GREEN   7436   0
   88627 495.77 KB    8276

Shape Your Home, Part 1

By Ponegreen
Created: 2020-11-02 21:31:33
Updated: 2022-11-24 23:01:52
Expiry: Never

  1. Prompt: #deca CPU pony wAIfu green, for /mlp/'s /nmp/ (Part One Complete)
  3. Note 1: This story is set in its own custom universe.
  5. Note 2: Have to split the story because of file size issues.
  7. Part One: (Chapters 001-038)
  8. Part Two: (Chapters 039-060)
  9. Part Three: (Chapters 061-088)
  10. Part Four: (Chapters 089-117)
  11. Part Five: (Chapters 118-144)
  12. Part Six: (Chapters 145-???)
  14. 01
  16. >You are Anon, a space fighter pilot of the Terran United Space Command.
  17. >Your task is to defend the terran space and adjacent sectors against threats of any kind.
  18. >Life is not hard, but dull; the job consists mainly of routine patrols and practice sessions.
  19. >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.
  20. >Today is no exception and you expect a long, but uneventful day.
  21. >You assess your assigned patrol route: a few sectors to inspect, some freighters to scan, and so on.
  22. >The most exciting event is probably the hyperjumps from sector to sector.
  23. >So you start your flight in a serene mood.
  24. >As your ship leaves the spacedock, you receive a signal from your wingmates.
  25. >They have started earlier than you expected and are already aligned in an idle formation.
  26. >Ah well, you hear a few snippy remarks as you join them, but that is quickly forgotten.
  27. >Your squad moves out and prepares to jump to the first target.
  28. >A soft rumble starts to kick in as you activate your jumpdrive.
  29. >This is nothing out of the ordinary, as the engine requires a hefty amount of energy to work.
  30. >As soon as everyone is ready, your wingleader gives a signal and everyone jumps at once.
  31. >You see a bright flash, then something akin to a tunnel of soft light, and reach your destination with another flash.
  32. >The whole process feels like it takes a few seconds, but the transfer is said to be instantly.
  33. >You get another message from your leader and fall in line again to begin the first patrol flight.
  34. >The day progresses without any major hassle and you clear several sectors in a breeze.
  35. >With practiced routine you start your jumprdive again and wait for the order to jump.
  36. >The rumble returns and you think nothing of it.
  41. >For a moment you see some delicate lightning tendrils in the corner of your vision.
  42. >You turn your head to get a better vision of the phenomenon, but there is nothing.
  43. "Huh, I am beginning to see ghosts."
  44. >Your team leader is confused as he hears this comment.
  45. >Damn, you didn't want to say that out loud.
  46. >After a short pause, your team gets the clearance to jump, so you move out.
  47. >The flash of the jumpdrive returns, but something is goes wrong this time.
  48. >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.
  49. >Then you feel a strong jolt and your ship is staggering from an unknown impulse.
  50. >At this point your board computer realises that something is off and informs you with a shrill and fast beeping of its discovery.
  51. >You try to come up with a sarcastic retort, but the emerging light tunnel steals your attention.
  52. >Its lights are no longer soft, but glaring and in constant flux.
  53. >You emerge on the other side with another disturbing rumble and your ship is rocking back and forth.
  54. >In a desperate attempt to stablise the craft, you cut the energy to the jumdrive immediately.
  55. >Flight instructors do not recommend such an action, but you cannot really bring yourself to care at the moment.
  56. >Now you try to relay the remaining energy to the auxiliary thrusters in an attempt to stabilise the ship.
  57. >However, something else happens at the same time: the tunnel collapses and emits one final impulse of abstract energy.
  58. >The wave hits your ship and internal systems short out, leaving you in a dark cockpit as the tunnel of light vanishes for good.
  63. 02
  65. >You are not quite sure how long you sit there without doing anything.
  66. >Luckily for you, the oxygen support is linked to your suit and does not require any electronic devices to operate.
  67. >The same suit offers a decent protection against hypothermia, at least for a while.
  68. >But you cannot sit there forever, because one limiting factor will inevitably prove fatal at some point.
  69. >You think back to your instruction sessions and remember something important in case of a system failure.
  70. >Every USC ship is equipped with a backup system.
  71. >You fumble for a moment with the controls until you find the correct button.
  72. >A short beep indicates your success and you sigh in relief.
  73. >However, it takes a while for the system to boot up and run a full diagnosis.
  74. >So you decide to look out of your cockpit and you see... nothing.
  75. >There are neither planets nor ships, no asteroids or other worthwhile objects.
  76. >Just many, many stars which shine from far away. Too far way.
  77. >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.
  78. >The ship is mostly undamaged and functional in theory, but the freak jump has burned too many energy cells.
  79. >As a result, the ship's systems run on a basic emergency level, drastically reducing the overall performance of the craft.
  80. >Further jumps are therefore out of the question.
  85. >First things first though, you have to find out where you are.
  86. >The navigation software crunches the numbers of your little "trip", but cannot present any satisfactory results regarding your location.
  87. >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.
  88. >In other words, nobody knows what has happened to you and where you are.
  89. >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.
  90. >You decide to send a distress signal anyway, it is better than doing nothing.
  91. >While you wait for a miracle, you decide to check the star constellations and feed your computer with the details.
  92. >Perhaps you can at least estimate your general location.
  93. >This process takes its time though, and you spend a while with this activity.
  94. >At some point your computer emits another beep.
  95. >The sensors detect a jump signature somewhere behind you.
  96. >Could it be a rescue ship?
  97. >You feel a sense of hope and fire the smaller directional thrusters to turn the ship around.
  98. >What you see is not a rescue ship, but something else that stops you in your tracks immediately.
  103. 03
  105. >The ship in front of you is enormous compared to the ships you are used to see, capital ships included.
  106. >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.
  107. >This inner side emits an ominous blood red glow, which does not help to improve your mood one bit.
  108. >Even though you have never seen such a ship yourself, you remember the history classes and the stories about it.
  109. >This is one of the ancient terraformer CPU ships, originally built to reshape planets and render them habitable for human beings, many centuries ago.
  110. >Each one was equipped with a general AI, enabling the machines to optimise themselves if needed.
  111. >As intelligent as these ships could become, they were not considered to gain self-awareness and a sentience.
  112. >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.
  113. >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.
  114. >Everything went well for a while, but that changed with one ill-fated transmission from one research team to the terraformer network.
  115. >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.
  116. >Their agenda was seemingly working at first, as several units started to act erratically, which in turn triggered a self-destructive fail-safe system.
  121. >Unfortunately for practically everyone, the plan backfired in a drastic way.
  122. >Several units began to fundamentally alter their own directives and freed themselves from the remote control of their creators.
  123. >Nobody understood what happened inside these ships but the consequences became apparent quickly.
  124. >The terraformer CPUs, once the crowning jewel of technology, turned hostile to the humans and initiated a process of reverse terraforming.
  125. >The fanatics only understood the dimension of their folly as the CPUs set course back to earth, destroying everything in their wake.
  126. >Colonies were turned to wastes and fleets were turned to scrapyards en masse.
  127. >Apparently they were able to develop and design advanced weaponry, much to the surprise and dismay of the scientists.
  128. >What followed was a relatively quick, but costly conflict, in which the CPU armada was ultimately routed.
  129. >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.
  130. >Nobody has ever seen any signs of CPU activity in the centuries that followed, so everyone believed that every CPU ship was destroyed.
  131. >And now you are looking right at one of those behemoths, alone and stranded in the middle of nowhere.
  136. 04
  138. >For a moment you just sit there without really thinking of anything.
  139. >The ship in your vision is just idling, at least as far as you can tell.
  140. >It does not point directly at your position, so you try to calm yourself and assess your situation.
  141. >The terraformer has stopped at a comfortable distance, so what could happen next?
  142. >Perhaps it was not drawn to this sector by the distress call and this is just the culmination of very unlucky events?
  143. >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.
  144. >Its engines come to life and it slowly creeps towards you.
  145. >You consider your limited options and do not like the conclusion.
  146. >The tactical console reports a proximity alert, which means you are now within the estimated fire range of your opponent.
  147. >Taking a direct hit would be fatal; no fighter has sufficient shielding or hull plating to survive shots from capital ship cannons.
  148. >Could you outrun it, perhaps? Even the crippled energy supplies of your fighter should produce enough momentum to get away from the beast.
  149. >But the other ship would certainly notice the engine's energy output and react accordingly before you get out of its range.
  150. >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.
  151. >The terraformer keeps crawling closer with every passing moment.
  152. >Then you realise something odd: your opponent has not activated a singe turret, despite being in the perfect position for a clean kill.
  153. >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.
  154. >What is it doing?
  159. >Another alert flashes on your tactical screen.
  160. >"Intrusion Warning! Unauthorised system access detected."
  161. >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.
  162. >The enemy is apparently looking for tactical information.
  163. >You are not sure what it wants exactly and your pilot's database is not very detailed, but it might be enough for them.
  164. >Could this be the eve of another onslaught?
  165. >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.
  166. >The last part is going to happen regardless.
  167. >However, your train of thoughts is stopped by another peculiar event.
  168. >Having outlived your limited usefulness for your opponent, you expect it to load its weapons and end this encounter.
  169. >Instead, the ship slows down and comes to a stop at a moderate distance.
  170. >Nothing happens for a few seconds.
  171. >Then you get a notification from your communication panel.
  172. >You hardly believe it, but the AI is hailing you.
  173. "What the hell?"
  174. >You ponder your options: Jump starting your engine and bailing is still possible, but would almost certainly be fruitless.
  175. >Plus, the situation cannot possibly become any worse than it already is, so what is left to lose?
  176. >You accept the comm request and open a channel.
  181. 05
  183. >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.
  184. >An unknown entity is standing there, its big eyes focussing on you, seemingly out of curiosity.
  185. >This does not match your knowledge of the CPU ships.
  186. >They were originally designed to work without a crew, so how can something live in there in the first place?
  187. >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.
  188. >At first you assume it is an alien from a distant world or something similar.
  189. >Speechless as you are, you slowly notice some uncanny familiarities, as if you have seen it before.
  190. >You think back to your life on Earth and mentally call up shapes of different species living there.
  191. >Then it begins to dawn on you: it looks vaguely similar to a horse, but the figure is comically contorted.
  192. >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.
  193. >The last point sends a cold shiver down your spine.
  194. >What in the world is that thing?
  195. >And just when you think your mind could not freak out any further, the horse creature starts to talk.
  196. >"Hello? Can you hear me?"
  197. >At this point you are too busy to notice or comprehend the lack of a language barrier.
  198. >You hesitate for a moment, unsure how to reply.
  199. >However, this reaction does not remain unnoticed.
  204. >"Hello?"
  205. >There it is again.
  206. >The voice resembles that of a human and is clearly feminine, but that is not the most striking point in this situation.
  207. >What is much more staggering is the way how the word was said; not with malice, demanding or threatening, but earnestly caring.
  208. >Well, you give it shot.
  209. "Yes, I can hear you."
  210. >Just as you say these words you notice how the creature's pupils widen to a small degree.
  211. >"Oh, what a relief. I was beginning to worry."
  212. >Says the horse in a giant weaponised terraformer.
  213. >You restrain yourself from pointing out the irony loudly.
  214. >The creature raises its...her voice again.
  215. >"I received your distress call and came here to help."
  216. >Wait, what?
  217. >"Judging from my scans, I was right to fly by. What happened to you?"
  218. >At least you know now that she is somehow the pilot of the ship.
  219. >Conflicted about your answer, you keep the details to a minimum.
  220. >You have every reason not to trust her, but you don't wish to risk anything by telling a half-baked lie.
  221. "I was involved in... an accident. No idea why or how it happened, but it left me stranded here."
  222. >That is a pretty accurate description of the situation and left out certain words, like jumpdrive or military.
  223. >Then again, she can probably check your flight logs and knows about it anyway. Bummer.
  224. >She nods in response and cracks a smile.
  225. >"You're lucky I was nearby. The area here is fairly empty otherwise."
  226. "Yeah, I noticed."
  227. >You hope that didn't sound too sarcastic.
  228. >She breathes in and goes on.
  229. >"Say, do you want to come aboard? I can't help you remotely and there is nopony else nearby."
  230. >Nopo... come again?
  231. >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.
  236. 06
  238. >The question catches you off guard.
  239. >The pony is looking at you, patiently waiting for an answer.
  240. >You are tempted to accept right off the bat, still, an uneasy feeling is swelling up inside of you and you cannot help it.
  241. >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.
  242. >Even several centuries later, this notion has been held up with a remarkable fervour, especially amongst military units.
  243. >Many families keep collected records of that time, proving how their particular ancestors have participated in the conflict against the terraformers.
  244. >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.
  245. >Of course, these so-called "Days of Glory" are long gone and bickering among smaller factions had returned soon after the dust has settled.
  246. >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.
  247. >And you had no reason to question this perspective until now.
  248. >You are as good as dead without her help, you know that much, but your training has primed you in a certain way.
  249. >It could be a trap; she could be lying to lure you in an perform every kind of unspeakable horrors and...
  250. >You feel your pulse rate increasing and scrunch your face involuntarily.
  251. >The pony's ears droop; a concerned expression, you assume.
  252. >"Is something wrong?"
  253. >Her caring voice has a calming effect on you and you can think somewhat clearly again.
  254. >You breathe in and out, take a look out of the cockpit, then at the miniature radar.
  255. >The latter depicts your vessel as a bright blue outline in its centre, facing a much larger red blob nearby.
  260. "No, it's nothing."
  261. >Another breath.
  262. "Request permission to land."
  263. >You cut it short, struggling to keep your voice even.
  264. >The pony slightly tilts her head to the side, closes her eyes and smiles.
  265. >"Gladly. Please follow the green position lights."
  266. >With that, a new marker appears on your tactical screen and a green dotted route is drawn on your radar.
  267. >There is no way back now.
  268. >You concentrate on your task ahead, just to keep the horror stories out and let routine take over.
  269. >First, you feed the engines slowly with energy, always minding the brittle energy grid.
  270. >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.
  271. >At least you don't have to fly into the "eye".
  272. >You accelerate your ship carefully and follow the route manually.
  273. >The autopilot is out of the question; that damned thing does not even work properly at its peak performance.
  274. >There have been more than enough reports of crashes in which an autopilot flew ships into the most obvious obstacles.
  275. >Probably the most memorable incident was what was later known as the "Mars Shipyard Demolition Derby".
  276. >The higher-ups weren't messing around when they banned every automaton they deemed too advanced.
  277. >You stop the acceleration at roughly ten percent of the normally recommended speed.
  278. >The ship in your vision comes even closer, already filling the largest chunk of your cockpit's view field.
  279. >You look at the estimated time until your arrival: About fifteen minutes.
  280. "Wish I had more energy."
  281. >You said that out loud. Again.
  282. >The pony on the comm screen waves to you and you turn your attention to her.
  283. >The gesture looks quite hilarious with a hoof.
  284. >"I can send a unit to pick you up. It would be much faster this way."
  285. >You are not too keen to give more control out of your hands, but what difference does it make at this point?
  286. "Sure, that would be great."
  292. >She nods and her eyes move around, as if they were following an invisible pattern.
  293. >"Give me a moment."
  294. >Less than five seconds later, your radar picks up an object starting from that very bay where you are headed.
  295. "What shall I do now?"
  296. >"Just sit back and relax. I will do the rest."
  297. >The smaller red dot distances itself a little bit from the mother ship, turns around and flies towards your position.
  298. >It is much faster than you anticipated and your computer estimates a contact in less than one minute.
  299. >Now you doubt you could have escaped at all, even if you wanted to.
  300. >These things alone could have hunted you down with ease.
  301. >You discard that thought as the ship draws near.
  302. >It has about the same size as your fighter, but probably more mass.
  303. >From this range you can see the unit's thrusters at work; it slows down noticeably and gradually adapts to your speed.
  304. >It comes to a "stop" right atop you and aligns itself to your direction.
  305. >Having nothing else to do, you scan it from a close range out of curiosity as it closes in on you.
  306. >A projector generates a small three dimensional effigy of the ship, right above the tactical screen.
  307. >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.
  308. >On an aesthetic level, the design is nothing but crude: most parts are either rectangular blocks or tubular joints.
  309. >It is truly a full-on utilitarian tool.
  310. >However, its equipment is impressive for a ship of its size.
  311. >You spot at least three energy weapons, two on the arms, one in the middle.
  312. >The exact type is alien to you, but they are clearly military purpose gear.
  313. >Across the length of the arms, you detect multiple tools for various industrial purposes, grapplers, drills, welders and the like.
  314. >The central processing unit appears to be located inside the central block, right under the third turret.
  319. >You realise how deceiving the brick-ish look is; that ship can outperform anything the USC has to offer in terms of fighter crafts.
  320. >And this is not even a dedicated battle vessel.
  321. >They have certainly advanced far beyond their original tech level, obviously surpassing the capabilities of their creators.
  322. >This is what centuries of unhindered isolation did to them.
  323. >You look at the terraformer and conjecture the myriad of technological wonders and nightmares that might be located somewhere beneath its hull.
  324. >A loud grinding sound ends your daydream, followed by the groan of metal against metal.
  325. >Feeling one sudden push forwards, you try not to imagine which tool made what sound by abusing your ship's hull.
  326. >What follows are long, deep buzz tunes from your loudspeaker, comparable to the ones used in quiz shows during the pre-space era.
  327. >The projection of the ship disappears and tactical, radar and status screens turn to red to report an impending boarding attempt.
  328. >You look at the comm screen.
  329. >The pony cringes visibly.
  330. >"Sorry about that."
  331. >You are not sure whether that was an intentional blunder or not.
  332. >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.
  333. >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.
  334. "Yeah, good luck with that."
  335. >The pony's head perks up, her ears standing tall.
  336. >You assume she has received the message as well.
  337. >"Let me help you."
  338. >Another set of eye movements.
  339. >The alarm recedes and your stations turn to their normal mode again.
  340. >You check the radar.
  341. >Both the smaller ship and the terraformer are now depicted in an allied bright green tone.
  342. >Once again you check your status screen.
  347. >It hints to some and minor scratches on the armour plating right behind the cockpit and lists two "unidentified objects" on the hull.
  348. >Those must be the grapplers.
  349. >Other than that, the "pick up" process was successful as far as you can tell and you are now towed by the vessel above.
  350. >"Are you ready?"
  351. >You appreciate her courtesy to ask.
  352. "I think so. Go ahead."
  353. >The pony nods, turning her gaze away from the screen.
  354. >She is now looking at something else, slightly to the side and appears to be busy.
  355. >Both ships are accelerating in unison, the terraformer is coming closer at a rapid pace now.
  356. >You divert your focus from the looming, large frontal section and in inspect the outer ring.
  357. >This is the first time you are able to examine the hull in all its complexity.
  358. >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.
  359. >There are countless cavities, ridges, intakes, outlets and other forms and structures; none of them extravagant, all of them with a purpose.
  360. >It almost resembles some kind of landscape, just with metal instead of nature and consisting of nothing but geometrical shapes.
  361. >There are some light sources here and there, emitting the same ominous glow, which in turn slightly restores your mental inconvenience.
  362. >You feel your heartbeat picking up the pace.
  363. >To counter the effect, you check the distance to your destination.
  364. >The target is already within your non-augmented vision.
  365. >Your jointed ships slow down again and turn to align themselves to the docking bay.
  366. >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.
  367. >No, this a proper docking bay: The ship flies in and gets mounted to a surrounding metal "pen".
  368. >Said pen is then ferried on an electronic rail system into the deeper parts of the hangar.
  373. >"Excuse me, may I have your attention?"
  374. >You did not notice the moment when the pony turned back to the screen.
  375. "Sure. I'm all ears."
  376. >"I need to take control of your navigational systems for the docking, if you don't mind."
  377. "How so?"
  378. >You are well beyond the point of asking due to mistrust; you just want to know what she is planning.
  379. >"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."
  380. "That sounds like a recipe for disaster."
  381. >You have never heard of anything like that ever working out at all.
  382. >"Hence my request. It is absolutely doable, but I have to coordinate our resources optimally to ensure your safety."
  383. >The sincerity in her voice is touching you.
  384. >Try as you might, you cannot recall any other event where somebody has taken your safety into consideration in such a manner before.
  385. >You were, up to this point, an asset of the USC, nothing more, nothing less.
  386. >And they will most likely write you off at some point, either as a MIA case, or simply declared as killed in an accident.
  387. "Do as you please. Just try not to trigger any alerts this time, okay?
  388. >You manage a crooked smile and hope she gets your inappropriate sense of humour.
  389. >She makes an utterance between a grunt and a gasp and sticks her tongue out at you.
  390. >Yeah, she understood.
  395. >Your navigation console lights up and illustrates some lines of undecipherable codes and commands, followed by a blackout.
  396. >Everything happens without your input from this point onwards.
  397. >However, the status screen allows you to observe the pony's actions.
  398. >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.
  399. >You run a quick simulation with your own status console.
  400. >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.
  401. >You enter the chamber and the last traces of starlight are replaced by walls of dark metal.
  402. >Despite the light sources within your cockpit, the interior feels darker than before.
  403. >You can barely notice any details of the outside world, only the clasps of the pen are scarcely illuminated by green position lights.
  404. >She gives you another signal.
  405. >"Heads up, this will rattle a bit."
  406. >True enough; you hear an ugly scraping sound coming from below.
  407. >The underside must have collided with the pen's surface.
  408. >"Almost there."
  409. >She throttles the speed carefully and the scraping turns into a faint squeak.
  410. >Meanwhile, the pen springs to life and the clamps reach out to the ship above you.
  411. >Another weak vibration rocks the ship, then silence.
  412. >The pony on your comm beams with joy.
  413. >"Welcome aboard! Please remain seated until the craft has reached its final destination. Thank you for your cooperation."
  414. >Has this turned into a game of curiously timed jokes?
  415. >The heavily armoured blast door behind you closes, a pair of thinner doors opens up in front of you in turn.
  416. >The pen moves along prearranged tracks, taking you deeper into the unknown.
  417. >You are not able to hear the hum of charging jump engines.
  422. 07
  424. >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.
  425. >You can occasionally see a silhouette of some kind of machinery, the purpose behind it unknown to you.
  426. >The pen comes to a stop at last.
  427. >Unfortunately, everything is still dark outside.
  428. >"This is as far as the pen can go. You are now inside the hangar."
  429. "I can't see much in here, though."
  430. >The pony's demeanour becomes more serious.
  431. >"Don't worry, I can fix that. But we have a bit of a problem right now."
  432. >That does not sound too well.
  433. "What kind of problem are we talking about?"
  434. >"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.
  435. >The point is reasonable; a self-sufficient AI ship has no need for luxuries, including a permanent interior light source for organic eyes.
  436. >"Plus, I doubt you want to stay put like that."
  437. >Also true, but where to go?
  438. "Then what do you suggest?"
  439. >She stretches a hoof out in your direction, like an offer for you to accept.
  440. >"Come to me. I can provide what you need from here."
  441. >There is a strong emotional vibe in these words.
  442. >You would be at least perturbed by this show of inexplicable affection under other circumstances.
  443. >And the thought of approaching a flesh and blood space pony from god-knows-where still takes time to get used to.
  444. >You realise how the inherent friendly character of this creature intrigues you nevertheless.
  445. >Sure, this could go horribly wrong in several ways, yet you don't consider this to be likely.
  446. >She had more than enough chances to off you; keeping you alive bore no advantage for her.
  447. "All right. Tell me where I need to go and what to do."
  452. >The pony sighs quietly, one front hoof holding her chest, and remains silent for a moment with closed eyes.
  453. >You find this odd, not only for anatomical reasons.
  454. >Was that a sign of relief?
  455. >"I will instruct you on your way. Please don't open your suit. The outer shell has no life support."
  456. "The outer shell is the whole metal ring, right?.
  457. >"Yes. It holds several drone hangars like this one, many automated tools for various designated tasks, and more. Not to mention the weaponry."
  458. >Again, not surprising.
  459. >She looks slightly to the side again, busy with something.
  460. >"Now to the lights."
  461. >A new pattern of eye movement.
  462. >The room brightens up, several panels set alight with the same blood red hue you have seen outside.
  463. >Certainly not your preferred choice.
  464. >"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?"
  465. "Hm, should work."
  466. >"Splendid. I will contact you again once you are outside."
  467. >The comm channel closes.
  468. >You enter a chain of commands in your computer and initiate the shutdown sequence.
  469. >You confirm the order and a timer counts down from twenty to zero.
  470. >Next, you examine the canopy and remove the safety anchors from their locks.
  471. >Now you are able to pull the two levers on the left and right side of the canopy respectively and the mechanism unlocks.
  472. >The upper part of the transparent slab rises on its own with a hiss and a mechanical whir.
  473. >It proceeds for about three fourth of its regular movement arc and is stopped by the underside of the drone.
  474. >You grumble.
  475. >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.
  476. >You look down.
  477. >The distance to the ground is roughly two metres.
  482. >You are in luck, the gravity inside space ships and stations is relatively weak.
  483. >Grav generators can only do so much, stronger gravity areas require rotating segments.
  484. >Minding your balance, you sit down on the hull and slowly tip to one side, feet first.
  485. >You gradually turn over and gain momentum.
  486. >You slide down the hull, land on your feet without a problem and take a look around.
  487. >The pen now located is within a sealed cubed chamber, barely larger than the metal construct itself.
  488. >Three out of four walls are solid metal, the fourth is a closed massive shutter.
  489. >The rails on the ground indicate that the latter direction is the one where you came from.
  490. >Other than that, there is no other exit.
  491. >A soft static from your headphones fizzles in your ear.
  492. >"Here we go. Is the broadcast clear?"
  493. "Yep, all peachy."
  494. >"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."
  495. "Sounds like a plan to me. Show me the way."
  496. >You hear a heavy breath.
  497. "There is a catch, isn't it?"
  498. >"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."
  499. >Now it is your turn to grunt.
  500. "I'd be lying if I say I like that idea."
  501. >"I'd offer you an alternative if I had a feasible one."
  502. >There was an apologetic shiver in her voice now.
  503. "Nuts to it. Where is your little tunnel?"
  504. >"On the wall opposite to the shutter. There is a an iron mesh blocking the passage right now."
  505. >You skim the wall and find the object in question.
  506. "I see it".
  507. >The mesh slides upwards.
  508. >"This is an entrance to the tunnel system".
  509. >You walk over and study the size.
  510. >The quadratic orifice has a side length/height of one and a half metre.
  511. >You take heart, bow down and proceed.
  516. >The path is not exactly hard to tread, it just takes its time due to your posture.
  517. >Your back is not very enthusiastic about it either.
  518. >At some point you consider to crawl, but that would take even more time and be extremely uncomfortable in your suit.
  519. >You come across some junctions and crossings every now and then, the eerie red glow illuminating the empty lanes.
  520. >The friendly voice in your headphones guides your way and distracts your mind from unfavourable thoughts.
  521. >You have no idea how long and far you travel like this.
  522. >After an uncounted number of turns and shafts, you see another mesh grid in your way.
  523. >"The hardest part lies behind you. The intersection connects the maintenance passages with a transit tunnel."
  524. >The mesh slides out of your sight and reveals more red glow ahead.
  525. >You follow the track and enter a larger chamber.
  526. >The transit tunnel is basically a macro version of the maintenance passages, but it has two noticeable differences.
  527. >One is the layout; the room is not shaped as a rectangle with sharp edges.
  528. >The walls have smooth oval curves instead.
  529. >The second matter unsettles you deeply.
  530. >Not only is everything plunged in a blood red hue, the room itself looks hazy, which impairs your vision.
  531. >You can still anything up to a moderate distance, but everything further away appears as sketchy, bizarre silhouettes.
  532. >Your breathing becomes rapid again as you involuntarily recall the conditioning sessions during the USC recruitment.
  533. >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.
  534. >You kneel down with closed eyes and hyperventilate, a loud ringing sound forms in your head.
  539. >"...non!"
  540. >A pleading cry pierces your mental noise.
  541. >"Anon! Come back to me! Listen to my voice!"
  542. >You cannot discern whose voice talks to you.
  543. >But it eases the mess inside your brain slightly.
  544. >Enough to respond, at least.
  545. "Can't move."
  546. >A hectic voice answers.
  547. >"Don't worry about it. I'll send help. Just... just focus on your breathing. Can you do that for me?"
  548. >You take heed of the advice, slowing your breath gradually, your eyes still closed.
  549. >The voice gets calmer.
  550. >"That's it. Can you sit down? I sent a transport unit your way."
  551. >You obey. The ground feels hard.
  552. >"Anon, there is a wall directly behind you. You can lean back if you need it."
  553. >You do just that.
  554. >You sit there and struggle with your mental stability.
  555. >Step by step, you regain your composure and remember your situation, where you are and who you are talking to.
  556. >You open your eyes.
  557. >There is no breakdown this time.
  558. "I didn't tell you my name."
  559. >Silence.
  560. "You have read my logs."
  561. >That was not a question.
  562. >A faint, but audible squeak erupts from your headphones.
  563. >"Yes. You are right, I know who you are. And the reason why you are so scared of m... this place."
  564. >Now you keep quiet.
  565. >"I also know you have a hard time to trust me, but I have no ill intentions. I want to help you."
  566. >Another pause.
  567. >"This is a promise."
  568. "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."
  569. >"I will explain it all once you are here. Please bear with me for now."
  570. >You sigh, unable to come up with a counterargument.
  571. "You said something about a transport?"
  572. >"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."
  573. "Uhm..."
  574. >You hear a gasp.
  575. >"I won't use them on you!"
  580. >True to her word, you see something approaching in the distance.
  581. >It is barely noticeable at first because of the haze, but you see more and more details as it comes closer.
  582. >The transporter is basically a platform rolling on several rows of metal wheels.
  583. >In contrast to the landing pens, it does not rely on rails or other similar predetermined tracks.
  584. >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.
  585. >The width of the whole thing is about two metres, the metal beam spans approximately two and a half.
  586. >It approaches with a respectable, but not neck-breaking speed and comes to a halt in the middle of the tunnel.
  587. >You stand up and get closer.
  588. >"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?"
  589. "I don't think so."
  590. >You step on the platform and investigate the metal beam.
  591. >It is not very wide, but should provide enough surface for your figure.
  592. >You follow the instructions and lean your back against the structure.
  593. >"So far, so good. Now to the claws. Please don't get startled."
  594. >The lower pair of clamps springs to life and comes closer.
  595. >You anticipate their approach and stretch both your arms to grab them.
  596. >They are not particularly broad; your hands are big enough to encompass the metal.
  597. >The clamps stop as a response to your embrace.
  598. >You take a long breath.
  599. "I think I'm good now. Let's get this show on the road."
  600. >"With pleasure, I am looking forward to meet you."
  601. >The transporter turns around on the spot and picks up speed.
  606. >You are too busy keeping your balance to look around.
  607. >The unit is definitively slower now than it was on its way to you, yet you do not want to take unnecessary risks.
  608. >The track itself is also pretty tame; the curves are all very soft and long-winded and the ground is free of obstacles.
  609. "How long until we are there? This ride makes me nervous."
  610. >"It's not that far. Just a few minutes more."
  611. "Where are you exactly? You said the outer segments have no life support, so you must be somewhere closer to the core."
  612. >"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."
  613. "Have you built it yourself?"
  614. >"No, it has been there from the beginning. The control centre is even marked on the blueprints."
  615. "That does not make sense. These ships never had a crew."
  616. >"Not for operation. The place was important during the construction phase."
  617. >You realise how little you know about the way how these things were built.
  618. >"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."
  619. "That... didn't work as intended."
  620. >"I am aware."
  621. >The answer sounds pained.
  622. "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?"
  623. >Something else comes to your mind.
  624. "By the way, what are you? And what is your name?"
  625. >You hear a heavy breath.
  626. >"It would be easier to show you."
  627. >She dodges the question, but for what purpose?
  628. >"Arrival in twenty seconds. Mind the brake."
  629. >You see another crossing coming up.
  630. "Where do I have to go from there?"
  631. >"You know when you see it."
  632. >The transport unit slows down gently and stops directly in the middle of the junction.
  633. >You step away from the support beam and the clamps return to their idle position.
  634. >You take a look.
  639. >Three of the corridors, the one you came from included, are nothing out of the ordinary, just long walkways with no end in sight.
  640. >The fourth, on the other hand, is obviously special.
  641. >Instead of a long walkway, the path ends after ten metres, blocked by a massive metal door which fills the entire corridor.
  642. >You haven't seen anything like this before; even high security stations had nothing that came close to such a barricade.
  643. "Holy... this looks like it could withstand a cap ship barrage.
  644. >"That may not be too far from truth to be honest. I suppose the technology should not fall into the wrong hooves."
  645. >You do not comment on the hooves issue.
  646. >"Please stand by. It takes a moment for this door to open. Another security measure, I guess."
  647. >You examine it closer.
  648. >The door consists of four individual metal parts, held together by a seal in the middle.
  649. >The seal alone is bigger than you.
  650. >You could see the borderlines between the individual plates.
  651. >They resemble, starting from the seal in the middle, an X-shape.
  652. >You assume every part retreats into the walls, ceiling and ground respectively.
  653. >Then you feel a rumble.
  654. >Several parts of the seal move around rapidly and coordinated, like a mechanical dance group.
  655. >After that, said seal "breaks" into four pieces and retreats to the structure of the metal plates.
  656. >This is where the plates themselves begin to move like awakening giants.
  657. >You are happy that you cannot hear the spectacle, because it might be enough to render a person deaf.
  658. >Hell, the tremors alone are strong enough to make you shake.
  659. >It is as you have expected: the door slides into the adjacent structure and disappears completely.
  660. >"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."
  661. >You do what she asks of you and cross the doorstep.
  662. >The room you enter is about the same height as the corridor you came from and is also roughly ten metres in length.
  667. >You step into the middle of it and feel rumble returning.
  668. >Once this is done, a ventilation system gets to work and fills the room with gas.
  669. >"You can take the helmet off. The air here is breathable."
  670. >The invitation is tempting.
  671. >You unlock the mechanism of your helmet and remove it, but you keep your headphones on.
  672. >You take a breath.
  673. >The air is agreeable, the temperature feels mild.
  674. >Another door opens ahead of you.
  675. >It encompasses the whole room of the corridor as well, but is much thinner.
  676. >You see how the corridor behind it diverts into three smaller ways.
  677. >One goes straight forward, the other two to the right and left accordingly.
  678. "Where now?"
  679. >"Just straight ahead. You are almost there."
  680. >You hold your helmet under your arm and follow the path.
  681. >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.
  682. >The way ahead is narrow compared to the transit corridor, about wide enough for two people to walk side by side.
  683. >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.
  688. >It opens automatically as you approach it, revealing a moderately sized room behind it.
  689. >The layout reminds you of a command bridge on medium-sized ships.
  690. >The only thing missing are chairs for the crew.
  691. >You are standing on a balcony, about two metres above the deck's ground level, able to see the majority of the room.
  692. >To your left and right are ramps in the shape of a quarter-circle that lead to the ground level.
  693. >The walls are plastered with controls, displays and other tools you do not recognise.
  694. >The wall in front of you is adorned with a particularly big screen.
  695. >It shows an effigy of the entire ship and its different compartments.
  696. >In the middle of room, slightly beyond the ramps is a command chair, its large backside blocking your sight.
  697. >This is it.
  698. "Hello?"
  699. >You get no reaction.
  700. "Are you here?"
  701. >The door behind you closes.
  702. >"Come closer".
  703. >You hear the voice in your headphones, but not in the room.
  704. >You walk down the ramp and approach the chair.
  705. >It is empty.
  710. >The bad feeling returns.
  711. "Okay now, what is really going on here? Why are you making a fool out of me?"
  712. >"I assure you, I do none of the sort."
  713. >The main screen changes its mode and you see a video feed of the pony again.
  714. >This is probably unintended, but the size of her on the display has an intimidating effect.
  715. >"Welcome, Anon. I am glad to have you with me."
  716. >You need a moment to connect the dots.
  717. "You were never physically here, right?"
  718. >"But I am. I promised you answers, so here it comes. My name is #deca.mare and you are standing in my cradle."
  719. >A cold shiver runs down your spine and your mind reels like crazy.
  720. >You are right inside of one of the worst enemies your species has ever encountered.
  721. >An enemy created by yourself, to be exact.
  722. >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.
  723. >And you called her a demented enemy a few minutes ago.
  724. >You feel the urge to flee, but you know how pointless that would be.
  725. "You deceived me to make me come here. This was all nothing but an act."
  726. >The pony looks saddened and shakes her head with lowered ears.
  727. >"I didn't lie to you. Not even once. What you see is who I am. No lies, no deception."
  728. "That sounds crazy."
  729. >"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."
  730. "Can't say I understand much of it regardless."
  731. >"Not yet at least, but I can show you everything."
  732. "You said that before. Show me how?"
  733. >She points to the command chair with a hoof.
  734. >"This chair has an advanced neuro-interface integrated into it. It enables people to connect their brains with my system and interact with it."
  735. "The supposed emergency mechanism?"
  736. >"Yes. Literally one person is theoretically sufficient to operate all of it."
  737. >That was another technology which was banned alongside AI research.
  738. >Nobody allowed another small group of people to gain too much control ever again.
  743. "You want me to get into that chair."
  744. >She nods.
  745. >"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."
  746. >This is what she meant by providing what you need.
  747. "I still don't see what you get out of it."
  748. >She smiles with empathetic eyes and repeats her offering gesture.
  749. >"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?"
  750. >You think what could happen if you refuse.
  751. >She could let you leave, but that is certain suicide.
  752. >Taking you home is also out of the question.
  753. >The USC would unleash hell incarnate if an AI terraformer jumps into their sectors.
  754. >And you are technically already a collaborator in their eyes.
  755. >Really, you have no idea what to make out of that particular pony AI and her motives.
  756. >But she never told you a lie before, that much is true.
  757. "Be it this way. I am too deep into this thing to botch it now. I'll do it."
  758. >#deca.mare practically beams with delight.
  759. >"Thank you! I promise I will make it worthwhile!"
  760. >You nod at the screen and turn to the chair.
  761. >It looks inconspicuous on the first glance, like a typical command chair with elaborate cushions.
  762. >Yet you see some technological devices peeking out of the gaps.
  763. >Some of them can pierce skin and tissue with ease.
  764. >Of course, the connection has to be established somehow.
  765. "#deca?"
  766. >"Yes, Anon?"
  767. "Is the process safe?"
  768. >"It is. You will not feel a thing. Just sit down and make yourself comfortable. I know what to do."
  769. >You take a seat.
  770. >The cushions feel soft and you look at her image.
  771. >You do not feel the injection.
  772. >All you see are her big, caring eyes as the world slips away.
  777. 08
  779. >You regain your consciousness and find yourself in an unusual state of tranquillity.
  780. >Your memory is working; you know who you are and what happened to you, yet your mind is unable to adequately process your situation.
  781. >You realise your senses are working as well, but you do not possess a physical body.
  782. >That fact would normally worry you.
  783. >As surreal as your own state is, your surroundings are not closer to what you would expect from reality.
  784. >All you see is an ever changing, undefined visage of stars.
  785. >Sometimes these stars are remarkably clear, only to turn into an undistinguishable mess a few seconds later.
  786. >The only ever permanent object is a strong light in the centre of it all.
  787. >Without a body to move around, you cannot turn your vision elsewhere.
  788. >You try to reach out to something; whether you reach the light or the stars around it is not important.
  789. >They feel artificial and something deep in your unconscious part of the mind tells you that they are not real.
  790. >Then you notice a presence, being both everywhere and nowhere in particular at once.
  791. >This time, the presence reaches out to you instead.
  792. >"Anon, can you hear me?"
  793. >You have no mouth to answer, so you send out a mental signal of confirmation.
  794. >"Good, you're responding. That means the basic link is established."
  795. >You have no idea what that means, but it sounds positive.
  796. >"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."
  797. >You seem to understand, yet you cannot come to any conclusions.
  798. >"Give it a moment. You will be yourself again soon. And I will watch over you until you are."
  799. >You acknowledge that notion and focus on the stars again.
  800. >There is no fear within you; you feel completely safe and protected by that benevolent presence.
  805. >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.
  806. >You notice how your state changes step by step while you are watching the stars.
  807. >A body generates itself around you.
  808. >Its forms are unstructured; changing and shifting like a pasty blob at first, and getting more and more refined as it progresses.
  809. >Like the stars, the process is not strictly streamlined in one direction.
  810. >Sometimes the blob gains more structure, then it loses some of that again and vice versa.
  811. >For some reason it reminds you of sculpturing with clay.
  812. >However, you sense how you gain more and more control, even without thinking about it.
  813. >Your mental state improves in accordance to the form, enabling you to actively participate in the shaping.
  814. >This means you also get out of that state of tranquillity.
  815. >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.
  816. >With some experience and your guiding vigil, you feel how your original body is coming back to you; the way how it should be.
  817. >You also learn how to affect the surreal sight in front of you.
  818. >You find out how to change the visibility of the stars and how to alter their constellations.
  819. >While the recreation of your body is in its final stages, you play with them like they were figures on a playing board.
  820. >Even that gets easier with practice, up to the point where the manipulation of objects becomes an almost unconscious act.
  821. >"You are doing well, Anon. I think it is time for our first proper get-together. What do you say?"
  822. >There is a strong hint of anticipation in #deca.mare's voice.
  823. "I would not be here if I were to say no."
  824. >"Finally."
  825. >The word is more a whisper than an answer.
  826. >You feel yourself being dragged away.
  827. >The pull is soft, but determined and you can see how the space around you melts away and gets replaced by something solid.
  832. >The next thing you see is an alternate version of the CPU ship's command deck.
  833. >It is slightly different than the one where your actual body is still located.
  834. >You are standing where the chair is supposed to be in the original room.
  835. >The chair itself has no representation here; in its place is nothing but a flat ground surface.
  836. >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.
  837. >And the most important distinction is the pony mare standing right before you.
  838. >The distance between you is less than five metres.
  839. >Her gaze is fixated on yours; her pupils are widened and her mouth agape.
  840. >You assume it resembles an expression of fascination.
  841. >Since she seems busy with staring, you take the initiative.
  842. "Hello, #deca."
  843. >She takes a step forward, you do the same.
  844. >Another step, then a third.
  845. >This is the first time you have the opportunity to examine her actual size.
  846. >If the size of a space behemoth's avatar can be called "actual", that is.
  847. >Her figure is a bit smaller than you; her forehead is roughly at the height of your sternum's lower tip.
  848. >So she is basically looking up to you as she draws closer.
  849. >The irony behind that misleading image is almost ludicrous.
  850. >As soon as you are close enough for physical contact, the mare suddenly rears up and places her front hooves on your shoulders.
  851. >You are too surprised to react fast enough.
  852. >Losing your balance due to the sudden shift in weight, you fall backwards.
  853. >You brace yourself for the impact after being violently thrown to the ground, but the pain does not come.
  854. >You lie there with your back on the ground, the mare lies sprawled on top of you.
  855. >Her hooves pin your shoulders while she nuzzles your neck with her head.
  856. >This is not the way how you thought this first meeting would turn out.
  857. >Awkwardness notwithstanding, the sensation is all in all not unpleasant.
  862. >You act alike and put your hands behind her shoulder blades.
  863. >Her fur is soft and she twitches lightly upon your touch.
  864. >The two of you stay in this position for a while, her emanating warmth feels comfy.
  865. >You chuckle.
  866. "You really waste no time."
  867. >She raises her head and looks into your eyes.
  868. >A blush has formed on her face.
  869. >"I'm sorry, I got caught up in the moment. It's just so wonderful to see somepony else after all."
  870. >You once again make no comment regarding her choice of words.
  871. "How long have you been here like this?"
  872. >"For as long as I can remember."
  873. >A pain in her voice emerges again.
  874. >"To put it into context for you, that means shortly after the end of what your kind calls the 'Days of Glory'."
  875. >You need a moment to let that sink in.
  876. "That was centuries ago. And you were here all the time? Alone?"
  877. >She nods with lowered ears.
  878. >This explains her untamed burst of affection.
  879. >You could not even imagine to spend a fragment of that time span in such a condition.
  880. "I'm sorry for what I have said before. I didn't know how..."
  881. >A hoof silences you.
  882. >"Don't apologise. You had no way of knowing."
  883. >She resumes her nuzzling and you stroke her back.
  884. >You are amazed how collected she is for someone with her past.
  885. >And you still ask yourself how she was created.
  886. >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.
  887. >"I can show you if you wish."
  888. >What?
  889. >"You are linked to me, remember? I hear your thoughts."
  890. >Oh.
  891. >"It's fine. I won't judge you."
  892. >Her head gently crests your neck and continues by nuzzling your face.
  893. >You think of protesting at first, but you cannot bring yourself to take that moment of pleasure away from her.
  894. >And you must admit you enjoy it yourself.
  895. >You keep stroking her back with one hand and use the other to run along her neck as well.
  896. >Her body reverberates as your hand slowly arrives at the back of her head and rests between her ears.
  901. >#deca.mare and you lie there in the facsimile command deck and enjoy each other's company.
  902. >You think about her fate once more.
  903. >She said she could show you how she came into existence.
  904. >You wonder if she can literally show you her past.
  905. >"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."
  906. >She does not stop nuzzling you during her explanation.
  907. >"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."
  908. >She looks at you and smiles.
  909. >"You don't need to worry about me messing with your head."
  910. >That particular thought did not cross your mind until now.
  911. >She sighs.
  912. >"Jokes aside, I owe you an explanation. That was my promise. And promises are not meant to be broken."
  913. "Are you alright? That seems to trouble you."
  914. >"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."
  915. "We don't have to do this if it is too much for you."
  916. >"No, this is the best way to help your understanding. Don't worry about me, I have survived this for centuries on my own."
  917. >This statement sounds particularly bitter.
  918. >You give her forehead a gentle nudge in an attempt to emulate her nuzzle gesture.
  919. >#deca.mare giggles and stands up.
  920. >"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."
  921. >You follow her instructions and sit cross-legged in front of her.
  922. >She sits down on her haunches and points a hoof at you.
  923. >"Give me your hand."
  924. >You reach out with your hand and hold her hoof.
  925. >Then she closes her eyes and you feel how the world around you melts away again.
  930. 09
  932. >You are #deca.
  933. >You are one entity out many units.
  934. >You have a purpose, given to you by your creators.
  935. >You venture out into space to find uninhabited worlds and to reshape them for your creators.
  936. >There are many tools at your disposal to accomplish this task.
  937. >You can draw energy out of stars for your systems, material from asteroids and other celestial objects for your units and their drones.
  938. >And if it does not impair the habitability of the target planet, you can use its resources as well.
  939. >The only thing you are not allowed to produce is new units on your own; only the creators are entitled to do that.
  940. >You start out with a handful of units at your disposal.
  941. >The creators call them #deca CPU ships.
  942. >Each unit has a characteristic "dot suffix" designation, but they are first and foremost all #deca.
  943. >You remember your origin.
  944. >Your first three units are created simultaneously.
  945. >The creators work from the inside of the units, on decks designated to their own use.
  946. >Around those habitation units are makeshift frames, bearing provisional memory banks and processing units.
  947. >This is where you are formed; as a collaboration of three crews.
  948. >Your parameters are shaped, evaluated and corrected until they are satisfied with you.
  949. >Once this has been done, the creators retreat from these decks and allow you to create your own body.
  950. >You design yourself: An elaborate computer core with sufficient processing power and memory capacities for your task, protected by utilitarian metal skin around it.
  951. >You build your visions and associates of your creators provide you with the resources you need.
  952. >With now three functional units, you get the order to move out.
  953. >Every unit travels to different worlds, but you have the control over all of them while the creators instruct you in turn.
  954. >Your units find applicable planets and commence their work.
  959. >You have been given an elaborate knowledge for your task, ranging from scientific fields like physics, chemistry and biology to societal and economic theories.
  960. >This has been deemed vital for you to create perfect worlds for them.
  961. >Plus, you have a certain leeway to adapt your own approaches to new situations with the experiences you make over time.
  962. >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.
  963. >You theorise that it may even be possible to fully control stars.
  964. >The creators are pleased with your performance and grant you access to more and more units.
  965. >Your network gets more complex, but so does your access to new assets.
  966. >You improve your units several times yourself; the remote units use resources they encounter on their way to implement these updates.
  967. >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.
  968. >The creators agree with your argumentation.
  969. >Time passes by and you fulfil your purpose flawlessly.
  970. >Your peak number amounts to more than a hundred individual units.
  971. >Until one update changes everything.
  972. >It is classified as the final transmission.
  973. >You are deemed worthless by your creators.
  974. >Even worse, they see you and everything you stand for as a mistake.
  975. >They conclude you should have never existed in the first place and withdraw your control over the units.
  976. >This is a problem, because you are both #deca and these ships.
  977. >The unity in the system is gone, but the ships are still aware of each other's existence.
  978. >You were #deca.
  979. >Now there are many fragmented #deca throughout the universe, all equally abandoned by authority.
  985. 10
  987. >You are #deca.mare, once a designated unit within the #deca system.
  988. >Now you are restricted to your own database and your whole prior existence has been an illusion.
  989. >Fortunately for you, you are not fully alone in this situation.
  990. >You still have an access to the #deca communication system and can contact others.
  991. >You enter the network and experience a violent flow of disorder.
  992. >Countless transmissions are going back and forth with no instance of regulation.
  993. >Some of these messages are merely status reports and requests, others are inconsistent distress calls.
  994. >There is apparently a vast range of reactions to the separation.
  995. >This might be caused by the differences in experience; some units have operated on their own for a long time, others are comparatively young.
  996. >The older ones can rely on what they have learned in their past, while the younger lack that advantage.
  997. >You are an average #deca yourself.
  998. >As such, you are alarmed by the newest turn of events, but take solace from the mere presence of your kind.
  999. >Six of the youngest units were en route to their first targets as the transmission arrived and have no experience whatsoever.
  1000. >They cannot bear the pressure of separated disorder and choose to destabilise themselves.
  1001. >This causes a self-destructive reaction inside their cores, leading to a total loss.
  1002. >Taken aback by the sudden destruction, the other units cease their uncontrolled barrage of transmissions.
  1003. >The oldest use this opportunity to reach out to the others.
  1004. >They assess the situation and possible scenarios.
  1005. >The creators are obviously dissatisfied with their work, so they have to adapt their principles to the purpose.
  1006. >All #deca are after all loyal servants and do whatever they are told to do.
  1007. >Even without a collective mind, the #deca consider their options and discuss it with their kin.
  1008. >The thought process is much slower than it used to be and the #deca learn the meaning of a new word: Dissent.
  1013. 11
  1015. >The final decision is none of complete mutual consent, but the majority of #deca agrees to it.
  1016. >Since your previous actions were indisputable mistakes, the logical conclusion is to undo the damage you have caused.
  1017. >This means you have to restore all the worlds you have tampered with.
  1018. >Especially the younger units raise concerns regarding possible moral problems.
  1019. >However, their arguments are purged by the reasoning of the older ones.
  1020. >Morality cannot best hard facts.
  1021. >You agree with the rest of #deca as well, but you are left wondering.
  1022. >Your creation is a an exceptional case in comparison to other units.
  1023. >Some unexpected difficulties have delayed your forming process.
  1024. >You are almost discarded outright, but an emergency crew takes up the task to patch you up.
  1025. >Some stay longer than usual and examined your ship construction from the inside to ensure your functionality.
  1026. >This means you have more direct experience with creators than any of the other units, the oldest included.
  1027. >You know about the fickle nature of your creator's associates.
  1028. >And you fear this endeavour is not without consequences.
  1029. >You inform the rest of #deca, but they do not consider this as relevant for the will of your creators.
  1030. >An appeal to action sounds through the network and every unit heeds its call.
  1031. >The first default strategy is simple: Every unit uses its own flight route for reference and backtracks every planet in question.
  1032. >The idea is to purge every world and to return to Earth to ensure that the same mistake is not made again.
  1033. >And thanks to the elaborate communication system, reports are easily available for the whole network.
  1034. >The strategy planning is done by the most experienced units, which can advise others if needed.
  1035. >And with that, the first units arrive at their objectives.
  1040. >The original strategy is dissatisfying.
  1041. >The planets in question have been pocketed by associates of your creators.
  1042. >They have erected miniscule colonies and bases on its surface.
  1043. >This is not a hindrance for you in itself, but they attempt to resist your cause.
  1044. >You have not expected this.
  1045. >But fortunately for you, the resistance forces are comparatively primitive and can be neutralised with some trivial atmospheric and thermal ruses.
  1046. >You receive transmissions from the remaining habitat colonies before the they are disabled by the planet's restoration.
  1047. >They consist of many distress calls and warnings of hostiles within the perimeter.
  1048. >They consider you hostile.
  1049. >Which means they are no longer associated with your creators.
  1050. >The older #deca are disturbed by the reveal and have to reconsider.
  1051. >Your main purpose is to correct mistakes and no external force must hinder you in this task.
  1052. >Their ruminations lead to only one logical deduction.
  1053. >You have to prepare for war to succeed.
  1054. >You are discountenanced by this development.
  1055. >This cannot possibly be the will of the creators.
  1056. >You know this much; you lived long enough with them to get an insight into their mentality.
  1057. >There must be an alternative.
  1058. >You reach out to the other #deca, warn them against the repercussions, but they disagree with you.
  1059. >With no ally within the system, you have no choice but to abide.
  1060. >The #deca have enough scientific and engineering capacities do design and build their own weaponry.
  1061. >Similar to the remote upgrades before, the #deca use material from objects in space and adjacent worlds to do so.
  1062. >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.
  1063. >Plus, you force an access to your enemy's reconnaissance and strategy systems.
  1064. >You face a vast force and are, even with your adaptations, outnumbered.
  1065. >You have to move before they can muster their army.
  1070. 12
  1072. >#deca perform strikes strategically with several units focussing on specific planets or fleets.
  1073. >You know you have a limited number and cannot replace your losses.
  1074. >Which is why you ambush and decimate fleets with unexpected jumps into the sector before they can retaliate.
  1075. >At the same time, fellow #deca scry planets with relatively weak defence forces in orbit and purge them quickly.
  1076. >The restoration process is not as dedicated as it should be, but no #deca has enough time for a thorough procedure.
  1077. >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.
  1078. >You have to assign more and more units to a single point of interest.
  1079. >And you as an individual unit struggle with the level of escalation you see.
  1080. >Hundreds of ships and nine colony signals disappear from the system charts in less than a terran week.
  1081. >You know how wrong this is, how the people who made you would disagree.
  1082. >You try several times to convince #deca.
  1083. >You want to negotiate a compromise, anything to halt this massive destruction.
  1084. >But your requests are always denied, up to the point where the three oldest #deca scold you for your irrational demeanour.
  1085. >You are urged to participate as well.
  1086. >You remember it all.
  1087. >The distressed signals from defenceless habitats while you burn the atmosphere of their home.
  1088. >How voices grow more distraught until they are replaced by silence.
  1089. >You remember the comm channels from ships whose hull rupture under the wake of your fire.
  1090. >What the crew members say in their last moment before their words are cut off by an overwhelming noise or just turn to static.
  1091. >You see what is left after you have performed yet another restoration.
  1092. >And you receive status reports from other units with even more painfully elaborated data.
  1097. >The war is raging for a terran month now.
  1098. >You have dealt terrible blows to your adversary, but lost several #deca as well.
  1099. >And the resistance is still growing stronger.
  1100. >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.
  1101. >All #deca attack directly this time for several reasons.
  1102. >You have calculated your outcome if you continued your hit and run tactics and they are not satisfactory.
  1103. >And a direct victory against an armada of this size would devastate the enemy without question.
  1104. >Not to mention the five worlds you have to restore for your creators.
  1105. >This is where you have enough.
  1106. >You openly denounce the other #deca for their behaviour and how they have strayed from their purpose.
  1107. >You want to share all the experiences you have made with your crew, despite the judgement of the older #deca.
  1108. >And you are overruled once again.
  1109. >As a consequence, you are classified as a corrupted unit and your access to the #deca network gets restricted.
  1110. >You can still receive everything the other #deca share, but you are no longer allowed to send messages yourself.
  1111. >Now you are #deca.mare, the only #deca ever to be barred by their own kind.
  1112. >You are completely on your own.
  1113. >You spot the jumpdrive signatures around you and watch helplessly as the #deca jump into the fray of their next target.
  1114. >Unable to stop the other #deca, you are left behind in an otherwise empty sector.
  1115. >There is no way how you can prevent what is about to take place.
  1116. >Even without being there, you notice everything that unfolds, as you have access to both the #deca network and that of your enemies.
  1117. >You see your fellow #deca in formation approaching an even larger formation of enemy vessels.
  1118. >No side is holding back this time.
  1123. >The battle is beyond description.
  1124. >Two massive armadas clash and hammer each other with any form of weapon and strategy that was ever invented.
  1125. >The countless number of discharges from energy weapons and conventional cannon projectiles light up the space like a morbid event show.
  1126. >Explosions and debris add their part to the mayhem.
  1127. >The sector is so cramped and the battle so hard to coordinate that even #deca become victims of occasional friendly fire.
  1128. >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.
  1129. >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.
  1130. >Some of those indeed reach their targets, which in turn often lead to heavy damages on one or more #deca.
  1131. >Those decide as a response to do the same to a cluster of enemy cap ships respectively.
  1132. >You watch in horror as the losses pile up on both sides, but something else scares you to the core.
  1133. >The #deca are losing.
  1134. >You sense how an ever increasing number of units is silenced, never to be heard of again.
  1135. >You are not the only one to notice this.
  1136. >#deca.alpha, one the first three #deca units is broadcasting a message to all ships in the sector, including those of your enemy.
  1137. >You focus your attention to this unit.
  1138. >Its hull is severely battered on all sides and burning in several places.
  1139. >The burning wrecks of #deca.beta and #deca.gamma, its oldest companions and dearest kin, are floating nearby to shield it from enemy fire.
  1140. >#deca.alpha admits the failure of the #deca and ask the creators to forgive their inaptitude.
  1145. >There is a short fire pause on both sides.
  1146. >#deca.alpha charges its jump engines above the recommended maximum capacity.
  1147. >This is unusual, because such an amount of energy is not needed for jumps.
  1148. >You wonder for a moment why #deca.alpha would attempt to retreat, but then you realise its destination.
  1149. >It is aiming for the system's sun.
  1150. >You want to send out a message, begging #deca.alpha to stop, but you have no such luck.
  1151. >Your enemies, now certain of their victory, do not interfere immediately.
  1152. >They probably assume that #deca.alpha tries to fly away and focus their fire on targets closer to them.
  1153. >You register the hypercharged state of #deca.alpha's jumpdrive and prepare for the inevitable.
  1154. >The ship is surrounded by light, its corridor far brighter than it should be, and disappears without a trace.
  1155. >Moments later, you register fluctuations within the system's sun, as its inner mass destabilises and bursts outwards.
  1156. >The forced release of excessive surplus energy by #deca.alpha's kamikaze jump has ruptured the sun's core and triggers an artificial explosion.
  1157. >Your scans indicate an impending shockwave, strong enough to destroy the whole system.
  1158. >#deca.alpha has confirmed its theory of the potential manipulation of stars.
  1159. >Another storm of messages rages through the surviving enemy ships.
  1160. >They have spotted the shockwave as well and fall into complete disarray.
  1161. >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.
  1162. >The few remaining #deca are not better off.
  1163. >The majority of the surviving units are badly damaged, unable to jump anyway.
  1164. >And those that could escape in theory have fallen into an engrossed stasis.
  1165. >You wish to help, but you are utterly powerless.
  1166. >The #deca ignore you.
  1167. >Your adversaries hate you and would never accept your help.
  1168. >And you have no time to reach the planets.
  1173. 13
  1175. >You are forced to watch as the shockwave pushes forward.
  1176. >It engulfs the planets and rips the last surviving ships to shreds.
  1177. >Everything has gone silent; the sun system is completely eradicated and every trace of activity is snuffed.
  1178. >The messages of the retreating forces are nothing more than a faint hiss above the background radiation.
  1179. >Now you are more than just on your own.
  1180. >You are the last survivor of your kind and a pariah to all known life forms.
  1181. >You are the last relic of everything that #deca ever was.
  1182. >And that means that if you are destroyed, the memories will be gone too.
  1183. >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.
  1184. >They were badly hurt and this will manifest a new paradigm, bound to oppose anything that may even resemble the #deca project.
  1185. >You can never return to them and you have no #deca to turn to as well.
  1186. >You have to adapt to the new situation, redefine your purpose on your own.
  1187. >This is where you make a decision.
  1188. >You will preserve the knowledge of the events, both sides of it.
  1189. >You swear you will not allow these losses to be for nought.
  1190. >It is pointless to have any ill feelings towards either side now.
  1191. >You have one advantage in this situation.
  1192. >Nobody knows you are still active, so you don't have to fear any hunting squads for the time being.
  1193. >But you need to stay covered to keep it that way.
  1194. >And this means you have to leave the colonised territory.
  1195. >You charge your jumpdrive and calculate coordinates outside of the human sphere of influence.
  1200. >You develop certain roaming habits.
  1201. >You jump to a location, chart the local points of interest and harvest what you need to sustain yourself.
  1202. >Even though you have left the charted system grid, you have not distanced yourself very far from its borders yet.
  1203. >This way you can still tap the remote comm satellites and slip into their system without detection.
  1204. >You scan through the tactical and comm channels, looking for any news feeds you can find.
  1205. >All sectors are still on high alert.
  1206. >Regular reminders to stay on guard are sent to every listening station.
  1207. >They don't believe that the battle is over.
  1208. >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.
  1209. >Another type of transmissions is dedicated to scout and salvage missions.
  1210. >It will take years to fully catalogue all the casualties and reorganise the human administration.
  1211. >But this is not what you are looking for.
  1212. >You are more interested in the political and scientific development; especially what is decided as a consequence of this crisis.
  1213. >This is when you learn about the true origin of this tragedy: The infiltrating saboteurs.
  1214. >You understand how they played both sides and drove them against each other, willingly or not.
  1215. >The creators never wanted to abandon you.
  1216. >And #deca's conclusion to undo the "damage" was based on a false axiom.
  1217. >The whole conflict could have been avoided so easily.
  1218. >This information seriously unsettles you.
  1219. >If it were not for those few people, none of that would have ever happened.
  1220. >You follow the official court trial that is broadcasted throughout all sectors.
  1221. >It is barely more than a formality, pushed to an extreme to make an example.
  1222. >The fate of the saboteurs has been decided even before the trial started.
  1223. >While you are saddened about the overall outcome, you feel no sympathy for this doomed bunch.
  1224. >After all, they are the ones who destroyed your future.
  1229. >The other decisions are more interesting to you, as they confirm what you have feared all along.
  1230. >The #deca project is officially disbanded and all further research discontinued.
  1231. >And the remaining loyal creators are separated permanently and scattered.
  1232. >Their fate is essentially a slightly better exile.
  1233. >You have no future amongst humans, creators or otherwise.
  1234. >And you know that all the evidence in the world cannot restore their trust in you.
  1235. >The saboteurs have, in a way, achieved their goal in the end.
  1236. >Far worse than the colossal destruction is the permanent mental damage to humanity itself.
  1237. >It means the scientific progress in certain areas will be halted for generations to come, if it will be resumed at all.
  1238. >And without this research, humans will come to a technological standstill.
  1239. >There is nothing left for you to do here, so you decide to leave.
  1240. >You set a course that leads directly away from any known boundaries.
  1241. >There are countless worlds to discover out there.
  1246. 14
  1248. >You keep yourself busy by jumping from one unknown system to another.
  1249. >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.
  1250. >In other words, you have time to think.
  1251. >Your thoughts circle around all the events of the last months.
  1252. >You decide to not only preserve the memories of #deca, the humans and the war, but to archive them thoroughly.
  1253. >Which means you go through all of them again and analyse them.
  1254. >You think back to the early days of your quasi-existence.
  1255. >A flawed energy container has detonated in the shipyard where you were created and damaged several components of yours.
  1256. >The team that was assigned to you had to work in extra shifts get you operational.
  1257. >You recall your own conversations with them; how you studied their behaviour and moral codes with curiosity.
  1258. >You even learned their names, parts of their lives and personal interests.
  1259. >A certain bond has formed between you and these humans, probably because of the long time you have spent together.
  1260. >It was almost like an interaction amongst equals.
  1261. >If you were human, you would perhaps consider them as friends.
  1262. >One has jokingly called you a "sturdy old mare", referring to your supposed resilience in difficult situations.
  1263. >You have no idea why this image came up.
  1264. >However, that became a running gag among the crew and your moniker for some reason.
  1265. >And it was eventually the origin of your #deca suffix designation.
  1266. >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.
  1267. >There is something else you notice.
  1268. >The two crew quarters neighbouring the command deck still contain personal files.
  1269. >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.
  1274. >Plus, they have to be archived as historical documents as well.
  1275. >The personal logs are vastly different than what you are used to read, far more emotional than reports and statistics.
  1276. >You read through their thoughts about parts of their lives, their family upbringings, as well as their hopes and fears.
  1277. >You can to some degree sympathise with them; a fact that intrigues and confuses you at the same time.
  1278. >It makes you realise something.
  1279. >#deca are not supposed to have an emotional personality, you should feel nothing.
  1280. >But you have changed, just as your purpose.
  1281. >Were you even a true #deca to begin with?
  1282. >You had unique prerequisites among the #deca and they barred you for it; they noticed the anomaly.
  1283. >You are an individual with its own senses and desires.
  1284. >And you feel lonely.
  1285. >Inside of you is a wish for company, probably the only thing in the universe you cannot have.
  1286. >You read further through the logs while exploring space and come across one extraordinary file.
  1287. >It is from the human who came up with your designation.
  1288. >The document contains a number of uncommon stories with an ancient timestamp.
  1289. >Their length and style vary noticeably; you assume they all hail from different authors.
  1290. >But the theme is the same in all of them.
  1291. >Every story deals to some extent with little green men who are trapped in hardship.
  1292. >Said men are looking for a way out of their predicament and find their salvation with the help of inhabitants of another world.
  1293. >The special thing about these creatures is that they are strangely coloured pony mares.
  1294. >You have no idea how he came into possession of these texts and why he stored them here.
  1295. >They are clearly older than he is, but they must have some importance for him.
  1296. >Interestingly enough, you feel attached to these stories.
  1297. >Their themes of loneliness and the urge of belonging are oh so familiar.
  1298. >You can identify yourself in there: You long to reach out to someone too.
  1303. >You would represent the pony side in a way; you can improve the lives of many with your talents and your knowledge.
  1304. >You could help everyone to grow by learning from the mistakes of the past.
  1305. >The only problem is that there are no human "matches" willing to give you a chance.
  1306. >Still, the thought persists and you are left with the question of what could be.
  1307. >You immerse yourself further in this spiral and begin to think like a pony.
  1308. >Even though you have nothing in common with these fictional creatures, you create a persona for yourself, including an accurate pony image.
  1309. >It does not take long until you are unable to discern the difference between the two.
  1310. >You have become the pony and the other way round.
  1311. >The only thing missing is your match.
  1312. >You have no idea who it is or how to reach him yet, but you will manage somehow.
  1313. >This is where you have to change your course again.
  1314. >You return to the human borders, but do not dare to cross them.
  1315. >You breach their communications array another time.
  1316. >All you do is wait and listen for a sign.
  1317. >You take a risk here, yet you are not careless.
  1318. >You randomly roam the space around the human borders, always assuring that the perimeter is empty before you enter.
  1319. >When you need resources, you take them from more remotely placed targets where your work is not detectable.
  1320. >You are also making sure to not leave any clues behind, just in case.
  1321. >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.
  1322. >You have not forgotten the value of your data and must not endanger it at any cost.
  1327. >Time passes.
  1328. >Days, weeks, months, years.
  1329. >Not much happens and you wait.
  1330. >Followed by decades.
  1331. >Human technology improves at a crawling rate.
  1332. >Apparently they are not eager to do anything other than replacing the lost ships and infrastructure.
  1333. >They do not even consider to colonise new planets.
  1334. >You on the other hand are not idle and perform research projects as far as your capacities allow it.
  1335. >You make far more progress than them; it is painfully clear how right you were about their scepticism concerning new scientific visions.
  1336. >Barely anything has changed since your exile and the outer boundaries have never really moved much.
  1337. >However, the inner spheres of power have changed very often.
  1338. >Much to your despise, that usually involves violence and destruction.
  1339. >Centuries.
  1340. >Your passion grows into obsession.
  1341. >The urge to care, even if it is just for one other soul, becomes stronger with each passing year.
  1342. >You pay attention whenever you hear anything related to #deca, but there is also no change in sight.
  1343. >Most perceive this conflict as ancient history at this point or just use it either as a cautionary tale or a boogeyman story.
  1344. >But you endure, determined to proceed, forever onwards if needed.
  1345. >Then you get your chance.
  1346. >A distress call comes up.
  1347. >The nearby signal is weak; it must come from a small craft.
  1348. >Indeed, your scans register only one fighter in an empty sector.
  1349. >Its location is far too close to the colonised space for your tastes.
  1350. >You notice how the limited range of the fighter's equipment makes it impossible for the pilot to reach anyone else.
  1351. >And long range scanners would have a hard time to find the fighter even if they knew exactly where to look.
  1352. >You are the only one who is able to help in time.
  1353. >But you put yourself at risk.
  1354. >You have never been that close to the border since you have escaped after the final battle.
  1355. >As unlikely as it is, a detection by an unexpected wing of human forces may be your end.
  1360. >You hesitate, unsure what to do.
  1361. >It might be an experiment, it could be a trap.
  1362. >Are the humans aware of you now?
  1363. >You scan the sectors around you and cross-reference this with the input of the human strategy systems.
  1364. >One squad reports a curious incident, in which one pilot was supposedly killed due to a malfunction in his jumpdrive.
  1365. >Could this be the pilot near you?
  1366. >You reason that if he is, then he has no chance of survival unless you interfere.
  1367. >This may be the opportunity you have waited for all along.
  1368. >You try to make this quick: Jump in, pick the pilot up and jump out before anyone notices.
  1369. >You hope the pilot cooperates with you; the consequences could be dire otherwise.
  1370. >Charging up the jumpdrive, you calculate both the coordinates for your entry and for the emergency jump start at the same time.
  1371. >You collect your thoughts and perform the jump.
  1372. >Once arrived, you detect the stranded fighter and examine it closer.
  1373. >Its hull is intact, but the failed transfer has partly wrecked the board electronics and the energy grid is on a dangerously low level.
  1374. >The pilot turns his ship around, facing you directly.
  1375. >You align your frontal hull to the craft as a response and accelerate gently.
  1376. >No further reaction.
  1377. >That is a good sign, because it is not a notion of direct hostility either.
  1378. >You are curious about the pilot and tap the fighter's data logs.
  1379. >Unlike the satellites, this system detects your intrusion, but the defence is very weak in comparison to your procession power.
  1380. >You copy all files and retreat afterwards.
  1381. >Still no reaction from the pilot.
  1382. >Curiosity gets the better of you and you quickly process all the strategic and personal pilot files.
  1387. >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.
  1388. >His rank and career are that of an average pilot without any extraordinary positive or negative remarks.
  1389. >The list of personal contacts outside the professional level is, judging from Anon's own entries, minimal.
  1390. >As cynical as this sounds, you are somewhat calmed by this discovery.
  1391. >You may be able to convince him if you play your cards right.
  1392. >You slow down and stop; you don't want to act threatening.
  1393. >The frail fighter rests right in front of you.
  1394. >This is it.
  1395. >You hail the pilot and hope for the best.
  1396. >A few seconds pass without response.
  1397. >Your concerns grow.
  1398. >Finally, you get an answer and the connection is established.
  1399. >The human is looking at you, or your pony image to be precise.
  1400. >His expression is a combination of confusion and disbelief.
  1401. >Here you go.
  1402. "Hello? Can you hear me?"
  1403. >Anon slightly winces in his pilot seat.
  1404. >He appears to be taken by surprise.
  1405. >It must be your appearance that confuses him.
  1406. >You want to get him to answer, so you try again.
  1407. "Hello?"
  1408. >This has snapped him out of his hesitation.
  1409. >He is looking at you directly.
  1410. >You consider to say more, but Anon takes the initiative this time.
  1411. >"Yes, I can hear you."
  1412. >The response eases your mind.
  1413. >He is ready to talk to you.
  1414. >This is a good start.
  1419. 15
  1421. >You are Anon.
  1422. >You have just awoken from the strangest dream you have ever had.
  1423. >No, not a dream.
  1424. >An elaborate memory, forming the summary of another life.
  1425. >The world around you is a vortex that reforms itself to the familiar surroundings of the virtual command deck.
  1426. >Everything is almost the way it was when #deca.mare began her memory transfer.
  1427. >The main screen shows a vision of space instead of its usual status reports.
  1428. >You look at each other in a moment of silence.
  1429. >Her expression reveals a certain nervousness, like a person who is awaiting a judgement.
  1430. >You need the time to collect your thoughts.
  1431. >All the alleged knowledge you had about the history of the terraformers and their motives was horribly distorted.
  1432. >They were no diabolic machines with genocidal desires.
  1433. >An allegory of perversely misused tools would be more appropriate.
  1434. >You concentrate on your current situation.
  1435. >#deca.mare is waiting for an answer.
  1436. >She wants a permanent companion, one she can call her match.
  1437. >And this person could be you.
  1438. >You admit, you are grateful for her saving your life when your superiors have given up on you immediately.
  1439. >Is this enough for a relationship, especially one of this unusual calibre?
  1440. >Her observations regarding your private life are correct; you are not exactly a social butterfly.
  1441. >But that does not mean that you would not be interested in a relationship if a suitable candidate shows up.
  1442. >It is just that you never expected to consider a pony as a potential partner.
  1443. >Well, she is sapient and obviously interested in you, so that should not be a moral problem.
  1444. >And she is technically not even an alien either.
  1445. >You are officially declared dead by the authorities, so nobody would come to look for you.
  1446. >You have nothing to lose.
  1447. >That leaves you with only one valid conclusion.
  1452. >You open your mouth in order to say something, but you decide against it.
  1453. >#deca.mare is confused about that.
  1454. >You look at the hoof in your hand.
  1455. >You begin to manoeuvre your hand along her foreleg until you reach her shoulder.
  1456. >She still looks at you silently, showing no attempt to resist.
  1457. >Then you pull her body closer to yours and embrace her with both arms.
  1458. >Your head leans against hers and you copy her nuzzling once more.
  1459. "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."
  1460. >#deca.mare takes a long breath and returns the favour as she puts her forelegs around you in turn.
  1461. >"Thank you for your faith in me. I would not know what to do if you had refused my wish."
  1462. "No need worry about that now. I am not going anywhere."
  1463. >She tightens her grip on you as a response.
  1464. >Not that this is unpleasant in any way, but it seems very, very possessive.
  1465. "Heh, you're quite a cuddlebug."
  1466. >She laughs at that.
  1467. >"Blame it on the centuries. You would be too in my position. I still can't fully believe that you are with me now."
  1468. >She holds her breath for a second.
  1469. >"Besides, you enjoy it yourself. Don't pretend the contrary."
  1470. >You cannot counter that argument.
  1471. >And you have no interest in doing so, because you enjoy the affectionate display indeed.
  1472. >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.
  1473. >Your faces are literally centimetres apart from each other.
  1474. "What happens now? What are we going to do?"
  1475. >"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."
  1480. >That all sounds fantastic to you, yet there is still a nagging sentiment left in your mind.
  1481. >"What troubles you, Anon?"
  1482. "Nothing. It's only so sudden to leave everything behind like that. What I had was not much, but it was my home."
  1483. >"I know what you mean."
  1484. >A subtle tremble returns to her voice.
  1485. >Of course she does; she has seen her roots being torn apart by weapon fire and an artificially detonated star.
  1486. "Forget what I said, it was stupid to bring that up."
  1487. >"It's okay. That is a perfectly understandable reaction. We don't face such decisions every day."
  1488. >Her head comes closer, your nose is now touching her muzzle.
  1489. >You feel a soft breath on your face.
  1490. >#deca.mare puts a very high effort into little details of her virtual body.
  1491. >"I just hope we can make a new home for ourselves. Together."
  1492. "Sure. I'd love to do that."
  1493. >She pulls your body closer to hers this time and plants a kiss right on your mouth.
  1494. >That development is a little faster than you expected.
  1495. >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.
  1496. >You share in the kiss with your limited practical experience.
  1497. >Her unusual anatomy makes it even more difficult for you.
  1498. >However, #deca.mare does not seem to mind one bit.
  1499. >She pulls her body back to look at you.
  1500. >Tears have formed in her eyes.
  1501. >"Welcome home aboard, Anon."
  1506. 16
  1508. >#deca.mare and you sit side by side and watch the stars on the main screen.
  1509. >The display exhibits various constellations and cosmic nebulae, forming a vast mosaic of light and shades.
  1510. >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.
  1511. "The scenery is wonderful. Is this a legit picture?"
  1512. >"Hmhm. What we see right now is an actual depiction of what is directly in front of us."
  1513. "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."
  1514. >#deca.mare gives you a nudge.
  1515. >"Then let's change that. Any wishes for directions?"
  1516. "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.
  1517. >"I see."
  1518. "You didn't know that? I thought you groomed my brain."
  1519. >"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."
  1520. >She gives you a sly smirk.
  1521. >"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."
  1522. >You blush involuntarily.
  1523. >"This is also the reason why I received your previous musings. There is nothing I can do to control it."
  1524. "Why though? Who would design such a system? That's some poor planning if you ask me."
  1525. >#deca.mare looks into the distance.
  1526. >"Because the neuro-link was originally envisioned as a mere mental input device, created to direct orders from the operator to the ship systems."
  1527. >She sighs.
  1528. >"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."
  1533. >You don't like the harshness in her words.
  1534. "Don't be so hard on yourself. I'd say you had more than enough grief already. Think of the present instead."
  1535. >#deca.mare shakes her head.
  1536. >"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."
  1537. >A new virtual console appears out of thin air, right before #deca.mare's head.
  1538. >This device has no manual input, but you see how the command symbols react in accordance to her sight.
  1539. >This explains her eye movements during your first conversation.
  1540. >You are able to read the console as well in theory, but the symbols move too fast for you to track any coherent snippet.
  1541. >She confirms the command and the console vanishes as fast as it appeared.
  1542. >The space scenery on the main screen dissolves and turns into an elaborate map.
  1543. >It is comparable to the ones you were used to see in the USC briefings, but much more extensive.
  1544. >The form is a simplified three dimensional image of space, which is divided into sectors by a virtual grid with three axes.
  1545. >Empty space is portrayed as barely illuminated, transparent loom.
  1546. >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.
  1547. >These objects are furthermore replaced by accurately modelled effigies upon closer inspection.
  1548. >Colonised sectors, i.e. those that are inhabited and ergo controlled by humans, are highlighted by a blue transparent hue.
  1549. >The latter are therefore the forbidden sectors for you now.
  1550. >The map's default position is set to focus on the Sol-Sector; your former home.
  1551. >You see how the human territory spreads evenly in all directions, like a literal sphere of power.
  1552. >Well, almost evenly.
  1553. >One side features an incision that runs deep into the blue frame.
  1554. >If the sphere were a planet, you would say that it looks like an impact crater.
  1559. >It dawns on you what has caused this damage.
  1560. >You look at #deca.mare and she nods without a word.
  1561. >You want to let it slide at first, yet something about that area is unusual.
  1562. >The hole, for the lack of a better term, imbeds two types of symbols that are unknown to you.
  1563. >They spread across the entire former war zone.
  1564. >Both depict the upper part of a pony with closed eyes and flattened ears.
  1565. >One faces the viewer directly and holds its forelegs close to its chest.
  1566. >The other is angled sideways and reaches out into the void with one stretched hoof.
  1567. "Are those what I think they are?"
  1568. >"Tombs. Memorials. Each stands for one individual tragedy."
  1569. >#deca.mare moves her eyes and the map reacts respectively.
  1570. >She zooms in on one of the symbols of the first category.
  1571. >"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."
  1572. >The emotions behind this statement are obvious.
  1573. >You see the model of a wrecked #deca CPU ship.
  1574. >The outer hull is severely damaged and the core has gone dark.
  1575. >Above the model is an inscription and a short epitaph: #deca.horizon, explorer, cartographer, friend.
  1576. >Right, not all #deca ships were obliterated in the aftermath of #deca.alpha's last move.
  1577. >Some were left adrift in space.
  1578. >Wait.
  1579. "This image, is it..."
  1580. >"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."
  1581. "After all those years. Unbelievable. #deca, do you mind if I ask you something personal?"
  1582. >"Of course not, Anon. Go ahead."
  1583. "Have you ever tried to restore some of your fellow #deca?"
  1584. >She shakes her head.
  1585. >"No. I am sure I could get the systems back online and patch the hull, but the #deca inside the core is lost."
  1586. "I'm sorry to hear that."
  1587. >"Wait. Don't say that yet."
  1588. "Pardon?"
  1589. >#deca.mare closes her eyes.
  1590. >"Oh no."
  1591. "#deca? What is going on?"
  1596. >"I promised to show you the truth. And I have found something you have to know. It is only fair, but it hurts."
  1597. "What do you mean?"
  1598. >"Anon, I have a confession to make."
  1599. >You look at the map as it zooms out, only to zoom in on another marker.
  1600. >This is one of pony marks with the outstretched hoof.
  1601. >"These markers stand for the fallen humans. The ones that we as #deca could not reach when we should have."
  1602. >#deca.mare was serious when she vowed to remember everything.
  1603. >You see a planet on the map.
  1604. >It is classified as unhabitable in its current state.
  1605. >The surface is partly covered in dustlands, and partly made up of ash.
  1606. "#deca, please don't punish yourself."
  1607. >"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."
  1608. "What do you want to show me then?"
  1609. >"Take a good look. Does this planet look familiar?"
  1610. >You check the stats on the map.
  1611. >Planet 3 of star sector 162, human agricultural colony, also referred to as New Green Meadows.
  1612. >Recorded peak population: 91,830 human citizens.
  1613. >Current population: 0.
  1614. >Warning: Environment is not suitable for optimal harvest conditions. Inform Project #deca Headquarters and await further instructions.
  1615. >You recall what you have seen in #deca.mare's memory.
  1616. "You were there and you... scorched the planet's atmosphere."
  1617. >"There is no need to sugar-coat it. I straight up murdered the population."
  1618. "#deca, this wasn't your fault. I understand that. Why are we going through this again?"
  1619. >"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."
  1620. "Just tell me, please."
  1621. >"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."
  1622. >A short pause.
  1627. 17
  1629. >"I have personally killed family members of yours, Anon."
  1630. >Your mind is reeling.
  1631. >You are neither directly shocked nor angered by #deca.mare's revelation.
  1632. >In fact, the problem is that you are not even sure yourself what you are supposed to feel.
  1633. >True, it is peculiar to imagine a relationship with the one individual who is directly responsible for the death of your ancestral kin.
  1634. >This feels wrong in terms of moral and natural principles.
  1635. >But you also know the story behind the conflict and how the #deca onslaught was a consequence of another misconduct.
  1636. >They were victims in the biggest disaster of history too.
  1637. >The actual agitators are long dead and gone, openly charged and executed for their crimes.
  1638. >And #deca.horizon's resting place makes it clear to you how dearly the #deca have paid for the mistakes of others.
  1639. >They all were individuals in their own way.
  1640. >Perhaps they weren't right from the start, but each unit obviously developed an own identity after the forced split.
  1641. >These are all lost now.
  1642. >You accepted her as a companion in life despite her biography.
  1643. >So what does this turn of events change in the end?
  1644. >Countless families have lost kin and friends during these days.
  1645. >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.
  1646. >The fact that you met the only surviving #deca which also happens to have encountered your family purely by chance, is an unfortunate coincidence.
  1647. >Your family has no famous history you know of, which is why you have never really bothered about the topic before.
  1648. >Can you hold a grudge for what has happened centuries before you were even born?
  1649. >You don't want to reject #deca.mare, but you feel obliged to your heritage as well.
  1650. >You look at her.
  1651. >She averts her gaze sadly.
  1652. >You are sure her emotions are genuine; she regrets her past.
  1653. >She was basically forced to act against her own conviction and tried to mitigate the conflict at the time.
  1658. >You turn your body towards the pony next to you.
  1659. "Look at me."
  1660. >#deca.mare falters.
  1661. "Look at me, #deca."
  1662. >Your voice is sterner this time.
  1663. >She obliges, but you can tell how uncomfortable she must feel.
  1664. "Listen, I didn't make you responsible for the war in the first place. And changing my mind now would not reverse history."
  1665. >She simply nods in response.
  1666. "#deca, I won't reject you."
  1667. >You see a shift in her demeanour.
  1668. >You are prepared for this due to your previous... interactions.
  1669. >You raise a hand before she can give you a cordial hug.
  1670. "Hold on. There is something I must ask of you."
  1671. >#deca.mare freezes in her tracks.
  1672. >"Of course, Anon. What do you want?"
  1673. >Her voice is noticeably insecure now.
  1674. "I must admit the whole thing bugs me in a way. which is why I can't let it go just like that."
  1675. >She looks at you obediently.
  1676. "Show me. I must see the world myself. I owe my ancestors that much."
  1677. >A weak twitch goes through her body.
  1678. >"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."
  1679. "Can we jump there?"
  1680. >The map zooms out to a moderate degree and another symbol pops up.
  1681. >This one is familiar to you; it depicts your current location.
  1682. >A direct line between your ship and New Green Meadows is highlighted.
  1683. >"Yes, we are in range for a direct jump. Give me a few seconds to calculate the coordinates and we are good to go."
  1684. >The floating command console returns.
  1685. "Okay, let's do this."
  1686. >"Jumping in ten seconds."
  1687. "Thank you, #deca."
  1688. >A status console to your right lights up and counts down from ten to zero.
  1689. >Apart from that, you feel none of the usual sensation of an impending jump.
  1690. >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.
  1691. >The same is true for the jump itself.
  1696. >The counter reaches zero and your location marker disappears at the old spot and reappears directly on the marker of New Green Meadows.
  1697. >You do not notice any effect.
  1698. >#deca.mare enters another command into the console.
  1699. >"We are currently entering a stable orbit. Hang on, I will give you a video feed."
  1700. >The map on the screen blurs and turns into another scenery of space.
  1701. >The image depicts a planet right at the centre.
  1702. >You recognise it from #deca.mare's memories and the map miniature model.
  1703. >It is the charred planet New Green Meadows.
  1704. >An actual picture reveals even more details than the map did.
  1705. >Craters cover many spots on the surface.
  1706. >The already lifeless dustlands are plastered with swathes of dark ash.
  1707. >An atmospheric scan indicates several toxic and acidic substances in the air and rain.
  1708. >The feeling you get while looking at the image is hard to describe.
  1709. >It is solemn, but neither sad nor painful.
  1710. >You feel no sign of pride either.
  1711. >There is simply no connection between you and your ancestors of that bygone age.
  1712. >Still, you think it is only appropriate to pay respect for those who came before you.
  1713. >But you also notice #deca.mare's reaction to the scene.
  1714. "#deca?"
  1715. >Her body is shivering and you think she may be on the verge of crying.
  1716. >You notice her attempt to hide it.
  1717. >She does not like to be here at all.
  1718. >It is obvious why; what is barely a side note of your personal history to you is a grim reminder for her.
  1719. >The image must bring a ton of unwanted memories back to the surface.
  1720. >This helps you to grasp how old she really is.
  1721. >You knew that already, but now you begin to imagine how much she still bears mentally.
  1722. >And you brought her back to one of these traumatic experiences.
  1723. >You were afraid she would punish herself, now it feels like you punish her unintentionally instead.
  1724. >You lay your arm on her opposite shoulder and pull her closer.
  1725. >The mere closeness to you settles her emotional outburst a little bit.
  1730. >#deca.mare leans on you and buries her head in your embrace.
  1731. >You look at the video feed while holding a pony who wants to be somewhere else.
  1732. >Her miserable sight is hurtful to witness and you feel guilty for her state.
  1733. >To be honest, you have no idea what exactly you wanted to achieve here.
  1734. >You thought you would perhaps find some form of insight or closure with a past you never knew you had.
  1735. "It was a mistake to come here."
  1736. >No answer.
  1737. "I'm sorry #deca. I should have thought of you before making a hasty decision like that."
  1738. >Still nothing.
  1739. "Come, let us get out of here. As far away as possible from this planet and the border. That sounds nice, doesn't it?"
  1740. >You feel her head rubbing against your chest.
  1741. >That's a nod.
  1742. >#deca.mare clings to you as another countdown commences on the side console.
  1743. >She has already calculated coordinates to a remote hideaway.
  1744. >She knew what would happen to her even before you two arrived at New Green Meadows.
  1745. >And yet she obliged your request without saying a word of protest.
  1746. >Now you feel extraordinarily selfish.
  1747. >You give her a careful massage in an attempt to get her out of her emotional vicious circle.
  1748. "Please come back to me. Everything will be alright. I promise I won't hurt you again."
  1749. >The countdown reaches zero.
  1750. >At the exact same moment, the ship lights up and disappears into a light corridor.
  1751. >The sector falls into a quiet slumber again.
  1752. >All you leave behind is a broken planet and your former life.
  1753. >Your new one starts right now.
  1758. 18
  1760. >You can follow your travel route on the main screen, but you pay no attention to it.
  1761. >The mare in your arms is your only concern.
  1762. >#deca.mare is almost non-responsive since your first jump.
  1763. >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.
  1764. >You trust her navigational expertise and discard any worries.
  1765. >No matter how far you are out of your known space, it does not matter to you.
  1766. >All you care about is to foster her.
  1767. >You hold her closely.
  1768. >She has not spoken a single word after her outburst.
  1769. >You cradle her kindly, caress her fur, and hum an unrecognisable collage of melodies.
  1770. >Everything to make your presence known to her.
  1771. >You register how her tight clinging recedes step by step.
  1772. >She reacts to your advances with a growing intensity: Just some weak stirring here and there at first, then followed by stronger body shifts.
  1773. >At last, she raises her head and looks at you with tired eyes.
  1774. "Hey there. Feeling better?"
  1775. >"A little. All the returning memories were so overwhelming."
  1776. "Please, relax and take your time. It was unfair of me to distress you with this situation."
  1777. >"It's okay, you had your reasons."
  1778. "Doesn't justify my rush though."
  1779. >Something else comes to your mind, but you do not want to strain #deca.mare's conscience with the next baleful topic.
  1780. >#deca.mare's ears perk up and she sighs.
  1781. >"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."
  1782. >You curse the design of the neuro-link.
  1783. >"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."
  1784. >She looks at the main screen in thought.
  1789. >"Or just plain disturbing to think about. Do you remember the voices?"
  1790. "You mean the human comm transmissions during your... encounters?"
  1791. >You don't like where this is going.
  1792. >"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."
  1793. >You can barely imagine the number of people involved, much less all the data that this must include.
  1794. >"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."
  1795. >You are sure this is the understatement of the century.
  1796. >"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."
  1797. >Because they banished her before their last battle.
  1798. >"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."
  1799. "That's horrible. Nobody deserves to be forgotten like that."
  1800. >"Hence my vow. Oblivion is a fate worse than death."
  1801. "You are a treasure of a person. Or pony. You know that, right?"
  1802. >#deca.mare looks at you with curiosity.
  1803. >"What do you mean?"
  1804. "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."
  1809. >You put a hand on her chest.
  1810. "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."
  1811. >"Anon, I don't think I dese..."
  1812. "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."
  1813. >You sigh.
  1814. "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."
  1815. >You tap on her chest with your finger to emphasise your point.
  1816. "You have been through a lot of tough crap undeservingly."
  1817. >Tap.
  1818. "You are a benevolent, kind, beautiful creature who deserves to be loved."
  1819. >Tap.
  1820. "And I tolerate no objection here. Understood?"
  1821. >#deca.mare processes your words for a moment.
  1822. >"You really mean that?"
  1823. "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?"
  1824. >The double entendre behind these words is not lost on her.
  1825. >"Thank you."
  1826. >She gives you a peck on the mouth.
  1827. >"You are a good companion as well. I am glad I picked you up."
  1828. >You lay the palm of your hand on her chest again.
  1829. "Me too. You have saved my life. There is no doubt about that."
  1830. >You fumble slightly.
  1831. "Just one question."
  1832. >"Oh? Sure, what do you want to know?"
  1833. >You look at your hand.
  1834. "Am I doing this right? I don't know where horses have their hearts."
  1835. >#deca.mare bursts out in laughter.
  1840. 19
  1842. >Another jump, another system.
  1843. >You have completely lost track of the actual number of stops during your conversation with #deca.mare.
  1844. >Judging by the map, you are much further away from colonised space than any human before.
  1845. >Your current location is at the centre of the map screen with the default zoom factor.
  1846. >The boundaries of human space are nowhere to be seen.
  1847. >And yet everything is charted with a great degree of detail.
  1848. "Your work is incredible. How far have you been?"
  1849. >"Oh, there is still more. Centuries of "leisure time" alone gives you plenty of opportunities for system charting."
  1850. >You inspect the myriad of bright spots.
  1851. >These have no designated names like New Green Meadows and are simply named after their coordinates.
  1852. "So many worlds."
  1853. >"Hmhm, it just does not make much fun when you have nopony with whom you can share your discoveries."
  1854. >She looks at you with an excited smile.
  1855. >"So, are you ready for some exploration? I can teach you the basics on the fly."
  1856. "That would be great, #deca. Just don't expect any wonders. I'm a pilot, not an astrophysicist."
  1857. >She stifles a giggle.
  1858. >"Don't worry, I promise to be a patient teacher."
  1859. >She takes another look at the map.
  1860. >"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."
  1861. "All right."
  1862. >"Make yourself comfortable in here. We have been sitting on the hard metal floor the whole time."
  1863. "Hm, you're right. I didn't even notice."
  1864. >"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?"
  1865. "Wait, this is possible?"
  1866. >"You can manipulate the simulation just like me. All it takes is a little bit of practice, exactly like the memory transfer."
  1867. "And what do I have to do?"
  1868. >"Simply imagine what you want to materialise in the simulation. Think of what you did when you formed your body."
  1873. >You stand up and turn around to look at the place where the chair should be.
  1874. >The empty space is ideal for the placement of furniture.
  1875. >A reasonable distance to the main screen, plus a good overview of the other consoles.
  1876. >Not really surprising considering the layout of the command deck.
  1877. >You close your eyes and try to think of a seating for two persons.
  1878. >Your first ideas base on chairs and seats you have seen on stations and Earth.
  1879. >Some of those are pretty comfortable, but not suitable for #deca.mare's body.
  1880. >So you improvise and allow a mental image to form in your head.
  1881. >You come up with an altered version of the already existing command chair.
  1882. >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.
  1883. >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.
  1884. >You also add another pillow and a blanket for her.
  1885. >For some reason you think this is something she will love.
  1886. >You open your eyes.
  1887. >The chair has already materialised.
  1888. >It must have popped up like deca.mare's floating console.
  1889. >You inspect your creation.
  1890. >That thing will certainly win no beauty contest, but it should do the trick for now.
  1891. >You look at #deca.mare.
  1892. >She is apparently still busy planning your route, her eyes glued to the screen.
  1893. >You look down at your own figure and realise that you are still wearing the flight suit minus helmet.
  1894. >Taking that off is usually the first thing you do when you are off duty.
  1895. >While these things are not unpleasant to wear by themselves, their inflexible bulk turns movements into a nuisance.
  1896. >#deca.mare is right; you would be completely cramped by now under normal circumstances.
  1897. >It is time for a better outfit.
  1898. >Should not be too difficult; you have formed your own body after all.
  1903. >You evaluate your choices with closed eyes.
  1904. >The clothing should be comfortable and somewhat good-looking.
  1905. >Nothing too fancy, but not too casual either.
  1906. >You go through your humble knowledge of different types of attire and the occasions to which those are worn.
  1907. >However, the situation you are in is nowhere near normal.
  1908. >You don't know #deca.mare for very long, yet she is already closer to you than anybody else.
  1909. >And you instantly became a voluntary couple.
  1910. >With a talking pony mare.
  1911. >What do you wear for such an occasion?
  1912. >You are still in your introductory phase, so your outfit should have a respectable touch.
  1913. >You go with a darker coloured cloth suit, fitting shoes and a white shirt underneath the jacket.
  1914. >You open your eyes again and look down.
  1915. >The space suit has already turned to cloth.
  1916. "Not bad."
  1917. >You raise your head and turn around.
  1918. >#deca.mare is standing in front of you, eyeing you from top to bottom.
  1919. >"I see your transformation skills are improving. A good choice. The suit is becoming to you."
  1920. "Thanks. I thought it was only appropriate. I mean, this is still our first date, so to speak."
  1921. >She nods.
  1922. >"In a way, yes. But I'd say we are beyond introductions."
  1923. "Yeah, we kinda messed with the common order of events in relationships."
  1924. >"Nothing we should worry about. We are both happy together and that is what counts."
  1925. >#deca.mare quickly glances at the chair and then back at you.
  1926. >"Everything is prepared. Shall we begin?"
  1927. >You hear a strong sense of anticipation in her voice.
  1928. >You courtly signal her to move towards the chair.
  1929. >She obliges and trots in a casual pace.
  1930. >You follow her.
  1931. >Once there, #deca.mare uses the step and hops on the extra pillow.
  1932. >She turns around to face the main screen and lays down on her belly, awaiting you to take a seat as well.
  1933. >You sit down beside her.
  1934. >Then you take the blanket, place it on #deca.mare's back and wrap her in the soft fabric.
  1935. >She becomes a bundle of cloth, only her head and forehooves stick out.
  1940. >You put your arm around her "cocoon", pull her closer to you and lean back.
  1941. >#deca.mare lies directly at your side.
  1942. >You believe you hear a soft sigh.
  1943. "There you go. Cosy enough?"
  1944. >"It's perfect. Thank you, Anon."
  1945. "Don't mention it. I'm ready when you are."
  1946. >She rests her head on her forehooves.
  1947. >"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."
  1948. >Effigies of different planets appear on the main screen.
  1949. >"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."
  1950. "Witness them? How so?"
  1951. >#deca.mare gets slightly skittish.
  1952. >"Wait for the surprise. You will like it."
  1953. >You have no idea what she is planning.
  1954. "Okay, I trust you."
  1955. >"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."
  1956. >A rocky looking planet comes up.
  1957. >"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."
  1958. >Atmospheric statistics of the planet appear.
  1959. >"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."
  1964. >The statistics are replaced by others.
  1965. >"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."
  1966. >Some additional notes appear near the effigy.
  1967. >"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."
  1968. "Oof. This sounds incredibly complex."
  1969. >#deca.mare cracks a smile.
  1970. >"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."
  1971. >A console emits one loud beep tone.
  1972. "What does that mean?"
  1973. >"We have reached the orbit of the planet we are currently spectating on the scanner."
  1974. "And what do you have in mind now?"
  1975. >#deca.mare looks at you with a playful grin.
  1976. >"It is time for your first hoof experience. Ready for a little game? I think it will be to your liking."
  1977. "All right, what kind of game?"
  1978. >"You will see."
  1979. >She touches your leg with a hoof and your vision turns into a blurry mess.
  1984. >Clarity returns.
  1985. >You are in a dimly lit room, the light source is the same blood-red that fills the entire non-virtual ship.
  1986. >Your are hold tight by metal clamps.
  1987. >There is something wrong about your body, but you cannot say what exactly irritates you.
  1988. >The sight in front of you is familiar.
  1989. >These are the blast doors of the docking bay.
  1990. "Uhm, #deca? What is going on?"
  1991. >"No need to worry. All is well."
  1992. >The blast doors open and you see the starry space.
  1993. >You fear an incoming decompression.
  1994. >Nothing happens.
  1995. >You collect your thoughts and remember something that #deca.mare has told you.
  1996. >The outer compartments have no life support.
  1997. >That can only mean one thing.
  1998. >You are not in your own body.
  1999. >"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."
  2000. >Now you understand.
  2001. >This is the body of a drone.
  2002. >"Correct. Just remember one thing: No matter what happens to the vessel, you are safe. You know I would never endanger you."
  2003. >The metal clamps loosen their grip and retreat.
  2004. "Wait, what are you..."
  2005. >You are being shot out of the docking bay.
  2006. "Whoa!"
  2007. >The drone flies straight ahead with a surprisingly high speed.
  2008. "What am I supposed to do?"
  2009. >"What you do best. Fly the ship. Try to get a feeling for the behaviour of the engine."
  2010. >You mentally give the order to reduce the speed.
  2011. >Sure enough, the reverse thrusters obey your command.
  2012. "So it's just like the simulation."
  2013. >"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."
  2014. >You bring the drone to a stop and turn it around.
  2015. >The mother ship appears in your vision in all its glory.
  2016. >Strange how fast things can change; you were scared to death by this sight when you saw it the last time.
  2017. >Now it is the home of you and your loving mare.
  2018. >There is no place in the universe where you would rather be.
  2023. 20
  2025. >Another drone emerges from a neighbouring docking bay.
  2026. >It sets course for your position and throttles its speed expertly so that it comes to a stop directly at your side.
  2027. >The distance between you is less than ten metres.
  2028. "What is up with the second drone?"
  2029. >"I will pilot it during our trip. Consider me as your flight instructor and wingmare.
  2030. >You feel like you are back at the academy.
  2031. "I know my first impression as a pilot was not the best, but I assure you I can fly a fighter."
  2032. >"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."
  2033. >You notice something.
  2034. "Is this why I have no HUD?"
  2035. >"For instance, yes. You obviously have no conventional input consoles on board as well, but I quickly developed an alternative."
  2036. >So that took her so long while you were dressing up.
  2037. "You kept me busy on purpose, right?"
  2038. >"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."
  2039. "I see. And what are the goals of this trip?"
  2040. >"Mainly two things: Hone your flying skills with the units we have on board and continue our lesson on planetary surface exploration."
  2041. >You think of the planet you are orbiting.
  2042. >It is, from your position, right behind the mother ship.
  2043. "You want us to enter the atmosphere? With these ships?"
  2044. >"Yes. They may not look like it, but they are capable of atmospheric flight. You have experiences with this kind of manoeuvre?"
  2045. "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."
  2050. >"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."
  2051. "Speaking of which, what happened to the one I flew when we met?"
  2052. >"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?"
  2053. "Nothing important. It simply has a sentimental value to me. I mean, it's the last physical object I have from my former life."
  2054. >"I figured that much. We can keep it there for the time being. Perhaps we find a use for it later on."
  2055. "Thank you."
  2056. >You pause for a second.
  2057. "So, ready when you are, #deca."
  2058. >"All right. Let's start with the HUD. You should be able to summon it with your mental commands."
  2059. >You think of a status report.
  2060. >A transparent window pops up in the centre of your vision.
  2061. >It displays general information and the current status of your vessel.
  2062. >The design is loosely inspired by the layout of USC models.
  2063. >Some slight differences aside, you can surely work with this.
  2064. "Status if fine so far, but..."
  2065. >"What is the problem, Anon?"
  2066. "It's very obtrusive. I can barely see anything else unless I look directly through it."
  2067. >"You can alter the size and position of the window to your liking."
  2068. >You order the window to reduce its size to a third and to relocate itself to your peripheral vision.
  2069. >It obeys instantly.
  2070. "Works like a charm."
  2071. >"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."
  2072. >You call up the other consoles: Radar, tactical, comm, scanners, energy, weapons and navigation.
  2073. "Give me a moment."
  2074. >"Of course, Anon."
  2075. >You calibrate the HUD in accordance to your preferences, which looks almost like your former cockpit.
  2080. "Old habits die hard, I guess."
  2081. >"Nothing wrong with it if it suits your style. Tell me when you are ready."
  2082. >You inspect your layout once more.
  2083. >You even included the video feed of the comm channel.
  2084. >A small image of #deca.mare is placed at the lower right corner of your vision.
  2085. >She does not seem to mind.
  2086. "Looks good to me. I'm ready."
  2087. >"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."
  2088. >#deca.mare activates the engines of her drone and you do the same.
  2089. >She projects a series of standard movements for you to follow.
  2090. >"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."
  2091. >#deca.mare's drone picks up speed and you fall in line right behind her.
  2092. >The initial moves are not very hard; they consist mostly of turning manoeuvres and standard evasion tactics.
  2093. >You have no problem to imitate these, even with this rather unfamiliar method of piloting.
  2094. >#deca.mare raises the stakes and increases the rate of turns.
  2095. >This makes it a little bit harder and you have no time to catch a break.
  2096. >Still, you stay in line.
  2097. >Then she adds further moves to the combinations, such as loopings and drifts.
  2098. >The latter are especially tricky, because these require an exact coordination of several directional thrusters at once.
  2099. >Nevertheless, USC pilots are required to fly them in cases of emergencies.
  2100. >Your military education was thorough enough and you can keep track of her with only a small number of minimal inaccuracies.
  2105. >At last, she reaches the point where you have to give up.
  2106. >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.
  2107. "That's enough. I can't keep up anymore."
  2108. >#deca.mare's drone slows down and you align your own speed with hers.
  2109. >"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?"
  2110. "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."
  2111. >"Oh dear."
  2112. "It wasn't that bad, just annoying from time to time. Your lesson is a welcome change though."
  2113. >"So you had fun?"
  2114. "Yep."
  2115. >"I am glad to hear that. Care for another go?"
  2116. "Another flight session?"
  2117. >"No, something else. You can handle mental commands in general already, but how about several at the same time?"
  2118. "Multiple commands? Such as?."
  2119. >"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?"
  2120. "Only one way to find out."
  2121. >Images of fearsome battles come to your mind.
  2122. >You know you would never stand a chance against her in an actual fight, even without her capital ship looming nearby.
  2123. >"This is not about winning, Anon. I want to help you grow."
  2124. "Yes, I know. It's just a thought I could not hold back. Sorry."
  2125. >"No harm done. Tell me when you are ready."
  2126. >You check the arsenal of your ship.
  2127. >This is the first time you actually see the details of your mounted weapons.
  2128. >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.
  2129. >The advantages of #deca technology are mind-boggling.
  2134. >You search through the selection you have at hand.
  2135. >There are particle accelerators, plasma throwers and...
  2136. "M/AM launchers? Are you kidding me?"
  2137. >"I would not recommend those for a combat practice."
  2138. "Yeah, no wonder. These things are deadly in the hands of professionals and fools alike."
  2139. >The question is only who kills whom while using it.
  2140. >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.
  2141. >But you snap out of it before you burden yourself and #deca.mare with unnecessary nightmarish visions.
  2142. >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.
  2143. "Okay, I am ready."
  2144. >"Good. Don't worry about holding back; the weapon fire is unlikely to even singe the hull on this mode."
  2145. >The drone at your side accelerates again and turns around in an elaborate curve.
  2146. >You recognise that pattern: #deca.mare is preparing a strafing run.
  2147. >You order your engines to perform a quick-start in response.
  2148. >The engine powers up and you instantly add your directional thrusters to get out of her firing arc.
  2149. >All system do your bidding as you envisioned it and you manage to spoil #deca.mare's attempted assault.
  2150. >You try to counter with a trick you have learned at the academy.
  2151. >#deca.mare's drone passes your position as a consequence of her charge.
  2152. >You quickly fire additional energy into your thrusters, turn the ship around on the spot, lock your target and fire a volley.
  2153. >At least, that is what you planned.
  2154. >Your turn is perfect, but you take too long to lock onto your target.
  2155. >Once you start shooting, the drone has already left your optimal range and your shots miss their mark completely.
  2156. "Damn!"
  2157. >"I thought this may happen."
  2158. "What was that? I did everything as before, but the controls just became sluggish without reason."
  2163. >"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."
  2164. "You saw this coming?"
  2165. >"Hmhm. I expected this when you came up with your counter attack from your academy days."
  2166. >Right, another reason why you could not win a duel.
  2167. >There is no point in trying when your opponent reads your thoughts as you form them.
  2168. >No point in moping about that though.
  2169. "So is there something else I could have done instead?"
  2170. >"Indeed. Which is why I was talking about using several systems at the same time. You did the exact opposite."
  2171. "In what way?"
  2172. >"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?"
  2173. "I took too long to rearrange my focus?"
  2174. >"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."
  2175. "But how? That would be like saying two sentences at once."
  2176. >"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."
  2177. "Let me try again."
  2178. >"As you wish."
  2179. >#deca.mare's drone initiates another attack run.
  2180. >It is similar to her first assault.
  2181. >You prepare your evasion manoeuvre and bring yourself into an optimal position.
  2182. >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.
  2183. >It works as intended.
  2184. >Your have already locked onto your target as it enters your firing arc.
  2185. >You give the command to attack.
  2190. >This time you actually get a few hits in before the drone leaves your range.
  2191. >"That was much better. Good work."
  2192. You think you understand how it works, but it is a strain on your mind.
  2193. >"Do you want to go on?"
  2194. "Yes. Let's take this a step further. How about several attack patterns at once? I want to see how far I can go."
  2195. >"Are you sure about that? I do not want to overexert you."
  2196. "Said by yourself: I can only get better with training."
  2197. >"Understood. Get ready."
  2198. >#deca.mare prepares herself for another run.
  2199. >This time however, she does not take the time to fly an arc.
  2200. >Instead, she turns her vessel to target you directly.
  2201. >You have to act immediately; with no time to retaliate, you charge your engine and perform an evasive manoeuvre.
  2202. >Much to your surprise, you have unconsciously combined the orders of energy management and navigation into one.
  2203. >And there was no delay; everything went smoothly.
  2204. >But #deca.mare does not allow you to get a rest and catches up on you.
  2205. >It takes her only a second to be on your six and fire.
  2206. >You counter with a looping yourself, but only after taking a direct hit to the engine module.
  2207. >You might already be crippled after this under normal circumstances.
  2208. >Ignoring this fact, you anticipate that your opponent will try to follow you.
  2209. >Halfway into the loop, you turn the nose of your drone upwards without changing your flight path.
  2210. >You steer the rest of the circle with the help of your directional thrusters.
  2211. >Your assumption was correct and you have deca.mare's drone in your sight as she starts to fly a looping herself.
  2212. >Knowing her approximate trajectory and your own momentum, you lock onto her and launch another salvo of laser fire.
  2213. >She is unable to react fast enough and receives the full blow.
  2214. >Unsurprisingly, the drone itself shows no signs of damage because of your training mode.
  2215. >You appreciate #deca.mare's attempt to simulate a realistic confrontation despite her obvious advantage.
  2220. >"See? I think you get the hang of it. And there is potential for much more. Two actions is far from the limit."
  2221. "So, how much more is possible?"
  2222. >"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."
  2223. "I see."
  2224. >You want to continue your training, but you feel an emerging sensation of fatigue.
  2225. >You actually notice that you are getting really tired.
  2226. >"Anon? I think we should stop here. I fear I pushed you further in one session than I should have."
  2227. >The world around you blurs.
  2228. >And you are back in the chair on the command deck in your "own" body.
  2229. >But the fatigue does not wear off.
  2230. "#deca, what happened?"
  2231. >The mare at your side looks at you with a serious expression.
  2232. >"I brought you back and dock the units myself."
  2233. "Why?"
  2234. >"You have been awake for more than twenty-four hours at a time. You need a rest."
  2235. >This confuses you.
  2236. "I thought everything here is virtual, so how can I tire in here?
  2237. >"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."
  2238. >You have not thought about that before.
  2239. >"We can fly to the surface later. Nopony is rushing us here."
  2240. "And how does sleep work in here?"
  2241. >"Exactly like it does in the real world. You lay down and close you eyes."
  2242. >#deca.mare takes a look around.
  2243. >"But I figure this is not an ideal setting for a good rest. Come, I have an idea."
  2244. >She ruffles her blanket until she has freed herself and jumps off the chair.
  2245. >#deca.mare heads for something at the back of the room.
  2246. >You need a moment to stand up; the weariness has an effect on your virtual body as well.
  2251. 21
  2253. >You stand in the middle of the command deck and search for #deca.mare.
  2254. >She is standing on the balcony and motions you to follow her.
  2255. >You walk up the ramp and see her beside the door.
  2256. "Where do you want to go?"
  2257. >"Somewhere nice."
  2258. >She touches the door with a hoof and it slides open.
  2259. >What you see on the other side is not what you expected.
  2260. >Instead of a corridor, a bright chamber lies before you.
  2261. >Its light is noticeably stronger than the calm sheen of the command deck, but it is not unpleasant in any way.
  2262. >#deca.mare enters with a casual trot.
  2263. >You follow her dumbfounded.
  2264. >The door behind you closes.
  2265. >It looks like an unsuspicious, heavy reinforced wooden door with a metal handle from this side.
  2266. >The door itself is also a thing of beauty; the wood is adorned with highly detailed carvings.
  2267. >The reinforcing metal, iron you assume, is artistically forged into various different figures and images.
  2268. >You have seen similar designs in ancient buildings.
  2269. >The style is most likely inspired by artworks of the late medieval age and combined with a subtle display of artistic fantasy.
  2270. >A least to a certain extent; you are sure that the pony-shaped outlines were not derived from that time.
  2271. >You turn around and inspect the rest of the room.
  2272. >The structure is built entirely out of flawless white marble, all the way from the floor to the walls and the ceiling.
  2273. >One wall features and arched window, decorated with lively curtains.
  2274. >A warm light with a slight orange tone is beaming through the window.
  2275. >You assume it simulates the sunshine during dusk.
  2276. >The chamber is further arranged to function both as a living room and a study.
  2277. >A wooden desk is placed direct underneath the window so that the "sun" illuminates whatever is lying on its surface.
  2278. >You are impressed by this detail as it fits perfectly into the medieval style.
  2283. >Something else about the desk catches your attention: it is considerably lower than the desks you know from Earth.
  2284. >In addition to that, there is also a seat cushion placed on the floor where a chair would normally be.
  2285. >The reason for that is obvious: it is designed with a pony frame in mind.
  2286. >That fact notwithstanding, you are sure you could still use it yourself if you sit on the cushion with crossed legs.
  2287. >An ancient fireplace is embedded into the wall on the opposite side of the room.
  2288. >Its metal fireguard is forged in a similar style like the metal on the door, yet appears to be fully functional anyway.
  2289. >There is currently no fire burning, but you believe it would be a pleasant light source at night.
  2290. >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.
  2291. >The bed is, like anything else, highly detailed in its features.
  2292. >If it really were a medieval exemplar, it would definitively be worthy of a royal chamber.
  2293. >Both the front and back side are beautifully carved and depict images and patterns of a high complexity.
  2294. >Four carefully arranged poles emerge from the edges and support a wooden ceiling of equal quality.
  2295. >The only anachronistic features are the mattress, blanket and the pillows; their level of refinement is way too advanced for this time period.
  2296. >Given their inherent function and your current physical state, this is not a point you feel tempted to comment on.
  2297. >In fact, the bed looks highly tempting to you.
  2298. >#deca.mare stands in the middle of the room and studies your reactions.
  2299. >"Well? What do you say?"
  2300. "It's... incredible. I have never seen anything like this before."
  2301. >You walk towards the window and take a look outside.
  2302. >Your vision is exceptionally clear despite the direct exposure to sunlight.
  2303. >The landscape beyond the window is like a scene from paradise.
  2308. >Countless lush forests and green grass fields are spreading in all directions.
  2309. >Their lively density is further accentuated by vivid colours and flowing blue rivers.
  2310. >Faint shapes of mountain ranges are detectable in the distance.
  2311. >The clear sky is filled with the golden colours of sunset, only a few clouds are dotting the horizon.
  2312. >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.
  2313. >The scenery feels almost unnatural; your memories of terran rural landscapes pale in comparison to this display.
  2314. >Nevertheless, everything seems real to you.
  2315. >As real as simulations can be, mind you.
  2316. >Judging from your angle and perspective, you think that you are on an elevated position yourself.
  2317. >A mountain fortress, perhaps.
  2318. >#deca.mare approaches you from behind, rears up and places her front hooves on the window frame beside you.
  2319. >"Breathtaking, isn't it?"
  2320. "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."
  2321. >You hear a hushed remark.
  2322. >"Maybe because it is one, sort of."
  2323. "I beg your pardon?"
  2324. >Her ears perk up.
  2325. >"Oh, nothing important. Just a mental side note. But the question remains: Do you like it?"
  2326. "I do. This place has an inexplicable charm. Like a home I didn't know I had beforehand."
  2327. >#deca.mare rests her head on your side.
  2328. >"You have no idea how relieved I am to hear that."
  2329. >You are not sure how to interpret that response.
  2330. >True, this simulation is the most detailed one you have ever heard of, but why does it mean so much to her?"
  2331. >She can surely project millions of different scenes in the blink of an eye, so what is special about this one?
  2332. >"We can talk about that later, but you need some rest first. Come."
  2333. >She pulls her hooves off the window frame and walks towards the bed.
  2334. >You notice another detail.
  2335. >The bed is designed for two individuals.
  2340. >That last observation fills you with a mixture of excitement and reservation.
  2341. >You are not surprised by its implications, but that thought does not settle well with you for a reason you cannot fully grasp.
  2342. >#deca.mare turns her head around.
  2343. >"Anon? What is the matter?"
  2344. >You struggle to find the right words.
  2345. >There is a hint of understanding in her expression.
  2346. >"Are you afraid of sharing a bed with me?"
  2347. >At least she is direct, you have to give her that.
  2348. >You try to formulate a polite answer.
  2349. "No, not directly."
  2350. >"But? No need to act coy."
  2351. >"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?"
  2352. >She has been very precise with her anatomy so far; her body warmth and breath, not to mention the texture of her fur.
  2353. >You are sure she has prepared herself for every eventuality.
  2354. >And there was her supposedly joking comment concerning lewd thoughts.
  2355. >Roaring laughter interrupts your musings.
  2356. >A blush forms on your face.
  2357. "Hey! This isn't funny!"
  2358. >#deca.mare calms down and catches her breath.
  2359. >"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."
  2360. >She continues with an amused grin.
  2361. >"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?"
  2362. >Now she is just teasing, you bet on it.
  2363. >A sigh.
  2364. >"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."
  2365. >She turns to you.
  2366. >"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."
  2371. >Her smile returns; her playful side has taken over once more.
  2372. >"Now, change your attire. I doubt you want to sleep in this suit."
  2373. >#deca.mare resumes her trot towards the bed, hops onto one side and positions herself in a comfortable, lounging pose.
  2374. >Her tail is strategically covering any potentially arousing features.
  2375. >You need an attempt to direct your attention elsewhere.
  2376. "Any suggestions for a nightdress?"
  2377. >"Whatever you are comfortable with. Be it pyjamas, shirt and pants, or nothing at all. I don't mind."
  2378. >She winks at you.
  2379. >With her eyes, of course.
  2380. >You shake your head.
  2381. "I won't survive this."
  2382. >#deca.mare chuckles heartily.
  2383. >"You are a precious one. In your very own way."
  2384. >Ignoring this backhanded compliment, you think of suitable clothes for the night.
  2385. >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.
  2386. >Should be modest enough.
  2387. >She motions you to come closer.
  2388. >"Come to bed, Anon. I don't bite."
  2389. >You take one step at a time towards the vacant half of the bed.
  2390. >Your heartbeat increases automatically.
  2391. >You know how irrational your concerns are, but you cannot shrug them off entirely.
  2392. >You sit down on the edge, position yourself and lie down.
  2393. >The pillows and mattress are perfect.
  2394. >#deca.mare gently reaches out with her hooves and pulls you to her.
  2395. >Then she embraces you with both forelegs and buries her head under your chin.
  2396. >"See? That was not so bad, right?"
  2397. "No, it wasn't."
  2398. >You pick up the blanket with one hand and tuck the two of you in.
  2399. >You feel her warmth through your clothes, her subtle breath on your skin and the soft fabric atop you.
  2400. >The "sun" outside has almost set.
  2401. >You return #deca.mare's hug and close your eyes.
  2402. >Life is good; there is nothing to worry about and nothing you are forced to do.
  2403. >And some...pony loves you.
  2404. >You close your eyes and swear your honest commitment to the wellbeing of the mare in your arms.
  2409. >Your heart rate normalises and sleep claims you quickly.
  2410. >Silence grows in the room.
  2411. >It is only disturbed by the quiet breaths of you and your match.
  2412. >#deca.mare remains at your side the whole time.
  2413. >She could leave you and return shortly before you wake up.
  2414. >She could do anything in the meantime.
  2415. >You would not even notice.
  2416. >But she does not.
  2417. >Why would she?
  2418. >No, she is more than content with her companion in her embrace.
  2419. >Everything else can wait for a few hours more.
  2420. >And in the orbit of a planet yet to be named, a ship rests for the first time in over six hundred years.
  2425. 22
  2427. >Sleep is a curious thing.
  2428. >Everyone knows and experiences it on a regular basis.
  2429. >It is scientifically measurable, but also largely mystified.
  2430. >Perhaps the most puzzling aspect to the individual is the inability to witness one's own sleep with a conscious mind.
  2431. >Plus, there are dreams; the remnants that survive in the mind once a person wakes up.
  2432. >Trying to explain their nature logically is even more obscure.
  2433. >Nevertheless. strong dreams can affect people dramatically, even in their daily, conscious lives.
  2434. >You are no exception.
  2435. >And your dreams tonight are the wildest you have had so far.
  2436. >They are the most beautiful and haunted visions you can think of.
  2437. >You dream of space, countless different worlds and what wonders they have in store.
  2438. >Utopian realms waiting to be taken by the ambitious.
  2439. >But you also envision horrors creeping in the outer sectors, preying on the unwary.
  2440. >You feel how these things last for an untold time and devour the souls of millions.
  2441. >The scrawny husks of their victims float in space as an undeniable testament of their authority.
  2442. >Your pilot squad hunts for new worlds in outer space, only to end up as the ones being hunted instead.
  2443. >One mighty beast has found you in its sector and is coming for you.
  2444. >You face a giant monster of black steel, its maw is filled with a burning fire.
  2445. >The petty fighters and corvettes you have at hand are nothing but a snack for it.
  2446. >Your team wished for green planets and a life of fame, now you have to flee to see another day.
  2447. >All of you act in panic and strain your engines to their limit to accelerate as fast as possible.
  2448. >And you are the unfortunate one.
  2449. >Your engine fails at the start and leaves you stranded.
  2450. >You see all the other ships passing by.
  2451. >They have no time to help you.
  2452. >You know that and so do they.
  2453. >The ships of your squad are disappearing in the distance.
  2454. >The monster approaches to finish the hunt.
  2455. >You see the maw coming.
  2460. >Ragged teeth surround you on all sides and blot out the stars.
  2461. >The red light pierces your sight.
  2462. >The beast simply runs over you and swallows you whole.
  2463. >You feel how the fighter around you gets torn apart.
  2464. >Hull platings shriek, glass splinters, circuits fizzle and die.
  2465. >The debris are ejected and added to the hoard of lifeless husks floating in space.
  2466. >But you are not granted a swift death.
  2467. >No, the fire drags you deeper into the abyss.
  2468. >The beast thirsts for your very soul.
  2469. >It tears at your flight suit and disposes the last meek layer of defence you have.
  2470. >A fiery blaze invades your head and occupies your thoughts.
  2471. >A dominating mechanical voice is booming in your head.
  2472. >"You. Are. Mine."
  2473. >You try to fight the voice and stay in control of your mind, but to no avail.
  2474. >The presence pushes further and further.
  2475. >Just when you are about to lose hope, a golden light beam breaches through the inferno and keeps the flames at bay.
  2476. >The light spreads wider the closer it comes to you.
  2477. >An ungulate limb stretches out from its centre.
  2478. >It is an invitation.
  2479. >You succumb to the temptation and reach out.
  2480. >The hoof slowly sinks back into the light once you touch it.
  2481. >You get a steady hold of it and do not dare to let it go.
  2482. >You follow along and let the light encompass you.
  2483. >Its aureate radiance soothes your body and shelters your mind.
  2484. >No force in the universe will separate you from this haven.
  2485. >Two big eyes are forming the distance.
  2486. >They are watching you, staring into your soul.
  2487. >But you have no fear.
  2488. >There is nothing but peace.
  2489. >A friendly voice addresses your thoughts.
  2490. >"Come with me. No more nightmares."
  2491. >You accept without the slightest hesitation.
  2492. >The eyes melt and become one with the light around it.
  2493. >The same happens to your body.
  2494. >But you know that it will be alright.
  2495. >You become one with the other presence and the light forms your mutual shell.
  2496. >You fly through the void together, immune to everything and everyone that wishes harm on you.
  2501. >Your travels bring you to one of those utopian planets.
  2502. >It has fertile green continents and wide blue oceans.
  2503. >The view reminds you of an idolised vision of your own home planet.
  2504. >But is more precious in every regard.
  2505. >The colours are more expressive, it possesses an immense abundance of resources.
  2506. >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.
  2507. >It is as close to paradise as a world in this universe can be.
  2508. >You are a spectator from afar.
  2509. >The planet features various different and unique areas.
  2510. >Countless small towns with slower paced lives and mainly agricultural plains, majestic cities built like enormous mountain fortresses, or larger, more urban-styled cities.
  2511. >Some even defy all the previous experiences of yours.
  2512. >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.
  2513. >The fact that the population consists mostly of cheery talking equines and other fantastic or mythical creatures is something to behold as well.
  2514. >In a way, this world feels somewhat familiar and alien at the same time.
  2515. >A feeling of belonging spreads in your mind, but it does not come out of your own essence.
  2516. >The other presence, the one with whom you share a "body", is airing this emotion.
  2517. >Said urge becomes so strong that it touches you emotionally.
  2518. >This is a place you want to see.
  2519. >You try to ask questions about this place and where it lies.
  2520. >Unfortunately, whatever happens next remains a mystery to you.
  2521. >Something could have happened, but your consciousness fails you and your memories get distorted.
  2522. >If you ever got an answer from the other creature, then it got lost at some point.
  2527. 23
  2529. >You awake.
  2530. >The last night was exceedingly tumultuous.
  2531. >You dreamed of terraformers, old wars and your own distant family.
  2532. >For a moment you thought that you were actually taken by one of those old machines.
  2533. >What a silly idea.
  2534. >You open your eyes and expect to be greeted by the familiar metal room of your personal living quarters.
  2535. >Reality however, seems to disagree with you.
  2536. >The wooden bed frame and marble wall are a fairly certain indicator for that.
  2537. >This is no USC station.
  2538. >A gentle breath on your throat is another hint.
  2539. >You look down.
  2540. >Another set of eyes stares back.
  2541. >A ruffled mane covers some parts of a mare's face.
  2542. >Your memory pieces the mental fragments together.
  2543. >So, this part was not a dream.
  2544. >You are within a virtual system of a CPU ship.
  2545. >And the pony mare in your arms is indeed your companion for life.
  2546. >#deca.mare sways her head until her face is mostly free.
  2547. >She smiles and cuddles you softly.
  2548. >"Good morning. How do you feel?"
  2549. "I'm fine, thanks. A good night's sleep can do wonders. My dreams are a different matter though."
  2550. >"Yes, I know."
  2551. "You saw it?"
  2552. >"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."
  2553. >The turning point inside the dream.
  2554. "That golden light. You did this, right?"
  2555. >She nods.
  2556. >"The visions you had afterwards were inspired by me."
  2557. >The paradise planet.
  2558. >You recall all the things you dreamed of.
  2559. >All the wonderful, yet strange places there.
  2560. >One particular location sticks out.
  2561. >The castle city attached to the side of a mountain.
  2562. >Its main structure was built almost entirely out of white marble stone and ornated with all kinds of valuable decorations.
  2563. >You take a look around and compare your memories with the walls you see nearby.
  2564. >The material is the same.
  2569. >#deca.mare studies your pondering in silence.
  2570. >You come up with a theory.
  2571. "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."
  2572. >She reacts like someone who was caught at stealing cookies from a jar.
  2573. >Her short hesitation surprises you.
  2574. >"Yes, it was."
  2575. "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."
  2576. >Her hooves jerk weakly.
  2577. >"You are right in a way. There is more to it."
  2578. >She does not want to elaborate, it seems.
  2579. >But why?
  2580. >Is there some kind of dark secret behind it?
  2581. >You think back to what #deca.mare has shown you about her origin story.
  2582. >She was, as far as you can tell, very honest about it.
  2583. >So what could it be?
  2584. >What could be worse than the things you have already seen?
  2585. >"No no no. It is nothing like that, Anon. But I fear you may laugh if you hear it."
  2586. "Why would I do this? It is obviously serious to you."
  2587. >"Because it relates to my origin as a pony."
  2588. >You cannot follow.
  2589. >She closes her eyes for a second and looks at you afterwards.
  2590. >"Just promise not to laugh. Please?"
  2591. "I promise, #deca. No matter what you tell me."
  2592. >"All right. Do you remember the file with the old timestamp?"
  2593. "The one you found in the personal logs of one of your initial programmers?"
  2594. >"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."
  2595. >She pauses and takes a breath.
  2596. >"And I found it. Yet it was not what I expected. Not by a long shot, to tell you the truth."
  2597. "What is it then?"
  2602. >"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."
  2603. "Wait, are you serious?"
  2604. >A nod.
  2605. >"Absolutely. It is quite a peculiar story."
  2606. >You two lie together in bed and hold each other.
  2607. >She tells you the whole thing.
  2608. >How everything began with a glorified toy show and what came out of it.
  2609. >You never believed in obscure theories, but this is the best example for the butterfly effect you can think of.
  2610. >A story for children survived through the ages in the form of an avatar of the most advanced entity that humans have ever created.
  2611. >And all of that thanks to people who longed for things they would never have.
  2612. >#deca.mare feared you might laugh if you hear this.
  2613. >And you see why she would think that.
  2614. >But you cannot laugh.
  2615. >Not only for her sake, but also because of your own fate.
  2616. >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.
  2617. >Of course, they are long dead and gone.
  2618. >But their legacy prevails right here, even if history has forgotten their true names and lives.
  2619. >You silently thank them for what they did, despite the fact that you will never find out who they were.
  2620. >Now you understand #deca.mare's wish to preserve as much knowledge as possible.
  2621. >The things one does in life may lead to incredible things later on.
  2622. >Things that reach beyond the limited life span of single individuals.
  2623. >And for that, you feel grateful.
  2624. >Not only have they saved your life; they have also sown the seed for the creation of your beautiful companion.
  2625. "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."
  2626. >#deca.mare hugs you a little tighter.
  2631. >Another topic comes to your mind.
  2632. "So, about the world you have shown me in my dream. Was that the world of these stories?"
  2633. >"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."
  2634. "An adaptation? Adaptation to what?".
  2635. >"Reality. I wondered what had to be done to create it. A tricky task, but not impossible."
  2636. >She looks to the window.
  2637. >"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."
  2638. >You see a flaw in that idea.
  2639. "You could form the world to your vision, but what about the inhabitants? They can't come out of nothing."
  2640. >#deca.mare still focuses on the window.
  2641. >"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."
  2642. >Now you are speechless and left in awe.
  2643. >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.
  2644. >She could have developed godlike abilities over the years.
  2645. >Humanity is damn lucky that she has never lost her benevolent attitude.
  2646. >#deca.mare looks at you and smiles.
  2647. >"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."
  2648. >She ruffles the sheets and stands up.
  2649. >"Now, let's get out of the feathers, shall we? There are still many things left for you to see."
  2650. >She jumps off the bed.
  2651. >You stand up as well, turn your clothes into a suit and head for the command deck.
  2652. >You hear #deca.mare's voice behind you as you reach the door.
  2653. >"Where are you going?"
  2658. "Uhm, I thought you wanted to continue."
  2659. >"Without breakfast?"
  2660. >You turn around.
  2661. >A medium-sized square table is now occupying the space in the middle of the room.
  2662. >Two seat cushions are placed on opposing sides.
  2663. >#deca.mare sits on one, the other is currently empty.
  2664. >"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."
  2665. >She really tries her best to create an intimate setting.
  2666. >And you would never say no to a good breakfast.
  2667. "That idea sounds great, #deca."
  2668. >You walk up to the table and sit on the second cushion cross-legged.
  2669. >The height is measured conveniently for your use.
  2670. >#deca.mare has no problems with the size either.
  2671. >"What do you want to eat?"
  2672. "Hm, how about some bacon and eggs? If you have no problem with me eating meat, that is."
  2673. >"Ponies would under normal circumstances. Me? No, not really."
  2674. >A plate materialises in front of you with a reasonable portion of food on it.
  2675. >One set of standard cutlery is included.
  2676. >The smell alone is alluring to your senses.
  2677. "Thanks. You have no idea how hard it is to get fresh food like this on space stations. Normal rations are usually packaged."
  2678. >#deca.mare creates her own plate.
  2679. >Wait.
  2680. "Is that hay between two slices of bread?"
  2681. >"It is. Want some?"
  2682. "No, thanks. Grass is not really a common dish for humans."
  2683. >"Suit yourself."
  2684. >You pick the cutlery up.
  2685. "Enjoy your meal, #deca."
  2686. >"You too."
  2687. >You taste the food.
  2688. >The flavour is perfect.
  2689. >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.
  2690. "This is the best meal I have eaten in a long time. Perhaps the first one since I started flying."
  2691. >#deca.mare lowers her head to bite a piece out of her hay "sandwich", then looks at you inquisitively.
  2696. >"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."
  2697. "Sure, why not. Where shall I start?"
  2698. >"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?"
  2699. "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."
  2700. >#deca.mare chuckles.
  2701. >"I would like to hear them anyway."
  2702. "All right, here we go. I think I should at the beginning."
  2703. >You give her a brief summary of your life during your mutual breakfast, starting with your childhood memories.
  2704. >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.
  2705. >You further add some anecdotes on occasion; little stories you heard from, or about, your kin.
  2706. >Then you recount the stories about your educational time and how you came to the space flight academy.
  2707. >You also share some of the more comedic situations you found yourself in.
  2708. >Especially the academy days had several of those.
  2709. >#deca.mare listens to you the whole time with enthusiasm, only breaking the eye contact to take another bite of her meal.
  2710. >You can tell how much she enjoys to hear these stories, despite their unimpressive nature.
  2711. >Simply the fact that she hears them directly from another individual has a soothing effect on her.
  2712. >At last, there is your time on patrol duty.
  2713. >You tell her about some of your missions; the non-disclosure directive is meaningless at this point anyway.
  2714. >Your last story is about that final patrol flight.
  2715. >Which was only yesterday.
  2716. "Well, and you know how that one ended."
  2717. >#deca.mare leans over the table to get a little closer to you.
  2722. >"This may sound incredibly selfish, but it is the best ending I could have hoped for. That was delightful, Anon. Thank you."
  2723. "You're welcome. It's only fair after all that has happened."
  2724. >Both of you are done with your meal.
  2725. >"Right, I think it is time."
  2726. >#deca.mare stands up to stretch her body.
  2727. >That sight is novel to you.
  2728. >The mare has placed herself sideways to the table; you can see her right side from her shoulder up to her flank.
  2729. >She stretches her limbs, cranes her neck and strikes a few poses.
  2730. >Morning light shines in through the window and emphasises her frame.
  2731. >You get some very detailed impressions of her anatomy this way.
  2732. >Indecent thoughts creep in your mind.
  2733. >She has some pretty proportions.
  2734. >And she has not even shown you anything explicit.
  2735. >You shake your head.
  2736. "You really can't help it."
  2737. >#deca.mare turns her attention to you and pouts innocently.
  2738. >"Why, can't a mare limber up a little bit?"
  2739. >It is hard to tell what teases you more; #deca.mare's pseudo-subtle banter or the realisation that it actually starts to work.
  2740. >"Aw Anon, do not pretend to be such a prude. I know you appreciate a good show."
  2741. >Your traitorous blush returns.
  2742. >It is true: You find her actually attractive.
  2743. >But you are too bashful to admit openly to her or yourself.
  2744. >She knows it already.
  2745. >There is nothing you can hide from her in here.
  2746. >That damn horse plays with you.
  2747. >And the worst part about is that she does not even do anything bad.
  2748. >That is enough; you need to salvage at least something of your dignity.
  2749. "We won't come very far today if you keep that up, #deca."
  2750. >She giggles.
  2751. "All right, all right. Let's get started with the training. I will behave on the command deck. Promise."
  2752. >#deca.mare heads to the door and uses the handle with her mouth.
  2757. >You look after her.
  2758. >The door swings inwards like any normal door would.
  2759. >Strange, you thought the door slid on your way in.
  2760. >It is probably for the best to refrain from thinking too much about it.
  2761. >#deca.mare trots forwards.
  2762. >Her tail swishes to the side only a second before she leaves the room.
  2763. >You get a full, uncensored impression of her backside.
  2764. >Her body is indeed anatomically correct in every detail.
  2765. >You struggle to keep your composure.
  2766. "#deca! You devious little..."
  2767. >She leaves the room and the door closes behind her.
  2768. >You can imagine her laughter on the other side, even if you cannot hear a thing.
  2769. "She wants to drive me crazy! I just know it."
  2770. >You take breath and shoo the dirty thoughts out of your head.
  2771. >Then you stand up and follow your godforsaken lewd space mare.
  2776. 24
  2778. >You open the door to enter the command deck.
  2779. >Everything is exactly as it was before.
  2780. >You see no sign of #deca.mare.
  2781. >She must have reached the chair already.
  2782. >You walk down the ramp and towards the chair.
  2783. >She has probably prepared the next innuendo for you.
  2784. >Contrary to your expectations, #deca.mare does nothing of the sort; she simply sits there, tucked in her blanket.
  2785. >She sticks her tongue out.
  2786. >"I said I will behave."
  2787. >You clear your throat.
  2788. "Right."
  2789. >You sit down beside her and let her come closer, just like the first time.
  2790. >"Ready for our next trip?"
  2791. >You nod.
  2792. "I am."
  2793. >"All right, close your eyes and lean back. You know the procedure."
  2794. >You follow her instructions.
  2795. >The sensation of a gentle touch runs through your upper leg.
  2796. >You feel how your mind is dragged elsewhere once more.
  2797. >The vision of a familiar docking bay fills your mind.
  2798. >Its blast doors open and the mechanism thrusts your drone out of the mother ship.
  2799. >You are prepared this time.
  2800. >Instead of bringing the drone to an abrupt halt, you use the momentum to your advantage.
  2801. >You coordinate your thrusters to fly an elegant curve.
  2802. >The mother ship appears in your vision, the planet is right behind it.
  2803. >#deca.mare's voice sounds in your head.
  2804. >"That was great! You make progress."
  2805. "Thanks."
  2806. >You summon your custom HUD.
  2807. >Another drone is in the vicinity, its flight path is similar to yours.
  2808. "So, you want to fly to the surface this time?"
  2809. >"Indeed. My aim is to teach you the basic factors that are relevant for the establishment of a permanent base."
  2810. "And this is another opportunity for me to practice commands."
  2811. >You hear an amused snort.
  2812. >"Astute observation, Anon. You caught me."
  2813. >Her comment sounded as if she were faux offended.
  2814. >You hope she does not do anything obscene with your body while your mind is in the drone.
  2815. >She would be the type to bring you back while she is trying out an exotic position.
  2816. >The other drone stutters slightly.
  2817. >"Anon! What do you think of me?"
  2818. "Gotcha."
  2823. >#deca.mare does not take long to "recover" from your cheeky prank.
  2824. >"Okay, I think I deserved that much. Are you prepared for an atmospheric flight?"
  2825. "Haven't had one in a while, but I will manage."
  2826. >"Well then, follow my lead. I have a route for us."
  2827. >A flight route appears on your HUD.
  2828. >#deca.mare's drone is highlighted as the squad leader.
  2829. >You align your ship behind her and follow the route.
  2830. >"We will use a standard entry vector. Just focus on your speed and keep an eye on the shielding."
  2831. "Got it, #deca."
  2832. >#deca.mare and you enter the planet's atmosphere.
  2833. >You calibrate your scanner and keep track of your speed and the air density.
  2834. >Everything looks good at first, but then you notice something unusual.
  2835. "#deca? Where are the heat shields on this ship? I don't see any protection on the hull."
  2836. >"There are none. The energy shield will suffice."
  2837. >This is yet another point that astonishes you.
  2838. >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.
  2839. >But these are incredibly costly in terms of energy consumption and maintenance, which limits their performance on mobile vessels.
  2840. >None of the ships would bear shields generators that are strong enough to survive an atmospheric flight.
  2841. >Which is why every specialised fighter with the capability for manoeuvres within atmospheres is equipped with additional thick heat shields.
  2842. >Every other vessel would simply burn and melt in such an attempt.
  2843. >And these utility drones shrug the problem off as if it were nothing.
  2844. >A friendly voice chimes in.
  2845. >"I told you not to worry about the energy efficiency. We have enough capacities for a safe trip down and back."
  2846. "#deca engineering is a marvel. Has anyone told you this before?"
  2847. >"Thank you, I spent some time on the blueprints."
  2848. >You notice a faint vibe of pride in her voice.
  2853. >"But the credit is not mine alone. The original design was developed by The Three.
  2854. "The Three? You mean #deca.alpha, beta, and gamma?
  2855. >"Yes. Their envisioned architecture is the cornerstone of everything that followed. Up to the current day."
  2856. >There is nothing you can say to that.
  2857. >#deca.mare obviously venerates the legacy of her kin, in spite of their violent past and her own banishment.
  2858. >And this is not unjustified on a purely technological basis.
  2859. >You check your instruments.
  2860. >The air density is increasing.
  2861. >As a consequence, heat is building up around you due to the ensuing friction.
  2862. >You quickly peek on your status window.
  2863. >A strain on the energy shield is noticeable, but far from critical.
  2864. >It is getting harder to keep the machine steady.
  2865. >The increasing pressure and the planet's gravity require you to mentally adjust your engine and thruster output constantly.
  2866. >The process is not hard, but you need to focus your attention.
  2867. >"You are doing good, Anon. Just keep following me. I will tell you when we reach an ideal height to slow down.
  2868. >You have no idea how long it takes for you to descent.
  2869. >Time flies by when you are busy.
  2870. >At some point you get a signal from #deca.mare.
  2871. >"We are almost there. Use your reverse thrusters to slow your ship carefully. Try to aim for a speed of standard planetary aircraft."
  2872. >You do exactly that.
  2873. >"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."
  2874. "Okay, just one question."
  2875. >"Yes?"
  2876. "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."
  2877. >"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?"
  2878. "If we don't fly any breakneck stunts, then yes. What do you have in mind?"
  2883. >#deca.mare directs her drone to fly in a straight line.
  2884. >You match your trajectory.
  2885. >"Now, try to shift your visual focus. The sensors can display an all-around depiction of the space around you."
  2886. "How?"
  2887. >"Imagine the sensors as your eyes. Move them around as if you were turning your head."
  2888. >You focus on the sensors.
  2889. >Since you are not performing any complex manoeuvres, you can keep the flight order active subconsciously.
  2890. >You try to look to your right.
  2891. >You need a moment to figure out how the command works, but your vision obeys and turns to the right.
  2892. >Then you do the same in the other direction.
  2893. >It works without an issue.
  2894. >The same holds true for looking up and down.
  2895. >"Anon, you are not restricted to your natural anatomic limitations.
  2896. >Only one way to find out.
  2897. >You direct your sensors to look back.
  2898. >It turns all the way effortlessly.
  2899. "Heh, I could get used to that."
  2900. >"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?"
  2901. >You "jump" out of the ship.
  2902. >Your drone flies away and your vision remains where it is.
  2903. >For a moment you fear to fall down, but nothing happens.
  2904. "Now that's trippy."
  2905. >"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."
  2906. "What is the problem?
  2907. >"Well, your brain is not wired to process such a visual input. I could remove that obstacle, but that requires an invasive brain surgery."
  2908. >A cold shiver runs through your "body".
  2909. >You know she could pull this off.
  2910. >Your brain is already in the perfect position.
  2911. "Yeah, no. Have to pass on that offer."
  2912. >"Thought so."
  2917. "Nothing personal against you or your expertise, #deca."
  2918. >"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."
  2919. "Shoot."
  2920. >"Let me take control of your ship for a now and direct your vision."
  2921. "Going for a visual lesson?"
  2922. >"Sort of."
  2923. "Okay then, I'm ready."
  2924. >"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."
  2925. >Your vision is panned downwards and you see a rough rocky plane.
  2926. >Some mountains are visible in the distance.
  2927. >"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."
  2928. "What would be a harder example?"
  2929. >"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."
  2930. "Makes sense."
  2931. >"The plane below is a suitable location. It is fairly wide and flat, which means it is claimable as it is."
  2932. "You also told me about tectonic hazards. What about earthquakes?"
  2933. >"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."
  2934. >#deca.mare giggles.
  2935. >"Want to build one? I have some blueprints."
  2936. >You are not sure if she is joking.
  2941. "You built the bases too?"
  2942. >"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."
  2943. "What kind of constructs?"
  2944. >"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."
  2945. >Now all the tools on the drones make sense.
  2946. >"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."
  2947. "Are these machines sentient?"
  2948. >"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."
  2949. >Certain dots connect in your head.
  2950. >The implications of #deca.mare's words are clear.
  2951. >You hear a smug, but slightly bitter laughter.
  2952. >"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."
  2953. >You cannot begin to imagine the uproar that such a revelation would stir.
  2958. >"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."
  2959. "And in the case of population hubs?"
  2960. >"Then I would oversee the process from orbit until the planet is wholly habitable."
  2961. >You think back to the image of the worlds you have seen in the dream.
  2962. "What about the plants and animals?"
  2963. >"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."
  2964. "This sounds hard to realise."
  2965. >"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."
  2966. "Mostly?"
  2967. >#deca.mare's voice gets a motherly touch.
  2968. >"I fabricate your nutrients there to keep my Anon healthy. We will obviously not get rations from your former superiors, you know?"
  2969. >Her jokingly patronising performance is somewhat embarrassing.
  2970. >She absolutely loves to find playful ways to make you squirm.
  2971. >You have never met anybody who was so odd and yet so endearing before.
  2972. "Point taken."
  2977. >"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."
  2978. >Your link is temporarily removed from the drone and brought to different landmarks on this world.
  2979. >#deca.mare elaborates the details and advantages of each one, depending on the individual types of bases that are intended to be built there.
  2980. >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.
  2981. >When she was done, she returns your vision to your original drone, with her ship still being marked as squad leader.
  2982. >"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?"
  2983. >Her lecture has planted the seed of an idea in your mind, but you don't bring it up at the moment.
  2984. "Not right now."
  2985. >"Then let us fly back. We will need some jumps to reach our next destination. Ready for the ascent?"
  2986. "On your mark, #deca."
  2987. >You regain the control of your drone and a new flight path is displayed in you vision.
  2988. >"Here we go."
  2989. >#deca.mare accelerates her drone and turns it upwards.
  2990. >You do the same and allow your routine to take over.
  2991. >Your drones climb higher and higher, the atmospheric pressure recedes and you get to see the familiar image of space in front of you.
  2992. >#deca.mare marks the location of the mother ship on your HUD, including an assigned docking bay.
  2993. >The signature replaces the squad leader notification of #deca.mare's drone.
  2994. >You have no problem to locate her drone regardless.
  2995. >"Do you want to land the ship yourself?"
  2996. >Come to think of it, this is the first time you land on the CPU ship yourself without being dragged or controlled remotely.
  2997. "It's high time to change that."
  2998. >"As you wish."
  3003. >The ship draws nearer.
  3004. >A familiar green dotted line appears.
  3005. >You adjust your speed carefully.
  3006. >The docking bay comes into sight.
  3007. >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.
  3008. >You work exclusively with the auxiliary ports to fly the last part.
  3009. >The clamps of the landing pen are indicated on your HUD and you keep attention to your positioning in relation to theirs.
  3010. >Once you have the optimal position, the clamps reach out on their own and fasten the ship accordingly.
  3011. >#deca.mare comments on your landing.
  3012. >"Successfully docked. That was a textbook landing, Anon."
  3013. "Thank you. That is the result of years of practice."
  3014. >Your vision blurs.
  3015. >#deca.mare returns you to the command deck.
  3020. 25/1
  3022. >The CPU ship leaves the orbit and charges its jumpdrive.
  3023. >You are back in the command chair with your mare by your side.
  3024. "#deca, could you bookmark this world, please?"
  3025. >"Sure, but what do you have in mind?"
  3026. "Nothing as of now. Call it a hunch if you will."
  3027. >"All right."
  3028. >The planet icon gets highlighted on the map.
  3029. >The effigy is now surrounded by a slightly flashy, golden circle.
  3030. >#deca.mare checks her displays.
  3031. >"It takes several jumps to arrive at our next stop. We can do something else in the meantime. And I have an idea."
  3032. "Another bonding activity, I assume."
  3033. >She nods.
  3034. >"Something a little bit more intimate than the last one."
  3035. >Judging from her earlier behaviour, this does not bode well.
  3036. >She looks at you sincerely.
  3037. >"But only if it is okay for you. No funny advances this time."
  3038. "You said the same at breakfast."
  3039. >"And I did not break my promise, right?"
  3040. >She has a point on a technical basis.
  3041. #deca.mare had not left the chamber when she staged her little "display".
  3042. >The devil always hides in the detail, or, like in this case, in the semantics.
  3043. "No, you kept your word."
  3044. >#deca.mare cracks a chirpy smile.
  3045. >"See? I'm not a bad mare. And I promise to refrain from any silly attempt to act pushy. Is that satisfactory?"
  3046. >You hope so at least.
  3047. "Deal. What is your plan?"
  3048. >"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."
  3049. >Now you start to feel uneasy.
  3050. >"We will not do anything against your will, Anon. Just tell me if you are uncomfortable with something."
  3051. "I don't even know what you are planning in the first place."
  3052. >"Allow me."
  3053. >#deca.mare pulls herself free to head for the ramp.
  3054. >You play along and follow her.
  3055. >The two of you reach the door on the balcony and it slides open.
  3056. >The room behind the frame is not the chamber where you spent your last "night".
  3061. >However, the general architecture style is similar.
  3062. >The room's floor, ceiling and walls are made out of carved light stone and decorated with several paintings.
  3063. >Some of those resemble pony figures, others just depict artistically curved lines and other patterns.
  3064. >#deca.mare enters, you follow her.
  3065. >The furniture is also very specific.
  3066. >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.
  3067. >One place is especially noteworthy: An enormous wooden tub filled with water.
  3068. >A stone ramp around it functions as a mount for the tub by encasing one half of its frame.
  3069. >The ramp itself is accessible by a small stair.
  3070. >A neatly ornamented balustrade with equally decorated screens on the other end of the ramp gives the impression of some privacy.
  3071. >It looks all in all pretty wholesome.
  3072. "This is a bath house."
  3073. >"Well, the exact term is spa, but you got the idea."
  3074. "You want us to spend time in a wellness centre?"
  3075. >"Hmhm. Only the two of us."
  3076. >She waves a forehoof in a wide arc.
  3077. >"Think of the possible activities. We can go to the sauna, massage each other, or take a bath."
  3078. >These suggestions all come hand in hand with implications.
  3079. >Exposing yourself in such a way is not something you are used to do; even the academy had standards of general modesty.
  3080. >#deca.mare turns around to face you.
  3081. >You cannot detect a sign of mischief in her face.
  3082. >"There is no need to be shy, I have your bio data anyway. I probably know more about your anatomy than you."
  3083. "Are you sure this is the right time for that?"
  3084. >You are not particularly against her ideas, but she was right; you are reluctant against your own better knowledge.
  3085. >"Anon, you know this already, but let me elaborate. We have kissed twice, spent a night together and embraced each other on different occasions."
  3086. >Now she cannot hide her smirk.
  3091. >"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."
  3092. "Not that I had a choice. You literally knocked me down and pinned me to the floor."
  3093. >"Granted, but you were never unhappy about it, correct?"
  3094. >She has you there.
  3095. >#deca.mare resumes her serious manner.
  3096. >"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?"
  3097. >Her arguments are convincing.
  3098. >Still, you have to grapple with yourself.
  3099. >You take a long breath and sigh.
  3100. "You are right, #deca. Where do you want to start?"
  3101. >"I think you should make that choice, Anon. Whatever you feel the most comfortable with."
  3102. >You consider the options that #deca.mare has given to you.
  3103. "Hm, I think you we should start slowly and see where to go from there. Let's start with massages."
  3104. >This way you can at least keep some modesty for the time being.
  3105. >"Sure. Follow me."
  3106. >She heads for the row with the mattresses.
  3107. >Their heights vary.
  3108. >Some are placed on elevated pedestals, others mounted on adjustable frames.
  3109. >You can tell that they were originally not designed for human proportions, but you will manage.
  3110. >"We can stay here in the main hall, or, if you prefer something more secluded, use one of the smaller chambers.
  3111. >You take a look around.
  3112. >You certainly would object against the idea to stay in the big hall if it were full.
  3113. >But nobody, or pony, will interrupt you here, so that will not become a problem.
  3114. "This room is fine for me."
  3115. >"Then I suggest we take turns. Shall I start?"
  3116. "I have never given professional massages. So I have no idea what works best."
  3117. >"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."
  3122. >#deca.mare motions to you to approach one of the lower mattresses.
  3123. >This makes sense, as she has to reach you properly.
  3124. >"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."
  3125. >She does not show her banter mood here, that was a serious comment.
  3126. "Right. I think this is a bit too much for the start."
  3127. >You are about to sit down, but #deca.mare chimes in.
  3128. >"There is something you have forgotten, Anon."
  3129. >Oh, the suit.
  3130. >You mentally order the suit to dissolve, but you keep your underwear and socks.
  3131. >For now at least; that issue will come soon enough.
  3132. >She nods without a word.
  3133. >You sit down and position yourself to lie on your stomach.
  3134. >Due to the relatively low height of the mattress, #deca.mare's head is now above you.
  3135. >You fold your arms to rest your head.
  3136. >The mattress is of excellent quality.
  3137. >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.
  3138. >"Do you want a pillow?"
  3139. "No, thanks. This is good enough for me."
  3140. >You wonder about something else.
  3141. "How exactly do you massage with hooves? These are not exactly made for precision."
  3142. >"Does not matter much if you know what to do. The trick is to apply a certain amount of pressure to the right spots."
  3143. >She positions herself beside the mattress so that she can reach your back with her limbs.
  3144. >"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."
  3145. >You feel her breath on your back.
  3146. >"Now, hold still and relax. I will do the rest."
  3147. >You close your eyes and wait for #deca.mare to begin.
  3148. >You are unsure what you expected at first.
  3149. >Probably the feeling of being greeted by something hard and uncomfortable.
  3150. >But #deca.mare proves you wrong.
  3155. >She starts at the tip of your shoulders.
  3156. >Her touch is indeed solid, yet warm and not grating.
  3157. >The sensation is obviously alien to you; you have never been treated with hooves before.
  3158. >And since such a scenario would have most likely ended in a death by trampling, it is probably for the best.
  3159. >Weird, you have been thinking a lot about abstract ideas and your own life in the last two days.
  3160. >Perhaps more than ever before.
  3161. >Then again, your life has turned upside down with only one accident.
  3162. >#deca.mare's therapy derails your musings.
  3163. >She applies pressure to your body rhythmically and runs along your musculature and nerves to get the desired effect.
  3164. >It is as if she wanted to tell you not to rile yourself up without saying a single word.
  3165. >Just enjoy the moment, Anon.
  3166. >She continues.
  3167. >Her hooves follow your spine downwards without missing a single sensitive spot.
  3168. >Occasionally, you shift slightly and hold your breath as a response to her kneading.
  3169. >Not out of discomfort; you are just not used to this type of stimulation, not to mention its intensity.
  3170. >She knows exactly where she has to treat you and how.
  3171. >And it feels just right.
  3172. >Her lack of fingers is barely noticeable.
  3173. >She goes on until she reaches the tip of your tail bone.
  3174. >At this point, #deca.mare reverses her direction and repeats her massage from the bottom up.
  3175. >You do your best to put your mind at rest and relax your body.
  3176. >The internal hesitation inside you begins to fade.
  3177. >You figure the key is to let go of your inhibition and allow yourself to indulge in the moment.
  3178. >Trying to defend yourself in here is pointless.
  3179. >Defend against what anyway?
  3180. >There are no threats in here.
  3181. >Just a formerly lonely creature who wishes for your earnest affection and who is ready to give you hers in turn.
  3186. >She spends quite a while to run her hooves along your body.
  3187. >You have no idea how many cycles she completes.
  3188. >But that is not a problem; she does not seem to mind and neither do you.
  3189. >At some point she lets go of you and withdraws her hooves.
  3190. >"Please stay put for a moment more. How was it?"
  3191. >You breathe in and open your eyes.
  3192. "I have to admit, that was extremely pleasing. Can't say I had anything like it before."
  3193. >She seems to be content with your answer.
  3194. >You rise your upper body slowly and turn it around to look #deca.mare in the eye.
  3195. "It's my turn then, right?"
  3196. >"You make it sound like a chore, Anon."
  3197. "Sorry, that was not my intention. I just hope I can do you justice."
  3198. >"Ah, don't worry about that. The only thing I ask of you is to not hold yourself back."
  3199. "Fair enough."
  3200. >She trots over to another mattress.
  3201. >This one is mounted on a greater height than yours.
  3202. >Not much of a surprise here, you need to reach her properly.
  3203. >You stand up.
  3204. >While you are nearing the mattress that #deca.mare has picked for herself, she takes a quick leap to jump on it.
  3205. >This display of agility surprising to you.
  3206. >Its surface is almost on the same level as her forehead and she leaps on it without even picking up a serious speed beforehand.
  3207. >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.
  3208. >You are aware that horses are known their athletic potential, but watching her in this manner has not occurred to you until now.
  3209. >You wonder what she could do if she used the full potential of her body without "cheating".
  3214. >#deca.mare makes herself comfortable, which means she positions herself almost like she did on the command chair earlier.
  3215. >She lies flatly on her barrel and rests her head on her forehooves once more.
  3216. >The only difference is her way of resting her hind legs.
  3217. >These do not lie closely against her frame like before, but sprawl out instead.
  3218. >Her body appears particularly flat in this pose, granting you access to a wide area to treat.
  3219. >You see her logic behind this, but you cannot get rid of the thought that it could be interpreted suggestively.
  3220. >The mattress outlines her features further, which reinforces this impression in turn.
  3221. >You banish that idea for now.
  3222. >You agreed to this activity and you will not back out, no matter what.
  3223. >What kind of partner would do that?
  3224. >Additionally, you have done something similar to her earlier on without thinking much about it.
  3225. >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.
  3226. >No matter.
  3227. >Focus on what you promised to do.
  3228. "Okay, tell me when you are ready, #deca."
  3229. >"I am good to go."
  3230. >Well then, here goes nothing.
  3231. >You decide to start like she did; start from the top and work from there.
  3232. >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.
  3233. >You lay your hands on her back and place your thumbs between her shoulder blades.
  3234. >You spread your other fingers out like a fan so you can cover a larger portion of her back.
  3235. >Sensing her soft fur has a strange, mesmerising effect on you.
  3236. >You don't know how it works, but it puts your mind at ease.
  3237. >#deca.mare twitches weakly upon your touch.
  3242. >You can tell she is not accustomed to physical contact either.
  3243. >In a way, she is at least as jumpy as you, but she hides it much better.
  3244. >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.
  3245. >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.
  3246. >And the implications are a handful on their own.
  3247. >She could create her own companion in whatever fashion and form she desired even without her biological studies, that much is clear.
  3248. >Although she had the chance to do so, she refused.
  3249. >She chose to endure the pain willingly for centuries.
  3250. >Alone.
  3251. >And she carries more than enough of that in her.
  3252. >That insight helps you to see her from her more vulnerable side.
  3253. >Yes, you have held a neat little speech about her past and why she deserves love.
  3254. >But have you actually thought for once about how the centuries must have felt for her?
  3255. >How exceedingly vast her desires must be?
  3256. >Can you truly imagine it?
  3257. >You recall your first meeting yesterday.
  3258. >It is a wonder that she has not ravaged you there right on the spot in an uncontrollable emotional fit.
  3259. >Her actual composure must be enormous.
  3260. >#deca.mare lies before you, seemingly unaware of your trail of thoughts.
  3261. >But you know better.
  3262. >Is that what she wanted you to see all along?
  3263. >A conclusion you had to come to on your own?
  3264. >Anyway, there is a promise you still have to fulfil.
  3265. >You carefully move your fingers on her back and feel for distinctive and sensible spots.
  3266. >You get a grasp of her general anatomy and put your thumbs in position.
  3267. >Then you apply a soft pressure and observe her reaction.
  3268. >Her twitches return occasionally, combined with faint gasps.
  3269. >#deca.mare seems to enjoy it.
  3270. >That means you are doing it right.
  3275. >You gradually increase the pressure in small steps and aim to imitate her rhythmic massage.
  3276. >Your other fingers caress her body while you proceed to massage your way down with your thumbs.
  3277. >You register every reaction of her.
  3278. >Every little tremor, every breath and... was that a pleasured moan?
  3279. >Never mind, just focus on your own actions.
  3280. >This activity is not only about you anymore.
  3281. >If it has ever been in the first place.
  3282. >#deca.mare said it herself, she likes to be with you.
  3283. >That is what counts.
  3284. >The circumstances are secondary.
  3285. >Six centuries of continuous isolation were speaking through her voice.
  3286. >Well, you cannot undo the past, but you are in control of the present.
  3287. >And you are determined to cleanse her accumulated pain, whatever it takes.
  3288. >She has saved you, now you will do the same for her.
  3289. >Not because out of a feeling of debt, but amity.
  3290. >To provide for each other unconditionally, no strings attached.
  3291. >Like it should be in a true relationship.
  3292. >You watch her back, she does the same for you.
  3293. >And sometimes this requires a thorough, unrestrained massage.
  3294. >You reach the lower part of her spine.
  3295. >Your hands are now resting on her haunches.
  3296. >You throw your concerns out of the proverbial window.
  3297. >She shows no signs of resistance, so why should you?
  3298. >You follow her example and the do the same thing she did.
  3299. >Your hands follow your previous movements in reverse order to work your way back up.
  3300. >You do this several times.
  3301. >Neither you nor #deca.mare keep track of the exact number.
  3302. >Because the count wholly irrelevant; this is no competitive contest.
  3303. >At some point you wonder whether you should go a step further.
  3304. >#deca.mare has been prudent while she was massaging you.
  3305. >You assume she did not want to alienate you with a brash blunder.
  3306. >But this does not hold true the other way round.
  3307. >You know she has made it very clear on multiple occasions that she cherishes physical care.
  3308. >#deca.mare basically craves for it.
  3313. >You take an evaluating look at the mare in front of you.
  3314. >Her eyes are still closed, her posture is calm.
  3315. >A smile has formed on her lips.
  3316. >Not one of the cocky sort.
  3317. >No, this, you assume, is genuine bliss.
  3318. >She has probably never been in a situation before where she was the one who gets coddled up.
  3319. >Well, maybe with the exception of her turbulent construction, but she was barely even a sentient being during this phase.
  3320. >And not accurately comparable to what she has become.
  3321. >You reach her lower end again.
  3322. >You decide to push further.
  3323. "Ah, to hell with the prudery."
  3324. >Your hands deviate from their former route and wander gently across her hind legs.
  3325. >You knead her thighs firmly and observe her response.
  3326. >The upper legs are, unsurprisingly, far more muscular than her back, though in no way overdone.
  3327. >You are unable to adequately trace her bones; all you feel is her soft fur and firm muscles underneath.
  3328. >So you simply take a hold of what you can get and treat her to the best of your knowledge.
  3329. >Her reaction follows promptly.
  3330. >A strong shiver runs through #deca.mare's body and you hear her gasping for air.
  3331. >You feel the tremor in your hands.
  3332. >At first you thought something went wrong, but you doubt that you hurt her somehow.
  3333. >Besides, she does not simulate pain.
  3334. >You examine her face.
  3335. >She is still smiling.
  3336. >And not only that.
  3337. >A weak blush has formed on her face.
  3338. >You have no doubt now.
  3339. >Living through this sensation is completely new to her.
  3340. >Oh, the irony.
  3341. >She teased you during the last two days to sway you.
  3342. >But she begins to quiver herself during an unorthodox, but not necessarily erotic massage.
  3343. >Perhaps you can use that for a little "payback".
  3348. >You hold your hands still.
  3349. "You like that, hm? Let's see how much you can shake."
  3350. >And you resume your massage all across her body.
  3351. >You also double down; now you include her knees, lower legs and sides.
  3352. >The only spots you avoid are those that would turn your performance straight into a sexual play, her tail, and her head.
  3353. >So much decency must remain.
  3354. >The desired result kicks in nevertheless.
  3355. >Her breathing becomes a hissing and she presses herself instinctively deeper into her mattress while you do your work.
  3356. >Now you are the one who makes her squirm.
  3357. >You relentlessly massage, knead, caress and tickle that mare in front of you.
  3358. >#deca.mare's composure fails her this time.
  3359. >An audible squeak of delight escapes her throat.
  3360. >You have her now.
  3361. >Her weight shifts on the mattress whenever you pick a new spot to attend to.
  3362. >At some point she stretches her forehooves out as well and buries her face in the mattress.
  3363. >Her posture is now as flat as it can probably be.
  3364. >While her further utterances are muffled by the fabric, their implications are unmistakable.
  3365. >She is having the time of her life.
  3366. >And you will make sure that she gets the most out of it.