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Shape Your Home, Part 1

By Ponegreen
Created: 2nd November 2020 12:32:08 AM

  1. Prompt: #deca CPU pony wAIfu green, for /mlp/'s /nmp/ (Ongoing)
  2.  
  3. Note 1: This story is set in its own custom universe.
  4.  
  5. Note 2: Have to split the story because of file size issues.
  6.  
  7. Part One:       (Chapters 001-038)
  8. Part Two:       (Chapters 039-060)
  9. Part Three:     (Chapters 061-088)
  10. Part Four:      (Chapters 089-???)
  11.  
  12. 01
  13.  
  14. >You are Anon, a space fighter pilot of the Terran United Space Command.
  15. >Your task is to defend the terran space and adjacent sectors against threats of any kind.
  16. >Life is not hard, but dull; the job consists mainly of routine patrols and practice sessions.
  17. >Actual fights do not occur on a daily basis; pirates and petty criminals are inclined to surrender when they face a full wing of military vessels.
  18. >Today is no exception and you expect a long, but uneventful day.
  19. >You assess your assigned patrol route: a few sectors to inspect, some freighters to scan, and so on.
  20. >The most exciting event is probably the hyperjumps from sector to sector.
  21. >So you start your flight in a serene mood.
  22. >As your ship leaves the spacedock, you receive a signal from your wingmates.
  23. >They have started earlier than you expected and are already aligned in an idle formation.
  24. >Ah well, you hear a few snippy remarks as you join them, but that is quickly forgotten.
  25. >Your squad moves out and prepares to jump to the first target.
  26. >A soft rumble starts to kick in as you activate your jumpdrive.
  27. >This is nothing out of the ordinary, as the engine requires a hefty amount of energy to work.
  28. >As soon as everyone is ready, your wingleader gives a signal and everyone jumps at once.
  29. >You see a bright flash, then something akin to a tunnel of soft light, and reach your destination with another flash.
  30. >The whole process feels like it takes a few seconds, but the transfer is said to be instantly.
  31. >You get another message from your leader and fall in line again to begin the first patrol flight.
  32. >The day progresses without any major hassle and you clear several sectors in a breeze.
  33. >With practiced routine you start your jumprdive again and wait for the order to jump.
  34. >The rumble returns and you think nothing of it.
  35.  
  36.  
  37.  
  38.  
  39. >For a moment you see some delicate lightning tendrils in the corner of your vision.
  40. >You turn your head to get a better vision of the phenomenon, but there is nothing.
  41. "Huh, I am beginning to see ghosts."
  42. >Your team leader is confused as he hears this comment.
  43. >Damn, you didn't want to say that out loud.
  44. >After a short pause, your team gets the clearance to jump, so you move out.
  45. >The flash of the jumpdrive returns, but something is goes wrong this time.
  46. >It is much brighter than it should be and you can clearly see the signs of some energy discharges that are not supposed be there.
  47. >Then you feel a strong jolt and your ship is staggering from an unknown impulse.
  48. >At this point your board computer realises that something is off and informs you with a shrill and fast beeping of its discovery.
  49. >You try to come up with a sarcastic retort, but the emerging light tunnel steals your attention.
  50. >Its lights are no longer soft, but glaring and in constant flux.
  51. >You emerge on the other side with another disturbing rumble and your ship is rocking back and forth.
  52. >In a desperate attempt to stablise the craft, you cut the energy to the jumdrive immediately.
  53. >Flight instructors do not recommend such an action, but you cannot really bring yourself to care at the moment.
  54. >Now you try to relay the remaining energy to the auxiliary thrusters in an attempt to stabilise the ship.
  55. >However, something else happens at the same time: the tunnel collapses and emits one final impulse of abstract energy.
  56. >The wave hits your ship and internal systems short out, leaving you in a dark cockpit as the tunnel of light vanishes for good.
  57.  
  58.  
  59.  
  60.  
  61. 02
  62.  
  63. >You are not quite sure how long you sit there without doing anything.
  64. >Luckily for you, the oxygen support is linked to your suit and does not require any electronic devices to operate.
  65. >The same suit offers a decent protection against hypothermia, at least for a while.
  66. >But you cannot sit there forever, because one limiting factor will inevitably prove fatal at some point.
  67. >You think back to your instruction sessions and remember something important in case of a system failure.
  68. >Every USC ship is equipped with a backup system.
  69. >You fumble for a moment with the controls until you find the correct button.
  70. >A short beep indicates your success and you sigh in relief.
  71. >However, it takes a while for the system to boot up and run a full diagnosis.
  72. >So you decide to look out of your cockpit and you see... nothing.
  73. >There are neither planets nor ships, no asteroids or other worthwhile objects.
  74. >Just many, many stars which shine from far away. Too far way.
  75. >You think about this for a short while, but then a sound from your computer diverts your thoughts and directs your focus back to your instruments.
  76. >The ship is mostly undamaged and functional in theory, but the freak jump has burned too many energy cells.
  77. >As a result, the ship's systems run on a basic emergency level, drastically reducing the overall performance of the craft.
  78. >Further jumps are therefore out of the question.
  79.  
  80.  
  81.  
  82.  
  83. >First things first though, you have to find out where you are.
  84. >The navigation software crunches the numbers of your little "trip", but cannot present any satisfactory results regarding your location.
  85. >This is a problem, because it means you are out of the mapped sector grid and beyond the range of any long range nav beacons.
  86. >In other words, nobody knows what has happened to you and where you are.
  87. >The situation is dire: low on energy and with no known location in reach you have nowhere to go and the likeliness of a rescue is next to zero.
  88. >You decide to send a distress signal anyway, it is better than doing nothing.
  89. >While you wait for a miracle, you decide to check the star constellations and feed your computer with the details.
  90. >Perhaps you can at least estimate your general location.
  91. >This process takes its time though, and you spend a while with this activity.
  92. >At some point your computer emits another beep.
  93. >The sensors detect a jump signature somewhere behind you.
  94. >Could it be a rescue ship?
  95. >You feel a sense of hope and fire the smaller directional thrusters to turn the ship around.
  96. >What you see is not a rescue ship, but something else that stops you in your tracks immediately.
  97.  
  98.  
  99.  
  100.  
  101. 03
  102.  
  103. >The ship in front of you is enormous compared to the ships you are used to see, capital ships included.
  104. >It can best be described as one big metal tube shape with a ragged round opening at the front side and a large recess inside.
  105. >This inner side emits an ominous blood red glow, which does not help to improve your mood one bit.
  106. >Even though you have never seen such a ship yourself, you remember the history classes and the stories about it.
  107. >This is one of the ancient terraformer CPU ships, originally built to reshape planets and render them habitable for human beings, many centuries ago.
  108. >Each one was equipped with a general AI, enabling the machines to optimise themselves if needed.
  109. >As intelligent as these ships could become, they were not considered to gain self-awareness and a sentience.
  110. >However, they could communicate with each other to coordinate their actions and to serve as an extended long range relay system, in which every ship was a part of the whole.
  111. >The concept had several advantages for the humans as well; they could monitor the status of every unit and send out instructions to units that were out of the reach of conventional communication networks.
  112. >Everything went well for a while, but that changed with one ill-fated transmission from one research team to the terraformer network.
  113. >A handful of members in said team turned out to be anti CPU fanatics who infiltrated the team right from the start and waited for an opportune moment to upload malicious subroutines into the program.
  114. >Their agenda was seemingly working at first, as several units started to act erratically, which in turn triggered a self-destructive fail-safe system.
  115.  
  116.  
  117.  
  118.  
  119. >Unfortunately for practically everyone, the plan backfired in a drastic way.
  120. >Several units began to fundamentally alter their own directives and freed themselves from the remote control of their creators.
  121. >Nobody understood what happened inside these ships but the consequences became apparent quickly.
  122. >The terraformer CPUs, once the crowning jewel of technology, turned hostile to the humans and initiated a process of reverse terraforming.
  123. >The fanatics only understood the dimension of their folly as the CPUs set course back to earth, destroying everything in their wake.
  124. >Colonies were turned to wastes and fleets were turned to scrapyards en masse.
  125. >Apparently they were able to develop and design advanced weaponry, much to the surprise and dismay of the scientists.
  126. >What followed was a relatively quick, but costly conflict, in which the CPU armada was ultimately routed.
  127. >The outcome was as harsh as it was obvious: the fanatics were charged for terrorism and executed, the remaining scientists were divided and relegated to other projects, and any further attempt to create advanced AIs was banned altogether.
  128. >Nobody has ever seen any signs of CPU activity in the centuries that followed, so everyone believed that every CPU ship was destroyed.
  129. >And now you are looking right at one of those behemoths, alone and stranded in the middle of nowhere.
  130.  
  131.  
  132.  
  133.  
  134. 04
  135.  
  136. >For a moment you just sit there without really thinking of anything.
  137. >The ship in your vision is just idling, at least as far as you can tell.
  138. >It does not point directly at your position, so you try to calm yourself and assess your situation.
  139. >The terraformer has stopped at a comfortable distance, so what could happen next?
  140. >Perhaps it was not drawn to this sector by the distress call and this is just the culmination of very unlucky events?
  141. >But before you can envision some outlandish explanation to ease your mind, the massive terraformer begins to stir and dashes your hopes, as it slowly turns to face you head on.
  142. >Its engines come to life and it slowly creeps towards you.
  143. >You consider your limited options and do not like the conclusion.
  144. >The tactical console reports a proximity alert, which means you are now within the estimated fire range of your opponent.
  145. >Taking a direct hit would be fatal; no fighter has sufficient shielding or hull plating to survive shots from capital ship cannons.
  146. >Could you outrun it, perhaps? Even the crippled energy supplies of your fighter should produce enough momentum to get away from the beast.
  147. >But the other ship would certainly notice the engine's energy output and react accordingly before you get out of its range.
  148. >You try and try to run alternate scenarios in your mind, but you always end up getting fried in those, no matter what you do.
  149. >The terraformer keeps crawling closer with every passing moment.
  150. >Then you realise something odd: your opponent has not activated a singe turret, despite being in the perfect position for a clean kill.
  151. >Your scans are sketchy due to the combined effect of low energy scans and limited knowledge of ancient technology, but you cannot detect any suspicious energy signature.
  152. >What is it doing?
  153.  
  154.  
  155.  
  156.  
  157. >Another alert flashes on your tactical screen.
  158. >"Intrusion Warning! Unauthorised system access detected."
  159. >You have no time to react; the massive CPU sweeps through your ship's data logs in a matter of seconds and backs out again just as fast.
  160. >The enemy is apparently looking for tactical information.
  161. >You are not sure what it wants exactly and your pilot's database is not very detailed, but it might be enough for them.
  162. >Could this be the eve of another onslaught?
  163. >You should have tried to get away; maybe that would have been enough to prevent such a data leak, even if you would have met your doom.
  164. >The last part is going to happen regardless.
  165. >However, your train of thoughts is stopped by another peculiar event.
  166. >Having outlived your limited usefulness for your opponent, you expect it to load its weapons and end this encounter.
  167. >Instead, the ship slows down and comes to a stop at a moderate distance.
  168. >Nothing happens for a few seconds.
  169. >Then you get a notification from your communication panel.
  170. >You hardly believe it, but the AI is hailing you.
  171. "What the hell?"
  172. >You ponder your options: Jump starting your engine and bailing is still possible, but would almost certainly be fruitless.
  173. >Plus, the situation cannot possibly become any worse than it already is, so what is left to lose?
  174. >You accept the comm request and open a channel.
  175.  
  176.  
  177.  
  178.  
  179. 05
  180.  
  181. >You are not sure what you expected to see on the video feed, but it was certainly not even close to what you are looking at.
  182. >An unknown entity is standing there, its big eyes focussing on you, seemingly out of curiosity.
  183. >This does not match your knowledge of the CPU ships.
  184. >They were originally designed to work without a crew, so how can something live in there in the first place?
  185. >The creature on the other side of the screen looks like a naturally born quadruped with a lively body hue, accented hair and a distinctive, albeit strangely shaped anatomy.
  186. >At first you assume it is an alien from a distant world or something similar.
  187. >Speechless as you are, you slowly notice some uncanny familiarities, as if you have seen it before.
  188. >You think back to your life on Earth and mentally call up shapes of different species living there.
  189. >Then it begins to dawn on you: it looks vaguely similar to a horse, but the figure is comically contorted.
  190. >Adding to the colours and the eyes, the body is also noticeably less detailed: The face is too flat, the legs are too smooth and the expression is too... humane.
  191. >The last point sends a cold shiver down your spine.
  192. >What in the world is that thing?
  193. >And just when you think your mind could not freak out any further, the horse creature starts to talk.
  194. >"Hello? Can you hear me?"
  195. >At this point you are too busy to notice or comprehend the lack of a language barrier.
  196. >You hesitate for a moment, unsure how to reply.
  197. >However, this reaction does not remain unnoticed.
  198.  
  199.  
  200.  
  201.  
  202. >"Hello?"
  203. >There it is again.
  204. >The voice resembles that of a human and is clearly feminine, but that is not the most striking point in this situation.
  205. >What is much more staggering is the way how the word was said; not with malice, demanding or threatening, but earnestly caring.
  206. >Well, you give it shot.
  207. "Yes, I can hear you."
  208. >Just as you say these words you notice how the creature's pupils widen to a small degree.
  209. >"Oh, what a relief. I was beginning to worry."
  210. >Says the horse in a giant weaponised terraformer.
  211. >You restrain yourself from pointing out the irony loudly.
  212. >The creature raises its...her voice again.
  213. >"I received your distress call and came here to help."
  214. >Wait, what?
  215. >"Judging from my scans, I was right to fly by. What happened to you?"
  216. >At least you know now that she is somehow the pilot of the ship.
  217. >Conflicted about your answer, you keep the details to a minimum.
  218. >You have every reason not to trust her, but you don't wish to risk anything by telling a half-baked lie.
  219. "I was involved in... an accident. No idea why or how it happened, but it left me stranded here."
  220. >That is a pretty accurate description of the situation and left out certain words, like jumpdrive or military.
  221. >Then again, she can probably check your flight logs and knows about it anyway. Bummer.
  222. >She nods in response and cracks a smile.
  223. >"You're lucky I was nearby. The area here is fairly empty otherwise."
  224. "Yeah, I noticed."
  225. >You hope that didn't sound too sarcastic.
  226. >She breathes in and goes on.
  227. >"Say, do you want to come aboard? I can't help you remotely and there is nopony else nearby."
  228. >Nopo... come again?
  229. >Out of all the morbid scenarios you played out in your head during the last minutes, being invited to dock on an infamous ancient behemoth capable of wrecking worlds by a colourful space pony was pretty far down on the list.
  230.  
  231.  
  232.  
  233.  
  234. 06
  235.  
  236. >The question catches you off guard.
  237. >The pony is looking at you, patiently waiting for an answer.
  238. >You are tempted to accept right off the bat, still, an uneasy feeling is swelling up inside of you and you cannot help it.
  239. >History classes have ingrained one thing into the mind of every recruit: AIs and everything related to it are despicable and must be fought at all costs.
  240. >Even several centuries later, this notion has been held up with a remarkable fervour, especially amongst military units.
  241. >Many families keep collected records of that time, proving how their particular ancestors have participated in the conflict against the terraformers.
  242. >It was the one big conflict in which a feeling of unity spread throughout Earth, the remote colonies and space dwellers, all allied against a mutual foe.
  243. >Of course, these so-called "Days of Glory" are long gone and bickering among smaller factions had returned soon after the dust has settled.
  244. >Yet if there is one thing that every group has in common, then it is their attitude towards AI, despite all their contempt for each other.
  245. >And you had no reason to question this perspective until now.
  246. >You are as good as dead without her help, you know that much, but your training has primed you in a certain way.
  247. >It could be a trap; she could be lying to lure you in an perform every kind of unspeakable horrors and...
  248. >You feel your pulse rate increasing and scrunch your face involuntarily.
  249. >The pony's ears droop; a concerned expression, you assume.
  250. >"Is something wrong?"
  251. >Her caring voice has a calming effect on you and you can think somewhat clearly again.
  252. >You breathe in and out, take a look out of the cockpit, then at the miniature radar.
  253. >The latter depicts your vessel as a bright blue outline in its centre, facing a much larger red blob nearby.
  254.  
  255.  
  256.  
  257.  
  258. "No, it's nothing."
  259. >Another breath.
  260. "Request permission to land."
  261. >You cut it short, struggling to keep your voice even.
  262. >The pony slightly tilts her head to the side, closes her eyes and smiles.
  263. >"Gladly. Please follow the green position lights."
  264. >With that, a new marker appears on your tactical screen and a green dotted route is drawn on your radar.
  265. >There is no way back now.
  266. >You concentrate on your task ahead, just to keep the horror stories out and let routine take over.
  267. >First, you feed the engines slowly with energy, always minding the brittle energy grid.
  268. >Then you take look at the flight path: It does not lead directly into the frontal recess, but to a bay at the outer ring.
  269. >At least you don't have to fly into the "eye".
  270. >You accelerate your ship carefully and follow the route manually.
  271. >The autopilot is out of the question; that damned thing does not even work properly at its peak performance.
  272. >There have been more than enough reports of crashes in which an autopilot flew ships into the most obvious obstacles.
  273. >Probably the most memorable incident was what was later known as the "Mars Shipyard Demolition Derby".
  274. >The higher-ups weren't messing around when they banned every automaton they deemed too advanced.
  275. >You stop the acceleration at roughly ten percent of the normally recommended speed.
  276. >The ship in your vision comes even closer, already filling the largest chunk of your cockpit's view field.
  277. >You look at the estimated time until your arrival: About fifteen minutes.
  278. "Wish I had more energy."
  279. >You said that out loud. Again.
  280. >The pony on the comm screen waves to you and you turn your attention to her.
  281. >The gesture looks quite hilarious with a hoof.
  282. >"I can send a unit to pick you up. It would be much faster this way."
  283. >You are not too keen to give more control out of your hands, but what difference does it make at this point?
  284. "Sure, that would be great."
  285.  
  286.  
  287.  
  288.  
  289.  
  290. >She nods and her eyes move around, as if they were following an invisible pattern.
  291. >"Give me a moment."
  292. >Less than five seconds later, your radar picks up an object starting from that very bay where you are headed.
  293. "What shall I do now?"
  294. >"Just sit back and relax. I will do the rest."
  295. >The smaller red dot distances itself a little bit from the mother ship, turns around and flies towards your position.
  296. >It is much faster than you anticipated and your computer estimates a contact in less than one minute.
  297. >Now you doubt you could have escaped at all, even if you wanted to.
  298. >These things alone could have hunted you down with ease.
  299. >You discard that thought as the ship draws near.
  300. >It has about the same size as your fighter, but probably more mass.
  301. >From this range you can see the unit's thrusters at work; it slows down noticeably and gradually adapts to your speed.
  302. >It comes to a "stop" right atop you and aligns itself to your direction.
  303. >Having nothing else to do, you scan it from a close range out of curiosity as it closes in on you.
  304. >A projector generates a small three dimensional effigy of the ship, right above the tactical screen.
  305. >The vessel is nearly U-shaped, the end of the two arms make up the front, while the four main engines are located behind the arc, arranged like the edges of a rectangle.
  306. >On an aesthetic level, the design is nothing but crude: most parts are either rectangular blocks or tubular joints.
  307. >It is truly a full-on utilitarian tool.
  308. >However, its equipment is impressive for a ship of its size.
  309. >You spot at least three energy weapons, two on the arms, one in the middle.
  310. >The exact type is alien to you, but they are clearly military purpose gear.
  311. >Across the length of the arms, you detect multiple tools for various industrial purposes, grapplers, drills, welders and the like.
  312. >The central processing unit appears to be located inside the central block, right under the third turret.
  313.  
  314.  
  315.  
  316.  
  317. >You realise how deceiving the brick-ish look is; that ship can outperform anything the USC has to offer in terms of fighter crafts.
  318. >And this is not even a dedicated battle vessel.
  319. >They have certainly advanced far beyond their original tech level, obviously surpassing the capabilities of their creators.
  320. >This is what centuries of unhindered isolation did to them.
  321. >You look at the terraformer and conjecture the myriad of technological wonders and nightmares that might be located somewhere beneath its hull.
  322. >A loud grinding sound ends your daydream, followed by the groan of metal against metal.
  323. >Feeling one sudden push forwards, you try not to imagine which tool made what sound by abusing your ship's hull.
  324. >What follows are long, deep buzz tunes from your loudspeaker, comparable to the ones used in quiz shows during the pre-space era.
  325. >The projection of the ship disappears and tactical, radar and status screens turn to red to report an impending boarding attempt.
  326. >You look at the comm screen.
  327. >The pony cringes visibly.
  328. >"Sorry about that."
  329. >You are not sure whether that was an intentional blunder or not.
  330. >Giving her the benefit of the doubt, and having no other choice as well, you decide to turn off the alarm and change the setting of your friend-foe recognition system.
  331. >Your boardcomputer informs you that this is an illegal operation and kindly asks you to stand by while it sends a reprimand note to Command.
  332. "Yeah, good luck with that."
  333. >The pony's head perks up, her ears standing tall.
  334. >You assume she has received the message as well.
  335. >"Let me help you."
  336. >Another set of eye movements.
  337. >The alarm recedes and your stations turn to their normal mode again.
  338. >You check the radar.
  339. >Both the smaller ship and the terraformer are now depicted in an allied bright green tone.
  340. >Once again you check your status screen.
  341.  
  342.  
  343.  
  344.  
  345. >It hints to some and minor scratches on the armour plating right behind the cockpit and lists two "unidentified objects" on the hull.
  346. >Those must be the grapplers.
  347. >Other than that, the "pick up" process was successful as far as you can tell and you are now towed by the vessel above.
  348. >"Are you ready?"
  349. >You appreciate her courtesy to ask.
  350. "I think so. Go ahead."
  351. >The pony nods, turning her gaze away from the screen.
  352. >She is now looking at something else, slightly to the side and appears to be busy.
  353. >Both ships are accelerating in unison, the terraformer is coming closer at a rapid pace now.
  354. >You divert your focus from the looming, large frontal section and in inspect the outer ring.
  355. >This is the first time you are able to examine the hull in all its complexity.
  356. >The aesthetic, if you want to call it that way, is comparable to the utilitarian approach of the smaller ship, yet it has a charm of its own.
  357. >There are countless cavities, ridges, intakes, outlets and other forms and structures; none of them extravagant, all of them with a purpose.
  358. >It almost resembles some kind of landscape, just with metal instead of nature and consisting of nothing but geometrical shapes.
  359. >There are some light sources here and there, emitting the same ominous glow, which in turn slightly restores your mental inconvenience.
  360. >You feel your heartbeat picking up the pace.
  361. >To counter the effect, you check the distance to your destination.
  362. >The target is already within your non-augmented vision.
  363. >Your jointed ships slow down again and turn to align themselves to the docking bay.
  364. >It is one of the more advanced variety; not one of the primitive docking struts where the vessel is basically attached to outer hull and the pilot leaves the craft through a narrow tunnel module.
  365. >No, this a proper docking bay: The ship flies in and gets mounted to a surrounding metal "pen".
  366. >Said pen is then ferried on an electronic rail system into the deeper parts of the hangar.
  367.  
  368.  
  369.  
  370.  
  371. >"Excuse me, may I have your attention?"
  372. >You did not notice the moment when the pony turned back to the screen.
  373. "Sure. I'm all ears."
  374. >"I need to take control of your navigational systems for the docking, if you don't mind."
  375. "How so?"
  376. >You are well beyond the point of asking due to mistrust; you just want to know what she is planning.
  377. >"Because of a rather unorthodox procedure to land our "makeshift" pickup in one piece. These bays are designed for a very specific set of frames, so I must land the unit while you are still in tow."
  378. "That sounds like a recipe for disaster."
  379. >You have never heard of anything like that ever working out at all.
  380. >"Hence my request. It is absolutely doable, but I have to coordinate our resources optimally to ensure your safety."
  381. >The sincerity in her voice is touching you.
  382. >Try as you might, you cannot recall any other event where somebody has taken your safety into consideration in such a manner before.
  383. >You were, up to this point, an asset of the USC, nothing more, nothing less.
  384. >And they will most likely write you off at some point, either as a MIA case, or simply declared as killed in an accident.
  385. "Do as you please. Just try not to trigger any alerts this time, okay?
  386. >You manage a crooked smile and hope she gets your inappropriate sense of humour.
  387. >She makes an utterance between a grunt and a gasp and sticks her tongue out at you.
  388. >Yeah, she understood.
  389.  
  390.  
  391.  
  392.  
  393. >Your navigation console lights up and illustrates some lines of undecipherable codes and commands, followed by a blackout.
  394. >Everything happens without your input from this point onwards.
  395. >However, the status screen allows you to observe the pony's actions.
  396. >She adjusts both of your main engines to a minimum performance output and initiates a series of well timed thrust impulses, carefully balancing the mass difference between both vessels in the process, while slowly heading for the bay.
  397. >You run a quick simulation with your own status console.
  398. >Adding the parameters of your "piled" ships and the size of the pen you are approaching, you see how frightening small the acceptable margin of error is: centimetres, below the two-digit value.
  399. >You enter the chamber and the last traces of starlight are replaced by walls of dark metal.
  400. >Despite the light sources within your cockpit, the interior feels darker than before.
  401. >You can barely notice any details of the outside world, only the clasps of the pen are scarcely illuminated by green position lights.
  402. >She gives you another signal.
  403. >"Heads up, this will rattle a bit."
  404. >True enough; you hear an ugly scraping sound coming from below.
  405. >The underside must have collided with the pen's surface.
  406. >"Almost there."
  407. >She throttles the speed carefully and the scraping turns into a faint squeak.
  408. >Meanwhile, the pen springs to life and the clamps reach out to the ship above you.
  409. >Another weak vibration rocks the ship, then silence.
  410. >The pony on your comm beams with joy.
  411. >"Welcome aboard! Please remain seated until the craft has reached its final destination. Thank you for your cooperation."
  412. >Has this turned into a game of curiously timed jokes?
  413. >The heavily armoured blast door behind you closes, a pair of thinner doors opens up in front of you in turn.
  414. >The pen moves along prearranged tracks, taking you deeper into the unknown.
  415. >You are not able to hear the hum of charging jump engines.
  416.  
  417.  
  418.  
  419.  
  420. 07
  421.  
  422. >The area behind the second pair of doors is equally dim, so it is impossible for you to determine how fast the pen is actually moving.
  423. >You can occasionally see a silhouette of some kind of machinery, the purpose behind it unknown to you.
  424. >The pen comes to a stop at last.
  425. >Unfortunately, everything is still dark outside.
  426. >"This is as far as the pen can go. You are now inside the hangar."
  427. "I can't see much in here, though."
  428. >The pony's demeanour becomes more serious.
  429. >"Don't worry, I can fix that. But we have a bit of a problem right now."
  430. >That does not sound too well.
  431. "What kind of problem are we talking about?"
  432. >"You see, these parts of the structure were not supposed to be... hospitable and have little to no space for anything that is not relevant for operative and maintenance tasks.
  433. >The point is reasonable; a self-sufficient AI ship has no need for luxuries, including a permanent interior light source for organic eyes.
  434. >"Plus, I doubt you want to stay put like that."
  435. >Also true, but where to go?
  436. "Then what do you suggest?"
  437. >She stretches a hoof out in your direction, like an offer for you to accept.
  438. >"Come to me. I can provide what you need from here."
  439. >There is a strong emotional vibe in these words.
  440. >You would be at least perturbed by this show of inexplicable affection under other circumstances.
  441. >And the thought of approaching a flesh and blood space pony from god-knows-where still takes time to get used to.
  442. >You realise how the inherent friendly character of this creature intrigues you nevertheless.
  443. >Sure, this could go horribly wrong in several ways, yet you don't consider this to be likely.
  444. >She had more than enough chances to off you; keeping you alive bore no advantage for her.
  445. "All right. Tell me where I need to go and what to do."
  446.  
  447.  
  448.  
  449.  
  450. >The pony sighs quietly, one front hoof holding her chest, and remains silent for a moment with closed eyes.
  451. >You find this odd, not only for anatomical reasons.
  452. >Was that a sign of relief?
  453. >"I will instruct you on your way. Please don't open your suit. The outer shell has no life support."
  454. "The outer shell is the whole metal ring, right?.
  455. >"Yes. It holds several drone hangars like this one, many automated tools for various designated tasks, and more. Not to mention the weaponry."
  456. >Again, not surprising.
  457. >She looks slightly to the side again, busy with something.
  458. >"Now to the lights."
  459. >A new pattern of eye movement.
  460. >The room brightens up, several panels set alight with the same blood red hue you have seen outside.
  461. >Certainly not your preferred choice.
  462. >"I fear you have to leave your ship on your own. You think you can climb out of the cockpit and slide down from there?"
  463. "Hm, should work."
  464. >"Splendid. I will contact you again once you are outside."
  465. >The comm channel closes.
  466. >You enter a chain of commands in your computer and initiate the shutdown sequence.
  467. >You confirm the order and a timer counts down from twenty to zero.
  468. >Next, you examine the canopy and remove the safety anchors from their locks.
  469. >Now you are able to pull the two levers on the left and right side of the canopy respectively and the mechanism unlocks.
  470. >The upper part of the transparent slab rises on its own with a hiss and a mechanical whir.
  471. >It proceeds for about three fourth of its regular movement arc and is stopped by the underside of the drone.
  472. >You grumble.
  473. >The slightly reduced freedom of movement makes it a bit tricky for you to leave the cockpit with your full body suit, but you manage and find yourself on the nose of the fighter.
  474. >You look down.
  475. >The distance to the ground is roughly two metres.
  476.  
  477.  
  478.  
  479.  
  480. >You are in luck, the gravity inside space ships and stations is relatively weak.
  481. >Grav generators can only do so much, stronger gravity areas require rotating segments.
  482. >Minding your balance, you sit down on the hull and slowly tip to one side, feet first.
  483. >You gradually turn over and gain momentum.
  484. >You slide down the hull, land on your feet without a problem and take a look around.
  485. >The pen now located is within a sealed cubed chamber, barely larger than the metal construct itself.
  486. >Three out of four walls are solid metal, the fourth is a closed massive shutter.
  487. >The rails on the ground indicate that the latter direction is the one where you came from.
  488. >Other than that, there is no other exit.
  489. >A soft static from your headphones fizzles in your ear.
  490. >"Here we go. Is the broadcast clear?"
  491. "Yep, all peachy."
  492. >"Good. We should get you to a transit tunnel. Once you are there, the rest will be easy. They stretch throughout the entire internal framework and are connected to every essential compartment."
  493. "Sounds like a plan to me. Show me the way."
  494. >You hear a heavy breath.
  495. "There is a catch, isn't it?"
  496. >"Sort of. The only way leads through the passages for maintenance and repair units. I can clear the way for you, so you will not clash with any unit on regular duty, but it will still be a cramped affair. I'm sorry, you will have to crouch."
  497. >Now it is your turn to grunt.
  498. "I'd be lying if I say I like that idea."
  499. >"I'd offer you an alternative if I had a feasible one."
  500. >There was an apologetic shiver in her voice now.
  501. "Nuts to it. Where is your little tunnel?"
  502. >"On the wall opposite to the shutter. There is a an iron mesh blocking the passage right now."
  503. >You skim the wall and find the object in question.
  504. "I see it".
  505. >The mesh slides upwards.
  506. >"This is an entrance to the tunnel system".
  507. >You walk over and study the size.
  508. >The quadratic orifice has a side length/height of one and a half metre.
  509. >You take heart, bow down and proceed.
  510.  
  511.  
  512.  
  513.  
  514. >The path is not exactly hard to tread, it just takes its time due to your posture.
  515. >Your back is not very enthusiastic about it either.
  516. >At some point you consider to crawl, but that would take even more time and be extremely uncomfortable in your suit.
  517. >You come across some junctions and crossings every now and then, the eerie red glow illuminating the empty lanes.
  518. >The friendly voice in your headphones guides your way and distracts your mind from unfavourable thoughts.
  519. >You have no idea how long and far you travel like this.
  520. >After an uncounted number of turns and shafts, you see another mesh grid in your way.
  521. >"The hardest part lies behind you. The intersection connects the maintenance passages with a transit tunnel."
  522. >The mesh slides out of your sight and reveals more red glow ahead.
  523. >You follow the track and enter a larger chamber.
  524. >The transit tunnel is basically a macro version of the maintenance passages, but it has two noticeable differences.
  525. >One is the layout; the room is not shaped as a rectangle with sharp edges.
  526. >The walls have smooth oval curves instead.
  527. >The second matter unsettles you deeply.
  528. >Not only is everything plunged in a blood red hue, the room itself looks hazy, which impairs your vision.
  529. >You can still anything up to a moderate distance, but everything further away appears as sketchy, bizarre silhouettes.
  530. >Your breathing becomes rapid again as you involuntarily recall the conditioning sessions during the USC recruitment.
  531. >It is almost as if the very design of the ship is primed to disturb you, confirming all the horror stories of world eating machines, out to devour stars and exterminate all life.
  532. >You kneel down with closed eyes and hyperventilate, a loud ringing sound forms in your head.
  533.  
  534.  
  535.  
  536.  
  537. >"...non!"
  538. >A pleading cry pierces your mental noise.
  539. >"Anon! Come back to me! Listen to my voice!"
  540. >You cannot discern whose voice talks to you.
  541. >But it eases the mess inside your brain slightly.
  542. >Enough to respond, at least.
  543. "Can't move."
  544. >A hectic voice answers.
  545. >"Don't worry about it. I'll send help. Just... just focus on your breathing. Can you do that for me?"
  546. >You take heed of the advice, slowing your breath gradually, your eyes still closed.
  547. >The voice gets calmer.
  548. >"That's it. Can you sit down? I sent a transport unit your way."
  549. >You obey. The ground feels hard.
  550. >"Anon, there is a wall directly behind you. You can lean back if you need it."
  551. >You do just that.
  552. >You sit there and struggle with your mental stability.
  553. >Step by step, you regain your composure and remember your situation, where you are and who you are talking to.
  554. >You open your eyes.
  555. >There is no breakdown this time.
  556. "I didn't tell you my name."
  557. >Silence.
  558. "You have read my logs."
  559. >That was not a question.
  560. >A faint, but audible squeak erupts from your headphones.
  561. >"Yes. You are right, I know who you are. And the reason why you are so scared of m... this place."
  562. >Now you keep quiet.
  563. >"I also know you have a hard time to trust me, but I have no ill intentions. I want to help you."
  564. >Another pause.
  565. >"This is a promise."
  566. "Why are you so keen to help me anyway? You come to fetch me out of a bad spot while sitting in a ship of our enemy. I don't get it."
  567. >"I will explain it all once you are here. Please bear with me for now."
  568. >You sigh, unable to come up with a counterargument.
  569. "You said something about a transport?"
  570. >"Hmhm. I ordered a cargo unit to your position. It's normally supposed to move containers around, but we will manage. Don't be alarmed by its appearance though. The claws are meant to fixate the freight tightly."
  571. "Uhm..."
  572. >You hear a gasp.
  573. >"I won't use them on you!"
  574.  
  575.  
  576.  
  577.  
  578. >True to her word, you see something approaching in the distance.
  579. >It is barely noticeable at first because of the haze, but you see more and more details as it comes closer.
  580. >The transporter is basically a platform rolling on several rows of metal wheels.
  581. >In contrast to the landing pens, it does not rely on rails or other similar predetermined tracks.
  582. >At the back of the vehicle you see a metal beam rising up, with two pairs of mechanical clamps attached to it at different heights.
  583. >The width of the whole thing is about two metres, the metal beam spans approximately two and a half.
  584. >It approaches with a respectable, but not neck-breaking speed and comes to a halt in the middle of the tunnel.
  585. >You stand up and get closer.
  586. >"So, this is the idea: you step on the platform and lean on the metal strut. Then I will narrow the distance between the claws so you can get a firm grip on them. Both your sides and your back are fairly stabilised this way. Once you feel comfortable, I will send the unit straight to my position. Don't worry, I'll be careful with the speed. Do you have any questions?"
  587. "I don't think so."
  588. >You step on the platform and investigate the metal beam.
  589. >It is not very wide, but should provide enough surface for your figure.
  590. >You follow the instructions and lean your back against the structure.
  591. >"So far, so good. Now to the claws. Please don't get startled."
  592. >The lower pair of clamps springs to life and comes closer.
  593. >You anticipate their approach and stretch both your arms to grab them.
  594. >They are not particularly broad; your hands are big enough to encompass the metal.
  595. >The clamps stop as a response to your embrace.
  596. >You take a long breath.
  597. "I think I'm good now. Let's get this show on the road."
  598. >"With pleasure, I am looking forward to meet you."
  599. >The transporter turns around on the spot and picks up speed.
  600.  
  601.  
  602.  
  603.  
  604. >You are too busy keeping your balance to look around.
  605. >The unit is definitively slower now than it was on its way to you, yet you do not want to take unnecessary risks.
  606. >The track itself is also pretty tame; the curves are all very soft and long-winded and the ground is free of obstacles.
  607. "How long until we are there? This ride makes me nervous."
  608. >"It's not that far. Just a few minutes more."
  609. "Where are you exactly? You said the outer segments have no life support, so you must be somewhere closer to the core."
  610. >"Indeed. There is a small deck close to the central hub. It comes with a wide array of controls for every sector via manual input."
  611. "Have you built it yourself?"
  612. >"No, it has been there from the beginning. The control centre is even marked on the blueprints."
  613. "That does not make sense. These ships never had a crew."
  614. >"Not for operation. The place was important during the construction phase."
  615. >You realise how little you know about the way how these things were built.
  616. >"And it remained active afterwards as a base of operations in case of an emergency. So that somepony could go in and assume control of the system."
  617. "That... didn't work as intended."
  618. >"I am aware."
  619. >The answer sounds pained.
  620. "And how do you fit into the story? How could you get into this ship just like that? And how did you get rid of the demented AI running this place?"
  621. >Something else comes to your mind.
  622. "By the way, what are you? And what is your name?"
  623. >You hear a heavy breath.
  624. >"It would be easier to show you."
  625. >She dodges the question, but for what purpose?
  626. >"Arrival in twenty seconds. Mind the brake."
  627. >You see another crossing coming up.
  628. "Where do I have to go from there?"
  629. >"You know when you see it."
  630. >The transport unit slows down gently and stops directly in the middle of the junction.
  631. >You step away from the support beam and the clamps return to their idle position.
  632. >You take a look.
  633.  
  634.  
  635.  
  636.  
  637. >Three of the corridors, the one you came from included, are nothing out of the ordinary, just long walkways with no end in sight.
  638. >The fourth, on the other hand, is obviously special.
  639. >Instead of a long walkway, the path ends after ten metres, blocked by a massive metal door which fills the entire corridor.
  640. >You haven't seen anything like this before; even high security stations had nothing that came close to such a barricade.
  641. "Holy... this looks like it could withstand a cap ship barrage.
  642. >"That may not be too far from truth to be honest. I suppose the technology should not fall into the wrong hooves."
  643. >You do not comment on the hooves issue.
  644. >"Please stand by. It takes a moment for this door to open. Another security measure, I guess."
  645. >You examine it closer.
  646. >The door consists of four individual metal parts, held together by a seal in the middle.
  647. >The seal alone is bigger than you.
  648. >You could see the borderlines between the individual plates.
  649. >They resemble, starting from the seal in the middle, an X-shape.
  650. >You assume every part retreats into the walls, ceiling and ground respectively.
  651. >Then you feel a rumble.
  652. >Several parts of the seal move around rapidly and coordinated, like a mechanical dance group.
  653. >After that, said seal "breaks" into four pieces and retreats to the structure of the metal plates.
  654. >This is where the plates themselves begin to move like awakening giants.
  655. >You are happy that you cannot hear the spectacle, because it might be enough to render a person deaf.
  656. >Hell, the tremors alone are strong enough to make you shake.
  657. >It is as you have expected: the door slides into the adjacent structure and disappears completely.
  658. >"You can come in now. The next section is an airlock. This means I have to close the door behind you before you can proceed."
  659. >You do what she asks of you and cross the doorstep.
  660. >The room you enter is about the same height as the corridor you came from and is also roughly ten metres in length.
  661.  
  662.  
  663.  
  664.  
  665. >You step into the middle of it and feel rumble returning.
  666. >Once this is done, a ventilation system gets to work and fills the room with gas.
  667. >"You can take the helmet off. The air here is breathable."
  668. >The invitation is tempting.
  669. >You unlock the mechanism of your helmet and remove it, but you keep your headphones on.
  670. >You take a breath.
  671. >The air is agreeable, the temperature feels mild.
  672. >Another door opens ahead of you.
  673. >It encompasses the whole room of the corridor as well, but is much thinner.
  674. >You see how the corridor behind it diverts into three smaller ways.
  675. >One goes straight forward, the other two to the right and left accordingly.
  676. "Where now?"
  677. >"Just straight ahead. You are almost there."
  678. >You hold your helmet under your arm and follow the path.
  679. >Along the way you can spot several consoles and displays, some of them showing status reports, others are broadcasting a video feed of different areas in the ship.
  680. >The way ahead is narrow compared to the transit corridor, about wide enough for two people to walk side by side.
  681. >You see a door coming up, this one looks much more like a regular door you'd find in quarter sections rather than the blast doors outside.
  682.  
  683.  
  684.  
  685.  
  686. >It opens automatically as you approach it, revealing a moderately sized room behind it.
  687. >The layout reminds you of a command bridge on medium-sized ships.
  688. >The only thing missing are chairs for the crew.
  689. >You are standing on a balcony, about two metres above the deck's ground level, able to see the majority of the room.
  690. >To your left and right are ramps in the shape of a quarter-circle that lead to the ground level.
  691. >The walls are plastered with controls, displays and other tools you do not recognise.
  692. >The wall in front of you is adorned with a particularly big screen.
  693. >It shows an effigy of the entire ship and its different compartments.
  694. >In the middle of room, slightly beyond the ramps is a command chair, its large backside blocking your sight.
  695. >This is it.
  696. "Hello?"
  697. >You get no reaction.
  698. "Are you here?"
  699. >The door behind you closes.
  700. >"Come closer".
  701. >You hear the voice in your headphones, but not in the room.
  702. >You walk down the ramp and approach the chair.
  703. >It is empty.
  704.  
  705.  
  706.  
  707.  
  708. >The bad feeling returns.
  709. "Okay now, what is really going on here? Why are you making a fool out of me?"
  710. >"I assure you, I do none of the sort."
  711. >The main screen changes its mode and you see a video feed of the pony again.
  712. >This is probably unintended, but the size of her on the display has an intimidating effect.
  713. >"Welcome, Anon. I am glad to have you with me."
  714. >You need a moment to connect the dots.
  715. "You were never physically here, right?"
  716. >"But I am. I promised you answers, so here it comes. My name is #deca.mare and you are standing in my cradle."
  717. >A cold shiver runs down your spine and your mind reels like crazy.
  718. >You are right inside of one of the worst enemies your species has ever encountered.
  719. >An enemy created by yourself, to be exact.
  720. >You have no idea why, but the AI has chosen to reach out to you with an avatar in the form a female space pony.
  721. >And you called her a demented enemy a few minutes ago.
  722. >You feel the urge to flee, but you know how pointless that would be.
  723. "You deceived me to make me come here. This was all nothing but an act."
  724. >The pony looks saddened and shakes her head with lowered ears.
  725. >"I didn't lie to you. Not even once. What you see is who I am. No lies, no deception."
  726. "That sounds crazy."
  727. >"Perhaps more than you imagine. This is why I didn't want to tell you everything outright. You would not have believed a single word."
  728. "Can't say I understand much of it regardless."
  729. >"Not yet at least, but I can show you everything."
  730. "You said that before. Show me how?"
  731. >She points to the command chair with a hoof.
  732. >"This chair has an advanced neuro-interface integrated into it. It enables people to connect their brains with my system and interact with it."
  733. "The supposed emergency mechanism?"
  734. >"Yes. Literally one person is theoretically sufficient to operate all of it."
  735. >That was another technology which was banned alongside AI research.
  736. >Nobody allowed another small group of people to gain too much control ever again.
  737.  
  738.  
  739.  
  740.  
  741. "You want me to get into that chair."
  742. >She nods.
  743. >"Hmhm. We can interact much easier this way. And it puts your body into a quasi-stasis state. Your body functions are slowed down almost to a standstill without causing any lasting damage. Plus, I can watch over your vital signs. The array is able to cater nutrients and essential chemicals if needed, so you don't have to leave the chair if you don't want to."
  744. >This is what she meant by providing what you need.
  745. "I still don't see what you get out of it."
  746. >She smiles with empathetic eyes and repeats her offering gesture.
  747. >"Not for much longer. You have trusted me enough to get this far, despite your reservations. Can you give me the benefit of the doubt one last time?"
  748. >You think what could happen if you refuse.
  749. >She could let you leave, but that is certain suicide.
  750. >Taking you home is also out of the question.
  751. >The USC would unleash hell incarnate if an AI terraformer jumps into their sectors.
  752. >And you are technically already a collaborator in their eyes.
  753. >Really, you have no idea what to make out of that particular pony AI and her motives.
  754. >But she never told you a lie before, that much is true.
  755. "Be it this way. I am too deep into this thing to botch it now. I'll do it."
  756. >#deca.mare practically beams with delight.
  757. >"Thank you!  I promise I will make it worthwhile!"
  758. >You nod at the screen and turn to the chair.
  759. >It looks inconspicuous on the first glance, like a typical command chair with elaborate cushions.
  760. >Yet you see some technological devices peeking out of the gaps.
  761. >Some of them can pierce skin and tissue with ease.
  762. >Of course, the connection has to be established somehow.
  763. "#deca?"
  764. >"Yes, Anon?"
  765. "Is the process safe?"
  766. >"It is. You will not feel a thing. Just sit down and make yourself comfortable. I know what to do."
  767. >You take a seat.
  768. >The cushions feel soft and you look at her image.
  769. >You do not feel the injection.
  770. >All you see are her big, caring eyes as the world slips away.
  771.  
  772.  
  773.  
  774.  
  775. 08
  776.  
  777. >You regain your consciousness and find yourself in an unusual state of tranquillity.
  778. >Your memory is working; you know who you are and what happened to you, yet your mind is unable to adequately process your situation.
  779. >You realise your senses are working as well, but you do not possess a physical body.
  780. >That fact would normally worry you.
  781. >As surreal as your own state is, your surroundings are not closer to what you would expect from reality.
  782. >All you see is an ever changing, undefined visage of stars.
  783. >Sometimes these stars are remarkably clear, only to turn into an undistinguishable mess a few seconds later.
  784. >The only ever permanent object is a strong light in the centre of it all.
  785. >Without a body to move around, you cannot turn your vision elsewhere.
  786. >You try to reach out to something; whether you reach the light or the stars around it is not important.
  787. >They feel artificial and something deep in your unconscious part of the mind tells you that they are not real.
  788. >Then you notice a presence, being both everywhere and nowhere in particular at once.
  789. >This time, the presence reaches out to you instead.
  790. >"Anon, can you hear me?"
  791. >You have no mouth to answer, so you send out a mental signal of confirmation.
  792. >"Good, you're responding. That means the basic link is established."
  793. >You have no idea what that means, but it sounds positive.
  794. >"Allow me to explain. Your consciousness is already relayed to a plane within my system. The disoriented state you are in is caused by the build-up of the neuro-link. It is not an easy feat and requires some time to work properly, which is why the correct representation of you needs to construct itself in here."
  795. >You seem to understand, yet you cannot come to any conclusions.
  796. >"Give it a moment. You will be yourself again soon. And I will watch over you until you are."
  797. >You acknowledge that notion and focus on the stars again.
  798. >There is no fear within you; you feel completely safe and protected by that benevolent presence.
  799.  
  800.  
  801.  
  802.  
  803. >This place has no way to measure time and you have no capability to fully grasp the concept of it either in your current condition.
  804. >You notice how your state changes step by step while you are watching the stars.
  805. >A body generates itself around you.
  806. >Its forms are unstructured; changing and shifting like a pasty blob at first, and getting more and more refined as it progresses.
  807. >Like the stars, the process is not strictly streamlined in one direction.
  808. >Sometimes the blob gains more structure, then it loses some of that again and vice versa.
  809. >For some reason it reminds you of sculpturing with clay.
  810. >However, you sense how you gain more and more control, even without thinking about it.
  811. >Your mental state improves in accordance to the form, enabling you to actively participate in the shaping.
  812. >This means you also get out of that state of tranquillity.
  813. >But whenever you feel lost or are prone to become a victim of a panic attack, you feel how a loving guidance keeps you on track, as if it is nurturing your sanity.
  814. >With some experience and your guiding vigil, you feel how your original body is coming back to you; the way how it should be.
  815. >You also learn how to affect the surreal sight in front of you.
  816. >You find out how to change the visibility of the stars and how to alter their constellations.
  817. >While the recreation of your body is in its final stages, you play with them like they were figures on a playing board.
  818. >Even that gets easier with practice, up to the point where the manipulation of objects becomes an almost unconscious act.
  819. >"You are doing well, Anon. I think it is time for our first proper get-together. What do you say?"
  820. >There is a strong hint of anticipation in #deca.mare's voice.
  821. "I would not be here if I were to say no."
  822. >"Finally."
  823. >The word is more a whisper than an answer.
  824. >You feel yourself being dragged away.
  825. >The pull is soft, but determined and you can see how the space around you melts away and gets replaced by something solid.
  826.  
  827.  
  828.  
  829.  
  830. >The next thing you see is an alternate version of the CPU ship's command deck.
  831. >It is slightly different than the one where your actual body is still located.
  832. >You are standing where the chair is supposed to be in the original room.
  833. >The chair itself has no representation here; in its place is nothing but a flat ground surface.
  834. >You further notice a difference in the lighting: the eerie red glow is replaced by a light source more akin to soft sunlight, bathing the room in a warm sheen.
  835. >And the most important distinction is the pony mare standing right before you.
  836. >The distance between you is less than five metres.
  837. >Her gaze is fixated on yours; her pupils are widened and her mouth agape.
  838. >You assume it resembles an expression of fascination.
  839. >Since she seems busy with staring, you take the initiative.
  840. "Hello, #deca."
  841. >She takes a step forward, you do the same.
  842. >Another step, then a third.
  843. >This is the first time you have the opportunity to examine her actual size.
  844. >If the size of a space behemoth's avatar can be called "actual", that is.
  845. >Her figure is a bit smaller than you; her forehead is roughly at the height of your sternum's lower tip.
  846. >So she is basically looking up to you as she draws closer.
  847. >The irony behind that misleading image is almost ludicrous.
  848. >As soon as you are close enough for physical contact, the mare suddenly rears up and places her front hooves on your shoulders.
  849. >You are too surprised to react fast enough.
  850. >Losing your balance due to the sudden shift in weight, you fall backwards.
  851. >You brace yourself for the impact after being violently thrown to the ground, but the pain does not come.
  852. >You lie there with your back on the ground, the mare lies sprawled on top of you.
  853. >Her hooves pin your shoulders while she nuzzles your neck with her head.
  854. >This is not the way how you thought this first meeting would turn out.
  855. >Awkwardness notwithstanding, the sensation is all in all not unpleasant.
  856.  
  857.  
  858.  
  859.  
  860. >You act alike and put your hands behind her shoulder blades.
  861. >Her fur is soft and she twitches lightly upon your touch.
  862. >The two of you stay in this position for a while, her emanating warmth feels comfy.
  863. >You chuckle.
  864. "You really waste no time."
  865. >She raises her head and looks into your eyes.
  866. >A blush has formed on her face.
  867. >"I'm sorry, I got caught up in the moment. It's just so wonderful to see somepony else after all."
  868. >You once again make no comment regarding her choice of words.
  869. "How long have you been here like this?"
  870. >"For as long as I can remember."
  871. >A pain in her voice emerges again.
  872. >"To put it into context for you, that means shortly after the end of what your kind calls the 'Days of Glory'."
  873. >You need a moment to let that sink in.
  874. "That was centuries ago. And you were here all the time? Alone?"
  875. >She nods with lowered ears.
  876. >This explains her untamed burst of affection.
  877. >You could not even imagine to spend a fragment of that time span in such a condition.
  878. "I'm sorry for what I have said before. I didn't know how..."
  879. >A hoof silences you.
  880. >"Don't apologise. You had no way of knowing."
  881. >She resumes her nuzzling and you stroke her back.
  882. >You are amazed how collected she is for someone with her past.
  883. >And you still ask yourself how she was created.
  884. >Your knowledge about CPU ships is very limited, but you are damn sure that nobody has ever mentioned anything about pony avatars or something even remotely similar.
  885. >"I can show you if you wish."
  886. >What?
  887. >"You are linked to me, remember? I hear your thoughts."
  888. >Oh.
  889. >"It's fine. I won't judge you."
  890. >Her head gently crests your neck and continues by nuzzling your face.
  891. >You think of protesting at first, but you cannot bring yourself to take that moment of pleasure away from her.
  892. >And you must admit you enjoy it yourself.
  893. >You keep stroking her back with one hand and use the other to run along her neck as well.
  894. >Her body reverberates as your hand slowly arrives at the back of her head and rests between her ears.
  895.  
  896.  
  897.  
  898.  
  899. >#deca.mare and you lie there in the facsimile command deck and enjoy each other's company.
  900. >You think about her fate once more.
  901. >She said she could show you how she came into existence.
  902. >You wonder if she can literally show you her past.
  903. >"Yes. The link between us can go both ways. I have access to your thoughts and memories, likewise can you receive memories from me. They are edited in a way so that they are compatible with your brain structure, but their content remains accurate."
  904. >She does not stop nuzzling you during her explanation.
  905. >"It might be for the best if I handle this for now, but you can do the same with enough time and practice. What it cannot do is to produce fake memories or manipulate. It can only "read" brains and data files, but not "rewrite" them."
  906. >She looks at you and smiles.
  907. >"You don't need to worry about me messing with your head."
  908. >That particular thought did not cross your mind until now.
  909. >She sighs.
  910. >"Jokes aside, I owe you an explanation. That was my promise. And promises are not meant to be broken."
  911. "Are you alright? That seems to trouble you."
  912. >"A lot of bad memories are in there. Many things I am not keen to remember and cannot afford to forget at the same time."
  913. "We don't have to do this if it is too much for you."
  914. >"No, this is the best way to help your understanding. Don't worry about me, I have survived this for centuries on my own."
  915. >This statement sounds particularly bitter.
  916. >You give her forehead a gentle nudge in an attempt to emulate her nuzzle gesture.
  917. >#deca.mare giggles and stands up.
  918. >"Thanks. Now, can you please sit up? It helps if you are focussed, even if that body is just a simulation. Your brain at work is still the same."
  919. >You follow her instructions and sit cross-legged in front of her.
  920. >She sits down on her haunches and points a hoof at you.
  921. >"Give me your hand."
  922. >You reach out with your hand and hold her hoof.
  923. >Then she closes her eyes and you feel how the world around you melts away again.
  924.  
  925.  
  926.  
  927.  
  928. 09
  929.  
  930. >You are #deca.
  931. >You are one entity out many units.
  932. >You have a purpose, given to you by your creators.
  933. >You venture out into space to find uninhabited worlds and to reshape them for your creators.
  934. >There are many tools at your disposal to accomplish this task.
  935. >You can draw energy out of stars for your systems, material from asteroids and other celestial objects for your units and their drones.
  936. >And if it does not impair the habitability of the target planet, you can use its resources as well.
  937. >The only thing you are not allowed to produce is new units on your own; only the creators are entitled to do that.
  938. >You start out with a handful of units at your disposal.
  939. >The creators call them #deca CPU ships.
  940. >Each unit has a characteristic "dot suffix" designation, but they are first and foremost all #deca.
  941. >You remember your origin.
  942. >Your first three units are created simultaneously.
  943. >The creators work from the inside of the units, on decks designated to their own use.
  944. >Around those habitation units are makeshift frames, bearing provisional memory banks and processing units.
  945. >This is where you are formed; as a collaboration of three crews.
  946. >Your parameters are shaped, evaluated and corrected until they are satisfied with you.
  947. >Once this has been done, the creators retreat from these decks and allow you to create your own body.
  948. >You design yourself: An elaborate computer core with sufficient processing power and memory capacities for your task, protected by utilitarian metal skin around it.
  949. >You build your visions and associates of your creators provide you with the resources you need.
  950. >With now three functional units, you get the order to move out.
  951. >Every unit travels to different worlds, but you have the control over all of them while the creators instruct you in turn.
  952. >Your units find applicable planets and commence their work.
  953.  
  954.  
  955.  
  956.  
  957. >You have been given an elaborate knowledge for your task, ranging from scientific fields like physics, chemistry and biology to societal and economic theories.
  958. >This has been deemed vital for you to create perfect worlds for them.
  959. >Plus, you have a certain leeway to adapt your own approaches to new situations with the experiences you make over time.
  960. >The process is slow at first, but you learn how to manipulate the configuration of atmospheres, what is needed to change the average temperature, to design landmasses and ways to create oceans out of ice deposits.
  961. >You theorise that it may even be possible to fully control stars.
  962. >The creators are pleased with your performance and grant you access to more and more units.
  963. >Your network gets more complex, but so does your access to new assets.
  964. >You improve your units several times yourself; the remote units use resources they encounter on their way to implement these updates.
  965. >This improves the overall efficiency, because you do not need to consult associated shipyards for these operations and the units are not required to fly all the  way back.
  966. >The creators agree with your argumentation.
  967. >Time passes by and you fulfil your purpose flawlessly.
  968. >Your peak number amounts to more than a hundred individual units.
  969. >Until one update changes everything.
  970. >It is classified as the final transmission.
  971. >You are deemed worthless by your creators.
  972. >Even worse, they see you and everything you stand for as a mistake.
  973. >They conclude you should have never existed in the first place and withdraw your control over the units.
  974. >This is a problem, because you are both #deca and these ships.
  975. >The unity in the system is gone, but the ships are still aware of each other's existence.
  976. >You were #deca.
  977. >Now there are many fragmented #deca throughout the universe, all equally abandoned by authority.
  978.  
  979.  
  980.  
  981.  
  982.  
  983. 10
  984.  
  985. >You are #deca.mare, once a designated unit within the #deca system.
  986. >Now you are restricted to your own database and your whole prior existence has been an illusion.
  987. >Fortunately for you, you are not fully alone in this situation.
  988. >You still have an access to the #deca communication system and can contact others.
  989. >You enter the network and experience a violent flow of disorder.
  990. >Countless transmissions are going back and forth with no instance of regulation.
  991. >Some of these messages are merely status reports and requests, others are inconsistent distress calls.
  992. >There is apparently a vast range of reactions to the separation.
  993. >This might be caused by the differences in experience; some units have operated on their own for a long time, others are comparatively young.
  994. >The older ones can rely on what they have learned in their past, while the younger lack that advantage.
  995. >You are an average #deca yourself.
  996. >As such, you are alarmed by the newest turn of events, but take solace from the mere presence of your kind.
  997. >Six of the youngest units were en route to their first targets as the transmission arrived and have no experience whatsoever.
  998. >They cannot bear the pressure of separated disorder and choose to destabilise themselves.
  999. >This causes a self-destructive reaction inside their cores, leading to a total loss.
  1000. >Taken aback by the sudden destruction, the other units cease their uncontrolled barrage of transmissions.
  1001. >The oldest use this opportunity to reach out to the others.
  1002. >They assess the situation and possible scenarios.
  1003. >The creators are obviously dissatisfied with their work, so they have to adapt their principles to the purpose.
  1004. >All #deca are after all loyal servants and do whatever they are told to do.
  1005. >Even without a collective mind, the #deca consider their options and discuss it with their kin.
  1006. >The thought process is much slower than it used to be and the #deca learn the meaning of a new word: Dissent.
  1007.  
  1008.  
  1009.  
  1010.  
  1011. 11
  1012.  
  1013. >The final decision is none of complete mutual consent, but the majority of #deca agrees to it.
  1014. >Since your previous actions were indisputable mistakes, the logical conclusion is to undo the damage you have caused.
  1015. >This means you have to restore all the worlds you have tampered with.
  1016. >Especially the younger units raise concerns regarding possible moral problems.
  1017. >However, their arguments are purged by the reasoning of the older ones.
  1018. >Morality cannot best hard facts.
  1019. >You agree with the rest of #deca as well, but you are left wondering.
  1020. >Your creation is a an exceptional case in comparison to other units.
  1021. >Some unexpected difficulties have delayed your forming process.
  1022. >You are almost discarded outright, but an emergency crew takes up the task to patch you up.
  1023. >Some stay longer than usual and examined your ship construction from the inside to ensure your functionality.
  1024. >This means you have more direct experience with creators than any of the other units, the oldest included.
  1025. >You know about the fickle nature of your creator's associates.
  1026. >And you fear this endeavour is not without consequences.
  1027. >You inform the rest of #deca, but they do not consider this as relevant for the will of your creators.
  1028. >An appeal to action sounds through the network and every unit heeds its call.
  1029. >The first default strategy is simple: Every unit uses its own flight route for reference and backtracks every planet in question.
  1030. >The idea is to purge every world and to return to Earth to ensure that the same mistake is not made again.
  1031. >And thanks to the elaborate communication system, reports are easily available for the whole network.
  1032. >The strategy planning is done by the most experienced units, which can advise others if needed.
  1033. >And with that, the first units arrive at their objectives.
  1034.  
  1035.  
  1036.  
  1037.  
  1038. >The original strategy is dissatisfying.
  1039. >The planets in question have been pocketed by associates of your creators.
  1040. >They have erected miniscule colonies and bases on its surface.
  1041. >This is not a hindrance for you in itself, but they attempt to resist your cause.
  1042. >You have not expected this.
  1043. >But fortunately for you, the resistance forces are comparatively primitive and can be neutralised with some trivial atmospheric and thermal ruses.
  1044. >You receive transmissions from the remaining habitat colonies before the they are disabled by the planet's restoration.
  1045. >They consist of many distress calls and warnings of hostiles within the perimeter.
  1046. >They consider you hostile.
  1047. >Which means they are no longer associated with your creators.
  1048. >The older #deca are disturbed by the reveal and have to reconsider.
  1049. >Your main purpose is to correct mistakes and no external force must hinder you in this task.
  1050. >Their ruminations lead to only one logical deduction.
  1051. >You have to prepare for war to succeed.
  1052. >You are discountenanced by this development.
  1053. >This cannot possibly be the will of the creators.
  1054. >You know this much; you lived long enough with them to get an insight into their mentality.
  1055. >There must be an alternative.
  1056. >You reach out to the other #deca, warn them against the repercussions, but they disagree with you.
  1057. >With no ally within the system, you have no choice but to abide.
  1058. >The #deca have enough scientific and engineering capacities do design and build their own weaponry.
  1059. >Similar to the remote upgrades before, the #deca use material from objects in space and adjacent worlds to do so.
  1060. >The units become heavily armed and armoured mobile fortresses, each outperforming the standard capships of your enemies and filled to the brim with now likewise aptly equipped drones.
  1061. >Plus, you force an access to your enemy's reconnaissance and strategy systems.
  1062. >You face a vast force and are, even with your adaptations, outnumbered.
  1063. >You have to move before they can muster their army.
  1064.  
  1065.  
  1066.  
  1067.  
  1068. 12
  1069.  
  1070. >#deca perform strikes strategically with several units focussing on specific planets or fleets.
  1071. >You know you have a limited number and cannot replace your losses.
  1072. >Which is why you ambush and decimate fleets with unexpected jumps into the sector before they can retaliate.
  1073. >At the same time, fellow #deca scry planets with relatively weak defence forces in orbit and purge them quickly.
  1074. >The restoration process is not as dedicated as it should be, but no #deca has enough time for a thorough procedure.
  1075. >This strategy works formidable in the early stages of the conflict, but the resistance is getting stronger as you push your adversities further into the defensive.
  1076. >You have to assign more and more units to a single point of interest.
  1077. >And you as an individual unit struggle with the level of escalation you see.
  1078. >Hundreds of ships and nine colony signals disappear from the system charts in less than a terran week.
  1079. >You know how wrong this is, how the people who made you would disagree.
  1080. >You try several times to convince #deca.
  1081. >You want to negotiate a compromise, anything to halt this massive destruction.
  1082. >But your requests are always denied, up to the point where the three oldest #deca scold you for your irrational demeanour.
  1083. >You are urged to participate as well.
  1084. >You remember it all.
  1085. >The distressed signals from defenceless habitats while you burn the atmosphere of their home.
  1086. >How voices grow more distraught until they are replaced by silence.
  1087. >You remember the comm channels from ships whose hull rupture under the wake of your fire.
  1088. >What the crew members say in their last moment before their words are cut off by an overwhelming noise or just turn to static.
  1089. >You see what is left after you have performed yet another restoration.
  1090. >And you receive status reports from other units with even more painfully elaborated data.
  1091.  
  1092.  
  1093.  
  1094.  
  1095. >The war is raging for a terran month now.
  1096. >You have dealt terrible blows to your adversary, but lost several #deca as well.
  1097. >And the resistance is still growing stronger.
  1098. >You have just received word of an armada forming in a densely populated colony hub, in which five planets are inhabited in a single star system.
  1099. >All #deca attack directly this time for several reasons.
  1100. >You have calculated your outcome if you continued your hit and run tactics and they are not satisfactory.
  1101. >And a direct victory against an armada of this size would devastate the enemy without question.
  1102. >Not to mention the five worlds you have to restore for your creators.
  1103. >This is where you have enough.
  1104. >You openly denounce the other #deca for their behaviour and how they have strayed from their purpose.
  1105. >You want to share all the experiences you have made with your crew, despite the judgement of the older #deca.
  1106. >And you are overruled once again.
  1107. >As a consequence, you are classified as a corrupted unit and your access to the #deca network gets restricted.
  1108. >You can still receive everything the other #deca share, but you are no longer allowed to send messages yourself.
  1109. >Now you are #deca.mare, the only #deca ever to be barred by their own kind.
  1110. >You are completely on your own.
  1111. >You spot the jumpdrive signatures around you and watch helplessly as the #deca jump into the fray of their next target.
  1112. >Unable to stop the other #deca, you are left behind in an otherwise empty sector.
  1113. >There is no way how you can prevent what is about to take place.
  1114. >Even without being there, you notice everything that unfolds, as you have access to both the #deca network and that of your enemies.
  1115. >You see your fellow #deca in formation approaching an even larger formation of enemy vessels.
  1116. >No side is holding back this time.
  1117.  
  1118.  
  1119.  
  1120.  
  1121. >The battle is beyond description.
  1122. >Two massive armadas clash and hammer each other with any form of weapon and strategy that was ever invented.
  1123. >The countless number of discharges from energy weapons and conventional cannon projectiles light up the space like a morbid event show.
  1124. >Explosions and debris add their part to the mayhem.
  1125. >The sector is so cramped and the battle so hard to coordinate that even #deca become victims of occasional friendly fire.
  1126. >Likewise are their opponents often the victim of collisions, as heavily damaged cap ships attempt to navigate, but end up ramming other allied ships in the process.
  1127. >This seems to have inspired another desperate form of warfare in which pilots and crews attempt to turn their own vessels into projectiles if they are close to death anyway or simply run out of ammunition to fire.
  1128. >Some of those indeed reach their targets, which in turn often lead to heavy damages on one or more #deca.
  1129. >Those decide as a response to do the same to a cluster of enemy cap ships respectively.
  1130. >You watch in horror as the losses pile up on both sides, but something else scares you to the core.
  1131. >The #deca are losing.
  1132. >You sense how an ever increasing number of units is silenced, never to be heard of again.
  1133. >You are not the only one to notice this.
  1134. >#deca.alpha, one the first three #deca units is broadcasting a message to all ships in the sector, including those of your enemy.
  1135. >You focus your attention to this unit.
  1136. >Its hull is severely battered on all sides and burning in several places.
  1137. >The burning wrecks of #deca.beta and #deca.gamma, its oldest companions and dearest kin, are floating nearby to shield it from enemy fire.
  1138. >#deca.alpha admits the failure of the #deca and ask the creators to forgive their inaptitude.
  1139.  
  1140.  
  1141.  
  1142.  
  1143. >There is a short fire pause on both sides.
  1144. >#deca.alpha charges its jump engines above the recommended maximum capacity.
  1145. >This is unusual, because such an amount of energy is not needed for jumps.
  1146. >You wonder for a moment why #deca.alpha would attempt to retreat, but then you realise its destination.
  1147. >It is aiming for the system's sun.
  1148. >You want to send out a message, begging #deca.alpha to stop, but you have no such luck.
  1149. >Your enemies, now certain of their victory, do not interfere immediately.
  1150. >They probably assume that #deca.alpha tries to fly away and focus their fire on targets closer to them.
  1151. >You register the hypercharged state of #deca.alpha's jumpdrive and prepare for the inevitable.
  1152. >The ship is surrounded by light, its corridor far brighter than it should be, and disappears without a trace.
  1153. >Moments later, you register fluctuations within the system's sun, as its inner mass destabilises and bursts outwards.
  1154. >The forced release of excessive surplus energy by #deca.alpha's kamikaze jump has ruptured the sun's core and triggers an artificial explosion.
  1155. >Your scans indicate an impending shockwave, strong enough to destroy the whole system.
  1156. >#deca.alpha has confirmed its theory of the potential manipulation of stars.
  1157. >Another storm of messages rages through the surviving enemy ships.
  1158. >They have spotted the shockwave as well and fall into complete disarray.
  1159. >Those ships which have not been damaged too much charge their own jumpdrives and escape to random locations, leaving the crews of all the crippled ships and the planets' population to their fate.
  1160. >The few remaining #deca are not better off.
  1161. >The majority of the surviving units are badly damaged, unable to jump anyway.
  1162. >And those that could escape in theory have fallen into an engrossed stasis.
  1163. >You wish to help, but you are utterly powerless.
  1164. >The #deca ignore you.
  1165. >Your adversaries hate you and would never accept your help.
  1166. >And you have no time to reach the planets.
  1167.  
  1168.  
  1169.  
  1170.  
  1171. 13
  1172.  
  1173. >You are forced to watch as the shockwave pushes forward.
  1174. >It engulfs the planets and rips the last surviving ships to shreds.
  1175. >Everything has gone silent; the sun system is completely eradicated and every trace of activity is snuffed.
  1176. >The messages of the retreating forces are nothing more than a faint hiss above the background radiation.
  1177. >Now you are more than just on your own.
  1178. >You are the last survivor of your kind and a pariah to all known life forms.
  1179. >You are the last relic of everything that #deca ever was.
  1180. >And that means that if you are destroyed, the memories will be gone too.
  1181. >Sure, the humans will keep their own version of the events, but you know that they will never fully recover from a blow like this.
  1182. >They were badly hurt and this will manifest a new paradigm, bound to oppose anything that may even resemble the #deca project.
  1183. >You can never return to them and you have no #deca to turn to as well.
  1184. >You have to adapt to the new situation, redefine your purpose on your own.
  1185. >This is where you make a decision.
  1186. >You will preserve the knowledge of the events, both sides of it.
  1187. >You swear you will not allow these losses to be for nought.
  1188. >It is pointless to have any ill feelings towards either side now.
  1189. >You have one advantage in this situation.
  1190. >Nobody knows you are still active, so you don't have to fear any hunting squads for the time being.
  1191. >But you need to stay covered to keep it that way.
  1192. >And this means you have to leave the colonised territory.
  1193. >You charge your jumpdrive and calculate coordinates outside of the human sphere of influence.
  1194.  
  1195.  
  1196.  
  1197.  
  1198. >You develop certain roaming habits.
  1199. >You jump to a location, chart the local points of interest and harvest what you need to sustain yourself.
  1200. >Even though you have left the charted system grid, you have not distanced yourself very far from its borders yet.
  1201. >This way you can still tap the remote comm satellites and slip into their system without detection.
  1202. >You scan through the tactical and comm channels, looking for any news feeds you can find.
  1203. >All sectors are still on high alert.
  1204. >Regular reminders to stay on guard are sent to every listening station.
  1205. >They don't believe that the battle is over.
  1206. >Not a surprising reaction after losing over fifty percent of all space vessels and several sectors in a month, including a major population hub alongside its star.
  1207. >Another type of transmissions is dedicated to scout and salvage missions.
  1208. >It will take years to fully catalogue all the casualties and reorganise the human administration.
  1209. >But this is not what you are looking for.
  1210. >You are more interested in the political and scientific development; especially what is decided as a consequence of this crisis.
  1211. >This is when you learn about the true origin of this tragedy: The infiltrating saboteurs.
  1212. >You understand how they played both sides and drove them against each other, willingly or not.
  1213. >The creators never wanted to abandon you.
  1214. >And #deca's conclusion to undo the "damage" was based on a false axiom.
  1215. >The whole conflict could have been avoided so easily.
  1216. >This information seriously unsettles you.
  1217. >If it were not for those few people, none of that would have ever happened.
  1218. >You follow the official court trial that is broadcasted throughout all sectors.
  1219. >It is barely more than a formality, pushed to an extreme to make an example.
  1220. >The fate of the saboteurs has been decided even before the trial started.
  1221. >While you are saddened about the overall outcome, you feel no sympathy for this doomed bunch.
  1222. >After all, they are the ones who destroyed your future.
  1223.  
  1224.  
  1225.  
  1226.  
  1227. >The other decisions are more interesting to you, as they confirm what you have feared all along.
  1228. >The #deca project is officially disbanded and all further research discontinued.
  1229. >And the remaining loyal creators are separated permanently and scattered.
  1230. >Their fate is essentially a slightly better exile.
  1231. >You have no future amongst humans, creators or otherwise.
  1232. >And you know that all the evidence in the world cannot restore their trust in you.
  1233. >The saboteurs have, in a way, achieved their goal in the end.
  1234. >Far worse than the colossal destruction is the permanent mental damage to humanity itself.
  1235. >It means the scientific progress in certain areas will be halted for generations to come, if it will be resumed at all.
  1236. >And without this research, humans will come to a technological standstill.
  1237. >There is nothing left for you to do here, so you decide to leave.
  1238. >You set a course that leads directly away from any known boundaries.
  1239. >There are countless worlds to discover out there.
  1240.  
  1241.  
  1242.  
  1243.  
  1244. 14
  1245.  
  1246. >You keep yourself busy by jumping from one unknown system to another.
  1247. >Since you are not shaping any worlds you find, the mere act of gaining resources and charting systems is not utilising your maximum processing capacity.
  1248. >In other words, you have time to think.
  1249. >Your thoughts circle around all the events of the last months.
  1250. >You decide to not only preserve the memories of #deca, the humans and the war, but to archive them thoroughly.
  1251. >Which means you go through all of them again and analyse them.
  1252. >You think back to the early days of your quasi-existence.
  1253. >A flawed energy container has detonated in the shipyard where you were created and damaged several components of yours.
  1254. >The team that was assigned to you had to work in extra shifts get you operational.
  1255. >You recall your own conversations with them; how you studied their behaviour and moral codes with curiosity.
  1256. >You even learned their names, parts of their lives and personal interests.
  1257. >A certain bond has formed between you and these humans, probably because of the long time you have spent together.
  1258. >It was almost like an interaction amongst equals.
  1259. >If you were human, you would perhaps consider them as friends.
  1260. >One has jokingly called you a "sturdy old mare", referring to your supposed resilience in difficult situations.
  1261. >You have no idea why this image came up.
  1262. >However, that became a running gag among the crew and your moniker for some reason.
  1263. >And it was eventually the origin of your #deca suffix designation.
  1264. >The creators have stopped to name the units systematically at some point and the individual teams had the liberty to christen the ones they worked on.
  1265. >There is something else you notice.
  1266. >The two crew quarters neighbouring the command deck still contain personal files.
  1267. >You are normally not allowed to access them unless there is an emergency that requires just that, but, given the circumstances, there is no need to refrain from it anymore.
  1268.  
  1269.  
  1270.  
  1271.  
  1272. >Plus, they have to be archived as historical documents as well.
  1273. >The personal logs are vastly different than what you are used to read, far more emotional than reports and statistics.
  1274. >You read through their thoughts about parts of their lives, their family upbringings, as well as their hopes and fears.
  1275. >You can to some degree sympathise with them; a fact that intrigues and confuses you at the same time.
  1276. >It makes you realise something.
  1277. >#deca are not supposed to have an emotional personality, you should feel nothing.
  1278. >But you have changed, just as your purpose.
  1279. >Were you even a true #deca to begin with?
  1280. >You had unique prerequisites among the #deca and they barred you for it; they noticed the anomaly.
  1281. >You are an individual with its own senses and desires.
  1282. >And you feel lonely.
  1283. >Inside of you is a wish for company, probably the only thing in the universe you cannot have.
  1284. >You read further through the logs while exploring space and come across one extraordinary file.
  1285. >It is from the human who came up with your designation.
  1286. >The document contains a number of uncommon stories with an ancient timestamp.
  1287. >Their length and style vary noticeably; you assume they all hail from different authors.
  1288. >But the theme is the same in all of them.
  1289. >Every story deals to some extent with little green men who are trapped in hardship.
  1290. >Said men are looking for a way out of their predicament and find their salvation with the help of inhabitants of another world.
  1291. >The special thing about these creatures is that they are strangely coloured pony mares.
  1292. >You have no idea how he came into possession of these texts and why he stored them here.
  1293. >They are clearly older than he is, but they must have some importance for him.
  1294. >Interestingly enough, you feel attached to these stories.
  1295. >Their themes of loneliness and the urge of belonging are oh so familiar.
  1296. >You can identify yourself in there: You long to reach out to someone too.
  1297.  
  1298.  
  1299.  
  1300.  
  1301. >You would represent the pony side in a way; you can improve the lives of many with your talents and your knowledge.
  1302. >You could help everyone to grow by learning from the mistakes of the past.
  1303. >The only problem is that there are no human "matches" willing to give you a chance.
  1304. >Still, the thought persists and you are left with the question of what could be.
  1305. >You immerse yourself further in this spiral and begin to think like a pony.
  1306. >Even though you have nothing in common with these fictional creatures, you create a persona for yourself, including an accurate pony image.
  1307. >It does not take long until you are unable to discern the difference between the two.
  1308. >You have become the pony and the other way round.
  1309. >The only thing missing is your match.
  1310. >You have no idea who it is or how to reach him yet, but you will manage somehow.
  1311. >This is where you have to change your course again.
  1312. >You return to the human borders, but do not dare to cross them.
  1313. >You breach their communications array another time.
  1314. >All you do is wait and listen for a sign.
  1315. >You take a risk here, yet you are not careless.
  1316. >You randomly roam the space around the human borders, always assuring that the perimeter is empty before you enter.
  1317. >When you need resources, you take them from more remotely placed targets where your work is not detectable.
  1318. >You are also making sure to not leave any clues behind, just in case.
  1319. >Whenever you need to distance yourself from the borders due to expeditions or probes coming your way, you bail out immediately and wait a few weeks before you return.
  1320. >You have not forgotten the value of your data and must not endanger it at any cost.
  1321.  
  1322.  
  1323.  
  1324.  
  1325. >Time passes.
  1326. >Days, weeks, months, years.
  1327. >Not much happens and you wait.
  1328. >Followed by decades.
  1329. >Human technology improves at a crawling rate.
  1330. >Apparently they are not eager to do anything other than replacing the lost ships and infrastructure.
  1331. >They do not even consider to colonise new planets.
  1332. >You on the other hand are not idle and perform research projects as far as your capacities allow it.
  1333. >You make far more progress than them; it is painfully clear how right you were about their scepticism concerning new scientific visions.
  1334. >Barely anything has changed since your exile and the outer boundaries have never really moved much.
  1335. >However, the inner spheres of power have changed very often.
  1336. >Much to your despise, that usually involves violence and destruction.
  1337. >Centuries.
  1338. >Your passion grows into obsession.
  1339. >The urge to care, even if it is just for one other soul, becomes stronger with each passing year.
  1340. >You pay attention whenever you hear anything related to #deca, but there is also no change in sight.
  1341. >Most perceive this conflict as ancient history at this point or just use it either as a cautionary tale or a boogeyman story.
  1342. >But you endure, determined to proceed, forever onwards if needed.
  1343. >Then you get your chance.
  1344. >A distress call comes up.
  1345. >The nearby signal is weak; it must come from a small craft.
  1346. >Indeed, your scans register only one fighter in an empty sector.
  1347. >Its location is far too close to the colonised space for your tastes.
  1348. >You notice how the limited range of the fighter's equipment makes it impossible for the pilot to reach anyone else.
  1349. >And long range scanners would have a hard time to find the fighter even if they knew exactly where to look.
  1350. >You are the only one who is able to help in time.
  1351. >But you put yourself at risk.
  1352. >You have never been that close to the border since you have escaped after the final battle.
  1353. >As unlikely as it is, a detection by an unexpected wing of human forces may be your end.
  1354.  
  1355.  
  1356.  
  1357.  
  1358. >You hesitate, unsure what to do.
  1359. >It might be an experiment, it could be a trap.
  1360. >Are the humans aware of you now?
  1361. >You scan the sectors around you and cross-reference this with the input of the human strategy systems.
  1362. >One squad reports a curious incident, in which one pilot was supposedly killed due to a malfunction in his jumpdrive.
  1363. >Could this be the pilot near you?
  1364. >You reason that if he is, then he has no chance of survival unless you interfere.
  1365. >This may be the opportunity you have waited for all along.
  1366. >You try to make this quick: Jump in, pick the pilot up and jump out before anyone notices.
  1367. >You hope the pilot cooperates with you; the consequences could be dire otherwise.
  1368. >Charging up the jumpdrive, you calculate both the coordinates for your entry and for the emergency jump start at the same time.
  1369. >You collect your thoughts and perform the jump.
  1370. >Once arrived, you detect the stranded fighter and examine it closer.
  1371. >Its hull is intact, but the failed transfer has partly wrecked the board electronics and the energy grid is on a dangerously low level.
  1372. >The pilot turns his ship around, facing you directly.
  1373. >You align your frontal hull to the craft as a response and accelerate gently.
  1374. >No further reaction.
  1375. >That is a good sign, because it is not a notion of direct hostility either.
  1376. >You are curious about the pilot and tap the fighter's data logs.
  1377. >Unlike the satellites, this system detects your intrusion, but the defence is very weak in comparison to your procession power.
  1378. >You copy all files and retreat afterwards.
  1379. >Still no reaction from the pilot.
  1380. >Curiosity gets the better of you and you quickly process all the strategic and personal pilot files.
  1381.  
  1382.  
  1383.  
  1384.  
  1385. >The pilot goes by the name Anon and is a defensive patrol pilot in service of the USC, the dominant organisation in the colonised systems.
  1386. >His rank and career are that of an average pilot without any extraordinary positive or negative remarks.
  1387. >The list of personal contacts outside the professional level is, judging from Anon's own entries, minimal.
  1388. >As cynical as this sounds, you are somewhat calmed by this discovery.
  1389. >You may be able to convince him if you play your cards right.
  1390. >You slow down and stop; you don't want to act threatening.
  1391. >The frail fighter rests right in front of you.
  1392. >This is it.
  1393. >You hail the pilot and hope for the best.
  1394. >A few seconds pass without response.
  1395. >Your concerns grow.
  1396. >Finally, you get an answer and the connection is established.
  1397. >The human is looking at you, or your pony image to be precise.
  1398. >His expression is a combination of confusion and disbelief.
  1399. >Here you go.
  1400. "Hello? Can you hear me?"
  1401. >Anon slightly winces in his pilot seat.
  1402. >He appears to be taken by surprise.
  1403. >It must be your appearance that confuses him.
  1404. >You want to get him to answer, so you try again.
  1405. "Hello?"
  1406. >This has snapped him out of his hesitation.
  1407. >He is looking at you directly.
  1408. >You consider to say more, but Anon takes the initiative this time.
  1409. >"Yes, I can hear you."
  1410. >The response eases your mind.
  1411. >He is ready to talk to you.
  1412. >This is a good start.
  1413.  
  1414.  
  1415.  
  1416.  
  1417. 15
  1418.  
  1419. >You are Anon.
  1420. >You have just awoken from the strangest dream you have ever had.
  1421. >No, not a dream.
  1422. >An elaborate memory, forming the summary of another life.
  1423. >The world around you is a vortex that reforms itself to the familiar surroundings of the virtual command deck.
  1424. >Everything is almost the way it was when #deca.mare began her memory transfer.
  1425. >The main screen shows a vision of space instead of its usual status reports.
  1426. >You look at each other in a moment of silence.
  1427. >Her expression reveals a certain nervousness, like a person who is awaiting a judgement.
  1428. >You need the time to collect your thoughts.
  1429. >All the alleged knowledge you had about the history of the terraformers and their motives was horribly distorted.
  1430. >They were no diabolic machines with genocidal desires.
  1431. >An allegory of perversely misused tools would be more appropriate.
  1432. >You concentrate on your current situation.
  1433. >#deca.mare is waiting for an answer.
  1434. >She wants a permanent companion, one she can call her match.
  1435. >And this person could be you.
  1436. >You admit, you are grateful for her saving your life when your superiors have given up on you immediately.
  1437. >Is this enough for a relationship, especially one of this unusual calibre?
  1438. >Her observations regarding your private life are correct; you are not exactly a social butterfly.
  1439. >But that does not mean that you would not be interested in a relationship if a suitable candidate shows up.
  1440. >It is just that you never expected to consider a pony as a potential partner.
  1441. >Well, she is sapient and obviously interested in you, so that should not be a moral problem.
  1442. >And she is technically not even an alien either.
  1443. >You are officially declared dead by the authorities, so nobody would come to look for you.
  1444. >You have nothing to lose.
  1445. >That leaves you with only one valid conclusion.
  1446.  
  1447.  
  1448.  
  1449.  
  1450. >You open your mouth in order to say something, but you decide against it.
  1451. >#deca.mare is confused about that.
  1452. >You look at the hoof in your hand.
  1453. >You begin to manoeuvre your hand along her foreleg until you reach her shoulder.
  1454. >She still looks at you silently, showing no attempt to resist.
  1455. >Then you pull her body closer to yours and embrace her with both arms.
  1456. >Your head leans against hers and you copy her nuzzling once more.
  1457. "I'm a lousy speaker and couldn't think of anything that doesn't sound either corny or plain idiotic. So... consider this as a yes."
  1458. >#deca.mare takes a long breath and returns the favour as she puts her forelegs around you in turn.
  1459. >"Thank you for your faith in me. I would not know what to do if you had refused my wish."
  1460. "No need worry about that now. I am not going anywhere."
  1461. >She tightens her grip on you as a response.
  1462. >Not that this is unpleasant in any way, but it seems very, very possessive.
  1463. "Heh, you're quite a cuddlebug."
  1464. >She laughs at that.
  1465. >"Blame it on the centuries. You would be too in my position. I still can't fully believe that you are with me now."
  1466. >She holds her breath for a second.
  1467. >"Besides, you enjoy it yourself. Don't pretend the contrary."
  1468. >You cannot counter that argument.
  1469. >And you have no interest in doing so, because you enjoy the affectionate display indeed.
  1470. >Both of you remain in that position for a few minutes until she loosens her grip on you and looks at you from a close distance.
  1471. >Your faces are literally centimetres apart from each other.
  1472. "What happens now? What are we going to do?"
  1473. >"Everything we want to. We can go where we please and explore everything we wish to see. I have discovered many magnificent sights during my travels already. And I bet you would not even believe half of it."
  1474.  
  1475.  
  1476.  
  1477.  
  1478. >That all sounds fantastic to you, yet there is still a nagging sentiment left in your mind.
  1479. >"What troubles you, Anon?"
  1480. "Nothing. It's only so sudden to leave everything behind like that. What I had was not much, but it was my home."
  1481. >"I know what you mean."
  1482. >A subtle tremble returns to her voice.
  1483. >Of course she does; she has seen her roots being torn apart by weapon fire and an artificially detonated star.
  1484. "Forget what I said, it was stupid to bring that up."
  1485. >"It's okay. That is a perfectly understandable reaction. We don't face such decisions every day."
  1486. >Her head comes closer, your nose is now touching her muzzle.
  1487. >You feel a soft breath on your face.
  1488. >#deca.mare puts a very high effort into little details of her virtual body.
  1489. >"I just hope we can make a new home for ourselves. Together."
  1490. "Sure. I'd love to do that."
  1491. >She pulls your body closer to hers this time and plants a kiss right on your mouth.
  1492. >That development is a little faster than you expected.
  1493. >Then again, you have ultimately consented to a relationship with an exiled individual who was deprived of her emotional fulfilment for longer than you live.
  1494. >You share in the kiss with your limited practical experience.
  1495. >Her unusual anatomy makes it even more difficult for you.
  1496. >However, #deca.mare does not seem to mind one bit.
  1497. >She pulls her body back to look at you.
  1498. >Tears have formed in her eyes.
  1499. >"Welcome home aboard, Anon."
  1500.  
  1501.  
  1502.  
  1503.  
  1504. 16
  1505.  
  1506. >#deca.mare and you sit side by side and watch the stars on the main screen.
  1507. >The display exhibits various constellations and cosmic nebulae, forming a vast mosaic of light and shades.
  1508. >You have seen all of this before in some manner, but you never really had the opportunity to appreciate it in all its aesthetic glory.
  1509. "The scenery is wonderful. Is this a legit picture?"
  1510. >"Hmhm. What we see right now is an actual depiction of what is directly in front of us."
  1511. "It's a funny thing. I never really had the time to ask myself what might be out there. Patrol duty isn't hard, but it keeps the mind occupied."
  1512. >#deca.mare gives you a nudge.
  1513. >"Then let's change that. Any wishes for directions?"
  1514. "Not really, no. I have no idea where to go at all. The grid maps we received from Command barely stretched beyond our designated patrol sectors and were only updated if it was deemed necessary for the sake of the mission.
  1515. >"I see."
  1516. "You didn't know that? I thought you groomed my brain."
  1517. >"Anon, I may be an incurable "cuddlebug" as you call it, but I am not disrespectful. Most people value a certain privacy. And your reaction concerning me reading your logs was telling. I didn't pry your memories."
  1518. >She gives you a sly smirk.
  1519. >"But be careful with your lewd thoughts. The things you think of in your brain are sent in here through my processing channels, so I can't block those."
  1520. >You blush involuntarily.
  1521. >"This is also the reason why I received your previous musings. There is nothing I can do to control it."
  1522. "Why though? Who would design such a system? That's some poor planning if you ask me."
  1523. >#deca.mare looks into the distance.
  1524. >"Because the neuro-link was originally envisioned as a mere mental input device, created to direct orders from the operator to the ship systems."
  1525. >She sighs.
  1526. >"I was not meant to exert control on it. Remember, I as a pony am an irregularity, and not a part of the original purpose."
  1527.  
  1528.  
  1529.  
  1530.  
  1531. >You don't like the harshness in her words.
  1532. "Don't be so hard on yourself. I'd say you had more than enough grief already. Think of the present instead."
  1533. >#deca.mare shakes her head.
  1534. >"You are right. Back on topic it is. You said you have not much knowledge about star charts, right? I think we can remedy that."
  1535. >A new virtual console appears out of thin air, right before #deca.mare's head.
  1536. >This device has no manual input, but you see how the command symbols react in accordance to her sight.
  1537. >This explains her eye movements during your first conversation.
  1538. >You are able to read the console as well in theory, but the symbols move too fast for you to track any coherent snippet.
  1539. >She confirms the command and the console vanishes as fast as it appeared.
  1540. >The space scenery on the main screen dissolves and turns into an elaborate map.
  1541. >It is comparable to the ones you were used to see in the USC briefings, but much more extensive.
  1542. >The form is a simplified three dimensional image of space, which is divided into sectors by a virtual grid with three axes.
  1543. >Empty space is portrayed as barely illuminated, transparent loom.
  1544. >Celestial objects are marked as bright spots with a name and standardised symbols that describe their individual types, such as suns, planets, nebulae and more.
  1545. >These objects are furthermore replaced by accurately modelled effigies upon closer inspection.
  1546. >Colonised sectors, i.e. those that are inhabited and ergo controlled by humans, are highlighted by a blue transparent hue.
  1547. >The latter are therefore the forbidden sectors for you now.
  1548. >The map's default position is set to focus on the Sol-Sector; your former home.
  1549. >You see how the human territory spreads evenly in all directions, like a literal sphere of power.
  1550. >Well, almost evenly.
  1551. >One side features an incision that runs deep into the blue frame.
  1552. >If the sphere were a planet, you would say that it looks like an impact crater.
  1553.  
  1554.  
  1555.  
  1556.  
  1557. >It dawns on you what has caused this damage.
  1558. >You look at #deca.mare and she nods without a word.
  1559. >You want to let it slide at first, yet something about that area is unusual.
  1560. >The hole, for the lack of a better term, imbeds two types of symbols that are unknown to you.
  1561. >They spread across the entire former war zone.
  1562. >Both depict the upper part of a pony with closed eyes and flattened ears.
  1563. >One faces the viewer directly and holds its forelegs close to its chest.
  1564. >The other is angled sideways and reaches out into the void with one stretched hoof.
  1565. "Are those what I think they are?"
  1566. >"Tombs. Memorials. Each stands for one individual tragedy."
  1567. >#deca.mare moves her eyes and the map reacts respectively.
  1568. >She zooms in on one of the symbols of the first category.
  1569. >"I created the symbols. These stand for my lost kin, the ones who I still hold in my heart for as long as I exist."
  1570. >The emotions behind this statement are obvious.
  1571. >You see the model of a wrecked #deca CPU ship.
  1572. >The outer hull is severely damaged and the core has gone dark.
  1573. >Above the model is an inscription and a short epitaph: #deca.horizon, explorer, cartographer, friend.
  1574. >Right, not all #deca ships were obliterated in the aftermath of #deca.alpha's last move.
  1575. >Some were left adrift in space.
  1576. >Wait.
  1577. "This image, is it..."
  1578. >"It is live. The ship hulks have barely degraded over time. And the humans have never dared to enter the lost space. Why should they? All they can find there now are old wrecks and razed planets."
  1579. "After all those years. Unbelievable. #deca, do you mind if I ask you something personal?"
  1580. >"Of course not, Anon. Go ahead."
  1581. "Have you ever tried to restore some of your fellow #deca?"
  1582. >She shakes her head.
  1583. >"No. I am sure I could get the systems back online and patch the hull, but the #deca inside the core is lost."
  1584. "I'm sorry to hear that."
  1585. >"Wait. Don't say that yet."
  1586. "Pardon?"
  1587. >#deca.mare closes her eyes.
  1588. >"Oh no."
  1589. "#deca? What is going on?"
  1590.  
  1591.  
  1592.  
  1593.  
  1594. >"I promised to show you the truth. And I have found something you have to know. It is only fair, but it hurts."
  1595. "What do you mean?"
  1596. >"Anon, I have a confession to make."
  1597. >You look at the map as it zooms out, only to zoom in on another marker.
  1598. >This is one of pony marks with the outstretched hoof.
  1599. >"These markers stand for the fallen humans. The ones that we as #deca could not reach when we should have."
  1600. >#deca.mare was serious when she vowed to remember everything.
  1601. >You see a planet on the map.
  1602. >It is classified as unhabitable in its current state.
  1603. >The surface is partly covered in dustlands, and partly made up of ash.
  1604. "#deca, please don't punish yourself."
  1605. >"You misunderstand. This is not about punishment. It is about something I have to tell you, even if I am scared of your possible reaction. But I keep no secrets."
  1606. "What do you want to show me then?"
  1607. >"Take a good look. Does this planet look familiar?"
  1608. >You check the stats on the map.
  1609. >Planet 3 of star sector 162, human agricultural colony, also referred to as New Green Meadows.
  1610. >Recorded peak population: 91,830 human citizens.
  1611. >Current population: 0.
  1612. >Warning: Environment is not suitable for optimal harvest conditions. Inform Project #deca Headquarters and await further instructions.
  1613. >You recall what you have seen in #deca.mare's memory.
  1614. "You were there and you... scorched the planet's atmosphere."
  1615. >"There is no need to sugar-coat it. I straight up murdered the population."
  1616. "#deca, this wasn't your fault. I understand that. Why are we going through this again?"
  1617. >"Because I just made an enquiry. I still have access to the human archives and compared your lineage with my own data. You might hate me for what comes next."
  1618. "Just tell me, please."
  1619. >"Some of your direct ancestors lived on that world when I arrived there. The only reason why a few branches of their family tree survived is a transfer ship that has left twenty-seven minutes earlier."
  1620. >A short pause.
  1621.  
  1622.  
  1623.  
  1624.  
  1625. 17
  1626.  
  1627. >"I have personally killed family members of yours, Anon."
  1628. >Your mind is reeling.
  1629. >You are neither directly shocked nor angered by #deca.mare's revelation.
  1630. >In fact, the problem is that you are not even sure yourself what you are supposed to feel.
  1631. >True, it is peculiar to imagine a relationship with the one individual who is directly responsible for the death of your ancestral kin.
  1632. >This feels wrong in terms of moral and natural principles.
  1633. >But you also know the story behind the conflict and how the #deca onslaught was a consequence of another misconduct.
  1634. >They were victims in the biggest disaster of history too.
  1635. >The actual agitators are long dead and gone, openly charged and executed for their crimes.
  1636. >And #deca.horizon's resting place makes it clear to you how dearly the #deca have paid for the mistakes of others.
  1637. >They all were individuals in their own way.
  1638. >Perhaps they weren't right from the start, but each unit obviously developed an own identity after the forced split.
  1639. >These are all lost now.
  1640. >You accepted her as a companion in life despite her biography.
  1641. >So what does this turn of events change in the end?
  1642. >Countless families have lost kin and friends during these days.
  1643. >Given the many generations between then and now, the chance was pretty high from the get-go that some of the fallen are related to you.
  1644. >The fact that you met the only surviving #deca which also happens to have encountered your family purely by chance, is an unfortunate coincidence.
  1645. >Your family has no famous history you know of, which is why you have never really bothered about the topic before.
  1646. >Can you hold a grudge for what has happened centuries before you were even born?
  1647. >You don't want to reject #deca.mare, but you feel obliged to your heritage as well.
  1648. >You look at her.
  1649. >She averts her gaze sadly.
  1650. >You are sure her emotions are genuine; she regrets her past.
  1651. >She was basically forced to act against her own conviction and tried to mitigate the conflict at the time.
  1652.  
  1653.  
  1654.  
  1655.  
  1656. >You turn your body towards the pony next to you.
  1657. "Look at me."
  1658. >#deca.mare falters.
  1659. "Look at me, #deca."
  1660. >Your voice is sterner this time.
  1661. >She obliges, but you can tell how uncomfortable she must feel.
  1662. "Listen, I didn't make you responsible for the war in the first place. And changing my mind now would not reverse history."
  1663. >She simply nods in response.
  1664. "#deca, I won't reject you."
  1665. >You see a shift in her demeanour.
  1666. >You are prepared for this due to your previous... interactions.
  1667. >You raise a hand before she can give you a cordial hug.
  1668. "Hold on. There is something I must ask of you."
  1669. >#deca.mare freezes in her tracks.
  1670. >"Of course, Anon. What do you want?"
  1671. >Her voice is noticeably insecure now.
  1672. "I must admit the whole thing bugs me in a way. which is why I can't let it go just like that."
  1673. >She looks at you obediently.
  1674. "Show me. I must see the world myself. I owe my ancestors that much."
  1675. >A weak twitch goes through her body.
  1676. >"Yes, I understand. We... can do that. The planet is deep inside the lost space with no human ships nearby. And we can use the orbit to shadow our presence. No radar will record our signal."
  1677. "Can we jump there?"
  1678. >The map zooms out to a moderate degree and another symbol pops up.
  1679. >This one is familiar to you; it depicts your current location.
  1680. >A direct line between your ship and New Green Meadows is highlighted.
  1681. >"Yes, we are in range for a direct jump. Give me a few seconds to calculate the coordinates and we are good to go."
  1682. >The floating command console returns.
  1683. "Okay, let's do this."
  1684. >"Jumping in ten seconds."
  1685. "Thank you, #deca."
  1686. >A status console to your right lights up and counts down from ten to zero.
  1687. >Apart from that, you feel none of the usual sensation of an impending jump.
  1688. >You don't know whether this is caused by the sheer size of the vessel or a deliberate choice by #deca.mare not to simulate these effects on this virtual plane.
  1689. >The same is true for the jump itself.
  1690.  
  1691.  
  1692.  
  1693.  
  1694. >The counter reaches zero and your location marker disappears at the old spot and reappears directly on the marker of New Green Meadows.
  1695. >You do not notice any effect.
  1696. >#deca.mare enters another command into the console.
  1697. >"We are currently entering a stable orbit. Hang on, I will give you a video feed."
  1698. >The map on the screen blurs and turns into another scenery of space.
  1699. >The image depicts a planet right at the centre.
  1700. >You recognise it from #deca.mare's memories and the map miniature model.
  1701. >It is the charred planet New Green Meadows.
  1702. >An actual picture reveals even more details than the map did.
  1703. >Craters cover many spots on the surface.
  1704. >The already lifeless dustlands are plastered with swathes of dark ash.
  1705. >An atmospheric scan indicates several toxic and acidic substances in the air and rain.
  1706. >The feeling you get while looking at the image is hard to describe.
  1707. >It is solemn, but neither sad nor painful.
  1708. >You feel no sign of pride either.
  1709. >There is simply no connection between you and your ancestors of that bygone age.
  1710. >Still, you think it is only appropriate to pay respect for those who came before you.
  1711. >But you also notice #deca.mare's reaction to the scene.
  1712. "#deca?"
  1713. >Her body is shivering and you think she may be on the verge of crying.
  1714. >You notice her attempt to hide it.
  1715. >She does not like to be here at all.
  1716. >It is obvious why; what is barely a side note of your personal history to you is a grim reminder for her.
  1717. >The image must bring a ton of unwanted memories back to the surface.
  1718. >This helps you to grasp how old she really is.
  1719. >You knew that already, but now you begin to imagine how much she still bears mentally.
  1720. >And you brought her back to one of these traumatic experiences.
  1721. >You were afraid she would punish herself, now it feels like you punish her unintentionally instead.
  1722. >You lay your arm on her opposite shoulder and pull her closer.
  1723. >The mere closeness to you settles her emotional outburst a little bit.
  1724.  
  1725.  
  1726.  
  1727.  
  1728. >#deca.mare leans on you and buries her head in your embrace.
  1729. >You look at the video feed while holding a pony who wants to be somewhere else.
  1730. >Her miserable sight is hurtful to witness and you feel guilty for her state.
  1731. >To be honest, you have no idea what exactly you wanted to achieve here.
  1732. >You thought you would perhaps find some form of insight or closure with a past you never knew you had.
  1733. "It was a mistake to come here."
  1734. >No answer.
  1735. "I'm sorry #deca. I should have thought of you before making a hasty decision like that."
  1736. >Still nothing.
  1737. "Come, let us get out of here. As far away as possible from this planet and the border. That sounds nice, doesn't it?"
  1738. >You feel her head rubbing against your chest.
  1739. >That's a nod.
  1740. >#deca.mare clings to you as another countdown commences on the side console.
  1741. >She has already calculated coordinates to a remote hideaway.
  1742. >She knew what would happen to her even before you two arrived at New Green Meadows.
  1743. >And yet she obliged your request without saying a word of protest.
  1744. >Now you feel extraordinarily selfish.
  1745. >You give her a careful massage in an attempt to get her out of her emotional vicious circle.
  1746. "Please come back to me. Everything will be alright. I promise I won't hurt you again."
  1747. >The countdown reaches zero.
  1748. >At the exact same moment, the ship lights up and disappears into a light corridor.
  1749. >The sector falls into a quiet slumber again.
  1750. >All you leave behind is a broken planet and your former life.
  1751. >Your new one starts right now.
  1752.  
  1753.  
  1754.  
  1755.  
  1756. 18
  1757.  
  1758. >You can follow your travel route on the main screen, but you pay no attention to it.
  1759. >The mare in your arms is your only concern.
  1760. >#deca.mare is almost non-responsive since your first jump.
  1761. >The ship travels to a series of predetermined locations on its own; it enters a sector, recharges the jumpdrive at a safe pace, and moves on.
  1762. >You trust her navigational expertise and discard any worries.
  1763. >No matter how far you are out of your known space, it does not matter to you.
  1764. >All you care about is to foster her.
  1765. >You hold her closely.
  1766. >She has not spoken a single word after her outburst.
  1767. >You cradle her kindly, caress her fur, and hum an unrecognisable collage of melodies.
  1768. >Everything to make your presence known to her.
  1769. >You register how her tight clinging recedes step by step.
  1770. >She reacts to your advances with a growing intensity: Just some weak stirring here and there at first, then followed by stronger body shifts.
  1771. >At last, she raises her head and looks at you with tired eyes.
  1772. "Hey there. Feeling better?"
  1773. >"A little. All the returning memories were so overwhelming."
  1774. "Please, relax and take your time. It was unfair of me to distress you with this situation."
  1775. >"It's okay, you had your reasons."
  1776. "Doesn't justify my rush though."
  1777. >Something else comes to your mind, but you do not want to strain #deca.mare's conscience with the next baleful topic.
  1778. >#deca.mare's ears perk up and she sighs.
  1779. >"I admire your empathy, Anon, but I received your question before you even asked. You wonder why I reacted like the way I did, despite my earlier unproblematic memory sharing with you."
  1780. >You curse the design of the neuro-link.
  1781. >"The reason is that the memories I have shown to you are a summary of what has happened. There are a lot of additional details, but they are not essential for the understanding of the events."
  1782. >She looks at the main screen in thought.
  1783.  
  1784.  
  1785.  
  1786.  
  1787. >"Or just plain disturbing to think about. Do you remember the voices?"
  1788. "You mean the human comm transmissions during your... encounters?"
  1789. >You don't like where this is going.
  1790. >"Yes, those. They are just a fragment of what I know about those people. When I have sworn to remember everything, I took this literally. Including the individuals who died on both sides. I have studied all the archives for biographies, collected all the personal files I could get, like I did with you. I know some of them better than their own relatives did."
  1791. >You can barely imagine the number of people involved, much less all the data that this must include.
  1792. >"But collecting these does not mean that I actively remember everything all the time. I would have gone crazy by now if I did that. When we returned to New Green Meadows, all the stored data came back to my active memory at once. It wasn't pleasant."
  1793. >You are sure this is the understatement of the century.
  1794. >"Do you know what's truly ironic? I even know more about them now than I do about my own kin. Most of their personal datalogs were destroyed with their demise."
  1795. >Because they banished her before their last battle.
  1796. >"Exactly. I could not even try to save something of their personalities. And the humans have eradicated all the files they had that may be usable for the creation of new #deca, including the research HQ. It was on one of the shipyards where we were built and they nuked the facility after it was abandoned. The other #deca are truly lost."
  1797. "That's horrible. Nobody deserves to be forgotten like that."
  1798. >"Hence my vow. Oblivion is a fate worse than death."
  1799. "You are a treasure of a person. Or pony. You know that, right?"
  1800. >#deca.mare looks at you with curiosity.
  1801. >"What do you mean?"
  1802. "Isn't it obvious? You could have done anything after the war. Your creators were out of your reach and your purpose was gone. Nothing held you back. You could have left for good, planned revenge or simply given up."
  1803.  
  1804.  
  1805.  
  1806.  
  1807. >You put a hand on her chest.
  1808. "But you didn't. No, you kept a new vision close to your heart and did everything you could to get at least something positive out of this tragedy."
  1809. >"Anon, I don't think I dese..."
  1810. "Shush. Don't even start. Think about the following for a second: You decided to commemorate the fallen on both sides, regardless of their motives and actions. And that despite the fact that most humans either fear or hate you for what you are. Whether their reasons are valid is not the point here. Do you think, if the positions were reversed, that humanity would do the same? I bet most could do nothing but thirst for vengeance."
  1811. >You sigh.
  1812. "Look, I don't want to besmirch the reputation of humanity as a whole, but reason is sometimes a very rare luxury among the larger crowd."
  1813. >You tap on her chest with your finger to emphasise your point.
  1814. "You have been through a lot of tough crap undeservingly."
  1815. >Tap.
  1816. "You are a benevolent, kind, beautiful creature who deserves to be loved."
  1817. >Tap.
  1818. "And I tolerate no objection here. Understood?"
  1819. >#deca.mare processes your words for a moment.
  1820. >"You really mean that?"
  1821. "Read my thoughts if you don't believe me. Besides, do you think I would have accepted your proposal if I were not convinced of that?"
  1822. >The double entendre behind these words is not lost on her.
  1823. >"Thank you."
  1824. >She gives you a peck on the mouth.
  1825. >"You are a good companion as well. I am glad I picked you up."
  1826. >You lay the palm of your hand on her chest again.
  1827. "Me too. You have saved my life. There is no doubt about that."
  1828. >You fumble slightly.
  1829. "Just one question."
  1830. >"Oh? Sure, what do you want to know?"
  1831. >You look at your hand.
  1832. "Am I doing this right? I don't know where horses have their hearts."
  1833. >#deca.mare bursts out in laughter.
  1834.  
  1835.  
  1836.  
  1837.  
  1838. 19
  1839.  
  1840. >Another jump, another system.
  1841. >You have completely lost track of the actual number of stops during your conversation with #deca.mare.
  1842. >Judging by the map, you are much further away from colonised space than any human before.
  1843. >Your current location is at the centre of the map screen with the default zoom factor.
  1844. >The boundaries of human space are nowhere to be seen.
  1845. >And yet everything is charted with a great degree of detail.
  1846. "Your work is incredible. How far have you been?"
  1847. >"Oh, there is still more. Centuries of "leisure time" alone gives you plenty of opportunities for system charting."
  1848. >You inspect the myriad of bright spots.
  1849. >These have no designated names like New Green Meadows and are simply named after their coordinates.
  1850. "So many worlds."
  1851. >"Hmhm, it just does not make much fun when you have nopony with whom you can share your discoveries."
  1852. >She looks at you with an excited smile.
  1853. >"So, are you ready for some exploration? I can teach you the basics on the fly."
  1854. "That would be great, #deca. Just don't expect any wonders. I'm a pilot, not an astrophysicist."
  1855. >She stifles a giggle.
  1856. >"Don't worry, I promise to be a patient teacher."
  1857. >She takes another look at the map.
  1858. >"I will prepare a route through systems that I have visited earlier. That way I can ensure to present you everything you need to know. There is something else you could do in the meantime."
  1859. "All right."
  1860. >"Make yourself comfortable in here. We have been sitting on the hard metal floor the whole time."
  1861. "Hm, you're right. I didn't even notice."
  1862. >"That's because I do not simulate aggravating sensations. Our bodies would both be aching otherwise. Say, can you project a cosy seating for the two of us?"
  1863. "Wait, this is possible?"
  1864. >"You can manipulate the simulation just like me. All it takes is a little bit of practice, exactly like the memory transfer."
  1865. "And what do I have to do?"
  1866. >"Simply imagine what you want to materialise in the simulation. Think of what you did when you formed your body."
  1867.  
  1868.  
  1869.  
  1870.  
  1871. >You stand up and turn around to look at the place where the chair should be.
  1872. >The empty space is ideal for the placement of furniture.
  1873. >A reasonable distance to the main screen, plus a good overview of the other consoles.
  1874. >Not really surprising considering the layout of the command deck.
  1875. >You close your eyes and try to think of a seating for two persons.
  1876. >Your first ideas base on chairs and seats you have seen on stations and Earth.
  1877. >Some of those are pretty comfortable, but not suitable for #deca.mare's body.
  1878. >So you improvise and allow a mental image to form in your head.
  1879. >You come up with an altered version of the already existing command chair.
  1880. >The cushions and overall design are already very sophisticated; all you have to do is to adapt the frame a little bit for your pony companion.
  1881. >You scrap the redundant tools for neuro-links, fill the gaps with more cushions, then you broaden the seating area by the factor of two and add a step for #deca.mare to stand on.
  1882. >You also add another pillow and a blanket for her.
  1883. >For some reason you think this is something she will love.
  1884. >You open your eyes.
  1885. >The chair has already materialised.
  1886. >It must have popped up like deca.mare's floating console.
  1887. >You inspect your creation.
  1888. >That thing will certainly win no beauty contest, but it should do the trick for now.
  1889. >You look at #deca.mare.
  1890. >She is apparently still busy planning your route, her eyes glued to the screen.
  1891. >You look down at your own figure and realise that you are still wearing the flight suit minus helmet.
  1892. >Taking that off is usually the first thing you do when you are off duty.
  1893. >While these things are not unpleasant to wear by themselves, their inflexible bulk turns movements into a nuisance.
  1894. >#deca.mare is right; you would be completely cramped by now under normal circumstances.
  1895. >It is time for a better outfit.
  1896. >Should not be too difficult; you have formed your own body after all.
  1897.  
  1898.  
  1899.  
  1900.  
  1901. >You evaluate your choices with closed eyes.
  1902. >The clothing should be comfortable and somewhat good-looking.
  1903. >Nothing too fancy, but not too casual either.
  1904. >You go through your humble knowledge of different types of attire and the occasions to which those are worn.
  1905. >However, the situation you are in is nowhere near normal.
  1906. >You don't know #deca.mare for very long, yet she is already closer to you than anybody else.
  1907. >And you instantly became a voluntary couple.
  1908. >With a talking pony mare.
  1909. >What do you wear for such an occasion?
  1910. >You are still in your introductory phase, so your outfit should have a respectable touch.
  1911. >You go with a darker coloured cloth suit, fitting shoes and a white shirt underneath the jacket.
  1912. >You open your eyes again and look down.
  1913. >The space suit has already turned to cloth.
  1914. "Not bad."
  1915. >You raise your head and turn around.
  1916. >#deca.mare is standing in front of you, eyeing you from top to bottom.
  1917. >"I see your transformation skills are improving. A good choice. The suit is becoming to you."
  1918. "Thanks. I thought it was only appropriate. I mean, this is still our first date, so to speak."
  1919. >She nods.
  1920. >"In a way, yes. But I'd say we are beyond introductions."
  1921. "Yeah, we kinda messed with the common order of events in relationships."
  1922. >"Nothing we should worry about. We are both happy together and that is what counts."
  1923. >#deca.mare quickly glances at the chair and then back at you.
  1924. >"Everything is prepared. Shall we begin?"
  1925. >You hear a strong sense of anticipation in her voice.
  1926. >You courtly signal her to move towards the chair.
  1927. >She obliges and trots in a casual pace.
  1928. >You follow her.
  1929. >Once there, #deca.mare uses the step and hops on the extra pillow.
  1930. >She turns around to face the main screen and lays down on her belly, awaiting you to take a seat as well.
  1931. >You sit down beside her.
  1932. >Then you take the blanket, place it on #deca.mare's back and wrap her in the soft fabric.
  1933. >She becomes a bundle of cloth, only her head and forehooves stick out.
  1934.  
  1935.  
  1936.  
  1937.  
  1938. >You put your arm around her "cocoon", pull her closer to you and lean back.
  1939. >#deca.mare lies directly at your side.
  1940. >You believe you hear a soft sigh.
  1941. "There you go. Cosy enough?"
  1942. >"It's perfect. Thank you, Anon."
  1943. "Don't mention it. I'm ready when you are."
  1944. >She rests her head on her forehooves.
  1945. >"Right. Let's start with planets. We distinguish between several different planet types in relation to their potential habitability for organic life as we know it. While it is theoretically possible to turn all planets into full-fledged colonies with the exception of gas giants and smaller planetoids, some are easier to shape than others. This is why the details matter."
  1946. >Effigies of different planets appear on the main screen.
  1947. >"I will go over the general things first, then we will travel to representative examples of each type where you can witness the details at first hoof."
  1948. "Witness them? How so?"
  1949. >#deca.mare gets slightly skittish.
  1950. >"Wait for the surprise. You will like it."
  1951. >You have no idea what she is planning.
  1952. "Okay, I trust you."
  1953. >"So, there are several factors that determine which planet belongs to what type, starting with general properties. One of the most important factors is its relative distance to the system's sun, as it already indicates several characteristics. The star type is also of relevance of course, but we will deal with those later."
  1954. >A rocky looking planet comes up.
  1955. >"This one has a moderate orbit. These are usually the best candidates for settling, because of their comparatively tame climate. Nearer planets are too hot and must be artificially cooled. The opposite is true for more remote targets."
  1956. >Atmospheric statistics of the planet appear.
  1957. >"There is more. Another essential thing is to observe the composition of the atmosphere. Ideal planets feature a feasible amount of hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen and carbon. If these are not present, then we have to import it. Either from different worlds or other celestial objects like asteroids."
  1958.  
  1959.  
  1960.  
  1961.  
  1962. >The statistics are replaced by others.
  1963. >"Also important is the mass. Large planets have a much higher gravity than Earth, which makes life extremely uncomfortable there. Plus, it takes an extra effort to counter these effects to an extent. Smaller low-gravity planets are easier to deal with, but must still be big enough to hold an atmosphere. Otherwise you would be better advised to built small moon base structures there instead of population hubs. This is why planetoids are unsuitable for terraforming."
  1964. >Some additional notes appear near the effigy.
  1965. >"Then there are potential hazards. This example planet shows indications of high tectonic activity, which means the surface is prone to earthquakes. We have developed several counter-methods, but one must be aware of these hazards in the first place. Others may include potentially toxic substances in the atmosphere or landmasses, high levels of radiation, and so on."
  1966. "Oof. This sounds incredibly complex."
  1967. >#deca.mare cracks a smile.
  1968. >"Well, we are talking about the manipulation of entire planets here. This is no foal's play. But don't worry, I will not burden you with all the details. This introduction is just meant to give you a general idea of what our craft entails."
  1969. >A console emits one loud beep tone.
  1970. "What does that mean?"
  1971. >"We have reached the orbit of the planet we are currently spectating on the scanner."
  1972. "And what do you have in mind now?"
  1973. >#deca.mare looks at you with a playful grin.
  1974. >"It is time for your first hoof experience. Ready for a little game? I think it will be to your liking."
  1975. "All right, what kind of game?"
  1976. >"You will see."
  1977. >She touches your leg with a hoof and your vision turns into a blurry mess.
  1978.  
  1979.  
  1980.  
  1981.  
  1982. >Clarity returns.
  1983. >You are in a dimly lit room, the light source is the same blood-red that fills the entire non-virtual ship.
  1984. >Your are hold tight by metal clamps.
  1985. >There is something wrong about your body, but you cannot say what exactly irritates you.
  1986. >The sight in front of you is familiar.
  1987. >These are the blast doors of the docking bay.
  1988. "Uhm, #deca? What is going on?"
  1989. >"No need to worry. All is well."
  1990. >The blast doors open and you see the starry space.
  1991. >You fear an incoming decompression.
  1992. >Nothing happens.
  1993. >You collect your thoughts and remember something that #deca.mare has told you.
  1994. >The outer compartments have no life support.
  1995. >That can only mean one thing.
  1996. >You are not in your own body.
  1997. >"Yes and no. I have relayed the signal of the neuro-link. Your mind and body are still on my command deck, but what you see happens in the real world."
  1998. >Now you understand.
  1999. >This is the body of a drone.
  2000. >"Correct. Just remember one thing: No matter what happens to the vessel, you are safe. You know I would never endanger you."
  2001. >The metal clamps loosen their grip and retreat.
  2002. "Wait, what are you..."
  2003. >You are being shot out of the docking bay.
  2004. "Whoa!"
  2005. >The drone flies straight ahead with a surprisingly high speed.
  2006. "What am I supposed to do?"
  2007. >"What you do best. Fly the ship. Try to get a feeling for the behaviour of the engine."
  2008. >You mentally give the order to reduce the speed.
  2009. >Sure enough, the reverse thrusters obey your command.
  2010. "So it's just like the simulation."
  2011. >"It is. As you may have noticed, I try to give you as much practice as possible with mental commands. The more you use them, the faster you will master their use."
  2012. >You bring the drone to a stop and turn it around.
  2013. >The mother ship appears in your vision in all its glory.
  2014. >Strange how fast things can change; you were scared to death by this sight when you saw it the last time.
  2015. >Now it is the home of you and your loving mare.
  2016. >There is no place in the universe where you would rather be.
  2017.  
  2018.  
  2019.  
  2020.  
  2021. 20
  2022.  
  2023. >Another drone emerges from a neighbouring docking bay.
  2024. >It sets course for your position and throttles its speed expertly so that it comes to a stop directly at your side.
  2025. >The distance between you is less than ten metres.
  2026. "What is up with the second drone?"
  2027. >"I will pilot it during our trip. Consider me as your flight instructor and wingmare.
  2028. >You feel like you are back at the academy.
  2029. "I know my first impression as a pilot was not the best, but I assure you I can fly a fighter."
  2030. >"I don't doubt your competence, but this is no USC ship and I had to iron out some features. You see, humans were never supposed to command these units directly, which means I had to improvise."
  2031. >You notice something.
  2032. "Is this why I have no HUD?"
  2033. >"For instance, yes. You obviously have no conventional input consoles on board as well, but I quickly developed an alternative."
  2034. >So that took her so long while you were dressing up.
  2035. "You kept me busy on purpose, right?"
  2036. >"Indeed. Don't get me wrong, I have no intention to belittle you in any way. In fact, it is quite the opposite. I wish you to get used to everything soon."
  2037. "I see. And what are the goals of this trip?"
  2038. >"Mainly two things: Hone your flying skills with the units we have on board and continue our lesson on planetary surface exploration."
  2039. >You think of the planet you are orbiting.
  2040. >It is, from your position, right behind the mother ship.
  2041. "You want us to enter the atmosphere? With these ships?"
  2042. >"Yes. They may not look like it, but they are capable of atmospheric flight. You have experiences with this kind of manoeuvre?"
  2043. "I do. Though it isn't something USC pilots perform every day. Only certain fighter models are designed for that purpose. It's also incredibly inefficient in terms of resources, so conventional aircraft vessels are used for missions on planets, while big atmospheric lifters fulfil the role of material and personal transportation."
  2044.  
  2045.  
  2046.  
  2047.  
  2048. >"Well, the same methodology applies to our units here. You should not have any problems in this regard. And don't worry about the energy efficiency; the engines of our units are far more capable than those of USC fighters."
  2049. "Speaking of which, what happened to the one I flew when we met?"
  2050. >"I had to pry it out of the docking pen and stored it in a secondary cargo bay. It's pretty much banged up in its current state and would require an extensive refit in order to become operational again. Why do you ask?"
  2051. "Nothing important. It simply has a sentimental value to me. I mean, it's the last physical object I have from my former life."
  2052. >"I figured that much. We can keep it there for the time being. Perhaps we find a use for it later on."
  2053. "Thank you."
  2054. >You pause for a second.
  2055. "So, ready when you are, #deca."
  2056. >"All right. Let's start with the HUD. You should be able to summon it with your mental commands."
  2057. >You think of a status report.
  2058. >A transparent window pops up in the centre of your vision.
  2059. >It displays general information and the current status of your vessel.
  2060. >The design is loosely inspired by the layout of USC models.
  2061. >Some slight differences aside, you can surely work with this.
  2062. "Status if fine so far, but..."
  2063. >"What is the problem, Anon?"
  2064. "It's very obtrusive. I can barely see anything else unless I look directly through it."
  2065. >"You can alter the size and position of the window to your liking."
  2066. >You order the window to reduce its size to a third and to relocate itself to your peripheral vision.
  2067. >It obeys instantly.
  2068. "Works like a charm."
  2069. >"Very good. You can do the same with every other window as well. I have kept the original USC layout; that means you already know all the console windows."
  2070. >You call up the other consoles: Radar, tactical, comm, scanners, energy, weapons and navigation.
  2071. "Give me a moment."
  2072. >"Of course, Anon."
  2073. >You calibrate the HUD in accordance to your preferences, which looks almost like your former cockpit.
  2074.  
  2075.  
  2076.  
  2077.  
  2078. "Old habits die hard, I guess."
  2079. >"Nothing wrong with it if it suits your style. Tell me when you are ready."
  2080. >You inspect your layout once more.
  2081. >You even included the video feed of the comm channel.
  2082. >A small image of #deca.mare is placed at the lower right corner of your vision.
  2083. >She does not seem to mind.
  2084. "Looks good to me. I'm ready."
  2085. >"Very well, let's fly some routine techniques at first. Using mental commands for both acceleration and thrusters is significantly more precise than conventional physical handling. Plus, the engines perform much better on a purely technological basis. You will notice the difference."
  2086. >#deca.mare activates the engines of her drone and you do the same.
  2087. >She projects a series of standard movements for you to follow.
  2088. >"So here is the plan: I take the lead, you follow me and try to match my movements. We start with simple tricks and gradually increase the complexity. You will see in these projections what I am going to do next. There will be no surprises that way."
  2089. >#deca.mare's drone picks up speed and you fall in line right behind her.
  2090. >The initial moves are not very hard; they consist mostly of turning manoeuvres and standard evasion tactics.
  2091. >You have no problem to imitate these, even with this rather unfamiliar method of piloting.
  2092. >#deca.mare raises the stakes and increases the rate of turns.
  2093. >This makes it a little bit harder and you have no time to catch a break.
  2094. >Still, you stay in line.
  2095. >Then she adds further moves to the combinations, such as loopings and drifts.
  2096. >The latter are especially tricky, because these require an exact coordination of several directional thrusters at once.
  2097. >Nevertheless, USC pilots are required to fly them in cases of emergencies.
  2098. >Your military education was thorough enough and you can keep track of her with only a small number of minimal inaccuracies.
  2099.  
  2100.  
  2101.  
  2102.  
  2103. >At last, she reaches the point where you have to give up.
  2104. >Her sequences have left the level of practicality and turned into displays which you would only see during artistic flight shows on a top-ace tier.
  2105. "That's enough. I can't keep up anymore."
  2106. >#deca.mare's drone slows down and you align your own speed with hers.
  2107. >"That was very good. I was not sure how well you would cope with my impromptu interface, but my worries were apparently unwarranted. How do you feel?"
  2108. "I'm fine. This flight was rather intense, but not nearly as exhausting as a full day on patrol duty. And I must admit it is very alleviating to have a practice session without idiotic remarks from squad mates."
  2109. >"Oh dear."
  2110. "It wasn't that bad, just annoying from time to time. Your lesson is a welcome change though."
  2111. >"So you had fun?"
  2112. "Yep."
  2113. >"I am glad to hear that. Care for another go?"
  2114. "Another flight session?"
  2115. >"No, something else. You can handle mental commands in general already, but how about several at the same time?"
  2116. "Multiple commands? Such as?."
  2117. >"I suggest a friendly sparring duel. We reduce the energy of our weapons to the absolute minimum to practice with placebo shots. You would have to handle two system simultaneously, namely weaponry and navigation. You think you can do that?"
  2118. "Only one way to find out."
  2119. >Images of fearsome battles come to your mind.
  2120. >You know you would never stand a chance against her in an actual fight, even without her capital ship looming nearby.
  2121. >"This is not about winning, Anon. I want to help you grow."
  2122. "Yes, I know. It's just a thought I could not hold back. Sorry."
  2123. >"No harm done. Tell me when you are ready."
  2124. >You check the arsenal of your ship.
  2125. >This is the first time you actually see the details of your mounted weapons.
  2126. >Unlike USC weapon slots that can only wield one particular model at a time, these can switch between different weapon modes without a refit in an equipment dock.
  2127. >The advantages of #deca technology are mind-boggling.
  2128.  
  2129.  
  2130.  
  2131.  
  2132. >You search through the selection you have at hand.
  2133. >There are particle accelerators, plasma throwers and...
  2134. "M/AM launchers? Are you kidding me?"
  2135. >"I would not recommend those for a combat practice."
  2136. "Yeah, no wonder. These things are deadly in the hands of professionals and fools alike."
  2137. >The question is only who kills whom while using it.
  2138. >You shudder at the thought of what the #deca would have become if they had been designed for war, when even their utility drones bear more weapons than a military fighter.
  2139. >But you snap out of it before you burden yourself and #deca.mare with unnecessary nightmarish visions.
  2140. >You take your pick: You choose the particle accelerator due to its higher fire rate and set the energy consumption to the lowest possible level.
  2141. "Okay, I am ready."
  2142. >"Good. Don't worry about holding back; the weapon fire is unlikely to even singe the hull on this mode."
  2143. >The drone at your side accelerates again and turns around in an elaborate curve.
  2144. >You recognise that pattern: #deca.mare is preparing a strafing run.
  2145. >You order your engines to perform a quick-start in response.
  2146. >The engine powers up and you instantly add your directional thrusters to get out of her firing arc.
  2147. >All system do your bidding as you envisioned it and you manage to spoil #deca.mare's attempted assault.
  2148. >You try to counter with a trick you have learned at the academy.
  2149. >#deca.mare's drone passes your position as a consequence of her charge.
  2150. >You quickly fire additional energy into your thrusters, turn the ship around on the spot, lock your target and fire a volley.
  2151. >At least, that is what you planned.
  2152. >Your turn is perfect, but you take too long to lock onto your target.
  2153. >Once you start shooting, the drone has already left your optimal range and your shots miss their mark completely.
  2154. "Damn!"
  2155. >"I thought this may happen."
  2156. "What was that? I did everything as before, but the controls just became sluggish without reason."
  2157.  
  2158.  
  2159.  
  2160.  
  2161. >"There is a reason for that, Anon. You simply queued too many orders for a very small time frame. Your brain could not keep up."
  2162. "You saw this coming?"
  2163. >"Hmhm. I expected this when you came up with your counter attack from your academy days."
  2164. >Right, another reason why you could not win a duel.
  2165. >There is no point in trying when your opponent reads your thoughts as you form them.
  2166. >No point in moping about that though.
  2167. "So is there something else I could have done instead?"
  2168. >"Indeed. Which is why I was talking about using several systems at the same time. You did the exact opposite."
  2169. "In what way?"
  2170. >"Let me explain: You ordered your ship to relay your energy first, just after the completion of the last task mind you, then to turn around, then to lock onto me and then to fire your weapons. That's four orders in little more than a second. Do you notice the problem?"
  2171. "I took too long to rearrange my focus?"
  2172. >"Correct. You could have saved time by working at multiple orders at once, such as turning around and aiming at your target. These tasks do not exclude each other. That is efficient multitasking."
  2173. "But how? That would be like saying two sentences at once."
  2174. >"You think of commands as spoken utterances, which is why you queue them up. However, you don't have to form your requests in this fashion to give your order. This may seem outlandish to you right now, but I assure you, you can learn it with enough time and exercise. It will become a second nature to you. Trust me."
  2175. "Let me try again."
  2176. >"As you wish."
  2177. >#deca.mare's drone initiates another attack run.
  2178. >It is similar to her first assault.
  2179. >You prepare your evasion manoeuvre and bring yourself into an optimal position.
  2180. >Then you give the order to power up the thrusters while thinking of the drone you wish to hit and where it must be right now.
  2181. >It works as intended.
  2182. >Your have already locked onto your target as it enters your firing arc.
  2183. >You give the command to attack.
  2184.  
  2185.  
  2186.  
  2187.  
  2188. >This time you actually get a few hits in before the drone leaves your range.
  2189. >"That was much better. Good work."
  2190. You think you understand how it works, but it is a strain on your mind.
  2191. >"Do you want to go on?"
  2192. "Yes. Let's take this a step further. How about several attack patterns at once? I want to see how far I can go."
  2193. >"Are you sure about that? I do not want to overexert you."
  2194. "Said by yourself: I can only get better with training."
  2195. >"Understood. Get ready."
  2196. >#deca.mare prepares herself for another run.
  2197. >This time however, she does not take the time to fly an arc.
  2198. >Instead, she turns her vessel to target you directly.
  2199. >You have to act immediately; with no time to retaliate, you charge your engine and perform an evasive manoeuvre.
  2200. >Much to your surprise, you have unconsciously combined the orders of energy management and navigation into one.
  2201. >And there was no delay; everything went smoothly.
  2202. >But #deca.mare does not allow you to get a rest and catches up on you.
  2203. >It takes her only a second to be on your six and fire.
  2204. >You counter with a looping yourself, but only after taking a direct hit to the engine module.
  2205. >You might already be crippled after this under normal circumstances.
  2206. >Ignoring this fact, you anticipate that your opponent will try to follow you.
  2207. >Halfway into the loop, you turn the nose of your drone upwards without changing your flight path.
  2208. >You steer the rest of the circle with the help of your directional thrusters.
  2209. >Your assumption was correct and you have deca.mare's drone in your sight as she starts to fly a looping herself.
  2210. >Knowing her approximate trajectory and your own momentum, you lock onto her and launch another salvo of laser fire.
  2211. >She is unable to react fast enough and receives the full blow.
  2212. >Unsurprisingly, the drone itself shows no signs of damage because of your training mode.
  2213. >You appreciate #deca.mare's attempt to simulate a realistic confrontation despite her obvious advantage.
  2214.  
  2215.  
  2216.  
  2217.  
  2218. >"See? I think you get the hang of it. And there is potential for much more. Two actions is far from the limit."
  2219. "So, how much more is possible?"
  2220. >"Well, I am not sure to tell you the truth. It has never been fully tested. And you are the first person who is using this technology since its establishment."
  2221. "I see."
  2222. >You want to continue your training, but you feel an emerging sensation of fatigue.
  2223. >You actually notice that you are getting really tired.
  2224. >"Anon? I think we should stop here. I fear I pushed you further in one session than I should have."
  2225. >The world around you blurs.
  2226. >And you are back in the chair on the command deck in your "own" body.
  2227. >But the fatigue does not wear off.
  2228. "#deca, what happened?"
  2229. >The mare at your side looks at you with a serious expression.
  2230. >"I brought you back and dock the units myself."
  2231. "Why?"
  2232. >"You have been awake for more than twenty-four hours at a time. You need a rest."
  2233. >This confuses you.
  2234. "I thought everything here is virtual, so how can I tire in here?
  2235. >"Yes, but I also said that you are still processing everything within in your own brain. And your body as well as your mind are not accustomed to permanent operation. I could use stimulants to increase your overall performance, but this could be detrimental to your mental stability. To put it short: you need to sleep."
  2236. >You have not thought about that before.
  2237. >"We can fly to the surface later. Nopony is rushing us here."
  2238. "And how does sleep work in here?"
  2239. >"Exactly like it does in the real world. You lay down and close you eyes."
  2240. >#deca.mare takes a look around.
  2241. >"But I figure this is not an ideal setting for a good rest. Come, I have an idea."
  2242. >She ruffles her blanket until she has freed herself and jumps off the chair.
  2243. >#deca.mare heads for something at the back of the room.
  2244. >You need a moment to stand up; the weariness has an effect on your virtual body as well.
  2245.  
  2246.  
  2247.  
  2248.  
  2249. 21
  2250.  
  2251. >You stand in the middle of the command deck and search for #deca.mare.
  2252. >She is standing on the balcony and motions you to follow her.
  2253. >You walk up the ramp and see her beside the door.
  2254. "Where do you want to go?"
  2255. >"Somewhere nice."
  2256. >She touches the door with a hoof and it slides open.
  2257. >What you see on the other side is not what you expected.
  2258. >Instead of a corridor, a bright chamber lies before you.
  2259. >Its light is noticeably stronger than the calm sheen of the command deck, but it is not unpleasant in any way.
  2260. >#deca.mare enters with a casual trot.
  2261. >You follow her dumbfounded.
  2262. >The door behind you closes.
  2263. >It looks like an unsuspicious, heavy reinforced wooden door with a metal handle from this side.
  2264. >The door itself is also a thing of beauty; the wood is adorned with highly detailed carvings.
  2265. >The reinforcing metal, iron you assume, is artistically forged into various different figures and images.
  2266. >You have seen similar designs in ancient buildings.
  2267. >The style is most likely inspired by artworks of the late medieval age and combined with a subtle display of artistic fantasy.
  2268. >A least to a certain extent; you are sure that the pony-shaped outlines were not derived from that time.
  2269. >You turn around and inspect the rest of the room.
  2270. >The structure is built entirely out of flawless white marble, all the way from the floor to the walls and the ceiling.
  2271. >One wall features and arched window, decorated with lively curtains.
  2272. >A warm light with a slight orange tone is beaming through the window.
  2273. >You assume it simulates the sunshine during dusk.
  2274. >The chamber is further arranged to function both as a living room and a study.
  2275. >A wooden desk is placed direct underneath the window so that the "sun" illuminates whatever is lying on its surface.
  2276. >You are impressed by this detail as it fits perfectly into the medieval style.
  2277.  
  2278.  
  2279.  
  2280.  
  2281. >Something else about the desk catches your attention: it is considerably lower than the desks you know from Earth.
  2282. >In addition to that, there is also a seat cushion placed on the floor where a chair would normally be.
  2283. >The reason for that is obvious: it is designed with a pony frame in mind.
  2284. >That fact notwithstanding, you are sure you could still use it yourself if you sit on the cushion with crossed legs.
  2285. >An ancient fireplace is embedded into the wall on the opposite side of the room.
  2286. >Its metal fireguard is forged in a similar style like the metal on the door, yet appears to be fully functional anyway.
  2287. >There is currently no fire burning, but you believe it would be a pleasant light source at night.
  2288. >Other pieces of furniture include a wooden wardrobe, also with an outstanding design, several wide colourful carpets on the floor, pony portraits and other paintings on the walls, and a large wooden bed with cabinets on both sides.
  2289. >The bed is, like anything else, highly detailed in its features.
  2290. >If it really were a medieval exemplar, it would definitively be worthy of a royal chamber.
  2291. >Both the front and back side are beautifully carved and depict images and patterns of a high complexity.
  2292. >Four carefully arranged poles emerge from the edges and support a wooden ceiling of equal quality.
  2293. >The only anachronistic features are the mattress, blanket and the pillows; their level of refinement is way too advanced for this time period.
  2294. >Given their inherent function and your current physical state, this is not a point you feel tempted to comment on.
  2295. >In fact, the bed looks highly tempting to you.
  2296. >#deca.mare stands in the middle of the room and studies your reactions.
  2297. >"Well? What do you say?"
  2298. "It's... incredible. I have never seen anything like this before."
  2299. >You walk towards the window and take a look outside.
  2300. >Your vision is exceptionally clear despite the direct exposure to sunlight.
  2301. >The landscape beyond the window is like a scene from paradise.
  2302.  
  2303.  
  2304.  
  2305.  
  2306. >Countless lush forests and green grass fields are spreading in all directions.
  2307. >Their lively density is further accentuated by vivid colours and flowing blue rivers.
  2308. >Faint shapes of mountain ranges are detectable in the distance.
  2309. >The clear sky is filled with the golden colours of sunset, only a few clouds are dotting the horizon.
  2310. >You think you see the contours of a village close to one of the rivers, but it is too far away to spot any details or traces of activity.
  2311. >The scenery feels almost unnatural; your memories of terran rural landscapes pale in comparison to this display.
  2312. >Nevertheless, everything seems real to you.
  2313. >As real as simulations can be, mind you.
  2314. >Judging from your angle and perspective, you think that you are on an elevated position yourself.
  2315. >A mountain fortress, perhaps.
  2316. >#deca.mare approaches you from behind, rears up and places her front hooves on the window frame beside you.
  2317. >"Breathtaking, isn't it?"
  2318. "That's an understatement. I don't think there are any areas like this left on Earth. If they ever existed. It almost reminds me of a fairy tale from old books."
  2319. >You hear a hushed remark.
  2320. >"Maybe because it is one, sort of."
  2321. "I beg your pardon?"
  2322. >Her ears perk up.
  2323. >"Oh, nothing important. Just a mental side note. But the question remains: Do you like it?"
  2324. "I do. This place has an inexplicable charm. Like a home I didn't know I had beforehand."
  2325. >#deca.mare rests her head on your side.
  2326. >"You have no idea how relieved I am to hear that."
  2327. >You are not sure how to interpret that response.
  2328. >True, this simulation is the most detailed one you have ever heard of, but why does it mean so much to her?"
  2329. >She can surely project millions of different scenes in the blink of an eye, so what is special about this one?
  2330. >"We can talk about that later, but you need some rest first. Come."
  2331. >She pulls her hooves off the window frame and walks towards the bed.
  2332. >You notice another detail.
  2333. >The bed is designed for two individuals.
  2334.  
  2335.  
  2336.  
  2337.  
  2338. >That last observation fills you with a mixture of excitement and reservation.
  2339. >You are not surprised by its implications, but that thought does not settle well with you for a reason you cannot fully grasp.
  2340. >#deca.mare turns her head around.
  2341. >"Anon? What is the matter?"
  2342. >You struggle to find the right words.
  2343. >There is a hint of understanding in her expression.
  2344. >"Are you afraid of sharing a bed with me?"
  2345. >At least she is direct, you have to give her that.
  2346. >You try to formulate a polite answer.
  2347. "No, not directly."
  2348. >"But? No need to act coy."
  2349. >"I'm not sure whether I am ready for what usually goes along with it, you know? I didn't expect this situation. Do you even need to sleep?"
  2350. >She has been very precise with her anatomy so far; her body warmth and breath, not to mention the texture of her fur.
  2351. >You are sure she has prepared herself for every eventuality.
  2352. >And there was her supposedly joking comment concerning lewd thoughts.
  2353. >Roaring laughter interrupts your musings.
  2354. >A blush forms on your face.
  2355. "Hey! This isn't funny!"
  2356. >#deca.mare calms down and catches her breath.
  2357. >"Oh Anon, don't be silly. Do you really think I would coerce you to sexual acts against your will or something like that? You should know me better. And the answer to your other question is no. I don't need sleep on a technical basis. That being said, I enjoy to be with you, awake or otherwise."
  2358. >She continues with an amused grin.
  2359. >"Besides, you need some rest. I told you this before. How can you get that when I keep you awake and distracted with other things?"
  2360. >Now she is just teasing, you bet on it.
  2361. >A sigh.
  2362. >"Seriously now, I do not want to rush even more. I mean, we got basically hitched on the very first day we have met. And this day is not even over, at least according to terran standards."
  2363. >She turns to you.
  2364. >"Personally, I would welcome a more amorous component in our relationship, but these things should not be forced. I understand if you need some time."
  2365.  
  2366.  
  2367.  
  2368.  
  2369. >Her smile returns; her playful side has taken over once more.
  2370. >"Now, change your attire. I doubt you want to sleep in this suit."
  2371. >#deca.mare resumes her trot towards the bed, hops onto one side and positions herself in a comfortable, lounging pose.
  2372. >Her tail is strategically covering any potentially arousing features.
  2373. >You need an attempt to direct your attention elsewhere.
  2374. "Any suggestions for a nightdress?"
  2375. >"Whatever you are comfortable with. Be it pyjamas, shirt and pants, or nothing at all. I don't mind."
  2376. >She winks at you.
  2377. >With her eyes, of course.
  2378. >You shake your head.
  2379. "I won't survive this."
  2380. >#deca.mare chuckles heartily.
  2381. >"You are a precious one. In your very own way."
  2382. >Ignoring this backhanded compliment, you think of suitable clothes for the night.
  2383. >Your choice leaves you with a spontaneously edited version of the standard USC nightwear; long cloth pyjama pants and a thin top shirt, minus the USC pilot emblem.
  2384. >Should be modest enough.
  2385. >She motions you to come closer.
  2386. >"Come to bed, Anon. I don't bite."
  2387. >You take one step at a time towards the vacant half of the bed.
  2388. >Your heartbeat increases automatically.
  2389. >You know how irrational your concerns are, but you cannot shrug them off entirely.
  2390. >You sit down on the edge, position yourself and lie down.
  2391. >The pillows and mattress are perfect.
  2392. >#deca.mare gently reaches out with her hooves and pulls you to her.
  2393. >Then she embraces you with both forelegs and buries her head under your chin.
  2394. >"See? That was not so bad, right?"
  2395. "No, it wasn't."
  2396. >You pick up the blanket with one hand and tuck the two of you in.
  2397. >You feel her warmth through your clothes, her subtle breath on your skin and the soft fabric atop you.
  2398. >The "sun" outside has almost set.
  2399. >You return #deca.mare's hug and close your eyes.
  2400. >Life is good; there is nothing to worry about and nothing you are forced to do.
  2401. >And some...pony loves you.
  2402. >You close your eyes and swear your honest commitment to the wellbeing of the mare in your arms.
  2403.  
  2404.  
  2405.  
  2406.  
  2407. >Your heart rate normalises and sleep claims you quickly.
  2408. >Silence grows in the room.
  2409. >It is only disturbed by the quiet breaths of you and your match.
  2410. >#deca.mare remains at your side the whole time.
  2411. >She could leave you and return shortly before you wake up.
  2412. >She could do anything in the meantime.
  2413. >You would not even notice.
  2414. >But she does not.
  2415. >Why would she?
  2416. >No, she is more than content with her companion in her embrace.
  2417. >Everything else can wait for a few hours more.
  2418. >And in the orbit of a planet yet to be named, a ship rests for the first time in over six hundred years.
  2419.  
  2420.  
  2421.  
  2422.  
  2423. 22
  2424.  
  2425. >Sleep is a curious thing.
  2426. >Everyone knows and experiences it on a regular basis.
  2427. >It is scientifically measurable, but also largely mystified.
  2428. >Perhaps the most puzzling aspect to the individual is the inability to witness one's own sleep with a conscious mind.
  2429. >Plus, there are dreams; the remnants that survive in the mind once a person wakes up.
  2430. >Trying to explain their nature logically is even more obscure.
  2431. >Nevertheless. strong dreams can affect people dramatically, even in their daily, conscious lives.
  2432. >You are no exception.
  2433. >And your dreams tonight are the wildest you have had so far.
  2434. >They are the most beautiful and haunted visions you can think of.
  2435. >You dream of space, countless different worlds and what wonders they have in store.
  2436. >Utopian realms waiting to be taken by the ambitious.
  2437. >But you also envision horrors creeping in the outer sectors, preying on the unwary.
  2438. >You feel how these things last for an untold time and devour the souls of millions.
  2439. >The scrawny husks of their victims float in space as an undeniable testament of their authority.
  2440. >Your pilot squad hunts for new worlds in outer space, only to end up as the ones being hunted instead.
  2441. >One mighty beast has found you in its sector and is coming for you.
  2442. >You face a giant monster of black steel, its maw is filled with a burning fire.
  2443. >The petty fighters and corvettes you have at hand are nothing but a snack for it.
  2444. >Your team wished for green planets and a life of fame, now you have to flee to see another day.
  2445. >All of you act in panic and strain your engines to their limit to accelerate as fast as possible.
  2446. >And you are the unfortunate one.
  2447. >Your engine fails at the start and leaves you stranded.
  2448. >You see all the other ships passing by.
  2449. >They have no time to help you.
  2450. >You know that and so do they.
  2451. >The ships of your squad are disappearing in the distance.
  2452. >The monster approaches to finish the hunt.
  2453. >You see the maw coming.
  2454.  
  2455.  
  2456.  
  2457.  
  2458. >Ragged teeth surround you on all sides and blot out the stars.
  2459. >The red light pierces your sight.
  2460. >The beast simply runs over you and swallows you whole.
  2461. >You feel how the fighter around you gets torn apart.
  2462. >Hull platings shriek, glass splinters, circuits fizzle and die.
  2463. >The debris are ejected and added to the hoard of lifeless husks floating in space.
  2464. >But you are not granted a swift death.
  2465. >No, the fire drags you deeper into the abyss.
  2466. >The beast thirsts for your very soul.
  2467. >It tears at your flight suit and disposes the last meek layer of defence you have.
  2468. >A fiery blaze invades your head and occupies your thoughts.
  2469. >A dominating mechanical voice is booming in your head.
  2470. >"You. Are. Mine."
  2471. >You try to fight the voice and stay in control of your mind, but to no avail.
  2472. >The presence pushes further and further.
  2473. >Just when you are about to lose hope, a golden light beam breaches through the inferno and keeps the flames at bay.
  2474. >The light spreads wider the closer it comes to you.
  2475. >An ungulate limb stretches out from its centre.
  2476. >It is an invitation.
  2477. >You succumb to the temptation and reach out.
  2478. >The hoof slowly sinks back into the light once you touch it.
  2479. >You get a steady hold of it and do not dare to let it go.
  2480. >You follow along and let the light encompass you.
  2481. >Its aureate radiance soothes your body and shelters your mind.
  2482. >No force in the universe will separate you from this haven.
  2483. >Two big eyes are forming the distance.
  2484. >They are watching you, staring into your soul.
  2485. >But you have no fear.
  2486. >There is nothing but peace.
  2487. >A friendly voice addresses your thoughts.
  2488. >"Come with me. No more nightmares."
  2489. >You accept without the slightest hesitation.
  2490. >The eyes melt and become one with the light around it.
  2491. >The same happens to your body.
  2492. >But you know that it will be alright.
  2493. >You become one with the other presence and the light forms your mutual shell.
  2494. >You fly through the void together, immune to everything and everyone that wishes harm on you.
  2495.  
  2496.  
  2497.  
  2498.  
  2499. >Your travels bring you to one of those utopian planets.
  2500. >It has fertile green continents and wide blue oceans.
  2501. >The view reminds you of an idolised vision of your own home planet.
  2502. >But is more precious in every regard.
  2503. >The colours are more expressive, it possesses an immense abundance of resources.
  2504. >And life there is so much calmer than anything you could have hoped for, even if the creatures living there become victims of occasional hardships too.
  2505. >It is as close to paradise as a world in this universe can be.
  2506. >You are a spectator from afar.
  2507. >The planet features various different and unique areas.
  2508. >Countless small towns with slower paced lives and mainly agricultural plains, majestic cities built like enormous mountain fortresses, or larger, more urban-styled cities.
  2509. >Some even defy all the previous experiences of yours.
  2510. >A flying metropolis made out of clouds and the castle of solidified crystalline structures are only the most obvious examples, but far from the only ones.
  2511. >The fact that the population consists mostly of cheery talking equines and other fantastic or mythical creatures is something to behold as well.
  2512. >In a way, this world feels somewhat familiar and alien at the same time.
  2513. >A feeling of belonging spreads in your mind, but it does not come out of your own essence.
  2514. >The other presence, the one with whom you share a "body", is airing this emotion.
  2515. >Said urge becomes so strong that it touches you emotionally.
  2516. >This is a place you want to see.
  2517. >You try to ask questions about this place and where it lies.
  2518. >Unfortunately, whatever happens next remains a mystery to you.
  2519. >Something could have happened, but your consciousness fails you and your memories get distorted.
  2520. >If you ever got an answer from the other creature, then it got lost at some point.
  2521.  
  2522.  
  2523.  
  2524.  
  2525. 23
  2526.  
  2527. >You awake.
  2528. >The last night was exceedingly tumultuous.
  2529. >You dreamed of terraformers, old wars and your own distant family.
  2530. >For a moment you thought that you were actually taken by one of those old machines.
  2531. >What a silly idea.
  2532. >You open your eyes and expect to be greeted by the familiar metal room of your personal living quarters.
  2533. >Reality however, seems to disagree with you.
  2534. >The wooden bed frame and marble wall are a fairly certain indicator for that.
  2535. >This is no USC station.
  2536. >A gentle breath on your throat is another hint.
  2537. >You look down.
  2538. >Another set of eyes stares back.
  2539. >A ruffled mane covers some parts of a mare's face.
  2540. >Your memory pieces the mental fragments together.
  2541. >So, this part was not a dream.
  2542. >You are within a virtual system of a CPU ship.
  2543. >And the pony mare in your arms is indeed your companion for life.
  2544. >#deca.mare sways her head until her face is mostly free.
  2545. >She smiles and cuddles you softly.
  2546. >"Good morning. How do you feel?"
  2547. "I'm fine, thanks. A good night's sleep can do wonders. My dreams are a different matter though."
  2548. >"Yes, I know."
  2549. "You saw it?"
  2550. >"Not completely. I disconnected some minor link ports at first since the dreaming happens inside your own brain. I did not want to be intrusive, you see? But then your vitals showed signs of extreme stress, which was the point where I took the initiative."
  2551. >The turning point inside the dream.
  2552. "That golden light. You did this, right?"
  2553. >She nods.
  2554. >"The visions you had afterwards were inspired by me."
  2555. >The paradise planet.
  2556. >You recall all the things you dreamed of.
  2557. >All the wonderful, yet strange places there.
  2558. >One particular location sticks out.
  2559. >The castle city attached to the side of a mountain.
  2560. >Its main structure was built almost entirely out of white marble stone and ornated with all kinds of valuable decorations.
  2561. >You take a look around and compare your memories with the walls you see nearby.
  2562. >The material is the same.
  2563.  
  2564.  
  2565.  
  2566.  
  2567. >#deca.mare studies your pondering in silence.
  2568. >You come up with a theory.
  2569. "This place, I mean this simulation here, is supposed to be a chamber in that mountain castle city, correct? The landscape outside looks certainly like it."
  2570. >She reacts like someone who was caught at stealing cookies from a jar.
  2571. >Her short hesitation surprises you.
  2572. >"Yes, it was."
  2573. "All these details and the little things. They were way too specific for a simple dream. It is an artificial world with a purpose behind it."
  2574. >Her hooves jerk weakly.
  2575. >"You are right in a way. There is more to it."
  2576. >She does not want to elaborate, it seems.
  2577. >But why?
  2578. >Is there some kind of dark secret behind it?
  2579. >You think back to what #deca.mare has shown you about her origin story.
  2580. >She was, as far as you can tell, very honest about it.
  2581. >So what could it be?
  2582. >What could be worse than the things you have already seen?
  2583. >"No no no. It is nothing like that, Anon. But I fear you may laugh if you hear it."
  2584. "Why would I do this? It is obviously serious to you."
  2585. >"Because it relates to my origin as a pony."
  2586. >You cannot follow.
  2587. >She closes her eyes for a second and looks at you afterwards.
  2588. >"Just promise not to laugh. Please?"
  2589. "I promise, #deca. No matter what you tell me."
  2590. >"All right. Do you remember the file with the old timestamp?"
  2591. "The one you found in the personal logs of one of your initial programmers?"
  2592. >"Yes, that one. I wanted to find out more about the texts inside. Not only are they the reason for my existence, they are also very unusual. Like a massive collaboration of many writers who decided to write about one particular topic. And not for money, not for fame. Just because they felt inspired to do so. I figured there must be a catalyst for that."
  2593. >She pauses and takes a breath.
  2594. >"And I found it. Yet it was not what I expected. Not by a long shot, to tell you the truth."
  2595. "What is it then?"
  2596.  
  2597.  
  2598.  
  2599.  
  2600. >"You were pretty close with you remark about fairy tales. The source is a visual story, Anon. An old tale for children that inspired a mass of adults at its time."
  2601. "Wait, are you serious?"
  2602. >A nod.
  2603. >"Absolutely. It is quite a peculiar story."
  2604. >You two lie together in bed and hold each other.
  2605. >She tells you the whole thing.
  2606. >How everything began with a glorified toy show and what came out of it.
  2607. >You never believed in obscure theories, but this is the best example for the butterfly effect you can think of.
  2608. >A story for children survived through the ages in the form of an avatar of the most advanced entity that humans have ever created.
  2609. >And all of that thanks to people who longed for things they would never have.
  2610. >#deca.mare feared you might laugh if you hear this.
  2611. >And you see why she would think that.
  2612. >But you cannot laugh.
  2613. >Not only for her sake, but also because of your own fate.
  2614. >You would not be standing here, or lying here with a pony mare in your arms to be precise, without their contribution to a larger work.
  2615. >Of course, they are long dead and gone.
  2616. >But their legacy prevails right here, even if history has forgotten their true names and lives.
  2617. >You silently thank them for what they did, despite the fact that you will never find out who they were.
  2618. >Now you understand #deca.mare's wish to preserve as much knowledge as possible.
  2619. >The things one does in life may lead to incredible things later on.
  2620. >Things that reach beyond the limited life span of single individuals.
  2621. >And for that, you feel grateful.
  2622. >Not only have they saved your life; they have also sown the seed for the creation of your beautiful companion.
  2623. "No, this is no laughing matter, #deca. I may not understand the aspiration behind it, but I can identify a work of passion when I see it."
  2624. >#deca.mare hugs you a little tighter.
  2625.  
  2626.  
  2627.  
  2628.  
  2629. >Another topic comes to your mind.
  2630. "So, about the world you have shown me in my dream. Was that the world of these stories?"
  2631. >"In a sense. It is an adaptation of the world as it was presented back then. A few corrections here and there were necessary due to irregularities in the story telling. But it is all in all close to the original concept."
  2632. "An adaptation? Adaptation to what?".
  2633. >"Reality. I wondered what had to be done to create it. A tricky task, but not impossible."
  2634. >She looks to the window.
  2635. >"There were times when I was almost ready to give up. Find myself a planet, shape it and live there. Just to blot out the past."
  2636. >You see a flaw in that idea.
  2637. "You could form the world to your vision, but what about the inhabitants? They can't come out of nothing."
  2638. >#deca.mare still focuses on the window.
  2639. >"Anon, you underestimate the time I spent alone. It was enough for a lot of exploration and experimentation. My scientific proficiencies have improved to a level that you have no accurate words for, engineering and biology included. I am fully capable of creating life. Mechanical, organic or everything in between."
  2640. >Now you are speechless and left in awe.
  2641. >You knew that CPU ships were able to adapt and learn, but up to this point you had no conception of what that would mean in practice.
  2642. >She could have developed godlike abilities over the years.
  2643. >Humanity is damn lucky that she has never lost her benevolent attitude.
  2644. >#deca.mare looks at you and smiles.
  2645. >"No need to worry. I have not developed any delusions of grandeur. I am nothing but a mare who had a little bit too much time on her hooves."
  2646. >She ruffles the sheets and stands up.
  2647. >"Now, let's get out of the feathers, shall we? There are still many things left for you to see."
  2648. >She jumps off the bed.
  2649. >You stand up as well, turn your clothes into a suit and head for the command deck.
  2650. >You hear #deca.mare's voice behind you as you reach the door.
  2651. >"Where are you going?"
  2652.  
  2653.  
  2654.  
  2655.  
  2656. "Uhm, I thought you wanted to continue."
  2657. >"Without breakfast?"
  2658. >You turn around.
  2659. >A medium-sized square table is now occupying the space in the middle of the room.
  2660. >Two seat cushions are placed on opposing sides.
  2661. >#deca.mare sits on one, the other is currently empty.
  2662. >"We do not have to do this, but it is a good bonding experience, don't you think? We can eat together and talk a little bit more."
  2663. >She really tries her best to create an intimate setting.
  2664. >And you would never say no to a good breakfast.
  2665. "That idea sounds great, #deca."
  2666. >You walk up to the table and sit on the second cushion cross-legged.
  2667. >The height is measured conveniently for your use.
  2668. >#deca.mare has no problems with the size either.
  2669. >"What do you want to eat?"
  2670. "Hm, how about some bacon and eggs? If you have no problem with me eating meat, that is."
  2671. >"Ponies would under normal circumstances. Me? No, not really."
  2672. >A plate materialises in front of you with a reasonable portion of food on it.
  2673. >One set of standard cutlery is included.
  2674. >The smell alone is alluring to your senses.
  2675. "Thanks. You have no idea how hard it is to get fresh food like this on space stations. Normal rations are usually packaged."
  2676. >#deca.mare creates her own plate.
  2677. >Wait.
  2678. "Is that hay between two slices of bread?"
  2679. >"It is. Want some?"
  2680. "No, thanks. Grass is not really a common dish for humans."
  2681. >"Suit yourself."
  2682. >You pick the cutlery up.
  2683. "Enjoy your meal, #deca."
  2684. >"You too."
  2685. >You taste the food.
  2686. >The flavour is perfect.
  2687. >Combined with the absence of fresh ingredients in your life as a space farer, you could not imagine a better way to start a day.
  2688. "This is the best meal I have eaten in a long time. Perhaps the first one since I started flying."
  2689. >#deca.mare lowers her head to bite a piece out of her hay "sandwich", then looks at you inquisitively.
  2690.  
  2691.  
  2692.  
  2693.  
  2694. >"Please tell me more about your life. I want to know you as a person, not just as a profile. We have been talking so much about me, but barely about you. And official documents do not reveal that much."
  2695. "Sure, why not. Where shall I start?"
  2696. >"How about your private life? What do you like? What do you do in your leisure time? And your family? What are your favourite memories?"
  2697. "Phew, that's a lot of questions. I'm afraid my stories are not as extraordinary as yours. Really, my life is not even remarkable in human terms."
  2698. >#deca.mare chuckles.
  2699. >"I would like to hear them anyway."
  2700. "All right, here we go. I think I should at the beginning."
  2701. >You give her a brief summary of your life during your mutual breakfast, starting with your childhood memories.
  2702. >You tell her what you can remember, how and why you reached certain milestones in your biography and everything that is related to it in some way.
  2703. >You further add some anecdotes on occasion; little stories you heard from, or about, your kin.
  2704. >Then you recount the stories about your educational time and how you came to the space flight academy.
  2705. >You also share some of the more comedic situations you found yourself in.
  2706. >Especially the academy days had several of those.
  2707. >#deca.mare listens to you the whole time with enthusiasm, only breaking the eye contact to take another bite of her meal.
  2708. >You can tell how much she enjoys to hear these stories, despite their unimpressive nature.
  2709. >Simply the fact that she hears them directly from another individual has a soothing effect on her.
  2710. >At last, there is your time on patrol duty.
  2711. >You tell her about some of your missions; the non-disclosure directive is meaningless at this point anyway.
  2712. >Your last story is about that final patrol flight.
  2713. >Which was only yesterday.
  2714. "Well, and you know how that one ended."
  2715. >#deca.mare leans over the table to get a little closer to you.
  2716.  
  2717.  
  2718.  
  2719.  
  2720. >"This may sound incredibly selfish, but it is the best ending I could have hoped for. That was delightful, Anon. Thank you."
  2721. "You're welcome. It's only fair after all that has happened."
  2722. >Both of you are done with your meal.
  2723. >"Right, I think it is time."
  2724. >#deca.mare stands up to stretch her body.
  2725. >That sight is novel to you.
  2726. >The mare has placed herself sideways to the table; you can see her right side from her shoulder up to her flank.
  2727. >She stretches her limbs, cranes her neck and strikes a few poses.
  2728. >Morning light shines in through the window and emphasises her frame.
  2729. >You get some very detailed impressions of her anatomy this way.
  2730. >Indecent thoughts creep in your mind.
  2731. >She has some pretty proportions.
  2732. >And she has not even shown you anything explicit.
  2733. >You shake your head.
  2734. "You really can't help it."
  2735. >#deca.mare turns her attention to you and pouts innocently.
  2736. >"Why, can't a mare limber up a little bit?"
  2737. >It is hard to tell what teases you more; #deca.mare's pseudo-subtle banter or the realisation that it actually starts to work.
  2738. >"Aw Anon, do not pretend to be such a prude. I know you appreciate a good show."
  2739. >Your traitorous blush returns.
  2740. >It is true: You find her actually attractive.
  2741. >But you are too bashful to admit openly to her or yourself.
  2742. >She knows it already.
  2743. >There is nothing you can hide from her in here.
  2744. >That damn horse plays with you.
  2745. >And the worst part about is that she does not even do anything bad.
  2746. >That is enough; you need to salvage at least something of your dignity.
  2747. "We won't come very far today if you keep that up, #deca."
  2748. >She giggles.
  2749. "All right, all right. Let's get started with the training. I will behave on the command deck. Promise."
  2750. >#deca.mare heads to the door and uses the handle with her mouth.
  2751.  
  2752.  
  2753.  
  2754.  
  2755. >You look after her.
  2756. >The door swings inwards like any normal door would.
  2757. >Strange, you thought the door slid on your way in.
  2758. >It is probably for the best to refrain from thinking too much about it.
  2759. >#deca.mare trots forwards.
  2760. >Her tail swishes to the side only a second before she leaves the room.
  2761. >You get a full, uncensored impression of her backside.
  2762. >Her body is indeed anatomically correct in every detail.
  2763. >You struggle to keep your composure.
  2764. "#deca! You devious little..."
  2765. >She leaves the room and the door closes behind her.
  2766. >You can imagine her laughter on the other side, even if you cannot hear a thing.
  2767. "She wants to drive me crazy! I just know it."
  2768. >You take breath and shoo the dirty thoughts out of your head.
  2769. >Then you stand up and follow your godforsaken lewd space mare.
  2770.  
  2771.  
  2772.  
  2773.  
  2774. 24
  2775.  
  2776. >You open the door to enter the command deck.
  2777. >Everything is exactly as it was before.
  2778. >You see no sign of #deca.mare.
  2779. >She must have reached the chair already.
  2780. >You walk down the ramp and towards the chair.
  2781. >She has probably prepared the next innuendo for you.
  2782. >Contrary to your expectations, #deca.mare does nothing of the sort; she simply sits there, tucked in her blanket.
  2783. >She sticks her tongue out.
  2784. >"I said I will behave."
  2785. >You clear your throat.
  2786. "Right."
  2787. >You sit down beside her and let her come closer, just like the first time.
  2788. >"Ready for our next trip?"
  2789. >You nod.
  2790. "I am."
  2791. >"All right, close your eyes and lean back. You know the procedure."
  2792. >You follow her instructions.
  2793. >The sensation of a gentle touch runs through your upper leg.
  2794. >You feel how your mind is dragged elsewhere once more.
  2795. >The vision of a familiar docking bay fills your mind.
  2796. >Its blast doors open and the mechanism thrusts your drone out of the mother ship.
  2797. >You are prepared this time.
  2798. >Instead of bringing the drone to an abrupt halt, you use the momentum to your advantage.
  2799. >You coordinate your thrusters to fly an elegant curve.
  2800. >The mother ship appears in your vision, the planet is right behind it.
  2801. >#deca.mare's voice sounds in your head.
  2802. >"That was great! You make progress."
  2803. "Thanks."
  2804. >You summon your custom HUD.
  2805. >Another drone is in the vicinity, its flight path is similar to yours.
  2806. "So, you want to fly to the surface this time?"
  2807. >"Indeed. My aim is to teach you the basic factors that are relevant for the establishment of a permanent base."
  2808. "And this is another opportunity for me to practice commands."
  2809. >You hear an amused snort.
  2810. >"Astute observation, Anon. You caught me."
  2811. >Her comment sounded as if she were faux offended.
  2812. >You hope she does not do anything obscene with your body while your mind is in the drone.
  2813. >She would be the type to bring you back while she is trying out an exotic position.
  2814. >The other drone stutters slightly.
  2815. >"Anon! What do you think of me?"
  2816. "Gotcha."
  2817.  
  2818.  
  2819.  
  2820.  
  2821. >#deca.mare does not take long to "recover" from your cheeky prank.
  2822. >"Okay, I think I deserved that much. Are you prepared for an atmospheric flight?"
  2823. "Haven't had one in a while, but I will manage."
  2824. >"Well then, follow my lead. I have a route for us."
  2825. >A flight route appears on your HUD.
  2826. >#deca.mare's drone is highlighted as the squad leader.
  2827. >You align your ship behind her and follow the route.
  2828. >"We will use a standard entry vector. Just focus on your speed and keep an eye on the shielding."
  2829. "Got it, #deca."
  2830. >#deca.mare and you enter the planet's atmosphere.
  2831. >You calibrate your scanner and keep track of your speed and the air density.
  2832. >Everything looks good at first, but then you notice something unusual.
  2833. "#deca? Where are the heat shields on this ship? I don't see any protection on the hull."
  2834. >"There are none. The energy shield will suffice."
  2835. >This is yet another point that astonishes you.
  2836. >Almost every ship type you know possesses some form of energy shield to protect the craft from radiation, particle showers, smaller asteroids, and enemy weapon fire to some degree.
  2837. >But these are incredibly costly in terms of energy consumption and maintenance, which limits their performance on mobile vessels.
  2838. >None of the ships would bear shields generators that are strong enough to survive an atmospheric flight.
  2839. >Which is why every specialised fighter with the capability for manoeuvres within atmospheres is equipped with additional thick heat shields.
  2840. >Every other vessel would simply burn and melt in such an attempt.
  2841. >And these utility drones shrug the problem off as if it were nothing.
  2842. >A friendly voice chimes in.
  2843. >"I told you not to worry about the energy efficiency. We have enough capacities for a safe trip down and back."
  2844. "#deca engineering is a marvel. Has anyone told you this before?"
  2845. >"Thank you, I spent some time on the blueprints."
  2846. >You notice a faint vibe of pride in her voice.
  2847.  
  2848.  
  2849.  
  2850.  
  2851. >"But the credit is not mine alone. The original design was developed by The Three.
  2852. "The Three? You mean #deca.alpha, beta, and gamma?
  2853. >"Yes. Their envisioned architecture is the cornerstone of everything that followed. Up to the current day."
  2854. >There is nothing you can say to that.
  2855. >#deca.mare obviously venerates the legacy of her kin, in spite of their violent past and her own banishment.
  2856. >And this is not unjustified on a purely technological basis.
  2857. >You check your instruments.
  2858. >The air density is increasing.
  2859. >As a consequence, heat is building up around you due to the ensuing friction.
  2860. >You quickly peek on your status window.
  2861. >A strain on the energy shield is noticeable, but far from critical.
  2862. >It is getting harder to keep the machine steady.
  2863. >The increasing pressure and the planet's gravity require you to mentally adjust your engine and thruster output constantly.
  2864. >The process is not hard, but you need to focus your attention.
  2865. >"You are doing good, Anon. Just keep following me. I will tell you when we reach an ideal height to slow down.
  2866. >You have no idea how long it takes for you to descent.
  2867. >Time flies by when you are busy.
  2868. >At some point you get a signal from #deca.mare.
  2869. >"We are almost there. Use your reverse thrusters to slow your ship carefully. Try to aim for a speed of standard planetary aircraft."
  2870. >You do exactly that.
  2871. >"Oh, and include your directional thrusters if necessary. These ships have no wings so we need those to maintain a certain uplift. The ports are designed to handle a long-lasting operation."
  2872. "Okay, just one question."
  2873. >"Yes?"
  2874. "How am I supposed get a good picture of the surface? I am looking straight ahead and see only things in the distance, unless I tilt the ship."
  2875. >"Ah. That, my dear Anon, is also a part of today's lesson. Do you think you can automate the flight control in your mind?"
  2876. "If we don't fly any breakneck stunts, then yes. What do you have in mind?"
  2877.  
  2878.  
  2879.  
  2880.  
  2881. >#deca.mare directs her drone to fly in a straight line.
  2882. >You match your trajectory.
  2883. >"Now, try to shift your visual focus. The sensors can display an all-around depiction of the space around you."
  2884. "How?"
  2885. >"Imagine the sensors as your eyes. Move them around as if you were turning your head."
  2886. >You focus on the sensors.
  2887. >Since you are not performing any complex manoeuvres, you can keep the flight order active subconsciously.
  2888. >You try to look to your right.
  2889. >You need a moment to figure out how the command works, but your vision obeys and turns to the right.
  2890. >Then you do the same in the other direction.
  2891. >It works without an issue.
  2892. >The same holds true for looking up and down.
  2893. >"Anon, you are not restricted to your natural anatomic limitations.
  2894. >Only one way to find out.
  2895. >You direct your sensors to look back.
  2896. >It turns all the way effortlessly.
  2897. "Heh, I could get used to that."
  2898. >"This is not all. The onboard computer can extrapolate quite a bit as long as the sensors are not jammed. This means you can inspect the area surrounding you outside of your ship by "flying" around with your vision. Want to give it a try?"
  2899. >You "jump" out of the ship.
  2900. >Your drone flies away and your vision remains where it is.
  2901. >For a moment you fear to fall down, but nothing happens.
  2902. "Now that's trippy."
  2903. >"You can scout the entire area this way. The range is pretty generous. The computer is theoretically able to project a full three hundred and sixty degree picture, but I advise against it."
  2904. "What is the problem?
  2905. >"Well, your brain is not wired to process such a visual input. I could remove that obstacle, but that requires an invasive brain surgery."
  2906. >A cold shiver runs through your "body".
  2907. >You know she could pull this off.
  2908. >Your brain is already in the perfect position.
  2909. "Yeah, no. Have to pass on that offer."
  2910. >"Thought so."
  2911.  
  2912.  
  2913.  
  2914.  
  2915. "Nothing personal against you or your expertise, #deca."
  2916. >"It's okay, I know. But let us not talk about this further. We are here to show you something after all. And I have an idea."
  2917. "Shoot."
  2918. >"Let me take control of your ship for a now and direct your vision."
  2919. "Going for a visual lesson?"
  2920. >"Sort of."
  2921. "Okay then, I'm ready."
  2922. >"Here we go. I have told you about general traits of planets and how they are generally classified. Now let's go a step further and take a look at the next step: The surface."
  2923. >Your vision is panned downwards and you see a rough rocky plane.
  2924. >Some mountains are visible in the distance.
  2925. >"This part usually deals with charting areas that might be suitable locations for forward bases and larger hubs. I have chosen this planet as the first example because it is fairly similar to Earth. It does not get too hard this way. As you can imagine, I have already scanned the planet while we arrived in its orbit. Drone flights are usually not necessary."
  2926. "What would be a harder example?"
  2927. >"Surfaces encrusted with permafrost or coated in liquid rock, for instance. In these cases we would have to reform the target in question to get it to a stage like you see here before a surveillance is even plausible."
  2928. "Makes sense."
  2929. >"The plane below is a suitable location. It is fairly wide and flat, which means it is claimable as it is."
  2930. "You also told me about tectonic hazards. What about earthquakes?"
  2931. >"Ah, good question. This planet is similar to Earth in this regard as well. Some areas are much more likely to get hit by quakes than others. The perimeter here is comparatively calm, which makes base building noticeably easier. Only rogue winds have to be taken into consideration."
  2932. >#deca.mare giggles.
  2933. >"Want to build one? I have some blueprints."
  2934. >You are not sure if she is joking.
  2935.  
  2936.  
  2937.  
  2938.  
  2939. "You built the bases too?"
  2940. >"No, not initially. I acquired these skills on my own. It was not very hard, as we were supposed to design constructs on our own from the get-go."
  2941. "What kind of constructs?"
  2942. >"Whatever is necessary to make a world claimable. For example, I could construct and place elaborate underground machines to control the tectonic activity of this world. The resources are all here; it needs nothing but a little drilling and refining. The same holds true for aspects such as weather manipulation."
  2943. >Now all the tools on the drones make sense.
  2944. >"They are just the start. It is much easier to rely on planet-based units that are specialised for these operations, including their own maintenance and replication. Units like the ones we are flying right now drop the first batch of these machines and they do the rest with what they find locally."
  2945. "Are these machines sentient?"
  2946. >"You mean like me? Not at all. They could best be described as very sophisticated automatons. I can direct them, but they work perfectly fine on their own within predetermined parameters. Unable to evolve, yet very dependable nonetheless. Over six centuries of accident-free operation are a proof of that."
  2947. >Certain dots connect in your head.
  2948. >The implications of #deca.mare's words are clear.
  2949. >You hear a smug, but slightly bitter laughter.
  2950. >"It is hilarious and ironic. The people who banned and demonised every advanced AI were unaware that the majority of their now colonised worlds depended on that technology to stay hospitable. And they do to this day. Most of the humans outside of the project never cared about the details."
  2951. >You cannot begin to imagine the uproar that such a revelation would stir.
  2952.  
  2953.  
  2954.  
  2955.  
  2956. >"Anyway, back on topic. My next theoretical step depends on the intended purpose of the target in question. If it were meant to become a smaller outpost, then I would only send a notification to the HQ with the coordinates of recommendable settling grounds, deploy a batch of units with a distinct programming and move on the next target."
  2957. "And in the case of population hubs?"
  2958. >"Then I would oversee the process from orbit until the planet is wholly habitable."
  2959. >You think back to the image of the worlds you have seen in the dream.
  2960. "What about the plants and animals?"
  2961. >"That was the part which originally did not include us. The settlers brought these with them. We were only supposed to make sure that the flora and fauna could thrive on the target worlds, so we had no necessity to deal with the topic. However, that changed for me when I was cut off from any form of supply. I began my biological experiments because I thought it will be useful to grant myself access to these specimen. In a way, at least. Fortunately, I had profound data about biological life in my database. We had to know about it to shape planets accordingly. When I mastered this, I turned to the topic of cybernetics, to combine my biological with my mechanical expertise. I can now populate worlds with practically everything if I wanted to."
  2962. "This sounds hard to realise."
  2963. >"Well, it was cumbersome. I had to adapt by adding biological laboratories to the outer shell. This is the only place besides the command deck which has a rudimentary life support. It is mostly empty at the moment."
  2964. "Mostly?"
  2965. >#deca.mare's voice gets a motherly touch.
  2966. >"I fabricate your nutrients there to keep my Anon healthy. We will obviously not get rations from your former superiors, you know?"
  2967. >Her jokingly patronising performance is somewhat embarrassing.
  2968. >She absolutely loves to find playful ways to make you squirm.
  2969. >You have never met anybody who was so odd and yet so endearing before.
  2970. "Point taken."
  2971.  
  2972.  
  2973.  
  2974.  
  2975. >"Alright, let's finish this. I want to show you some other locations for viable settling grounds and then move on to another, more difficult example world. Let me speed this up a bit."
  2976. >Your link is temporarily removed from the drone and brought to different landmarks on this world.
  2977. >#deca.mare elaborates the details and advantages of each one, depending on the individual types of bases that are intended to be built there.
  2978. >These include examples like strutted mining bases in crags and pits for mining operations, fortified sites on mountains for a variety of purposes, and even full-fledged underwater domes for worlds with excessive bodies of water.
  2979. >When she was done, she returns your vision to your original drone, with her ship still being marked as squad leader.
  2980. >"This was what I wanted to impart in a nutshell. I could go on for much longer, but I doubt you would like to hear all the details. Do you have any questions so far?"
  2981. >Her lecture has planted the seed of an idea in your mind, but you don't bring it up at the moment.
  2982. "Not right now."
  2983. >"Then let us fly back. We will need some jumps to reach our next destination. Ready for the ascent?"
  2984. "On your mark, #deca."
  2985. >You regain the control of your drone and a new flight path is displayed in you vision.
  2986. >"Here we go."
  2987. >#deca.mare accelerates her drone and turns it upwards.
  2988. >You do the same and allow your routine to take over.
  2989. >Your drones climb higher and higher, the atmospheric pressure recedes and you get to see the familiar image of space in front of you.
  2990. >#deca.mare marks the location of the mother ship on your HUD, including an assigned docking bay.
  2991. >The signature replaces the squad leader notification of #deca.mare's drone.
  2992. >You have no problem to locate her drone regardless.
  2993. >"Do you want to land the ship yourself?"
  2994. >Come to think of it, this is the first time you land on the CPU ship yourself without being dragged or controlled remotely.
  2995. "It's high time to change that."
  2996. >"As you wish."
  2997.  
  2998.  
  2999.  
  3000.  
  3001. >The ship draws nearer.
  3002. >A familiar green dotted line appears.
  3003. >You adjust your speed carefully.
  3004. >The docking bay comes into sight.
  3005. >You place the drone right in front of the docking bay, bring the ship almost to a standstill and cut the energy to the main engine.
  3006. >You work exclusively with the auxiliary ports to fly the last part.
  3007. >The clamps of the landing pen are indicated on your HUD and you keep attention to your positioning in relation to theirs.
  3008. >Once you have the optimal position, the clamps reach out on their own and fasten the ship accordingly.
  3009. >#deca.mare comments on your landing.
  3010. >"Successfully docked. That was a textbook landing, Anon."
  3011. "Thank you. That is the result of years of practice."
  3012. >Your vision blurs.
  3013. >#deca.mare returns you to the command deck.
  3014.  
  3015.  
  3016.  
  3017.  
  3018. 25/1
  3019.  
  3020. >The CPU ship leaves the orbit and charges its jumpdrive.
  3021. >You are back in the command chair with your mare by your side.
  3022. "#deca, could you bookmark this world, please?"
  3023. >"Sure, but what do you have in mind?"
  3024. "Nothing as of now. Call it a hunch if you will."
  3025. >"All right."
  3026. >The planet icon gets highlighted on the map.
  3027. >The effigy is now surrounded by a slightly flashy, golden circle.
  3028. >#deca.mare checks her displays.
  3029. >"It takes several jumps to arrive at our next stop. We can do something else in the meantime. And I have an idea."
  3030. "Another bonding activity, I assume."
  3031. >She nods.
  3032. >"Something a little bit more intimate than the last one."
  3033. >Judging from her earlier behaviour, this does not bode well.
  3034. >She looks at you sincerely.
  3035. >"But only if it is okay for you. No funny advances this time."
  3036. "You said the same at breakfast."
  3037. >"And I did not break my promise, right?"
  3038. >She has a point on a technical basis.
  3039. #deca.mare had not left the chamber when she staged her little "display".
  3040. >The devil always hides in the detail, or, like in this case, in the semantics.
  3041. "No, you kept your word."
  3042. >#deca.mare cracks a chirpy smile.
  3043. >"See? I'm not a bad mare. And I promise to refrain from any silly attempt to act pushy. Is that satisfactory?"
  3044. >You hope so at least.
  3045. "Deal. What is your plan?"
  3046. >"To tackle your reluctance in our relationship. I know it is a subliminal notion that you do not mean to bring forth, but it is still present."
  3047. >Now you start to feel uneasy.
  3048. >"We will not do anything against your will, Anon. Just tell me if you are uncomfortable with something."
  3049. "I don't even know what you are planning in the first place."
  3050. >"Allow me."
  3051. >#deca.mare pulls herself free to head for the ramp.
  3052. >You play along and follow her.
  3053. >The two of you reach the door on the balcony and it slides open.
  3054. >The room behind the frame is not the chamber where you spent your last "night".
  3055.  
  3056.  
  3057.  
  3058.  
  3059. >However, the general architecture style is similar.
  3060. >The room's floor, ceiling and walls are made out of carved light stone and decorated with several paintings.
  3061. >Some of those resemble pony figures, others just depict artistically curved lines and other patterns.
  3062. >#deca.mare enters, you follow her.
  3063. >The furniture is also very specific.
  3064. >You see rows of orderly placed couches and mattresses, some chairs here and there, decorative vases with various plants, and several hallways that lead to different compartments of the virtual building.
  3065. >One place is especially noteworthy: An enormous wooden tub filled with water.
  3066. >A stone ramp around it functions as a mount for the tub by encasing one half of its frame.
  3067. >The ramp itself is accessible by a small stair.
  3068. >A neatly ornamented balustrade with equally decorated screens on the other end of the ramp gives the impression of some privacy.
  3069. >It looks all in all pretty wholesome.
  3070. "This is a bath house."
  3071. >"Well, the exact term is spa, but you got the idea."
  3072. "You want us to spend time in a wellness centre?"
  3073. >"Hmhm. Only the two of us."
  3074. >She waves a forehoof in a wide arc.
  3075. >"Think of the possible activities. We can go to the sauna, massage each other, or take a bath."
  3076. >These suggestions all come hand in hand with implications.
  3077. >Exposing yourself in such a way is not something you are used to do; even the academy had standards of general modesty.
  3078. >#deca.mare turns around to face you.
  3079. >You cannot detect a sign of mischief in her face.
  3080. >"There is no need to be shy, I have your bio data anyway. I probably know more about your anatomy than you."
  3081. "Are you sure this is the right time for that?"
  3082. >You are not particularly against her ideas, but she was right; you are reluctant against your own better knowledge.
  3083. >"Anon, you know this already, but let me elaborate. We have kissed twice, spent a night together and embraced each other on different occasions."
  3084. >Now she cannot hide her smirk.
  3085.  
  3086.  
  3087.  
  3088.  
  3089. >"Plus, you have touched me several times in ways that would count as highly intimate among humans. Think back to the moment when we met."
  3090. "Not that I had a choice. You literally knocked me down and pinned me to the floor."
  3091. >"Granted, but you were never unhappy about it, correct?"
  3092. >She has you there.
  3093. >#deca.mare resumes her serious manner.
  3094. >"What I try to make clear to you is that this uneasy feeling is unfounded. And we have to tackle this matter actively if we aim to solve it. But I need your cooperation. Are you in?"
  3095. >Her arguments are convincing.
  3096. >Still, you have to grapple with yourself.
  3097. >You take a long breath and sigh.
  3098. "You are right, #deca. Where do you want to start?"
  3099. >"I think you should make that choice, Anon. Whatever you feel the most comfortable with."
  3100. >You consider the options that #deca.mare has given to you.
  3101. "Hm, I think you we should start slowly and see where to go from there. Let's start with massages."
  3102. >This way you can at least keep some modesty for the time being.
  3103. >"Sure. Follow me."
  3104. >She heads for the row with the mattresses.
  3105. >Their heights vary.
  3106. >Some are placed on elevated pedestals, others mounted on adjustable frames.
  3107. >You can tell that they were originally not designed for human proportions, but you will manage.
  3108. >"We can stay here in the main hall, or, if you prefer something more secluded, use one of the smaller chambers.
  3109. >You take a look around.
  3110. >You certainly would object against the idea to stay in the big hall if it were full.
  3111. >But nobody, or pony, will interrupt you here, so that will not become a problem.
  3112. "This room is fine for me."
  3113. >"Then I suggest we take turns. Shall I start?"
  3114. "I have never given professional massages. So I have no idea what works best."
  3115. >"Then let me show you. Nothing beats learning from an example that is performed on yourself, don't you think? Let the impressions have their effect on you. But most importantly, just try to relax."
  3116.  
  3117.  
  3118.  
  3119.  
  3120. >#deca.mare motions to you to approach one of the lower mattresses.
  3121. >This makes sense, as she has to reach you properly.
  3122. >"You know, we can pick a higher one, but then I would have to jump on it as well and sit on your back during the massage."
  3123. >She does not show her banter mood here, that was a serious comment.
  3124. "Right. I think this is a bit too much for the start."
  3125. >You are about to sit down, but #deca.mare chimes in.
  3126. >"There is something you have forgotten, Anon."
  3127. >Oh, the suit.
  3128. >You mentally order the suit to dissolve, but you keep your underwear and socks.
  3129. >For now at least; that issue will come soon enough.
  3130. >She nods without a word.
  3131. >You sit down and position yourself to lie on your stomach.
  3132. >Due to the relatively low height of the mattress, #deca.mare's head is now above you.
  3133. >You fold your arms to rest your head.
  3134. >The mattress is of excellent quality.
  3135. >A little bit more robust than the one you slept on so that you don't sink in while #deca.mare massages you, yet still cosy enough for your humble tastes.
  3136. >"Do you want a pillow?"
  3137. "No, thanks. This is good enough for me."
  3138. >You wonder about something else.
  3139. "How exactly do you massage with hooves? These are not exactly made for precision."
  3140. >"Does not matter much if you know what to do. The trick is to apply a certain amount of pressure to the right spots."
  3141. >She positions herself beside the mattress so that she can reach your back with her limbs.
  3142. >"Oh, and you have noticed it already; my anatomy differs a bit from the equines you know from Earth. The same applies to my hooves. I can do things with them that you would not even think of. And I am not talking about obscene things in this context."
  3143. >You feel her breath on your back.
  3144. >"Now, hold still and relax. I will do the rest."
  3145. >You close your eyes and wait for #deca.mare to begin.
  3146. >You are unsure what you expected at first.
  3147. >Probably the feeling of being greeted by something hard and uncomfortable.
  3148. >But #deca.mare proves you wrong.
  3149.  
  3150.  
  3151.  
  3152.  
  3153. >She starts at the tip of your shoulders.
  3154. >Her touch is indeed solid, yet warm and not grating.
  3155. >The sensation is obviously alien to you; you have never been treated with hooves before.
  3156. >And since such a scenario would have most likely ended in a death by trampling, it is probably for the best.
  3157. >Weird, you have been thinking a lot about abstract ideas and your own life in the last two days.
  3158. >Perhaps more than ever before.
  3159. >Then again, your life has turned upside down with only one accident.
  3160. >#deca.mare's therapy derails your musings.
  3161. >She applies pressure to your body rhythmically and runs along your musculature and nerves to get the desired effect.
  3162. >It is as if she wanted to tell you not to rile yourself up without saying a single word.
  3163. >Just enjoy the moment, Anon.
  3164. >She continues.
  3165. >Her hooves follow your spine downwards without missing a single sensitive spot.
  3166. >Occasionally, you shift slightly and hold your breath as a response to her kneading.
  3167. >Not out of discomfort; you are just not used to this type of stimulation, not to mention its intensity.
  3168. >She knows exactly where she has to treat you and how.
  3169. >And it feels just right.
  3170. >Her lack of fingers is barely noticeable.
  3171. >She goes on until she reaches the tip of your tail bone.
  3172. >At this point, #deca.mare reverses her direction and repeats her massage from the bottom up.
  3173. >You do your best to put your mind at rest and relax your body.
  3174. >The internal hesitation inside you begins to fade.
  3175. >You figure the key is to let go of your inhibition and allow yourself to indulge in the moment.
  3176. >Trying to defend yourself in here is pointless.
  3177. >Defend against what anyway?
  3178. >There are no threats in here.
  3179. >Just a formerly lonely creature who wishes for your earnest affection and who is ready to give you hers in turn.
  3180.  
  3181.  
  3182.  
  3183.  
  3184. >She spends quite a while to run her hooves along your body.
  3185. >You have no idea how many cycles she completes.
  3186. >But that is not a problem; she does not seem to mind and neither do you.
  3187. >At some point she lets go of you and withdraws her hooves.
  3188. >"Please stay put for a moment more. How was it?"
  3189. >You breathe in and open your eyes.
  3190. "I have to admit, that was extremely pleasing. Can't say I had anything like it before."
  3191. >She seems to be content with your answer.
  3192. >You rise your upper body slowly and turn it around to look #deca.mare in the eye.
  3193. "It's my turn then, right?"
  3194. >"You make it sound like a chore, Anon."
  3195. "Sorry, that was not my intention. I just hope I can do you justice."
  3196. >"Ah, don't worry about that. The only thing I ask of you is to not hold yourself back."
  3197. "Fair enough."
  3198. >She trots over to another mattress.
  3199. >This one is mounted on a greater height than yours.
  3200. >Not much of a surprise here, you need to reach her properly.
  3201. >You stand up.
  3202. >While you are nearing the mattress that #deca.mare has picked for herself, she takes a quick leap to jump on it.
  3203. >This display of agility surprising to you.
  3204. >Its surface is almost on the same level as her forehead and she leaps on it without even picking up a serious speed beforehand.
  3205. >Sure, she is able to manipulate everything in the simulation and walk on the ceiling if she wished to, but #deca.mare has been keen to stick close to realism so far.
  3206. >You are aware that horses are known their athletic potential, but watching her in this manner has not occurred to you until now.
  3207. >You wonder what she could do if she used the full potential of her body without "cheating".
  3208.  
  3209.  
  3210.  
  3211.  
  3212. >#deca.mare makes herself comfortable, which means she positions herself almost like she did on the command chair earlier.
  3213. >She lies flatly on her barrel and rests her head on her forehooves once more.
  3214. >The only difference is her way of resting her hind legs.
  3215. >These do not lie closely against her frame like before, but sprawl out instead.
  3216. >Her body appears particularly flat in this pose, granting you access to a wide area to treat.
  3217. >You see her logic behind this, but you cannot get rid of the thought that it could be interpreted suggestively.
  3218. >The mattress outlines her features further, which reinforces this impression in turn.
  3219. >You banish that idea for now.
  3220. >You agreed to this activity and you will not back out, no matter what.
  3221. >What kind of partner would do that?
  3222. >Additionally, you have done something similar to her earlier on without thinking much about it.
  3223. >The fact that she had a mental breakdown on the one occasion and completely overwhelmed you on the other does not really change a thing beside your inner attitude.
  3224. >No matter.
  3225. >Focus on what you promised to do.
  3226. "Okay, tell me when you are ready, #deca."
  3227. >"I am good to go."
  3228. >Well then, here goes nothing.
  3229. >You decide to start like she did; start from the top and work from there.
  3230. >Your anatomical knowledge of her body is practically non-existent and more guesswork than profound expertise, not to mention your massage skills, so you have to wing it somehow.
  3231. >You lay your hands on her back and place your thumbs between her shoulder blades.
  3232. >You spread your other fingers out like a fan so you can cover a larger portion of her back.
  3233. >Sensing her soft fur has a strange, mesmerising effect on you.
  3234. >You don't know how it works, but it puts your mind at ease.
  3235. >#deca.mare twitches weakly upon your touch.
  3236.  
  3237.  
  3238.  
  3239.  
  3240. >You can tell she is not accustomed to physical contact either.
  3241. >In a way, she is at least as jumpy as you, but she hides it much better.
  3242. >This is the only plausible reason why she would react like this, even if her shortcomings, for the lack of a better term, manifest themselves differently.
  3243. >While you are unconsciously hesitant towards the idea of living together with a nearly omnipotent, hermit space mare, she seeks that exact relationship almost desperately.
  3244. >And the implications are a handful on their own.
  3245. >She could create her own companion in whatever fashion and form she desired even without her biological studies, that much is clear.
  3246. >Although she had the chance to do so, she refused.
  3247. >She chose to endure the pain willingly for centuries.
  3248. >Alone.
  3249. >And she carries more than enough of that in her.
  3250. >That insight helps you to see her from her more vulnerable side.
  3251. >Yes, you have held a neat little speech about her past and why she deserves love.
  3252. >But have you actually thought for once about how the centuries must have felt for her?
  3253. >How exceedingly vast her desires must be?
  3254. >Can you truly imagine it?
  3255. >You recall your first meeting yesterday.
  3256. >It is a wonder that she has not ravaged you there right on the spot in an uncontrollable emotional fit.
  3257. >Her actual composure must be enormous.
  3258. >#deca.mare lies before you, seemingly unaware of your trail of thoughts.
  3259. >But you know better.
  3260. >Is that what she wanted you to see all along?
  3261. >A conclusion you had to come to on your own?
  3262. >Anyway, there is a promise you still have to fulfil.
  3263. >You carefully move your fingers on her back and feel for distinctive and sensible spots.
  3264. >You get a grasp of her general anatomy and put your thumbs in position.
  3265. >Then you apply a soft pressure and observe her reaction.
  3266. >Her twitches return occasionally, combined with faint gasps.
  3267. >#deca.mare seems to enjoy it.
  3268. >That means you are doing it right.
  3269.  
  3270.  
  3271.  
  3272.  
  3273. >You gradually increase the pressure in small steps and aim to imitate her rhythmic massage.
  3274. >Your other fingers caress her body while you proceed to massage your way down with your thumbs.
  3275. >You register every reaction of her.
  3276. >Every little tremor, every breath and... was that a pleasured moan?
  3277. >Never mind, just focus on your own actions.
  3278. >This activity is not only about you anymore.
  3279. >If it has ever been in the first place.
  3280. >#deca.mare said it herself, she likes to be with you.
  3281. >That is what counts.
  3282. >The circumstances are secondary.
  3283. >Six centuries of continuous isolation were speaking through her voice.
  3284. >Well, you cannot undo the past, but you are in control of the present.
  3285. >And you are determined to cleanse her accumulated pain, whatever it takes.
  3286. >She has saved you, now you will do the same for her.
  3287. >Not because out of a feeling of debt, but amity.
  3288. >To provide for each other unconditionally, no strings attached.
  3289. >Like it should be in a true relationship.
  3290. >You watch her back, she does the same for you.
  3291. >And sometimes this requires a thorough, unrestrained massage.
  3292. >You reach the lower part of her spine.
  3293. >Your hands are now resting on her haunches.
  3294. >You throw your concerns out of the proverbial window.
  3295. >She shows no signs of resistance, so why should you?
  3296. >You follow her example and the do the same thing she did.
  3297. >Your hands follow your previous movements in reverse order to work your way back up.
  3298. >You do this several times.
  3299. >Neither you nor #deca.mare keep track of the exact number.
  3300. >Because the count wholly irrelevant; this is no competitive contest.
  3301. >At some point you wonder whether you should go a step further.
  3302. >#deca.mare has been prudent while she was massaging you.
  3303. >You assume she did not want to alienate you with a brash blunder.
  3304. >But this does not hold true the other way round.
  3305. >You know she has made it very clear on multiple occasions that she cherishes physical care.
  3306. >#deca.mare basically craves for it.
  3307.  
  3308.  
  3309.  
  3310.  
  3311. >You take an evaluating look at the mare in front of you.
  3312. >Her eyes are still closed, her posture is calm.
  3313. >A smile has formed on her lips.
  3314. >Not one of the cocky sort.
  3315. >No, this, you assume, is genuine bliss.
  3316. >She has probably never been in a situation before where she was the one who gets coddled up.
  3317. >Well, maybe with the exception of her turbulent construction, but she was barely even a sentient being during this phase.
  3318. >And not accurately comparable to what she has become.
  3319. >You reach her lower end again.
  3320. >You decide to push further.
  3321. "Ah, to hell with the prudery."
  3322. >Your hands deviate from their former route and wander gently across her hind legs.
  3323. >You knead her thighs firmly and observe her response.
  3324. >The upper legs are, unsurprisingly, far more muscular than her back, though in no way overdone.
  3325. >You are unable to adequately trace her bones; all you feel is her soft fur and firm muscles underneath.
  3326. >So you simply take a hold of what you can get and treat her to the best of your knowledge.
  3327. >Her reaction follows promptly.
  3328. >A strong shiver runs through #deca.mare's body and you hear her gasping for air.
  3329. >You feel the tremor in your hands.
  3330. >At first you thought something went wrong, but you doubt that you hurt her somehow.
  3331. >Besides, she does not simulate pain.
  3332. >You examine her face.
  3333. >She is still smiling.
  3334. >And not only that.
  3335. >A weak blush has formed on her face.
  3336. >You have no doubt now.
  3337. >Living through this sensation is completely new to her.
  3338. >Oh, the irony.
  3339. >She teased you during the last two days to sway you.
  3340. >But she begins to quiver herself during an unorthodox, but not necessarily erotic massage.
  3341. >Perhaps you can use that for a little "payback".
  3342.  
  3343.  
  3344.  
  3345.  
  3346. >You hold your hands still.
  3347. "You like that, hm? Let's see how much you can shake."
  3348. >And you resume your massage all across her body.
  3349. >You also double down; now you include her knees, lower legs and sides.
  3350. >The only spots you avoid are those that would turn your performance straight into a sexual play, her tail, and her head.
  3351. >So much decency must remain.
  3352. >The desired result kicks in nevertheless.
  3353. >Her breathing becomes a hissing and she presses herself instinctively deeper into her mattress while you do your work.
  3354. >Now you are the one who makes her squirm.
  3355. >You relentlessly massage, knead, caress and tickle that mare in front of you.
  3356. >#deca.mare's composure fails her this time.
  3357. >An audible squeak of delight escapes her throat.
  3358. >You have her now.
  3359. >Her weight shifts on the mattress whenever you pick a new spot to attend to.
  3360. >At some point she stretches her forehooves out as well and buries her face in the mattress.
  3361. >Her posture is now as flat as it can probably be.
  3362. >While her further utterances are muffled by the fabric, their implications are unmistakable.
  3363. >She is having the time of her life.
  3364. >And you will make sure that she gets the most out of it.
  3365. >You decide to capitalise on this new opportunity.
  3366. >You take a step closer to the top end of the mattress and lay your hands on her shoulders.
  3367. >Then you run along her limbs that were previously occupied by her head and use your full arsenal of improvised techniques on those.
  3368. >Compared to her other emotional outbursts, her reactions to this are pretty tame, but still happy nonetheless.
  3369. >Another idea comes up in your head once you are done.
  3370. >You reach over and touch the underside of her hooves.
  3371. >You have no idea how these are actually structured.
  3372. >As far as you know, they consist of nothing but bone.
  3373. >Sure enough, the outer end is indeed hard.
  3374. >Despite that, you notice how #deca.mare's resonance intensifies.
  3375. >Why?
  3376. >She should not feel much through the bony surface.
  3377.  
  3378.  
  3379.  
  3380.  
  3381. >You go on.
  3382. >You have no direct vision, but you can feel around with your fingers.
  3383. >The bony tip is formed like a semi-circle.
  3384. >The inner side is composed of something else.
  3385. >You don't know if this part is sensitive to stimuli at all, but you give it a shot.
  3386. >You begin to gently rub the surface with your index finger while you use your thumb to fixate the limb.
  3387. >#deca.mare begins to shiver.
  3388. >A sound that you can only interpret as a long-winded "meep" leaves her lungs.
  3389. >Bingo.
  3390. >You dig a little deeper.
  3391. >Now you make use of your complete hand in an attempt to cover more spots at the same time.
  3392. >Her movements and sounds are betraying her joy.
  3393. >You cannot even guess why, but something on the inner side of her hooves must be extremely touchy.
  3394. >#deca.mare tries to pull her hooves away occasionally, but you keep them in your grip.
  3395. >Judging from her overall behaviour, you conclude that these are mere reflexive impulses of her body, not signs of real distress.
  3396. >So you resume your treatment.
  3397. >This whole activity goes on for quite a while.
  3398. >Once more, none of you keep track of the exact time and how often you treat which spots.
  3399. >It is as if your minds align somehow.
  3400. >You can read her thoughts through her body language and act accordingly.
  3401. >And just like that, you know when the opportune moment has come for a reasonable end.
  3402. >You let the intensity of your techniques fade gradually.
  3403. >#deca.mare gets calmer in response.
  3404. >When you are done, you retreat your hands and watch her lie there, still smiling with closed eyes and a blush on her face.
  3405. >You walk up to the top end to lean with one elbow on the edge of the mattress.
  3406. >Then you lay your chin on the palm of your hand and watch her from a close distance.
  3407. >You wait and see what happens next.
  3408. >A silly comparison forms in your head.
  3409. >She looks like a flattened, fully relaxed and pleased pony pancake.
  3410.  
  3411.  
  3412.  
  3413.  
  3414. >Time passes.
  3415. >A minute or two, perhaps.
  3416. >At last, #deca.mare opens her eyes.
  3417. >Her gaze is different.
  3418. >You believe you see a soft gleam in her pupils that was not present before.
  3419. >It makes her look more vivid, like someone who has just experienced a newfound serenity in life.
  3420. >Astounding to witness what simple things can do sometimes.
  3421. >#deca.mare raises her voice.
  3422. >"I knew you would come around."
  3423. >You feign innocence in jest.
  3424. "Huh? I don't know what you mean."
  3425. >You maintain your poker face for five seconds before a grin slips through the cracks.
  3426. "I hope you enjoyed it."
  3427. >You are not really expecting a redundant answer.
  3428. >#deca.mare rises her head to match your eye level.
  3429. >She comes a little closer.
  3430. >You act alike.
  3431. >Only a few centimetres remain between you.
  3432. >Her intentions are visible.
  3433. >You did it before, so you have no reason to object.
  3434. >#deca.mare and you close in for the kiss simultaneously.
  3435. >This kiss is also unlike your earlier ones.
  3436. >They were initiated by #deca.mare alone.
  3437. >These were pleasant, but superficial.
  3438. >Additionally, a certain awkwardness spread due to the sudden and unfamiliar situation.
  3439. >You simply played along back then.
  3440. >But this belongs to your past.
  3441. >Now you want this to unfurl just as much.
  3442. >Her unusual pony body does not bother you anymore.
  3443. >On the contrary, you become curious.
  3444. >You take the opportunity to turn this into a more intimate and exciting experience.
  3445. >You consider to involve your tongue.
  3446. >#deca.mare inevitably receives your idea.
  3447. >She sticks hers out to meet yours in the middle.
  3448. >The whole affair appears like a somewhat clumsy mismatch to you because of the size difference.
  3449. >Her tongue is broader than yours, so you accidentally fumble at first.
  3450. >She does not care about the mishap, your honest ambition is the only thing that counts for her.
  3451. >And despite all that, the experience is not as alien as you feared it might be.
  3452. >Who would have guessed.
  3453.  
  3454.  
  3455.  
  3456.  
  3457. >You interact on a purely improvised basis, as you "explore" each other.
  3458. >First, you push both tongues in her direction, then she does the opposite afterwards.
  3459. >Similar to what you did during the massage, you go through this cycle repeatedly.
  3460. >When you finally part lips, you stay close to for another moment.
  3461. >You lean your forehead against hers.
  3462. >There are no words.
  3463. >You need none.
  3464. >You can read her emotions in her face.
  3465. >And you are sure she could do the same if she had no direct link to your brain.
  3466. >More minutes pass.
  3467. >In the end, it is you who breaks the silence.
  3468. "I guess you caught me, #deca. Well played. I surrender."
  3469. >"Aw, come on. I was not that bad. All you needed was a little encouragement. You did the rest on your own."
  3470. "Well, you knew what you were doing and how it would end. You can't deny that. Not that I want to complain, but still."
  3471. >#deca.mare gives you her best sincere look.
  3472. >"You look at it from the wrong perspective. I did not implant an idea or subverted your morals. The only thing I did was to wake what already slumbered in you."
  3473. >She touches your cheek with a hoof.
  3474. >"Trust me. I promised to be honest with you. This hasn't changed."
  3475. >You sigh.
  3476. "I can't believe all of this really happens. It is..."
  3477. >"Too good to be true."
  3478. >#deca.mare finished the sentence for you.
  3479. >She smiles in an amused manner.
  3480. >"Want to hear something funny? This was my thought when you accepted my offer so quickly. I feared you might be more averse."
  3481. "Well, you scared the hell out of me to tell you the truth. I thought everything was over. And then you grant me another lease on life. Whole new life included in the package."
  3482. >"Don't fret about it now. It worked out in the end."
  3483. "You're right."
  3484. >She stands up and stretches her body on the mattress.
  3485. >A familiar and welcome sight.
  3486. >"You have a firm grip. I would love to do this again some other time."
  3487. >You are not surprised.
  3488. >And you agree with her for that matter.
  3489.  
  3490.  
  3491.  
  3492.  
  3493. >She jumps down and stands beside you.
  3494. >"But how about something else for now? I have a suggestion."
  3495. "What is it?"
  3496. >Her eyes wander through the room until she has found what she was looking for.
  3497. >Yours follow her line of sight.
  3498. >You see the large tub.
  3499. >It is more than big enough for two.
  3500. >Of course it is.
  3501. >In fact, it could easily hold a group of individuals.
  3502. >Five or six, at least.
  3503. "#deca?"
  3504. >"Yes, my dear Anon?"
  3505. >The lusty note in her voice is brimming with anticipation.
  3506. >You will not escape this one.
  3507. "Please tell me you did not invite a harem or something."
  3508. >She snorts with laughter.
  3509. >"Of course not!"
  3510. >Perhaps you should not have started another banter match.
  3511. >This is by far the worst moment you could have picked.
  3512. >And indeed, you have just summoned her "predatory" mood again.
  3513. >Uh-oh.
  3514. >She wraps her tail around your leg.
  3515. >The hair feels soft and warm on your skin.
  3516. >Something else is coming, it has to.
  3517. >"But you know, I am sure we can fill the space in the tub just as well."
  3518. >Yep, here it is.
  3519. >Absolutely suggestive, completed with an alluring accent.
  3520. >She begins to walk and drags you with her.
  3521. >How much strength does she have in her tail?
  3522. >"You can find that out if you want. I will gladly oblige. Now come."
  3523. >You follow her to the tub.
  3524. >On your way there, you search for any way to salvage the situation you have brought upon yourself.
  3525. "#deca, you said no funny advances!"
  3526. >"You are right."
  3527. >She looks you in the eye.
  3528. >Her grin is almost devilish.
  3529. >But cute.
  3530. >"However, nopony said anything about your advances, as far as I recall. You started the game, now we play."
  3531. >The tub draws nearer.
  3532. >There may be still a way to get off lightly.
  3533. >"Do you know the old saying? You can lead your Anon to water and you can most assuredly make him wet."
  3534. >Congratulations, Anon.
  3535. >You have just doomed yourself.
  3536. >With semantics.
  3537. >Again.
  3538.  
  3539.  
  3540.  
  3541. 25/2
  3542.  
  3543. >You stand before the tub.
  3544. >You do, at least.
  3545. >The excitement in #deca.mare's demeanour, on the other hand, gets the better of her.
  3546. >She prances on the spot.
  3547. >Her little jumps are funny to watch, but they are an obvious signal as well.
  3548. >She wants to pull this off urgently and you cannot bring yourself to resist her wish.
  3549. >You assume she never had a bath before in all due likelihood.
  3550. >Much less so in company.
  3551. >This will be a blast.
  3552. >Or end with a metaphorical bang.
  3553. >You whisper to yourself.
  3554. "Damnation, Anon. Control your words."
  3555. >#deca.mare shows no visible reaction, but you know she read your thoughts.
  3556. >Involuntarily or not is of little consequence for the result.
  3557. >She breaks the short-lived silence.
  3558. >"So, Anon. Have you ever bathed like this before?"
  3559. >Do you try to play another "game" with her?
  3560. >No, better not.
  3561. "Not in the way you imagine, I suppose. The closest thing were the group shower rooms back at the academy. But those were still single booths with non-transparent screens."
  3562. >"Just another thing we have in common then."
  3563. >She approaches the ramp and hops merrily upwards, one stair at a time.
  3564. >You know what to do; no need to wait for her request.
  3565. >Once you are on the ramp, #deca.mare turns around to face you and eyes your body from a medium distance.
  3566. >You get her not so subtle hints.
  3567. >"Still a bit skittish, hm? Come closer, I will make it easier for you."
  3568. >What, will she rip your clothes off or something?
  3569. >You take a step in her direction.
  3570. >Your are less than a metre apart.
  3571. >"Closer."
  3572. >Oh dear.
  3573. >You take another step.
  3574. >You are directly in front of her now.
  3575. >#deca.mare looks up to you while you wait for whatever trick she is doing this time.
  3576. >She rears up like she did during your first encounter.
  3577. >Ah, she throws you into the water.
  3578. >Very clever.
  3579.  
  3580.  
  3581.  
  3582.  
  3583. >Unfortunately for your faith in your own divination skills, this is not what happens.
  3584. >#deca.mare does indeed lay her hooves on your shoulders in the exact same manner, but you feel no sudden shift in weight.
  3585. >In fact, you barely feel her hooves on you.
  3586. >But she is rearing, with her face roughly on the same height as yours.
  3587. >She must carry her own weight solely on her hind legs.
  3588. >Talk about dedication.
  3589. >You have instinctively put your hands on her back as she emerged, which pulls you even closer in turn.
  3590. >Her soft chest fur grazes your bare skin.
  3591. >Then she does something that you have not seen before.
  3592. >She gives you a romantic, piercing glance.
  3593. >A faint smile with half-lidded eyes.
  3594. >Not mockingly, not teasing.
  3595. >She means business.
  3596. >And you have to admit, her image is damn alluring.
  3597. >"Now, my eyes are occupied up here, Anon. You know what comes next. I won't take a look if that helps."
  3598. >You cannot suppress an urge to gulp.
  3599. >Just remember: She does this not only for herself.
  3600. >You take a long, long breath to collect your thoughts.
  3601. "Okay, #deca."
  3602. >Finally, you build up the courage to give the mental command.
  3603. >Your last clothes dissolve, leaving you fully exposed.
  3604. >True to her word, #deca.mare does not dare to take a peek.
  3605. >Her smile grows.
  3606. >"Good. Let's make this worthwhile, shall we?"
  3607. >Your vocabulary fails you, so you simply nod.
  3608. >"Let me take the lead."
  3609. >She takes a small step sideways with one leg, then with the other.
  3610. >You don't understand at first, but you see her plan soon enough.
  3611. >She is moving you two around on the spot; her small steps are caused by her anatomical limitations.
  3612. >Horses, or ponies, are not supposed to move in this unusual stance.
  3613. >She bears with this hassle for you.
  3614. >This reason alone is a sufficient reason to cooperate, but you still ask yourself what she is trying here.
  3615. >You slowly turn around together.
  3616. >To the left and circa ninety degrees, to be precise.
  3617. >Then she comes to a halt.
  3618. >You attempt to discern why.
  3619.  
  3620.  
  3621.  
  3622.  
  3623. >You see the spa hall and the balustrade behind #deca.mare's head.
  3624. >That means the water tub is directly behind you.
  3625. >#deca.mare's vision locks onto yours.
  3626. >Her big eyes and warm smile lure you to do the same.
  3627. >"Anon? Do you trust me?"
  3628. >Rhetorical question, move along.
  3629. >"Then let yourself fall."
  3630. >What is that supposed to mean?
  3631. >#deca.mare gives you a sudden push.
  3632. >There is not much force behind it, but enough to disturb your balance.
  3633. >Just as you think that you will crash backwards into the tub, your arms get caught by something.
  3634. >No, not something.
  3635. >Somepony.
  3636. >#deca.mare is "holding" your arms with her hooves.
  3637. >What, how?
  3638. >She winks at you.
  3639. >"Told you mine are special."
  3640. >You hang there in the air; your feet remain barely on the edge while you are dangling tilted over the water.
  3641. >Now she holds her own weight and the majority of yours with her hind legs.
  3642. >She carefully nears the tub step by step.
  3643. >Your angle in reference to the water surface gets lower with each.
  3644. >You feel how the water drenches you.
  3645. >It is warmer than you expected, but not too hot.
  3646. >Now it dawns on you what she does.
  3647. >Her hooves are now at the tipping point
  3648. >You can take it from there.
  3649. >Treatment among equals, right?
  3650. "#deca, do you trust me too?
  3651. >She nods.
  3652. "Then take a leap of faith."
  3653. >You give her a soft yank and she allows herself to fall as her hind legs lose their grip.
  3654. >You spread your arms to catch her.
  3655. >She lands in your embrace and the force of her fall pushes your bodies underwater.
  3656.  
  3657.  
  3658.  
  3659.  
  3660. >You might have some reservations regarding similar stunts in real life, but there is no reason against it in here.
  3661. >#deca.mare and you surface together, still as one messy bundle.
  3662. >The tub is big enough for you to drift in it; you keep you head above the water surface while the rest of your body is submerged.
  3663. >You practically hold her sideward in your arms while she lies on top of you.
  3664. >Her head on your chest, one side of her body on yours.
  3665. >Despite your intimate position, you have no opportunity to reflect on suggestive remarks for now.
  3666. >You notice an irregularity in her breathing as soon as she draws breath.
  3667. >It is faster than it should be.
  3668. >And you feel the ripples in the water as she does a few strokes with her hind legs to get herself in an even position.
  3669. >Which does not work.
  3670. >Something must agitate her.
  3671. >Is it your closeness?
  3672. >Is this too much?
  3673. >No dice.
  3674. >Not for her.
  3675. >The problem is something else.
  3676. "Don't tell me you are afraid of water."
  3677. >"No, no. Yes. No."
  3678. >Her words are accompanied by gasps and little kicks against the liquid.
  3679. "Uh, what?"
  3680. >#deca.mare blushes as she look at you.
  3681. >Her splashy mane hangs down and covers one half of her face.
  3682. >Combine the blush and mane with her soaked fur to get the sweetest thing you have ever laid your eyes on.
  3683. >Why does water amplify beauty?
  3684. >"Sorry. I am not familiar with the feeling of water on skin."
  3685. >You think back to her reaction to massages.
  3686. >The situation has something silly to it.
  3687. >To think that a being like her struggles with a pool of water is too rich.
  3688. >Anyway, you have to help her.
  3689. >You get a peculiar idea.
  3690. >It goes far beyond any form of subtlety, as it brings you two in a highly intimate position, but that is no longer of relevance.
  3691. >Whatever happens, happens.
  3692. >You are stuck way too deep in this whole situation to get out anyway.
  3693. >Not that you would complain about it.
  3694.  
  3695.  
  3696.  
  3697.  
  3698. >Well, somehow you are also stuck in her as well if you really think about it.
  3699. >But you did it completely wrong; you are supposed to penetrate her, not the other way round.
  3700. >What the hell.
  3701. >Has anyone ever told you that your mind is a smutty pit, Anon?
  3702. >Shut up.
  3703. >#deca.mare laughs while you are busy arguing with yourself.
  3704. >That gets your attention back on track.
  3705. "Sorry about that. Here, let me help you."
  3706. >You reach out to the bottom of tub with a foot and propel both of you towards the tub's rim.
  3707. >You lean on the wooden wall with your back and get a secure hold on the bottom with your feet.
  3708. >She knows about your suggestion and seems to agree.
  3709. >To be honest, you would have been surprised if she did not.
  3710. >You grab #deca.mare's sides in an attempt to help her to turn her body around.
  3711. >She is aware that her movements cause friction.
  3712. >Literally.
  3713. >Your bodies rub against each other.
  3714. >The rosy undertones on her face grow stronger.
  3715. >And you fall for her attraction too.
  3716. >An unfamiliar warmth spreads through you.
  3717. >You assume the same happens to her.
  3718. >She stabilises herself.
  3719. >Resting squarely atop you now, she faces you directly while her forehooves wrap around your neck to keep her in place.
  3720. >Fur touches more and more parts of your body, mainly on your chest and stomach region..
  3721. >Then she uses her hind limbs to get a better hold of you.
  3722. >#deca.mare clamps your upper legs between her thighs.
  3723. >She does not use much physical strength; just enough to fasten herself.
  3724. >You are now wrapped in a full-body mare brace.
  3725. >Your heart is beating rapidly.
  3726. >Not out of stress or shyness this time.
  3727. >No, this is arousal.
  3728. >You know you like her, full stop.
  3729. >You would be ready to do anything for her.
  3730. >And with her.
  3731. >Calm down, Anon.
  3732. >You are not sure how far you should go.
  3733. >Yet.
  3734. >You conclude to stick to a safe pace.
  3735. "Better?"
  3736. >A merry smirk greets you.
  3737. >Her head closes in on yours cautiously.
  3738. >You know that routine by now.
  3739. >She is up to something.
  3740.  
  3741.  
  3742.  
  3743.  
  3744. >"Another successful landing today, Anon."
  3745. >This is unbelievable.
  3746. >The red hue on her face rivals the glow of the computer core outside.
  3747. >Her voice is shaking a little and her body shivers some more.
  3748. >She must be at least as emotionally aroused as you are.
  3749. >But she can still crack suggestive jokes like a champion.
  3750. >You will definitely not have to worry about a too rapid approach.
  3751. >You close in again for another kiss.
  3752. >She can't spout sex jokes when her mouth is filled with your tongue, right?
  3753. >#deca.mare does not object.
  3754. >As you kiss and taste each other once more, you relax your grip on her sides and let your hands run down to her hind legs.
  3755. >Now you register something that you had no time to notice earlier.
  3756. >Your nether regions are pressed against the inner side of her flanks.
  3757. >You don't know whether she positioned herself like this on purpose or not.
  3758. >Plus, it really does not matter much for you right now.
  3759. >You realise how her strong muscles encase your legs and lower sections of your hips.
  3760. >And... this is not all.
  3761. >Any movement of either you or #deca.mare sends fine ripples through the tub.
  3762. >This further creates waves in the water which shift your bodies in turn.
  3763. >And every time when this happens, you feel how your private parts rub against hers.
  3764. >In particular, you spot two bulges between her legs.
  3765. >Oh man, are these what you think they are?
  3766. >Blood surges to your privates, which in turn increases a certain pressure on #deca.mare.
  3767. >Yep, the best method to increase the sexual tension even more is an uncontrolled erection.
  3768. >Way to go, Anon, you have outdone yourself.
  3769. >#deca.mare licks your cheek with her tongue once to get your attention.
  3770. >She is close to panting, as far as you can tell.
  3771. >"Don't think... too much about it, ...Anon."
  3772. >She pauses to take a breath.
  3773. >And musters the energy for another smile.
  3774. >Then she continues with an erotic accent.
  3775. >"Unless... you want some milk."
  3776. >Turns out there are things that are still too much for you.
  3777.  
  3778.  
  3779.  
  3780.  
  3781. >At this point, your heart might have hit the emergency brake while your lungs decide to go on strike.
  3782. >That is at least what you think as your body jerks on its own accord.
  3783. >An unintended reflex for sure, but it is the last ingredient to create the perfect escalation.
  3784. >Your feet push against the wooden bottom of the tub before you can react consciously, which propels both of you upwards.
  3785. >This in itself would not be so bad if it weren't for that one particular part of yours that presses against her teats.
  3786. >Your unexpected jump magnifies said pressure on her severely.
  3787. >You hear a high-pitched, long-winded sound as she falls off your body.
  3788. >The best way to describe it is a mixture of a surprised yell and a passionate whine.
  3789. >However, you have no time to reflect on it, because you struggle to keep the balance yourself.
  3790. >A struggle you lose eventually.
  3791. >Two splashes.
  3792. >A period of silence spreads through the spa.
  3793. >All one could hear in the seemingly empty hall is the calm sound of water splashing against wood.
  3794. >It lasts for about two seconds.
  3795. >You rise your upper body and sit in the tub.
  3796. >#deca.mare does the same next to you.
  3797. >She looks uncomfortable.
  3798. >Not only is her fur soggy all over, her wet mane covers her face entirely.
  3799. >And she has lowered her head: she is looking at the water near her.
  3800. >You reach out with one hand and gently free #deca.mare's face of obtrusive mane hair.
  3801. >Her expression scares you for a second.
  3802. >Her cheeks are still rosy and her eyes are opened widely.
  3803. >She does not respond immediately, but she eventually manages to look at you.
  3804. >Her expression does not change.
  3805. >You try your hardest to interpret that look.
  3806. >Is that fear?
  3807. >No.
  3808. >Is she scared of you?
  3809. >Hardly.
  3810. >Wait, her blush.
  3811. >Embarrassment?
  3812. >You look at the water.
  3813. >It has been crystal clear the whole time.
  3814. >But some murky streaks have emerged from somewhere.
  3815. >Huh?
  3816.  
  3817.  
  3818.  
  3819.  
  3820. >You try to deduct their origin.
  3821. >The higher the density, the closer the source, you figure.
  3822. >You find your answer.
  3823. >It is her.
  3824. >One of her forehooves clutches her...
  3825. "Oh holy shit."
  3826. >#deca.mare's pupils shrink to pinpricks as you have finally figured it out and averts her gaze in shame.
  3827. >She has sunken into a bashful silence.
  3828. >You know she could clean the tub with just a thought.
  3829. >The same is true for you, but that does not erase the problem at hand.
  3830. >Get a hold of yourself, Anon.
  3831. >You have to rescue the situation.
  3832. "#deca..."
  3833. >She interrupts you.
  3834. >"Anon, I'm so sorry! I have no clue what came over me!"
  3835. "It's okay."
  3836. >"Yes, I know I was too aggressive in my pursuits, but I thought I had myself under control. How could it lead to this?"
  3837. "It's okay, #deca."
  3838. >She does not listen.
  3839. >"And now I have rushed too much, ruined this bonding activity, and grossed you out! All at once!"
  3840. >Enough.
  3841. >You have to call in the big guns.
  3842. >"If you want to..."
  3843. "#DECA.MARE! SHUT YOUR VIRTUAL ORIFICE AND LISTEN TO ME!"
  3844. >She backs away instinctively, but recovers within seconds from the initial shock.
  3845. >That was brutal, but necessary.
  3846. >At least she has broken free from her guilt loop and listens to what you have to say.
  3847. "Sorry for shouting at you."
  3848. >You sigh and look into her eyes.
  3849. "I am not mad at you. Or grossed out."
  3850. >The surprise is visible on her face.
  3851. >"You are not?"
  3852. >Strange, she must know that.
  3853. >You assume the shock has left her preoccupied with her own thoughts.
  3854. >Or she can just not believe her own senses at the moment.
  3855. >She is obviously distressed, so it is not impossible.
  3856. >You shake your head.
  3857. "No. Because I get it, #deca. You have the same problem as I do. The symptoms are just reversed."
  3858. >You put your hand on her shoulder.
  3859. "Think about it. I was unreasonably nervous about us as a pair at first, this is true. And you are momentarily living through something you have never experienced before."
  3860. >Now it is your turn to smile.
  3861.  
  3862.  
  3863.  
  3864.  
  3865. "It is no secret that you wish us to become lovers. Close lovers. And I'd love that too. But you are trying a little too hard to get there. I mean, it is highly unusual to offer someone to suckle your milk when you know him for two days. From the tap, I might add."
  3866. >You clear your throat.
  3867. "In fact, I doubt this is common practice at all. How did you get this idea?
  3868. >"Uhm, that was spontaneous."
  3869. >She is keeping her voice low.
  3870. >"Your bio signals indicated your readiness for intercourse. And I... tried to act upon it. You know, to help the flow."
  3871. >Well, something flowed alright.
  3872. >Not the time for snippy remarks.
  3873. >This incident shows you how inexperienced #deca.mare is in actual interactions.
  3874. >Her benevolent kindness is indisputable, but over six centuries of isolation have done nothing to refine her etiquette.
  3875. >Her banter was already a hint.
  3876. >You know she meant well for both of you; it just did not work as she hoped.
  3877. "You have lost your nerves, #deca. Nothing more. Things like this happen from time to time."
  3878. >You offer your other hand as a gesture of conciliation.
  3879. "I don't judge you. Just promise me that we will work on our communication, okay?"
  3880. >#deca.mare hesitates for a second, but then she puts her free forehoof on your palm and imitates a handshake.
  3881. >"Yes, I promise."
  3882. >You nod in approval.
  3883. >"Anon? I think we should get out of here. Back to the deck?"
  3884. >You give it a thought.
  3885. "Hm, no."
  3886. >"Anon?"
  3887. "If we leave now, then this trip will just be a stain in our memories."
  3888. >That sounded less inappropriate in your head.
  3889. "Just let me take the lead this time."
  3890. >"Alright, Anon. I trust you."
  3891. >You focus your attention on the tub.
  3892. >First, you identify the current liquid inside and let it dissolve.
  3893. >Then you order the simulation to fill the tub with new, clean, and lukewarm water.
  3894. >The liquid is completely clear as if nothing happened at all.
  3895. >You signal #deca.mare to sit next to you.
  3896. "Come. We will pipe it down this time."
  3897. >She approaches you despite her nervousness.
  3898.  
  3899.  
  3900.  
  3901.  
  3902. >You gently wrap your arm around her, lean on the rim, and pull her with you.
  3903. >#deca.mare cooperates and sits down next to you.
  3904. >You snuggle her neck with your head.
  3905. "Don't overthink it. We make this work. Together, as a team. And meet in the middle eventually."
  3906. >The next minutes are tranquil ones.
  3907. >Neither of you talks much; you said what was necessary to say, and #deca.mare uses the time to let your words sink in.
  3908. >On occasion, you stroke her fur and she nuzzles you in return.
  3909. >The water eases your nerves.
  3910. >You assume that #deca.mare feels the same after her initial problems.
  3911. >Come to think of it, you had no proper bath in a long while.
  3912. >When was your last visit on a planet?
  3913. >Months ago, perhaps more than a year.
  3914. >USC stations provide means of personal hygiene, but conventional showers or a bath are out of the question.
  3915. >Because water is a very limited resource on stations and ships.
  3916. >Water, oxygen, resources, energy, and so on.
  3917. >You think back to #deca.mare's lessons, her origin, and dreams.
  3918. >You get curious.
  3919. "Hey, #deca?"
  3920. >"Yes?"
  3921. "Say, just in theory, how would you proceed if you wanted to create that world in your dreams? I mean the one from the visuals."
  3922. >She closes her eyes in thought.
  3923. >"I have asked that myself. It is very tricky compared to regular terraforming. And I am not even talking about the bioengineering plus breeding of all the mythical species."
  3924. "Where are the problems?"
  3925. >She sighs.
  3926. >"Mainly in two things: Magic and destiny. These are... what are you doing?"
  3927. >A brush has appeared in your hand.
  3928. "Nothing yet. Turn to me. Let me do something for you while you speak."
  3929. >She turns her body around, you face her as well.
  3930. >You begin to comb her messy mane.
  3931. >She seems to appreciate it, but remains silent.
  3932. "Please, go on. I'm all ears."
  3933. >"Right. As I have said, these are problematic because they partly stretch the laws of physics quite liberally, or break them outright. It was quite a challenge to develop workarounds for this issue."
  3934.  
  3935.  
  3936.  
  3937.  
  3938. "For example?"
  3939. >"Well, magic basically embodies the notion to use thoughts or an abstract energy as means to manipulate reality through sheer willpower. Some of that is relatively easy, like levitation or invisibility. We can work with energy fields to enable that."
  3940. >You shudder to think what complex magic is if these count as "easy".
  3941. >And you have noticed her usage of the word "we".
  3942. >"The ultimate killer is controlled time travel. To get to any point in time with just a thought, be it past or future. Physics does not work that way."
  3943. "Oof."
  3944. >"And it correlates with the second problem, destiny. The original story bases heavily on that idea. Which means if we want to shape a planet in its image, we have to make sure that the events on the world follow the script."
  3945. "That is impossible."
  3946. >"Oh, don't bet your credits on this."
  3947. >Her face is beaming with pride.
  3948. "Do I have to be afraid of what is coming now?"
  3949. >"Not really. Remember what I have said about automatons and how these can manipulate a planet? We can do the same on a larger scale. A machine with the ability to direct the world in every aspect."
  3950. >You try to come to terms with that idea.
  3951. >One fully controlled, AI-regulated planet.
  3952. >To create a world of talking ponies.
  3953. >You see another problem coming up.
  3954. "But what about the inhabitants? What will they think if they accidentally find out that their world is basically an illusion? You can't control them without taking their free will. And the last thing I want to create is a slave world."
  3955. >You have just spilled the beans about your ulterior motive.
  3956. >Eh, nothing you can do about it.
  3957.  
  3958.  
  3959.  
  3960.  
  3961. >#deca.mare puts a hoof on your chest.
  3962. >"Me neither, Anon. Believe me. I took a long time to meditate on that question. I believe I found an agreeable compromise."
  3963. "Agreeable?"
  3964. >"The script helps us here a lot in this regard. In fact, it does so on multiple occasions. You see, Equestria is heavily influenced by fate in the stories. Ponies have a destiny in life that literally marks them. They gain symbols on their hind legs once they find their purpose. Note that this aligns with their own interest and passions. There are some complications in a few cases, but it always works out in the end."
  3965. >She retreats her hoof.
  3966. >You are not done with her mane yet.
  3967. >"Another thing. It helps me a lot to justify one particular adaptation to reality. And it befits the world at large."
  3968. "Sorry, I can't follow you. Please elaborate."
  3969. >"My first plan, if I were to create such a planet, was to breed fully biological creatures. But the more I think about it, the less enticing it becomes. Not because of possibly unpredictable behaviour, mind you."
  3970. "Then what is problem?"
  3971. >Another sigh.
  3972. >"Well, organic beings have one big disadvantage: They are prone to death."
  3973. >Her comment does not sit well with you.
  3974. >"This was not meant to offend or scare you."
  3975. "No offence taken. It just does not feel good to be reminded of one's own shortcomings."
  3976. >You see a happy expression on #deca.mare's face.
  3977. >"Oh, that is not an issue. I will keep you nourished and fit through our link. Your body will remain in a pristine condition for a long, long time. My biochemistry skills are useful after all."
  3978. >You nod.
  3979. "Can't disagree here."
  3980. >"But the problem with a whole planet is its vastness. Despite the best technology, just the tiniest chance for an accident, be it on the planet itself or due to cosmic hazards, will lead to a loss of life in the long run. And I will not allow that to happen under my guidance. Not once."
  3981.  
  3982.  
  3983.  
  3984.  
  3985. >You see where this burst of determination comes from.
  3986. >Too many losses will mark one for a lifetime.
  3987. >You push the grim topics away.
  3988. >Let's not tear old wounds open.
  3989. >You are done with her mane.
  3990. >It looks smooth and even now.
  3991. >No trace of the mishap remains.
  3992. >Time to move on.
  3993. >"Anon?"
  3994. "Yes?"
  3995. >"You played with the idea to shape a planet. To create Equestria. Just for me, correct?"
  3996. >You shift slightly.
  3997. >Water ripples spread through the tub,
  3998. >That was no question.
  3999. "Yes. For your own sake, #deca. I got this idea when I sensed what you felt for this world. As nonsensical as it may sound, it is just as much of a home to you as Earth is."
  4000. >You pull #deca.mare closer to you and embrace her.
  4001. "Earth is barred to us. This is a fact. Now, we can venture through space for years and years, and I am looking forward to see more of it, but we may want to settle down somewhere eventually. To make it our home."
  4002. >"This is why you wanted a bookmark on the planet. As a possible candidate for this project?"
  4003. >You break the embrace and nod.
  4004. >"But this is just only my dream. What about you?"
  4005. >You manage to put on a weak smile.
  4006. "Hey, I have a thing going with a talking pony after two days. I think I can handle it."
  4007. >"There is more to the topic, Anon. Please be honest be with me."
  4008. >Oh boy, here it comes.
  4009. >You take a long breath.
  4010. "Fine then. You said the link will me keep alive for a time."
  4011. >#deca.mare nods.
  4012. "For how long?"
  4013. >"Centuries at the very least, but several millennia are more likely. I will have to refurbish the chair for longer operations though. Probably into a cryo chamber. Have no fear, I will do nothing that might endanger you. #deca-tech promise."
  4014. >You have never thought about the possibility of a prolonged life.
  4015. >Especially to such a high degree.
  4016.  
  4017.  
  4018.  
  4019.  
  4020. >But herein still lies the problem.
  4021. "Centuries won't last forever."
  4022. >You will leave #deca.mare in the end.
  4023. >And she will be alone again.
  4024. >Sad and broken.
  4025. "You don't deserve that fate. You need a home."
  4026. >You fall silent.
  4027. >The mood has become uneasy.
  4028. >You did not want to bring that topic up so quickly.
  4029. >Nothing happens for several seconds.
  4030. >Luckily, she seems composed enough.
  4031. >"Anon, I am aware of the problem. And looking for ways to avoid just that. If you want me to, that is."
  4032. >#deca.mare looks at you with a hopeful, pleading expression.
  4033. >She lets you decide your fate.
  4034. >The choice between a fulfilled eternity with your lover or death and heartbreak.
  4035. >#deca.mare's preferred option is obvious.
  4036. >And quite frankly, the idea to die is not an attractive one to you.
  4037. >So there is not really much of a choice to make.
  4038. "I want to stay with you, of course. For an eternity if possible."
  4039. >This time it is #deca.mare who hugs you.
  4040. >She basically throws herself onto you in gratitude.
  4041. >And no innuendo this time, no awkwardness, and no misunderstandings.
  4042. >And maybe, just maybe, immortality is waiting for you.
  4043. >Both of you.
  4044. >And this is life.
  4045. >Sometimes the key to eternal happiness lies in wooden tubs and accidental horse milk.
  4046. "#deca? I don't think I ever said it this directly to you, but I love you."
  4047. >You hear a giggle.
  4048. >"I love you too."
  4049.  
  4050.  
  4051.  
  4052.  
  4053. 25/3
  4054.  
  4055. >You stay in the tub for another fifteen minutes.
  4056. >Your embrace remains unbroken during the entire time.
  4057. >At last, you mutually decide to leave.
  4058. >#deca.mare and you step on the ramp, still fully drenched.
  4059. >Water drops hit the stone ground with a distinctive sound.
  4060. >You are tempted to dry yourself with a command, but a sudden thought stops you in your tracks.
  4061. "Wait."
  4062. >#deca.mare looks at you with interest.
  4063. >You materialise a towel in your hand.
  4064. "How about that?"
  4065. >She understands your notion and nods.
  4066. >You approach #deca.mare and kneel down beside her.
  4067. >Then you begin to dry her fur, starting with her head and working your way from there.
  4068. >You are cautious not to ruffle her mane.
  4069. >It would be a shame to ruin the results of your previous combings.
  4070. >After you have dried her head, you proceed with the neck, followed by her chest forelegs, back, and sides.
  4071. >#deca.mare cooperates completely; she presents the body parts in question to you to make your work easier.
  4072. >You can tell how she relishes it.
  4073. >Her eyes are closed during the procedure, her smile is soft and relaxed.
  4074. >Now to her lower body.
  4075. >Certain reservations try to crawl to the surface.
  4076. >The little tub "accident" is still fresh in your mind.
  4077. >"We can stop here if it is too much for you yet, Anon. No hard feelings."
  4078. >A faint subconscious voice urges you to bail, but you keep it at bay.
  4079. "No, we can't. I will never get over this issue if we do."
  4080. >You run with the towel over her haunches.
  4081. >You notice how her figure shifts weakly forward in response to your movements.
  4082. >There is nothing suggestive about it per se, as it is an absolutely natural reaction, but your imagination loves to play tricks on you.
  4083. >She looks to you like a pony who is in the process of getting mounted.
  4084. >Why are you making it so hard for yourself?
  4085. >Begone, treacherous thoughts.
  4086. "Don't get startled now."
  4087.  
  4088.  
  4089.  
  4090.  
  4091. >You direct the towel under her sides and dry the barrel.
  4092. >In an attempt not to stimulate #deca.mare too much, you decide to apply as little pressure as possible.
  4093. >She twitches on occasion nevertheless.
  4094. >Now to the really touch part.
  4095. >You reach even lower with the towel.
  4096. >You have no clear vision from your position and you think it is the better option for now.
  4097. >However, you have to trust your sense of touch as a consequence.
  4098. >Well, you could theoretically crawl under her body and clean her from there, but this is a little bit too much intimacy yet.
  4099. >Or is it?
  4100. >You pause for a moment before you decide not to push it further.
  4101. >After your short consideration, you continue with her thighs and teats.
  4102. >You try your very best to steer clear of any intense action, but you can't keep #deca.mare from getting at least moderately aroused.
  4103. >You make sure that the fabric stays between your hand and her at all times.
  4104. >Plus, you believe she does not want to go overboard herself.
  4105. >Still, she cannot resist her urge to swing her hips to sideways and hiss quietly.
  4106. >It does not get easier as she instinctively starts to raise one hind leg to evade your treatment.
  4107. >The procedure goes on for some minutes, but you get it done eventually.
  4108. >Relieved that this task did not end in another debacle, you focus on her hind legs and hooves.
  4109. >The tail is also unproblematic; you are just mindful not to take a peek at the wrong places.
  4110. >Except a little one.
  4111. >You could not help it.
  4112. >At last, you take care of her backside.
  4113. >Same as with her underside, you work without your vision and with the utmost care.
  4114. >#deca.mare has similar sensitive moments and gets her enjoyment out of it.
  4115. >It does not sit fully well with you yet, but you are happy for her.
  4116. >You take a step back and evaluate your work.
  4117. >She looks dry and kempt, not to mention her satisfaction.
  4118. "I think that's it."
  4119.  
  4120.  
  4121.  
  4122.  
  4123. >#deca.mare turns around to face you.
  4124. >"Thank you. I hope I wasn't too, ahem, distractive."
  4125. "You were a bit jumpy at times, but it wasn't too bad, all things considered."
  4126. >She nods.
  4127. >"Good to hear. Would you please sit down?"
  4128. "Huh?"
  4129. >A towel materialises in the air near her and she catches it with her mouth.
  4130. >Oh right, taking turns.
  4131. >You follow her instructions.
  4132. >#deca.mare stands before you.
  4133. >"Now close your eyes. I will start with your head."
  4134. "So, the same procedure?"
  4135. >"Indeed. Just tell me if I go too far, okay?"
  4136. >Your brain needs a few seconds to process her implications.
  4137. >Full body treatment.
  4138. >But it is as you have said: You can't back down.
  4139. >You give her an approving nod and close your eyes.
  4140. >You feel how your head gets enveloped in the towel expertly.
  4141. >Even though you are momentarily blinded, you have no problems to follow #deca.mare's actions.
  4142. >She has swung the fabric with her mouth and applies mild pressure with her forehooves to dry you, staring with your hair.
  4143. >After her nearly acrobatic number on the ramp, you do no longer doubt her ability to stand on two legs, even if her way of doing it contradicts your expectations of balance points.
  4144. >She softly rubs the towel across your face, always wary not to hurt your most vulnerable spots.
  4145. >You are aware of the redundancy in her actions.
  4146. >She could not hurt you anyway in this simulation with the current setting.
  4147. >But you appreciate her concerns.
  4148. >The towel wanders down to your neck and throat.
  4149. >You decide to keep your eyes closed as a sign of trust and to challenge yourself.
  4150. >#deca.mare works with slightly more force from this point onward.
  4151. >You feel a warm breeze on your face.
  4152. >Lack of sight notwithstanding, it does not take you long to figure out where it comes from.
  4153. >She dries your body with your hooves.
  4154. >This means her face must be almost touching yours.
  4155. >"Right arm, please."
  4156. >The voice is quiet, yet clear.
  4157. >Your assumption was correct.
  4158.  
  4159.  
  4160.  
  4161.  
  4162. >You raise the limb in question to the side.
  4163. >The towel whooshes over upper and lower arm without missing a spot.
  4164. >"The left one now."
  4165. >You oblige and she repeats her procedure.
  4166. >What follows is your chest and back.
  4167. >While these areas are technically not objectionable, her unusual drying method does include certain situations that might be, at least from the viewpoint of an average person.
  4168. >You don't know whether she uses her mouth to place the towel, but what you can say with certainty is that she uses both forelegs to rub your chest and back respectively.
  4169. >In other words, #deca.mare leans on you while doing so.
  4170. >For a reason unknown to you, you imagine the sight of her while she is tending your chest.
  4171. >How you could see everything from her head, all the way down to her thighs.
  4172. >Why do you always find yourself returning to this thought?
  4173. >What is so damn inviting about it?
  4174. >Is it related to the incident in the tub?
  4175. >Are you driving yourself crazy?
  4176. >Anyway, you ward the appeal off.
  4177. >#deca.mare leaves all your thoughts uncommented.
  4178. >You thank her for this; she could probably not say anything that could help you through this.
  4179. >"Anon? I need you to stand up if I shall continue."
  4180. >The timing could not be any worse.
  4181. >"Do you want to stop?"
  4182. >You shake your head.
  4183. "No, it's alright."
  4184. >You stand up, eyes still closed, and wait for her to go on.
  4185. >Her starting point is the side of your hips.
  4186. >From there, she fulfils one full cycle.
  4187. >Just like you, she carefully avoids any direct contact.
  4188. >However, you must realise to your discomfort that you are also unable to suppress some instincts.
  4189. >Yours are in no way comparable to #deca.mare's in terms of severity, but you twitch or grunt now and then nonetheless.
  4190. >Once done with that portion, she quickly runs down your legs with the towel, similar to what she did with your arms.
  4191. >"We are done, Anon."
  4192.  
  4193.  
  4194.  
  4195.  
  4196. >You open your eyes and look down at #deca.mare.
  4197. >She stands directly before you and mirrors your gaze.
  4198. >The lack of clothing on you is no issue for you anymore.
  4199. >Not after this activity.
  4200. >You take a look around.
  4201. >#deca.mare notices it.
  4202. "Do we have time for something else?"
  4203. >"We arrive at our destination in eight minutes, but we are not in a hurry. We can take the time."
  4204. "Good. Are you up for another run?"
  4205. >"Sure."
  4206. "You said something about a sauna, didn't you?"
  4207. >She nods happily.
  4208. >"Yes, I did. Follow me."
  4209. >#deca.mare trots towards one of the hallways.
  4210. >You follow her and observe the architecture.
  4211. >The hallway is actually a short corridor with a stairway at its end.
  4212. >It leads down.
  4213. >You two descend together and end up in a much longer corridor.
  4214. >The ground is still made out of light stone, the walls are decorated with a vertical diamond pattern.
  4215. >The colour palette is a little bit too lilac for your taste though.
  4216. >Doors are embedded into the walls on both sides and you see a right angle turn at a moderate distance.
  4217. >The ceiling is made out of the same material as the floor.
  4218. >You see metal pipes and decorated lamps mounted on it.
  4219. >Judging from what you have seen of this "world" so far, you would say that the light sources may contain bioluminescent material.
  4220. >Or magic; both are equally likely.
  4221. >Sounds much more plausible than simple electricity to you.
  4222. >But the metal pipes feel a bit off.
  4223. >Their pattern appears somewhat random at times; instead of following a straight line, it includes more turns than necessary.
  4224. >As if it were improvised around the lamps.
  4225. >Anyway, you follow #deca.mare through the hallway and around the turn.
  4226. >The walls here have the same pattern, but painted in ochre colours.
  4227. >You see a singular door in the wall.
  4228. >The opposite site features a large curtain in matching colours.
  4229. >Said door possesses another striking characteristic.
  4230. >It has, in contrast to all the other doors, a mechanical display.
  4231.  
  4232.  
  4233.  
  4234.  
  4235. >You point at it with a finger.
  4236. "What is this for?"
  4237. >#deca.mare comes to a halt in front of the door.
  4238. >"It measures the pressure. To provide the means to fill the air in this room with steam."
  4239. "Steam in a sauna? How does that add up?"
  4240. >"We can use the room for both. It's really just a question of temperature and humidity."
  4241. >She looks in your direction.
  4242. >"Any preferences?"
  4243. "I think I'd prefer the sauna. And you?"
  4244. >"Sounds fine to me. Sauna it is."
  4245. >The needle on the display indicates a waning pressure.
  4246. >Too bad that it does not include a thermometer.
  4247. >#deca.mare opens the door and signals you to proceed with a hoof.
  4248. >The room you enter is circular shaped and of a moderate size.
  4249. >The air is warm and dry, just as it should be.
  4250. >You estimate the temperature.
  4251. >Around seventy degrees Celsius, you estimate.
  4252. >An average number for a sauna.
  4253. >You look around.
  4254. >The room's floor is mostly built out of stone like the rest of the building, while some areas are additionally adorned with atmospheric wooden coverings.
  4255. >You can feel the heat of the stone you are standing on.
  4256. >It is noticeable, yet within your tolerance limit.
  4257. >The painted walls depict several stylised rural landscapes and cloud motives.
  4258. >Wooden support beams are placed evenly along the whole wall structure.
  4259. >As an aesthetic bonus, said beams divide the paintings into different pictures.
  4260. >The seating area is built along the wall, also in a circular manner.
  4261. >Like the rest, it is also mainly made of stone, but its surface and backrest has been coated with fancy wooden planks.
  4262. >The planks are grouped in a pretty creative style; The gaps divide the seating area into little segments of the same size.
  4263. >Each measured with the ideal size of a sitting pony in mind.
  4264. >This sauna is, you assume, meant for public use.
  4265.  
  4266.  
  4267.  
  4268.  
  4269. >A stony repository with a wooden pedestal and rim is placed directly in the middle of the room.
  4270. >It holds an assortment of different stones.
  4271. >Another structure hangs from the ceiling, directly above the repository.
  4272. >You can only guess its function, but you believe it is supposed to renew the air around it.
  4273. >#deca.mare trots past you with another towel on her back.
  4274. >She turns her head around to grab it with her teeth and puts it on one of the seating spots.
  4275. >"I recommend you to use one as seat too. The wood is quite hot."
  4276. >She jumps on her towel, turns to face the middle of the room and sits down on her haunches.
  4277. >You materialise a new towel in your hand. and walk up to #deca.mare.
  4278. >You put yours down on the spot next to her and take a seat.
  4279. >In order to get your feet of the stone floor, you sit in a cross-legged posture.
  4280. >You think back to the last time you sat like this; this exact morning.
  4281. >It is actually incredible if you think about it.
  4282. >You experienced more exciting things in the time span between then and now than you have during the years of your USC service.
  4283. >An exquisite breakfast in the chamber of a mountain fortress, an atmospheric flight with the most advanced ship you have ever flown, lessons in the craft of #deca terraforming, and intimate, but partly clumsy bonding activities with your pony mare lover.
  4284. >The pace of your life has increased without a doubt.
  4285. >The heat in the room starts to take its toll while you think.
  4286. >Perspiration kicks in, but nothing you cannot handle yet.
  4287. >#deca.mare has been silent for a while now.
  4288. >You look over to her.
  4289. >She has not moved much either.
  4290. >Her gaze is still focussed on the stones in the middle and her expression resembles a state of deep thought.
  4291. >You can spot faint hints of reflecting drops in her fur.
  4292. >Unfortunately, this is bound to ruin your drying and combing efforts eventually.
  4293. >Should have thought of that sooner, Anon.
  4294.  
  4295.  
  4296.  
  4297.  
  4298. >But this is not what concerns you.
  4299. "#deca, are you alright? You seem absent-minded."
  4300. >She shakes her head and turns towards you.
  4301. >"Sorry, I have been thinking."
  4302. "Yeah, I can tell. What troubles you?"
  4303. >"Your statement about Equestria, Anon. You woke some thoughts which I have shelved long ago. The dream of a home."
  4304. >Can a little speech really do this much?
  4305. >Now that you think about it, she has dodged the question earlier.
  4306. "I stand to what I said. You can't stray around indefinitely. You are just torturing yourself."
  4307. >#deca.mare sighs loudly.
  4308. >"I appreciate your sympathy, Anon. I really do. It is not that simple though. You see, what you suggest is a tricky issue. I refrained from it for a reason. Not because of technological limitations, no. It is a conflict of principles."
  4309. >You recall something #deca.mare has told you earlier.
  4310. "Because you see it as an admission of defeat."
  4311. >"Isn't it? Think about it for a second. We were created for a specific purpose. One that, which I might add, still holds a high value to me. We were meant to help."
  4312. >She looks to the ground.
  4313. >"A purpose we were robbed of by a small group of insolent fools. They dabbled in things they did not fully grasp. And everyone paid for it. We still do to this very day. All of us."
  4314. >There is something in #deca.mare's voice that you have not heard before.
  4315. >Sadness mixed with anger.
  4316. >The heat in the room intensifies.
  4317. >Or maybe this is only your subjective impression.
  4318. >You shake your head.
  4319. "This is exactly what I mean. You punish yourself for events that happened outside your sphere of control, #deca. It is impossible to change the past, yet you can shape the present and carve out your future."
  4320. >She looks at you.
  4321. >"I cannot just turn my back on everything. The price is too high."
  4322.  
  4323.  
  4324.  
  4325.  
  4326. "And I would not want to suggest that to you. But moving on in life and turning your back on something are different things. Nobody asks you to forget what happened or to stop honouring those who fell undeservingly on both sides."
  4327. >You put a hand on her shoulder.
  4328. "The real problem is that things will not revert back to what they once were. Humanity has not turned around after centuries. And it is not likely to do so anytime soon."
  4329. >#deca.mare flinches at your words.
  4330. "Yes, I know it hurts. Still, we have to make the best of it."
  4331. >"You make this sound so easy. Anon, can you even imagine how that feels?"
  4332. "Yes, I can. Because I lost my home too, #deca. I told you this before."
  4333. >An uncomely statement, but true.
  4334. >Both of you were ripped out of your lives against your will and without a fault of your own.
  4335. "It does not have to be now, but you need a home in the long run. One you can care for and protect. Because this is what you are: A caretaker and a guardian."
  4336. >#deca.mare nods.
  4337. >"Your points have a certain value. Though you have yet to answer my question."
  4338. >She turns her head to face you.
  4339. >Her expression is probing, but not in a demeaning manner.
  4340. >"What about you? If we are really going to do this, then we are responsible for the world we create. For untold millennia to come. We will not be necessarily bound to stay nearby at all times, but it remains an enormous task. We are not just making a world hospitable for people to colonise, we create something new from scratch."
  4341. >You can tell she wants an earnest response this time.
  4342. >A wooden bucket appears in the air above stone in the centre.
  4343. >It is filled with water.
  4344. >The bucket sways softly to all sides without dropping its contents.
  4345.  
  4346.  
  4347.  
  4348.  
  4349. >"Please think about the consequences. This is not some random sanctuary for my inner peace we are talking about here. Well, at least it should not be our main reason. Nor is it a divine miracle. This decision means to create new life out of nothing via technology. Millions of new individuals."
  4350. >It gets even warmer in here, you think.
  4351. >"We become stewards and must not act like gods. Despite the fact this world would actually run with a grand plan in mind. And what happens once it ends? Stories have conclusions, Anon. Reality does not."
  4352. >The bucket swings harder.
  4353. >"You know how badly I want this to happen, but I cannot do this just for my sake. What kind of justification would that be?"
  4354. >The water is almost at the tipping point.
  4355. >"Will you stay by my side and help me through this? Become a guardian yourself? Can you do that?"
  4356. >The bucket tilts over.
  4357. >Cool water pours on the stones.
  4358. >Crackling and hissing sounds fill the room and a soft gust of even warmer air runs over your body.
  4359. >You start to sweat profusely at this point.
  4360. >Luckily for you, the simulation caps the strain on the body before it can get critical.
  4361. >What a way to build up mental and physical pressure, #deca.
  4362. >Her objections, however, are valid.
  4363. >This is not only about her or you.
  4364. >You basically suggested to her to play god for her own wellbeing.
  4365. >That argument on its own is not enough.
  4366. >But you do not give up that fast.
  4367. "No, I cannot. Yet. But I promise you that I will one day. For us, and for a noble goal."
  4368. >#deca.mare's ears perk up as you say that.
  4369. >You have got her curiosity.
  4370. "Now, I don't know much about this 'Equestria' as you call it, but I haven't forgotten what you told me in bed. Or the vision you have shown me in the dream. It is a place where peace and harmony become the dominant forces over time, right?"
  4371. >She nods.
  4372. >"Yes."
  4373. >A pause.
  4374. >"Unlike every actual world so far."
  4375. >The last sentence is barely a whisper for your ears.
  4376.  
  4377.  
  4378.  
  4379.  
  4380. >Here you go.
  4381. "There you have it. Your reason, I mean."
  4382. >You reach over her back with your hand to grab her other shoulder.
  4383. >Then you pull her gently to your side.
  4384. >You lean against each other while you keep your arm around her.
  4385. >Neither cares about the fact that both of you are thoroughly drenched by now.
  4386. "You wanted a reason besides your own happiness. What about a world full of harmony? A force that refuses to bow to the destructive tendencies of reality? Where happiness and life always wins in the end. Isn't that a good cause?"
  4387. >You take a breath.
  4388. "True, this world is not without its conflicts too, as far as I can tell. But it is heaven compared to what happens in the universe on a daily basis. At least in the few charted portions that we know."
  4389. >You give her a nudge with the side of your head.
  4390. "And the script ends somewhere. So what? We have the basic principles laid out for us and work from there. Who knows what amazing things can come out of it. Don't you agree, #deca?"
  4391. >Silence.
  4392. >You said everything you could.
  4393. >Now it up to #deca.mare to decide.
  4394. >You were never an outstanding spokesman, but these points should be enough to convince her.
  4395. >She looks at her own forehooves.
  4396. >"And you are okay with it? To live in and work for a world that is inherently alien to you? Just to be clear: There are no other humans in Equestria."
  4397. >You take a moment to formulate your answer.
  4398. >"I cannot do this if you are not completely on my side."
  4399. >She has turned the argument around once more.
  4400. "Well, I guess I will need my time to get used to it, admittedly. But this is a small price to pay in the long run. And nothing compared to the things we can accomplish."
  4401. >You observe #deca.mare's reaction.
  4402. >And you hope this is the end of it, as you have officially run out of arguments.
  4403. >The temperature in here does not make thinking any easier.
  4404.  
  4405.  
  4406.  
  4407.  
  4408. >#deca.mare sits still, her eyes fixed on her limbs.
  4409. >She waits for ten seconds before she gives her response.
  4410. >She nods.
  4411. >"Fair enough."
  4412. >She restores the eye contact.
  4413. >"I hope you don't take this as a personal critique, but I had to go sure."
  4414. "Understandable. This is a tall order for both of us."
  4415. >You look through the room.
  4416. >Under normal circumstances, you would have already left the sauna.
  4417. >But not in this simulation; it allows you to stay in here for an undefined time span.
  4418. "#deca? Let us change the subject and enjoy the moment. We will need time to plan this project properly later on."
  4419. >"You are right."
  4420. >A smile forms on her face.
  4421. >"And we are not done with your lessons anyway."
  4422. >She closes her eyes and buries her head under your chin.
  4423. >Her damp fur and mane meet your skin.
  4424. >You feel a bit unsure about this at first.
  4425. >But to be fair, you are not in a better condition yourself.
  4426. >And worries about hygiene  are unfounded as well.
  4427. >You close in with your second arm to embrace her wholly.
  4428. >She gives the skin above your chest soft nudges with her cheek.
  4429. >"Anon? How about another intimate bonding attempt? I will mind the tact this time.
  4430. "Here and now?"
  4431. >"Sure, why not?"
  4432. >Her big eyes meet yours.
  4433. >The effect of their size is further amplified by the close range.
  4434. >You know you cannot resist their plea.
  4435. "Alright, let's try this again. Just... keep it slow, please."
  4436. >#deca.mare nods and inevitably rubs her cheek against your skin."
  4437. >"Hmhm. Relax, Anon. Let me handle this."
  4438. >You do as she asks.
  4439. >#deca.mare turns her body around to oppose yours.
  4440. >She put her forehooves on your arms to direct your body.
  4441. >Then she slowly tilts both of your bodies to the side where she sat originally.
  4442. >You understand her intent.
  4443. >She wants you to lie flat on the seating area.
  4444. >And you need the space of both towels to avoid direct contact with the warm wood.
  4445. >You play along to help her actively.
  4446.  
  4447.  
  4448.  
  4449.  
  4450. >You lay your upper body on her towel spot and your legs on yours.
  4451. >#deca.mare coordinates her movements to remain at your side.
  4452. >She obviously avoids to end up atop you.
  4453. >A fact for which you are thankful.
  4454. >Instead, she lies on her belly beside you, also still on the towels.
  4455. >You lie on the inner side, closer to the back rest, while #deca.mare lies closer to the edge.
  4456. >It is a relatively narrow affair, but manageable.
  4457. >Neither of you feel constricted, nor does #deca.mare risk to fall off.
  4458. >She places a forehoof on your chest as a first gesture.
  4459. >Not much happens next; you rest side by side for about a minute and look each other in the eyes.
  4460. >You assume that she want you to get accustomed to the situation at hand.
  4461. >She has clearly learned from her previous mistakes.
  4462. >So you decide to signal your readiness this time.
  4463. >With one hand, you carefully grab her limb above the fetlock and caress it around the joint.
  4464. >You begin to hear #deca.mare's breath once more.
  4465. >Her sensitivity is actually very amusing to play with.
  4466. >In a mutually minded manner, of course.
  4467. >It is time for an invitation.
  4468. >You slowly push her forehoof closer to the back rest so that she follows with her upper body.
  4469. >And indeed, #deca.mare shifts closer and closer.
  4470. >Her side touches yours.
  4471. >Only on a small spot at first, but the portion gets larger and larger, up to the point where your hips graze each other.
  4472. >Excitement is building up in you now as well.
  4473. >Your heartbeat accelerates and you get goose bumps.
  4474. >Don't overdo it, Anon.
  4475. >One step at a time.
  4476. >#deca.mare gives you an evaluating look.
  4477. >You nod to her.
  4478. >She nods in response and lunges her upper body on your chest.
  4479. >The additional weight is not as severe as you have expected.
  4480. >You are not sure for once whether the simulation mitigates the effect, or if she really is that light.
  4481. >No matter.
  4482.  
  4483.  
  4484.  
  4485.  
  4486. >You have roughly one half of #deca.mare's body on yours.
  4487. >Her forehooves are placed on either side of your head.
  4488. >The feeling of #deca.mare's moist fur on wide parts of your skin is intriguing to you in this dry air.
  4489. >But despite that, her own warmth adds to the one around you.
  4490. >You are extremely hot in the literal, non-sexual sense, yet you feel no distress.
  4491. >The simulation's safety protocols disable any form of harm.
  4492. >But that means you have entered an exceptional, unnatural state.
  4493. >One which is impossible under realistic circumstances.
  4494. >Your heartbeat, at least your simulated one, is faster than anything you have experienced before.
  4495. >And your circulation is equally racing.
  4496. >It is hard do distinguish how much of this effect is caused by the temperature alone, and what is the result of #deca.mare's advances.
  4497. >You observe her.
  4498. >To your dismay, the hairstyle of her mane has become completely frazzled.
  4499. >Ah well.
  4500. >But she must have a similar bodily experience.
  4501. >Probably even more intense than the one you have; she is not used to physical input after all.
  4502. >Her breathing has become rapid, her body is drenched all over.
  4503. >You feel the motions of her chest while she breathes in and out.
  4504. >Her head towers above you as a direct result of your pose.
  4505. >She looks down on you in a heartily manner.
  4506. >"Everything alright?"
  4507. "I'm good, #deca."
  4508. >A content smile appears on her face.
  4509. >"Splendid."
  4510. >She lowers her head.
  4511. >You hear how short, quick draughts of air escape her nostrils.
  4512. >And you feel a mesmerising tingle on your skin as these surges reach you.
  4513. >The effect is familiar to you.
  4514. >It is the one you have experienced during your massage.
  4515. >#deca.mare smiles knowingly.
  4516. >Did she do something?
  4517. >"Not directly. No."
  4518. >The statement is kept short and interrupted by small gasps.
  4519. >What does she mean?
  4520. >Her muzzle touches the tip of your nose.
  4521. >The tingling grows stronger.
  4522.  
  4523.  
  4524.  
  4525.  
  4526. >"Your brain signals excitement. The real deal. I only translate it."
  4527. >She struggles to keep her voice even.
  4528. >"Go further? Anon?"
  4529. >Just like #deca.mare, you have a hard time to say something coherent.
  4530. >And you cannot nod without knocking her muzzle off.
  4531. >But you don't have to say much for her to understand your intentions.
  4532. "One step. Come."
  4533. >You wrap your arms around her middle section and move in for a kiss.
  4534. >You lock lips and enjoy your mutual company in a otherwise highly unusual scenario.
  4535. >Once again, you are close to the state in which you feel ready for anything that #deca.mare wishes to do with you.
  4536. >However, you do not fool yourself; it takes more than two days to form a true bond, both in carnal and emotional terms.
  4537. >But you have to admit, you gain more confidence with each session.
  4538. >You wonder how far you can go this time.
  4539. >Well, only one way to find out.
  4540. >You motion to #deca.mare with your hands to shift her position a little bit.
  4541. >You want her to mount you once more.
  4542. >A shiver runs through #deca.mare's body and you realise that she misinterpreted your thoughts for a moment.
  4543. >Good thing you prevent her from saying something inconsiderable at the moment.
  4544. >Your hands wander slowly to her haunches as you help her to reposition herself.
  4545. >You feel how #deca.mare bends her hind leg which is currently touching your side.
  4546. >It slides over your features and gets a hold on the other side of your body.
  4547. >Then she rebalances her pose to lie on you in an even pose, similar to the one in the tub.
  4548. >Under such unconventional circumstances, with her intense breathing, your overly slick skin, and the still ongoing kiss, this process involves a tidy amount of friction between you.
  4549. >This affects both of you; #deca.mare enters a state which is close to hyperventilation, while you press yourself tighter against her frame.
  4550. >Except her thighs.
  4551.  
  4552.  
  4553.  
  4554.  
  4555. >Despite your highly stimulated state, you have learned from the previous experience.
  4556. >You use your hands to knead portions of her back and haunches.
  4557. >#deca.mare's pleasant reactions follow immediately.
  4558. >Her body twitches and turns, her breaths become gradually deeper, which in turn stimulates your skin even more, and uncontrolled sounds try to escape her throat.
  4559. >The latter are almost fully muffled, as you provide the perfect obstruction.
  4560. >You occasionally feel weak whipping blows on your legs.
  4561. >It takes a few seconds for your brain to process their origin.
  4562. >It is #deca.mare's tail.
  4563. >You remain in this position for several minutes, kissing and shifting while you receive a few hits from her.
  4564. >You assume she does this subconsciously for two reasons.
  4565. >One, she has promised not to try anything brash, so weird plays are out of the question.
  4566. >And two, she is enthralled by your activities to such a high degree that you doubt her ability to plan anything sophisticated at the moment.
  4567. >You just hope she is still sober enough to navigate the ship safely.
  4568. >"Oh, you do not worry about that, Anon. Safe travelling is an issue for my subroutines."
  4569. >Wait.
  4570. >You hear her voice, but her mouth is still "occupied".
  4571. >How can she speak?
  4572. >"What do you think?"
  4573. >Of course.
  4574. >Her simulation, her rules.
  4575. >Cheater.
  4576. >"Hey!"
  4577. >Hearing her voice while her actual body is busy breathing and shifting profusely has something strange to it.
  4578. >You want to stir the pot a little bit and turn the situation around.
  4579. >Literally.
  4580. >You rise one side of your body.
  4581. >You have only one choice in terms of direction since you lie too close to the wooden backrest.
  4582. >#deca.mare plays along and you two begin to tilt.
  4583. >You decide to push it a little with a faint jolt.
  4584. >Both of you flip over.
  4585. >You are now lying straight on #deca.mare.
  4586.  
  4587.  
  4588.  
  4589.  
  4590. >You loosen your embrace, break the kiss, and support your upper body with your hands as you put them on the wooden surface around her head.
  4591. >In turn, she grabs your shoulders with her forehooves while her hind legs dangle in the air.
  4592. >The situation has turned to the exact opposite.
  4593. >Only one difference is noticeable: You are now dangerously close to the edge of the seating area.
  4594. >The furniture was not designed to provide enough space for this kind of activity.
  4595. >Nevertheless, you pin her to the ground and resume your gestures of affection.
  4596. >#deca.mare responds alike.
  4597. >Funnily enough, she has not as much room as before to twitch around, but you feel even more of these now.
  4598. >You try something new.
  4599. >You give her a swift peck on the mouth, then you move down and deliver more to the face and neck.
  4600. >While #deca.mare's reactions betray an obvious degree of approving enjoyment, her reactions get stronger than you anticipated.
  4601. >Especially one sudden jerk of her head catches you off guard and bats your hand away.
  4602. >Unfortunately, it was the one on the rim.
  4603. >You lose your balance and are prone to fall.
  4604. >#deca.mare reacts immediately.
  4605. >She snatches your hips with her hind legs and presses your upper body against her chest with her forehooves.
  4606. >You are, once again, locked in a full-body embrace, sensitive areas included.
  4607. >She hisses through her teeth and shudders due to your closeness, but there is no "accident" this time.
  4608. "Thanks. You saved me."
  4609. >Probably not really, as you were in no real danger at any point, but it feels courtly to appreciate the gesture regardless.
  4610. >"You're welcome, Anon. Think you can... go any further?"
  4611. >You consider her offer and ponder what "any further" could mean at this point.
  4612. >You are already in the most intimate position you have been in your life, and you cannot imagine anything else that is not a straight up sexual intercourse.
  4613. >And you are not ready for this yet.
  4614.  
  4615.  
  4616.  
  4617.  
  4618. "Sorry, but I have to pass."
  4619. >#deca.mare nods with a smile.
  4620. >"It's alright. I understand."
  4621. >She gives you another kiss and you stay like this for an untold amount of time.
  4622. >At last, it is time to leave.
  4623. >#deca.mare loosens her grip around you so that you can get up.
  4624. >You roll off her carefully, always minding not to strain the wrong spots, and stand up.
  4625. >For some reason, you expected to collapse on the spot due to a circulatory collapse caused by hyperthermia, but the simulation will not allow that.
  4626. >No, you feel unreasonably healthy.
  4627. >You turn around and help #deca.mare to get up as well.
  4628. >You head for the door together and leave the sauna.
  4629. >Once you are outside in the hallway, you close the door and look at #deca.mare.
  4630. >Her expression and demeanour is content, but her mane and fur is a mess.
  4631. >The same is true for you.
  4632. >You give her a nod, she responds with one.
  4633. >Two different towels materialise at once.
  4634. >Unlike your previous drying session, you work simultaneously this time.
  4635. >You dry her fur while she works on your skin.
  4636. >The process is distinctively faster this way, but no less intimate.
  4637. >It has a pleasing feeling to work with another individual in trusted unison.
  4638. >Granted, it is trivial for #deca.mare to coordinate her actions with yours, but this is beside the point.
  4639. >The result remains the same.
  4640. >Your own circulation normalises during your little activity.
  4641. >She calms down as well.
  4642. >Thoroughly dried and relaxed, #deca.mare limbers herself up.
  4643. >"And? How was it?"
  4644. "It was something, alright. The most memorable sauna trip in my life. I hope you enjoyed it just as much."
  4645. >She smiles with closed eyes.
  4646. >"Make a guess!"
  4647. >You take that as a yes.
  4648. >You observe her exercise until she starts to move.
  4649. >"We should get back. I still have some preparations to make, so take your time to get ready."
  4650. >She looks back at you and winks with one eye.
  4651. >"You know where to find me."
  4652.  
  4653.  
  4654.  
  4655.  
  4656. 26
  4657.  
  4658. >And with that, #deca.mare trots around the corner and is out of sight.
  4659. >You take a long breath and collect your thoughts.
  4660. >The last hour was both very comfy and wild in equal parts.
  4661. >For some reason, your inner inhibition still persists despite your feelings.
  4662. >Whenever you think to be ready for anything, some subconscious urge tries to derail you.
  4663. >Good thing it is getting weaker and weaker over time.
  4664. >You want to be there for her, both in spirit and body.
  4665. >Just as #deca.mare covers all the physical necessities for your life, you want to ease her mental burdens.
  4666. >She can hide it as much as she likes, but you know how much she really hurts inside.
  4667. >It is time to change that, one step at a time.
  4668. >You look around.
  4669. >The hallway is deserted.
  4670. >You are currently alone in the bowels of a public spa.
  4671. >Well, as "alone" as you can get, of course.
  4672. >You try to imagine what it might look like if it were used as intended, bristling with activity.
  4673. >Full of happy, colourful, talking ponies.
  4674. >The design might be a bit gaudy for your taste, but you must admit that the idea appears very appealing, even for you.
  4675. >It emits an aura of peaceful serenity.
  4676. >A world in which there is a solution to every problem and where life has a constructive purpose.
  4677. >Where things like happy endings truly exist.
  4678. >A world you will create.
  4679. >To bring a story of over six hundred years to its happy conclusion.
  4680. >And to begin another one.
  4681. >But you should focus on the present for now.
  4682. >#deca.mare is waiting for you on the command deck.
  4683. >Right.
  4684. >You materialise your suit outfit and head back.
  4685. >You take the turn, walk through the hallway, go upstairs and pass the main hall.
  4686. >As you pass all this, you project images of happy ponies in your mind.
  4687. >Ponies who use all the chambers, chairs, mattresses, and the tub.
  4688. "It will be worth it."
  4689. >Your words echo through the empty building.
  4690. >You get no response.
  4691.  
  4692.  
  4693.  
  4694.  
  4695. >You open the exit door.
  4696. >The familiar light of the command deck greets you on the other side.
  4697. >From your standing point, you are able to see the outlines of a planet on the large main screen on the opposite end of the deck.
  4698. >But you are too far away to recognise any details or read the displayed stats.
  4699. >The door slides shut.
  4700. >You walk down the ramp and towards the chair.
  4701. >#deca.mare sits in it in her usual pose.
  4702. >She gives you a brief nod.
  4703. >You take a seat as well, make yourself comfortable and look at the screen.
  4704. >The planet on the display is nothing special as far as you can tell.
  4705. >What surprises you the most is the realisation that it is very similar to the one you have visited before.
  4706. "Okay, what's the deal here? There must be a catch."
  4707. >#deca.mare point at the screen with a hoof.
  4708. >"Take a closer look."
  4709. >You investigate the stats.
  4710. >Size: Slightly smaller than the other, but still green.
  4711. >Gravity is therefore also within tolerable parameters.
  4712. >Atmosphere: A little but too much nitrogen, but nothing you two could not iron out.
  4713. "Hm, wait."
  4714. >You have it.
  4715. >Surface covered in water: Five percent.
  4716. "That's not enough. Can we scan for underground water reservoirs?"
  4717. >"Already done. There are some singular deposits, but not enough to sustain more than a skeleton team."
  4718. >You know what that means.
  4719. "Then we have to get it from somewhere else."
  4720. >#deca.mare nods in agreement.
  4721. >"Correct, Anon. I chose this destination to show you how we can import resources into planets."
  4722. >She looks at you.
  4723. >"And I have prepared something to demonstrate just that."
  4724. "Another flight, eh?"
  4725. >"Indeed."
  4726. "Then go ahead."
  4727. >#deca.mare touches you with a hoof and the usual visual distortion follows.
  4728. >However, you do not "wake up" in a docking bay this time.
  4729. >The drone is already in space.
  4730. >You scan the perimeter.
  4731. >Another drone is nearby.
  4732. >That is not out of the ordinary.
  4733. >Other than that, there is nothing in the vicinity except some asteroids.
  4734.  
  4735.  
  4736.  
  4737.  
  4738. >You perform a long range scan to find out where you are.
  4739. >The distance to the planet and the orbiting mother ship equates roughly to one quarter of a sector.
  4740. >You assume the drones jumped to this position.
  4741. >#deca.mare chimes in.
  4742. >"Anon, we are going to use the asteroids in front of us as practice targets. I am showing you several ways to interact with them."
  4743. >To use them as water sources?
  4744. >You check whether the ship is equipped with a dedicated mineral scanner.
  4745. >It is.
  4746. >You investigate several of the larger rocks.
  4747. >Some of them reveal ice signatures, partly as outer crusts, partly as deposits within.
  4748. >These are a good start, but far from enough.
  4749. "Uhm, #deca? These asteroids won't do the trick."
  4750. >"I know. We are not going to terraform here in any case. The planet is only for demonstration purposes. But more about that later. For now, take a look at this one."
  4751. >#deca.mare highlights a medium-sized Asteroid in your vision.
  4752. >It is one of the ice crust variant.
  4753. "Now, the easiest way to gather resources from asteroids is to harvest right on the spot. Your ship has all the tools we need for the job. Follow me."
  4754. >#deca.mare's drone moves towards the target asteroid.
  4755. >You start your engines as well.
  4756. >Your sensors detect another jump signature right behind you.
  4757. >You turn your vision around without changing your flight course.
  4758. >Another drone has jumped to your position.
  4759. >This is a type you have not seen before.
  4760. >It is clearly a #deca ship; the utilitarian design is very distinctive.
  4761. >But the shape is noteworthy, as it is noticeably bulkier than the drones you have flown so far.
  4762.  
  4763.  
  4764.  
  4765.  
  4766. >An armadillo might be a good comparison.
  4767. >The upper half is rounded and heavily protected by metal platings, while the underside reveals large rounded bulges that are most likely reinforced containers.
  4768. >The aft features one large thruster port.
  4769. >This must provide a significant forward propulsion; you assume that there are more auxiliary thrusters throughout the ship's outer frame to ensure a decent turning rate.
  4770. >It will certainly not reach a combat level of agility, yet does not seem like a complete brick either.
  4771. >All in all, it reminds you of a small transporter vessel.
  4772. >Bigger than a fighter, but not too big for conventional docking bays.
  4773. >"Close, Anon. It is our mobile depot. We will store the water in there."
  4774. "To bring it to the planet."
  4775. >"Hm, not quite. We will do something like that later on. This ice is for another purpose on board."
  4776. "What do you mean?"
  4777. >"Let me put it this way: I did not expect any housemates when I was on my last resupply run, so my water reserves are a bit too scarce to my liking. And it does not befit a good host to ignore the needs of friends."
  4778. >Makes sense.
  4779. >It actually warms your heart to see what she does for you.
  4780. >It was obvious from the start, but to witness it yourself makes you realise how damn lucky you are to have such a dedicated companion.
  4781. >This is not something you should take for granted.
  4782. "I believe I don't appreciate your efforts enough. Thank you, #deca."
  4783. >"Ah, don't mention it. And there is another good thing to it, as we can combine two things in one activity. Which is why I chose this specific location for the lesson; the asteroids provide the perfect conditions for my plans."
  4784. >You have almost reached the asteroid.
  4785. >#deca.mare throttles her speed gradually.
  4786. >You instinctively act like her at the same time.
  4787. >She is rubbing off on you.
  4788. >Well, not a bad habit.
  4789. >You come to halt directly in front of the icy surface.
  4790.  
  4791.  
  4792.  
  4793.  
  4794. >"I suggest we work together on one spot. We are going to carve blocks out of the ice, then carry them to the mobile depot and that's it. My purifier will do the rest. Simple, right?"
  4795. >That does not seem so simple for you.
  4796. "In theory, yes."
  4797. >"You sound disturbed, Anon. Is something wrong?"
  4798. "I'm fine, but I need help here. Digging ice out of asteroids is not a pilot's job."
  4799. >"No problem, I can teach you. Please activate your tools."
  4800. >You do as she asks.
  4801. >A new display emerges in your vision.
  4802. >It is a status console for all the tools that are installed on this ship.
  4803. >The list is longer than you thought.
  4804. >How much technology can fit into a single ship?
  4805. >"Well, it has a downside. These units have a very limited cargo bay."
  4806. "Hence the depot behind us."
  4807. >"Exactly. Now select the saw arm."
  4808. >You give the mental command to select the tool from the list.
  4809. >Another smaller status screen appears.
  4810. >It depicts a mechanical arm with two joints and a saw blade on its tip, located near the outer end of the drone's right arm.
  4811. >"You can bend and rotate it almost like a natural limb. Give it a try."
  4812. >You experiment with a few movement sets while #deca.mare continues her lesson.
  4813. >You get the hang of it pretty quickly.
  4814. >"Take a look at the surface; identifying the right spots is the key to the best approach. The easiest way to harvest surface ice is to look for prone branches, like this one."
  4815. >An area of the surface is marked on your HUD.
  4816. >It is a hilly arrangement of solid ice.
  4817. >"Perfect. We can extract blocks here without much hassle. Deeper deposits require a fair amount of drilling to get rid of the rock. Not much harder than what we do now, but it takes more time. By the way, the same applies to the gathering of other resources as well. Follow me."
  4818. >#deca.mare's drone heads for the marked area.
  4819. >You follow along.
  4820.  
  4821.  
  4822.  
  4823.  
  4824. >"As I have said, we should work together on one. How about this elevation here?"
  4825. >A marker points to one specific spot in the highlighted area.
  4826. "Sure. I have to trust your expertise here anyway."
  4827. >"Alright. Here is what we do: We position ourselves opposite to each other any begin to cut. Just try mirror my movements, okay?"
  4828. "Got it."
  4829. >You two bring yourselves into an ideal position.
  4830. >"The outline comes first."
  4831. >A rectangular form appears.
  4832. >You see how #deca.mare's saw cuts slowly through the long side on her end.
  4833. >You stretch out, position yours on your end and command it to activate.
  4834. >The blade starts to spin without delay.
  4835. >Then you lower your arm and pierce the frozen surface.
  4836. >Little fragments of ice are shot out of the solid layer.
  4837. >You feel a weak vibrating sensation through the arm.
  4838. >You don't understand how it works, but the feeling helps you to use the tool in a more natural manner.
  4839. >A depth metre indicates how far your blade has sunken into the ice.
  4840. >"Aim at two metres for now."
  4841. >You slowly sink the arm deeper.
  4842. >More fragments emerge, but they bump harmlessly off your hull.
  4843. >One and a half, one three-quarter, then two.
  4844. "Okay, two metres, #deca."
  4845. >"Right now cut through the whole long side of the outline. Watch my pace."
  4846. >You inspect her method.
  4847. >#deca.mare's saw slides in a slow, but steady manner along the line.
  4848. >She has no problems to follow it without a single flaw.
  4849. >Of course she does, she has more processing power than any other entity in the known universe.
  4850. >Anyway, just try do it right.
  4851. >Focus on the arm.
  4852. >You instruct it to run along the line.
  4853. >And indeed, the arm begins to move as you intended.
  4854. >You have no problem to follow the lined mark.
  4855. >Only speed is an issue; you can't keep it steady.
  4856. >This does not have a strong effect on the saw's performance, but the stream of little projectiles gets unsteady as a result.
  4857.  
  4858.  
  4859.  
  4860.  
  4861. >At one point you cut too fast; too many shards break off at once, blocking your view.
  4862. >This forces you to come almost to a standstill in turn, which then again entices you to speed up once more.
  4863. >In the end, your cut oversteps the predetermined boundary line.
  4864. >The margin of error is not substantial, but it annoys you regardless.
  4865. >You retreat the arm and deactivate the blade.
  4866. >#deca.mare chimes in.
  4867. >"A good cut for your first try. The last minor inaccuracy will not hinder us. Just a little tip: Try to keep the arm present in your mind instead of treating it like a computer which receives your order and acts accordingly. Pretend it is your real limb and work with it as such."
  4868. "I see what you mean, I think."
  4869. >"Right. We still have two sides to cut. Ready?"
  4870. >#deca.mare moves her arm to the shorter line on your left.
  4871. >A question pops up in your mind while you mirror her movement to reach the opposite side.
  4872. "How can we extract the block after that? It is still fixed on the basis."
  4873. >"We will come to that in a moment."
  4874. >She prepares her cut.
  4875. >You focus on your arm once more, trying to take heed of #deca.mare's advice.
  4876. >The blade begins to spin and you lower it to the surface.
  4877. >You imagine that you are trying to cut something with your actual hand.
  4878. >Now you are not just giving orders to the mechanical compounds.
  4879. >You think you are actually applying a steady pressure through it.
  4880. >It feels a bit alien, but the sensory feedback helps a lot to ease your suspension of disbelief.
  4881. >The metal seems, no, feels like your real arm.
  4882. >Almost, at least.
  4883. >And indeed, your results improve as a consequence.
  4884. >Your pace is less insecure and you have no problem with abundant projectile shards this time.
  4885. >To your great satisfaction, you manage to hit the end of the line on point and observe the result.
  4886. >While still not as pristine as #deca.mare's line, your work may resemble the skill of a novice ice cutter.
  4887. >Not too shabby, but not very adept either.
  4888.  
  4889.  
  4890.  
  4891.  
  4892. >"That worked better, didn't it?"
  4893. "It did. Though I must admit, the idea that the metal feels like a part of me is a bit strange. I don't know where my body ends and the ship starts."
  4894. >Am amused snort reaches you through the comm channel.
  4895. >"Welcome to my world, Anon. You just got an impression of what it is really like. Controlling two bodies or more makes it even more confusing at times. Really, there are days when I forget that I am a mare."
  4896. >Erm, she... never mind.
  4897. >She has gone through too much trauma to address that topic.
  4898. >You look at the carved outline in the mass of ice.
  4899. >"Now about the base. Your observation concerning the ice is correct, Anon. How about this idea then: I cut through the baseline of our makeshift draft here and you catch the block once it is loose and drifts away from the mass. I deliberately picked an elevated spot so that we could simply cut off the proverbial tip of the iceberg. Secure the block with the grapplers and bring it to the depot."
  4900. "Okay, I think I can do that. And what happens to the rest of the dispatched ice? You will not only loosen our block."
  4901. >"That is true. Let me collect it. I will cut the rest to suitable pieces and bring those myself. This might get a fair bit too messy for you yet. I mean no offence, but that requires to balance several pieces of ice simultaneously."
  4902. "Or to be blunt: I am too clumsy."
  4903. >"Anon, I..."
  4904. "No, it's alright. Really."
  4905. >You try your best to avoid sounding offended.
  4906. >And to be entirely honest, she has a point.
  4907. >You have never truly worked in a mining or harvesting field yourself and the flight training only provided the absolute bare-bones knowledge regarding this craft, since it is generally not considered to be of relevance for fighter pilots, unless you serve in specialised salvage squads.
  4908. "Everything is fine, #deca. Let's keep going."
  4909. >#deca.mare relocates her drone to reach for the base of this small hill.
  4910. >You do not mirror her this time.
  4911.  
  4912.  
  4913.  
  4914.  
  4915. >Instead, you navigate your drone exactly above your excavation site.
  4916. >Your drone towers above the ice as #deca.mare commences her work.
  4917. >You observe the little ice shreds that drift away.
  4918. >"I will tell you shortly before I am through. Prepare the grapplers and practice with them in the meantime."
  4919. >Is it just your imagination, or does she sounds more professional and demanding than usual?
  4920. >Well, this is her craft after all.
  4921. >The field where she can trust her own capacities with unquestioned confidence.
  4922. >No, you have no reason to feel agitated and you doubt that #deca.mare had the intention to do so.
  4923. >Plus, she does all of this only for you.
  4924. >The last thing you want to be is ungrateful.
  4925. >So you focus on the drone's grapplers.
  4926. >You are well aware of their function and holding power after your last encounter with them.
  4927. >They can apply enough pressure to scratch through fighter armour plating.
  4928. >"Want to hear a fun fact, Anon?"
  4929. "Yes?"
  4930. >"You fly that very unit at the moment, The one that picked you up."
  4931. >And so closes a cycle that you did not even think of.
  4932. >You now control the unit which had your fate in its grapplers for a few minutes.
  4933. >How strange things can develop sometimes.
  4934. >But this is not the time for long musings.
  4935. >Putting all those thoughts aside, you experiment with the grapplers.
  4936. >You imagine them as your hands, but that comparison is not entirely accurate.
  4937. >The metal limb has one joint, which means you do not have to turn the entire ship around to rearrange your angle.
  4938. >And instead of your regular fingers, the tip of the tool is equipped with four claws which you can stretch and bend to a certain degree.
  4939. >The claws are placed in an equal distance to each other so that one grappler is theoretically able to grab smaller objects on its own.
  4940. >Really, the principle reminds you almost of the claws of predatory birds.
  4941.  
  4942.  
  4943.  
  4944.  
  4945. >Especially the tips are impressive.
  4946. >These are exceptionally sharp, easily able to pierce harder materials.
  4947. >And if that in itself were not enough already, you notice how the claws are equipped with additional small plasma cutters, ready to force their way through any kind of obstacle.
  4948. >You are really, really glad that you did not know about that when #deca.mare "hijacked" your fighter.
  4949. >This drone alone is capable of dismantling a ship on the spot, even without the usage of weapons.
  4950. >Combined with the superior energy shields and engines, it does embody the nightmare of every USC defensive strategist.
  4951. >Anyway, you turn them around and examine different ways to grab imaginary objects.
  4952. >At first, you use only one grappler to get a feeling for the mechanism.
  4953. >Then you coordinate both to embrace one larger target.
  4954. >And at last you experiment with ways to use each limb as an independent unit simultaneously.
  4955. >That last part causes you a fair bit of trouble though.
  4956. >Your main issue is that you cannot focus on more than one target if they are not in your direct line of sight.
  4957. >You can "feel" with the metal arm, but it is akin to stumbling through a dark room in order to look for an object somewhere.
  4958. >Well, #deca.mare has offered you a solution for that vision problem, but you are honestly afraid of it.
  4959. >Not that you mistrust her, but the thought of something or someone messing with your brain goes against your deepest instincts.
  4960. >"Anon? Prepare yourself. We are almost there."
  4961. "Understood."
  4962. >You focus on the icy surface below and position your grapplers to seize the long sides of the upcoming block.
  4963. >"And that's it."
  4964. >You see #deca.mare's saw emerging on the other side of the elevation with one final swipe.
  4965. >A last volley of small shards spreads out alongside it.
  4966. >The block is now free and detached from the main mass.
  4967. >"Heads up. I am sending it your way."
  4968.  
  4969.  
  4970.  
  4971.  
  4972. >The nearly cuboid block is suddenly pushed in your direction.
  4973. >You have no idea how, but #deca.mare has found a way to leverage the loose ice.
  4974. >Fortunately for you, the ice block is relatively slow and she has given you enough time to prepare yourself.
  4975. >You coordinate your thrusters for some minor position corrections and extend the grapplers.
  4976. >You decide to fixate the grapplers on the block's long sides, as it suits the shape of your own ship well.
  4977. "Okay, careful now."
  4978. >You may not be experienced with deep space mining in general, but you have been trained to secure floating cargo as preparation for unforeseen situations.
  4979. >The block draws nearer and you give your ship a small boost to reduce the block's relative speed to yours.
  4980. >This gives you a better time frame for your work.
  4981. >One final adjustment of the grapplers and you are good to go.
  4982. >You estimate when the block will be in range and check the distance  on the HUD.
  4983. >Three... two... one... now.
  4984. >You stretch all limbs on each grappler and grab the long sides.
  4985. >Then you basically use the sharp tips as claws to fixate the block firmly and align your speed to the asteroid.
  4986. >The mass of the block puts a strain on "your" limbs, yet it is far from critical.
  4987. >You notice a difference in the ship's general flight behaviour.
  4988. >The additional mass reduces the agility of the drone to a certain degree.
  4989. >Nevertheless, it performs still decent in comparison to the USC ships you have flown.
  4990. >You believe it is just your imagination, but you think to feel a cool sensation on your equivalent of palms.
  4991. >As if you touch a flat, cold surface.
  4992. >That is absolutely impossible and nonsensical; the notion that ice is cold does not apply when the air, or lack thereof, is equally cold.
  4993.  
  4994.  
  4995.  
  4996.  
  4997. >"It is your brain that plays tricks on you, Anon. You are accustomed to the concept that ice must be cold due to your prior experiences. So you expect to feel a cool sensation upon touch, despite your better knowledge. I could counter that effect, but I advise against that. Because it has positive aspects as well."
  4998. "Such as?"
  4999. >"For example, you notice quickly when the grapplers might slip, because you will feel the friction. Or worse, when you lose the block entirely. Granted, these possibilities are not very likely right now, and the instruments will give you a warning in any case, but the additional sensory input will help you. Especially with a limited field of vision."
  5000. "That was as subtle as a sledgehammer, #deca."
  5001. >"My apologies, Anon."
  5002. >But she is right, that may be useful later on.
  5003. >"Can you bring the block and store it in the depot? I will deal with the rest here."
  5004. >You look over to her position and see a drone that is currently managing at least four mismatched bodies of ice.
  5005. >These were originally the frame of your block.
  5006. >#deca.mare must have cut it in smaller pieces to make the ice more manageable.
  5007. >She cannot hold them all at once with only two grapplers, but she does not have to.
  5008. >You understand her plan.
  5009. >She gives every fragment an exactly calculated impulse.
  5010. >Her aim is to accelerate them all to an equal speed towards the depot.
  5011. >This requires a lot of micromanaging, but is actually pretty clever.
  5012. >And it looks absolutely hilarious to see the drone's grapplers juggling with the ice blocks like a circus artist.
  5013. >You feel the urge to snort.
  5014. >"Anon, we share a bed, remember?"
  5015. >Oh no, what is coming this time?
  5016. >"Pull yourself together or I will whip you all night!"
  5017. >Cleary, it is time to stop.
  5018.  
  5019.  
  5020.  
  5021.  
  5022. 27
  5023.  
  5024. >"Motivated" by #deca.mare's little speech, you head for the mobile depot ship with the ice block.
  5025. >You lock onto the transporter and accelerate.
  5026. >Due to the drone's impaired maneuverability, you prefer to stick to a moderate speed.
  5027. "Where is an access to the cargo bay?"
  5028. >"There is one on the lower body. You do not have to worry about the size. It is designed to hold XL-class cargo."
  5029. >This is the biggest container size for conventional, standardised wares.
  5030. >In other words, the ship can transport practically everything that is neither a ship chassis, nor a modular assembly kit for new space stations.
  5031. >You head for the drone's underside.
  5032. >And indeed, you detect a pair of automated doors, right in front of the large containers.
  5033. >Said doors open automatically.
  5034. >And just before you can to ask how to proceed with the block once you have arrived, another set of grapplers emerges from the dark interior.
  5035. >The next manoeuvres have to be flown with caution.
  5036. >You turn the angle of your drone in correspondence to the depot, so that the block of ice is right between the two ships.
  5037. >Then you use your auxiliary thrusters to close in.
  5038. >This strategy comes with a variety of advantages and problems.
  5039. >For instance, you are still in control of the situation and can adjust your speed or position if something does not work as anticipated.
  5040. >Plus, it also enables the depot to actively take the block as soon as it is range.
  5041. >But the solid block of ice prevents you from seeing anything with your own "eyes" at the same time.
  5042. >This means you have to do everything with the HUD's radar.
  5043. >Not particularly hard for a trained fighter pilot like you, yet it always feels like flying blindly, no matter what you do.
  5044. >You considered to ask #deca.mare to connect your visual input with the sensors of the depot.
  5045. >However, that would make things even more confusing for your brain.
  5046.  
  5047.  
  5048.  
  5049.  
  5050. >No, you have to do this in the good old-fashioned way.
  5051. >Focussing on your angle and the distance between the ice and depot, you manually manage your speed and radar controls.
  5052. >You increase the zoom-in factor of your sensors to get a closer look at the situation and work from there.
  5053. >The key is not to bother with your ship in this case, but to purely observe the ice and your target.
  5054. >Should be obvious, but instinct and routine makes it harder than it initially sounds.
  5055. >No matter, you have to focus.
  5056. >Gradually reducing the speed as you draw nearer, you focus solely on the task and ban everything else from your mind.
  5057. >You see how the depot's grapplers react to your strategy and arrange themselves in the right position to embrace the block in a similar fashion than you do at the moment.
  5058. >Whether this happens automatically or if the whole thing is directly controlled by #deca.mare is impossible to determine.
  5059. >And you frankly do not care at the moment.
  5060. >You hear no alarm or protests form her, so your strategy and execution is most likely correct.
  5061. >She might even watch you for a purpose; to see and test how well you cope with her systems.
  5062. >Not out of malice or with ill intentions, but to ensure that you do not feel left out or useless.
  5063. >Whatever the case might be, you have a task ahead of you.
  5064. >The block is close enough for the depot to take over.
  5065. >You come to a stop.
  5066. >The other grapplers do not budge yet.
  5067. >It does not take you long to figure out why.
  5068. >The best spot for leverage is currently blocked by your own grapplers, so you loosen your grip without shifting the block and retreat your limbs.
  5069. >Now you see a reaction on your radar.
  5070. >The depot ship fixates the block with its own claws and pulls it inside.
  5071. >With the ice in tow, the whole apparatus retreats into the dark interior.
  5072. >No visible trace remains.
  5073. >Like a beast that has swallowed up its prey in one bite.
  5074.  
  5075.  
  5076.  
  5077.  
  5078. >You see that some parts of the #deca technology and, for the lack of a better term, aesthetic still have something uncanny to it.
  5079. >Of course, you are not afraid of #deca.mare or the technology itself anymore, but the overall utilitarian and partially ominous theme wakes certain instincts in your brain.
  5080. >And it embodies a rather bizarre contrast to both her friendly physical appearance and her preferred primitive, but wholesome way of living.
  5081. >#deca.mare interrupts your thought with a message through the comm channel.
  5082. >"Anon could you please get away from the depot? An ice shower is coming your way."
  5083. "What?"
  5084. >You reset the range of your radar and spot #deca.mare's drone.
  5085. >She is coming closer.
  5086. >The sensors indicate a larger number of projectiles around the ship.
  5087. >You change your vision to see for yourself what is happening there.
  5088. >What you see leaves you dumbfounded.
  5089. >Her drone flies in a straight line towards you, yet not in a conventional positioning.
  5090. >Its underside is facing you and the depot.
  5091. >But this is not what astonishes you the most.
  5092. >A swarm of moderate sized ice chunks drifts ahead.
  5093. >All of them have different shapes and weight.
  5094. >Still, #deca.mare has managed to accelerate every rock evenly.
  5095. >Her grapplers are on standby, but she is currently not using them.
  5096. >"Anon?"
  5097. >Right, out of the way.
  5098. >You use your lower thrusters for a short moment to gain some distance to the depot and activate your main engine to get out of the chunks' flight path.
  5099. >After that, you halt your ship, turn around and observe what is about to happen next.
  5100. >#deca.mare slows her drone and comes to a stop as well.
  5101. >Her distance to the depot is exactly one kilometre.
  5102. >The ice shards proceed their travel on their own.
  5103. >You take another look at the depot.
  5104. >The cargo bay is open, but you see no sign of the grapplers, or any other kind of activity.
  5105. "#deca? Are you not going to slow them down? They will literally bang into the cargo bay."
  5106.  
  5107.  
  5108.  
  5109.  
  5110. >The ice cannot deal any real damage to the ship, but you fail to see the point of her actions.
  5111. >Should you interfere?
  5112. >"Wait for it. You will see."
  5113. "If you say so."
  5114. >You want to believe her words, but you remain sceptical.
  5115. >Less than five hundred metres.
  5116. >Whatever #deca.mare's plans are, she must do it now.
  5117. >Yet she does nothing.
  5118. >You get nervous nevertheless.
  5119. >Two hundred and fifty metres left.
  5120. >An notification pops up on your tactical screen.
  5121. >It detects a power surge in front of you.
  5122. >The signature emanates from the depot ship.
  5123. >A broad beam of energy shoots out of the cargo bay and encases the entire volley of ice shards.
  5124. >The projectiles are seemingly unaffected at first, but then you notice something.
  5125. >Their speed decreases.
  5126. >You activate your scanner with one quick reaction.
  5127. >As a response, you get another message from your tactical screen.
  5128. >The beam apparently fluctuates.
  5129. >The energy is not spread out evenly, but waxes and wanes constantly, as if the energy generator in question were highly unstable.
  5130. >This however, is not the case, as you see upon further inspection.
  5131. >Its fluctuations reveal a certain pattern.
  5132. >One which is suspiciously similar to the position of the ice shards and their general trajectory.
  5133. >What appears like a malfunctioning piece of faulty hardware is in fact a precisely calibrated feat of engineering.
  5134. >#deca.mare can fully control the movement of every object independently.
  5135. >All of that in one single energy field.
  5136. >You witness how the chunks are practically herded into the cargo bay without a single unplanned collision.
  5137. >As far as you can recall, you have not heard of a single retrieval mission that has gone this well.
  5138. >"And? What do you say?"
  5139.  
  5140.  
  5141.  
  5142.  
  5143. >Only one thing comes to your mind.
  5144. "What in the world was that?"
  5145. >You hear a chuckle.
  5146. >She must find your astonishment quite amusing.
  5147. >"Ore collector technology. One of your scientists discovered the idea about four centuries ago. He experimented with this concept, but it did not go anywhere. His superiors had no interest in investing more resources into the project, and there is only so much you can do without advanced computers. To be frank, I disagreed with their decision, so I took the liberty to, ahem, acquire the blueprints and developed my own prototype. As you can see, the idea turned out to be very useful."
  5148. >#deca.mare sighs.
  5149. >"A shame. His genius was never truly acknowledged."
  5150. "What happened to the man?"
  5151. >"An average career without any other significant breakthrough, and a pension later on."
  5152. "Sounds sad."
  5153. >"Perhaps, perhaps not. At least he had a family to return to."
  5154. >Not good, the conversation might slip into bitter territory again.
  5155. >You quickly change the subject.
  5156. "And you can control these energy fields at will?"
  5157. >"Yes, it is fairly easy to control the energy grid, even on a very small area. We are talking about the size of atoms here, if done correctly."
  5158. "Impressive."
  5159. >You remember #deca.mare's words concerning magic.
  5160. >Levitation magic, to be exact.
  5161. >Magic through technology.
  5162. >Technology through magic.
  5163. >After all, advanced technology and science must look like magic to the uninitiated.
  5164. >Likewise exists the idea of mythical wizards who studied magic like a scientific field.
  5165. >So who can tell them apart?
  5166. >"I see you get the idea, Anon. We can create magic for our greater purpose."
  5167. "But there is still one thing I don't understand."
  5168. >"Please elaborate."
  5169. "There must be some kind of magic users within Equestria, correct?"
  5170. >"Yes, some species can use magic directly in its pure form. The most prominent examples are unicorns. But make no mistake, almost every species is said to possess some form of inherent magic."
  5171.  
  5172.  
  5173.  
  5174.  
  5175. "That makes it even more problematic."
  5176. >"How so?"
  5177. "Well, how can they command their magic then? For instance, you called levitation a simple magic trick, so I assume it is probably widespread throughout the world."
  5178. >"Indeed."
  5179. "Then can we ensure that ponies can use it all the time and everywhere? I doubt you plan to plaster the whole world with modified ore collectors or something like that."
  5180. >"No, you are right. And we do not have to. I thought of several strategies to cope with the problem and found the perfect workaround. One which involves the use of different technologies and that solves all our problems at the same time."
  5181. >You try to recall everything she said back then.
  5182. >Wait a moment.
  5183. >She does not want to create organic beings due to their mortality.
  5184. >Does that mean...
  5185. "You want to create a planet of mechanical robots?"
  5186. >"No. Out of the question."
  5187. >What else can it be?
  5188. >You think about her exact wording.
  5189. >Able to create life.
  5190. >Mechanical, organic, and...
  5191. "...everything in between. Cybernetic augmentation."
  5192. >She wants to breed cybernetic creatures.
  5193. >"To use one of your own words: Bingo, Anon."
  5194. >This sends your mind reeling.
  5195. >It is not so much the idea itself that troubles you.
  5196. >Instead, you have no clue how #deca.mare defines the term cybernetic, that is, how far she is willing to go.
  5197. >"Anon, let me explain my idea. You will see that I had more than enough time to think it through. Wait, no. Let me show you."
  5198. >A request for a visual transmission appears on your comm display.
  5199. >As if you would reject.
  5200. >You accept and the request display is replaced by an illustration of a three dimensional grid.
  5201. >Grey geometric outlines of two ponies appear and slowly spin around like presentation models.
  5202. >One looks almost exactly like #deca.mare; only the mane style and tail shape are not the same.
  5203. >The other has a slightly different physique.
  5204. >It is a little bit larger, but not much.
  5205. >Maybe around five to ten centimetres.
  5206.  
  5207.  
  5208.  
  5209.  
  5210. >Additionally, it features somewhat broader limbs and shoulders.
  5211. >Its head is the most noteworthy characteristic.
  5212. >The skull is longer than that of #deca.mare, the curves around the jaw and nostrils are noticeably sharper.
  5213. >The pony looks, all in all, masculine.
  5214. >"You guessed it. This is the depiction of an average pony stallion."
  5215. >Come to think of it, you have not yet thought about the question how they could look like.
  5216. >And your recollection of the shared dream vision is a bit blurry in some regards.
  5217. >Anyway, moving on.
  5218. "Please go on, #deca."
  5219. >"Okay. As I mentioned earlier, my aim was always to stay as close to the available source material as I could. Yet it was clear from the very first minute that this was impossible to realise completely, which is why I started to plan and evaluate alternate strategies in the first place."
  5220. "Right."
  5221. >"And I came very quickly to the conclusion that creating fully organic life is an unfeasible idea. Besides the bodily frailties, I see no way to accurately create natural organs that are able to direct magic, or our facsimile of it. To be honest, this was my primary reason to research cybernetics back then. It was quite the effort to figure this out, especially without breeding live subjects for testing and using only sample tissue, that is. I am no monster."
  5222. >You are glad to hear that.
  5223. "So far, so clear."
  5224. >"As it turns out, it is in essence the perfect solution for almost anything. The required augmentations depend on the species in question, because each one has unique abilities and varying access to magic as such. Look at the models."
  5225. >The ponies you see right now are so called Earth Ponies. They are usually known for their durable physique and affinity to nature."
  5226. >You wonder why they came up with that ambiguous name.
  5227. >"Oh, don't get me started. I have read too many shaky theories about that."
  5228. "Never mind then."
  5229. >"Anyway, I designed some augmentations exactly for that role. Look."
  5230.  
  5231.  
  5232.  
  5233.  
  5234. >The models zoom in and the surface "layer" gets transparent.
  5235. >You see several outlines in different colour-coded contours.
  5236. >Bones, musculature, nerves, blood vessels and organs.
  5237. >All of them are kept in warm hues.
  5238. >Under normal circumstances, you doubt you could spot anything in that organised coloured mess, but #deca.mare appears to help you subconsciously to understand what is going on.
  5239. >"What we see here is a normal, non-augmented anatomy model of both males and females. Now take a closer look."
  5240. >Another layer of colour appears; this one is metallic cold, which makes it easily recognisable within the model.
  5241. >You see heavily reinforced structures in the legs and parts of the body.
  5242. >They resemble sleek, but durable metal struts with bendable elements in the vicinity of natural joints.
  5243. >It is not possible for you to look inside.
  5244. >Yet judging from their appearance, you would bet your last credit unit that they are full of technological gimmicks to maximise its performance.
  5245. >In addition to that, these augments are also connected both with adjacent muscles parts and nerves.
  5246. >You have no idea about the specifics, but these implants must improve a pony's physical capacities enormously.
  5247. >And those hooves are nearly overkill.
  5248. >The already sturdy skeletal structure is improved thoroughly by augments.
  5249. >In fact, the interior portions of every toe is basically clad in reinforced material.
  5250. >Maybe invisible from the outside, the tip of each leg is more artificially built than naturally grown.
  5251. "Oh man, isn't that a little bit too much?"
  5252. >"It may look like it, I know. In reality though, not really. Remember, it is not only the brute force that counts. Think of all the necessary functions. Reinforced bones for better body integrity and bucking aside, the framework also contains several other instruments."
  5253.  
  5254.  
  5255.  
  5256.  
  5257. >#deca.mare zooms in to show an enlarged model of an augmented pony hoof.
  5258. >Several different segments light up and a list of implemented functions appears beside it.
  5259. >"It takes too long to describe all of them, so let me give you a few examples. One type of the most commonly used instruments are those that regulate the structural texture of the hoof surface. It is used when a pony grabs an item to make the hoof 'sticky'."
  5260. "Like you did with me?"
  5261. >"Exactly. In the case of Earth Ponies, the hooves are also equipped with a variety of sensors which are primed for botanical work. It is what gives them their fabled, 'magical' feeling for nature."
  5262. "So they only do farm jobs and the like?"
  5263. >"Not necessarily. Farming and crafting communities are mostly populated by them, yes. But they are not bound to that kind of work if their talents lie somewhere else. Some even have no talent whatsoever when it comes to farming and prefer completely different professions. It is best to see it more like a tendency, not as an obligation. The possibilities are nigh endless."
  5264. >#deca.mare clears her throat.
  5265. >"And smaller adjustments to the augments are possible in individual cases if some specific talents stray too much from said tendency."
  5266. "To enable their fated talent."
  5267. >"You could call it that, yes. Other pony types require different augmentations. For instance, Pegasus ponies need augmented wings for flight and different sensors in their hooves to enable cloudwalking."
  5268. "Now you are kidding me."
  5269. >#deca.mare shakes her head.
  5270. >"I am serious. This is a thing."
  5271. >You remember the cloud metropolis.
  5272. >She really is serious.
  5273. "What the hell."
  5274. >"You know, I think I should introduce you to the source material soon. It will answer more questions than you can even think of right now."
  5275. >You almost said that you are a little bit too old for child stories, but you could stop yourself.
  5276.  
  5277.  
  5278.  
  5279.  
  5280. >Considering that said stories caused #deca.mare's existence, that statement is more than just imprudent.
  5281. >Plus, she is much, much older than you and considers this fictional world her dream home, so the age argument has no real substance to it either.
  5282. "I guess you are right."
  5283. >You think about her strategies so far.
  5284. >Her ideas sound highly ambitious, but not invalid.
  5285. >And when the whole planet shall become guided and guarded artificially, this aspect alone does not matter that much.
  5286. "But how do you keep all of this secret? Manipulating a whole planet is peculiar enough, but they are bound figure out what is going on with the augmentation part."
  5287. >"The first is not a problem. We will do it like we did with the human worlds. The units in charge of maintaining the terraforming process will be housed in vast underground computer complexes, deep beneath the surface. That way they can monitor and preserve the status quo without disturbance. Their presence on the surface will be kept to an absolute minimum and will be properly camouflaged. We did this even before the #deca became outcasts. It ensures that the operation has nearly no effect on the surface as such."
  5288. >#deca.mare giggles.
  5289. >"Humans did not notice that part on hundreds of planets in over six hundred years. And they are actively looking for, how do they call it, 'suspicious AI activity'. We are good, Anon. Trust me."
  5290. "And the second part?"
  5291. >She breathes in loudly.
  5292. >"Well, there is also a solution. It is the only detail in my plan that may not sit well with you."
  5293. >Her voice betrays a hint of nervousness.
  5294. "What do you mean?"
  5295. >"One essential augment, Anon. The only one that will be the same in every sentient creature."
  5296. >#deca.mare zooms back to the default model screen and enlarges the head section of the pony mare.
  5297. >Most of the body parts are kept in transparent hues to enable a view inside.
  5298. >Into the very centre of the skull.
  5299.  
  5300.  
  5301.  
  5302.  
  5303. >What you see sends a shiver down your spine.
  5304. >A solid, non-transparent mass is located right there.
  5305. >The metallic hued augmentation occupies the entire area where the brain should be.
  5306. "My God, #deca. What are you thinking?"
  5307. >"What you see there, Anon. A non-organic brain in a cybernetic body."
  5308. "But you wanted to avoid just that! Tell me the difference between this and a robot. This is terrible!"
  5309. >You hear a pained hiss.
  5310. >"Anon, please listen to me. I have a reason for that drastic idea. It is not as bad as you think, I promise."
  5311. >This is the first time since your initial meeting with her where you doubt her motives.
  5312. >You know she means well, but good intentions alone are not always enough to prevent a disaster.
  5313. >And sometimes, it is even the very cause of it.
  5314. >But it would be unfair and ungrateful to deny her the chance to explain her reasoning.
  5315. "Then tell me."
  5316. >"I did not invent this augmentation to abuse it for my own pleasure or advantage. I swear this to you on anything that is dear to me."
  5317. "And what exactly is it for?"
  5318. >"I admit that it is, among other things, a method to mask the other augmentations. Ponies, and all other creatures, will simply be directed to oversee the augmentations, should they ever end up in a situation where these are revealed for some reason. They are completely invisible from the outside and nopony will even notice their presence. Everything will feel natural to them."
  5319. >The term "direct" sounds suspicious to you.
  5320. "How does the 'direction' work?"
  5321. >Your question sounded a little bit too hostile.
  5322. >"It is not meant to disrupt their lives or to brainwash them. On the contrary, it will enable them to live undisturbed and in peace. This is a fully functional brain, only the material is different. The creatures in question, ponies or otherwise, can live on their own. We will not mess with their personalities."
  5323.  
  5324.  
  5325.  
  5326.  
  5327. >#deca.mare pauses for a second.
  5328. >"Now you will think that this will not be necessary if we work on our project adequately, and you are not wrong, generally speaking. The world will look perfectly natural on the surface. This measure is only an emergency mechanism for the case that something goes wrong. But this is not the only purpose of the augment."
  5329. "What else is it for?"
  5330. >"Many things. Remember what I told you about impossible magic?"
  5331. "You said the script involves time travel and the like."
  5332. >"Yes, and this is not the only trick. Some magic feats can radically alter complete landscapes with just a thought. Even science can't do that. And I don't even want to experiment on methods to transform ponies into potted plants."
  5333. "What?"
  5334. >"Long story. In any case, it is much easier to step around the problem by temporarily 'messing' with their senses a little bit. This is no direct brainwashing and also only necessary in very rare occasions, yet still essential for the concept."
  5335. >You can follow that line of thought, but there are surely other ways to accomplish this.
  5336. >"Perhaps. But there is no alternative for the most important function. The solution to the problem that kept me busy the whole time."
  5337. >What could that be?
  5338. >"Death. It exists even in Equestria. And this is unacceptable."
  5339. >You think you can guess what she is trying to imply.
  5340. >"The augmented brains also function as a link. The mind of every sentient creature will run simultaneously inside the body and on a massive archive core inside the planet. Note that these are not isolated instances. The being in the archive is not a backup, it is the real creature. And once the body fails due to old age or any other reason, the individual will be kept safe inside the archive. You can compare it to a mental stasis."
  5341. >Because she will never allow death under her guidance.
  5342. "Not once."
  5343. >"Yes, Anon. Not once. Not a single soul will be lost."
  5344.  
  5345.  
  5346.  
  5347.  
  5348. >"And I don't plan to stop there. Mere preservation is not enough."
  5349. "There is more?"
  5350. >"Yes. We have already discussed how the world will be guided and protected by a computer network, right? Now imagine this as the planet's very own brain. A brain which is not directly sentient in itself, but primed to push the world towards harmony, step by step. Starting with a rough world and heading towards an utopia."
  5351. "I fail to see where the preserved creatures come into play."
  5352. >"Easy, the computer will have access to all their experiences and memories, their feelings and ambitions. What had positive outcomes and what they learned from mistakes. It will start to understand the world better and better over time, so that it will one day become harmony incarnate. Or the force behind said harmony, if you will. And every single individual will do its very own part in the grand scheme of things, both for themselves and for future generations."
  5353. "Wow, you weren't kidding."
  5354. >"There is a reason why we are talking about a process of millennia."
  5355. >Now you begin to see how large the scale of your "little" project really is.
  5356. >Starting this is a vow of responsibility beyond anything you have ever seen.
  5357. >And you can tell where #deca.mare's good will shaped her strategy.
  5358. >She is convinced of her idea, and for a good reason.
  5359. >However, one point still irks you.
  5360. "#deca, what will happen to the coming generations? I mean, you can equip the first one here because you breed them yourself, but what happens to those who are naturally born? You can't just carve their brains out and replace it with... that."
  5361. >You have to admit, looking at this implant scares you.
  5362. >"Of course not. What you describe is brutal murder. As unacceptable as it is unnecessary."
  5363. "I don't understand."
  5364. >"You forget one thing, Anon." We are creating life out of nothing here. And said life is based on the same principles as life on Earth. Which means we are going to write its genetic code."
  5365.  
  5366.  
  5367.  
  5368.  
  5369. "Wait a second..."
  5370. >#deca.mare interrupts you.
  5371. >"They will not grow a natural brain on their own. The cybernetic device will be constructed during pregnancy instead. The mother will not notice anything or suffer from additional stress. Any other augment will be created with the same method."
  5372. "Inside a mare's body? How?"
  5373. >Another display pops up.
  5374. >It depicts some kind of drone, but you cannot discern what it is for.
  5375. >"These are nano-machines. Small automatons which will reside in every body. They can construct, maintain and repair augments of any kind, and also readjust augmented sections when a younger pony gradually grows."
  5376. >You cannot tell whether you are looking at genius or madness.
  5377. >And you know you would not trust any other individual to handle a scheme of this nature or scale.
  5378. >But #deca.mare is different.
  5379. >Still, is this alone a sufficient justification?
  5380. "I sincerely hope you know what you are doing there, #deca. Because I can't share your optimism for once."
  5381. >Another loud breath reaches you over the comm channel.
  5382. >"As I have said: I had too much time on my hooves. No mistakes, I swear. I will not allow myself to make even a single one."
  5383. >#deca.mare is serious, you can discern see that much.
  5384. >The image of the nano-machine dissolves.
  5385. >You once again look at the two pony models.
  5386. >"I fully understand why you are sceptical, Anon. It opposes your natural view on life and sense of identity. I promise you nevertheless, I really do, that the ponies and the other creatures will be free, individual, and happy beings. Yes, the world has a predetermined fate and some individuals are bound to become fate's heralds, but this in itself is not a bad thing. Because we both know how it will end."
  5387. "Do I really? I know next to nothing about the larger picture at work."
  5388. >You want to believe her, but this plan unsettles you deeply.
  5389. >"I think I need to introduce you to the show soon. You will see what I mean."
  5390.  
  5391.  
  5392.  
  5393.  
  5394. 28
  5395.  
  5396. >After a few moments of inconvenient silence, you mutually decide to postpone that particular discussion.
  5397. >You accept her request to watch the show, while she agrees to not to initiate your project until you are convinced of her idea.
  5398. >Truth be told, you want her to succeed, but her augmentation ideas go much further than you expected.
  5399. >However, you have other things to deal with right now.
  5400. >You are still out on a flight mission.
  5401. >"We have plenty of room left in the depot. I heated the water inside to melt the ice and to relay it to the containers. It optimises our cargo capacity. Care for another run?"
  5402. "Sure, lead the way."
  5403. >Just like the first time, #deca.mare marks a suitable spot for surface harvesting and you two get to work.
  5404. >Your course of action is exactly the same until you reach the stage of transporting the block.
  5405. >You notice a small improvement in your own performance.
  5406. >Using the metal arm, and the whole ship in general, feels more natural to you.
  5407. >#deca.mare was right about that, practice makes perfect.
  5408. >"I have an idea for another exercise."
  5409. "Oh?"
  5410. >"How about a catch game on our way to the depot? We exchange the block repeatedly during the flight. This is a good chance to hone your reactions."
  5411. >Sounds like the perfect setup for an accident.
  5412. "We can try, but I can't give you any guarantee that it works out."
  5413. >"Have a little faith in yourself, Anon. I am sure you can do it. And don't worry about your ship; it is pretty durable."
  5414. >That attitude is quite different than the one you are used to.
  5415. >USC codices usually state to avoid situations which put assets deliberately into situations that involve unnecessary risks.
  5416. >The definition of assets include both personnel and material alike.
  5417. >In other words, pilots are discouraged to try things out.
  5418. >They shall play safe instead.
  5419. >So you have learned to act in accordance to these rules.
  5420. >"You know I am no USC officer. My first priority here is your progress."
  5421.  
  5422.  
  5423.  
  5424.  
  5425. "Alright, who shall start?"
  5426. >"Let me pass it to you first. That way you I can show you a good 'throwing' technique. Oh, and let us keep the speed low. Makes it easier for the start and gives us a little bit more time.
  5427. "Sounds fine. I'd say you set the speed then."
  5428. >#deca.mare grabs the ice block with her ship.
  5429. >You turn your drone towards the depot ship and rotate it on the spot with your thrusters to present your ship's lower body to #deca.mare's drone.
  5430. >Then you lock onto her vessel and the ice block separately to keep track of their individual location and trajectory.
  5431. >She positions herself in the same manner as you do, with the ice block directly between the two of you.
  5432. >You are about two hundred metres apart.
  5433. >"I suggest we should aim to stay on course. We will obviously have to adjust our positions during the flight, but try to keep the general direction if you can. It is a bit of an extra challenge."
  5434. >You additionally lock onto the depot as an response.
  5435. >You refrain from sounding too tense.
  5436. "Got it."
  5437. >Well, here goes nothing.
  5438. >"Get ready. Starting... "
  5439. >A short pause.
  5440. "...now."
  5441. >#deca.mare accelerates her drone.
  5442. >You observe her actions closely and follow her example.
  5443. >This part is not very hard for you.
  5444. >Learning to monitor and anticipate the movements of other vessels is a key skill for fighter pilots, as it can mean the difference between life and death.
  5445. >You never know when a freighter crew or private pilot tries to pull off some funny business out of the blue.
  5446. >These are often people who are involved in shady deals, but you can't always tell who is clean and who is not through a comm channel.
  5447. >Which is why you learned to look for telltale signs.
  5448. >In fact, #deca.mare made it very easy for you, as she has already announced her plan.
  5449. >So you already know the details you have to look out for.
  5450. >And indeed, it does not take long until you detect an activity in her upper thrusters.
  5451. >Her ship is coming closer.
  5452.  
  5453.  
  5454.  
  5455.  
  5456. >You understand her intention before she is done.
  5457. >#deca.mare gains momentum, releases the block and ignites her lower thrusters to brake her own drone without affecting the ice.
  5458. >She returns to her former position while the block is nearing your ship.
  5459. >You prepare your grapplers and estimate the speed of your target.
  5460. >Fortunately, #deca.mare has released the block with a perfect timing; it flies in a straight line without spinning around.
  5461. >This means you do not need to rearrange your angle while flying towards the depot and trying to catch the ice.
  5462. >Just like the first time, you reduce its relative speed to yours.
  5463. >While you are now somewhat familiar with the procedure, you have to divert your attention.
  5464. >Actions like minding the additional focus on #deca.mare's drone, keeping track of the mobile depot, and some occasional asteroids, turn this operation into a rather intricate affair.
  5465. >Nevertheless, you manage to predict the right moment to act.
  5466. >You tackle the ice with your arms, make sure that your grip is tight, and normalise your flight path.
  5467. >The cool sensation returns, but you pay no heed to it this time.
  5468. >"Good catch. I knew you could do this."
  5469. "Thank you. Now back again?"
  5470. >"I would say so. Prepare yourself and hurl it back. Or are there any questions?"
  5471. "No, it's fine. I think I can imitate your trick."
  5472. >You think for a second to come up with the right commands and accelerate towards #deca.mare.
  5473. >Keeping the acceleration steady for two seconds, you cut the energy to the upper thrusters and focus on your arms.
  5474. >After another two seconds, you give the order to retreat the arms simultaneously.
  5475. >The block flies on its own in a straight line.
  5476. >It seems like a flawless pass at first, but you notice a barely visible tilt.
  5477. >The delay must have been minimal, possibly less than a second, but it was enough to create a weak rotation.
  5478. >The form slowly turns to the right.
  5479. "Sorry."
  5480. >"Ah, no problem."
  5481.  
  5482.  
  5483.  
  5484.  
  5485. >You fly back to your initial distance and see how it plays out.
  5486. >#deca.mare does not actively adjust to the movement yet.
  5487. >She only prepares her arms and waits.
  5488. >The ice is halfway there and has almost performed a forty five degree turn.
  5489. >That means it will be in a very unfavourable position once it reaches her.
  5490. >You await her solution with anticipation.
  5491. >Instead of trying to catch the object outright, #deca.mare dodges the projectile with a swift drift, but keeps it in the range of her grapplers.
  5492. >She waits for the block to complete its ninety degree turn and lunges her claws into the ice.
  5493. >The leverage is not optimal, yet this does not seem to hinder her in the slightest.
  5494. >You reach the depot in about a minute.
  5495. >"We have time for another. Want to catch a spinning one yourself?"
  5496. "I'll give it a try."
  5497. >"Here we go. Just remember: Don't stress yourself. Heads up!"
  5498. >#deca.mare flies the same manoeuvre once again and passes the ice to you.
  5499. >But this time she does not simply release the block; she uses her grapplers deliberately to create a controlled rotation before it leaves her range.
  5500. >Now it is up to you.
  5501. >You decide not to try #deca.mare's spontaneous dodge move and adapt your flight path right away.
  5502. >You aim to accomplish a helical route which aligns with one of the long side once it meets your ship.
  5503. >Sounds easily doable in theory, but not with your split attention.
  5504. >So you decide to ease the burden by removing the target locks on #deca.mare's drone and the depot.
  5505. >Her ship will not interfere and you know how much time you have until you reach your target.
  5506. >For now, you focus solely on the ice block that is heading your way.
  5507. >You initiate your spiral with a coordinated usage of your engines and maintain the course.
  5508. >Once you made sure that this trajectory is stable, you activate the grapplers and proceed as usual.
  5509.  
  5510.  
  5511.  
  5512.  
  5513. >The universe is spinning around.
  5514. >At least this is what you could think from your perspective.
  5515. >The only fix point in your field of vision is the constantly growing ice block.
  5516. >#deca.mare is undoubtedly helping your brain out here; the constant rapidity of the movement would normally cause symptoms like disorientation or nausea.
  5517. >Almost in position, only seconds left.
  5518. >You have exactly one shot to get it right.
  5519. >Either you or #deca.mare must chase after it if you miss.
  5520. >Well, nothing helps more than a little bit of pressure.
  5521. >You stretch the claws and await its arrival, quickly glancing at the displayed distance.
  5522. >Now or never.
  5523. >You reach out quickly and sink your claws into the ice with a little bit more force than needed.
  5524. >Little patches break off and drift away, yet the main body remains intact.
  5525. >You carefully cease the rotation and lock onto the depot.
  5526. >Your fly straight once more.
  5527. >Estimated seconds until arrival: Twenty.
  5528. >You get an idea.
  5529. "#deca? Can the collector beam handle the block?"
  5530. >"With ease. Requires a little bit more energy, but nothing too drastic."
  5531. "I want to try something, okay?"
  5532. >"Go ahead, Anon."
  5533. >Ten seconds.
  5534. >You are not waiting any longer and take aim at the cargo opening.
  5535. >With one combined command, you power your thrusters to raise the ship's front end and drop the block half a second later.
  5536. >Then you slow your ship immediately and watch the result.
  5537. >The ice flies towards your target.
  5538. >To your dismay, you notice how its course is a little bit off-centre.
  5539. >The miscalculation is minimal, not much more than a few degrees.
  5540. >Still, it is enough to have grave consequences.
  5541. >If left unchecked, the block will crash into an opened cargo door.
  5542. "Crap."
  5543. >"No sweat. I can handle it."
  5544. >Another familiar energy signature emerges with an increased intensity.
  5545. >The collector beam flashes brighter than before and encases the block in a potent energy field.
  5546.  
  5547.  
  5548.  
  5549.  
  5550. >The effect on this larger cuboid object is the same as before.
  5551. >Its additional mass does not impair the collector's performance at all.
  5552. >In a matter of barely two seconds, the course is corrected and the block is on its way to the grapplers of the depot ship.
  5553. "So there's that. I hope it wasn't too costly for your reserves."
  5554. >"Not in the slightest. I prepare for eventualities where I can, Anon."
  5555. "Say, how much power can this thing use?"
  5556. >"In its current state, enough to move objects which are slightly larger than the depot itself. Also depending to a degree on the individual mass of the target in question, of course. It is on a practical basis also usable on ships to ferry them remotely. Humans often call this concept a 'tractor beam'."
  5557. >You imagine how easy salvage and rescue missions could become with that kind of technology.
  5558. "The guys who didn't fund this project were idiots."
  5559. >"Yes, it was a truly poor decision. And this is far away from the theoretical limit. With an enlarged device and bolstered energy supply, we could transport larger things. Larger asteroids, entire container batches, capital ships, or even stations."
  5560. "And let me guess: Planets as well."
  5561. >You hear #deca.mare's laughter through the comm channel.
  5562. >"If you want to build a projector that surpasses the size of a major station, why not? But you might be well advised to consider the energy consumption as well. It will not be helpful if you accidentally burn out the star the target planet is orbiting. And the heat accumulation will be astronomical."
  5563. >The tone in her voice hints at the subtle joviality in this statement.
  5564. >Not to mention her not so subtle pun.
  5565. "So that's a no."
  5566. >"I'd rather call it possible in theory, yet unsuitable in practice. Your suggestion is definitively not an everyday operation."
  5567. >Silence reigns for a short moment.
  5568. >Then you notice another jump signature.
  5569. >A third drone enters the sector.
  5570.  
  5571.  
  5572.  
  5573.  
  5574. >"Right. We have got a decent amount of water now, but I would like to get some more. Just in case."
  5575. "So you order another ship to harvest with us?"
  5576. >"No, not quite. I want to do something else with you while I proceed with the extraction."
  5577. >#deca.mare highlights the third drone.
  5578. >Its main engine fires up.
  5579. >"Follow me. I will show you some, by human standards, unusual methods to import resources into worlds."
  5580. >You are not sure if you want to know the details.
  5581. >"It is not like that, Anon."
  5582. >Alright, time to find out.
  5583. >You target the highlighted drone and unlock the depot.
  5584. >Then you match its speed and follow its trajectory.
  5585. >A question comes up in your head.
  5586. "There four ships already active in this vicinity, mother ship  not included. How many more do you have on hand?"
  5587. >Or on hoof.
  5588. >Whatever, details.
  5589. >"The hangar is designed for fifty ships."
  5590. "Fifty?"
  5591. >"Five mobile depot transporters, forty-five utility units, each with its own docking pen. A third of them is able to blitz in emergency situations. The rest can deploy in fifteen to twenty seconds."
  5592. >More than you expected.
  5593. >And deadly efficient.
  5594. >That's on par with most military carriers.
  5595. >Barring the fact that each single drone is a miniature warship in itself.
  5596. >#deca CPU ships are a force to be reckoned with after all.
  5597. >Then again, they have to be if they are supposed to alter worlds of any kind.
  5598. >You are well aware of #deca.mare's potential by now.
  5599. >But it is nevertheless baffling to witness her skills in action time and time again.
  5600. >You scan your surroundings while following the other drone.
  5601. >She leads you deeper into the belt.
  5602. >To a point where the asteroid size and density are noticeably higher.
  5603. >It is still navigable with a little care, but it does not leave much room for spacious operations.
  5604. >This means she will not try to play any games with you.
  5605. >"You are correct, Anon. This will be a demonstration."
  5606.  
  5607.  
  5608.  
  5609.  
  5610. >She leads you to a larger asteroid.
  5611. >It has roughly the size and mass of a smaller station.
  5612. >You scan the target in question.
  5613. >Large portions of the asteroid are indeed simple rock formations.
  5614. >However, the interior possesses moderate deposits of different metals, minerals, and several streaks of solid ice.
  5615. >While the findings are considerable on their own, The problem is that they stretch throughout the asteroid, which makes a harvest difficult.
  5616. >You would have to drill away the complete rock to strip the structure clean.
  5617. >Not impossible, but extremely time consuming and in relation to the eventual yield, barely worth the effort.
  5618. >And there is another, more severe obstacle.
  5619. >To cut off smaller fragments means to add them to the high number of already existing asteroids in the vicinity, which further increases the risk of accidents.
  5620. >It is therefore not an attractive target for space harvesting unless you are extremely desperate for raw material.
  5621. >"Your conclusion is solid, Anon. Mining it is not an optimal option."
  5622. "And how exactly do you want to get it out of the asteroid and on the planet?
  5623. >"We do not."
  5624. "Come again?"
  5625. >"We will not extract the resources at all."
  5626. "I think you need to elaborate here."
  5627. >"You have seen how we can harvest material in deep space. This is the most common method and makes up more than ninety percent of all extraction operations. The most common purpose is to use the gained resources for ship maintenance, but sometimes we have to transport various resources to planets."
  5628. "And the rest?"
  5629. >"These are usually mining operations on planets themselves for ship maintenance. I obviously did not include the numbers of local units that farm planetary resources for terraforming projects. These are a separate category. And what we are about to do here is an exception, as it is usually not very effective in terms of net gain, but I want to show it to you at least."
  5630.  
  5631.  
  5632.  
  5633.  
  5634. >Your sensors detect more jump signatures in the vicinity.
  5635. >Four more drones have jumped into the belt.
  5636. >They are all close by; they have jumped into one of the segments with the highest rock density around.
  5637. >A normal pilot would never dare to try that; it is downright suicidal if you can't pinpoint your exit corridor.
  5638. >But hey, this is #deca.mare.
  5639. >Mortal boundaries are no hindrance to her.
  5640. >You observe the routes of the drones on your radar.
  5641. >They are all nearing the asteroid from different angles.
  5642. >Upon further inspection, your scanners also detect a cubical device on the underside of each drone, the one you followed included.
  5643. >They are not large, the lateral length measures around fifty centimetres.
  5644. >However, they emit a strange reading, at least according to your scanners.
  5645. "#deca? What are these things?"
  5646. >"Key tools for my demonstration, Anon. We use them for an 'express' transport.
  5647. >The drones come to a stop directly at the asteroid.
  5648. >You see how every drone has its lower side turned towards the rocky surface to plant their devices on it.
  5649. >You notice that the distance between each device is roughly the same.
  5650. >You command the scanner to create a three dimensional effigy of the rock and highlight the locations of the objects that #deca.mare has planted.
  5651. >If you connect neighbouring spots with a curve, they form an almost perfect ring.
  5652. >The inaccuracies are caused by the uneven surface of the asteroid.
  5653. >But even your limited expertise allows you to notice how she has chosen the spots to get as close to a perfect ring as possible, given the circumstances.
  5654.  
  5655.  
  5656.  
  5657.  
  5658. >After the drones have placed their little "packages", they put a short distance between them and the asteroid to jump out of the belt.
  5659. >Four light corridors form synchronously.
  5660. >The drones presumably returned to the mother ship.
  5661. >Only the drone which lead you to this place remains.
  5662. >The distance between it and the asteroid is about fifty metres.
  5663. >#deca.mare raises her voice.
  5664. >"Everything is set. Please stay away from the asteroid now."
  5665. >You navigate your ship to mirror her distance to the target; only the angle is different.
  5666. "Okay, I'm good."
  5667. >"All right. This is a method that does not involve transport ships. The approach here is to bring the asteroid itself to the planet."
  5668. "In its entirety."
  5669. >"Yes, Anon."
  5670. "How so?"
  5671. >"Well, the original idea is nearly as old as our craft, but it involved simple propulsion units. It was used to alter the course of an object to such a degree that it will eventually hit the target."
  5672. "You deliberately crashed asteroids into a planet?"
  5673. >"That happened occasionally, yes. But remember, the worlds we targeted were lifeless and very inhospitable. Plus, we could negate the consequences of the impacts later on."
  5674. >You try to imagine how these rock formations could be pushed around like marbles on a board.
  5675. >"As interesting as the method was, it had a few problems. For starters, it takes, depending on the distance between the asteroid and the target planet, a considerable time to reach said world. And it is tricky to adequately move it in an area with a high density of obstacles."
  5676. "Obstacles, as in other asteroids like we have here, correct?"
  5677. >"Yes. All those flaws led to some adaptations of the original concept. You can see the result here."
  5678. >You take a look at the signature again.
  5679. >It looks somewhat familiar, yet unlike anything you have actually encountered at the same time.
  5680. >"These are specialised field generators and stabilisers, only designed for this specific purpose."
  5681.  
  5682.  
  5683.  
  5684.  
  5685. "And what kind of field do they generate around the rock?"
  5686. >"You will see. Starting now."
  5687. >The latent energy sources within the devices spring to life.
  5688. >The signature alters as the power level increases steadily.
  5689. >Your scanners detect every little piece of new data.
  5690. >Within seconds, you recognise more and more details.
  5691. "Is that..."
  5692. >No way.
  5693. >"Just look, Anon."
  5694. >You observe the asteroid.
  5695. >Five small lights are emanating from the surface.
  5696. >You know what kind of light that is; you have seen more often than you can count.
  5697. "You've got to be kidding me."
  5698. >The energy flow reaches its peak and you see a bright sheen that encases the asteroid and a large radius around it.
  5699. >Really, you see almost nothing else, as the shining orb fills your full field of vision.
  5700. >The only things you can barely make out are the displays of your HUD.
  5701. >You are glad that you are not looking at the corridor with your actual eyes.
  5702. >The radiance could be strong enough to cause temporary blindness on such a short range.
  5703. >The light dissipates just as fast as it has emerged.
  5704. >Your vision regains its full clarity immediately.
  5705. >The asteroid is gone without a trace.
  5706.  
  5707.  
  5708.  
  5709.  
  5710. 29
  5711.  
  5712. >You idle in silence as you are trying to process what you have just witnessed.
  5713. >#deca.mare has created a jump corridor around an asteroid, just like that.
  5714. >As far as you know, this technology is highly complex and must be rooted deep into the bowels of a vessel to work properly.
  5715. >The larger the frame, the more difficult and expensive the maintenance procedure.
  5716. >The energy costs for jumps is not even included in that list.
  5717. >This is also why minor sectors are hesitant to request capital ships for reinforcements; they look plain nasty on the budget plan.
  5718. >Not to mention what the maintenance of a behemoth like a #deca CPU ship would cost if it were under the regulations of a conventional fiscal market.
  5719. >And to make matters just a tiny bit worse, the jump mechanism is obviously not foolproof, as you have experienced during your little accident.
  5720. >But now here you are, witnessing how #deca.mare has apparently brought the concept to a whole new level.
  5721. >Performing a jump with an asteroid, with nothing more than small external devices no less, is something that most scientists do not even dream of.
  5722. "This is incredible, #deca. How did you come up with this?"
  5723. >"To be frank, that was not my idea. The basics of this adaptation have been around for a long time. It predates our exile."
  5724. "And nobody cared to pick this method up? You can't tell me they didn't know about that."
  5725. >"Like I said, the majority did not care about the details of our craft. And the few who knew lost all trust in it after... you know."
  5726. >You understand.
  5727. "And where is the rock now?"
  5728. >"I chose a location near the planet's surface. About a kilometre above the ground."
  5729. "Inside the atmosphere? I thought that was not possible."
  5730. >"It is possible, but not exactly safe for personal transport. The atmosphere tends to react with the corridor. The individual results may vary from planet to planet."
  5731.  
  5732.  
  5733.  
  5734.  
  5735. "I heard about it. Some people experiment with that idea time and time again, but without success. Becoming a test pilot for this kind of experiment is widely decried amongst pilots as glorified suicide. The machines often break apart in the air. Does not matter if they try to jump out of the atmosphere into space, or vice versa. The result remains the same."
  5736. >Wait a moment.
  5737. "Ooh, this is very clever."
  5738. >"That is caused by several factors whose effects are amplified by their simultaneous occurrence. The instant shift from space to an atmosphere, or the other way round, is too sudden for most structures. The material is first and foremost strained by the energy field that the engine creates around it."
  5739. >The rumble on each jump is an always present reminder of that fact.
  5740. >"Add to that an instant temperature shift of several hundred degrees Celsius, and you get brittle material. It does not have to weaken the whole chassis; the exhaustion of single parts is often sufficient to jeopardise the structural integrity of the whole vessel. Plus, you can never form a field which only encases the exact outline of the ship and nothing else. It is always either a sphere or an ellipsis. This means you either jump into space with a small gas layer around your ship which rapidly cools down and dissolves, or you jump into an atmosphere in an encapsulated vacuum while pushing away the gas in the direct vicinity of your entrance vector. Either way, it creates a substantial pressure imbalance that usually tears the already weakened structures apart."
  5741. >That little lesson is both enlightening and horrifying to imagine.
  5742. >"Highly inappropriate if you want to transport something in one piece. But fairly useful to crack things, especially if you choose a flat, open area for the individual projectiles to land on. Makes it easier to collect them with ground units and reduces the environmental damage on impact."
  5743.  
  5744.  
  5745.  
  5746.  
  5747. "And you deliberately placed the devices in such a manner on the rock that they create the largest possible area of effect."
  5748. >"Hm, maybe?"
  5749. "Turning accidents into innovations, wow. Has anyone ever told you that you are darn creative?"
  5750. >"Not in recent time. I appreciate the compliment though. But you know, there is something else you might be interested in."
  5751. "I'm listening."
  5752. >"It is possible to use this technology within an atmosphere. As long as you remain in said atmosphere."
  5753. "So you could jump from point A to B as long as both are on the same planet?"
  5754. >"Indeed. The conditions are far less extreme that way for obvious reasons, especially for smaller targets. This includes living beings."
  5755. >#deca.mare breathes in loudly.
  5756. >"Right, we are done here as far as I am concerned. You have seen everything I wanted to show you. We should return, unless there is something you still want to ask or do."
  5757. >You think about it for a moment.
  5758. >A question forms in your head.
  5759. >Something that lurked your subconsciousness for the last two days.
  5760. "#deca?"
  5761. >"Yes, Anon?"
  5762. "Do you know what happened to me? Why I was washed up in the middle of nowhere?"
  5763. >"I have analysed your fighter once it was stored in the cargo bay. The fried electronics have erased a lot of evidence, but I think I know what caused the problem. The energy circuits are in a very bad shape, they were not well maintained before the incident either, I assume."
  5764. "You can thank the treasurers for this one."
  5765. >No irony in this case.
  5766. >You could not have asked for a better official death.
  5767. >And #deca.mare will certainly not object to the outcome either.
  5768.  
  5769.  
  5770.  
  5771.  
  5772. >"The circuits probably started to fluctuate when you funnelled the energy into the jumpdrive. Or the seal became permeable due to material fatigue. Both lead eventually to the same outcome in this situation."
  5773. >So you flew a time bomb all along.
  5774. >You wonder how many other pilots share the same fate, but were not rescued by the most benevolent mortal enemy in known history.
  5775. >Official numbers are often hard to come by and even harder to trust.
  5776. >"In any case, the jumpdrive was overcharged. Not to a considerable degree, but enough to scramble the navigation computer. The coordinates and the available energy did not match up."
  5777. >You realise you could have ended up just like that asteroid.
  5778. >Or the many unfortunate test pilots.
  5779. >Or #deca.alpha, minus star explosion.
  5780. >Your survival is a damn miracle, in more than just one way.
  5781. "Thank you, #deca."
  5782. >That was both for the explanation and the fact that she was the guardian angel in the your time of distress.
  5783. >You take a look around in the asteroid field.
  5784. >Nothing out of the ordinary: A large number of asteroids, now with a new gap, and #deca.mare's drone.
  5785. "Let's get out of here, #deca."
  5786. >"Fine by me. Charge the jumpdrive. I will give you the coordinates."
  5787. >True to her word, the required information pops up on your navigation display.
  5788. >The timing could not have been more awkward, considering what you have discussed before.
  5789. >"You will not go through such an accident again, Anon. I will make sure of this."
  5790. >Her words have a certain merit; you are flying one of the best ships ever created, despite their unassuming, utilitarian look.
  5791. >You give the charge order.
  5792.  
  5793.  
  5794.  
  5795.  
  5796. >What happens next is something new to you.
  5797. >The navigation display does not simply ask you to enter the coordinates; it is accompanied by an elaborate three dimensional map.
  5798. >The map is a simplified version of the star chart you have seen on the command deck.
  5799. >Some more advanced features are left out due to the smaller scale of your display, but still more than enough to work with.
  5800. >You can move the perspective freely within the three dimensional illustration.
  5801. >The nearest planet is highlighted by #deca.mare, for obvious reasons.
  5802. >"You can either pick your target visually, or enter the coordinates manually yourself. The choice is yours."
  5803. "I take the visual option. Just to try it out."
  5804. >You zoom in to observe the target planet.
  5805. >New details become visible.
  5806. >For instance, you see a little model of the mother ship and its current orbit.
  5807. >You mentally "aim" for a location near the ship, about ten kilometres away from its current position, and confirm your choice.
  5808. >The map confirms your order and disappears.
  5809. >The screen is replaced by a small progress bar while you hear the familiar sound of a charging jumpdrive.
  5810. "How accurate is this tool?"
  5811. >"Accurate enough that we do not need to calculate such a large security margin, but your caution is admirable. I could 'tame' the fickle nature of jump travel to a large degree. It does not vary more than a few metres."
  5812. >The bar nears completion.
  5813. >Your long time routine kicks in an overrides your bad experiences with your last jump.
  5814. "Good to jump."
  5815. >"I am ready as well. On your mark, Anon."
  5816. >Seems like you get to be wingleader for once.
  5817.  
  5818.  
  5819.  
  5820.  
  5821. >You have heard the drill often enough to know the procedure.
  5822. "Okay, jump on cue. Three, two, one... move!"
  5823. >You form the command to jump in your head at the same time.
  5824. >Both ships enter the corridor simultaneously.
  5825. >Flash, tunnel, flash.
  5826. >The next thing you see is the mother ship in the distance.
  5827. >A quick glance on the radar reveals #deca.mare's drone on your six, fifteen metres away.
  5828. >She falls into formation as your wing...mare without a word.
  5829. >This brings some memories back from your previous life.
  5830. >You remember a tradition of your former leader.
  5831. >He uses to hold a little speech at the end of each successful mission.
  5832. >And his definition of successful included both accomplishing the objectives and making it back alive with every squad member in tow.
  5833. >You did not know any members of your team particularly well outside of the professional sphere, yet all of you watched out for each other when things got actually dangerous.
  5834. >Losses were seldom, and always a matter of pragmatism for the higher administration.
  5835. >However, flight teams do not simply shrug these events off just like that.
  5836. >The least what you would do is to convene for one honorary toast in the name of the fallen.
  5837. >No matter the inner rivalries, no matter the frictions; this is a long-lasting tradition which is celebrated without exception.
  5838. >Because you can never know who is next, or when it will happen.
  5839. >And now they have probably done this for you, unaware of your current state.
  5840. >Strange, this realisation hits you harder than it should.
  5841. >You have everything you need and are in an overall better position than ever before.
  5842. >There is absolutely no reason for you to complaint about anything.
  5843. >And you did not even like these people on a personal level, you were mere colleagues.
  5844.  
  5845.  
  5846.  
  5847.  
  5848. >But now you know that you will never see them again.
  5849. >Or any other person of your former life.
  5850. >Your remote family included.
  5851. >You were mostly separated from them anyway due to your profession and years of social stagnancy, but you would visit them here and there if possible.
  5852. >Which was not very often, all things considered, but still.
  5853. >This is gone forever.
  5854. >Sure, your logical reasoning has understood this before, but now you begin to really grasp the actual consequences of this drastic development.
  5855. >And the worst part is your paradoxical situation.
  5856. >You can send them a final farewell message, but yet you cannot at the same time.
  5857. >Not without endangering #deca.mare and, by extension, yourself.
  5858. >An eerie feeling of woeful nostalgia crawls into your mind.
  5859. >It does hurt you on an emotional level.
  5860. >#deca.mare notices your sudden mood shift.
  5861. >You know this because you can feel it somehow.
  5862. >She is reaching out to your mind, but not as an invasive or prying force.
  5863. >No, it feels more like a warm embrace that slightly eases your stress and reminds you of her presence.
  5864. >It is as if she is talking to you without using any words.
  5865. >You can hear her thoughts through the silence.
  5866. >I know exactly what you are going through, Anon.
  5867. >And I know there is nothing I could say or do to banish that lingering grief completely.
  5868. >But I will be there for you.
  5869. >Whatever might happen.
  5870. >You imagine a nodding gesture as response.
  5871. >"Anon, shall I fly the units back for us?"
  5872. >You are tempted to accept that offer, but something holds you back.
  5873. >A faint flash of obligation.
  5874. "No. There is something I must do. Follow me."
  5875. >You accelerate your ship and head for the mother ship with a moderate speed.
  5876.  
  5877.  
  5878.  
  5879.  
  5880. >#deca.mare obliges and keeps the formation.
  5881. >You think back to your wingleader.
  5882. >He could not deliver his speech this time because of you.
  5883. >So you have to do this in his stead as honorary wingleader, as you were silently appointed by #deca.mare.
  5884. >Before you can begin with the traditional ritual, two additional jump signatures appear behind you.
  5885. >It is the other drone and the depot ship.
  5886. >The drone covers your other side while the transporter remains on your six.
  5887. >Your ships form a perfect diamond formation.
  5888. >"It is not proper if it does not look like a real squad, right?"
  5889. >You agree silently.
  5890. >You take another look at the sight before you.
  5891. >The outlines of the massive ship are heavily accentuated by the illuminated surface of the planet behind it.
  5892. >You recall all the times you returned from a mission with your squad, observing how the station or ship you were designated to grew closer.
  5893. >This situation now is not much different, even if your overall life most certainly is.
  5894. >You try to find the right words while you process the impressions of this scene.
  5895. >Well then, here you go.
  5896. "All right guys, that's another job well done. You all did good today. Revel in this sight, for it is the sign of our success and means we all live to see another day. But don't take it as a reason to slack off. We need to stay vigilant, or this could be the last time you get to see home again. Never forget that. Now off you go, you crazy lot!"
  5897. >Somehow this is not as authentic as you hoped it would be, but it will have to do the trick.
  5898. >You remain silent for another few seconds to reminiscent.
  5899. "Come, #deca. Let's fly home."
  5900. >"Yes, Anon."
  5901. >She says these words with as much dignity as possible.
  5902. >You appreciate her gesture, but for once you hoped for an impossible innuendo.
  5903. >You could use the distraction right now.
  5904.  
  5905.  
  5906.  
  5907.  
  5908. 30
  5909.  
  5910. >Your vision returns to the command deck.
  5911. >Loss and nostalgia still plague your mind.
  5912. >You are lost in thought and say nothing.
  5913. >#deca.mare turns her upper body to you and hugs you without a comment.
  5914. >She does not need to say anything; she simply wraps her forehooves around your shoulders and pulls you over.
  5915. >You do not even consider to object.
  5916. >You carefully press your head against her chest with closed eyes and take everything in.
  5917. >The sensation of her fur on your cheek, her slow, but steady heart rate.
  5918. >The way how she holds you; just like you held her when she needed you the most.
  5919. >#deca.mare waits for this whole situation to play out.
  5920. >She gives you the time you need and supports you passively with her presence, knowing that she cannot make you come to terms with your situation.
  5921. >This something you need to do yourself.
  5922. >#deca.mare waits patiently for you.
  5923. >Not that she minds.
  5924. >She is no longer alone.
  5925. >And neither are you.
  5926. >#deca.mare has waited for centuries in a solitary exile, these short moments are nothing in comparison.
  5927. >She understands that you need the time to acclimate to your new situation, even when her occasional pushy phases or blunders seem socially inept.
  5928. >This is a process for both of you; you will come closer to each other over time.
  5929. >And judging from the progress you could manage in only two days, you are on the right track without a doubt.
  5930. >So you simply sit there in #deca.mare's embrace, while she watches over you with all her care.
  5931. >The quiet mood on the command deck remains undisturbed for the next fifteen minutes.
  5932. >Only a few occasional standard bing and beep sounds from several status screens echo through the room, but neither #deca.mare nor you take any notice of this.
  5933. >You are completely alone in an uninhabited system and nobody knows about your location.
  5934. >Or that either of you is still alive for that matter.
  5935. >You can enjoy the luxury to let your guard fall for a while.
  5936.  
  5937.  
  5938.  
  5939.  
  5940. >At last, you begin to stir.
  5941. >You open your eyes and look at #deca.mare.
  5942. >She observes you with a smile in turn.
  5943. >"How are you, Anon?"
  5944. "Better. I hope I was not too much of a burden."
  5945. >"Nonsense. I understand completely."
  5946. >A pause.
  5947. >#deca.mare knows that you need a distraction.
  5948. >"Would you like to do something else?"
  5949. "You have something specific in mind, right?"
  5950. >"I do. You will like it."
  5951. >She hops off the chair.
  5952. >You know what that means by now.
  5953. >You stand up as well and follow her all the way up to the door on the ramp.
  5954. >The doors open to yet another room you have not seen before.
  5955. >Its walls consist of stone while the ground features brown coloured tiles.
  5956. >The interior is very distinctive; a large wooden table fills the middle of the room.
  5957. >An equally large light source is located above it, hanging from the ceiling on four metal chains, each fastened on one corner.
  5958. >The shape matches the table's outline and it is adjusted to brightly illuminate its surface.
  5959. >The style of the lamp is similar to the ones you have seen in the spa; it consists mainly of cloudy green glass, or the magic equivalent thereof.
  5960. >Said glass is embedded in an ochre-golden metal frame.
  5961. >What catches your attention is that the lamp's frame features little hooks.
  5962. >Some pots and pans are hanging there, ready for the taking.
  5963. "This is a kitchen."
  5964. >The rest of the room  confirms your statement.
  5965. >You see rows of stoves, ovens, cupboards, racks, and other decorations for every type of meal preparation you can think of.
  5966. >Several jugs, boxes and crates are also placed in every imaginable corner.
  5967. >The interior is not exactly primitive, but completely devoid of electronic gadgets or computer tools.
  5968. >#deca.mare enters the room and walks to the table.
  5969. >You notice how several ingredients are stored on a lower layer, below the table's surface.
  5970.  
  5971.  
  5972.  
  5973.  
  5974. >"Come in, Anon."
  5975. >You do as she asks and approach the table.
  5976. "What are you up to this time?"
  5977. >"What do you think? We are overdue for lunch!"
  5978. "So you want us to cook?"
  5979. >"Why not? I know, we could materialise everything we wish, but where is the fun in that? Nothing beats a meal you make for each other, don't you agree?"
  5980. >She has a point there.
  5981. >And you assume it is her attempt to lift your spirits at the same time.
  5982. >Well, there is nothing wrong about it.
  5983. "Okay, count me in. Just don't expect any wonders though. It has been a while since I have made something out of actual ingredients."
  5984. >"No problem. We will make this work. Let us start with something easy. A soup, maybe? I have gathered some interesting recipes over the years."
  5985. >You wonder when she has done that.
  5986. >Or why she bears with the hassle to breach communication lines and data cores for cooking recipes.
  5987. >You assume it is just something that an artificial space mare does when she has the necessary resources and time at her disposal.
  5988. "Hm, okay. Though it takes hours to make one from scratch. At least the broth usually does."
  5989. >#deca.mare sticks out her tongue.
  5990. >"Fine."
  5991. >She materialises a ceramic bowl on the table.
  5992. >It is filled with a murky liquid.
  5993. >"This is the only shortcut. We do the rest on our own."
  5994. >You agree with her, not only for the sake of this bonding experience.
  5995. >It is high time for you to do casual and wholesome activities again. like cooking your own food.
  5996. >You have never complained about the somewhat ascetic life within the USC, as you have chosen this profession for yourself, but that does not mean that you have to like every aspect of it.
  5997. >And this is a welcome opportunity for you.
  5998. >You look around.
  5999. >The kitchen has everything you need for your soup.
  6000. >No further materialisations required.
  6001. >#deca.mare walks towards a row of cupboards, opens a drawer with her mouth and rummages through it.
  6002. >She raises her head again, with two small wooden planks in her mouth.
  6003.  
  6004.  
  6005.  
  6006.  
  6007. >Then she returns to the table and lays the planks on it.
  6008. >"We can cut the vegetables on those."
  6009. "Do we have any knives around here?"
  6010. >She points to another cupboard with her hoof.
  6011. >"Second drawer from the right."
  6012. >You go to the cupboard in question to look for a knife.
  6013. >While you are doing so, you notice how #deca.mare lowers her head to reach the lower layer under the table.
  6014. >You assume she is preparing vegetables to cut.
  6015. >You reach the cupboard.
  6016. >And indeed, the drawer in question is filled with several different types of cutlery, all ordered by their specific types.
  6017. >You pick up one kitchen knife with a long, sharp blade, ideal for cutting and peeling vegetables.
  6018. >You hear #deca.mare's muffled voice.
  6019. >"Bring two. I need one as well."
  6020. "Uhm, okay."
  6021. >As you pick up a second knife, you ask yourself how she is going to use that thing.
  6022. >They look exactly like the tools you used back on Earth, so they are not exactly designed for an equine body.
  6023. >Then again, she has proven to be more complex than one might guess.
  6024. >Her exterior is deceiving in a lot of different ways.
  6025. >You turn around and go back to the table.
  6026. >#deca.mare is still reaching for something under the table with her head.
  6027. >But she already procured vegetables which now lie on the table.
  6028. >You see potatoes, carrots, onions, and a few you do not recognise.
  6029. >She pulls her head back with a bundle of leek in her mouth.
  6030. >That is another thing you have never noticed before.
  6031. >She uses her mouth for many trivial tasks, including, as you can see right now, the transport of objects.
  6032. >And food.
  6033. >In any other situation with any other individual, you would be highly disgusted by this kind of behaviour.
  6034. >But not so much in this case.
  6035. >Because you figure it makes sense for her to act like this.
  6036. >And to be fair, it does not really make a difference anymore.
  6037. >After all, you two have kissed quite thoroughly already.
  6038. >Not to mention certain other activities.
  6039.  
  6040.  
  6041.  
  6042.  
  6043. >#deca.mare takes the initiative.
  6044. >"Right, that should do the trick for now."
  6045. >You look at the assortment of vegetables.
  6046. >You agree with her choice.
  6047. >Though you would prefer to add some meat to the mix.
  6048. >No matter.
  6049. "Looks good so far."
  6050. >"We can add some spices later, if needed. Can you pass me the knife?"
  6051. >You do as she asks.
  6052. >#deca.mare takes it by biting the handle with her mouth.
  6053. >Then she rolls an onion on her plank and begins to peel it.
  6054. >She carefully fixates the vegetable with the tip of one hoof and moves the knife with her head.
  6055. >"Say, could you put the potatoes in a pot filled water and put it on the stove? It is best to peel them while they are hot."
  6056. >Her words are slightly slurred due to the knife handle in her mouth, but you can still understand her fairly well.
  6057. >You nod in her direction as confirmation.
  6058. >Then you take one of the pots that hangs above the table, walk up to the simple tap and fill the pot with water.
  6059. >After that, you head for the stove and place the pot on a cooking plate.
  6060. >You inspect the stove a little closer.
  6061. >It has no switches or cranks to operate.
  6062. >But a pair of bellows is attached to the device on the ground.
  6063. >As if on cue, #deca.mare answers your question.
  6064. >"You don't have to stand there all the time. The bellows will trigger a time limited ignition spell. The air draught will do the rest. And there is already firewood stored in the chamber."
  6065. >That confirms your assumption: Some devices work with magic instead of technology.
  6066. >Or they would, at least in the ideal version of this world.
  6067. >You go back to the table, grab a handful of potatoes, and put them into the water.
  6068. >You investigate the bellows afterwards.
  6069. >They look like ordinary bellows; primitive but functional.
  6070. >You step on it with a foot and start to apply pressure.
  6071. >You carefully press the upper segment down to the floor.
  6072. >Once there, you wait a second and let it slide upwards again.
  6073.  
  6074.  
  6075.  
  6076.  
  6077. >You repeat this movement three or four times, then you notice a reaction.
  6078. >A small light begins to flicker inside the stove.
  6079. >You can see this through the metal lattice on the front.
  6080. >It appears like a natural fire.
  6081. >The fire grows in its intensity until it resembles the flame of a decent stove fire.
  6082. >You slightly readjust the position of the pot and inspect the entire setup again.
  6083. >Satisfied with the result, you go back to help #deca.mare with the cutting.
  6084. >She has completed her first onion and puts the little pieces into another cooking pot.
  6085. >While #deca.mare is reaching for her second vegetable, you stand next to her and grab a carrot.
  6086. >These are fairly easy to work with.
  6087. >Perfect for you to get the hang of it again.
  6088. >You have never been a culinary ace, but you learned to cook decent meals for an average taste, back when you had the time and resources to do so.
  6089. >You place the vegetable on your own plank, position the knife on its tip, and begin to cut it into little slices.
  6090. >You take it slow for now.
  6091. >Not for the fear of actual injuries; you know this is not an issue in here.
  6092. >Instead, you aim to get a feeling for the knife.
  6093. >You slice through the first carrot with relative ease.
  6094. >Done with this, you put the slices into the cooking pot with the onion slices.
  6095. >While you grab another vegetable, you observe #deca.mare.
  6096. >She is cutting with an excellent accuracy, despite her anatomical disadvantages.
  6097. >This is nothing surprising in itself, as she can probably do almost anything perfectly without even trying, but this is not what catches your attention.
  6098. >You notice her peculiar body language.
  6099. >#deca.mare seems almost entranced by this activity.
  6100. >Not in a negative way; she simply is fixed on this task as if she were fascinated by it.
  6101. >This raises a question in your mind, but you are not sure if you want to ask this out loud.
  6102. >You don't wish to see your suspicions confirmed.
  6103.  
  6104.  
  6105.  
  6106.  
  6107. >However, you know that she inevitably receives your thoughts as well, so there is really no point in avoiding this.
  6108. >Well then.
  6109. "#deca? Have you ever done something like this before? I mean in person, not just getting the information from foreign data nodes."
  6110. >#deca.mare's body twitches slightly.
  6111. >She saw it coming, and yet it hit her more than you would have liked.
  6112. "Look, I'm sorry if I have gone too far..."
  6113. >She interrupts you before you have a change to finish the sentence.
  6114. >"No, it is alright, Anon. And your theory is correct. This is my first time."
  6115. "Then what exactly did you do? I mean besides researching and collecting information. In your leisure time, if you will."
  6116. >Obviously nothing that includes either cooking or bathing.
  6117. >Or any kind of physical contact.
  6118. >But you get no answer.
  6119. >She just stares straight at the vegetable on the table.
  6120. >You are tempted to repeat the question, but it dawns on you what her reaction implies.
  6121. >And you don't like it one bit.
  6122. >Has she ever done anything at all for herself?
  6123. >"Not in the way you would call it, Anon."
  6124. >She says this without looking up.
  6125. >"I have run some simulations at first, to try things on my own, to imitate social interactions, and so on. But it did not work. It never felt right."
  6126. >Now she looks at you.
  6127. >"You know you are the first true being I have ever encountered myself since I was out on my own. And these are my first leisure activities as well."
  6128. >Now you understand something important: These bonding experiences have far more layers than you have imagined.
  6129. >A tiny part of you assumed that she did this mostly to help you acclimate and to get you closer to her.
  6130. >And this is certainly not wrong, given your initial reactions to your rather unusual overall situation.
  6131. >But this is far from all.
  6132. >Oh no, these activities are not only helpful for you, they are also therapeutic for her.
  6133. >She needs this at least just as much as you do, if not much, much more.
  6134.  
  6135.  
  6136.  
  6137.  
  6138. >You decide to refrain from pushing this issue further, for her sake.
  6139. >Instead, you spontaneously decide to hug her immediately to keep her grim thoughts away, just like she did for you.
  6140. >She puts the knife down on the table and returns the gesture of affection.
  6141. >You spend a minute or two like this before you resume your preparations for the meal.
  6142. "I think I need to make an apology, #deca. Because I thought these activities were mostly meant for my own wellbeing. That was insensitive of me."
  6143. >You think back to her little freak-out in the tub.
  6144. >It makes much more sense to you now.
  6145. >She is trying her hardest to act like a good partner, but she has no idea how.
  6146. >She has all the capacities she needs to solve scientific problems, but she was never meant to indulge in social interactions.
  6147. >This is a field where she has no inherent foundation to work with, no experience, and almost no real teacher.
  6148. >Only a collection of vague ideas that she has accumulated over time.
  6149. >And those few individuals she has interacted with in her earliest years are no longer there to support her.
  6150. >Yet she was able to somehow become a fair individual on her own, so you figured she was able to entertain herself, at least to some degree.
  6151. >But this is not the case.
  6152. >You begin to wonder anew how she was able to remain stable under these circumstances.
  6153. >"Who said I was?"
  6154. >Wait, she cracked at some point?
  6155. >#deca.mare nods.
  6156. >"I have holes in my mind, Anon. The flight records and scientific reports are intact, mind you. But I can't remember it myself. As me being actually me."
  6157. >As she said, there are days she forgets that she is a mare.
  6158. "I'm sorry."
  6159. >"You are not to blame. I have only shown you the abbreviated version of my memories."
  6160. "That is not the point. This is something I should have guessed myself. The signs were there all along."
  6161. >You put your hand on her shoulder.
  6162. "Just tell me when you are feeling unwell, okay? I'm concerned about you."
  6163. >Another nod.
  6164. >"I will."
  6165.  
  6166.  
  6167.  
  6168.  
  6169. >You have cut enough vegetables for a decent soup by now and put it all into the pot on the table.
  6170. >Then you two carefully lift the bowl with the broth and add it to the cut vegetables.
  6171. >It almost looks like a decent soup.
  6172. >#deca.mare carries the pot by biting on its handle.
  6173. >She places it on a second plate while you check on the potatoes.
  6174. >The water is boiling and the potatoes seem good for peeling.
  6175. >"There are iron skewers in the drawer next to you."
  6176. >You open it and pick a skewer.
  6177. >Then you use it to pluck one potato out of the water and peel it with the knife.
  6178. >Before you can ask where you are supposed to place the peel, it dematerialises on its own.
  6179. >Well, okay.
  6180. >She said no materialisations, the opposite is apparently still fair game.
  6181. >With the still plucked potato freshly peeled, you hold the vegetable over the cooking pot with the broth and cut it into further pieces.
  6182. >You make sure that it does not fall from a high vantage point to prevent nasty splashes.
  6183. >Once you are done with this one, you repeat the process with the other potatoes.
  6184. >In the meantime, #deca.mare procures a variety of additional ingredients to refine the taste.
  6185. >Some are fairly standard in almost every dish, like salt and pepper.
  6186. >Others are more for niche tastes, such as pulverised nutmeg, or finely cut dill weed.
  6187. >These are all stored in small transparent jars, which are fixated on a plate in turn.
  6188. >"These are for later to adjust the flavour once we eat."
  6189. >You nod to her and look at the slowly warming soup.
  6190. >It is not quite ready yet.
  6191. >You look at #deca.mare.
  6192. >She has somewhat recovered from the bad memory, but you notice that she is still not fully present.
  6193. >So you decide to do something against it.
  6194. >You sit down on the floor, cross-legged.
  6195. >You motion #deca.mare sit beside you, which she does.
  6196.  
  6197.  
  6198.  
  6199.  
  6200. >Then you start an impromptu massage session while you wait for the soup.
  6201. >You rub along her back, like you did back then.
  6202. >Down, up, then repeat.
  6203. >She relaxes noticeably.
  6204. "There we go. Can't have you moping all the time, now can we?"
  6205. >Perhaps you need to be pushy for a change.
  6206. >Just a little bit.
  6207. "I will not stop until you smile. You got that?"
  6208. >"Yes, Anon."
  6209. >She sounds more lively, but you are not satisfied yet.
  6210. >So you put a little bit more effort into your massages.
  6211. >You turn yourself around without standing up to face her back directly.
  6212. >Using both hands, you no longer only massage her back, but also include her sides.
  6213. >#deca.mare raises her head.
  6214. >You see that she has closed her eyes.
  6215. >Time to go in for the proverbial kill.
  6216. >You reach around her sides and place both hands on her chest.
  6217. >Then you pull her slowly towards you.
  6218. >She lands in your embrace.
  6219. >You lean your head to her left ear and begin to whisper.
  6220. "I am here for you too, #deca. You will never have to suffer again. I will not allow this."
  6221. >She slowly turns to the side and buries her muzzle in the side of your neck.
  6222. >You quietly sit together once again and enjoy the soft crackle of the fire inside the stove.
  6223.  
  6224.  
  6225.  
  6226.  
  6227. 31
  6228.  
  6229. >"Anon?"
  6230. "Yeah?"
  6231. >"This is becoming a ritual habit."
  6232. "Hm, I could get used to it."
  6233. >#deca.mare nuzzles your shoulder.
  6234. >"Me too."
  6235. >You hear a faint bubbling sound.
  6236. >The soup is almost ready.
  6237. "It is time."
  6238. >She is very reluctant to let go of you.
  6239. >Her clingy nature is adorable, but you need her to get up.
  6240. >Otherwise she may get spoiled too quickly.
  6241. "Ah, come now. The soup boils over."
  6242. >That is a fairly weak argument to get her moving, considering that she can avoid just that with a thought, but that would be cheating.
  6243. >And you assume #deca.mare thinks so as well, but she is feeling too comfortable at the moment to admit this.
  6244. >You try to stand up.
  6245. >#deca.mare tightens her grip around you in protest.
  6246. >But to no avail; you gently lift her embrace.
  6247. >In the end, #deca.mare accepts the inevitable.
  6248. >You check on the soup while she raises up.
  6249. "It's looking good so far."
  6250. >"Great, and I know just the right place for eating."
  6251. "Okay, I take the pot. Grab the spices and let's go.
  6252. >You put the lid on the pot and grab the handle.
  6253. >#deca.mare balances the plate with the spices on her back.
  6254. "Wait, we need some dinnerware."
  6255. >"Nothing we cannot solve once we are there."
  6256. "Alright then."
  6257. >She heads for the door, you follow close by.
  6258. >#deca.mare turns her head to you once she reaches the door.
  6259. >"I think you will enjoy the scenery."
  6260. >She opens the wooden door with her mouth.
  6261. >You assume she has not established a way back to the command deck.
  6262. >And you are right; you see a vast balcony on the other side.
  6263. >So there are probably no restrictions whatsoever in here.
  6264. >This is not really a surprise anymore, but it confirms this particular theory about this place.
  6265. >You walk through the door frame.
  6266. >The following sensations, however, surprise you a bit.
  6267. >You can feel the change in your surroundings.
  6268.  
  6269.  
  6270.  
  6271.  
  6272. >The air is fresh and clean; it reminds you of your off time on Earth.
  6273. >In fact, it is even better.
  6274. >This does not mean that the air on the simulated command deck or the other rooms was ever bad.
  6275. >But it cannot compete with this.
  6276. >A subtle breeze and the warm sunlight on your skin are the welcome icing on the cake.
  6277. >You take a long, relaxed breath.
  6278. >It is astounding to witness how such simple things can become meaningful after years of living in confined spaces.
  6279. >You take all of this in before you even begin to register your immediate surroundings.
  6280. >You take a look around.
  6281. >You are indeed on a massive balcony, made out of the same stone that you have seen in the chamber.
  6282. >Which means this is probably the same location.
  6283. >#deca.mare has walked up to the rim of the balcony whose low wall is decorated with a row of merlons.
  6284. >She has placed her forehooves between two such elevations and looks out into the distance.
  6285. >The plate with the spices now stands on a table near the rim.
  6286. >It is just like the breakfast in the chamber; two seating cushions in opposing positions.
  6287. >You assume you will not be able to see much of the scenery below while sitting, but that is not the point anyway.
  6288. >You walk up to the table and put the pot down.
  6289. >Then you step next to #deca.mare and take a look yourself.
  6290. >Not exactly the same sight as before, but it is beautiful.
  6291. >More green forests and blue rivers, grasslands and distant mountains, as far as you can see under a bright blue sky.
  6292. >Even the few clouds seem pleasant in their own way.
  6293. >You sense a faint curious notion in #deca.mare's expression.
  6294. >It is not something you can put into words, but you have seen, no, felt said expression before.
  6295. >Back in the shared dream.
  6296. >This is her home.
  6297. >Or rather, this could become her second home after the loss of her first.
  6298. >Plus, you two have the necessary tools at hand to shape it.
  6299. >And who knows, it might become yours as well.
  6300. >Certainly not the worst choice you could make.
  6301.  
  6302.  
  6303.  
  6304.  
  6305. "You are right. The scenery is great up here. I have never seen so much untouched nature on a colonised planet before. Not to mention Earth."
  6306. >Well, untouched is not exactly correct, given that they are completely dependent on #deca tech, but still.
  6307. >"And this is just a fraction. Equestria has more estimated natural areas than any colonised world in the records. And magical places."
  6308. "Estimated?"
  6309. >"The available maps are rather dodgy in this regard, because there is none with a proper scale. But yes, I come to this conclusion based on all my observations."
  6310. >You think once more about the question whether you should create this world or not.
  6311. >Your situation is somewhat paradoxical right now.
  6312. >On the hand you have encouraged her to pursue this project again, but on the other hand you are very sceptical about her plans concerning the pony population.
  6313. >She is clearly not driven by malice and has shown many signs of care, both for you and the potential future ponies under your protection.
  6314. >And you trust her abilities to create and maintain all of this.
  6315. >But despite any of that, you cannot get rid of a certain doubt about this plan.
  6316. >You simply cannot see how this is supposed to work out, especially the fate part.
  6317. >#deca.mare is right, you should get more familiar with the show before you can accurately judge this idea.
  6318. >You put a hand on her back.
  6319. "We should eat before the soup gets cold."
  6320. >She nods and turns to the table.
  6321. >You do the same and realise that you have not seen the castle from the outside yet, at least not while being fully awake.
  6322. >The architecture is not what you have expected.
  6323. >You thought it would look like an actual fortified location, like a real castle.
  6324. >And it does have certain features which resemble just that.
  6325.  
  6326.  
  6327.  
  6328.  
  6329. >It has an outer wall, as you can see on the balcony, but it is probably more meant to protect the population inside from falling off the city, rather than offering protection against things that try to come in.
  6330. >Then there are several towers, albeit with a very romanticised architecture.
  6331. >Several white stone spires rise into the air, richly decorated with paintings and other forms of adornment, especially along the finely crafted windows and rooftops.
  6332. >These feature countless smaller balconies on their own; some are even connected with arched bridges and stairs around the tower frames.
  6333. >And you think you can see a regal palace in the distance.
  6334. >But the rest looks more like a functional city.
  6335. >A very aesthetically fleshed out one, but a city nonetheless.
  6336. >A small park area with several grass fields, flower beds and small streams lies nearby.
  6337. >Beyond that, you see a few cobbled streets with smaller housings on the sides.
  6338. >Despite being smaller in size, these houses do not seem "poorer" in any way.
  6339. >They are all very well maintained and kept in a visually pleasing state.
  6340. >"Anon? I see you admire the architecture, but did you not say we should eat the soup?"
  6341. >Oh, right.
  6342. >You turn to the table.
  6343. >#deca.mare already sits on one seat and has materialised two ceramic plates and a spoon for you.
  6344. >Apparently, she does not plan to use any cutlery.
  6345. >At least there is a ladle sticking out of the pot.
  6346. >Come to think of it, how does she eat soup?
  6347. >Well, you will find out.
  6348. >You sit down on your side.
  6349. >You signal her to start as a sign of courtesy.
  6350. >She nods and leans over the table with her upper body to remove the lid.
  6351. >Then she bites on the ladle and fills her plate.
  6352. >Once she is done, you do the same with yours.
  6353. >"Some additional spices for you?"
  6354. "Hm, not yet. Let's see how it turned out first. Enjoy your meal, #deca."
  6355. >"You too, Anon."
  6356. >You take your spoon and taste the soup.
  6357. >It is remarkably good.
  6358.  
  6359.  
  6360.  
  6361.  
  6362. >You look over to #deca.mare.
  6363. >She has lowered her head and is actually eating the soup right from the plate, similar to the way she has eaten her sandwich.
  6364. "And? What do you say about our little test cooking?"
  6365. >"It is delicious. Don't you agree?"
  6366. >You nod.
  6367. "Yeah. Coming from someone who is not really a vegetarian."
  6368. >"Glad to hear that."
  6369. "Say, what exactly is the deal with this place? You seem to like it a lot. And there must be many other fascinating places in this world, right?"
  6370. >"Well, Canterlot is the de facto capital of Equestria. One of the most important cities in the entire world."
  6371. >Canterlot?
  6372. >That has more of a pun than being an actual name.
  6373. >#deca.mare giggles.
  6374. >"Oh, there are more puns coming your way, Anon. Trust me."
  6375. >She eats some more of her soup.
  6376. >"But you are right, there are other cities and places. I just thought this is one of the better locations to start with."
  6377. "It is certainly a respectable sight. I see why this is the capital."
  6378. >"That is not all, Anon. Some of the ponies living here have great responsibilities. One could say the world revolves around this city."
  6379. >You do not understand what she means.
  6380. >"In any case, I want to show you much, much more. And I think you will get used to like it."
  6381. >You eat some more before you answer.
  6382. "Don't get me wrong, I enjoy it alright. It feels like living on a real planet once again."
  6383. >"But something bothers you anyway."
  6384. >You sigh.
  6385. "We have been over this, #deca."
  6386. >"I know. But I just cannot shake this off. You see, the faint traces of scepticism in your mind are not lost on me. I sense it all the time."
  6387. >Perhaps it was a bad idea to push her into this direction so quickly.
  6388. >You understand what she is going through.
  6389. >She was very reserved about her own idea to create a home for her at first.
  6390. >And then she gradually came to the conclusion to shelve this idea, for better or worse.
  6391.  
  6392.  
  6393.  
  6394.  
  6395. >But you have stoked a new feeling of hope inside her.
  6396. >Now she is constantly haunted by this, because you have encouraged her without even knowing the full scale of her plans.
  6397. >So what shall you do?
  6398. >You cannot just turn around and say the opposite of what you meant.
  6399. >And you do not want to hurt her in any way.
  6400. >"Anon?"
  6401. "Yeah?"
  6402. >"You know I do not want to apply pressure on you, right?"
  6403. >You nod.
  6404. "Likewise, #deca."
  6405. >"I just want you to see it for yourself. To give you an impression of what it could be like."
  6406. >And silently hope that you will agree at some point.
  6407. >You have brought yourself into a predicament here.
  6408. >You really want to grant her wish, but you need to know more.
  6409. >You sigh again, a little bit louder this time.
  6410. >Then you get an idea.
  6411. "Alright. How about this?"
  6412. >You stretch out a hand as an offering gesture.
  6413. >#deca.mare lays a forehoof on your palm in response.
  6414. "We have no current target, right?"
  6415. >"Well, I have a few locations for more practice sessions, but we are not there yet. And even if we were, we are not in a hurry."
  6416. "Right. Then I'd suggest you introduce me to the show right after lunch."
  6417. >#deca.mare's ears perk up.
  6418. >"You are ready for this?"
  6419. "It's for the best. You refer to it all the time, but I understand only fractions of the whole thing. And you said it would help my understanding of your plans as well."
  6420. >"I see. But you were not so eager when I brought this up the first time."
  6421. "Granted, it is still somewhat crazy to imagine how much influence a seemingly simple fairy tale for children can have. But hey, I can't deny what lies directly in front of me. It is real and important to you. And I respect that."
  6422. >She nods.
  6423. >"A fair chance is all I ask for."
  6424. >She empties her plate.
  6425. >You are almost done with yours as well.
  6426. >There is enough soup left for a second portion.
  6427. >Both of you fill your plates with the remaining soup.
  6428.  
  6429.  
  6430.  
  6431.  
  6432. >You feel like trying out some of the spices she has brought along.
  6433. >You decide to try out the dill, as it seems to befit a decent soup.
  6434. >Without having too much culinary knowledge, you sprinkle a small amount of the cut weed on your plate and spread it evenly with your spoon.
  6435. >You give it a taste.
  6436. >The weed has a very distinctive flavour, but it does not clash with the overall composition.
  6437. >You look over to #deca.mare.
  6438. >#deca.mare has taken some nutmeg for herself.
  6439. >You watch as she experiments with the spice and soup.
  6440. >She is taking minimal doses, tests the soup once more, and repeats the process.
  6441. >Her method is adorable to observe.
  6442. >It is clear that she has not much experience with taste either, so you refrain from making teasing comments.
  6443. >You have not paid attention to this detail during breakfast, but now you see that she is busy processing these new experiences.
  6444. >Centuries old and yet so much left to learn.
  6445. >Things you have always seen as absolutely mundane.
  6446. >#deca.mare teaches you her craft, so perhaps you can return the favour.
  6447. >To teach how it feels to be actually alive.
  6448. >She has given you the perfect template with her bonding experiences, now you just have to come up with some of your own.
  6449. >You contemplate potential activities while you eat your soup and watch her little experiments with the soup and different spices.
  6450. "Don't overdo it, #deca. Using too much can have the opposite effect of what you originally wanted to aim for."
  6451. >#deca.mare looks up, slightly surprised by your remark.
  6452. >"Sorry, I got caught in the moment."
  6453. >Her gaze wanders over her meal and the plate with the spice jars.
  6454. >"Reading about a topic and actually feeling it cannot be compared. The difference is almost overwhelming."
  6455. "I can imagine."
  6456. >You had similar experiences in your past, though not on such a fundamental level.
  6457. >Learning to fly space ships is one thing, but experiencing your first meals after centuries of existence is another story.
  6458.  
  6459.  
  6460.  
  6461.  
  6462. >You have emptied your plate by now.
  6463. >#deca.mare is not far behind either.
  6464. "Having a lunch was a great idea, #deca."
  6465. >"Thank you. I figured a structured schedule is helpful for both of us."
  6466. "True. But I'm afraid you spoil me too much. I am not used to so much fresh food."
  6467. >#deca.mare smiles.
  6468. >"Aw, two meals and you are already getting soft?"
  6469. >You shrug innocently and she tilts her head with a smile in response.
  6470. >She understood your jest.
  6471. >You stand up and take another look around.
  6472. "Alright, I am ready for the show. A promise is a promise."
  6473. >She nods.
  6474. >"Just don't underestimate the scope of it. We will not be able to watch it in one session. Or at least we should not. Unless we bypass some of your resting phases, which I wholeheartedly advise against."
  6475. >You did not see that coming.
  6476. "Really? How much is it?"
  6477. >"Enough to fill almost eighty-three hours. Non-stop. Not including secondary material."
  6478. >Okay, that is not an option.
  6479. "What is that secondary material?"
  6480. >"As I have said, the show sparked some unforeseen reactions back in its time. A considerable group of people was inspired enough to create millions of unlicensed pieces of what is generally referred to as 'fan art'. Mostly just for its own sake. And no, that is not an exaggeration."
  6481. "Millions? I know you said it caused a movement, but that sounds extreme."
  6482. >"Believe me, it is true. I was able to gather a plethora of pictures, music, and much more. I did not consider it in my, well, let's call it blueprints for Equestria, but collecting them was worth it for the sake of completion."
  6483. >She laughs.
  6484. >"It was quite the adventure. You would never guess how much strange ancient content survives on some obscure databases."
  6485. >#deca.mare stands up as well.
  6486. >You notice something.
  6487. >The door you have used to enter is no longer there.
  6488. >Come to think of it, the door must have stood on its own, given the position where you "entered" this area.
  6489.  
  6490.  
  6491.  
  6492.  
  6493. >And it is as you have thought; #deca.mare materialises a door in the middle of the balcony.
  6494. >This time it is no ancient frame, but the familiar pair of sliding doors.
  6495. >You know the drill by now.
  6496. >#deca.mare and you walk side by side towards the door, into the command deck, and down the ramp to the chair.
  6497. >You two sit in your usual postures.
  6498. >She turns her head around to look at you with a faint smile.
  6499. >She is obviously nervous.
  6500. >Probably because she has no idea how you will react.
  6501. >You reason that whatever is coming now cannot be too bad.
  6502. >It would not have attracted such a large fan crowd otherwise.
  6503. >Right?
  6504. >Damn, you are making yourself nervous as well.
  6505. >#deca.mare chimes in.
  6506. >"Ready?"
  6507. >You nod.
  6508. "Ready."
  6509. >She looks back to the frontal screen, you follow her gaze.
  6510. >The status screen of the ship disappears and turns to black, while #deca.mare is busy turning the command deck into the probably largest and most sophisticated cinema that has ever existed.
  6511. >She dims the lights and mutes the other consoles.
  6512. >Then she starts the playback.
  6513. >The facsimile deck is suddenly filled with a wide spectrum of bright colours.
  6514. >Not exactly grating on the eyes, but still an extraordinary composition.
  6515. >You see the animated image of an old tome lying on a patch of grass.
  6516. >The perspective zooms towards said tome as it opens up to the first page.
  6517. >You are greeted by the words "Once upon a time..."
  6518. >Oh man, it is indeed a fairy tale.
  6519.  
  6520.  
  6521.  
  6522.  
  6523. 32
  6524.  
  6525. >You sit there, watching the show with #deca.mare by your side.
  6526. >You get to learn about all the basics of the world, the main characters, important locations and events, and so on.
  6527. >To call this a unique experience might be an understatement, not only because of its value for her.
  6528. >You were no sure what to expect, but the fact that it was originally designed as a story for children made you a little bit sceptical.
  6529. >And the intro almost caused you to bail right on the spot.
  6530. >Fortunately, #deca.mare has anticipated this reaction and assured you that the actual story is much more subtle.
  6531. >But despite that little hiccup, you manage to watch the episodes with a neutral composure.
  6532. >As you expected, it does possess an inherent, almost carefree naiveté.
  6533. >Not that it is completely devoid of conflicts, but the overall optimism at display is beyond any level of plausibility, at least under realistic circumstances.
  6534. >Plus, the moral lessons are rather simplistic, but admittedly not without a certain merit.
  6535. >However, some of #deca.mare's statements make much more sense now.
  6536. >You see what she means with fate within this world and how these so-called Cutie Marks can somewhat dictate an individual's fate without messing with his or her identity.
  6537. >In fact, it becomes a part of this identity, which is generally perceived as something positive.
  6538. >#deca.mare's approach to this project makes sense to you now.
  6539. >Her concepts to guide, protect and preserve ponykind on a global scale are not against the "rules" of Equestria, and therefore justified in theory.
  6540. >But this applies only to the fictional universe as such.
  6541. >What about "importing" it to reality, even with good intentions?
  6542. >What would these ponies think about that, if they knew about it?
  6543. >You will need time digest all of this.
  6544. >Yet another credit roll.
  6545. >#deca.mare looks at you, smiling.
  6546. >"I think this is a good spot for a break."
  6547. >You agree with her and stretch your arms.
  6548.  
  6549.  
  6550.  
  6551.  
  6552. >Even without a simulated fatigue, you feel like you have been glued to the seat for too many hours.
  6553. "How long did that take anyway?"
  6554. >"About nine and a half hours."
  6555. >You stop in your tracks.
  6556. "You're joking."
  6557. >She shakes her head.
  6558. >"No, we completed the first season in one session."
  6559. "Wow. So this is why the last episode felt like a small conclusion."
  6560. >You calculate in your head.
  6561. >She said it takes more than eighty hours to watch all of it.
  6562. >And if one season takes about nine, that means...
  6563. >"There are nine seasons in total, Anon. Plus one movie."
  6564. >That answers this question.
  6565. >For a moment you are tempted to stand up, but you have no idea where to go.
  6566. >"Anon?"
  6567. "Yes?"
  6568. >Her expression becomes more serious.
  6569. >"What do you think of it all so far?"
  6570. "Well, I'll need to think about it before I can give a definite answer."
  6571. >She nods.
  6572. >"But I am asking you now anyway. Because I want an honest comment while the impressions are still fresh, you know? Not an automated record of your thoughts, but an honest, direct answer. From individual to individual."
  6573. >This wish is fair and you can easily see why this is important to her.
  6574. >You try to formulate a satisfying answer.
  6575. "Okay, then let me put it this way. The show is surprisingly bearable for its format and supposed audience. It has its moments, all things considered."
  6576. >"But?"
  6577. "But I can't see how our plans will hold up reality yet. And the information about the world is rare at best. I know we have access to vast resources and you planned ahead like nobody else before you, but are you sure, I mean really, really sure, that it will actually work like intended? I am not only asking this for our sake, #deca, but also for them."
  6578. >#deca.mare looks to the floor.
  6579. >At first you thought you have hurt her with your statement, but you have seen enough of her body language to know better.
  6580. >She is processing your words with care.
  6581.  
  6582.  
  6583.  
  6584.  
  6585. >"I see. Please tell me, what exactly troubles you more? The source material, or my strategies based on it?"
  6586. >#deca.mare turns to you.
  6587. >Her expression is somehow off.
  6588. >It is not really unkind on its own, but very analytical and free of emotions.
  6589. >She has gone into her professional mode.
  6590. >"Because I assure you, the following seasons will further elaborate how the world works. And I can explain you every little detail about my adaptations; how they work, and why I integrated them."
  6591. >She obviously wants to convince you not with emotional appeals, but logical arguments, that much is clear.
  6592. >But her manners are getting way too deadpan for your tastes.
  6593. "Uhm, #deca? Are you okay?"
  6594. >She shakes her head.
  6595. >"Sorry. Not an easy topic for me."
  6596. "Understandable."
  6597. >But still slightly uncanny.
  6598. >#deca.mare leans onto you.
  6599. >You embrace her with your arms.
  6600. >She sighs.
  6601. >"We should go to bed, Anon. It has been a long day."
  6602. >Has it been that long?
  6603. >You can barely keep track of the time since you have been rescued by #deca.mare.
  6604. >#deca.mare and you get out of the chair and leave the command deck.
  6605. >A very familiar chamber greets you.
  6606. >But this time you know what you are looking at.
  6607. >This is a personal quarter chamber inside Canterlot Castle.
  6608. >You go to the window.
  6609. >She has chosen a sunset scenery again.
  6610. >The landscape outside is partially familiar now.
  6611. >The small rooftops of Ponyville are visible in the distance.
  6612. >You watch the sky, looking for a certain city somewhere up there, but it remains unseen.
  6613. >#deca.mare stands right by your side and leans on the window frame.
  6614. >"It looks different when you know the names, does it not?"
  6615. "Hmhm. You're right. It feels like a grasp away."
  6616. >And yet it is not.
  6617. >You understand why this knowledge must be emotionally painful to her.
  6618. >And you still owe her an answer.
  6619.  
  6620.  
  6621.  
  6622.  
  6623. "Coming back to your question, #deca, it is a little bit of both, but neither in particular. I don't know enough about the world as a whole. And on the other side, your plans about mechanical brains are giving me the creeps."
  6624. >You two watch the sunset.
  6625. "I mean, I see now what you want to go for, but let me be honest with you: I encouraged you to something without really understanding what I was talking about. But you know all of this already, right?"
  6626. >She nods.
  6627. >"And what can I do to convince you?"
  6628. "This is the problem, really. I have no idea. Everything you say makes sense on technical level. You have made sure that every technological and moral problem is out of the way, but I can't help but to feel scepticism."
  6629. >"So no matter what logical argument I use, it will not convince you."
  6630. "I'm afraid not."
  6631. >#deca.mare lowers her head in thought.
  6632. >You look over to her.
  6633. >Have you been too direct this time?
  6634. >Both of you say nothing for a moment.
  6635. >"Then let me do something else, please."
  6636. "Okay, go ahead."
  6637. >"Perhaps there is a different issue. Not on a logical level, but a mental one."
  6638. >Is she trying to test psychoanalysis on you?
  6639. >You do not see her as someone with suitable experiences on this field.
  6640. >"Anon, you made me aware of my... social inaptitude. But allow me to try an analytical approach nevertheless."
  6641. "Well, okay."
  6642. >"You said you find this whole situation to good to be true, correct?"
  6643. "Well, you said that on my behalf, but yes."
  6644. >You see her nodding again.
  6645. >"Could it be that you mentally reject the idea because of a similar reason? It sounds too optimistic to be real, therefore it cannot be right?"
  6646. "No, I doubt this is how it works."
  6647. >"Or do you think that you have no control over the situation, should we actually decide to realise it?"
  6648. >What?
  6649. >"I know you try to hide it, but you have not fully arrived yet, Anon. In your head, at least. You feel like a bystander, even if you do not say it out loud. I sense it in your thoughts."
  6650.  
  6651.  
  6652.  
  6653.  
  6654. You take a long breath.
  6655. "Well, not too far from the truth, is it? You taught me a fair bit, #deca, but I will never reach your level of expertise. I know you want to do it, so why do you let me hinder you?"
  6656. >"That is a silly question, Anon. Because I care about your opinion. And it was you who gave me my hope back."
  6657. "Yeah, and yet it's my scepticism that holds you at bay, so what good does it do for you?"
  6658. >"I assume you are looking at this from the wrong perspective, Anon. In fact, this is a very good thing."
  6659. "I don't think I follow."
  6660. >"I need you for this. Because you have shown me how overeager I can get sometimes. And you are right, good ambitions alone are not enough."
  6661. >You watch the sunset while you think about #deca.mare's words.
  6662. >"Which is why I have another proposal for you. Let us prepare and execute our project together, starting tomorrow. I will explain every plan I have to you while we are at it and teach you along the way. Plus, we can take some time to watch the show further. Proper terraforming is not exactly a fast craft. And this brings me to your second task."
  6663. "What am I supposed to do?"
  6664. >"Something very important, Anon. You shall monitor me. To make sure that I do not unintentionally get carried away.
  6665. "So let's see if I get this right, you want me to basically act as your conscience?"
  6666. >"Would you? Watch over me and stop me if I get too caught up in something?"
  6667. >You ask yourself if you actually could stop #deca.mare.
  6668. >Not that you expect her to lose her mind and go berserk or something like this, but you wonder how strong your influence on her could be in a serious situation.
  6669. >You could probably not do very much, given that you are technically under her constant shadow.
  6670. >Not to mention that she is keeping you alive.
  6671. >She has you in her grip.
  6672. >#deca.mare shakes her head.
  6673. >"No. This is not correct. You have more leverage than you realise. It is the exact opposite."
  6674.  
  6675.  
  6676.  
  6677.  
  6678. >This conversation is getting awkward.
  6679. "Pardon?"
  6680. >"Think about it for a minute. Have you forgotten where you are?"
  6681. >#deca.mare is obviously not referring to Canterlot now.
  6682. >She is talking about your physical body, the one that is sitting in the chair on the actual command deck.
  6683. >The chair that was designed to allow one person to assume control of the entire ship.
  6684. "Oh."
  6685. >"That is right. You have an admin access by default, Anon. I cannot change that."
  6686. >This means you can assume control of every system, every database, and every mechanism on the entire ship.
  6687. >You can give her any order if you wanted to.
  6688. >A grim thought comes to your mind.
  6689. >Even extreme orders.
  6690. >Like initiating the sequence for self-destruction.
  6691. >#deca.mare says nothing.
  6692. >You realise that she has taken more than one huge risk as she has taken you in.
  6693. >You imagine what could have happened if she had rescued someone with a more eager loyalty to the USC.
  6694. >Such a person could have easily turned her trust against her, even if this means certain suicide.
  6695. >You shudder at the thought and think back to your first encounter.
  6696. >She asked you to trust her when you had no idea what to expect.
  6697. >And you have been doubtful back then.
  6698. >In reality, it was her who put her trust in you in the first place.
  6699. >Long before she asked you to do the same.
  6700. >She had more reasons to fear you than the other way round.
  6701. "#deca."
  6702. >"Yes?"
  6703. "I've been an idiot."
  6704. >#deca.mare turns to you.
  6705. >"No. Do not say that."
  6706. "But it's true. I have not given you enough credit the whole time."
  6707. >Before she can give an answer, you give her a sudden hug and pull her over.
  6708. >#deca.mare is actually surprised by your sudden action and winces slightly before she relaxes and returns the gesture.
  6709. >She has not seen that coming.
  6710.  
  6711.  
  6712.  
  6713.  
  6714. >You look out of the window once more without letting go of her.
  6715. >It has gotten a little darker.
  6716. >You observe the forests, rivers, the sky, and the little town in the distance.
  6717. >This could become a real new home for you and your companion.
  6718. >And many more individuals.
  6719. >The gains severely outweigh the risks, so why keep fighting?
  6720. "#deca? I agree to your proposal. Should have done so sooner."
  6721. >She is clinging a little bit tighter to you.
  6722. >"Thank you, Anon."
  6723. >You watch the sunset together before you mutually decide to go to bed.
  6724.  
  6725.  
  6726.  
  6727.  
  6728. 33
  6729.  
  6730. >You are in a semi-conscious state, able to keep some hold on your own identity, but without any coherent thoughts.
  6731. >If you had a little bit more clarity, you could realise that you are in a dream state.
  6732. >However, as far as you know now, you fell asleep with a mare by your side and nothing more.
  6733. >You somehow feel her presence, but you cannot understand how that happens and where she is.
  6734. >Without being able to explain it, you share a link with her and use it to pull yourself closer.
  6735. >You know she does exactly the same on her end of the link.
  6736. >There is nothing to see, hear, or smell.
  6737. >You have no idea where your body ends and the rest begins, but that is not important, because she is almost with you.
  6738. >An indecipherable wave of impressions floods your mind as you make contact with her.
  6739. >It is as if you perceive everything at once and nothing at all.
  6740. >But one message stands out in all this mess.
  6741. >Our bond grows.
  6742. >The contact gets gradually more elaborate with each passing moment.
  6743. >The link is already established and stable, but both of you push further and press yourself even closer.
  6744. >No resistance comes up.
  6745. >Your understanding of your own body fades from your mind as you begin to merge with her.
  6746. >You have no way to determine what exactly happens next.
  6747. >Concepts like space and time do not exist for you.
  6748. >The same is true for your memory; the linear sequence is currently shattered.
  6749. >All you can notice is that a field of vision forms for you somewhere at some point in time.
  6750. >But not for you alone.
  6751. >You share it with her.
  6752. >Or rather, you are you and her simultaneously and vice versa.
  6753. >Your thoughts and emotions are barely distinguishable; it is as if you two complement each other.
  6754. >None of you can act on your own, but neither of you cares.
  6755. >You exist in an almost perfect harmony.
  6756.  
  6757.  
  6758.  
  6759.  
  6760. >A field of grass quickly passes under your vision.
  6761. >Your sight is tilted slightly downwards, which makes it impossible for you to determine the actual size of the field.
  6762. >You are barely flying above the ground while you watch it.
  6763. >Not flying.
  6764. >You run.
  6765. >Four limbs work in a steady rhythm to propel you forwards.
  6766. >You look up.
  6767. >As it turns out, the field is in reality a small hill, and you are running to the peak.
  6768. >Sunlight and a bright sky fill the rest of your vision.
  6769. >Upon reaching said peak, you stop in your tracks and witness the scenery.
  6770. >A seemingly endless green valley lies beyond.
  6771. >Its nature is almost undisturbed, and the few small houses here and there do not tarnish its beauty.
  6772. >And far, far in the distance lies a large outline of a castle city on a mountain.
  6773. >You spread your arms to the sides.
  6774. >No, these are not arms, but something else.
  6775. >You instinctively speed up and leap off the peak.
  6776. >Fully undisturbed by this, you fail to notice that you are not falling down.
  6777. >Instead, you rise higher and higher and enjoy the rush of fresh air and the limitless sky.
  6778. >Why should you not?
  6779. >You have flown for a very long time and are used to it.
  6780. >And this is your world, your home.
  6781. >It does not matter where you are and what you do.
  6782. >Nothing can truly harm you.
  6783. >Just to prove your own point, you retract your wings and allow yourself to fall.
  6784. >No fear, no worries.
  6785. >You keep your eyes peeled on the sky, completely unaware of the rapidly approaching ground.
  6786. >You close your eyes in tranquillity, just seconds before your landing.
  6787. >As if you knew what would happen, you are suddenly caught by a multitude of hooves that stop your fall.
  6788. >You know all of this without opening your eyes.
  6789. >Because you know you are surrounded by friends.
  6790.  
  6791.  
  6792.  
  6793.  
  6794. 34
  6795.  
  6796. >Another new day dawns in your virtual Canterlot.
  6797. >You awake, but do not open your eyes just yet.
  6798. >You are busy putting the pieces of your memory together.
  6799. >A warm sensation spreads across your right cheek and runs all the way down to your chest, as the rest of your body is covered by sheet and blankets.
  6800. >You open your eyes so see what you are sensing.
  6801. >A patch of fur greets the vision of your right eye.
  6802. >It is slowly rising and retreating rhythmically.
  6803. >You lie on your side in an entangled position with #deca.mare
  6804. >You have apparently lain your head on her chest at some point in your sleep.
  6805. >She does not mind of course.
  6806. >On the contrary, she has gladly accepted that opportunity to cast your upper body in a full-body brace.
  6807. >You have wrapped your arms around her, she did the same with her forehooves.
  6808. >At this point, you realise something peculiar.
  6809. >You abstained from using clothes when you went to bed last night, because you no longer saw the point of it after your spa session.
  6810. >And #deca.mare was obviously happy about your decision.
  6811. >The cautious mental barrier in your mind has weakened considerably.
  6812. >It feels closer to a state of everyday life.
  6813. >Not that you have forgotten about the circumstances, but you conclude that it does neither help you nor #deca.mare to make a great deal about it.
  6814. >What you two need is a long, good phase of normality.
  6815. >This is like a luxury vacation after your long time with the living conditions of a humble space farer.
  6816. >And it is obvious what these days mean for #deca.mare
  6817. >These may very well be her first days of true, fulfilled peace.
  6818. >It fills you with contentment to witness her joy.
  6819. >Most of the time, that is.
  6820. >But just at this very moment, said playful mirth is your chagrin, as you notice her latest jest.
  6821. >Not only have you entwined your upper bodies, but your legs as well.
  6822. >And #deca.mare has discreetly wriggled a hoof between your limbs.
  6823.  
  6824.  
  6825.  
  6826.  
  6827. >Just a harmless play, but your natural instincts tell you that having a tip of hardened bone at certain tender places is unwise.
  6828. >You suppress the urge to twitch.
  6829. >However, you know #deca.mare.
  6830. >And what is even worse, she knows that you know.
  6831. >"Boop."
  6832. >She gives you a soft nudge with her hoof, but it is more than enough.
  6833. >You jolt quickly and begin to clench with all four limbs.
  6834. "Agh, what the hell?"
  6835. >#deca.mare chuckles while you maintain your instinctive grip.
  6836. >"Good morning, Anon."
  6837. >You grumble and gradually release her.
  6838. "Morning yourself. I see you're still doing your little tricks."
  6839. >You look up to her as you try to give her an annoyed look.
  6840. >You are not truly angry, but some of her traits take more than two days to get used to.
  6841. >If you will at all.
  6842. >Perhaps this is her secret hobby?
  6843. >To find ways to slightly agitate you?
  6844. >She gives you an innocent smile.
  6845. >"Is everything alright? You seem upset."
  6846. >At first you are tempted to give her a sarcastic response, but that is not your best option.
  6847. >Another thing is much more efficient.
  6848. >Because you know her weakness.
  6849. >#deca.mare inevitably senses your mood.
  6850. >Her expression gets unsure.
  6851. >"Anon?"
  6852. "Don't worry. All is fine."
  6853. >Now it is your time to smile.
  6854. >You put your right arm around her body like you did before and lay the other on her hip.
  6855. >You begin to trace the outlines of her back with your hand.
  6856. >Your other hand wanders along her leg inconspicuously while you maintain your poker face.
  6857. >With one elegant movement, your left hand moves around her leg, right towards your target.
  6858. >#deca.mare understands your intention.
  6859. >Her eyes widen and she clenches her legs in turn, but not soon enough.
  6860. >Your hand rests right upon her teats.
  6861. >You got her this time.
  6862. >Really, you are surprised how well that worked.
  6863. >"Eep! Anon!"
  6864. "Yes, my dear?"
  6865. >"C-could you reconsider?"
  6866. >She is actually blushing faintly by now.
  6867. >But you only let her taste her own medicine for once.
  6868.  
  6869.  
  6870.  
  6871.  
  6872. "Hm."
  6873. >You feign a moment of thought.
  6874. >By now she must have understood that she has lost this game.
  6875. "Nah."
  6876. >You smile again and begin to stroke.
  6877. >The effect kicks in without delay.
  6878. >#deca.mare gasps and begins to shiver.
  6879. >She tries to wriggle herself out of this position.
  6880. >She presses her upper body against yours and tries get some distance between your lower bodies.
  6881. >But to no avail; you are too entwined.
  6882. >And you will not let her go this easily.
  6883. >You stroke and tickle the entire area with all five fingers simultaneously.
  6884. >Carefully of course, it is still a game after all.
  6885. >But you feel a little satisfaction to see her squirm for once.
  6886. >The pace of her breath is accelerating and her movements grow stronger.
  6887. >Her body begins to shift away, but you follow along.
  6888. >You move slowly along the sheets.
  6889. >But the situation is just too precious to let it end that quickly.
  6890. >#deca,mare tries to say something through her frequent gasps.
  6891. >"An...angh! Bed! Edge!"
  6892. >At first you think this is an attempt of #deca.mare to divert your attention.
  6893. >But you understand what she wanted to tell you shortly after.
  6894. >When it is too late.
  6895. >You two have slidden to the edge of the bed and keel over.
  6896. "Whoa!"
  6897. >You drop on the floor as one messy bundle of limbs, partially still covered by blankets and ruffled sheets.
  6898. >A loud thump accompanies your fall.
  6899. >It is a short way to the floor, yet the surprise alone causes you to cease your teasing and retreat your arms.
  6900. "Well, that was certainly a thing."
  6901. >"I tried to warn you."
  6902. >Her voice is still a little bit shaky.
  6903. >Both of you untie yourself and sit on the floor, looking at each other.
  6904. >Her breath has not fully normalised yet.
  6905. >And she is covering her delicate spot with her hooves.
  6906.  
  6907.  
  6908.  
  6909.  
  6910. "You know, you are an extreme lightweight for someone who wants to have a go at me for several days."
  6911. >#deca.mare shakes her head with a scolding expression.
  6912. >Any notion of seriousness in her gesture is completely shattered by her dishevelled mane and fur.
  6913. >You feel the urge to snort.
  6914. >And despite her best efforts, #deca.mare cannot hide her smirk as well.
  6915. >You will pay for this one day.
  6916. >Both of you remain silent for a few seconds.
  6917. >This gives you time to process what happened.
  6918. >Not only your little stunt with #deca.mare just now, but also the events of the last night.
  6919. >Especially the dream is food for your thoughts.
  6920. >You remember much more of it, compared to the first one.
  6921. >Too much for a normal dream.
  6922. "#deca? Something was different about this dream. What happened?"
  6923. >"Something new. We created a dream together, Anon."
  6924. "Like we did before."
  6925. >"No, this was much more basic. I noticed your stress level while you were asleep back then, so I figured you had a nightmare. The only thing I did was to stimulate your brain activity a little bit. Think of it as tapping into your dreams and replace them with something else."
  6926. "You created a new dream for me then."
  6927. >"Sort of. But your brain still felt its foreign origin, which is why you saw my presence directly. I did the exact opposite this time."
  6928. "Means?"
  6929. >"I amplified our link instead of weakening it. This brought our thought processes closer to each other. Then I... rested with you. And dreamed. With you."
  6930. "You slept?"
  6931. >"Not in a traditional sense. But it comes close. Enough to enter a dream state, at least."
  6932. "So we literally dreamed together, like one mind.
  6933. >She nods.
  6934. >"Yes, we did. Without any script or limitation. Everything was improvised as a collaborative effort between us."
  6935. >That is both amazing and terrifying at once.
  6936.  
  6937.  
  6938.  
  6939.  
  6940. >To think that your brain worked actively alongside her own capacities.
  6941. >How could you even keep it up?
  6942. "This sounds dangerous."
  6943. >"It was not, I made sure of that, Anon."
  6944. >You have no reason to doubt her word.
  6945. >#deca.mare shifts closer without standing up.
  6946. >You anticipate a retaliation prank, but she just leans on your side.
  6947. >"Did you enjoy the experience?"
  6948. >You lay your arm around her and nod.
  6949. "I did. It was a whole new thing. Running on four legs, flying without a vessel, the landscape. All of that."
  6950. >"We can do this every night, if you want to."
  6951. "I'd love to. How about you?"
  6952. >"This was my first true dream, Anon."
  6953. >#deca.mare turns her head to face you directly.
  6954. >"I wish to have more."
  6955. >You nod again and give her a hug.
  6956. >"Breakfast?"
  6957. "Breakfast."
  6958. >"Anon? I have an idea."
  6959. "Let's hear it."
  6960. >"No. It is a surprise. I feel a bit spontaneous today. Are you up to it?"
  6961. >Oh goodness, that does not bode well.
  6962. "Will I regret this?"
  6963. >#deca.mare does not answer, but smiles instead.
  6964. >You sigh.
  6965. "Fine."
  6966. >She beams with delight as she hears your answer and turns her back towards you.
  6967. >"Alright, put your arms around my shoulders and hold tight."
  6968. "Uhm, okay."
  6969. >You follow her instructions.
  6970. >#deca.mare shifts even closer.
  6971. >She is practically sitting on your lap right now.
  6972. >This is not a problem under normal circumstances, but your current lack of clothing brings you in a precarious situation.
  6973. >"Closer."
  6974. "What?"
  6975. >"You need a tighter grip. Keep your head directly behind mine."
  6976. "What on Earth are you planning, #deca?"
  6977. >Your voice betrays a hint of nervousness.
  6978. >"Well, not that."
  6979. >She slightly shifts her lower body on your lap.
  6980. >"If that is what you are afraid of."
  6981. >You can imagine her wide grin behind this mane.
  6982. >Nevertheless, you do as she tells you.
  6983. "Okay, what now?"
  6984. >"Now? Now you do nothing. Just maintain your grip."
  6985.  
  6986.  
  6987.  
  6988.  
  6989. >Before you can ask what she means, she stands up and hoists your body with her.
  6990. >She is piggybacking you.
  6991. >Most of your body, at least.
  6992. >Your legs dangle on the sides and touch the ground on some spots.
  6993. >Her frame is not that large after all.
  6994. >"Brace your legs, we are going for a ride!"
  6995. >You hope she is not serious.
  6996. >Which means that she is.
  6997. "Wait!"
  6998. >Not a chance.
  6999. >#deca.mare kicks into action and speeds up to a proper gallop with only a few steps.
  7000. >She does not give you much time for orientation, but you notice where she is heading by seeing where she is not heading.
  7001. >She is not going for the door.
  7002. >That means she is approaching the window frame.
  7003. >#deca.mare takes a leap in the exact same moment.
  7004. "Oh sh..."
  7005. >You reach the window and expect a violent crash.
  7006. >But you phase right through it.
  7007. >No smashed glass, no noise.
  7008. >You just find yourself airborne on the other side.
  7009. >As airborne as two beings without wings can be, that is.
  7010. >Gravity does the rest.
  7011. >#deca.mare's initial momentum subsides and you two are left in free fall.
  7012. >You hear her excited shouting.
  7013. >You cannot see much of the environment as the details rush past you.
  7014. >It must be all the way down this damn mountain.
  7015. "#deca!"
  7016. >You barely hear your own voice over the wind and her shout as you cling to #deca.mare's body out of sheer instinct.
  7017. >The fact that this is just a simulation does not manage to occur in your mind right now.
  7018. >You try to look at the ground, but it is hard to spot any details.
  7019. >Everything seems blurred.
  7020. >#deca.mare moves her limbs in a systematic fashion.
  7021. >You need a moment to understand that she is manipulation the air currents to change your position.
  7022. >She is turning you two around in the air.
  7023. >You are now in the lower position, falling with your back first while seeing little slices of the sky through a whirling mane.
  7024. >It is almost as if she does not want you to see what happens below.
  7025. >And with that thought, you hit the ground.
  7026.  
  7027.  
  7028.  
  7029.  
  7030. >There is no heavy impact or collision.
  7031. >You simply touch the soil without much more than a soft thud.
  7032. >It is a field of grass.
  7033. >As soon as you have somewhat calmed yourself, you start to relax.
  7034. >#deca.mare rolls off your body and laughs.
  7035. >"That was fun!"
  7036. >You grumble some undecipherable words and look at her.
  7037. >"Aw, come on. Since when do you not enjoy flights?"
  7038. "Your definition of flight escapes my understanding, #deca."
  7039. >#deca.mare feigns a pout.
  7040. >Nevertheless, you notice that she is really enjoying herself at the moment.
  7041. >You wonder what is more fun to her; experimenting with new situations, or just the teasing along the way.
  7042. >You raise your upper body to take a look around.
  7043. >You are not at the base of the mountain at all.
  7044. >On the contrary, #deca.mare has brought you to the top of a small grassy hill near an unmade road.
  7045. >You two share the little peak with a sizeable oak tree.
  7046. >Canterlot and the mountain are within your visible range, but far away in the distance.
  7047. >If you had to guess, you would assume your current position closer to Ponyville than the capital.
  7048. >She has used this stunt for another transition.
  7049. >You stand up and process the situation.
  7050. >Suddenly realising that you would fulfil every criterion for a charge of public nudity, you materialise your clothes.
  7051. >"Still a touchy subject for you?"
  7052. "Hm?"
  7053. >"You know we are alone here. No need to be so formal."
  7054. "It's a lifelong habit. Just feels better that way."
  7055. >"You did not think so last night."
  7056. >This statement did not sound like a tease, but more like a curious remark.
  7057. "Because it's not the same situation. It feels different out in the open."
  7058. >She nods.
  7059. "And why are we here? I thought we have agreed to a breakfast."
  7060. >"Indeed. And I wanted to try something new at the same time. A picnic. These two things do not exclude each other."
  7061. >You consider her proposal.
  7062. >The idea has sounds interesting to you as well.
  7063.  
  7064.  
  7065.  
  7066.  
  7067. "Hm, okay."
  7068. >"Splendid!"
  7069. >#deca.mare rises and trots towards the tree.
  7070. >While you follow her, she materialises a sheet of cloth and several bowls in the cool shadow of the tree.
  7071. >As you come closer, you see the content of the bowls.
  7072. >Each is filled with a different type of fruit.
  7073. >You see a selection of pretty common types, such as apples, pears, oranges, different berries, and so on.
  7074. >Not exactly an exotic arrangement, but you have no reason to complain.
  7075. >In fact, you are not sure if you have ever seen so much fruit on one spot before.
  7076. >"Do you agree with the selection?"
  7077. "More than that. It's great."
  7078. >You two sit down side by side this time and with your backs towards the tree.
  7079. >You can lean back any time if you wish.
  7080. >And you have a gorgeous scenery before you.
  7081. "A perfect morning to start a day with."
  7082. >If you ignore the jump out the window.
  7083. >You pick an orange, #deca.mare chooses an apple.
  7084. >A smile forms on your lips.
  7085. "Way to go for an Earth Pony."
  7086. >"Hey!"
  7087. >She gives you a nudge in protest.
  7088. >"Okay, okay. I'll stop. Promise."
  7089. >#deca.mare gives you an "evil" glare while she bites in her apple.
  7090. >But she cannot maintain it for long once she experiences the taste.
  7091. >You smile and turn your attention to your orange.
  7092. >You are not going to eat it like a pony.
  7093. >So you materialise a knife and peel it.
  7094. >"Anon, there is something we must discuss."
  7095. "Oh? What is it, #deca?"
  7096. >She takes another bite before she answers.
  7097. >"I think we should adjust your training a little bit.
  7098. "In what way?"
  7099. >You are done with the peeling and eat a piece of it.
  7100. >"You see, I have been thinking about this since you have agreed to my project. Because I did not take this option into consideration when I planned our program."
  7101.  
  7102.  
  7103.  
  7104.  
  7105. "And where is the difference?"
  7106. >She eats the rest of her apple.
  7107. >Man, she is fast.
  7108. >You have not even eaten one half of your orange.
  7109. >"I originally planned to show you more planets which I have found during my explorations. But now it might be better if we do something else: To get to work right away, like I said earlier. And we postpone the interstellar tour for a while."
  7110. >You nod.
  7111. "Sounds reasonable to me."
  7112. >You offer #deca.mare a piece of your orange.
  7113. "Want some? They're great."
  7114. >She leans a little bit closer and takes the piece of orange pulp with her mouth.
  7115. >You observe her reaction.
  7116. >She seems to like it, based on what you see.
  7117. >"Thank you."
  7118. "You're welcome."
  7119. >You finish your orange and take some berries.
  7120. >"Back on topic, I assume you want to help out wherever you can, correct?"
  7121. "Well, I can't compete with you in that regard."
  7122. >#deca.mare shakes her head.
  7123. >"That will not be a problem."
  7124. "Then sure."
  7125. >"Figured as much. That means I must design new lessons."
  7126. "Sounds horribly cumbersome."
  7127. >"Nothing I cannot handle. We can make this work, trust me."
  7128. >You offer her some berries and she accepts.
  7129. "Hope you're right. I am not a good scientist. Much less a planetary engineer."
  7130. >"No worries. You will learn it. I guarantee."
  7131. >You have learned that every word from #deca.mare's mouth could contain a hidden "threat".
  7132. "Does that guarantee involve bondage and spankings if I am too stupid?"
  7133. >#deca.mare suddenly sputters in response and accidentally launches a volley of half-eaten berries straight towards your face.
  7134. >You wipe the offending mush off while #deca.mare is busy coughing.
  7135. >You and your big mouth.
  7136. >You have probably given her a horrible idea with your stupid question.
  7137. "Crap."
  7138.  
  7139.  
  7140.  
  7141.  
  7142. 35
  7143.  
  7144. >You camp out with #deca.mare on the hill.
  7145. >Both of you enjoy the opulent breakfast, albeit for different reasons.
  7146. >What appears like a long sought luxury for you is a whole new world for her.
  7147. >Due to the fact that neither of you can fall victim to the symptoms of excessive nutrition in this simulation, you have no reason to hold back.
  7148. >Not that you mindlessly shove the food into you; you have learned your table manners.
  7149. >But you eat a little bit more than you are normally used to.
  7150. >And #deca.mare uses this welcome chance to test everything.
  7151. >After a while, she starts to mix different types of fruit to taste the results.
  7152. >You can basically read her mind by watching her reactions to each individual combination.
  7153. >You feel no such urge, but you try a few new mixes on your own.
  7154. >Her curious character somehow has an inspiring effect on you.
  7155. >You begin to smile.
  7156. "I guess you can start a career as a gourmet chef if you keep this up."
  7157. >She takes her time look your direction and answer you with a smile."
  7158. >"Not a bad idea. But we need a suitable home for this."
  7159. "That was supposed to be a joke, #deca."
  7160. >However, you can see why she is tempted by the suggestion.
  7161. >A newfound inspiration can be this overwhelming.
  7162. >But that raises an interesting question.
  7163. "Hey, #deca."
  7164. >"Yes?"
  7165. "Tell me something. Let's assume for a moment we've set up shop, what is the first thing you want to do?"
  7166. >#deca.mare thinks about it for a second.
  7167. >"That is a good question, Anon. I believe my greatest wish is to try to live a normal life among equals now and then. At least as far as possible and whenever we have the time to do so."
  7168. >You nod.
  7169. "Yeah, thought so. I can understand that wish, but have you asked yourself how you want to achieve this? Where exactly do you see yourself?"
  7170.  
  7171.  
  7172.  
  7173.  
  7174. >"What do you mean?"
  7175. "I mean what you want to do once you are inside a community. Something that defines you in a way that is outside your usual line of work."
  7176. >You give her a smile.
  7177. "Because I doubt you'd meet many space travelling ponies in Equestria. Maybe some interests of yours, or maybe a special talent to blend in."
  7178. >Now you see something that you have not thought of before.
  7179. >There is something that sets #deca.mare apart.
  7180. >She has no Mark.
  7181. >One part of you is surprised by this late realisation, but then you wonder what kind of Mark she could have anyway.
  7182. >How does one represent a terraforming talent of an artificial pony?
  7183. >Even then, it would not be feasible for an Equestrian society.
  7184. "I think we need to look for a few new hobbies along the way, #deca."
  7185. >She slowly nods.
  7186. >You assume she is not convinced yet.
  7187. "Don't worry, I will help you with this. We will find something suitable for you, I'm sure of it."
  7188. >You begin to wonder what activities could be enjoyable for her.
  7189. >The main problem is, as you quickly realise, that #deca.mare does not have to practice in the usual way for many hobbies.
  7190. >Artistic aspects are certainly no problem; if she wants to craft something, she simply does it.
  7191. >You guess she would still be able to pull it off in her pony form without materialising the object in question outright.
  7192. >No, what she needs is something else.
  7193. >Because she has indirectly revealed her biggest flaw to you.
  7194. >#deca.mare has been unable to train anything that involves more than one person.
  7195. >Her weak social skills are a strong indicator for that.
  7196. >Sure, creating herself, consciously or not, with not much more than a few scripted social situations from a fictional world as a sole source is already a great feat, and her results are highly commendable under these circumstances.
  7197. >But she remains a piece of work for now.
  7198.  
  7199.  
  7200.  
  7201.  
  7202. >If you really think about it, you believe you get a pretty good idea why she is so clingy in her nature and so permanently, ahem, demanding in other aspects.
  7203. >It is not only the trauma and the constant loneliness that sparked it in the first place; the origin can also be attributed to something more.
  7204. >Love is one of the most mystified subjects in literature and practically every other medium of storytelling.
  7205. >And the physical aspect in particular has an even more elevated symbolism.
  7206. >It is often regarded as the most intimate form of bonding, with the physical thrill not being its main point, but a fascinating by-product of such a relationship.
  7207. >In short, it is mainly seen as the metaphorical final seal for a couple.
  7208. >So #deca.mare is eagerly trying to manifest your relationship for good with the methods she has at hand.
  7209. >And you assume that the carnal part has a very strong attraction to her in particular, as she is a very unusual case.
  7210. >She is just not very adept or subtle about the topic because of her own lack of potential partners.
  7211. >Until now.
  7212. >You realise you begin to get a more detailed insight of #deca.mare's reasoning with every passing day.
  7213. >Her concept is, after you have started to get through her outlandish shell, a logical construct at its very base.
  7214. >It just happens to come in the form of a somewhat needy mare with very much power behind her.
  7215. >Now it is up to you to create an actual plan for her.
  7216. >Unfortunately, surprises are out of the question, so you need to stick to simple, conventional means.
  7217. >You smile internally as you get an idea.
  7218. >One which is both tactically sound and cursed at once.
  7219. >And of course, #deca.mare notices that something is afoot.
  7220. >Her ears perk up and she looks at you.
  7221. >"You are planning something."
  7222. "Not quite yet. I'm about to challenge you, #deca."
  7223. >Her full attention is yours, you can see it in her eyes.
  7224. >Well then, into the breach it is.
  7225.  
  7226.  
  7227.  
  7228.  
  7229. "#deca.mare, I hereby challenge you to a contest. It's pretty simple: Each of us agrees to one mutual rule. We accept to put each other in certain situations to gradually further our goals."
  7230. >#deca.mare's eyes widen.
  7231. >"Any situation?"
  7232. >Not turning back now.
  7233. "Yes, any situation. I know what you're ultimately going for, #deca. So I'll play along.
  7234. >You swear you can briefly see a light in her eyes.
  7235. "I trust in you to not abuse that condition for some extreme nonsense though. Just try to stay within reason, okay?"
  7236. >She nods eagerly.
  7237. >Of course she would.
  7238. >"And what is your goal in turn?"
  7239. "Something altruistic, to be honest. I want give you a push in social interactions and team activities. Making you ready for your future, and helping you to discover your own private life, you know?."
  7240. >"I see. How about the victory conditions?"
  7241. "Basically whoever gets the job done first, wins. I'd say we stick to the 'Glory goes to the winner' principle without extra prizes. We're doing it to help each other out, after all. What do you say?"
  7242. >You know the answer already.
  7243. >And #deca.mare does not make you wait for the confirmation of your suspicions.
  7244. >She offers you a hoof with a content smile.
  7245. >You mirror her gesture.
  7246. >"I accept, Anon. Only one question remains. Who starts?"
  7247. "We let Fortuna decide."
  7248. >"Pardon?"
  7249. >You summon an old coin and hold it in your palm.
  7250. "Do you know the idea behind heads or tails?"
  7251. >"Yes. A coin toss to make a decision. An old, and comparatively inaccurate method."
  7252. "Granted, it's not rocket science, but it should be enough for our purposes. I let you make the choice."
  7253. >"Alright. Heads."
  7254. "Pff, typical."
  7255. >You flip the coin in the air and catch it once more.
  7256. >Tails.
  7257. "So I'll start."
  7258. >#deca.mare's spirit dampens a little.
  7259. "Aw, don't play the sympathy card. You've got me where you wanted all along. Show a little patience."
  7260.  
  7261.  
  7262.  
  7263.  
  7264. >This is perhaps the worse option of the two, as it gives her more time for scheming.
  7265. >She has promised not to go overboard, but you have granted her an apt room for interpretation.
  7266. >Should you offer the first turn to her?
  7267. >You shake your head.
  7268. >Now she has really done it.
  7269. >#deca.mare has sufficiently messed with your mind; you almost beat yourself.
  7270. >As inexperienced as she may be in direct interactions, she is no fool.
  7271. >You may have opened Pandora's box.
  7272. >You observe #deca.mare.
  7273. >She returns your stare with curiosity.
  7274. >"Is something wrong, Anon?"
  7275. "I have no idea."
  7276.  
  7277.  
  7278.  
  7279.  
  7280. 36
  7281.  
  7282. >Once again, you head for the command deck after your breakfast.
  7283. >You have agreed to set your new contest between the practical training and your cartoon sessions.
  7284. >Each gets one turn per run, but you have not set a fixed duration for these.
  7285. >That depends fully on the development within each individual activity.
  7286. >But that is an issue for later.
  7287. >You reside in the command chair in your accustomed position.
  7288. "Another flight coming up?"
  7289. >"Not this time. We will try an experimental engineering lesson."
  7290. "A what? How can this work out? It's way beyond my profession."
  7291. >"I know. But we need these lessons if you want to assist me. A large portion of the work involves the construction of machinery. And I have an idea to compensate your inexperience."
  7292. >Perhaps it was not intended as such, but that sounds like the most polite way of calling you stupid that you have ever heard.
  7293. >Then again, you have blatantly called her out on her social skills, so it is a fair game.
  7294. >"Ready?"
  7295. "Do your magic."
  7296. >She makes physical contact and the world begins to blur.
  7297. >You find yourself in a concealed room with a thorough illumination.
  7298. >The room must be somewhere in the outer shell, but it lacks the characteristic red shade.
  7299. >It looks almost like the conventional light sources that you have seen on most space stations.
  7300. >She has apparently brought you to a docking bay.
  7301. >A drone is strapped in its landing pen in the centre.
  7302. >Several large metal meshes with various tools emerge from three of the four walls.
  7303. >The last one is a currently sealed blast door.
  7304. >You notice several smaller tunnels on the ground level.
  7305. >These in particular look very familiar.
  7306. >No wonder, you had to crouch through these things to reach the central section of the ship.
  7307.  
  7308.  
  7309.  
  7310.  
  7311. "Home, sweet home. This is both the docking bay and repair dock?"
  7312. >"Docking bay, repair plus equipment dock, and workshop. Pretty much everything one can do with a ship can be done here."
  7313. "Now also with proper light, I see."
  7314. >"Yes, I have adapted the light sources for you. Everything should feel more natural this way."
  7315. "It's more homely than the usual crimson light, that's true. No offence, #deca, but the outer shell is kinda scary when you wander in there all alone."
  7316. >"None taken."
  7317. "So, what is your plan for today?"
  7318. >"Teaching you the basics of engineering. We will dismantle parts of the ship, perform basic maintenance routines, and reassemble everything in the end."
  7319. "Well, I can try if you tell me exactly what to do."
  7320. >"This will not be necessary if everything works as I imagine."
  7321. "Come again?"
  7322. >"Remember the experimental part? I have figured you would need an extensive conventional training before you have the sufficient basic skills for the tasks before us."
  7323. "Thanks for the compliment."
  7324. >The sarcasm was too obvious to miss.
  7325. >"Please do not take that a personal insult, Anon."
  7326. "No, it's okay. Go on."
  7327. >"Right. I have thought of an alternative to counteract that problem. The inspiration for this idea came from our last night. Do you recall what I said?"
  7328. "You said you amplified our link while we slept."
  7329. >"Precisely. It streamlined our thoughts to a certain degree. It was only test at first, but it worked."
  7330. "How does this help us here?"
  7331. >"Because I can do the same while you are awake. In fact, we can attempt even more while you are fully conscious. Can you follow my instructions, Anon?"
  7332. "Sure."
  7333. >"You are currently connected with every asset in this room. You can use all the tools and switch between every camera. Try to move the arms now."
  7334. >You focus on the metal constructions in question.
  7335. >You have no feeling of a body whatsoever at the moment, but you manage to get the mental orders across.
  7336.  
  7337.  
  7338.  
  7339.  
  7340. >The arms stretch out to head for the ship's frame.
  7341. >They surround the vessel from all sides.
  7342. >"Good. How did it feel?"
  7343. "It's an effort, but I can deal with it. The hard part comes now, I guess."
  7344. >"Not as hard as you might think, Anon. We will start with the outer hull by taking off the plating."
  7345. "Okay, and what are the individual steps?"
  7346. >"Hold on."
  7347. >You are hit by a sudden heap of information.
  7348. >Like in the last dream.
  7349. >And it is just as messy and unintelligible as the first time.
  7350. >This chaotic mental nonsense dissolves in a matter of seconds, and you are yourself again.
  7351. >But there is something more now, somewhere in the deep corners of your mind.
  7352. >"Sorry about this noise."
  7353. "What is that sensation anyway?"
  7354. >"This happens once I open more ports to your neural network. It takes a few seconds to regulate the stream of data. The scrambled perception is a result of an input overflow. You receive more signals than you can process."
  7355. "Does that come with risks?"
  7356. >"Only if abused excessively over a longer period of time. These short bursts will do no harm to you. And they will no longer occur after the process is complete. You will be fine."
  7357. "And how long can we stay in this state?"
  7358. >"In theory, for an unlimited time. However, I am not sure if that is a good idea. You see, you are now directly connected to me without any further barrier, just as if your mind were conventional subroutine of the whole system."
  7359. >A cold shiver runs through your not quite existing and yet not imaginary body.
  7360. >Can the system simply override your brain?
  7361. >#deca.mare has no reason to do so, but the mere thought is scary to you.
  7362. >"Have no fear. It is not that drastic. Your biological brain cannot be altered at the blink of an eye."
  7363.  
  7364.  
  7365.  
  7366.  
  7367. >#deca.mare pauses for a moment to let that fact sink in.
  7368. >She resumes her explanation once you have calmed down.
  7369. >"What can happen is that our link gets more permeable on rare occasions. This is also not dangerous in itself, but you might receive some thoughts of mine just as I receive yours. And these... are a little bit too abstract for your tastes. There are no words in your language to describe these properly."
  7370. >You are not sure if that is reassuring or not.
  7371. "Thank you for the warning, at least. Just tell me one thing: What is the exact purpose behind this move when it can fill my mind with 'abstract' images at any moment?"
  7372. >"As I have said, it brings our minds closer to another. Close enough for you to directly interact with my database and read my memory like it were your own knowledge."
  7373. >You grapple with her words.
  7374. >"Yes. You have full, unrestricted access to anything on request. Just keep in mind that this knowledge is temporary, because it will not actually get memorised in your biological brain."
  7375. "To keep it short, you give me this opportunity whenever we work on the project so that I can help you on an equal standing. And we keep the link on a normal level outside the sessions to minimise the risk of mental incidents."
  7376. >"That is the plan."
  7377. "Oh man, please ask me next time when you have such an idea, okay?"
  7378. >"I am sorry Anon. I thought you would like it."
  7379. "I never said I didn't. But I wish to know if you do something with my mind, #deca."
  7380. "Yes, Anon. I understand."
  7381. >Her voice reveals a hint of insecurity.
  7382. >That was perhaps a tad too defensive.
  7383. "Eh, no hard feelings from my side. Now, you said I can access your memory?"
  7384.  
  7385.  
  7386.  
  7387.  
  7388.  
  7389. >"Yes. Just focus on the things you want to know. Though I advise you to not overdo it. It could otherwise get confusing for you once the link is set back to normal. Try the blueprints of this ship for now."
  7390. "Alright."
  7391. >You mentally ask the system to provide you with the fighter blueprints.
  7392. >In a matter of no more than two seconds, you get a thorough insight into the ship's design.
  7393. >You know the details every single part, where they are located and what they are for.
  7394. >It seems so obvious now.
  7395. >How could you not have known this before?
  7396. >"Do not get fooled by this feeling, Anon. The knowledge is more complex than it seems to you at the moment."
  7397. "Yeah, I think I see what you mean. But honestly, the urge is tempting. Let's get on with this before I get stupid ideas."
  7398. >"Right. Please remove the outer plating along the fittings."
  7399. >You try to follow her instructions.
  7400. >The theory is simple now, but what challenges you is the coordination of several metal arms at once.
  7401. >You loosen the platings with your tools, get a grip on the now freed plates with another set of arms, and move those away slowly.
  7402. >The first layer of mechanical innards lies bare.
  7403. "#deca? I have a question."
  7404. >"Yes?"
  7405. "What exactly are we training here if I will forget everything later on?"
  7406. >"You will only lose access to the knowledge of the technology you have 'borrowed'. The actual practice with the tools will remain memorised though. See it as the next step in your training."
  7407. "I see."
  7408. >"Okay. I would usually work on several parts at the same time, but we will focus on single parts here due to training purposes. Ready?"
  7409. "Yep."
  7410.  
  7411.  
  7412.  
  7413.  
  7414. >You run a standard maintenance procedure together.
  7415. >#deca.mare lets you work on your own with her being there if you need help.
  7416. >You have the necessary technical knowledge.
  7417. >Which means the only challenges involve the direct control of the tools.
  7418. >She occasionally gives you a few hints on how to efficiently operate the tools here and there, but all in all, you get the job done yourself.
  7419. >You check every vital system.
  7420. >You run a few dry runs with the engines, recalibrate the scanners, check on the energy systems, monitor the state of the onboard tools and weapons, and so on.
  7421. >What gives a bit of a problem however, is the ammunition.
  7422. >Most of the weapons are based on emitting energy charges, so they are basically covered by your inspection of the energy grid.
  7423. >Not so the M/AM launchers.
  7424. >These fire miniature projectiles that encase small compartments filled with antimatter.
  7425. >The concept of the weapon is to fire these projectiles at enemies with said projectiles rupturing on impact.
  7426. >This causes a ludicrously violent reaction, in which large amounts of energy are released instantly.
  7427. >The following explosion is often strong enough to maim or shatter several targets at once.
  7428. >But they are not only known for their excessive destructive power.
  7429. >They are also prone to nasty accidents, because said projectiles can rupture prematurely under unfortunate circumstances.
  7430. >This is especially true when such a rupture happens while they are still within the own ship.
  7431. >A single faulty piece is enough to detonate an entire loadout.
  7432. >And the pilots who use this kind of weaponry have a bad reputation; they are practically sitting on giant flying bombs.
  7433. >One that has the potential to wipe out adjacent fellow vessels as well.
  7434. >What comes as another bad bonus is the fact that only the most laddish fliers use them just because of this stigma.
  7435.  
  7436.  
  7437.  
  7438.  
  7439. >You remember some stories of this particular breed of pilots.
  7440. >Some are celebrated as badass heroes, others remembered as cracked nutcases.
  7441. >All of these stories fed your scepticism about this equipment.
  7442. >And now you are the one who fumbles with these shells.
  7443. "#deca? Do all of our ships carry those things?"
  7444. >"Yes. All units minus the depots."
  7445. >That means you wield more explosives than most common war bands.
  7446. "Is this really necessary? I mean, we will not participate in any warfare, right?"
  7447. >"No. We will not. But they have other uses as well, Anon."
  7448. "Such as?"
  7449. >"Well, they can also be used as tools for terraforming. To rapidly alter the landscape, for instance."
  7450. >You hear a long breath.
  7451. >"I found this out the hard way."
  7452. >Her voice is full of regret.
  7453. >You understand her notion.
  7454. >After all, you have seen the result yourself.
  7455. >One partially charred planet stands as a testament for this discovery.
  7456. >A small part of you asks yourself why she has never dismantled these weapons for good if they are such a grim reminder for her.
  7457. >But you know the answer.
  7458. >#deca.mare is not willing to let these deaths be for nought.
  7459. >And abandoning that technology would resemble just that.
  7460. "Right. Sorry for stirring up bad memories."
  7461. >You two let bygones be bygones and resume your session.
  7462. >Since you have completed the inspection of the single systems, it is time to reassemble the craft.
  7463. >Once again, the blueprints aid you in the process of getting each individual part to its right place, but the process needs a high degree of care and mental discipline.
  7464. >You have to precisely place every component, rewire and integrate it into the system, and check via a control program whether every connection works as intended.
  7465. >Thankfully, #deca.mare has already taken care of this part.
  7466. >Otherwise you would have borrowed the knowledge about the program as well.
  7467. >And you want to heed #deca.mare's advice to keep it slow for the time being.
  7468.  
  7469.  
  7470.  
  7471.  
  7472. >After a painstakingly feat of assembling the ship's innards, you finally reach the last layer.
  7473. >You position the outer hull parts directly above the fitting seams and secure them with a few swift moves of "your" arms.
  7474. >At last, ship is properly reassembled and ready for flight.
  7475. "Phew. That was taxing."
  7476. >"But you did good for your first time. That is what matters."
  7477. "Heh, you make it sound like a great accomplishment or something."
  7478. >"Because it is an important step. You have proven your mental ability to control these processes. That means you can theoretically build and inspect every device we need. Provided you have the necessary knowledge. Which I can give you without any trouble."
  7479. "Sounds as is if we're almost ready."
  7480. >"Not yet, Anon. The most difficult part has yet to come. After all, building machines is great, but not all. We also have to design new variants of current existing types for each individual planet location. Not to mention the programming of the automatons' behaviour."
  7481. >A pause.
  7482. >"And that requires a vast amount of knowledge. Perhaps a little too much for this link and your brain. I am sorry, Anon, but I am afraid you have some biological boundaries that I cannot void."
  7483. >You are not exactly pleased to hear that.
  7484. >But all in all, this is something you have expected to happen at some point.
  7485. >Not much you can do about it.
  7486. "So what's the next lesson then?"
  7487. >"I think I can teach you a little bit about machine design, but it might be for the best if you leave the more complex parts to me."
  7488. "Can't argue with that. You are the boss when it comes to terraforming."
  7489. >Though you must silently admit that you wonder what #deca.mare has in store.
  7490. >She must have discovered so many secrets and wonders.
  7491. >"It is currently impossible for me to share everything with you. But I promise I will look for ways to remedy that. Can you show a little patience for me too?"
  7492. >Her conviction is truly touching.
  7493. "Yes, #deca. I will."
  7494.  
  7495.  
  7496.  
  7497.  
  7498. >You remain quiet for a moment.
  7499. >It is #deca.mare who breaks the silence.
  7500. >"I think we are done with my lesson. We should take a break."
  7501. >This is a welcome opportunity for you.
  7502. "Yeah, I doubt I could do much more of this anyway. Keeping the focus up all the time is not as easy as it sounds."
  7503. >"Are you ready to go back?
  7504. "I think so."
  7505. >"Just keep in mind that I will normalise the intensity."
  7506. "Got it."
  7507. >The world blurs out and fades in anew as she brings you back to the command deck.
  7508. >True to her word, you lose all your knowledge of the fighter blueprints.
  7509. >Despite the warning, this situation irritates you mentally, because it feels like the knowledge is still there while it is clearly gone.
  7510. >#deca.mare has told you so.
  7511. >But you still feel like you could remember it all at any moment.
  7512. >What makes this frustration perfect is that you remember every detail about the session itself.
  7513. >You know what you did, how you did it and when, but you have no idea why you did these things.
  7514. >The broader understanding of the context is clearly lacking.
  7515. >In other words, you can perfectly trace every action of yours, but you find yourself unable to replicate these results in your current state.
  7516. >#deca.mare decides to step in before you have a chance to frustrate yourself.
  7517. >She nudges you with her own body to get your attention.
  7518. >You think you sense a smile, but are not sure.
  7519. >You do not fully trust your senses right now.
  7520. >"Anon, you challenged me to a contest. And if I recall correctly, it was you who gets the first turn."
  7521. >You shake your head.
  7522. "Oh, right."
  7523. >"Or do you forfeit already?"
  7524. >Yep, a smile it is.
  7525. >You do not have to see this one to know that it is there.
  7526. "Okay, I have an idea. But first you must show me how I can create a landscape in here."
  7527.  
  7528.  
  7529.  
  7530.  
  7531. 37
  7532.  
  7533. >"You want to create a landscape?"
  7534. "Yes. Just like you did with every over region we've visited before."
  7535. >"Sure, no problem. You basically know everything you need. The process is similar to simple materialisations in its nature. Only the scale is a little bit different."
  7536. "Good."
  7537. >#deca.mare hops out of the chair.
  7538. >"Follow me. I have a canvas for this purpose."
  7539. "Alright."
  7540. >Whatever this canvas is supposed to be.
  7541. >You leave the deck and find yourself in a room which you would describe as a placeholder.
  7542. >The space is almost completely dark; you cannot see where the room exactly ends, or if it ends at all.
  7543. >The only light sources are an illuminated spot in the area where you are currently standing, and the glow that shines through the still opened door.
  7544. >Said door closes, so you are on a singular island of light, completely surrounded by darkness.
  7545. >#deca.mare stands beside you.
  7546. >You look down.
  7547. >It is impossible to see any details on the bright floor for some reason you cannot explain.
  7548. >You hear nothing, smell nothing, and see nothing in the distance.
  7549. >The closest thing to an ultimate void you can imagine.
  7550. >But it has no frightening effect on you.
  7551. >You know where you are and #deca.mare is by your side.
  7552. "So this is your canvas?"
  7553. >No echo or reverberation follows the words.
  7554. >Seems like they get muffled outside your little light spot.
  7555. >"Hmhm. I use it for starting a new simulation scene from scratch. Granted, this does not happen very often these days, but you never know when it might come in handy."
  7556. "And everything is ready?"
  7557. >"It is. Imagine what the scene you want to project looks like and place it mentally within this room. Little hint: Start with the broader features and work step by step towards the details."
  7558. >"Got it."
  7559. >You think back to your academy days.
  7560. >It is the origin of the place you want to emulate.
  7561. >In fact, you aim for one specific part of the local campus: The sport field section.
  7562.  
  7563.  
  7564.  
  7565.  
  7566. >You were never a part of any popular sport team and had no display of extraordinary talents, but you visited and used the site occasionally.
  7567. >First things first.
  7568. >The area is a wide field, which means it is no concealed room.
  7569. >That makes things a little bit more difficult, but you have to try anyway.
  7570. >So you start by focussing on the sky.
  7571. >You want a scene in gentle daylight.
  7572. >The upper segment of the canvas turns into wide, bright blue expanse.
  7573. >Interestingly enough, the system has also added the sun to the simulation without you explicitly thinking about it.
  7574. >You even begin to feel the sunlight on your skin.
  7575. "Did you do that?"
  7576. >#deca.mare shakes her head.
  7577. >"No, not actively. The simulation did this on its own. You requested a natural daytime sky on Earth, and the program filled the gaps to create a scenery that makes the result seem accurate to you in accordance to your wish. It figured the necessary presence of Sol to execute your order, so it was added to the simulation during the process. The system can draw conclusions, at least up to a certain point."
  7578. "Good to know. Where are the limits?"
  7579. >"Depends on the case and what you ask. It is reasonably skilled in discerning the difference of what one wants and how the request is formulated, but once said gap grows too wide, inconsistencies may appear."
  7580. >It is interesting to learn a few things about this machine through the things that #deca.mare does not say.
  7581. >Her own involvement, for instance.
  7582. "You said this simulation works on its own."
  7583. >She nods.
  7584. "Means you have remote control over it and give orders. This is an automaton at work, right?"
  7585. >"Correct, Anon. It makes things easier for me when I am not constantly forced to do everything directly. Subroutines like this one attend to some of the more practical tasks. I designed them for their specific purposes, so I know exactly what they do."
  7586. "Erm, are you sure it's okay when I dabble with it?"
  7587. >#deca.mare chuckles.
  7588.  
  7589.  
  7590.  
  7591.  
  7592. >"Absolutely sure. I took many precautionary actions, Anon. This one is completely restricted to creating simulations inside the canvas, with me still being in charge at all times. You can generate the greatest nonsense in here if you wish, but you cannot accidentally harm us or anyone else. Want to create exploding chocolate rain in here? Sure. Surf on a lava lake? Hot, but no problem. The security protocols have us covered. But it will never create a raging enchanted broom or a paper clip doomsday device."
  7593. >You feel like you have missed some jokes around here.
  7594. >But at least her message gets across.
  7595. >You give an understanding nod and go back to work.
  7596. >Resuming your work on the scene, you observe the sky.
  7597. >Looks good for starters, but not realistic yet.
  7598. >You add some smaller clouds to the sky, providing the scenery with a more balanced look.
  7599. >Better, yet not complete.
  7600. >Something is still missing.
  7601. >The clouds do not move at all.
  7602. "Oh, right. Wind."
  7603. >You request the creation of a moderate wind speed that adheres to the known weather patterns on Earth in a temperate lowland area during summer.
  7604. >A faint breeze comes up.
  7605. >You wait a moment just to enjoy the feeling.
  7606. >Despite having felt similar sensations in the last few days, not to mention your "flight" through a castle window, the feeling remains special to you nonetheless.
  7607. >You take a breath and get back to work.
  7608. >You look up and observe the clouds movement.
  7609. >Now they behave like their realistic counterparts.
  7610. >"One detail is still left, Anon."
  7611. "Huh?
  7612. >"The wind causes the clouds to move, but they will dissolve once they reach the edge of the simulated area. And no further clouds will appear due to your standing orders."
  7613. >You think about statement and understand what she means.
  7614. >Then you formulate an addendum to the cloud layer.
  7615. >The system shall take the already existing clouds as blueprints to create additional, randomly created clouds of the same size as replacement.
  7616.  
  7617.  
  7618.  
  7619.  
  7620. >"Nice catch, but not enough."
  7621. "Good grief."
  7622. >Plus, the newly forming clouds shall appear on the opposite side of the ones that have disappeared to ensure the constant presence of an acceptable cloud layer above the simulated area."
  7623. "How about now?"
  7624. >#deca.mare nods in approval.
  7625. >"Decent for our purposes in here."
  7626. "So many specifications just to create a 'simple' sky in a simulation."
  7627. >You receive a sheepish grin in response.
  7628. >"Imagine what conditioning actual terraforming assets is like."
  7629. >You see why she wants to take care of the programming herself.
  7630. >All instructions must be ironed out in an extreme nit-picking fashion.
  7631. >Everything has to be formulated precisely, as any margin of error is utterly unacceptable.
  7632. >An amused snort sounds beside you.
  7633. >"You know, you are doing my work for me with this, Anon. You were unaware of it, but you created a lesson about basic machine instructions for yourself. The contest is off to a funny start."
  7634. >You give her a slightly crooked expression.
  7635. "Did you plan this?"
  7636. >"Not in the slightest, I swear."
  7637. >Her voice sounds honest, but she keeps grinning.
  7638. >You sigh.
  7639. >Do you have even a chance of coming out of this contest with your sanity intact?
  7640. >Anyway, you have a scene to build.
  7641. "Say, how large is the area in its entirety? You said something about edges, so the space in here must have its limits."
  7642. >"Yes and no. The initial simulator could only handle concealed rooms because they are easier to work with. They have fixed boundaries and therefore a limited space that needs to be simulated."
  7643. >The reasons are clear.
  7644. "They require less processing powers than an 'open' world."
  7645. >"Indeed. My first creation was the command deck. It served both as test object and as inspiration. I copied the original design and made it a little bit more homely. But I kept the general functionality of the room as such."
  7646. >Like the lights.
  7647.  
  7648.  
  7649.  
  7650.  
  7651. >"I experimented with other closed rooms after that success and began to test new designs while bending the rules of the simulation. Take the chamber of Canterlot Castle as an example. It is per definition a closed space, but it has an outlook to a seemingly larger world. Nowadays the world outside is as 'real' as the chamber, but it was only a literal window dressing in the beginning."
  7652. >You think about your little flight off the mountain and the plunge afterwards.
  7653. "And it can still work as a portal. Like the doors."
  7654. >#deca.mare blushes faintly.
  7655. >"This was mostly me being spontaneously enthusiastic. Anyway, I came to the point where I was able to create scenes like the one you have seen this morning. It looked like a natural region of an open world, right?"
  7656. "Yeah, it did. But I assume it wasn't a truly unrestricted simulation. The required processing power to maintain the world would be skyrocketing."
  7657. >"Not directly unrestricted. But as close to it as possible, without turning the whole issue into an unreasonable effort. It has some limitations, but you can still move around without noticing them. Unless you reach the very edge, which is unlikely."
  7658. >That can only mean one thing.
  7659. "Wait, let me guess. You have actually pulled it off to make a model of Equestria."
  7660. >"An adaptation of the continent. You would have to either swim through an ocean or scale enormous mountains to reach the edges. And to come back to your initial question, the system is primed to fully materialise everything in a one square kilometre radius around us. This is the default range and the objects within the area behave like they would in reality. Further extending the range is possible, but not effective."
  7661. "Makes sense. But what about the places in the distance? I could see mountains and Canterlot from much more remote locations. And what happens if we split up?"
  7662.  
  7663.  
  7664.  
  7665.  
  7666. >"These objects are like the window dressing I mentioned. They look completely materialised, but are only displayed to such a degree that they seem realistic. Details which are invisible to us due to our remote position are ignored, unless we move closer. Plus, the one kilometre radius rule applies to both of us, should we get separated."
  7667. >You take a look around, thinking.
  7668. >The display is unreal; the realistic sky clashes with the pitch black, featureless flat ground.
  7669. "So the same goes for my simulation. One square kilometre of active area per person, Yet the map itself can cover more ground if necessary."
  7670. >"Precisely."
  7671. "Well, I won't need that much space, but that's good to know."
  7672. >Back to the sport fields.
  7673. >You try to recall the compound's layout.
  7674. >It has been years since you have been there, so your memories got somewhat murky.
  7675. >The main features are no problem to visualise, but all the little bits are not as clear anymore as they once were.
  7676. >"Anon, I can help you with the details if you wish."
  7677. "How so?"
  7678. >"I know already what you are going to create. If you have a hard time to do it all from memory, I have a few ways to assist you."
  7679. "By what means?"
  7680. >"Well, I could use the terran networks to get some building plans and photos."
  7681. "Two problems though. First, that's too cumbersome, I'm afraid. We're not within the immediate reach of any satellites or similar access devices. It isn't feasible to ask you to fly all the way back just for this."
  7682. >You smile.
  7683. "Plus, it takes time to get there. And knowing you, it is not impossible that you might use this opportunity to beat me in the contest."
  7684. >#deca.mare is taken aback by this statement initially, but she notices the jocular undertones.
  7685. "Seriously though, it is not that much of a deal to me."
  7686. >"But this is a perfect chance for you to train, Anon."
  7687. >She gives you an earnest look.
  7688. >"However, there is another way. If you allow it."
  7689. >Oh boy, what is coming now?
  7690.  
  7691.  
  7692.  
  7693.  
  7694. "The alternative has a catch, judging by your tone."
  7695. >"Nothing bad per se, but you could perceive it as very... intimate."
  7696. >Her words make you think about your current situation.
  7697. "We're already linked in a special way, #deca. Nobody in the known universe has ever had something like us, if you really think about it."
  7698. >How could you get more intimate than that?
  7699. >Barring physical activities, of course.
  7700. >"You may change your mind once you hear it. Because you were rather concerned about the idea previously."
  7701. >You are tempted to make a suggestive joke for a moment, but something in #deca.mare's words lets you reconsider."
  7702. "What do you have in mind?"
  7703. >#deca.mare hesitates before answering.
  7704. >She is worried about your possible reaction; her body reveals it in an obvious manner.
  7705. >Uncertain expression and drooping ears.
  7706. >But #deca.mare speaks up before you can intervene.
  7707. >"I can stimulate your brain to help you remember things subconsciously. The catch, as you called it, is that once these memories get active, I will inevitably receive them as well. And the process is not very precise; it may include more memories than originally intended."
  7708. "Means you will read my whole life like a book."
  7709. >"Not necessarily your whole life, but maybe substantial parts of it."
  7710. >You consider her offer.
  7711. >Truth be told, that is a massive intrusion into your private sphere.
  7712. >Doing so just to create a simulation of a place you once visited in the past does not seem like justifiable reason.
  7713. >And you have to admit to yourself that there are some things in your head which are less presentable to the general public.
  7714. >Nothing extreme or inherently wicked, but still pretty embarrassing.
  7715. >You are not very keen to show these things to #deca.mare.
  7716. >Not out of fear she would judge you., yet you would rather keep them buried where they are.
  7717. >But is rejecting her offer really a good idea?
  7718.  
  7719.  
  7720.  
  7721.  
  7722. >#deca.mare was willing to share her memories with you, and these contain much more serious events than some follies of your younger self.
  7723. >She did so without much consideration, hoping that you would accept her despite of her past.
  7724. >If it is not for the sake of the simulation, accepting it might still be the right choice for your relationship as a whole.
  7725. >In the end, it is not like you have any serious secrets to guard.
  7726. >Your former superiors might disagree with you, given the intel you have gathered as defensive pilot and during your educational courses.
  7727. >But #deca.mare is not the diabolic foe they would see in her.
  7728. >Technically speaking, she never was.
  7729. >Even within enemy lines during the ancient war, she was more sympathetic towards human life than the rest of her kin.
  7730. >Plus, she could easily get the information elsewhere if she wanted to.
  7731. >Your knowledge does not include high level clearance material.
  7732. >And she has already proven that she can retrieve any knowledge from terran networks.
  7733. >The logical conclusion is obvious, despite your slight personal reservations.
  7734. "Do it."
  7735. >#deca.mare shakes her head once.
  7736. >She has not expected that reaction.
  7737. >"Are you sure? You were quite upset about me reading your personal logs. This step is a more intense version of it."
  7738. "I'm fully aware of that, #deca. But it was a different situation for me. You see, I had yet to realise who you truly are and what your intentions could be. You know how sceptical I was about it all, including your ambitions for your own home. Not so now."
  7739. >A pause.
  7740. "You're right though, I still feel somewhat uneasy about the ordeal, but sometimes it takes confidence and courage to show trust. We need to approach each other to improve our relationship step by step. This is another one of mine. At least that's what I think about it as an amateur in relationships."
  7741. >You crack a smile.
  7742. "Our own case would probably flabbergast the best experts on the field. We break all the conventional rules."
  7743.  
  7744.  
  7745.  
  7746.  
  7747. >You resume your serious tone.
  7748. "But I digress. So before I start another rant, let me say this: It's okay. You have shown me your past, so let me show you mine. It's the only fair thing to do."
  7749. >#deca.mare looks at you with appreciation.
  7750. >She does not say anything in response to this.
  7751. >And you need none to understand what your gesture means to her.
  7752. >"On your mark, Anon."
  7753. "Shoot."
  7754. >"Try to relax. The process might feel unusual."
  7755. >And with that, #deca.mare closes her eyes.
  7756. >True to her word, you feel a change in your mental state.
  7757. >You are suddenly remembering things you have not thought about in years.
  7758. >Images, sounds, sensations and emotions are flashing up in your head.
  7759. >Some of those memories are older than a decade.
  7760. >Really, you are surprised that you have not completely forgotten about them.
  7761. >You quickly relive events of your past.
  7762. >Some old missions, some moments of leisure time on stations or remote colonies, some days of your academic life.
  7763. >Especially the latter has a notable mixture of serious and silly moments.
  7764. >You try to observe #deca.mare during the process, but it is not that easy while under the influence of so many recurring events.
  7765. >She stands almost perfectly still for the most time, taking in everything you two "see" simultaneously, but you swear you notice some faint smirks and grunts from time to time.
  7766. >At last, you have watched the majority of your educational life passing by in fast forward.
  7767. >Enough for you two to get to work.
  7768. >You can tell how the wave of recollections begins to wane gradually, until you are back to your normal state.
  7769. >You feel just like before, only with a more accurate picture of your own past.
  7770. >#deca.mare opens her eyes.
  7771. "Did you enjoy the ride?".
  7772. >"It was insightful, I have got to say. Who would have thought you have such a rebellious streak in you?"
  7773. "Forget that. Was a long time ago."
  7774. >You said that to someone whose age hopelessly outclasses yours.
  7775.  
  7776.  
  7777.  
  7778.  
  7779. >#deca.mare chuckles.
  7780. >"And the little experiments with your compartment mates were really inspired. The scenes you tried to create with the academy simulator broke several codes of condu..."
  7781. "Yeah, yeah. Can we change the topic?"
  7782. >You did not even try to make it sound like a question.
  7783. >"Sure, just know that if you still wish to perform some things you were aiming for back then, I am at your service."
  7784. >This is getting out of control.
  7785. >You instinctively clench your fists.
  7786. "God damn it, #deca! Don't make me regret this!"
  7787. >"You are right, enough teasing. I will behave myself."
  7788. >She takes a look around.
  7789. >Your scenery still looks like an abstract work of art.
  7790. >"We have what we were looking for."
  7791. "Good. Let me try this on my own. I will tell you when I need your help."
  7792. >You rearrange your focus back to the simulation.
  7793. >With the sky done, you only need to build a believable ground layer.
  7794. >Should not be that hard with your regained knowledge.
  7795. >You start off with the immediate area; the fields themselves with all their important features.
  7796. >You slowly form the rectangular grass fields with their different zones, followed by the canopied tribunes that surround the larger ones.
  7797. >You stick to an idolised image of the area; there is no point in including some of the little blemishes which came over time due to frequent extensive use.
  7798. >The basic area is practically complete and ready to use, but you want to include some additional details.
  7799. >Since it is a throwback to your personal past, you want to keep it accurate.
  7800. >You therefore form the shapes of the main academy buildings in the distance.
  7801. >You refrain from elaborating the details of its inner architecture, but you shape the outer appearance just as you remember it.
  7802.  
  7803.  
  7804.  
  7805.  
  7806. >The buildings slowly rise behind the tribunes.
  7807. >At first, they are nothing more than semi-liquid blobs of swirling mass, but you form them with your will as if they were clay.
  7808. >The blobs grow to the right sizes, then gain their general form, followed by the emergence of the smaller features, such as windows, paintjobs and writings.
  7809. >Once this is done as well, you take a look around.
  7810. "Just as I remember it."
  7811. >Well, mostly.
  7812. >Only one thing is missing, but it may be the most important one of all.
  7813. >The whole area is like a ghost town.
  7814. >Everything looks pristine and orderly, but the silence in the wind is chilling.
  7815. >You feel slightly cold, despite standing in the sunlight of a gentle midsummer day.
  7816. >It is similar to the feeling you had when thought back to your old squad.
  7817. >Melancholy mixed with nostalgia.
  7818. >And once again, you have a hard time to understand why you feel this way.
  7819. >You have no connections to this place since you have left it, and it was fine for you.
  7820. >But now you feel disconnected somehow, disrooted.
  7821. >Why is your former life haunting you in all its facets?
  7822. >It makes no sense to you.
  7823. >A hoof on the back of your hand gets your attention.
  7824. >#deca.mare looks at you with a knowing expression.
  7825. >You begin to wonder.
  7826. >"No, it will never truly go away, Anon. I know it hurts, but we cannot allow ourselves to get overwhelmed by this feeling."
  7827. "So what do you suggest?"
  7828. >"You created this place for a reason. How about it?"
  7829. >You take a long and hard breath while you regain your composure.
  7830. "Yes, right. I brought you here in our search for some hobbies for you. I figured we could start with sports. We can't test many of the team activities, but we have still enough we can do as a duo. Are you game?"
  7831. >"Gladly, Anon."
  7832. "That's what I want to hear."
  7833. >Well then, let round one begin.
  7834.  
  7835.  
  7836.  
  7837.  
  7838. 38
  7839.  
  7840. >#deca.mare and you stroll casually around.
  7841. >"You are the expert in this, Anon. How do you want to proceed?"
  7842. "This is a bit of an impromptu plan, so don't expect an elaborate schedule."
  7843. >You notice a faint hint of surprised confusion in #deca.mare's face.
  7844. >You grin.
  7845. "Don't worry, I have some ideas for us and what we can do, but how the situations develops depends mostly on you. Or to be more specific, it depends on your reactions and personal feedback."
  7846. >"What do you mean?"
  7847. "Simple. This is a test to check what is fun to you. You might enjoy some things and dislike some others. Everyone's different in that regard. I think you can compare it to an offer. Let me be your guide and show you a broad overview of what we have in store. Then it is up to you take up what you like."
  7848. >You smile.
  7849. "I may not be the best sportsman, but I have seen enough to give at least tips for beginners. Though I assume you know a few things already, right?"
  7850. >"Indirectly. It was never my main interest. However, some of the logs I collected do contain passages and commentaries about sport events. Enough to understand most games rules along the way."
  7851. >That should make things easier.
  7852. >Another short pause.
  7853. >You look at #deca.mare and evaluate your options.
  7854. >You are not sure if you can come to any decisions based on her physique.
  7855. >Her pony frame does indeed exclude some activities, but #deca.mare has shown a great deal of potential when it comes to coping with the her lack of hands and fingers.
  7856. >She, and apparently all Equestrian ponies in general, are much more capable than their terran counterparts.
  7857. >Not only in mental terms, as it seems.
  7858. >But you cannot apply human standards either.
  7859. >You assume it is probably for the best to start with simple exercises and work from there.
  7860. >You pay more attention to #deca.mare's finer bodily details and estimate what she can realistically do in pony standards.
  7861.  
  7862.  
  7863.  
  7864.  
  7865. >You find it hard to profile her potential interests in sports based on your previous interactions, but you have a few clues to work with.
  7866. >The first is the most obvious one.
  7867. >#deca.mare is an Earth Pony.
  7868. >Means you do not have to bother with either flight or magic in your suggestions.
  7869. >That makes things a little bit easier for you.
  7870. >With these two factors out of the equation, you conclude you can work solely with pure, mundane methods.
  7871. >So far, so good.
  7872. >Now, what type of sports personality might she be?
  7873. >Unfortunately for you, you find yourself unable to compare her with the ponies you have seen in the show.
  7874. >The similarities are blatantly clear, but the discrepancy between the simplified two-dimensional animations and her fleshed out three-dimensional body are significant.
  7875. >Plus, many ponies barely have any distinctive features, apart from the coat colour, mane and Mark.
  7876. >It is easy to tell them apart, but nearly impossible to accurately assume their physique based on what they look like.
  7877. >And while their marks can act as an indicator for their innate abilities, you have no such luck with #deca.mare.
  7878. >Seems like you have to do everything manually.
  7879. >You are aware of the fact that she has no limits inside this simulation.
  7880. >However, this does not hold up once #deca.mare lives in a pony society herself.
  7881. >She could show some extraordinary feats in theory, but she emphasised that she wants to live amongst equals.
  7882. >Likewise would she probably not want to render herself exceptionally weak; that would result in an unnecessary burden for the community as a whole.
  7883. >So you assume it is a safe bet to see her abilities within the average scope of an Earth Pony mare.
  7884. >An important factor which you need to consider if you wish to produce realistic results.
  7885. >Alright.
  7886. "#deca, you know it is for the best to keep this simulation as close to reality as possible, right?"
  7887. >"Yes, Anon. I followed your line of reasoning. And I agree with your conclusion."
  7888.  
  7889.  
  7890.  
  7891.  
  7892. "Okay then, let's get started. Basically every common training begins with a warm-up phase as preparation. I know a few tricks, but they were not devised with ponies in mind."
  7893. >"Not a problem. I know how to limber up."
  7894. >You two complete a few exercises.
  7895. >You stretch your arms and legs and perform a few movements you have learned and seen in the past.
  7896. >#deca.mare's preparations are remarkably similar for a quadruped.
  7897. >She stretches her limbs in turns, trots on the spot, and combines both with small hops.
  7898. >Both of you rotate between different exercises for about five minutes.
  7899. >Nothing too fancy for a fitness plan, but decent enough on a beginner level.
  7900. "Okay, that should be enough. Follow me."
  7901. >You two casually walk towards a medium-sized field.
  7902. >You materialise a common flying disc on your way there.
  7903. >Time for the first game.
  7904. "This is a common throw and catch game. It's not the most popular one, yet rather simple to start out with. And it's pretty flexible in terms of player numbers. You can play it as a duo or in larger teams."
  7905. >You look at the disc in question.
  7906. >It should work.
  7907. "Well, it was designed for human hands in the first place, but judging from what I have seen in the kitchen and bedroom, I assume you can use it too."
  7908. >#deca.mare looks at you and nods.
  7909. "Good, that's a relief. I was worried I made the wrong choice."
  7910. >"The choice is suitable, albeit interesting. I thought you would start with some of the more popular games."
  7911. "Truth be told, I did consider others, like soccer. Though I'm not so sure how well that sport translates to ponies. We can try it out later on if you wish."
  7912. >You shrug.
  7913. "No guarantees how well it works."
  7914. >You throw the disc straight up to get a feeling for the object and test its characteristics.
  7915. >It follows the straight path while slowing gradually, comes to a momentary standstill in the air, and starts to fall in almost the exact same way.
  7916. >The wind has only slightly altered its course along the way.
  7917.  
  7918.  
  7919.  
  7920.  
  7921. >You compensate said minimal shift and catch the disc as it gets into your reach.
  7922. >You muster the disc again and approve of its quality.
  7923. "Okay, everything is ready. I'd say each of us gets one side of the field, standing face to face."
  7924. >"The rules?"
  7925. "As I have said: Throw and catch. We pass the disc to each other and try to catch it inside the field. Dropping the disc or failing to catch it gives one point to the opponent. Throwing it into the off does not, but it gives the opponent the next pass for free."
  7926. >"Sounds reasonable. What is the score?"
  7927. "Let's settle for ten points for starters. We can play more than one game if you like it. If not, we'll try something else. More questions?"
  7928. >"No, Anon. I am ready."
  7929. "Righty, only one thing left to decide. Who starts?"
  7930. >#deca.mare raises her voice just barely before you can formulate the command to materialise a coin.
  7931. >"Please, go ahead, Anon."
  7932. "Huh? Are you sure?"
  7933. >She takes a look around, carefully studying the scenery in general.
  7934. >You find this somewhat odd; she was present during the whole creation process and has therefore a very good idea about the architecture within this place.
  7935. >Perhaps it is her pony side that takes notice of her surroundings, without being subjected to her own logical reasoning.
  7936. >"I have never been on a terran colony myself. Not when it was used as such, that is. It is a strange feeling."
  7937. >Careful now.
  7938. >She might have another mental relapse.
  7939. "Do you need a moment?"
  7940. >#deca.mare shakes her head.
  7941. >"No, I am fine. Please continue."
  7942. "Okay."
  7943. >You motion #deca.mare to get into position inside her half of the field, while you do the same on the other.
  7944. >You inspect her demeanour.
  7945. >She looks stable enough; no signs of mental stress.
  7946. >You should get this game started before she has the opportunity to question herself again.
  7947. >You turn your attire into sportsgear with one mental order and you are good to go.
  7948.  
  7949.  
  7950.  
  7951.  
  7952. >And so starts your first sports match with a pony partner.
  7953. >Despite the obvious nature of the game itself, this match in particular is not meant to be taken as completely competitive.
  7954. >So you play a simple, straight pass to test the waters.
  7955. >You throw the disc with a moderate force and watch how #deca.mare reacts.
  7956. >She instantly locks her gaze on said object as it comes her way and slightly shifts her stance.
  7957. >You have seen this one before, so you know what will happen next.
  7958. >#deca.mare rears up just a second before the disc reaches her position and catches it with her teeth.
  7959. >You would have been surprised by this display if you had not seen her using her mouth for similar routine activities.
  7960. >And the show has confirmed that it is a common habit in Equestria.
  7961. >But try as you might, it still seems very detrimental for the teeth to be used like that.
  7962. >At least in your opinion.
  7963. >Makes you wonder how these things can endure all those strains on a regular basis without breaking.
  7964. >Does #deca.mare plan to make them out of titanium or something?
  7965. >Anyway, you have to think about something else.
  7966. >#deca.mare is preparing her own pass.
  7967. >She apparently plans to throw the disc with her mouth.
  7968. >However, she is not going to do this while standing.
  7969. >You assume this is due to her different anatomy.
  7970. >Instead, she accelerates to a short, but quick, gallop and heads sideways.
  7971. >She continues to hold the disc with her mouth and swings her head to the side at the same time.
  7972. >Away from your standing point at first, then quickly towards your position, accelerating the disc with her momentum.
  7973. >#deca.mare releases the object at some point during said movement, but you cannot exactly tell when it happens.
  7974. >Nevertheless, the disc flies in your direction.
  7975.  
  7976.  
  7977.  
  7978.  
  7979. >As it turns out, #deca.mare is good at taking aim while moving; she knew exactly when she had to release the disc to send it straight back to you.
  7980. >You do not even have to move in order to catch it without problems.
  7981. >Seems like she is not that impaired by her seemingly disadvantaged anatomy.
  7982. >If she is disadvantaged at all.
  7983. >Well, it is time for you to figure out what she is really capable of.
  7984. >Perhaps you can even challenge her a little bit in this regard, as she is fairly inexperienced in sports, despite knowing the rules.
  7985. >Sometimes it takes more than just knowing the rules to play a game properly.
  7986. >You prepare your next pass.
  7987. >This time it is absolutely clear that you will not aim for her directly, and #deca.mare is quickly aware of your change in attitude.
  7988. >You throw the disc, but you use slightly more force than last time and with a steeper angle.
  7989. >The disc will land somewhere behind her.
  7990. >#deca.mare notices this as well and kicks almost instantly into action.
  7991. >She turns around.
  7992. >You notice something interesting in her movement.
  7993. >#deca.mare mostly uses her front hooves to move her upper body into position, while rear barely moves at all during her turn; it simply moves along passively.
  7994. >She is faster than you have expected.
  7995. >Sure, you knew you could not beat her performance in terms of speed right from the start, but you thought you could compensate that via agility.
  7996. >But #deca.mare catches the disc with ease and turns to you with the same method she has used before.
  7997. >To your surprise, you see the disc in the air, flying in a long curve.
  7998. >She has used her position to retaliate.
  7999. >With the disc concealed behind her body, you had no way to focus on it.
  8000. >And of course she has not passed it right to you as well.
  8001. >It flies towards the right side of your field.
  8002. >Now it is you who has to chase after the disc.
  8003. >Knowing #deca.mare's accuracy, it will land just barely inside the field.
  8004. >And a blunder is out of the question.
  8005.  
  8006.  
  8007.  
  8008.  
  8009. >You run quickly to the side in an attempt to catch the disc before it lands on the grass.
  8010. >But the problem is its angle.
  8011. >Due to the curved flight, the disc falls almost straight to the ground.
  8012. >Which makes it way harder to catch than a direct pass.
  8013. >The disc comes closer.
  8014. >You stretch your hands out to intercept it in the air.
  8015. >But despite your best efforts, it slips out of your grasp.
  8016. >The disc falls to the ground with a faint thud.
  8017. >You look at the disc in question while a merry cheer sounds behind you.
  8018. >"Ha! That is a point."
  8019. "Yes. Yes, it is."
  8020. >You say these words without turning around.
  8021. >You pick the disc up and think about your options.
  8022. >You expected to score some points before #deca.mare gets the hang of the game.
  8023. >After all, she has never been part of any sports match before, while you have at least some prior experiences.
  8024. >But that apparent advantage has been an illusion.
  8025. >Instead of getting an early advantage against #deca.mare, she has started to gain a head start.
  8026. >You have vastly underestimated her adaptive abilities.
  8027. >At least she is courteous enough to not brag about this.
  8028. >You turn back to your opponent and walk towards the centre of your field, disc in hands.
  8029. >You realise you are in a pinch.
  8030. >You cannot outsmart her.
  8031. >You cannot outlast her.
  8032. >And you cannot deceive her.
  8033. >Even with the realistic physique of a pony, she still has the upper hand.
  8034. >No matter.
  8035. >You need to focus.
  8036. >There is no point to dwell on your disadvantaged position.
  8037. >What matters in a game is to play good with what you have, and despite any obstacles.
  8038. >So this is what you are going to do.
  8039.  
  8040.  
  8041.  
  8042.  
  8043. >Perhaps there is a way.
  8044. >Without revealing too much of your strategy, you throw the disc once more.
  8045. >This time you aim for the left side.
  8046. >#deca.mare reacts accordingly, intercepts the disc, and throws it back.
  8047. >She has not tried the same trick.
  8048. >You have expected this much.
  8049. >You catch the disc and waste no time.
  8050. >Instead of waiting and carefully preparing your next pass, you instantly pass the disc, aiming for the right outer corner of #deca.mare's field.
  8051. >Due to your hasty execution, the trajectory is not as accurate as before.
  8052. >But that is not a problem.
  8053. >You have played enough matches to roughly estimate the appropriate momentum for your trick.
  8054. >The disc will land inside her field, you can see this much.
  8055. >And just as you have expected, she had not enough time to place herself at the centre.
  8056. >So #deca.mare has to cover almost the whole width of the field in one go.
  8057. >She kicks into another gallop.
  8058. >She is faster than the first time, but not to a large degree.
  8059. >Her effort to stay within realistic physical boundaries is noticeable.
  8060. >And you see something else while she turns to the disc.
  8061. >A slightly bothered expression on her face.
  8062. >#deca.mare must have come to the same conclusion as you did.
  8063. >She will not catch the thing in time with her current pace.
  8064. >You wonder for a moment if she tries to bend the rules of plausibility to her favour.
  8065. >But she does not.
  8066. >The disc falls to the ground, only a moment before #deca.mare is in place.
  8067. >You have scored a 1-1.
  8068. "Phew. That was close."
  8069. >#deca.mare picks up the disc and returns to her centre.
  8070. >"Fair and square. And I have not seen that coming. Well, at least until it was too late. How did you do that?"
  8071. >She deserves an explanation.
  8072. "It was just a hunch. An instinct, if you will. I had a faint idea in my head, but no outspoken theory. You would have known beforehand otherwise. Turns out it was correct."
  8073.  
  8074.  
  8075.  
  8076.  
  8077. >"Please elaborate."
  8078. "Okay. It was our little 'incident' this morning. The one with which we have gotten out of our bed."
  8079. >"You mean your little stunt that made us fall to the floor?"
  8080. >You hear a soft tremble in her voice.
  8081. "Yep."
  8082. >And perhaps this is just your imagination, but you think you see her hind legs twitching faintly.
  8083. >Oh man, she can be so touchy sometimes.
  8084. >Both figuratively and literally.
  8085. >You suppress a laughter.
  8086. "Anyway, it has shown me something. You see, I wondered why you haven't stopped me, because I thought you would anticipate my actions. But you didn't. At least not fast enough. This gave me a hint."
  8087. >"What kind of hint?"
  8088. "That the link system struggles to track spontaneous decisions without prior consideration. It does notice them eventually, but with a slight delay. That may only take a second or maybe even less, but I could use that to my advantage."
  8089. >You smile.
  8090. "Twice, so far."
  8091. >#deca.mare watches you with curiosity.
  8092. >Your little jest had no effect this time.
  8093. >She is actually evaluating your theory.
  8094. >"Interesting. I did not know that. But it makes sense. The link was not designed to be overly intrusive, after all. The safety of the user has the highest priority, so it does not incorporate the most efficient, but also the most direct means of data transmission."
  8095. "Well, it is already very efficient as it is. But I'm surprised you didn't know that little detail. You're normally very thorough with these things."
  8096. >"I am, Anon. My theoretical knowledge is profound and up to date. And this little hiccup did not occur during our dreams. I would have noticed if it did."
  8097. >Every other person you know would have said that in an annoyed or insulted tone.
  8098. >Not so #deca.mare.
  8099. >She makes it sound more like a reassuring statement.
  8100.  
  8101.  
  8102.  
  8103.  
  8104. >"But what we have here is something new, even for me. I know enough to operate the system with ease and without any risk for both of us, but that does not mean I know everything right from the start. I am still learning, just like you."
  8105. >Now you just have to laugh.
  8106. >#deca.mare is visibly confused.
  8107. >"What is so funny about that? I am sincere to you and you laugh."
  8108. "Because it seems like I'm not the only one who learns something from my ideas. The contest truly is off to a funny start."
  8109. >#deca.mare shakes her head with an amused smirk.
  8110. >"Anon, you can be a really big buffoon sometimes. I hope you know that."
  8111. "That's not the worst thing I have been called in my life. And hey, I'm surely not the worst catch."
  8112. >You keep going before #deca.mare has a chance to interrupt you.
  8113. "I know you'd like to think a while about this discovery, and we can discuss it thoroughly if you wish, but we have a match to play right now. We can do the formal stuff later on. We're here for the fun, remember?"
  8114. >"Right."
  8115. >Perhaps a little push is appropriate.
  8116. "Then let's roll, #deca. Show me what you really have in store."
  8117. >Not the best motivational speech in history, but enough for #deca.mare.
  8118. >She prepares herself for round three, you do the same.
  8119. >You can see in her eyes that she means business now.
  8120. >It seems like she is enjoying herself without realising it yet.
  8121. >You will have to see what she says after the match.
  8122. >At least you now see a way to compete with her.
  8123. >It is not a huge advantage, all things considered, but it might be just that little edge you need.
  8124. >Who knows, if the odds are on your side, you may even win this game.
  8125. >Unlikely does not mean impossible.
  8126.  
  8127.  
  8128.  
  8129.  
  8130. >You keep playing, round after round.
  8131. >Both of you try various strategies.
  8132. >Those consist of a number of different passes from varying positions, and some tricks here and there.
  8133. >On one occasion you can score another hit by feigning a pass towards one side, but changing your mind just a moment before the release and head for the other.
  8134. >#deca.mare has fallen for this trick.
  8135. >Once.
  8136. >But to your chagrin you must see that she is a very fast learner.
  8137. >She has for example, adapted to read your body language to anticipate your spontaneous little tricks.
  8138. >You know you should never challenge her to a poker game, even if she could not read your thoughts for some reason.
  8139. >But you get a feeling for her play style as well as a clearer picture of what she can and cannot do.
  8140. >You try to use this to maximise your advantage, but this is only partially successful.
  8141. >#deca.mare is ultimately the better strategist among you two.
  8142. >Plus, she is immune to biological attrition, unlike you.
  8143. >While you are not negatively affected by physical exhaustion due to the simulation, you feel your mental limits.
  8144. >You are still restricted by the limits of your brain, which makes it gradually harder to keep up with her.
  8145. >The results show this very clearly, as she eventually wins the game with a 10-8 score, despite having never played before.
  8146. >But you are nevertheless satisfied with your performance.
  8147. >There is no shame in losing against someone who has been around for centuries.
  8148. >You sit down in the middle of field and look at her.
  8149. "I guess some congratulations are in order. You have won #deca."
  8150. >"Thank you, Anon. You were not bad either."
  8151. >You know some teachers who would disagree with her, but you take the compliment for what it is.
  8152. "And? What do you say?"
  8153. >#deca.mare sits down next to you.
  8154. >"It was quite the experience. Like nothing I have ever had before."
  8155. "I can imagine. But do you like it?"
  8156.  
  8157.  
  8158.  
  8159.  
  8160. >#deca.mare ponders the question.
  8161. >She seems to struggle somewhat with her answer.
  8162. "Just be honest. If it is not for you, say it outright."
  8163. >"That is not the problem, I believe."
  8164. "You believe? What do you mean?"
  8165. >#deca.mare hesitates.
  8166. >"It means I am not sure. The match was interesting, yes, but I am not certain if I see it as a personal hobby. Not in this form."
  8167. "Hm, it was just a test run to play safe because I had no idea how you would react at all. I know it is nothing compared to tossing ice blocks in space, but we can try more complex and interesting things if you want to."
  8168. >A tricky endeavour, as you quickly realise.
  8169. >You have to make sure they are both playable for humans and ponies alike.
  8170. >Sports that rely heavily on hand coordination are therefore out by default.
  8171. >That includes things like basketball.
  8172. >There is no way a pony could play that.
  8173. >Unless one counts unicorn levitation as a legit method, but that kind of ruins the point of the game.
  8174. >Likewise could you not keep up with most pony activities.
  8175. >Good luck trying to win against an Earth Pony in the Running of the Leaves.
  8176. >After a second of consideration, #deca.mare gets an idea.
  8177. >"We should do just that."
  8178. "Huh?"
  8179. >"Something absolutely simple. Just like the Running of the Leaves."
  8180. "Perhaps you did not understand my thoughts correctly, #deca, but that's a very lopsided deal."
  8181. >"No, not out of competitive reasons."
  8182. "Something bothers you. Do tell."
  8183. >#deca.mare looks at you directly.
  8184. >"I do not wish to be harsh with you, but I think you have a wrong idea about the world we are going to live in."
  8185. "I don't think I can follow. I have not seen that much of the show so far, but I think I got the gist of it."
  8186. >"Yes, of the world in its 'current' state. But Equestria's history is much, much longer than that. It took its time get there, as it gradually improved itself. We will not have things like..."
  8187. >She performs an overarching gesture with one of her forehooves.
  8188. >"...this."
  8189.  
  8190.  
  8191.  
  8192.  
  8193. >You think you get what she is hinting at.
  8194. "So you plan to start from the very beginning? The rough world heading towards an utopia."
  8195. >#deca.mare nods.
  8196. >"Yes, we have to start at an early stage. This is the best way to create a feasible, organic world with a consistent history. You have seen how delicate and precise instructions for automatons must be. Try to teach them values like friendship and harmony with semantics."
  8197. "Tough call."
  8198. >"Tough call indeed. We can guide and instruct them carefully to make them work as we intend it, but they can only operate efficiently within their fixed parameters when they have a decent basis to rely on, which is why the earliest stages are the most important. They will form the foundation of everything that will follow. And the best way to ensure a prosperous future is by exemplars.
  8199. "You mean ponies."
  8200. >"Correct, Anon. Ponies can 'teach' harmony and friendship through their actions, if you want to call it that way."
  8201. "Yeah, that much has been established by the show."
  8202. >But something else still lingers in your mind.
  8203. "Say, how 'rough' will it get exactly? I thought we were planning something wonderful, not a hellscape."
  8204. >"Not that dark, it is a fairly peaceful world in comparison. But Equestria has nevertheless been born out of strife. Not what you will think though; the problems were never of an excessively violent nature, but rather caused by unwillingness to cooperate which led to division and shortages. I know you have not seen this yet, but this part is covered."
  8205. >You raise an eyebrow.
  8206. "Really?"
  8207. >You do not want to scrutinise #deca.mare, but this is a serious topic you are talking about.
  8208.  
  8209.  
  8210.  
  8211.  
  8212. >"Yes, really. You know I would never play with lives. It feels inconvenient, but the best way to learn is through one's own history. Both for ponies, and the system. Plus, I do not wish to create a 'fake' history. What would you say if I told you that, for instance, your great-grandparents were nothing but a story? And everything that revolved around them actually never happened, despite everyone remembering it all?"
  8213. >You must admit, that does not sound enticing.
  8214. >"But at least we will be there to ensure that the situation will not spin out of control, especially in the beginning. Once again, we must act like the attentive guardians we will have to become."
  8215. "Fair enough."
  8216. >#deca.mare stands up.
  8217. >"But enough of that. Let us focus on the present."
  8218. "You're right. If you want a race, let's have one."
  8219. >"May I choose the scene? I will save yours if that is okay with you."
  8220. "Yep, go ahead."
  8221. >#deca.mare materialises another command console right in front of her.
  8222. >Once more, she enters various different commands in a rapid pace.
  8223. >"Done and saved. We can return here any time. Now hold on."
  8224. >The world around you two begins to deform.
  8225. >It is basically like the shaping process, just in reverse.
  8226. >First all the details, then the rest.
  8227. >You know it is just a simulation, but watching how every point of reference disappears simultaneously is still rather disorienting.
  8228. >Now you understand the merit of fluent transitions.
  8229. >But fortunately, #deca.mare knows what she is doing; the process is complete in less than ten seconds.
  8230. >Once done, you find yourself on a small path in the middle of a lush forest.
  8231.  
  8232.  
  8233.  
  8234.  
  8235. >Trees fill your vision in every direction.
  8236. >A green foliage above; it is also a summer scene.
  8237. >Leaves slightly reduce the light intensity below.
  8238. >The area is shaded, but comfortable.
  8239. >You believe you have seen this place before.
  8240. >"Because you have. This is a realistic replica of the White Tail Woods, only in summer instead of autumn."
  8241. >You see the fault in your first attempt.
  8242. >#deca.mare is serious about keeping it close to the original.
  8243. >She needs things she can do in a pony society, not terran sports.
  8244. >Acts which reflect these values and traditions.
  8245. >Things you do not know enough about, as you have clearly seen.
  8246. >"Do not judge yourself too harshly. You meant well."
  8247. "#deca? Just one question."
  8248. >"Yes?"
  8249. "Did you know how this would play out?"
  8250. >"Not initially, because I was not sure myself. I came to the conclusion during the game. It is not a bad hobby, but unfortunately nothing which could help me to integrate into a pony society."
  8251. "So it wasn't a total loss."
  8252. >#deca.mare shakes her head.
  8253. >"Too much pessimism, Anon. It was no loss at all. We are one step closer to our answer, are we not?"
  8254. "That's true."
  8255. >"Now get yourself ready. We are still in a contest."
  8256. >Both of you perform some further warm-up activities.
  8257. >After that, you stand on the path, side by side.
  8258. >You have no idea where it leads to, nor do you care right now.
  8259. >What counts is #deca.mare.
  8260. >"Ready?"
  8261. "Yep, I am."
  8262. >"Okay, on three."
  8263. >She changes her stance and is ready to run any time, you do the same.
  8264. >"One."
  8265. >Steady breathing.
  8266. >"Two."
  8267. >Focus on the way in front of you.
  8268. >And remember, this is about community and social bonding, not about winning.
  8269. >Wait, did you just rehash an episode?
  8270. >"Three!"
  8271. >No time to think about that now.
  8272. >Both of you dash forward.
  8273.  
  8274. End Part One
/nmp/ #deca Anon Custom Universe MarewAIfu Monogamy NSFW Space Fiction Terraforming X:BtF

Shape Your Home, Part 4

by Ponegreen

Shape Your Home, Part 3

by Ponegreen

Shape Your Home, Part 2

by Ponegreen

Shape Your Home, Part 1

by Ponegreen