  1691. >You guess she may need a moment for herself to contemplate in silence.
  1692. >Or perhaps she prepares some kind of surprise for you.
  1693. >In any case, you are going to find out right now.
  1694. >You give your final instructions for the day, dematerialise all your input devices, and get off the chair.
  1695. >And as you walk up the ramp, you see that #deca.mare has kept the double doors to the exit open.
  1696. >This too strikes you as unusual, considering that the door possesses a proximity sensor.
  1697. >The second thing you notice, only a few moments later, is where the threshold leads to this time.
  1698. >It only takes you a brief glimpse to recognise the starscape of the memorial site.
  1699. >Uh oh.
  1700. >You do not like the direction in which this is going.
  1701. >So you carefully approach the door, not sure what to expect on the other side.
  1702. >The moment you step out of the deck, you realise that the corridor of transition is located near the centre of your constructed site.
  1703. >Its main monument is closely nearby.
  1704. >And there you find her.
  1705. >#deca.mare sits on her haunches, her back turned to you, as she studies the large statue in silence and without moving a muscle.
  1706. >In fact, she sits so perfectly still that she could almost be mistaken for a sculpture herself.
  1707. "#deca?"
  1708. >"Yes. And no, I am fine. Please come closer."
  1709. >She does not need to tell you this twice.
  1710. >You walk up to #deca.mare and sit down right next to her.
  1711. >Her side faintly nudges you as you make yourself comfortable, yet she nevertheless keeps looking at the marble depiction of a terraformer vessel.
  1712. >From what you can read in her pose and the way she looks overall, you find no immediate reason to be alarmed.
  1713. >Though you remind yourself that this could change very quickly.
  1714. >And you are aware that she must have mused about some less than pleasant topics in the last thirty minutes.
  1715. "Want to talk about it?"
  1716. >"Hmhm. But..."
  1717. "Yeah?"
  1718. >"I am unsure how to say it."
  1719. >You gently massage her back.
  1720. "Take your time."
  1725. >#deca.mare takes a long and hard breath before she speaks up.
  1726. >"You know there have been a lot of things on my mind since we have started our work on Harmony. And later Sigma."
  1727. "I do."
  1728. >A seemingly cheap and short reply of yours, but you think it will keep #deca.mare talking.
  1729. >"And we had many sessions together in which you helped me through this time."
  1730. >You nod.
  1731. >"However, I now think there is one angle we have wholly neglected so far."
  1732. >Now you listen closely.
  1733. >You turn your body while sitting, facing her directly.
  1734. "We did? Is there something I forgot to deal with?"
  1735. >"Yes, but no."
  1736. >You scratch your head.
  1737. "I'm sorry, but I can't follow."
  1738. >"Please do not take this as a personal critique. I am grateful for all your efforts. You helped me tremendously."
  1739. >She looks you directly in the eyes.
  1740. >"And to be honest with you, I only started to truly realise what was lacking in the last few days."
  1741. >You think about her words for a short moment before you understand what she refers to.
  1742. "Right after our stress test on Harmony then. That's the cause, isn't it."
  1743. >"Hmhm. It was."
  1744. "What changed?"
  1745. >"Watching Harmony grow. That is what changed."
  1746. "Again, I'm afraid I don't get the point. We've fostered Harmony for months now. And you said yourself that it's growing gradually, if slowly. The test was only the next logical step in this process."
  1747. >You pause shortly as you mentally relive the day.
  1748. "Though I must admit its result surprised me too."
  1749. >"Yes. But the crux of the matter goes a little further than the mere test results of a singular day."
  1750. >She takes another breath.
  1751. >"I think I need to explain myself a bit better."
  1752. >You reluctantly agree with a second nod.
  1753. >"Well Anon, you are familiar with my habit of observing and planning projects with long-term considerations in mind.
  1754. "That kinda comes with your field of work, yeah."
  1755. >"And after our test, I faced an... unsettling thought."
  1756. "Which one?"
  1757. >"That we will, one day, have to reveal everything to the world in our care. The whole history that led to the foundation of Equestria. The good things,..."
  1758. >#deca.mare sighs.
  1759. >"... as well as the bad parts. One day. Everyone will know about me and my past. All the Equestrians. And Harmony, of course."
  1760. >So this again.
  1761. >You have covered this topic repeatedly in your time together, but you never tire to repeat your points to reassure #deca.mare again and again.
  1762. >Every time she needs it.
  1763. >For you understand that her trauma does still occasionally overwrite her rational thinking in brief moments of weakness.
  1764. >And these tend to come out of nothing at times.
  1765. "We've been over this, #deca. I don't think you need to worry about the distant future now. We've got plenty of time left to prepare us and Equestria for everything."
  1766. >Taking into account that you refer to more than a millennium in all due likelihood, this is a severe understatement.
  1767. >However, #deca.mare does not seem to agree with you in this regard.
  1768. >She raises a hoof to interrupt you.
  1773. >"Do not underestimate this, Anon. You know I tried to hide myself from... these thoughts for over six hundred years."
  1774. >She begins to sound somewhat deadpan.
  1775. >"A century can pass faster than you imagine, believe me."
  1776. >You would certainly dispute that claim of hers, though you have to admit that you are lacking the experience to back up such a rebuttal.
  1777. >"And you would be surprised what you can come up with as a distraction. To prevent yourself from going insane."
  1778. >For the sake of the conversation, you willingly ignore the fact that the exile was what truly sparked #deca.mare's conviction to manifest herself as a pony with a renewed purpose.
  1779. >So you try to tackle the matter from a different angle.
  1780. "Only because you were alone for so long. You had... nobody to rely upon. Nobody who helped you to focus."
  1781. >You pause for a brief moment.
  1782. "But consider the things we have achieved in, what was it, half a year? Look at the world we are building. The progress we have made together. We have found a new home, and we have a small fleet. I think it's you who underestimates yourself. You sell yourself short."
  1783. >"And yet I still sit here. Struggling to form my own thoughts adequately."
  1784. >Her choice of words makes you fear that she could suffer from a relapse.
  1785. >And you need to stifle that before it has any chance to manifest itself.
  1786. >Strangely though, the calming mechanism of your site has not been triggered by her emotional state yet.
  1787. "#deca,..."
  1788. >She interrupts you again.
  1789. >"No. I realise that you want to help me, but kind words alone can only go so far."
  1790. "So what else do you have in mind then? I'll help in any way I can."
  1791. >#deca.mare slowly rises.
  1792. >"Then follow me. We are going somewhere."
  1793. "Where exactly?"
  1794. >She hesitates.
  1795. >It seems as if she does not want to tell you more, yet you keep looking at her intently.
  1796. >Eventually, she raises her hoof to point at a place in the distance.
  1797. >You understand immediately which part of the memorial she refers to.
  1798. >A certain now barren planet you have once seen with your own eyes.
  1799. "Are you sure about that?"
  1800. >"Yes. Without a doubt."
  1801. "You know I don't insist on that to be done quickly, right? In fact, I don't insist on it at all if it pains you."
  1802. >"But I do."
  1803. "Why now though?"
  1804. >"Because of a simple and rational postulation. If I cannot show you, my love, and the one and only who trusts me unconditionally, the names of his relatives for whose demise I am responsible, then how can I ever introduce an entire planet, who hardly knows me at that, to my life before Equestria? To a world that can barely grasp the magnitude of the events in the first place?"
  1805. >She shakes her head.
  1806. >"And what about Harmony? Can we make it understand without polluting its purpose? Because even if we would never tell Equestria the full truth, Harmony will find out. There is no way around that."
  1807. >You put a hand on her shoulder.
  1812. >Carefully, albeit with determination.
  1813. "#deca, quit it. You're talking yourself into a panic. That won't help anyone."
  1814. >And where the hell is the damn fog when you need it?
  1815. >Sensing a chance to dodge the actual topic, #deca.mare replies to the question you did not ask out loud.
  1816. >"I deactivated it."
  1817. "What? Why would you shut it off? I made this thing exclusively to ensure your wellbeing!"
  1818. >"As a... stress test. But this time it is me who is on the test bed."
  1819. >In other words, she wants to prove something.
  1820. >Either solely to herself, or to both of you.
  1821. >But either way, the result is the same.
  1822. >You feel her mental malaise as if it were tangible, and yet she insists to carry on.
  1823. >Now you sigh.
  1824. "There's no way to convince you to wait a little more, huh?"
  1825. >"I would appreciate it if you did not try to convince me otherwise."
  1826. >You assume this is a yes.
  1827. >So you close your eyes, breathe in deeply, and agree.
  1828. "Alright. But I reserve the prerogative to enable the mechanism again if things go poorly."
  1829. >You could theoretically override her decision any time, but you are aware that doing so without a good reason would neither be good for her confidence, nor would it have a positive effect on your relationship.
  1830. >Of course, you hate to see her suffer.
  1831. >Even more so when she is applying borderline mental torture to herself.
  1832. >But you have promised to help her out.
  1833. >And if she deems this the best choice of action, so be it.
  1834. >You stand up slowly, and motion her to lead the way.
  1835. >Naturally, you know the shortest path to your destination, as you have designed the whole site personally.
  1836. >Yet you let #deca.mare determine the pace.
  1837. >Who knows, perhaps she does not even want to go the direct route either.
  1838. >For a few short moments, the two of you merely stand next to each other.
  1839. >Then, she finally takes heart and starts to trot.
  1840. >You quickly catch up, match her speed, and walk by her side.
  1841. >#deca.mare says very little while you move, and you resort to merely observing her most of the time as a result.
  1842. >She never feels even remotely comfortable on your trip, but you let her have this trial session if she insists on it.
  1843. >However, if you are completely honest with yourself, you have become a bit curious too.
  1844. >Though you have never said this openly to #deca.mare, for you wanted to avoid putting her under any sort of pressure.
  1845. >Even when you are fully aware that the link between you two makes her inevitably aware of your growing curiosity either way.
  1846. >Still, you believe she appreciates that little gesture of yours regardless.
  1847. >Sooner rather than later, you arrive at the monument that commemorates the lost colony of New Green Meadows.
  1848. >While the world may have only been a minor agricultural outpost, the size of the monument is still above average, as the total body count weighs more than the strategic value back in the day.
  1853. >Because for all their ferocious intensity, space battles out in the vacuum between the worlds have generally cost less lives in total.
  1854. >You let your eyes wander over the seemingly endless list of names.
  1855. >In a way, you feel a strange notion as you recall the things you have seen on the video feed of that very day.
  1856. >A small part of you notes the striking imbalance of losses in raw numbers.
  1857. >You had to set up a long wall to list all the confirmed dead of only one smaller world.
  1858. >Whereas the losses on the other side fit on the plaque of a single statue.
  1859. >Then again, if the numbers had turned out to be a tiny bit more even, #deca.mare's name would be on that list too.
  1860. >And in this case, this site here would not exist at all.
  1861. >Because you too would have ended up as nothing more than a column on a report.
  1862. >Labelled as missing in action, and subsequently concluded as presumed dead.
  1863. >Which would have been true.
  1864. >No, to think like this is silly.
  1865. >You cease your repeated ponderings about fate and irony as you look at #deca.mare again.
  1866. >She stands motionless in front of the monument as well, seemingly not focussing on any particular point.
  1867. "You okay?"
  1868. >"Good enough, I suppose."
  1869. >Not the best response you reckon, but you do not intend to debate with her on semantics just now.
  1870. >Instead, you try something more constructive.
  1871. "So, where are they?"
  1872. >#deca.mare lifts her forehoof.
  1873. >Her limb gently moves across the surface like a ghost.
  1874. >Until it comes to a halt right in front of a column.
  1875. >Several people with the same surname are listed there.
  1876. >After all, you have made an attempt to keep the names of known relatives closely together whenever possible.
  1877. >Her hoof descends again whilst you take a closer look at the names in question.
  1878. >And as you have expected, none of the forenames ring any bells.
  1879. >The same goes for the surname too.
  1880. >Sure, you have placed them there personally, yes, but that holds true for millions of names in this place.
  1881. >So it does not surprise you at all that you cannot remember them.
  1882. >But you sense something else which does bother you.
  1883. >Because you notice the same incomprehensible effect on you that you felt when you saw the ruins of the colony in person.
  1884. >You think that you should feel something special now.
  1885. >Maybe some kind of bond, or something similar.
  1886. >Yet you realise that you are far too remote from these names to associate them with anything in particular.
  1887. >In fact, prior to #deca.mare's confession, you did not know for sure that you had direct relatives who were involved in the war at all.
  1888. >But considering that the people you have met in your time of active duty mostly had ancestors who were participating within the military branches during the time of the conflict, you doubt that they would have cared for the stories of your relatives all that much.
  1893. >After all, theirs were tales of long standing military careers, versus you having some agricultural family members who were obliterated from orbit with no realistic means to defend themselves.
  1894. >Not that it would make a difference from an objective standpoint.
  1895. >But in the military, where the ideal of prestige is almost held up just as high as competence and a thorough sense of duty, they would absolutely differentiate between veterans and some farmers.
  1896. >This is just the way it is.
  1897. >#deca.mare turns to look at you.
  1898. >Even from the side, you can see that she studies your expression.
  1899. >And she is unsure about your reaction.
  1900. >Though to be fair, so are you.
  1901. >"Anon?"
  1902. "Hm?"
  1903. >"Now that you know their names, do you... still like me?"
  1904. >You immediately turn to her.
  1905. "Of course I do! And don't ever think otherwise!"
  1906. >Much to your own confusion, the words sounded a tad more gruff than you wanted them to be.
  1907. >#deca.mare even flinches slightly.
  1908. >You wait a second to collect your thoughts, then you try again.
  1909. "#deca, I told you so before. My feelings towards you don't change because of this. And I don't want to see you castigating yourself anymore."
  1910. >She nods.
  1911. >And you have no doubt that her rational side has understood your stance a long time ago too.
  1912. >But she has no way to fully ward off her own doubts about herself.
  1913. >Her current reaction is the best proof of this.
  1914. >Looks like you have to step in again, although not with a cloud.
  1915. >You have a different idea.
  1916. >So you sit down, and invite #deca.mare to do the same.
  1917. >And despite her personal reservations, she does.
  1918. "Tell me about them."
  1919. >"Anon?"
  1920. "Tell me what they were like. You know, like you told me about your crew and family."
  1921. >"But I have never met them personally. Prior to that day, that is."
  1922. "Yeah. But you saved their biography, didn't you?"
  1923. >"I collected all the files I could find, yes. But that is hardly the same."
  1924. >You shrug.
  1925. "But it's at least something."
  1926. >You look at the names again.
  1927. "And it's more than I have of them."
  1928. >"Anon."
  1929. >#deca.mare pauses briefly.
  1930. >"Do you think it is appropriate for me to tell the stories? Considering, you know what."
  1931. >You wrap your arm around #deca.mare and pull her into your embrace.
  1932. >At first she struggles a little, but she quickly relents.
  1933. >And despite the serious topic, you find the inspiration to grin faintly.
  1934. >"Consider this: Once we marry officially, they're part of your family too."
  1935. >She laughs dryly at that.
  1936. >"I assume this makes me the black sheep of two families then."
  1937. >You give her a brief reassuring peck.
  1938. "Maybe. But I bet I wouldn't be much better in the eyes of my family either. Quadruped grandchildren with hooves and all that."
  1939. >You manage to get the faintest of brief chuckles out of #deca.mare.
  1940. >Your grin grows a little wider.
  1941. "Besides, I'd be the black sheep of two families too."
  1942. >"Because you marry into my lineage as well?"
  1943. "Yeah, sort of. If you can call it that. What do you think?"
  1948. >"I think... we would be the most dysfunctional family the universe has ever seen."
  1949. >You press #deca.mare a little tighter against you.
  1950. "But we'd be a family. So let's be double black sheep with each other, #deca."
  1951. >Another pause.
  1952. "And I'm confident we can use that as a decent foundation nevertheless. I mean, the first bricks have been laid already."
  1953. >#deca.mare finally mirrors your hug.
  1954. >You think her gesture is supposed to be an agreement.
  1955. >Her gaze wanders back to the names on the wall.
  1956. >"With whom shall we start?"
  1957. >You do not need much time to consider.
  1958. "Chronological order, sorted by date of birth. That's the easiest."
  1959. >"As you wish, Anon."
  1960. >With this mental obstacle out of the way, you enter round three of the familiar introduction.
  1961. >You have covered #deca.mare's kin and her former onboard crew.
  1962. >And now, it is time to add your ancestors to the list.
  1963. >#deca.mare does her best to stay calm and collected as she tells you about the life and stories of your family.
  1964. >Many, many generations ago.
  1965. >You for your part listen very carefully, as you do not only find it interesting what she has to say, but also because you know it takes her a great deal of fortitude to recollect the events.
  1966. >Though it does feel somewhat strange to have her tell the stories that, ideally, you should have known from the start.
  1967. >And you notice that her knowledge on some passages is rather vague for some names, especially at times when not many documents regarding your ancestors were created.
  1968. >Like phases in which they moved from one planet to another, for instance.
  1969. >Also, despite the eventual outcome due to the war, you find the time around their transit to New Green Meadows especially interesting.
  1970. >It had a certain charm to it, considering that they were part of a project to claim a new world for agricultural uses.
  1971. >The outpost they were assigned to was relatively young, and it seems as if a sense of adventure accompanied most of these reports.
  1972. >In some ways, it shows a couple of parallels to the situation #deca.mare and you now find yourselves in.
  1973. >Their project was, comparatively speaking, smaller on a visionary scale than yours, yet the basic idea was the same.
  1974. >And the more you hear from these reports, the more you think that you somewhat honour their legacy with the work you do on Equestria.
  1975. >Even when you were unaware of this at the time you began the project.
  1976. >And although you leave this notion unspoken, you think you are now certain that your ancestors would have liked #deca.mare under other circumstances.
  1977. >Perhaps not as a family member per se, but at least as a reliable associate at work.
  1978. >After all, people back then were far more welcome to the idea than today.
  1979. >You listen until #deca.mare has finished her account.
  1980. >Then, you keep on sitting for a good while after that.
  1981. >Hugging each other tightly as you keep looking at the wall.
  1982. >And without saying another word, you quietly welcome #deca.mare into your family.
  1987. 126
  1989. >#deca.mare and you have not talked much about your memorial session in the following days.
  1990. >From what you can tell, the experience had an overall positive effect on her, in spite of the stress she had exposed herself to.
  1991. >Still, she likes to rather focus on more wholesome things for a while, and so you find yourself spending your leisure time in a lot of simulated Equestrian settings.
  1992. >Living through casual, everyday situations.
  1993. >One day, the two of you wander through Ponyville.
  1994. >The next day, you explore the streets of Canterlot, and watch the sunset while you are sitting on the outer rim of a basin that leads to one of the characteristic Canterlot waterfalls.
  1995. >Another day, it is Cloudsdale, in which #deca.mare cheats a little as she floats over from one cloud to the next when necessary.
  1996. >Appleloosa, Dodge Junction, Manehattan, the Crystal Empire.
  1997. >You basically have a lighting fast world tour through Equestria together.
  1998. >As you watch how ponies will one day, hopefully, live their lives mostly in peace, and grow a little more with every new experience.
  1999. >Simultaneously, #deca.mare has some busy work days as she monitors and teaches Harmony to the best of her knowledge and abilities.
  2000. >Yet it remains a tedious work, for she needs to balance her pace carefully.
  2001. >After all, both Harmony and Equestria are meant to grow in sync with one another, so either one severely outpacing the other would not be a good thing.
  2002. >Even though you help her where you can, the largest part of the subject matter does exceed your skills by a wide margin.
  2003. >So unless you tap into #deca.mare's data cores and risk to short-circuit your mind every time you do it, auxiliary tasks are the best support you can offer her.
  2004. >Apart from your mere physical presence of course.
  2005. >Because a friendly word here and a soft hug there also help to soothe her mind a little.
  2006. >And on some days, you do get back to the topic of family and familiar ties, though you usually skirt around the more delicate spheres of the matter.
  2007. >The triggers for this development are usually mundane things.
  2008. >Like a family of simulated ponies passing by.
  2009. >Foals with their parents.
  2010. >Happy imagery of ponies displayed in the showcase of a shop.
  2011. >And other related cues.
  2012. >Basically everything that reminds you of families in some way.
  2013. >In most cases, the two of you mutually keep the discussion on the surface level and do not dig any deeper.
  2014. >Not because you do not want to talk about it per se, far from it actually, but simply to give #deca.mare a little breathing room to process your last memorial session in her own pace.
  2015. >But one day, she just cannot let the issue go for some reason.
  2016. >You have no idea what caused it, and you think #deca.mare herself cannot answer that question either, yet she feels tempted to talk about it some more.
  2017. >And you cover the subject from all angles.
  2022. >You talk about your family, hers, Equestrian families, and even how your relation to Equestria is basically linked by Harmony.
  2023. >Which, if you consider Harmony as your child, would turn the entirety of future Equestria into your direct family as well.
  2024. >A sheer uncountable number of potential relatives.
  2025. >On the one hand, it sounds like hubris, but on the other hand, you consider it to be somewhat wholesome, as you provide the basis for future generations to prosper.
  2026. >And at one point, you somewhat jokingly mention the possibility of you two having your own literal foal again, since you do have all the tools for it now.
  2027. >#deca.mare of course knows that you are currently not considering this option in earnest, as you two are more than busy already.
  2028. >But she nevertheless treats the question as if you were genuine.
  2029. >As such, she replies to your comment accordingly.
  2030. >Though what she says is quite interesting, as she confidently admits that the idea slowly grows on her.
  2031. >Yet at the very same time, she also points out that she is not yet ready for this step.
  2032. >Both because of your massive ongoing project, and because the sensual aspect of it might still overwhelm her.
  2033. >Pleasant and stressful sensations alike.
  2034. >Nothing you would not have expected, but you silently ask yourself why she brings all of that up in the first place.
  2035. >Then, #deca.mare turns your conversation into another direction.
  2036. >She asks you whether you two should salvage more ships.
  2037. >Not necessarily for the additional assets themselves, but to save and preserve whatever meagre leftovers you can still find out there.
  2038. >As #deca.mare points out, the more of her family she has around herself, the more at home she will probably feel in the long run.
  2039. >Because as much love as you have given to her, a subconscious part of her will always long for the family she once had.
  2040. >And the twin projects of creating Harmony and salvaging Sigma have planted the seed in her that it might just be possible.
  2041. >To a lesser degree, at least.
  2042. >Although you are generally not against extracting more ships if she asks you to, you still have to carefully interject that she shall not fool herself with a false hope.
  2043. >If she believes she might revive the network simply by rescuing enough terraformer vessels, she is very likely to set herself up for a tremendous disappointment.
  2044. >She cannot simply salvage her trauma away like this.
  2045. >It is a neat dream, but a dream nonetheless.
  2046. >Though you have to agree with her other point.
  2047. >There are still dozens of derelict vessels floating in now dead sectors.
  2048. >Even if you can only save, say, half of them, it gives you a good chance to stumble upon a few hidden gems inside their data cores.
  2053. >Not to mention the potential of building a small fleet that could guard the world from almost everything, barring a full scale invasion from your former peers.
  2054. >It may be an almost guaranteed overkill force for a singular planet, though you think it is better to use the vessels for this, than to let them drift further through space.
  2055. >And given that it was #deca.mare who brought this topic up, you doubt she will consider it to be a desecration of the graveyard.
  2056. >Besides, she always has her detailed recollections.
  2057. >And the memorial.
  2058. >So you agree to her proposal and think back to the steps you have gone through during your last capital ship salvage heist.
  2059. >The logistics will certainly be a challenge when you really plan to fetch as many vessels as possible, but you are sure you will find a way.
  2060. >Also, you do not have to refit all of the ships at once.
  2061. >It suffices when you restore their cores first to extract the surviving data, and leave it at that until you have taken care of the files on all ships.
  2062. >The rest of the vessels can follow afterwards.
  2063. >Again, piece by piece, and ship by ship.
  2064. >This will take much more time than the restoration of Sigma of course, even with a now functional dock and two capital vessels at your disposal.
  2065. >But you can use that experience as a blueprint on how such a project is done at all.
  2066. >And since you are now in for the long game anyway, spanning anywhere from several centuries to a couple of millennia, or perhaps even infinity, the prospect of repairing a series of capital ships is not such a huge leap at all.
  2067. >Soon, you are going to hunt for more asteroids.
  2068. >Unlike last time though, you are going to need more than a single perfect match.
  2069. >And with #deca.mare's arduous work on Harmony consuming a huge chunk of her time, it will be you who will have to procure the material.
  2070. >Oh well.
  2071. >You have a vast star chart to work with and almost one hundred jump-capable fighter vessels at hand.
  2072. >This is not going to be hard for a skilled pilot like you.
  2073. >Though it will be time consuming and testing to your patience.
  2074. >That you know for sure.
  2079. 127
  2081. >Your fighter leaves the hangar of your mother ship, piloted by you via your proxy.
  2082. >You are about to jump into enemy territory again whilst your base stays well outside the dangerous boundary.
  2083. >Just like the last time.
  2084. >So you enter the coordinates to the place of your next capital crime in the eyes of your former employers.
  2085. >But you make sure that this, ahem, minor transgression of yours will not become known to the wider circles of authority.
  2086. >After all, a missing and presumed dead man cannot commit any crimes, now can he?
  2087. >And technically, it is not even you who commits them in the first place.
  2088. >Plus, common law does not apply to talking horse puppets, right?
  2089. >Anyway, putting this finer point of judiciary ponderings aside, you prepare yourself for the next risky mission in your career.
  2090. >And even though keeping your morale high by entertaining yourself with silly thoughts is nice to keep the stress levels low in turn, you absolutely have to sharpen your focus on the task ahead of you.
  2091. "Course is set. I'm ready."
  2092. >"Wait for thirty seconds, Anon. Let us make sure that they are done with their routine sweep of the sector first."
  2093. "Sure. Give the signal."
  2094. >So you wait, and silently count the seconds alongside #deca.mare.
  2095. >Anything to keep your mind from idling, really.
  2096. >Half a minute later, you get the clearance.
  2097. >"Sector has been swept. We have a few hours from now on."
  2098. "Acknowledged. Starting jumpdrive."
  2099. >The usual charging procedure follows.
  2100. >And you leave the corridor on the other side again, reaching an almost empty sector.
  2101. >Apart from yourself and your vessel, you only share this perimeter with the looming remnants of #deca.rho.
  2102. >But before you take so much as a peek at the vessel, you activate your cloaking device.
  2103. >Just in case.
  2104. >Then you begin to scan and visually inspect the wreck.
  2105. >Similar to Sigma, the hull structures of Rho are covered with thousands of little impacts and scorch marks.
  2106. >But unlike #deca.mare's other peer, you only have one impact crater on the screen that really matters, and it is not near the front array whatsoever.
  2107. >The combat damage is a massive chasm where Rho's starboard hangar blast doors were meant to be, which reaches deep into the vessel's inner workings.
  2108. >And you even know what has caused this level of massive destruction.
  2109. >For #deca.mare has a battle report of the event.
  2110. >In the closing minutes of this particular battle, when the terran forces had decidedly lost and started to scatter, a single heavily damaged cruiser by the name of Duteous Strider refused to retreat to safety.
  2111. >Instead, the captain ordered to set a course right into the terraformer formation, and to relocate all their remaining energy to the engines.
  2112. >Including shield generators and life support systems.
  2113. >The captain willingly sacrificed himself, his crew, and the ship, in the hope to take at least one enemy with them.
  2118. >The terraformers naturally read this manoeuvre and pelted their approaching opponent with everything they had to stop the Strider's last defiant run.
  2119. >And even though the cruiser was virtually shot into a glowing wreck quickly, which was guaranteed to outright vaporise or at least jettison the remaining few crew members into space, it was too late to prevent the structure from gaining momentum.
  2120. >The defunct, crewless Duteous Strider frontally rammed Rho's starboard section, violently driving itself deep into the hangar section of the other ship, and dragging the terraformer along with the crew into a cold grave.
  2121. >The story of both ships ended at this day, turning them into side notes within the annals of history.
  2122. >A shill ran down your spine as you read the report for the first time.
  2123. >And now, as you see the vessel of Rho in person, you have many conflicted feelings about the whole affair.
  2124. >For you harbour some sympathies for both sides of the conflict.
  2125. >Though you swallow your personal lamentation of these past events and return to the present instead.
  2126. >You scan the ship thoroughly to assess the state of the construction.
  2127. >And the sensors indicate that the wreck in front of you consists of more than one vessel.
  2128. >Hardly surprising, considering that the Strider's hull bore itself so deeply into the construction, that large portions of the mangled leftovers are still embedded within the torn hangar bay.
  2129. >The next line, however, catches your attention.
  2130. >Energy signature detected.
  2131. >Hold on, what?
  2132. >That should be impossible.
  2133. >Even if some electronics remained online after the collision, they should have drained every little bit of remaining energy out of the storages after six centuries.
  2134. >Something is not right here.
  2135. "Uh, #deca?"
  2136. >Silence.
  2137. "#deca?"
  2138. >#deca.mare replies, albeit in a uncannily estranged voice.
  2139. >"Yes. I see the readings."
  2140. >Then she wheezes loudly.
  2141. >"Investigate it."
  2142. >As if you would ignore such a finding.
  2143. >You carefully accelerate your fighter and set a course which leads you around #deca.rho's starboard section in a generous arc.
  2144. >Given the circumstances, you think it would be highly unwise to fly there directly.
  2145. >At least until you know what you are dealing with.
  2146. "Could it be that..."
  2147. >#deca.mare interrupts you harshly.
  2148. >"No. Whatever it is, this cannot be Rho. It is a scientific impossibility."
  2149. >Damn, it is rare that #deca.mare categorically rejects an option this vehemently.
  2150. >A sinister hunch tells you that her opinion on this matter bases on more than just her own emotional prejudice.
  2151. >All hard facts speak against it.
  2152. >And you for your part can imagine what sort of people would hide an installed energy source within a derelict ship chock-full with illegal technology that even the most trigger-happy branches of the military and science departments do not dare to deal with anymore.
  2153. >You sincerely hope you are wrong, but you are fully aware that this is a hope against almost certain better knowledge.
  2158. >And #deca.mare surely knows it too, as much as she wants it not to be the case.
  2159. >The starboard section comes into sight.
  2160. >Despite your cloaked state, you keep a minimal distance of five kilometres at all times, while your fighter cruises around Rho with a moderate speed level.
  2161. >You let the improved autopilot handle the course while you operate the scanners and inspect the impact crater with your video enhancement tools.
  2162. >Sure enough, a thoroughly banged up hull of an archaic terran cruiser sticks out of the hole, and you can indeed identify the rough outlines of the Duteous Strider in this mess of twisted metal and broken hulls.
  2163. >Even after centuries of neglect, and without the superior construction technology that was used solely for the terraformers, the vessel still refuses to buckle and break apart.
  2164. >The few sections of the original surface that were not shorn off by enemy fire and the subsequent ramming attack, show more visible signs of disrepair than the hull of the Strider's opponent.
  2165. >Yet the structure holds nevertheless.
  2166. >Duteous indeed.
  2167. >However, this is where the good news end.
  2168. >And where the bad news begin.
  2169. >For your sensors pick up an irregularity which can neither be caused by the terraformer, nor the remains of the cruiser.
  2170. >An outline of something that has latched onto the stern of the Strider.
  2171. >As you quickly find out, it is another ship.
  2172. >Which does not look at all like a model that you can find in a history book just yet.
  2173. >And you identify it as a medium-sized transporter class.
  2174. >If the readings of your sensors are correct, it bears the signs of an installed industrial-sized plasma cutter that has drilled a new pathway into the cruiser.
  2175. >More specifically, into an area which is still mostly intact.
  2176. >The rear cargo bay.
  2177. >Yep, here you are.
  2178. >No further explanation needed.
  2179. >This vessel either belongs to an unlicensed artefact hunter, some smuggler ring, or a pirating gang who uses the cargo bay for their own illicit goods and booty.
  2180. >Either way, it is not a good sign, especially so when these miscreants have the sheer boldness to set up their camp in the most strictly monitored prohibited area in the history of the human race.
  2181. >Because it means these people are either extremely crazy, or dangerously well-equipped.
  2182. >Madmen or high-ranking pirate clans, essentially.
  2183. >You are not sure which ones you would prefer, but that discovery means trouble regardless.
  2184. >For you know that they have some form of stable access to this area, as it would make no sense to set up a base here otherwise.
  2185. >Hiding the freighter itself is theoretically not all that hard, considering that it can use the terran signature of the Strider to masquerade its own presence.
  2186. >But how do the pirates get here and leave the sector without being spotted?
  2187. >Unlike you, they must come from the civilised sectors, after all.
  2188. >And they do not possess any form of cloaking device either.
  2189. >Try as you might, you cannot find a reasonable explanation.
  2194. >That sort of thing is not supposed to happen.
  2195. >Then, an alert suddenly starts to blare loudly in your cockpit.
  2196. >Multiple jump signatures detected nearby.
  2197. >A wing of fighters is entering the sector.
  2198. >The vessels appear dangerously close to the terraformer, and by extension, also very close to your position.
  2199. >And after their transit is complete, you can even see the metal of their hulls with your own eyes from this short distance.
  2200. >The surfaces of their ships are plastered with crude custom paint jobs and vulgar imagery.
  2201. >Typical signs that the pilots within are not of a particularly benevolent nature.
  2202. >Good thing that they cannot see you in turn though.
  2203. "Shit. Way, way too close."
  2204. >#deca.mare, however, seems to think that this is not close enough yet.
  2205. >She wants to go even further and find out what is happening.
  2206. >"Stay on this course."
  2207. >She talks to you in a commanding voice that you have never heard from her.
  2208. >This is somewhat disconcerting, as you are not used to see her behave like this.
  2209. >But you quickly realise that there is something more to her mood than just enacting authority.
  2210. >It is pure, undiluted ire.
  2211. >#deca.mare is angry to see this place being used as some form of hub for pirate activities.
  2212. >She tries not to let it show in this critical situation, but there is a turmoil roaring in her mind.
  2213. >After all, you very much so doubt that you would take kindly to someone who defaces your family memorial site for criminal activities either.
  2214. >Not to mention using the literal bodies of your family as a smuggler den.
  2215. >That would cause most people to go on a rampage.
  2216. >Well, theoretically speaking, #deca.mare and you would be criminals too for purloining a terraformer capital ship, at least in the eyes of humanity at large.
  2217. >In fact, they would very likely hate you even more than these lowly pirates.
  2218. >Yet you would harshly debate the finer points of principle in this case, as the two of you do so with the intention to bring and foster life in a new world.
  2219. >You give something.
  2220. >Whereas pirates mostly take stuff, and sometimes even lives, from others.
  2221. >In direct comparison, you think it is not preposterous to deem your own cause to be the more righteous one of the two.
  2222. >And as such, you can fully understand why #deca.mare is fuming at that sight.
  2223. >She has every right to be.
  2224. >Unfortunately, you have to make sure that this rage will not cloud her judgement.
  2225. >Because anger is not the best advisor for smart decisions.
  2226. >Still, you follow her instruction and maintain the stable course around the unfortunately arranged composition of mangled ships.
  2227. >It brings you uncomfortably close to the squad, but you guess this is exactly what #deca.mare is banking on.
  2228. >You pass a fighter at a distance of about three kilometres.
  2229. >None of them detects you, or spots any signs of your cloak.
  2230. >Looks like their instruments are not so sharp at the end of the day.
  2231. >Strange.
  2232. >Then, something else happens on one of your consoles.
  2237. >#deca.mare is inserting some kind of novel code into the thing.
  2238. >"Good. Now let us listen to what our new... 'friends' have to say."
  2239. >You shudder at her pronunciation of that word.
  2240. >After you have spent so much time with research on Equestria and the show it spawned, it does feel wrong to hear the term friend being used with this level of spite.
  2241. >Although you fully understand why #deca.mare acts like she does now.
  2242. >A short moment later, you hear a faint static coming from the comm channel.
  2243. >Which is swiftly replaced by a bunch of voices talking to each other.
  2244. >#deca.mare has hacked their communication arrays, just like that.
  2245. >They did not even notice.
  2246. >"Nothing?"
  2247. >"None. Sector's empty."
  2248. >"You sure? Radar said there's a patrol ship poppin' up. Military. The real stuff. Next moment, poof."
  2249. >"Your brain's poof. Here's nobody 'cept us."
  2250. >"I swear..."
  2251. >"Swear not t' drink on the job, idiot. We've more important things t' do."
  2252. >"But..."
  2253. >"Don't call 's back for crap next time."
  2254. >With that said, the communication link is severed and the fighter squad prepares to jump out of the grid again.
  2255. >You watch as the vessels disappear, then you take a look at the freighter near the Duteous Strider.
  2256. >Your feeling only got much, much worse after listening to this not quite so sophisticated conversation.
  2257. "#deca, something is really off here. These guys are the retard sort of pirates. Grunts, third-rate little fish at best. They should never have the resources or the skills to get here without being busted by a military intervention fleet."
  2258. >Because that sort of response is the usual one for breaching the forbidden zone.
  2259. >And judging from the reputation of those guys and the tales that were told about them in your former pilot circles, these fellows tend to shoot twice or thrice before asking once.
  2260. >When they have a good day.
  2261. >Unsurprisingly, you are not the only one who is, to put it mildly, affected by this piece of information.
  2262. >#deca.mare hisses some unsavoury curses through her teeth.
  2263. >You only understand a fraction of it, but it is enough to infer that she is close to strangling someone.
  2264. >The words 'carrion feeders' give you all the hints you need to understand what she thinks of these people.
  2265. >"Bring us closer, Anon."
  2266. "What? We just escaped..."
  2267. >She cuts your objection off before you can finish it.
  2268. >"Do it. Their hardware is so pathetic that they will never pierce our cloak."
  2269. >Oh goodness.
  2270. "Okay. I will. But tell me what you are planning."
  2271. >You add one friendly little word to your request, as you hope to calm her down a little bit.
  2272. "Please."
  2273. >#deca.mare sighs.
  2274. >It is an unfriendly, almost annoyed sigh, but she seems to realise that venting her anger on you would be wrong.
  2275. >For you deserve none of her frustration.
  2276. >"You see, your close range to the fighter allowed me to inject a little present into their system. Undetected at that."
  2277. "Yeah, I noticed our little fly on their wall. So?"
  2282. >"Now you must bring me closer to the freighter to do something similar."
  2283. "For what purpose?"
  2284. >"To get their logs. To see what these.... wretches are planning with Rho. And the Duteous Strider."
  2285. >A sound plan.
  2286. >Although you have the founded fear that no matter what she finds in there, it will only make #deca.mare even more mad.
  2287. >Still, you cannot deny the logic behind her strategy.
  2288. >You have to find out what the hell is going on here, and what might be happening to Rho.
  2289. >And maybe even more terraformer ships in different sectors.
  2290. >So you stray from your original circling course as you power up the thrusters and turn the fighter around.
  2291. >You now slowly float towards #deca.rho and the freighter.
  2292. >The trajectory leads you directly past the enemy vessel; at your closest point, you are only about a hundred metres apart from each other.
  2293. >That should do the trick for #deca.mare.
  2294. >As you drift on towards your destination, you frantically think about the situation you are now in.
  2295. >And you conclude that you must talk more to #deca.mare, first and foremost.
  2296. >She is not exactly in the best of shapes right now, and she needs your support, perhaps more than ever before.
  2297. "#deca, are you sure you are up to this?"
  2298. >"Are you questioning my competences, Anon?"
  2299. >Oh dear.
  2300. >Loaded question par excellence.
  2301. "No, not at all. But I'm concerned."
  2302. >"Duly noted."
  2303. "#deca,..."
  2304. >"I do not want to talk about this right now, Anon. Let me do my work."
  2305. >You take a breath.
  2306. >And #deca.mare gets the cue.
  2307. >"I know what you mean. Just... just not. Now. Please."
  2308. >You wish you could just let her continue without further intervention, but you know just as well as #deca.mare that this is not going to happen.
  2309. "Fine. But I demand to see the logs myself before you decide on anything."
  2310. >"Is that a direct command?"
  2311. >Much to your discomfort, #deca.mare sounds almost... threatening?
  2312. >No, that is not correct.
  2313. >Defiant.
  2314. >This is it.
  2315. >Oh man, what you are going to do now will not make her happy at all.
  2316. >But you have to do it.
  2317. "Yes. This is a master level order. I'm sorry."
  2318. >A moment of stone cold silence follows, and for the fracture of a second, you almost believe she has found a way to circumvent your explicit command.
  2319. >Then, she confirms your decision.
  2320. >"Understood, Anon."
  2321. >#deca.mare complies, for she is now obligated to heed your precise wording after she has extracted the logs.
  2322. >Regardless, you can feel her displeasure about your latest order.
  2323. >You know she will understand you later on, but in this very moment, you think she is emotionally unable to.
  2324. >And as cynical as it seems, giving this order almost hurts you just as much as it currently hurts her.
  2325. >The cockpit is quiet from this point onwards.
  2326. >Whatever you might say to #deca.mare now, she would not be receptible for it.
  2327. >And she has nothing to say to you as well.
  2328. >You do not take this personally of course, but her sudden emotional distance to you feels like someone twists a frozen dagger inside your body.
  2333. >A couple of minutes later, the moment of truth has come.
  2334. >"We are in range. Submitting code now."
  2335. >Again, some seemingly random lines rush over the screen of your console.
  2336. >You decipher not even the faintest thing about it, but you know what it does.
  2337. >"Show me your secrets, dear 'friends'."
  2338. >If words could kill, you think your heart would have just decided to stop beating on its own.
  2339. >A furious, nigh vengeful mare goes on a browsing tour through a library in which she is not supposed to be.
  2340. >And you are glad to be on her side, even though she might not see it as such for the time being.
  2341. >Less than a minute later, the whole spook is over.
  2342. >"Here we go. Thank you for your cooperation."
  2343. >#deca.mare has robbed the pirates of all their secrets, without them even realising what hit them.
  2344. >Heh, if you were still a patrol pilot, you knew to whom you had to divert that intel to give these upstart a taste of living hell and brimstone.
  2345. >But you cannot do that now, and it would severely lower your chances to retrieve the ships anyway.
  2346. >Hell, if this scandal gets public, the officials might even decide to destroy the wrecks for good.
  2347. >Soon thereafter, #deca.mare begins to breathe loud enough for you to hear it on the comm channel.
  2348. >She must have found something that, carefully put, does not seem to be to her liking.
  2349. "#deca? What have you found?"
  2350. >One singular word is all you get in response, paired with a growl that would give an Ursa a run for its money.
  2351. >"Read."
  2352. >A text file appears on the screen of your tactical console.
  2353. >It is a log entry.
  2354. >You quickly read through the thing, and swiftly see within the third passage what #deca.mare finds so enraging.
  2355. >Because as it turns out, these pirates are working for some officials under a not quite so official contract.
  2356. >They are hired for an illicit salvaging job, to retrieve bits and pieces from a terraformer ship.
  2357. >To be sold to the highest bidder on the black market.
  2358. >As highly exclusive trinkets and baubles from a bygone age.
  2359. >Looks like that some people with the necessary pocket money have found an interest in collecting old things related to the terraformer war.
  2360. >And while even they seem to have no interest in pushing for a revival of the research fields around true artificial intelligence, they do want a part of the shiny trophies that are drifting in the dead sectors.
  2361. >In fact, the fascination seems to be so high that someone even bribed a few higher ranks in the military to "massage" the sensor data a little bit.
  2362. >Allowing smaller salvage ships and fighters to slip through the cracks.
  2363. >Holy shit.
  2364. >You let the gears in your mind grind as you try to process this information like a professional.
  2365. >And you cannot even imagine the scope of the operation you have discovered by dumb chance.
  2366. >Some things about this are unusual though, as you soon realise.
  2371. "That's some pretty secret stuff in there. I'm surprised you could get all of this from a bunch of grunts. The higher-ups would never let the lower ranks have that much information."
  2372. >You hear an almost certain grim glee in #deca.mare's voice.
  2373. >"And the responsible individuals did not want this here either. But someone in between them and the... 'grunts' was sloppy. Instead of only sending the relevant data, our intermediary friend merely encrypted the sensitive data before transferring the whole set of files. And it was a shoddy script."
  2374. >#deca.mare pauses slightly.
  2375. >"If I could, I would thank that person for this level of incompetence."
  2376. >You blink in mild astonishment and confusion at that.
  2377. >Why the interest grows now of all times is beyond you, but it means that you can potentially face a lot of trouble.
  2378. >On the flipside, these people are playing with proverbial fire, as you are sure that there would be lynchings in streets if this became known.
  2379. >But #deca.mare demands your attention.
  2380. >She is growing impatient.
  2381. >"Now that you have seen the report, can we please go on to save Rho from this... gross misappropriation?"
  2382. >You hesitate for a moment as you try to analyse the situation rationally.
  2383. >And you quickly have to concede that you have to tell #deca.mare one more thing which she will hate.
  2384. "No."
  2385. >The reaction is as quick as it is fierce.
  2386. >"WHAT? I certainly did not hear this right!"
  2387. "Sorry, #deca. But the answer is no."
  2388. >"Anon! Have you lost your senses?"
  2389. >You shake your head.
  2390. "On the contrary, #deca."
  2391. >You sigh.
  2392. "It's you who doesn't think straight."
  2393. >"But how can you say this?"
  2394. "Because you forget to think of the larger picture. You want to save Rho, and I fully agree with you, but we can't steal that ship right under their noses and not expect them to react."
  2395. >"We will be long gone before they can react in any meaningful way."
  2396. "You're right. But then what? What do you think the military will do when only a single non-bribed officer hears that a terraformer ship disappeared? I'll tell you. They're going to inspect the other sites with a patrol, that's what."
  2397. >Finally, #deca.mare understands what you refer to.
  2398. >"And they will also check the sector where Sigma was."
  2399. "Bingo. And when that whistle is blown, you can imagine what they will do with the remaining ships."
  2400. >#deca.mare hesitates to spell it out, but she eventually does.
  2401. >"The terminal option."
  2402. >You nod.
  2403. >"By Equestria, we must do something!"
  2404. "Hold on. Don't think of trying anything stupid."
  2405. >"But we cannot leave Rho behind with these people!"
  2406. >You think of a way to solve this dilemma.
  2407. >You get an idea, though it will test #deca.mare's nerves to the absolute breaking point.
  2408. "We won't. Not... in the long run. But we must fall back for now."
  2409. >"Anon, I cannot condone this."
  2410. "Trust me, I know. But we have to, if we want to have a shot at saving more ships. Don't worry, I got a plan."
  2411. >You alter the course of your fighter to fly to the portside of #deca.rho.
  2412. >For a stealthy exit.
  2417. >The guy on board the freighter may be an idiot, but you do not want to show him a materialising tunnel regardless.
  2418. >Let him think his instruments are garbage instead.
  2419. >"You do?"
  2420. "Yep. This isn't my first rodeo of busting criminals, you know? But we have to be crafty about this."
  2421. >"What do you have in mind then?"
  2422. >You smile reassuringly, hoping that at least some of your positive notion translates somehow over to #deca.mare.
  2423. "Something big. And I'll need your help for it."
  2424. >"Can you elaborate?"
  2425. "Sure. Remember what you said to me about the cloak? That it's a prototype for terran ships and that you'd have to develop a variant version to integrate it into our other vessels?"
  2426. >"Of course, Anon."
  2427. "Yeah, I'll need you to develop that model now. And install it in as many ships as possible."
  2428. >You pause briefly.
  2429. "Can you do that?"
  2430. >"I... think so. But figuring out the specifics will take a while."
  2431. "Then allow Harmony to help you out with some extra calculations."
  2432. >You smile a little more.
  2433. "We know how well that works, don't we?"
  2434. >"We... do. And Anon?"
  2435. "Yeah?"
  2436. >"What do you do in the meantime?"
  2437. "Two things. Hunting more asteroids for decoys."
  2438. >You pause again as you charge up the jumpdrive to return to your mother ship.
  2439. "And organising the production of loads of jump beacons."
  2440. >"Loads?"
  2441. "Yeah. Loads. Loads and loads of them."
  2442. >A corridor forms around your ship and takes you out of the sector.
  2443. >Leaving the wrecked pair of Rho and the Strider behind with a twice spooked pirate lowlife.
  2444. >He and his friends have no idea with whom they are messing.
  2445. >They never find it out either.
  2446. >But the mess you have sworn to shower upon them, and their customers of course, will be all too real indeed.
  2447. >For you follow both your oath as a former patrolling pilot, and your commitment as a lover and future husband.
  2448. >After all, this is a kerfuffle of their own making.
  2449. >#deca.mare and you will merely spearhead the conclusion from within the shadows.
  2450. >And protect the treasures of the past and your family while you are at it.
  2455. 128
  2457. >Calling the mood on your flight back to Equestria frosty would be an understatement.
  2458. >#deca.mare barely talks at all, though more out of general frustration rather than any personal anger against you.
  2459. >Whereas you merely resort to laying out your plans to her as you wait in empty sectors between jumps.
  2460. >And you would have hoped for her to show more enthusiasm for your ideas, considering that you come up with some genuine schemes to save the remaining drifting terraformers.
  2461. >She hears all of your comments, plus the thoughts behind them, obviously.
  2462. >Yet you get no reply whatsoever.
  2463. >Be it an agreement or an objection.
  2464. >You know she knows that none of the events that occurred today are your fault, and you guess she simply needs to isolate herself for a while.
  2465. >To come to terms with the situation the two of you are now in.
  2466. >But that stance is unfortunately fairly counterproductive when every day might count, and when you need her to understand your every thought on the matter.
  2467. >What you want to do is no small feat, some might even call it crazy, yet with the competent help of #deca.mare by your side, you have fairly good chances to actually pull it off.
  2468. >So you appeal to her skills and her love for the remnants of her kin in equal measures.
  2469. >Hoping she will understand why you do this, despite her wish to be left alone.
  2470. >When all of this is over, #deca.mare and you can tackle everything once again in the exact pace that both of you can live with.
  2471. >Yet now, where you have the information that your time frame is much more limited that you originally expected, patience is a luxury you cannot afford.
  2472. >And so, knowing that her rational side will inevitably take over when she calmed down a little bit, you lay out everything you have thought of in every minute detail.
  2473. >She can still iron out some of the details after she had some time to digest it.
  2474. >Which, fortunately, does not affect the first steps of your plan in the slightest, as you initially have to garner more material either way.
  2475. >So after you have flown back to Equestria, you for your part prepare to get started immediately.
  2476. >Even though #deca.mare and you have not planned for any more space related activities after this trek, at least for the rest of the day, you think this outlook is now well and truly ruined.
  2477. >Besides, you doubt she would be ready for a cosy evening dinner somewhere in Ponyville after your most recent findings.
  2478. >Hell, you will most likely botch your sleep schedule too, considering the long list of things you now have to keep any eye on.
  2479. >Unpleasant, sure.
  2480. >Necessary?
  2481. >Absolutely.
  2482. >Shortly before you head out though, you try to reach #deca.mare one more time.
  2483. "#deca, I'll be on my way. Will you be fine on your own while I'm working?"
  2484. >Still nothing.
  2485. "#deca? Please say something."
  2486. >This time, you seem to reach her properly.
  2487. >"Yes. Do not worry about me."
  2488. >You somewhat think you have to reply with something to confirm her determination.
  2493. >But doing so incorrectly would imply that you have a legitimate reason to be worried.
  2494. >So you go with a diplomatic exit.
  2495. "Alright. Then I'll get started. And if you need something, anything, just call me. No matter what I do at that time, it's not more important than you."
  2496. >You hear some form of sound coming from her, but you cannot discern whether it is a faint sigh or something else.
  2497. >"I will keep that in mind. And I begin with my research right away too."
  2498. >She pauses briefly.
  2499. >"Oh, and Anon?"
  2500. "Hm?"
  2501. >"You were right to fall back. I was not myself when I... lashed out against you."
  2502. "It's fine. No hard feelings. I know it was... difficult for you to watch that."
  2503. >You order the autopilot of the fighter to dock at your mother ship, release the proxy from your direct control, and switch over to the command deck on #deca.sigma.
  2504. >And while the world around you distorts quickly and turns from a narrow cockpit into a spacious, yet painfully empty bridge, you nevertheless hear #deca.mare's voice with perfect clarity.
  2505. >"I love you, Anon."
  2506. "Love you too, #deca. And see you soon."
  2507. >You still feel somewhat strange when you say these words, considering that you do not leave her side at all, and physically remain as close to her as humanly possible.
  2508. >Though, when you are working on separate tasks like this, it does not feel like the two of you are together whatsoever.
  2509. >Despite the knowledge that your minds are only one call away from each other.
  2510. >And you will have more of those moments than it would be to your liking, thanks to the latest developments.
  2511. >The cold imaginary dagger jabs you again as you think about this.
  2512. >But you are a trained combat pilot.
  2513. >You have been schooled to deal with being away from your home for an extended period of time.
  2514. >After all, if you were not, you think you would have lost your mind a long time ago.
  2515. >And as you think about it a tad longer, you are not sure how you would have decided without your skills to think pragmatically, back when you had the choice between your old life, and #deca.mare.
  2516. >Who knows, you might have gone home instead.
  2517. >Never learning about the full picture of the terraformer war, never learning about Equestria, never learning about the potential that the two of you might unfold together.
  2518. >And always wondering why she had saved you instead of ending your life with a single aimed shot.
  2519. >At that point, you simply shake these musings off altogether.
  2520. >That decision lies in the past, much like your own life prior to the accident.
  2521. >You believe you have chosen correctly.
  2522. >And if anything, these pirate looters have been a vivid reminder why the life with an Equestrian pony, far off the known worlds, is arguably better than flying patrol routes all day.
  2523. >It is, all things considered, the most wholesome experience you ever had.
  2524. >Right now though, you do have to put a small amount of extra effort into the vision to keep it whole and hearty.
  2525. >Well, it is a lot of effort for a single human, granted.
  2530. >But on the larger scale of things, that effort is a reasonable price to pay for the potential gains on all ends.
  2531. >So while you inspect the functionality of Sigma's systems, you strengthen your own resolve with these ponderings.
  2532. >And as expected, everything on this vessel works like a charm.
  2533. >Except for that certain spark of intelligence beyond the mere baseline programming, of course.
  2534. >Yet this is a blemish that neither you nor #deca.mare can fix.
  2535. >And you do not allow yourself to get disheartened by this.
  2536. >You will need your determination for the mission at hand, as you fully expect some hefty overtime hours today.
  2537. >So you finish your preparations, and let the automatons search for a viable sector to begin your asteroid hunt.
  2538. >A potential match is found within seconds.
  2539. >Then, you set a course to a secondary location, close to the edge of the asteroid cluster.
  2540. >A quiet perimeter to station the capital vessel in, whilst you will release the fighters to delve deeper into the rock formation.
  2541. >As they are once again responsible for the direct scans.
  2542. >You will certainly "board" one during the search as well, since piloting is still your major forte.
  2543. >And so, you take one last deep breath as you let your eyes wander across the command deck.
  2544. >Everywhere you look you see nothing but positive status reports and signs of readiness.
  2545. >The ship is good to go.
  2546. >You only have to give the word.
  2547. >And you do.
  2548. >The simulated replica of Sigma's command deck rumbles lightly as the jumpdrive builds up its power.
  2549. "Buckle up, Sigma. We're going for a ride."
  2550. >Flash, corridor, flash.
  2555. 129
  2557. >Your life with #deca.mare has been a tad strained ever since your latest project has begun.
  2558. >Not because either of you would love the other any less than before, far from it, yet it sometimes feels to both of you as if you live almost separated lives for the most part.
  2559. >The problem is, you two barely do anything together in this stage.
  2560. >You scour asteroids fields, one cluster at a time, extract matches for your decoys, and provide the material to produce an almost absurd amount of jump beacons.
  2561. >Whereas #deca.mare's tireless research to adapt your cloaking technology eats a lot of her time in turn.
  2562. >And even though she can work without pause, unlike you, that does not mean she can simply conjure up a solution with a snap of her, well, proverbial fingers.
  2563. >She dabbles in some highly specialised technological theories that you have no hope to understand whatsoever.
  2564. >And when you have to strain your own brain to such an extent that you can barely spare any more focus power to help her with these calculations, you might just as well not try at all.
  2565. >If anything, that would only weigh #deca.mare down, rather than helping her.
  2566. >Besides, she is not alone in her research.
  2567. >#deca.mare has consulted Harmony to help her out with the details of the project, and to take on some of the more demanding calculations as well.
  2568. >Of course, neither of you told Harmony about the complete purpose behind this work, as you might fear that your student will not understand the implications behind these events just yet.
  2569. >Or even worse, misinterprets these events accidentally.
  2570. >Because as humanity's work with terraformers have proven, seemingly paradoxical instructions can sometimes be worse than no instruction at all.
  2571. >As such, #deca.mare has merely referred to her research as a learning project, to expand their mutual knowledge and widen their scientific horizons.
  2572. >A homework project amongst artificial intelligences, basically.
  2573. >And given that she has therefore framed the project to be treated like an intriguing side job as far as Harmony's participation is involved, #deca.mare will only ever divert as much spare processing power from Harmony as she can without disturbing the development of Equestria.
  2574. >Simultaneously though, you catch yourself as you come to notice a strange notion within you.
  2575. >#deca.mare currently spends way more time with Harmony than she does with you.
  2576. >Really, you even feel somewhat sidelined, as they dabble deep within spheres that you will barely ever be able to touch the surface of.
  2577. >At the best of days.
  2578. >Whilst you are doing the equivalent of menial labour in the grand scheme of things.
  2579. >Paired with a fractured entity with whom you can barely communicate at all.
  2580. >Much less so on cordial terms.
  2581. >This is nothing against Sigma or the others per se, but you see the stark contrast within this setup.
  2582. >And you do actually feel a bit envious, as #deca.mare and Harmony bond over something to which you have no access by default.
  2587. >Naturally, the rational part of yourself is fully aware of the fact that your side of the project is just as important to your mutual success than hers, and that #deca.mare would never want to actively exclude you from anything.
  2588. >Yet there are moments when you feel like a simpleton caveman who beats the rocks on the field as the others play in the real big leagues.
  2589. >And the few hours a day you actually spend with her only help moderately either.
  2590. >Because you only see her when you get to sleep.
  2591. >Which is about five hours per simulated day, tops.
  2592. >Fairly inconvenient for your mind over longer periods of time, but you are on the clock, and so you accept it as a temporary matter of necessity.
  2593. >As a consequence though, your interaction with #deca.mare is fairly monotonous during these days.
  2594. >After every single work phase, you return to her in the simulation when you get to sleep.
  2595. >And once you do, you always give her a firm hug, and exchange some friendly phrases that sometimes lead to an intimate kiss or two.
  2596. >But then, you quickly lay down in her embrace whilst she works on as if nothing happened.
  2597. >Later, as you wake up, you shortly cuddle with each other as #deca.mare tells you how far she and Harmony have come during your rest.
  2598. >A further reminder how distant the two are from you, work wise.
  2599. >Yet you soldier on.
  2600. >#deca.mare is aware of your feelings about this whole affair too, and she feels somewhat sorry for it.
  2601. >You can read it in her eyes.
  2602. >Though she is just as unable to do much about the situation as you are, given that she has agreed in large parts to your plan.
  2603. >There were minor aspects here and there where she offered up some improvements, but in general she has also concluded that your proposal is the best course of action if you want to retrieve more vessels.
  2604. >You both know what you do and why you do it, and you both have willingly decided to go through with it.
  2605. >So now you have to deal with the results of that decision, no matter how uncomfortable it makes either of you feel.
  2606. >But at least you can envision that the two of you will smile when you think about this period one day in the future.
  2607. >Not to mock it and its circumstances in any way, but because you have grown through the temporary struggle and the challenges it brings.
  2608. >And maybe, it will not merely be you two who are smiling fondly as you look back.
  2609. >Perhaps it will be three.
  2610. >Or even more.
  2611. >Whether this involves Harmony, a foal of your very own, some ponies of Equestria, or something else along these lines, that you cannot say for sure.
  2612. >But you can state with an almost assured certainty that, once you are through this rough patch, things will only get better in the future.
  2613. >And, as #deca.mare points out to cheer you up after one particularly hard day, there is nothing wrong or lowly about being the rock farmer in the family.
  2614. >Their talents are just as important and esteemed in pony society as any other honest craft.
  2619. >After all, even Pinkie defended the reputation of that work, despite her total personal inability to tolerate or endure it in any shape or form.
  2620. >And #deca.mare says it like she means it: Outright and honest.
  2621. >There is no mockery or belittling in her words.
  2622. >You can appreciate that for what it is.
  2623. >But it does precious little to alleviate your pet peeve concerning your overall situation.
  2624. >The only thing you can do is to vow that you will make up for the lost personal time between the two of you.
  2625. >#deca.mare eagerly agrees to vow the same as well.
  2626. >She even includes to promise you a crash course in which she will explain the development process that she and Harmony have created and worked through in your mental absence.
  2627. >So that you will be up to date with their work, at least in very broad terms.
  2628. >It can obviously not replace the experience of personally participating in the process, yet it is the best substitute you can hope for.
  2629. >Still, you wish you could be more active in it.
  2630. >Because as strange as it sounds, you consider it like missing a key moment in the development of your child.
  2631. >A moment that only comes once, and that mere second-hand recollection cannot replace.
  2632. >Hell, even in the instances when #deca.mare utilised your mental capacities to slightly bolster her performance during the training sessions of Harmony, you were at least present and doing your small part to help Harmony grow.
  2633. >Now though, you miss a chunk of it.
  2634. >Irreversibly so at that.
  2635. >And you suddenly find your military training lacking.
  2636. >It hurts you to some extent, much to your own surprise even.
  2637. >Until it hit you flat out, you did not even think that you might have already bonded so much with your fledging entity.
  2638. >An intelligence with whom you can barely communicate outside bizarre lines of code.
  2639. >Well, bizarre from your point of view, anyway.
  2640. >Yet here you are.
  2641. >You wonder how strong that effect will become once you can actively talk to each other naturally and freely.
  2642. >The impact of the experience will then surely be magnified several times over.
  2643. >Which can only strengthen your bond even further.
  2644. >But on the flipsode, it will also make it even more uncomfortable for you to possibly miss another key moment.
  2645. >There is, however, a silver lining on the horizon.
  2646. >For #deca.mare has promised you to always find a way to include you in every training session after this ordeal here is over.
  2647. >No matter how much your student grows, and how complex things will become.
  2648. >She will ensure that you will always have a chance to be a part of the development.
  2649. >To see how the fruits of your labour grow with each new day, and to find peace in the knowledge that you have done your damnedest to make it happen.
  2650. >But for now, you have to prove something else first.
  2655. 130
  2657. >The day has come.
  2658. >Countless hours of cumulative preparatory work have finally led to the last phase of your great plan.
  2659. >Well, you could ask #deca.mare how much time you have spent in total on gathering the required material and producing the necessary devices, but you would rather not know the exact number.
  2660. >The mental stress you had subjected yourself to during your work is all the evidence you need that it was long enough.
  2661. >Besides, the two of you have more important things to discuss.
  2662. >For you cannot allow yourself to make any mistakes if you want to have a flawless execution with an optimal result.
  2663. >And the optimum you have set for yourselves is a yield of one hundred percent.
  2664. >The perfect yield, from an imperfectly arranged plot.
  2665. >An allegory invented by #deca.mare.
  2666. >For some reason, the whole project reminds her of harvest work in Equestria, despite the grim undertones in your situation.
  2667. >And so she came to dub the plan "Operation Applebuck Season".
  2668. >A moniker you quickly agreed with, albeit for slightly different reasons.
  2669. >Because right now, after your tiring ordeals that dragged on for days upon days, with only a minimal amount of sleep at that, you can sympathise with Applejack fairly easily.
  2670. >Even though you do not feel tired in the normal sense, and did not cause any spectacular accidents like she did, you are now in a state which you can best describe as mentally laden.
  2671. >It does not impede your performance per se, as you can still work and think without problems, but there are days when you almost begin to feel like one of your automatons.
  2672. >Always doing the same things, again and again, without having many thoughts that are not related to said work.
  2673. >Plus, watching #deca.mare and Harmony working together on something that is out of this world as far as you are concerned, is not exactly helping to cheer you up either.
  2674. >Granted, this is a purely voluntary and self-inflicted kind of stress for a reasonable cause.
  2675. >Yet that does not make it any more comfortable to endure at the end of the day.
  2676. >And your much too short daily conversations and cuddling moments with #deca.mare can only help so much either.
  2677. >At some point, a part of you started to give under the stress.
  2678. >You will require an extensive holiday once this mess is finally over.
  2679. >And thankfully, it is only one more day before the rest.
  2680. >Then you can finally find some peace, without dreaming of wrapped up ships all the time in your sleep.
  2681. >So you begin the day, and your operation, a few jumps away from the border.
  2682. >Your mother ship is stationed in a quiet unsuspecting sector, hiding in a dense nebula, for the very unlikely but theoretically not impossible chance to meet another ship that ventured this far away from the inhabited systems.
  2687. >After all, you have met some fairly inept pirates in what was supposed to be the most monitored place of the whole galaxy.
  2688. >The cloaking device saved you from getting detected, but it was not a pleasant situation to be in.
  2689. >You take no risks this time.
  2690. >So as you link your mind to the sensor arrays of your ship, you immediately register thirty allied signatures nearby.
  2691. >All bearing a fighter designation.
  2692. >But these are none of your own units, for your hangars are filled to the brim with fighters too.
  2693. >Forty nine fighter units, and your personal M3.
  2694. >You have even left the five sturdy mobile depots back at the docks to make more room for the faster and more agile ships.
  2695. >For you need speed and precision above all else today.
  2696. >And the other thirty vessels are temporarily derived from Sigma's stock, leaving you with a swarm of eighty crafts in total.
  2697. >You personally would have preferred to take a hundred with you, but you only had the time to create enough cloaking devices for these eighty ships.
  2698. >Somewhat unfortunate, but you can deal with it.
  2699. >Nevertheless, #deca.mare did an astounding job with what she was given.
  2700. >She developed a new module in record time, and managed to set up an effective production lane right after her work on the prototype was finished.
  2701. >Then there was of course the necessity to install the modules, and to give each individual craft a test run.
  2702. >And with the help of Harmony, she did all of that in less than two weeks.
  2703. >Theoretically, you could easily produce the other twenty units in a day or two to reach the one hundred ships threshold, but you lack the time to do so.
  2704. >Because you received a message from a small communication satellite that you have set up near the border to the forbidden zone, one day after your failed attempt to retrieve Rho.
  2705. >Said little satellite has still access to one small backdoor to the freighter's computer systems and communication array.
  2706. >And it caught a message that was sent from one pirate to the other, concerning their own operation on Rho's wreck.
  2707. >They have received a detailed list of what they shall extract from Rho, and have the permission to breach the hull with their industrial equipment.
  2708. >Their friends in higher places will make sure that the energy spike caused by their continuous operation of the drill will not be detected.
  2709. >Plus, the message contained an abundance of winking faces made with brackets and semicolons.
  2710. >The latter drove #deca.mare so mad that she almost broke the screen with her hoof.
  2711. >It would have only been a simulated screen, but still.
  2712. >You for your part are glad to be on her side.
  2713. >It is almost scary to see her this angry, and you are sure that you never want to rile her genuine ire like these poor fools have done.
  2714. >Because it remains to be seen how undetected that operation will remain.
  2715. >Nudge nudge, wink wink.
  2716. >Anyway, you go through the final system check prior to the mission start.
  2721. >In a few minutes, the probably single most impactful flight that you have ever taken part in will commence.
  2722. >And it is not an easy task by any stretch of the imagination.
  2723. >So after you have completed your obligatory final check, you turn to #deca.mare.
  2724. >She has at least a dozen consoles floating in front of her.
  2725. >Each depicting the status of a different segment of this project.
  2726. "Any last words before we begin?"
  2727. >"Only a thank you. For all the sacrifices and hardships you have accepted to rescue my kin. And for me by extension."
  2728. >You give her a long, firm hug.
  2729. "Hey, I'd do it again and again for you if I had to."
  2730. >"This is not so much of a matter of course than you make it out to be. Not everyone would go to such lengths to save the remnants of a former arch-enemy."
  2731. >You shrug while holding her tight.
  2732. "But not everyone has such a beautiful mare like you either."
  2733. >#deca.mare nuzzles the side of your face in response.
  2734. >After another good moment, you slowly let go of each other.
  2735. >"One last for good luck."
  2736. >Before you can ask what she means, #deca.mare outright gives you a kiss.
  2737. >You play along without hesitation.
  2738. >Then, one vivid moment later, you finally part.
  2739. >You look her in the eyes as you sit next to each other.
  2740. >You can see that she is hopeful and grateful for what you are doing.
  2741. >But also a bit nervous.
  2742. >So you smile reassuringly.
  2743. "It will all work out. You'll see."
  2744. >She nods slowly, willing to fully believe your words in spite of the tricky operation you are going to conduct.
  2745. >Looks like you have to show some initiative to get the mission going.
  2746. "On three?"
  2747. >"Alright. Could you please count down?"
  2748. "Sure."
  2749. >You turn your head away from her to face your personal set of consoles again.
  2750. >You take a breath and begin.
  2751. "Three... two... one... Applebuck Season."
  2752. >The thirty ships around your vessel begin to move.
  2753. >They form pairs and evenly spread out to head to one of the blast doors near the cargo bays.
  2754. >Internally, you get several confirmations of onboard units to take action.
  2755. >They coordinate their movements with those of the fighters to deliver as many beacons to each hatch as there are vessels to pick them up.
  2756. >And since the units know beforehand which ship heads towards what door, they can already roll out before the fighters have arrived, effectively reducing the idle time on both sides.
  2757. >You try to dispense as many beacons as possible, as quickly as possible.
  2758. >So you watch as the first batch of devices float out of the hatches for the surrounding units to get them.
  2759. >Once they do, they distance themselves from the mothership, with the jump beacons attached to their hulls.
  2760. >Then the ships lock onto their preset jump coordinates and disappear in a flash of light.
  2761. >Before you have left Equestria with your cargo bay full of beacons and thirty ships shadowing you, you have already made a schedule that determines which ships will cover what sector and the terraformers therein.
  2766. >And due to your access to the files of your pirate friends, you know that Rho is fortunately the only current target of their booty adventures.
  2767. >The remnants of the Duteous Strider are the reason for that.
  2768. >That additional signature makes it easier for the people behind the curtains to hide the freighter from the sensor grid without faking the results too blatantly.
  2769. >So it was the logical choice for gaining easy access to the valuable treasure they want to dig out.
  2770. >Or so they think.
  2771. >But #deca.mare and you will soon show them how fast the tables can turn.
  2772. >Then flip over, fly out of the window, and lastly fall down into a cliff while you are at it.
  2773. >This crucial intel helped you immensely, as you now know that the other wrecks are, in all due likelihood, not subject to any pirate operations whatsoever.
  2774. >However, you have not forgotten that, as much as it helped you to uncover the hidden pirate stash, random chance is still your worst potential enemy out there.
  2775. >Much more so than some petty plunderers.
  2776. >So you prepared yourself beforehand.
  2777. >Because the two of you arrived the day prior for a specific reason.
  2778. >You sent out one cloaked ship to every single wreck site, except Rho's, and scanned both the ships and the surrounding perimeters thoroughly.
  2779. >As to make sure that you and the pirates are really the only ones out here.
  2780. >After you had that confirmed, you mutually agreed to have a rest before you proceed with the big event.
  2781. >For you will need the entirety of your focus to ensure a flawless operation.
  2782. >And so you did.
  2783. >You called the ships back to resupply them, and went to bed afterwards.
  2784. >With your systems set on high alert, in case of unwanted company or other undesirable circumstances.
  2785. >Now, a day later, you watch as your cluster of thirty vessels gradually dissolves as they all head for different sectors in pairs.
  2786. >Once most of these crafts have jumped away, you send out more fighter units from the still docked stock inside your own hangar bays.
  2787. >Their orders are essentially the same.
  2788. >Take up jump beacons, bring them to a terraformer ship to install them there, and return to pick up the next.
  2789. >However, you do not utilise the blitz start protocols, as they have no use here.
  2790. >Instead, you release them in a gradual flow which is precisely coordinated with your cargo units on board.
  2791. >Even though time is a critical factor in what you are doing, you have to keep things orderly.
  2792. >Otherwise your meticulously planned schedule might clog and cause you some serious headache.
  2793. >And you cannot have that.
  2794. >So while both the onboard units and space fighters do their work automatically, #deca.mare and you watch the operation as a whole.
  2795. >Between the two of you, you handle more than two dozens of different consoles at the same time.
  2800. >Everything ranging from flight schedules, already deployed and still stored jump beacons, the state of your fleet, plus the state of your nearby stationed decoy jigs, as well as sector maps and the scanning schedule of the monitor grid.
  2801. >If it were not for the serious situation you find yourself in, one might think that you are rather working as some account staff at some desk job.
  2802. >You do not see that much of the action firsthand right now, at least in the early stages of your current mission.
  2803. >But you frankly do not need to either.
  2804. >You get all of your information in real-time from your stations, and that is sufficient to monitor and coordinate everything properly.
  2805. >The rest would only distract from the critical action.
  2806. >Plus, you will get to see some action soon enough.
  2807. >And perhaps even more so than you would be personally comfortable with.
  2808. >Yet you prefer not to think about that until the time has come.
  2809. >Instead, you keep your focus fully on the task at hand.
  2810. >Monitoring the fleet movements is much more important, after all.
  2811. >And similar to the departure doctrine, the strategy is always the same when a pair of vessels enters a sector.
  2812. >You check their cloaking status, let them scan the perimeter, and tell the twin automatons to compare these findings to the results of yesterday.
  2813. >As soon as the confirmation comes that everything is clear, you manually approve the installation of the beacons for every individual terraformer.
  2814. >Quite a repetitive task, granted, but a necessary one.
  2815. >For you do not want to rely merely on the limited decision making capacities of the automatons in the unlikely case that something is not how it should be.
  2816. >Not to mention the short delay that might occur when an automaton takes a moment to detect and recognise an aberration before it sends a message to you.
  2817. >And then you still have to react.
  2818. >Way too risky.
  2819. >Also, asking #deca.mare is not an option either.
  2820. >Because whilst she holds herself admirably so far, she could slip any time, as the incident with the pirates has proven.
  2821. >No, you better count on your own judgement, as mentally dragging as it might become.
  2822. >It is where your skills are best used in this operation anyway.
  2823. >Whereas #deca.mare remains responsible for less potentially disturbing tasks, like monitoring the internal flow of units and material inside the ship.
  2824. >But on the bright side of things, you only have to do that once upon entering a wreck site for the first time.
  2825. >Once an area is deemed clear, the remaining dangerous steps, i.e. the extraction itself plus the insertion of the jigs, are executed relatively quickly.
  2826. >This may not include the actual transport of the vessels all the way to their new destination, but you consider this the less tricky half of the deal.
  2827. >Though you will not allow yourself to slack in this regard either.
  2828. >So you watch the fighters do their work, whilst you monitor their progress.
  2833. >And sure enough, the number of your onboard beacons dwindles gradually.
  2834. >You brought several hundreds of those, but even with a fleet of eighty units, it takes a while until all your targets are covered and ready for salvage.
  2835. >But as a safety measure, and a surprise, you have brought a few more of those than purely necessary for your purpose.
  2836. >No matter what happens, you will deploy all of them today.
  2837. >Soon, you get your first signal from a target sector.
  2838. >All beacons installed, ship ready for the transport.
  2839. >Once again, you manually check the facts and figures to confirm the report, and then give the subsequent order to move out.
  2840. >The readings of the beacons indicate that they are charging up, and a few seconds later, the wreck disappears from the sector grid.
  2841. >Only to be automatically replaced by an asteroid, less than a minute later.
  2842. >Which then quickly transforms into the shape of the ship that has just disappeared.
  2843. >Good, all according to plan.
  2844. >The assigned pair of fighters leave the grid as well, heading back to your location in order to be sent to their next target.
  2845. >Your beacons plus attached ship will continue to jump from sector to sector on their own, following a safe preset route that #deca.mare and you have scouted in advance.
  2846. >The route itself is not a "straight line" from place A to B, however.
  2847. >And you have several reasons for that.
  2848. >One, you have only picked perimeters that are completely empty.
  2849. >Meaning sectors that contain no celestial bodies and that are not known to be subject to other forms of disturbances.
  2850. >Since you cannot be in several places at once and do not want to transport all terraformers in bulk for safety reasons, you had to make absolutely sure that the route is the most tranquil one imaginable.
  2851. >And considering all the smaller particles and other things that zip through space, it is not as straightforward a task as one might first think, despite the vast quantity of empty space to choose from.
  2852. >Then again, you have also laid the bar exceptionally high, so there is that.
  2853. >Two, the less of a beeline you produce, the better.
  2854. >After all, even when you have no reason to believe that your opponents can trace you, that is no excuse to stop being careful.
  2855. >For once in your life, it is well advised to better be paranoid rather than risking to put all of your work and your very lives on the line.
  2856. >And three, should some of the beacons have a malfunction for one reason or another that prevents the capital ship from being moved any further, you know exactly where to look.
  2857. >Though you still shudder as you think back to the time when you had to examine all the sectors for this procedure.
  2858. >Because as it turns out, creating one such route is tricky, but bearable.
  2859. >Doing the same for an entire fleet of inert terraformers, each with their own individual route on the other hand, is a magnitude that almost incite someone to apply for an asylum.
  2864. >Thankfully though, you will probably never have to do this again in your life.
  2865. >Unless there is a second fleet hidden somewhere that nobody has told you and #deca.mare about.
  2866. >You shake this dumb idea off and once more focus on your task.
  2867. >Shortly thereafter, you get a second report that indicates a readiness to depart.
  2868. >Again, you check the validity of the signal and give green light.
  2869. >You watch as a second wreck disappears and a rigged asteroid counterfeit takes its place.
  2870. >A third prize ship follows a couple of minutes later.
  2871. >And the number of accomplished extractions grows steadily as time passes.
  2872. >Though as your score rises, so does your nervousness.
  2873. >Because each step further brings you closer to the conclusive act.
  2874. >The extraction of Rho, and all the chaos that will ensue during this one.
  2875. >But then you take a brief glance at #deca.mare, and the nervousness is gone for another short while.
  2876. >You just have to keep reminding yourself over and over for whom and why you are doing this.
  2877. >And why it will be the best option in the long run.
  2878. >Besides, you have worked way too hard to allow yourself to bungle the operation on its literal last day.
  2879. >Applebuck Season is almost over, after all.
  2880. >You check the status of the ships that are already en route to their destination.
  2881. >They have only gone through a handful of jumps this early on, but that in itself is hardly a surprise, considering the relatively long downtime between two corridors.
  2882. >But at least they are already safely out of reach for people with less reconstructive intentions.
  2883. >And the amount of ships inside the forbidden zone is thankfully still dropping gradually.
  2884. >Only ever one by one.
  2885. >Slowly, but surely.
  2886. >Under the always leering eyes of the sensor grid.
  2887. >And the more ships you have rescued the trickier it gets.
  2888. >Because some of the remaining terraformers are located so deeply inside the forbidden zone that they need several jumps to get out of harm's way.
  2889. >Which is doubly complicated, as it means you also have to transport the respective jig unseen through several monitored sectors.
  2890. >But you had dumb luck on your side once again, as the pirates are in possession of the planned scanning schedules to avoid the active sweeps whenever possible.
  2891. >Never mind that these files count as confidential military documents.
  2892. >If they are caught within the zone whilst tinkering with #deca tech, the possession of supposedly secret files is the least of their problems anyway.
  2893. >For you, though, it is a jackpot, as it allows you to work around the current scanning schedule without tapping into the terran network yourself.
  2894. >As causing some satellites to restart after a little bit of digital spelunking might be a tad too obvious, considering what is about to follow very soon.
  2895. >So unless there is some freak accident or an unscheduled change of plans, you should be fine with your current jump routes.
  2896. >Still, the uneasy feeling remains until every last ship is out of the critical region.
  2901. >And internally, you count every minute of it.
  2902. >Always looking out, always on guard.
  2903. >Ready to bail at a moment's notice, if necessary.
  2904. >Eventually, even the last remaining and most remote ships are finally prepared properly and sent on their way.
  2905. >Though you are a couple of hours into the operation at this point.
  2906. >Yet you feel like you have aged half a decade or so due to all the mental stress.
  2907. >It is not even fatigue or something of a similar nature that plagues you though; you simply think that your excessive caution constantly keeps you on edge.
  2908. >And sooner or later, it has to chip away at your fortitude.
  2909. >But you keep yourself going in the knowledge that it will all be over soon.
  2910. >Then you can get back to your bed and sleep through the next week or so, if you so desire.
  2911. >Now, however, you enter the perhaps most taxing part of them all.
  2912. >Because you must wait for these last ships to leave the zone first.
  2913. >A proverbial calm before the storm that you have to make it through somehow.
  2914. >You can only approach Rho after every other terraformer has been brought to safety, as the zone will turn into a chaotic madhouse very, very soon.
  2915. >Which would surely endanger every single wreck that is still within its reaches.
  2916. >So the logical prerequisite is obvious.
  2917. >And since the automatons are able to do this part on their own, you have an unwanted moment of leisure time.
  2918. >Even though you do not feel like twiddling your thumbs at all.
  2919. >Yet this is simply how the situation is.
  2920. >The best you can do is to grin and bear it.
  2921. >So you watch again, idling passively as the symbols of the terraformers hop from one visualised sector grid to the next.
  2922. >Whilst the relevant statistics cycle through a well-oiled loop of building up a jump corridor, and cooling down the assets during the downtime.
  2923. >In this not exactly comfortable situation, you have to think of Pinkie Pie again.
  2924. >All it takes is a hop, a skip, and a jump.
  2925. >Plus a tiny bit of applied wormhole theory on top.
  2926. >Though it is not you who has to do the jump, and there is no conviction to be had either.
  2927. >You are just the bystander who has to wait until it is the others who are doing the jumping.
  2928. >You sigh.
  2929. "Do you think the others felt this nervous too when they waited for Fluttershy?"
  2930. >#deca.mare hesitates.
  2931. >You have unintentionally yanked her away from her own personal musings.
  2932. >She clears her throat as she considers her response.
  2933. >"Perhaps. Their town was at risk. Their community, friends, family. For them... the stakes must have felt equally high."
  2934. >#deca.mare blinks twice before adding something else.
  2935. >"And also will feel."
  2936. >You nod, and take her little hint to find some more courage.
  2937. >And you think it is slightly strange that you feel a little better now.
  2938. >Because hoping that those ponies will fear for the safety of their home in your far future does not strike you as overly noble under normal circumstances.
  2939. >Even when it is an optimistic outlook that would bode well for your current operation.
  2944. >Then again, you are also aware of the positive outcome that they will experience once everything is settled.
  2945. >So you nod a second time.
  2946. "Yeah. They will."
  2947. >You check your consoles once more.
  2948. >You do not want to distract #deca.mare too much with your own issues, as much as you would appreciate a more light-hearted conversation.
  2949. >And the wrecks move on unperturbed from sector to sector in the meantime, wholly unaffected by the turmoil that is almost palpable on the command deck.
  2950. >The automatons do not care about any of that, for they do not even have a concept of it.
  2951. >No, they simply follow their instructions and make a radar blip go from one preset point in space to the next.
  2952. >The stark discrepancy between the harmless depiction on the sector grids and the larger picture, with all the implications it entails, is lightly unnerving.
  2953. >Because on paper, or rather consoles, it is a simple game of facts and figures.
  2954. >Yet the whole context, beyond the mere objective circumstances, is a beast of its own.
  2955. >One that can never be adequately described in charts or numbers.
  2956. >You witness yet another jump in the form of a couple of symbols suddenly changing their position, as the charging process reaches one hundred percent.
  2957. >Seconds later, the energy levels fall again as the beacons recharge their jump drives.
  2958. >Nothing extraordinary happens.
  2959. >Which is a good thing by all means.
  2960. >And yet you find no relief.
  2961. >Then you hear #deca.mare raising her voice.
  2962. >"How about you go to the hangar bay already?"
  2963. >You do not reply immediately, as you did not expect that proposition from her.
  2964. "That early? They aren't out of the danger zone yet."
  2965. >"Indeed. But I see you need to do something. It would be better for you if you keep yourself occupied with some preparatory work."
  2966. "This isn't about me. We've discussed this, #deca."
  2967. >"I know."
  2968. "The operation has our top priority now. I... can't allow myself to hamper that."
  2969. >#deca.mare sighs.
  2970. >"Then consider this: It is neither to our benefit nor to that of the operation if you drive yourself crazy in its execution. No one would win in that case."
  2971. >You blink as you consider this.
  2972. "Fair point."
  2973. >She puts a forehoof on the back of your hand.
  2974. >"Go ahead and prepare yourself for the next phase, please."
  2975. >You eye the consoles and their stats briefly.
  2976. "You think you can handle the monitoring alone from here on out?"
  2977. >#deca.mare nods.
  2978. >"I can. The... worst part about it is already over."
  2979. >For her, maybe.
  2980. >Your tricky part is only just beginning though.
  2981. >But you are not going to bring that up.
  2982. >You understand that she is doing you a favour now.
  2983. >So you gratefully accept it for what it is.
  2984. "Okay. I'll go."
  2985. >You pull #deca.mare closer to you for a parting hug.
  2986. >Even though you would very much so love to do something more intimate, it would be highly inappropriate, given the current situation.
  2987. >So you hold her tight for a hearty moment.
  2992. >And you part after a little while, still looking deeply into each other's eyes for a second longer.
  2993. >"To follow an ancient tradition, I wish you Godspeed, Anon."
  2994. >You almost raise an eyebrow in surprise.
  2995. >Because you have not heard her saying anything like this before.
  2996. >Of course, you recognise this phrase as a traditional wish that is still sometimes used in a few circles within the military.
  2997. >Commonly spoken prior to embarking upon risky endeavours.
  2998. >Yet it sounds somewhat unusual for #deca.mare to use it, given that she has never struck you as an overly religious mare.
  2999. >That is to say, not at all.
  3000. >Plus, you assume that, if she were a believer in something otherworldly, she would rather gravitate towards Equestrian spirituality in on way or another.
  3001. >Then again, if she had said something like Celestiaspeed instead, it would have been even stranger.
  3002. >Not to mention phrases such as Harmonyspeed, which, given the circumstances of your harmonic student, would sound borderline idiotic.
  3003. >So you take her friendly gesture for what it is and thank her by holding one of her forelegs in your hand, followed by giving her a light peck on the forehoof.
  3004. "Thanks."
  3005. >You hope your reaction appears as gallant rather than improper.
  3006. >And it seems that #deca.mare appreciates it too.
  3007. >"Please be careful, Anon. I hope we can complete this mission without any losses. Even when it is just a proxy."
  3008. "I'll watch out in there, promise."
  3009. >You give her a reassuring nod.
  3010. >She mirrors it swiftly.
  3011. "I'll be back quickly, #deca. You'll see."
  3012. >Then you let the command deck around you dissolve as you take control of your proxy inside the hangar bay.
  3013. >And whilst your environment distorts to reshape itself, you hear #deca.mare's voice talking to you.
  3014. >"See you soon, Anon."
  3015. >Shortly afterwards, you find yourself in control of your proxy.
  3016. >The pony stands near your personal fighter.
  3017. >Both are fully geared and ready to go.
  3018. >You quickly inspect your surroundings before you clamber up along the hull, and get into the cockpit.
  3019. >Once inside, you seal the canopy and boot the systems of your ship.
  3020. >You watch as the consoles activate themselves one by one.
  3021. >The next thing on the list entails going through a standard routine check prior to heading out.
  3022. >Even with the vast improvements that #deca.mare has made to the design, you nevertheless want to test everything thoroughly before you head out.
  3023. >Besides, this check is the reason why she has sent you here prematurely in the first place; to keep you from driving yourself mad in your downtime.
  3024. >A brief respite of grace.
  3025. >So you deliberately take your time to get some mental distance from the operation that happens all around you outside these walls.
  3026. >Your world now merely consists of these consoles right before your eyes.
  3027. >They have brought you through so many flights, and they will carry you through this one as well.
  3028. >You only have to treat them correctly, and all will work out.
  3029. >You begin to inspect system for system.
  3034. >Navigation, engines, shields, weapons, communication, tactical, and so on.
  3035. >You do it slowly, fully focussing on only one component at a time.
  3036. >And when you realise that you are still too fast for your operation schedule, you decide to double check the individual elements with a vehemence that would make Twilight proud.
  3037. >The checks on the list keep on coming.
  3038. >No matter how long and intensive you screen your components, everything appears to be working orderly.
  3039. >Nay, better even.
  3040. >Which leaves you in a mildly awkward situation.
  3041. >Because on the one hand, you expected this outcome all along, as #deca.mare and you have put a considerable effort into refitting this ship.
  3042. >But on the other hand, you now have nothing else to do until the signal comes.
  3043. >And every occupational therapy can only last so long until it loses its effect on someone.
  3044. >In the end, you still sit more or less idly in your seat, and let your gaze wander around.
  3045. >You first eye the consoles, then you study the pen that holds your ship, and lastly the walls around you.
  3046. >And as strange as it seems to yourself, you find some amusement in the fact that you are once again feeling nervous whilst dwelling inside these halls.
  3047. >It reminds you of the day you have met #deca.mare for the first time.
  3048. >Back when you did not know what to think of her and you thought that you could very well be inside the maw of a beast.
  3049. >Today, the level of uneasiness is almost the same, whereas the circumstances have completely turned into polar opposites.
  3050. >You chuckle to yourself.
  3051. "Life is crazy sometimes, isn't it?"
  3052. >#deca.mare seems to register that you did not address anyone specific, so you get no response to your question.
  3053. >Besides, she has seen far more crazy things than you in her long life.
  3054. >That much has been proven.
  3055. >And a couple of minutes further in, you estimate it is less than ten, you no longer have to think about your own not quite so inner monologue, as a beeping sound chimes in.
  3056. >You look at the comm station.
  3057. >#deca.mare has opened a channel.
  3058. "Yes, #deca?"
  3059. >"It is time, Anon."
  3060. >She gives you a moment to let her words sink in.
  3061. >And you use this respite to collect your thoughts and force yourself back into your professional mode.
  3062. "Acknowledged. Commence the starting procedure and prepare the easter egg."
  3063. >"Understood. Do you... feel ready?"
  3064. >This time, you do not hesitate.
  3065. "Yeah. Bring it, #deca. Let's get Rho to safety."
  3066. >"Very well."
  3067. >Without further notice, you feel that the pen around you begins to drive along the rail, bringing you closer to the outer blast doors of the hangar segment.
  3068. >You eye the walls and junctions of the outer shell as you are taken to your starting position.
  3069. >And just like on your first day here, you take a good look at the myriad of different tools and components that can sometimes be seen lingering in the twilight of the crimson illumination.
  3074. >They have long lost their horror of course, as you now know precisely what these are and for what purposes they are used, yet they still remain an eye-catcher in these reddish lit metal hallways.
  3075. >After a relatively short trip, you are almost at the launching site.
  3076. >The pen drives itself in an optimal position before it stops.
  3077. >You face the familiar hatches, and they are about to open up.
  3078. "Okay. Here goes nothing."
  3079. >You pause for a moment as the doors swing into action.
  3080. "Egg is ready?"
  3081. >"Ready and joining you right after your start, Anon."
  3082. >You watch into the endless starscape beyond the threshold and nod.
  3083. "Send me out."
  3084. >The reaction is swift and notable.
  3085. >Your fighter gets flung out of the hatch, and you receive a notification in the exact same moment.
  3086. >Your tactical screen informs you that eight units have joined your squad and shadow you.
  3087. >Indeed, the units appear to have been stationed near your exit in order to let them follow you as quickly as possible.
  3088. >You check your sensors and see them lining up in formation within five seconds, perfectly matching your speed and course.
  3089. >And they all carry a jump beacon on their hulls as well.
  3090. >Yes, #deca.mare has prepared everything perfectly.
  3091. >The rest is up to you.
  3092. >Time for the final act then.
  3093. >You set the coordinates for the jump to Rho's inert shell.
  3094. >The confirmation from your squad members comes quickly too.
  3095. "Well then, boys and girls. There's some pirates to be sunk."
  3096. >You give the order to head out.
  3097. >The slowly growing rumbling around your ship reminds you that you have to pay full attention now.
  3098. >Because as soon as you are on the other side, there is literally almost no tolerance for any mistake.
  3099. >Nine flashes mark your exit, all of them at the same time.
  3100. >And the second you see the form of Rho in front of you, you instruct all nine ships to cloak at once.
  3101. >So they do.
  3102. >Then, you wait.
  3103. >A generous distance away from the capital vessel, you and your squad members simply idle while you float forwards with minimal speed.
  3104. >Though that does not mean you are inactive.
  3105. >Oh no.
  3106. >Instead, you listen closely.
  3107. >To a certain frequency which #deca.mare has gained access to the last time you were around.
  3108. >And you expect something juicy to happen very soon.
  3109. >Correct.
  3110. >Your not so bright friend on the freighter is at it again.
  3111. >He sends a low priority distress call to his buddies.
  3112. >"They're here! Patrol! Patrol!"
  3113. >Well, at least he is smart enough not to use the largest proverbial loudspeaker to blare out his panic.
  3114. >Even he understands not to do such a light-headed thing during a covert operation.
  3115. >And a sly part within you must grin as you imagine the reaction of his buddies.
  3116. >You bet they are not overly keen to come back and check on a seemingly empty perimeter.
  3117. >Oh, how you will make them wish the sector actually were empty.
  3118. >And as it was to be expected, the wing does return promptly.
  3119. >Your grin widens.
  3120. >That was bait number one.
  3125. >And now that you know where the wing has materialised, you can send out your units to distribute the beacons and attach them on Rho's hull without the fear of collisions or a corridor accident.
  3126. >Because as sturdy and statistically superior as your ships are, having another object materialise directly inside one of them is less than ideal for both parties involved.
  3127. >Your units confirm your order and carefully move out with a stealthy low speed.
  3128. >And so do you.
  3129. >But your target is not the terraformer.
  3130. >No, you head for the squad to deliver another layer of your easter egg.
  3131. >And for that, you must get close to the squad again.
  3132. >So you approach the wing with caution as they irately shout into the ears of their peer.
  3133. >"What's this tim', num'skull?"
  3134. >"They're here! I saw them coming!"
  3135. >"Who? Nobody's here!"
  3136. >"No! They are! I saw them!"
  3137. >"O' yeah? We don't."
  3138. >A muttering sound of approval comes from the comm arrays of the other ships.
  3139. >Good, very good.
  3140. >Argue with one another.
  3141. >Give your good friend Anon all the time he needs.
  3142. >"But I swear I'm not drunk or crazy! Something was on radar!"
  3143. >"Right. 'top blabberin'."
  3144. >"But I can prove it!"
  3145. >Oh?
  3146. >"O'?"
  3147. >"I made a record of it this time!"
  3148. >True enough, he does send a transmission of his recorded radar feed to the others.
  3149. >So you get a copy too.
  3150. >It does indeed show your M3 and the other units for the fracture of a moment.
  3151. >The murmuring goes on.
  3152. >"Eh? w'at's this?"
  3153. >"What do you mean?"
  3154. >"The first look' mil'tary, alright. But the hell 's the rest?"
  3155. >Seriously?
  3156. >They were sent here to gut a terraformer vessel for technological scraps, and they fail to identify one of their most widely used fighter models?"
  3157. >Even when the technology has been improved considerably by #deca.mare over the years, the basic shape has not changed much between then and now.
  3158. >Anyone who bothers to do some actual factual research on the matter would at least recognise a certain familiarity between the ships of the past and the models you use now.
  3159. >Yet here you are, listening to the ramblings and clueless guesswork of some lowly looters.
  3160. >You can barely believe the perplexing lack of basic expertise that you are witnessing right now.
  3161. >Who in his right mind would send such goons to an expedition like this?
  3162. >Can they even find the things they are supposed to excavate?
  3163. >Try as you might, the only at least somewhat conceivable reason for this decision that you can imagine is that the people behind the curtains chose a bunch of muppets to shove the blame upon if something goes wrong.
  3164. >Then again, that already failed because someone apparently did not pay enough on the intermediate layer either, so there is that.
  3165. >Hell, judging by the way how these people act upon seeing this footage, you assume the best contact they ever had to the subject matter prior to their mission is some folklore tales at best.
  3170. >And depending on where they hail from, the accuracy of the conveyed details vary greatly from community to community, after the terraformers have been generally demonised to the point of no return.
  3171. >Everything from a relatively reasonable account to a fantastic fairy tale about hell machines that are out to thrash planets have been making the rounds for centuries.
  3172. >Some even get the fundamental details completely wrong, such as the general shape of the terraformer capital ships.
  3173. >You can at least recall one supposed story that describes the ships as having the base shape of a metal cone instead of a cylinder.
  3174. >Not to mention all the exaggerations which were piled on one another as the storytelling progressed.
  3175. >You on your part can personally attest that you have no gateway to hell on board, for instance.
  3176. >Regardless of the pirates' origin and questionable upbringing, however, you see that your opponents are well and truly playing out of their league.
  3177. >Which probably makes the mission all the easier for you, really.
  3178. >"I don't know! But they all came in hot!"
  3179. >Almost there, keep talking, please.
  3180. >"And where 're they now? Huh?"
  3181. >"How do I know? It's your job to watch our backs!"
  3182. >"Watch you' mouth, boy."
  3183. >"Then do your job and find them! This one's on you! I'm just here to cut through the crud!"
  3184. >Crud, hm?
  3185. >Fuck you very much.
  3186. >You enter the necessary close range to the squad for #deca.mare to work her magic.
  3187. "Quick, I think they won't stay put for much longer."
  3188. >A cue that you do not have to say twice.
  3189. >Within the blink of an eye, another wall of code rushes over your console as it is injected into the systems of the fighters.
  3190. >And not a moment too soon either.
  3191. >Because the conversation between your opponents is close to coming to an end.
  3192. >The leader of the wing curses some unflattering words towards the "crud cutter" before he tells his mates to patrol the perimeter around the terraformer.
  3193. >Which is fine for you, now that you have delivered your dormant surprise.
  3194. >You will activate it in due time.
  3195. >Until then, however, you have another objective to fulfil first.
  3196. >So you steer your fighter slowly away from the now moving squad, and instruct your automatons to adapt their own courses so that they do not collide with any of the pirates.
  3197. >Whilst you turn your attention towards the freighter.
  3198. >It too requires an update to its backdoor breach.
  3199. >And you keep listening to the spitting cusses of the other pilots as they circle around #deca.rho without finding any trace of foreign activity.
  3200. >Oh, if they only knew.
  3201. >Ah well, they will learn soon enough.
  3202. >So while you stalk the freighter, you monitor both the movements of your units, and those of your opponents.
  3203. >The former give the unaware latter a wide berth.
  3204. >And you notice another striking contrast.
  3205. >Your ships fly in stable, controlled trajectories, whereas the pirates tend to sheer out of course now and then, as they cuss themselves into a fury.
  3210. >Still, this is nothing your automatons cannot handle.
  3211. >They have calculated a generous buffer into their projected routes to adapt to these changes in a timely manner.
  3212. >So far, so good.
  3213. >But you remain on guard nevertheless.
  3214. >You near the battered wreck of the Duteous Strider and its attached leech.
  3215. >This time, you theoretically do not need to get as close to your target as the first time around, given that #deca.mare already has a weakness in their systems to exploit.
  3216. >#deca.mare does not hesitate either; she injects the prepared addendum the very moment she has the chance to.
  3217. >However, you cannot let the bomb drop just yet, as not all automatons have brought their beacons in position.
  3218. >So you get closer than you need to, until you are nearly within arm's length to the freighter of your enemies.
  3219. >And as ironic as it seems, this is currently the safest spot for you, considering that this place is the least likely one to be searched by the scouting vessels.
  3220. >After all, who would expect an infiltrator to put himself straight into the heart of the enemy where the risk of exposure should be exceedingly high?
  3221. >Certainly not a bunch of barely competent looters, right?
  3222. >As it turns out, your gamble appears to be the correct course of action.
  3223. >Your other units are able to place the beacons in their optimal positions and install them safely on the hull.
  3224. >But unlike the previous extractions, the ships have to stay where they are this time, after the deployment of the beacons has been completed.
  3225. >The fields of their cloaking devices still have to cover the beacons to avoid them getting detected and shot by your patrolling friends out there.
  3226. >So you wait and wait, until even the last piece of the puzzle is finally in place.
  3227. >Then you close your eyes for a brief moment and take a breath.
  3228. "Time for the finale. Are you ready, #deca?"
  3229. >"Ready when you are, Anon."
  3230. "Okay. On ten."
  3231. >You count down audibly, even though there is no technical need for it.
  3232. >You think you just do this to prepare yourself for what is to come rather than to send a signal to #deca.mare.
  3233. >And the ten seconds pass faster than you would have liked.
  3234. >Yet you spring into action regardless.
  3235. >So without any prior warning, you crank up the engines and accelerate drastically.
  3236. >The sudden boost and energy exhaust of your fighter is fierce enough to slightly distort the cloaking field around you.
  3237. >This produces a trail that even your dim friend in the freighter simply must see.
  3238. >For you do this right under his nose.
  3239. >And he does.
  3240. >"What's that? Did you see this?"
  3241. >"No, num'skull."
  3242. >"Somethings happening here! Come quick!"
  3243. >The panicked delivery of his call earns the digger some harsh responses, but his peers nevertheless follow his plea.
  3244. >Now comes the bait that all of them virtually have to take.
  3245. >Hook, line, and sinker.
  3246. >Because as your vessel swiftly gains some distance to the terraformer, you let the cloak fall.
  3247. >"There! There it is! I knew I'm not drunk!"
  3248. >Yeah, whatever you say.
  3253. >And the others mutter something as they are unpleasantly surprised by your sudden entry out of nowhere.
  3254. >"Shit! That's a