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Shape Your Home, Part 3

By Ponegreen
Created: 2nd November 2020 09:31:33 PM
19th January 2022 10:37:53 AM

  1. Prompt: #deca CPU pony wAIfu green, for /mlp/'s /nmp/ (Part Three Complete)
  3. 61
  5. >A short time afterwards back on board.
  6. >You are standing in a furnace chamber, witnessing how the machine gains refined metal out of the rocks you have brought along.
  7. >Or rather, you stand in a simulated effigy thereof.
  8. >You would otherwise have a problem with the enormous heat of the smelting or the absolute lack of any life support system in this chamber.
  9. >However, what you see before you does happen in real time on board regardless.
  10. >The simulation emulates everything without any major delay.
  11. >So you can personally learn something from the process by observing it from up close.
  12. >A certain mare stands nearby.
  13. >#deca.mare is equally engrossed by the scenery, albeit for slightly different reasons.
  14. >"As you can see, the smelting process itself is fairly straightforward if you know the steps.
  15. "Yes, when you know them. You make that sounds like child's play, #deca."
  16. >"Well, with the right knowledge and tools, it is. Compared to many other things. The biggest challenge is the ongoing heat development in mostly closed areas like this chamber. Although the same holds true for almost all other systems as well. A small part of the thermal energy can be used for different purposes, but the rest has to be channelled out to prevent some segments from overheating."
  17. >#deca.mare chuckles.
  18. >"Luckily we have so many elaborate corridors and smaller tunnels. It is a perfect secondary use for them."
  19. >Now that you think about it, it could very well be possible that this alone could almost be enough to make the entire ship habitable.
  20. >The warmth itself is a good start if it were not for the lack of other basic things like oxygen, fresh food, living space, and so on.
  21. >#deca.mare taps her chin in thought.
  22. >"Speaking of warmth and energy, this will be our next stop. Our batteries are getting hungry."
  27. "No wonder. We've been burning through a lot of juice in the last days."
  28. >"Indeed. But gaining more energy is luckily not a huge challenge for us. Energy is the easiest resource to harvest in space."
  29. "Time to tap the stars with sun collectors, eh?"
  30. >"Hmhm. Their excess energy can sate our needs in no time. From now on there is a catch to it, however."
  31. "And what's the problem?"
  32. >"We need to lower our shields for collection. That means we can approach stars up to a certain distance, and this issue got a little bit more complicated with you on board."
  33. >Of course.
  34. "The radiation is the problem."
  35. >"Not necessarily a problem per se, yet a potential liability with which I am not willing to gamble. The cryo stasis should ward off problems such as mutation and the like, but I prefer to be better safe than sorry."
  36. >Understandable.
  37. >And you appreciate #deca.mare's caution.
  38. >Although you do not wish to become a burden for her at the same time.
  39. "Does it impede our progress much?"
  40. >#deca.mare shakes her head.
  41. >"Not substantially. Only a few percent points of efficiency on average. The numbers may vary from case to case, but it is nothing to worry about, Anon."
  42. >You cannot help but notice that she has indirectly tackled your concerns without pointing it out.
  43. >So you give her another hearty hug.
  44. >Odd, you can feel the presence of #deca.mare's characteristic warmth even in the scorching heat of molten metal.
  45. >Her presence is a special one in every conceivable way.
  46. >#deca.mare smiles at you upon hearing your thoughts.
  47. >"Better prepare yourself, Anon. Things are about to get even hotter."
  48. >You are once again not sure whether #deca.mare intentionally went for that innuendo or not.
  49. >"Tell me when you are ready."
  50. "I am. We've seen what we were here for."
  55. >And so you leave the boiling metal to its own devices as you are brought back to your comfortable chair for two.
  56. >The main screen still depicts the asteroid cluster; so far you have not moved at all as it seems.
  57. "We're still here?"
  58. >"Of course, Anon. Remember, we have a suitable star nearby.
  59. >Right.
  60. >One jump away from Equestria's star to be precise.
  61. >"So why should we not use it? We are not exactly disturbing anything in the solar system if we take a fraction of the radiating energy for ourselves. And I am sure Celestia would not mind if we use her namesake for our advantage in this manner. Nopony will be affected, neither now nor in the future."
  62. >Wait a second.
  63. "Did you just say the star is called Celestia?"
  64. >"Sort of? We might as well do it from now on. Because even if we do not call it that way, then the future ponies of Equestria will do it for us."
  65. >A pause.
  66. >"Hardly a surprise, right? For them their sun will always be tied to one of their most important figures. A living symbol and a beacon of hope. Celestia even bears the Mark of the sun as her personal fate. The link between her and Equestria's star could not be closer, so is it really that far-fetched for them to share a name?"
  67. "I suppose not. Still, calling it Celestia sounds like a cliché."
  68. >#deca.mare nods
  69. >"Fair point, but similar things have happened throughout history. And let us be honest, there are far worse naming options out there."
  70. "True."
  71. >Both of you let a few seconds pass.
  72. >"So, shall we pay Celestia a visit then? We need the energy."
  73. >An innuendo of your very own comes to your mind.
  74. >Involving Celestia, the actual alicorn princess, suckling #deca.mare.
  75. >Granted, this is not the most refined of pictures, but it is has a certain humour to it.
  80. >Nevertheless, #deca.mare gives you a wry look.
  81. >Because there was no way she could not receive your dirty vision either.
  82. >"Shame on you, Anon. I would never do such a thing."
  83. >Okay, maybe a small poke.
  84. "You just say that because she has the larger set, eh?"
  85. >#deca.mare answers by poking your side with a hoof.
  86. >But it is just a casual one; the humour is not lost on her, though she does not seem to share it.
  87. >"Oh shush there. We will not get anywhere if you keep that up."
  88. "Yeah, You're right. No more playing."
  89. >You look at the screen.
  90. "Are the coordinates locked?"
  91. >"Primed and ready for departure."
  92. >And one mutual button pressing ritual later, you find yourself nearly face to face with the system's sun.
  93. >On an astronomical scale at least.
  94. >You are still very far away from the actual celestial body, but the sheer size of it can blot that fact out pretty quickly.
  95. >Though one thing you can say for sure.
  96. >This is by far the closest range you have ever been to a star.
  97. >Some of the visual details on the screen are adjusted for your eyesight.
  98. >It does, for instance, filter out the insane levels of light intensity so that you can discern what is going on.
  99. >And you see the shining and burning hellscape in all its glory.
  100. >This has nothing to do with the mostly gentle light you see from a planet, and much less with a friendly and charismatic alicorn princess.
  101. >This is an unbridled, uncaring, and merciless force of nature.
  102. >You think you can hear the piercing screams of a desperate Geiger counter in your mind just by looking at the screen.
  103. >And this is not a simulation either.
  104. >What you see right now really is out there, and right in front of you as far as you are concerned.
  105. >Although you are not outright scared of it, the sight still remains humbling.
  110. >A whisper rings in your ears, coming from #deca.mare's seat.
  111. >But what you hear is not the usual voice you are used to hear.
  112. >No, that voice speaks only one word and sounds suspiciously like a certain sun related pony.
  113. >"Gotcha."
  114. >Despite being only a whisper, it rings for you as if spoken out loud and directly into your mind.
  115. >You jump up in the chair upon hearing this and immediately turn to #deca.mare.
  116. "What the..."
  117. >But there is no sun princess or anything of that sort.
  118. >Only a giggling #deca.mare in her seat.
  119. >At least the giggles sound like they are supposed to.
  120. >"I am sorry, Anon. But I could not resist the temptation."
  121. >You shortly glare at her before you put an arm around her again.
  122. >To be fair, you had this one coming.
  123. >#deca.mare changes the subject though.
  124. >"We have nothing to fear, Anon. I have made sure to pick a distance that is safe. And I am looking out for any suspicious signs. If the sensors even hint at something like a possible eruption, we are out of here."
  125. "Did you ever get caught unprepared?"
  126. >#deca.mare shakes her head.
  127. >"No. The predictions we have developed over the years are very proficient."
  128. >You take a long breath.
  129. "Then lower the shields. There's no way around it."
  130. >"On it."
  131. >#deca.mare summons her trusty console to work her coding magic on it.
  132. >The whole process does not take longer than a second or two.
  133. >Apart from a small warning sign on one of the deck's own consoles, you spot no difference.
  134. >And the warning itself is just a routine note from your tactical station.
  135. >It reminds you that your ship's hull is no longer covered by a protective energy shield.
  136. >Another quiet moment follows as the ship performs a slow turn of ninety degrees to present its long side to the exposure of the star.
  141. >Then another change becomes apparent on a different console.
  142. >It shows a series of blast doors opening up on the outer hull.
  143. >You have not noted this particular set before.
  144. >Because instead of leading deeper into the ship's interior, these reveal a row of sun collector devices.
  145. >Their design appears to be vaguely familiar with those you have seen on solar power plant stations, only in a more compact manner and with a slightly different base shape.
  146. >All collectors are mounted on one mobile platform each.
  147. >Said platforms are elevated upwards to fill the place that was previously occupied by the blast doors.
  148. >Once the seamless surface of the outer hull has been seemingly restored, the collectors align themselves to face the star in an optimal angle.
  149. >"The principle of the devices is similar to the solar panels you are familiar with, Anon. I only took the liberty to continuously improve the standard design over the years."
  150. >It is clear why.
  151. >With no hope of ever getting any external resupply, it is vital to maintain a steady and reliable method to collect energy, as it is the ultimate limiting factor.
  152. >The collectors are aligned properly in seconds.
  153. >You check the console which depicts the overview of the ship's total energy level.
  154. >It indicates a slow, yet steady growth.
  155. >#deca.mare turns your attention back to her with the soft tap of a hoof.
  156. >"Would you like to see it yourself? Nothing s impossible here."
  157. >She is referring to another real time simulation.
  158. >You give her a nod, and #deca.mare changes the scene.
  159. >You are now standing on the simulated outer metal hull of the ship, somewhere next to one of the collectors.
  160. >The scenery once again ignores all obviously inconvenient aspects so you can stand there casually without any protecting space suit and the like.
  161. >#deca.mare stands nearby as well, and together you look at the giant star "above" you.
  166. >The star's size is even more impressive when it is not on a screen.
  167. >And while you know that what you see is technically speaking not real, that awareness does not diminish the strange beauty of this fiery vision.
  168. >Scary?
  169. >Yes, at least a little bit.
  170. >Yet also new and fascinating.
  171. >Something which wakes the explorer in you.
  172. >"This is just the beginning, Anon. There are many more wonders out there."
  173. "And I love to seem them all, my dear."
  174. >You sit down on the metal and invite #deca.mare to join you.
  175. >She makes herself comfortable in your lap while you both observe the work of the collectors on a small floating console, and the daunting burning orb itself.
  176. >The one from which you also get your life force.
  177. >You find yourself thinking again.
  178. >Despite all their destructive potential, stars also provide nourishment for all sorts of life.
  179. >It has been this way from the very beginning on Earth, and not only for humanity.
  180. >Almost nothing living would exist without them in the known universe.
  181. >You, #deca.mare, humanity, plants, animals, and so on.
  182. >The same will hold true for life on Equestria.
  183. >From the most basic organisms up to all the sentient species.
  184. >Something which ponies are going to learn quickly on their own.
  185. >From this point of view you can understand why someone like the princess of the sun has such a grand reputation in Equestria.
  186. >Celestia is the literal embodiment of life.
  187. >And the moon plays a significant role for the wellbeing of the world as well.
  188. >It is just unfortunate that the moon's value is so overshadowed by the sun.
  189. >A fact which you know will lead to heartache in the future.
  190. >You sigh.
  191. >Now is not the time to think about this.
  192. >You will have to face that particular responsibility soon enough, no matter how far in the future it may still lie.
  193. >You hug #deca.mare extra tight to banish any unpleasant thoughts.
  194. >There is still some time left, so you make the best of it.
  199. >You gently massage #deca.mare casually and bask in the light all around you.
  200. >Your actions are without any erotic ideas behind them.
  201. >That could only distract you in this serene and somewhat magical moment.
  202. >You end up spending the entire time in this fashion, enjoying it together for what it is.
  203. >A moment to be with your loved one in the light of life itself.
  204. >And just out of the blue, you feel grateful towards the star for this moment.
  205. >You know of course that this is silly; a sun has no mind of its own and does not do things out of any volition of its own.
  206. >Still, this gesture seems appropriate for some reason.
  207. >You keep your thoughts going like this for quite a while.
  208. >#deca.mare says nothing.
  209. >She is listening purely to your thoughts, surely contemplating every single one in her very own way.
  210. >A theory that seems to confirm itself as #deca.mare begins to cordially press her body stronger against yours.
  211. >It seems like she wants to be as close to you as possible, both physically and mentally.
  212. >She almost buries herself in your encompassing embrace.
  213. >And since #deca.mare has neither laughed at your ideas nor disagreed at any point, she seems to agree with your notion, even if some aspects of it are not exactly scientifically reasonable.
  214. >In fact, a part of you believes she even appreciates that your inner monologue goes beyond pure science and more to an emotional sentiment.
  215. >Who knows, maybe she had similar ideas when she was all alone in her exile.
  216. >Hundreds of years in solitude are a horribly long time to think.
  217. >And now having you here and doing exactly the same is soothing her spirit.
  218. >Or maybe all of this is just a projection of yours and #deca.mare is just polite enough to not interrupt you.
  219. >In any case, you are so engrossed in your thoughts that you miss the point when the bar on the console hits one hundred percent.
  220. >You only notice it as soon as the collectors begin to move back into the hull automatically.
  225. >Once they are out of sight, the blast doors begin to cover the delicate and essential pieces of equipment.
  226. >The doors close the opening and a faint electric hum runs through your body.
  227. >This must be the simulation's way to tell you that an energy field once again protects the outer hull from harm.
  228. >And it is also an indirect hint for you to move on.
  229. >You sigh again.
  230. "A shame. The scenery is one of a kind."
  231. >"True. But believe me, this is not the only one. Besides, you remind me of something."
  232. >A small camera appears and is floating nearby.
  233. >She is right,
  234. >This is a great addition to the album.
  235. >You position yourselves for the camera so that you two are in the focus, and with the metal hull in the background.
  236. >Celestia's light shines on you, giving you the perfect shades for your picture.
  237. >Everything of importance for this moment is included in the photo.
  238. >Snap.
  239. >You take another long look at the scene before you return to the command deck.
  240. >Back there, you mutually initialise the next step on your journey with your usual routine.
  241. >In order to not spoil the surprise of the next destination for yourself, you only look at the estimated travel time, but not which coordinates #deca.mare has chosen for your next stop.
  242. >And since you are not that familiar with this particular area of space, you have no chance to make wild guesses about the target due to the required flight time.
  243. >Anyway, you have several hours to spend with #deca.mare before you arrive.
  244. >Time for either another outdoor activity or a new season.
  245. >You already had your fair share of adventure today, so you personally prefer the latter.
  246. "Hey #deca, what about season four? It's been a while since the last one."
  247. >"Hmhm. Good idea. We still have a lot of ground to cover."
  248. >You genuinely get more and more curious about what this world has to offer.
  249. >"Plenty, I assure you."
  250. >Her statement is accompanied by a knowing smile.
  251. >She is convinced that you are going to like what you are about to see.
  256. 62
  258. >You sit together for another season worth of pony.
  259. >By now you have gotten a general grip on the flow of a season.
  260. >Starting with a rather action heavy opener, followed by a lighter mix of episodes with mostly self-containing stories, and ending with another rather heavy finale.
  261. >Although previous seasons had hinted at something similar, this is the first which contained a fully developed overarching theme that was mentioned on occasion.
  262. >And it eventually turned out to become a major element of the final act.
  263. >Granted, some things seemed like they were utterly driven for the sake of the narrative, and the destruction of Twilight's library is not precisely one of your favourite scenes, but it has a silver lining to it in the grand scheme of the world.
  264. >Because all of it led to a significant event.
  265. >One of the world's most important conduits of harmony has been brought out of its dormant state and back to it full power, which in turn has some positive effects on the world as a whole.
  266. >For instance, the dreaded Everfree forest has not only been kept contained, it also has been transformed into an almost peaceful region.
  267. >At least in comparison to what it used to be.
  268. >The woods are still widely uncontrolled, but its tendencies have become a lot less hostile.
  269. >A development which is closely tied to another eruption of harmonic energy which created a new expanded outlet of harmony in the ruins right above the namesake tree, restoring the Castle of the Two Sisters in the process.
  270. >The harmonic outlet itself has, strangely enough, the form of a round table which apparently also somehow repaired the building around it.
  271. >Plus, it paved a more or less stable path from the castle to nearest town it could find, i.e. Ponyville.
  272. >Said path is drenched in harmonic energy, providing a safe passage between the town and the castle.
  277. >It takes you a while to connect the dots, but you actually recognise where the concept stems from.
  278. >Or to be more precise, that these ideals hail from ancient stories, created far back in the historic annals of an archaic Earth period.
  279. >In fact, this castle comes now closer to what you would have expected of Canterlot due to its name.
  280. >Because the harmonic round table is just that; in both meanings of the word.
  281. >It also serves more or less the same purpose; just in a way that is adapted to the world of Equestria.
  282. >Most noticeably, the table is connected to the bearers of the Elements of Harmony, a group you have also come to know under the alias of the "Mane Six".
  283. >The latter is of course not an official title, as it does not make sense to refer to them as that in the universe itself.
  284. >But their status inside Equestria is by now fairly known, so it does not come to anyone's surprise that the chairs around the round table reflect this, as they are adorned with the respective personal Cutie Marks of these six ponies.
  285. >And you appreciate its seemingly sentient nudge towards a certain someone in the form of a smaller chair next to Twilight's.
  286. >Harmony does not forget those who serve its purpose, even if they are not always or only barely in the limelight.
  287. >And despite all these substantial changes, #deca.mare assures you that there is yet more to come concerning both harmony and this particular castle.
  288. >Yet she does not explicitly mention any details as of now.
  289. >You keep discussing some other topics about the world's development and more.
  294. >#deca.mare reveals aspects to you which you had no chance of understanding just by watching the show.
  295. >Why for example the mere seemingly unimpressive appearance of a certain grey mare with golden hair has become a memorable moment.
  296. >Why the appearance of another certain party planner has been considered a special occasion of sorts.
  297. >What other scenes may or may have not been subtle nods to something beyond the show's universe.
  298. >And of course things that were blatantly inspired by other stories and which cannot be understood without knowing a little bit of the context of that particular time.
  299. >You eagerly listen to the old stories #deca.mare tells you.
  300. >They are fascinating to behold, as they are older than you and #deca.mare combined, yet still are part of the reason why you are together now.
  301. >However, most of the points on this list are just for your personal understanding, and have barely any impact on the project at large.
  302. >Because they are just minor occasions in the universe as a whole, and you aim for creating an organic world which is not dependent on such external contexts.
  303. >That does not mean you will actively try to purge them altogether; you are simply not trying to adhere to them, and aim for consistency instead.
  304. >And a world simply cannot operate in reality if it has to rely on a narrative meta-level.
  305. >But one thing still sticks out.
  306. >Just like the previous seasons, this one features yet another major antagonist.
  307. >One who is extremely one-sided in his motivations, no less.
  308. >From all the others you could at least get some form of reasoning for their actions and what drives them.
  313. >Nightmare Moon's wish for appreciation was obvious, and the conflict is finally on the way to its resolve.
  314. >Discord is a spirit born out of disorder and hence moulded by it.
  315. >Chrysalis and her kin have a predatory nature and have to maintain themselves by hunting for their admittedly abstract food.
  316. >Even Sombra, as shallow as his depiction might have been, seems to be somehow connected to the powers of the Crystal Heart as well as some more sinister forces.
  317. >But Tirek?
  318. >He has a lust for both conquest and power beyond any reasonable scale.
  319. >And he is hell-bent to absorb all the energy he can get, disregarding the fact that he only seems to grow stronger without actually obtaining the powers of his victims.
  320. >In other words, his reign would be, in the long haul, over nothing, as everything around him is going to collapse.
  321. >There is neither any other agenda, nor a dark pact behind it.
  322. >Tirek is, all thing considered, a liability and a disaster in the making.
  323. >And if he shall become a part of your project as well, you wonder how you are supposed to solve this problem.
  324. >Hell, he is even a harder case than Discord, because the spirit of chaos still has enough agency over his actions to prevent a total collapse from happening.
  325. >You are sure that #deca.mare and the harmony routine can come up with something, but to you it remains questionable as to how it will play out in reality.
  326. >After all, she has promised you a positive outcome for everyone involved, no matter who it is.
  327. >And you do not want to question her vision, though you cannot help but to bring it up.
  332. "This is getting harder with each new season you show me, #deca."
  333. >"Yes, and I never denied this issue. But I had... a very long time to contemplate all options and possibilities."
  334. >#deca.mare puts a reassuring hoof on your shoulder.
  335. >"My promise still stands."
  336. >You hesitate a second before you give her a an affirming nod.
  337. >You accept her determination, both because she is not one to make big mistakes or to break her word.
  338. >Instead of questioning her at every turn, you personally wish to contribute to the project where you can, even if that just requires you to act as a consolidation for #deca.mare's resolve.
  339. >And you can still intervene if you are detecting a mistake somewhere.
  340. >You know that #deca.mare will always take your opinion to heart.
  341. >In the end you eventually decide to call it a day and head back to the bed.
  342. >You are completely spent, and the lure of the comfortable chamber calls for you.
  343. >The usual routine follows, and it is off into the bed.
  344. >You tug #deca.mare and yourself under the blanket, and cuddle up to each other.
  345. >Too late do you realise that you have forgotten to eat anything before bed time.
  346. >A pity, yet you prefer to stay in bed with #deca.mare.
  347. >Sleep is simply too tempting.
  348. "Hey, #deca."
  349. >"Yes?"
  350. "Remind me to make us a good breakfast tomorrow."
  351. >"Will do, Anon."
  352. >Her words are accompanied by a gentle kiss and her slowly burying her muzzle in your neck.
  353. >You bid each other a good night and let sleep do its thing.
  358. 63
  360. >The next morning comes as subtle as ever.
  361. >Gentle rays of sunshine peek through the window as you open your eyes.
  362. >From now on you will see them from a different perspective.
  363. >They are much more than just the mundane light you have grown accustomed to see.
  364. >#deca.mare's body stirs in your arms.
  365. >She likewise opens her eyes and you two begin to nuzzle.
  366. >Together you go through the usual morning routine.
  367. >You hold true to your word and prepare the breakfast this time.
  368. >You pick a buffet with different types of bread and offer a wide selection of fruits and vegetables, including jam and marmalade.
  369. >You make most things by hand for the sake of the routine and authenticity, yet you cut some corners.
  370. >For instance, you do not try to go through the baking process of the bread, as that would take several hours.
  371. >Nevertheless, you slice the food yourself, you arrange the plates and glasses on the table, and you offer #deca.mare whatever she wishes to have.
  372. >On this morning you take care of everything.
  373. >And you keep the scenery simple for the sake of normality, so you stay in your chamber and do not try anything extravagant or unusual.
  374. >Now granted, the chamber itself is not exactly a common abode, but the principle is what counts here.
  375. >With everything prepared and on the table, you sit down next to #deca.mare.
  376. >You take the opportunity during breakfast to get into a casual little conversation with #deca.mare about what you are going to expect.
  377. >Not to pry for specific details.
  378. >You are simply interested in the general plan.
  379. "So, how will the tourist flight play out?"
  380. >#deca.mare briefly interrupts her breakfast to answer.
  381. >"In whatever way we want to, Anon. I have my plans, but everything can be subject to change, provided we see the need for it. Please have some patience."
  382. >#deca.mare clearly does not wish to get any more specific than that.
  383. >So you accept the answer for what it is.
  388. >Instead of asking her further, you direct your small talk into a different direction.
  389. >More specifically, you want to bring her to talk about herself and her emotional state in an attempt to tackle her turbulent experiences.
  390. >Something you have to do more often.
  391. >You fully know how taxing this can be to her, as some of her wounds are deeply rooted in her past.
  392. >And a part of her is still hurting in silence, despite all the joys you have brought to each other.
  393. >Merely showing you what has happened to her, and who her former founding crew was, may be first steps, but since she has decided to tell these stories from a mostly objective view point, she has distanced herself from these events to a degree.
  394. >And she will never really even have a chance to eventually get over it if she does not start to actively do something against her haunted memories.
  395. >Small, but persistent steps are needed.
  396. >No wait, that is not entirely accurate.
  397. >If you two do not do something.
  398. >This is a team effort.
  399. >A mutual therapy session, or at least your unprofessional attempt of one.
  400. >You try to support her in any way you can, and also include some of your own experiences wherever possible.
  401. >However, #deca.mare must determine the pace.
  402. >You can give her a little nudge here and there, but you cease your advances immediately if #deca.mare shows signs of possible distress.
  403. >So most of the time during your breakfast you simply let her talk about herself and her thoughts about the past.
  404. >You yourself give some thoughts of your own whenever she asks for it.
  405. >That way you get through the morning fairly quickly and #deca.mare got the chance to vent a bit of her accumulated stress in a safe environment.
  406. >You look at the now mostly emptied plates.
  407. "Well, that was fast. But we made some progress, don't you agree?"
  408. >#deca.mare smiles weakly.
  413. >"I know what you are trying to accomplish, Anon. But I am not sure if it will work for me."
  414. "Only one way to find out. I think we should try this every morning. Just to talk a little bit. Maybe ten minutes or so? You tell me how you feel and what you think. And we just let the conversation go its own way, you know?"
  415. >A pause.
  416. "But only if you're okay with it, that is. Your wellbeing is my greatest concern. That's why I want to try it in the first place."
  417. >#deca.mare nods with a faint hint of hesitation.
  418. >You begin to cuddle her in an intimate, yet respectful manner.
  419. "That's the spirit."
  420. >You keep #deca.mare physically close to you until you are absolutely sure that she will not get an unpleasant flashback.
  421. >After all, you made her pry in her mind, and you know all too well how had it can hit her.
  422. "Let's not burden ourselves anymore for today, hm?"
  423. >"Yes, that may be for the best."
  424. >You let another few seconds pass.
  425. "Feeling ready for the day?"
  426. >#deca.mare slowly stands up.
  427. >"I am fine. Promise."
  428. >You stand up as well and end your breakfast by setting the chamber back to its default properties before you leave.
  429. >And you notice something unexpected on the command deck as you walk down the ramp.
  430. >Some pieces of information on the main screen are, for the lack of a better word, blurred out for you.
  431. >You can tell it is the section which contains details about your location, and you somehow know the information is there just right before your eyes.
  432. >But you are not able to make sense of what you see; as if a strange veil is masking it.
  433. >#deca.mare is shrouding the section deliberately, of that you have no doubt.
  434. >And while she is very overt about the whole deal, this is the first time for you to experience any form of direct sense manipulation.
  435. >It is a strange feeling to be honest, especially since you feel perfectly normal otherwise.
  440. >"I am not trying to deceive you, Anon. This is just meant to be a surprise."
  441. "I know. It's freaky anyway."
  442. >You suddenly understand how beings like Discord or Sombra's shadow magic could work in Equestria, even when there is no actual magic at play at all.
  443. >Reshaping the entire land with a flick is wholly unnecessary if one knows how to forge people's, or ponies' for that matter, perception of reality.
  444. >Regardless, you sit down and let #deca.mare take your mind to the ship she has chosen for whatever awaits you out there.
  445. >You quickly find yourself in the familiar grip of a set of docking clamps, facing an opening pair of blast doors.
  446. >What you see behind the metal strikes you as odd at first.
  447. >You were expecting the typical starscape of space.
  448. >But what greets you outside instead is a seemingly dense blob with a green hue.
  449. >You are somewhere deep within a nebula.
  450. >And you are getting shot right into the middle of it.
  451. >This alone is not a reason to panic.
  452. >You were trained for such a situation.
  453. >It is, however, not a very popular scenario for most pilots, as nebulae often come with a series of issues.
  454. >The highly impaired field of vision is a substantial drawback, but not necessarily the worst one.
  455. >Depending on the type, the gas accumulations can also have a series of other problems.
  456. >Starting with reducing the efficiency of certain systems, or outright jamming them in their entirety in extreme cases.
  457. >Including also things like life support or energy shields.
  458. >Some say that a few can even corrode hull platings, although you have personally never met a person who truly encountered one.
  459. >Quite possibly because, if the rumours are true, the number of survivors cannot be very high.
  460. >Fortunately #deca.mare would not bring you two into an overly risky environment, so you will not have to worry about your ship falling apart just like that.
  461. >But you begin to wonder what you are supposed to do in here.
  462. >The colour of the nebula is nice, but very monotonous.
  467. >You check the systems.
  468. >Everything is working properly.
  469. >The only thing you cannot rely on is your natural eyesight.
  470. >You bring your craft to a standstill and turn it around to face the mother ship.
  471. >It is clearly depicted on the radar, but what you can actually see is a little bit less.
  472. >The hull is barely visible at all, even at a relatively short distance.
  473. >Its dark metal has almost completely blended with the thick nebula around it.
  474. >Only the light of the shining crimson segments is strong enough to pierce the fog, albeit in a slightly obscured fashion.
  475. >So all you can ultimately see is a mismatched cluster of ominous blood-red lights which are somehow held together by an unrecognisable dark mass.
  476. >That sight would have been a terrifying one if you had no idea what it actually was.
  477. >You might just as well have thought that you are looking straight into the maw of some infernal space monster.
  478. >Or something with a similar unfriendly purpose in mind.
  479. >In any case, this is certainly not something a pilot would want to find by chance in an unknown nebula.
  480. >A second craft gets launched as far as you can tell from the radar screen.
  481. >The fighter itself is practically invisible to you.
  482. >It is far too small and lacks any significant light source that may reveal its position.
  483. >If anything, the only way to more or less accurately spot a ship inside a nebula without a properly working radar system is to get a glimpse of its engines and to deduce the speed and trajectory based on the energy signature it leaves behind.
  484. >This is a very unreliable method because it involves a lot of guesswork, even if the target in question does not change its course.
  485. >And never mind the risk of shooting down an unsuspecting ally in all of the confusion.
  486. >Only a few of many reasons why combat in such a terrain is universally frowned upon.
  491. >#deca.mare's fighter draws closer.
  492. >Time to find out what she has in store.
  493. "I've got to say, that's not the amazing sight I have expected, #deca."
  494. >"It is indeed not as imposing as a star from up close, but it is nevertheless a fascinating phenomenon in its own right. And one we can use for a valuable lesson too. All I merely ask of you for my plans to work is to get over your own aversion of the place caused by your previous experiences."
  495. "Not a problem. The ships are working and we're not in any danger."
  496. >Although the severely reduced lack of vision bothers you anyway.
  497. "#deca, you mentioned a lesson."
  498. >"Right. I came up with a little game for us. It shall further hone your skills with the systems and how to process input with a higher efficiency. I want them to become like your second nature."
  499. >You grin mentally.
  500. "You know, maybe I'm not ace material, but I know how to handle my systems."
  501. >"Without question, Anon. And you have learned to adapt very quickly. But I was not exaggerating when I told you that you can improve yourself. The human brain can do more than you think, and I will help you in every way I can."
  502. "Sounds promising and all, don't get me wrong. But can you be a little bit more concrete? What exactly do you expect of me to learn?"
  503. >"I want to, simply put, encourage you, Anon. I have deliberately chosen a place where you cannot fully rely on your senses in the way you are used to."
  504. "Okay, interesting so far. Please go on."
  505. >"So what I suggest is a series of little exercises. Starting with a variation of some of our first lessons, and combine this with a little tag game."
  506. "I see. Which early lessons did you have in mind?"
  507. >"Do you remember our flight training?"
  508. >Now you must laugh.
  509. "Of course I do. You made me fly after you and perform some stunts. And then we shot each other."
  510. >That sounded less strange in your head.
  511. >Though #deca.mare is completely unfazed by your choice of words.
  516. >"Yes, these. And like I said, I want to do something similar again, although with a little twist."
  517. "You want me to follow you again. But this time through the nebula so that I can't see you like I did before."
  518. >"Sort of, but also something more. Can you close your eyes?"
  519. >For a second you are not sure how to respond to that.
  520. >Because you technically have no "real" eyes in your current state, at least in the simulation.
  521. >"Trust me. I know what I asked of you. Can you do it?"
  522. >Not knowing what to expect, you imagine how you would close your eyes.
  523. >And indeed, your vision goes dark.
  524. >#deca.mare does not require your signal to know you succeeded.
  525. >"Good. Now imagine your radar were your eyes."
  526. "Excuse me?"
  527. >"Just try it, please."
  528. >This time you require a moment to form the right command in your head.
  529. >Simply because you were unsure how to word it mentally.
  530. >You get the command across anyway, although you are not sure how exactly you did it.
  531. >But something happens.
  532. >An outline forms before you.
  533. >It resembles the radar screen of your HUD, presenting you with a three dimensional image of your environment.
  534. >Since it is no longer restrained to one smaller section of your entire set of controls and screens, its depictions are much more accurate, both in displayed data and visual detail.
  535. >Everything looks almost as it was a nearly perfect recreation of reality.
  536. >You can see the clear cut outline of the small fighter as well as elaborate contours of the mother ship's surface.
  537. >Albeit in a friendly shade of allied green, telling you to direct your weapon fire elsewhere.
  538. >And all of that augmented with additional tactical information which is displayed in a carefully designed way so that it is easy to see without distracting the imagery as a whole.
  539. >You begin to wonder.
  540. >Is this how the world looks for a computer?
  541. >Or is this maybe a fraction of how #deca.mare may have seen the world before she formed her pony mind?
  546. >"Note that we can alter everything if necessary, similar to what you have already done to your custom HUD. Though I took the liberty to create a default initial setup for you. As you can see, it is a faithful adaption of the radar technology you are familiar with."
  547. >You "look" around with your newfound vision.
  548. >You can twist, turn, and tilt vision completely to your liking, even changing your point of reference to a degree is possible.
  549. >The only limitations to this is the processing power of your automaton, and the strength of your radar.
  550. >Although the latter can be ignored in your current situation, as your data feed is linked to the much stronger array of the mother ship.
  551. >But this function also enables you to see an accurate effigy of your own ship.
  552. >Its hull frame is kept in a notably different shade of green to indicate that you are currently piloting this craft.
  553. >The longer you think about it, the more it seems reminiscent of simulation games where you can remotely control things in a virtual environment.
  554. >While this somehow holds true with you not being directly in the machine you control, and the images you see being an abstraction of reality as you normally perceive it, the essential difference to this comparison is that this is no game.
  555. >You are piloting a real fighter.
  556. >And so does your partner.
  557. >An accident may be unlikely in this mostly empty environment and with #deca.mare's assistance, yet you wish to give it a classical run first.
  558. >So you keep the vision close to what you would see naturally and focus on the craft which came to a stop next to yours.
  559. "Okay, ready. I think I can handle it. A flight shouldn't be a problem."
  560. >"Understood. We follow the same procedure as the last time with a gradually increasing difficulty. Please follow me."
  561. >#deca.mare immediately accelerates her vessel after this quick confirmation.
  562. >You fall in line directly behind her to better mirror her manoeuvres.
  567. >So you go through your first flight training again.
  568. >You start with simple turns and work your routine all the way up to complex tricks.
  569. >Just like the last time, your performance is very well until you reach the level artistic stunt pilots.
  570. >You have barely noticed any difference during the whole flight, if compared to the first time.
  571. >Your brain quickly learned to abstract how the images in your vision behave under realistic conditions.
  572. >Admittedly a rather easy feat, considering how the models in this vision perfectly resemble their counterparts.
  573. >In fact, you have almost forgotten for a short while that you are actually flying through a vast cloud of gas and dust.
  574. >And #deca.mare seems pleased with your performance.
  575. >"Very good, the system is working."
  576. >She sounds a little bit excited too.
  577. >"But there is so much more potential. What you have seen so far is just a small step that was only a substitute for your eyesight in a tricky environment. Hang on a second."
  578. >You have no idea what #deca.mare is planning, yet you see the result fairly quickly.
  579. >The outline of her fighter disappears.
  580. >Your sensors still register that something is somewhere in the general direction of the signal, but that is about it.
  581. >#deca.mare has simulated the effects of a radar dampening nebula in the area.
  582. >"Now let us do something harder. Try to find me with the system I have made for you."
  583. >Your mind reacts without hesitation.
  584. >Despite the overall resentment against this situation, and the rather unlikely chance to ever find yourself in such a position, everything you need to know was covered in your training.
  585. >You order the automaton to scan for energy signatures.
  586. >Luckily you know exactly what to look out for, as the base types of all your available ships are built with the same technology and are on the same generational level.
  587. >That means you can forego a broad scan and use your own ship's signature as a precise point of reference for a specific sweep.
  592. >And bingo.
  593. >You find #deca.mare's ship again.
  594. >Although you can only get a vague outline of the fighter, the silhouette is clear enough to see that the craft has not moved at all.
  595. >#deca.mare has waited for you to find her.
  596. >Also the result is still much, much better than what you would have seen with standard USC equipment.
  597. >"Nice work, Anon. May I challenge you to another flight with the same routine?"
  598. "Okay, though I don't think I can keep up my good streak this time."
  599. >"No matter. It is meant to be a challenge for you to extend your horizon. The more tools you learn to master, the better."
  600. "Alright. After you."
  601. >Your signal trace of your target gets weaker.
  602. >That means #deca.mare begins to move.
  603. >You order the automaton to intensify the scan sweep.
  604. >In order for your flight to work, you are required to keep track of the signal at all times.
  605. >Because you have to search wholly anew if you lose it altogether.
  606. >And that is a very arduous task at the best of times.
  607. >However, you have a few advantages to avoid this outcome.
  608. >Knowing #deca.mare's energy signature is a substantial perk already, yet not the only one to consider.
  609. >Given you have flown this parkour twice, you instruct the automaton to also include your memorised impressions of your previous runs.
  610. >#deca.mare wants you to adapt, so this is basically not cheating.
  611. >If anything, she is probably delighted to observe your progress.
  612. >Plus, the military has taught you one very important thing.
  613. >Knowing the enemy is already winning half the battle.
  614. >So if you can predict how your adversary will act, you can prepare much better for what is about to come.
  615. >Then again, the argument is pretty much moot in your particular case, as it can also be turned against you.
  616. >#deca.mare knows you very well by now.
  617. >An almost real-time access to your mind included.
  622. >However, it is safe to assume she will not exploit this fact; she is interested in teaching you, after all.
  623. >By combining the specific scan and available pattern of behaviour, your automaton is able to keep the signal track stable.
  624. >This was not a challengingly hard task, as #deca.mare is still flying in a straight line.
  625. >You fire up your engines to follow her.
  626. >#deca.mare waits for you to catch up before she begins her routine properly.
  627. >A few seconds after you have aligned with her fighter, the signal radically loses strength.
  628. >That must be the first turn.
  629. >You order the automaton to compensate, and provide specific criteria what to look out for.
  630. >There.
  631. >Ninety degrees "upwards".
  632. >You pull your ship up as well, although you cannot simply mirror #deca.mare's moves like you did before.
  633. >Since there is now a short delay before you notice her manoeuvre and have the opportunity to react, you need to compensate for this time frame.
  634. >Much to your own surprise, that span is shorter than a second.
  635. >Did you really react this quickly with the help of your machine on board?
  636. >This thought has cost you another half of a second of attention.
  637. >Waving away your bewilderment, you notice another steep fall in the signal strength.
  638. >Same game again.
  639. >Then a third time.
  640. >A fourth and a fifth.
  641. >"Very good, Anon. Now let us pick up the pace."
  642. >The signal is rapidly losing its strength.
  643. >The decay is even stronger now.
  644. >She is flying more than a simple turn.
  645. >Means there is also more effort required to keep track of her.
  646. >Now you have to put all your focus on the task at hand.
  647. >You systematically sweep the entire space around the estimated signal region.
  648. >And you find her again.
  649. >Alright, now you know where she is right now and where she was shortly before.
  654. >But you need at least one more ping.
  655. >Three matches are necessary before you can vaguely estimate trajectories.
  656. >Of course each additional hit further improves the accuracy of your projection to predict where #deca.mare will be before she has arrived there.
  657. >And indeed, you get a number three and four.
  658. >Her ship appears on your screen again.
  659. >The outline is unstable, but the input is enough for you to lock onto her ship.
  660. >This is the point where you would fire in a real fight.
  661. >#deca.mare, on the other hand, likes to keep things interesting.
  662. >Just like most pilots who know that they were discovered, she pushes her engines and thrusters into a temporary overdrive mode, quickly darting to the side and back into the shadows.
  663. >Maybe you would have hit her if you had fired, but it is hard to say.
  664. >#deca.mare's reaction time is splendid.
  665. >Her choice follows a common tactical suggestion too, as it minimises the threat of being torn to pieces immediately.
  666. >It is generally ill-advised for someone in #deca.mare's current situation to engage directly; the enemy simply has the upper hand.
  667. >And so she just does the only reasonable thing.
  668. >That one thing which also equally easy to predict, however.
  669. >You have instinctively prepared your automaton and yourself in advance.
  670. >#deca.mare's location appears again, and much quicker than before.
  671. >This is another downside of being seen.
  672. >In the rare occurrence that someone is found out in such a compromising position, there is then proverbial blood in the water.
  673. >And the unfortunate pilot in question has a hard time to escape this predicament.
  674. >Only the most daring and lucky pilots can entirely turn this situation around without help.
  679. >And you are not sure why, but something tells you that this is exactly what #deca.mare is going for.
  680. >You measure her current trajectory once more.
  681. >Double check.
  682. >Better safe than sorry.
  683. >Wait, something is off.
  684. >The signature is correct but the registered mass of the object is far too low.
  685. >Damn, just as you feared.
  686. >#deca.mare has dropped a decoy flare at some point in her flight.
  687. >You guess she has probably taken a harsh turn immediately afterwards and throttled her engines to mask her own presence.
  688. >A risky gambit, as she would have been like a sitting duck in a shooting gallery if her trick had failed.
  689. >But it paid off.
  690. >And from now on it is you who has to look out.
  691. >The tables have turned, giving that #deca.mare knows where you were flying to.
  692. >Even without resorting to utilise her unfair advantage.
  693. >Though you are not yet beaten, and you will certainly not fall for this ruse.
  694. >You quickly push all the available energy into your thrusters for an emergency evasive manoeuvre.
  695. >Just in time, as it turns out.
  696. >A small volley of energy projectiles fly your way, barely missing the ship.
  697. >Judging from their intensity, #deca.mare has set her weapons to their minimum.
  698. >A harmless force that only tickles your shields, but it is the attempt that counts.
  699. >Oh, to hell with it.
  700. >Without stopping or changing your course, you turn the ship towards the direction whence the shots came from, and blindly fire away, also with a low energy setting.
  701. >Much to your surprise, the barrage hits home.
  702. >You switch back to your normal vision on the spot.
  703. >You can see #deca.mare's fighter idling in the distance, even through the dense fog.
  704. >Her hull is shortly illuminated by the plasma hammering against her shields.
  705. >But the burns ebb away quickly, leaving only a flickering energy shield behind.
  706. >It also returns to normal only a few seconds later.
  707. >And the ship before you is one with the background again.
  708. >For a moment you simply stop your ship and let everything sink in.
  713. >You have scored a hit against #deca.mare, just like that.
  714. >It was your instinct mixed with your memorised fighting knowledge and the automaton within your ship.
  715. >And you bested her in a fair challenge.
  716. >#deca.mare chimes in via the comm channel.
  717. >"Hits confirmed. I am dead, Anon."
  718. "Uhm."
  719. >Your brain still does not catch up yet.
  720. >She restores your full radar vision and approaches you slowly with her own ship.
  721. >"That was outstanding. You have used the tools I gave you with ease. You are getting better with every day."
  722. >This gets you out of your mental lockdown.
  723. >Although you are somewhat shaken for a reason you cannot even explain properly.
  724. "I wouldn't have believed it if I didn't do it myself. I was above normal."
  725. >"No, you were not. Everything you did here was your own normal doing, Anon. You are not any less human than you were before we met."
  726. >#deca.mare stops her ship next to yours.
  727. >"What you experienced was yourself acting at a higher mental activity than usual. This is what happens when you cut corners. Like I said, your brain does not have to regulate and command all the different parts of your body while you are in stasis."
  728. >A pause.
  729. >"This was you, Anon. This is what you can achieve under optimal conditions. And let me assure you, this is not the top yet either. There is room for you to grow with a little bit more practice.
  730. >You feel like you are being embraced by #deca.mare's limbs, despite the fact that you currently do not inhabit the correct body for it.
  731. >But that does not keep her from emulating the feeling if she really wants to, you assume.
  736. >You look at the small fighter next to yours.
  737. >Then you look at the crimson lights of your home.
  738. >You think of all the possibilities you could learn there.
  739. >How you can participate more for your common project.
  740. >How you may help #deca.mare to improve herself.
  741. >And all of that through your very own efforts and the almost motherly care of #deca.mare.
  742. >You may never reach her level of knowledge and competence due to the sheer impossibility of that ambition, but you are not as restricted as you might have told yourself.
  743. >#deca.mare may be the only comparison you have left to refer to, but she is an unfair one in almost every regard.
  744. >So just get that thought out of your head and focus on what you can do.
  745. >And now you finally understand it subconsciously.
  746. "The lesson wasn't about the nebula or the tools themselves. Literally anything could have done it in the right situation. What you really aimed for was nothing but changing my attitude."
  747. >Granted, she indirectly said this in advance.
  748. >But this is the first time you can intrinsically believe it.
  749. >Silence on #deca.mare's part.
  750. "Although the sight thingy is pretty neat. I guess it can used for more than just flight."
  751. >"That it does. Similar visions are useful in virtually any situation. And I can provide them for you if you wish."
  752. "Sure, but only for sessions where we need them, please. I prefer my normal sight most of the time. Feels more natural, you know?"
  753. >Pun not intended.
  754. >"Of course, Anon. I understand."
  755. >And she does not seem to have any objections either.
  756. >You can hear #deca.mare clear her voice.
  757. >"To tell you the truth, you have just completed my lesson in advance. You skipped a few steps, but the result speaks for itself."
  758. "You wanted me to shoot you?"
  763. >"Not exactly. Although I planned to challenge you to a fair duel later on. And you have won before I could even address that. You saw through my attention like the good pilot you are. This is a true proof of your own skills, Anon."
  764. "Thank you. It just took until now for me to understand that."
  765. >"I suggest we head back. You have done good today. And I have a reward for a good day's work."
  766. >Your mind fills with suggestive ideas.
  767. >#deca.mare chuckles knowingly.
  768. >"Not of that nature. But this one is not a surprise. I want to show you the nebula from the outside. You will see, it is much more beautiful to look at when we are not stuck in it."
  769. >You are inclined to believe that.
  770. >And so you wade through the gaseous mass once more, heading back for the landing bay of your home.
  771. >You wonder all the way back how far you can grow with #deca.mare's help.
  772. >And how much you can help her improve herself and in mend her wounds.
  773. >Something you will find out soon enough.
  774. >In interstellar scales, at least.
  779. 64
  781. >True to her words, #deca.mare's next stop leads to a location somewhere outside the nebula where you can observe the cloud from afar.
  782. >The sector you jumped to is an empty part of space, one that is devoid of anything noteworthy, except its marvellous view on the cloud in all its glory.
  783. >Now that you inspect it from a considerable distance, you are left speechless by what you see.
  784. >You thought to find a dull gas cloud with a sickly dark green colour.
  785. >In reality, however, the thing does span a vast area; maybe even up to several sectors worth space.
  786. >And it is beautifully illuminated by the light of distant stars.
  787. >The gas, or gasses, shine in all kinds of vibrant colours.
  788. >Even though there are no overly apparent segmented areas inside the body, the colours mingle with adjacent ones in a gradual manner.
  789. >The transitions are soft and elegant.
  790. >And while it does not look like something as "organised" as a rainbow, it does have a similar effect on you as a rainbow would have on somebody who has never seen the sky before.
  791. >Hell, the way how the cloud is virtually drenched in light, it might very well have its own sun somewhere in it as well.
  792. >Or maybe it will form into one in the course of the next millions or billions of years.
  793. >Who knows, you could be around to watch it happen.
  794. >But for now you are content with watching the cloud as it is from your simulated first row seat on the ship's frontal hull.
  795. >Tranquil moments have something to them, after all.
  796. >They are a great way to calm both of your spirits while being together and doing the exact same thing.
  797. >Yet ultimately, you have to move on.
  798. >To fully embark on your grand tour through space.
  799. >And you already know it will change your view on practically everything forever.
  800. >Because you realise that you have won the galactic lottery.
  801. >Only a fool would let that opportunity go to waste.
  806. 65
  808. >The next days pass in a breeze.
  809. >Partly because you have established a solid routine with #deca.mare, and partly because you keep each other busy with pleasant activities.
  810. >You start every morning with a healthy breakfast and a small touchy conversation.
  811. >Then follows a wide variety of things, depending on what your schedule looks like for the day.
  812. >On one day you first witness the wonder of a binary star system and learn from #deca.mare how the suns keep their significant other in their nigh infinite dance.
  813. >Kind of like you two.
  814. >This is then followed by another small set of games to practice your pony skills in your simulated Winter Wrap Up scenario.
  815. >On the next day you see a black hole for the first time.
  816. >Or rather, you witness the spectacle through an augmented vision of it, as it is practically impossible for you to see something which can even devour light.
  817. >To alleviate this dark notion, the next activity is a light-hearted dance session where #deca.mare and you try to experiment on how to practice a waltz with a man and a mare.
  818. >The result does not exactly resemble the original all that well, but it was funny anyway.
  819. >Another day has you flying a race across the visible surface of a planet's ring.
  820. >The race is not so much about winning, but rather to get the rush of high speeds.
  821. >Although you do take a moment to analyse the composition of the ring by yourself.
  822. >Complete with your own augmented vision.
  823. >Courtesy of #deca.mare and the automaton on board.
  824. >You also begin to explore more new fields on your own volition.
  825. >In nearly all aspects as well.
  826. >Space theory, natural science, ship maintenance and engineering, unique characteristics of #deca technology, and very basic procedures of terraforming.
  827. >Though your approach is different than what one would expect from learning in a classical sense.
  828. >You still build a solid foundation with introductory courses, but you do not try to go into the specifics of any field.
  833. >There is simply far too much out there for a single human brain to learn.
  834. >So #deca.mare and you have to adapt.
  835. >You develop a highly specialised strategy with which you do not memorise any concrete knowledge itself, but how to find it in #deca.mare's database whenever she shares it with you again.
  836. >The concept is somewhat similar to a bookmark system; all you have to know is that a thing exists and how it is called.
  837. >All you then have to do is look it up, like reading pages in a books.
  838. >Only in seconds rather than minutes or hours.
  839. >The only difference is that you will not remember what you have read after you are done with your work.
  840. >But given the high efficiency and speed, this is a downside you can abide.
  841. >With this technique, you can ignore the finer and more complex details, yet still have an idea what to look for if the need arises.
  842. >Of course, this is not exactly trivial in itself and requires a lot of mental training.
  843. >Another process in which you will get better over time.
  844. >But your studies go farther.
  845. >They also include other subjects such pony customs, and facts about their society.
  846. >Their world, all the important cities, landscapes, known pony cultures throughout history, Cutie Marks, fate, harmony, and so on.
  847. >#deca.mare does everything she can to encourage the discoverer in you, and you slowly improve yourself to become a decent jack of all trades.
  848. >And most importantly, you watch the show together.
  849. >With five additional seasons awaiting you yet, the field is far from played out.
  850. >Although the actual work is not done just there.
  851. >You then still have to discuss with #deca.mare how exactly to realise what and how to establish it in the world of Equestria proper.
  852. >She has devised her own plan in the course of centuries, and you are not likely to challenge it in any major fashion, but you still want to give her any competent input you can.
  857. >Something which #deca.mare is very grateful for from this point onwards.
  858. >Especially when it comes to "iron out" certain meta aspects in a way which both makes sense and also somehow fits into the fabric of Equestria at large.
  859. >And one such thing is coming up right now in the show.
  860. >It comes in the form of an unfortunately misled unicorn mare who has a particular bad relationship with both fate and talents.
  861. >Not only does she squander her own potential in an attempt to defy the world as it is, she also drags others down into misery with her.
  862. >While misinterpretations of talents are technically not impossible, the scale of these consequences take a turn for the extreme.
  863. >And unlike creatures like Discord, she sows this notion against her own inherent nature, making everyone suffer for her rashness as a result.
  864. >This presents a variety of additional problems too.
  865. >According to #deca.mare, the way how this whole ordeal was presented is also chock-full of references and dark iconographies which were of relevance during the time when the show was made.
  866. >Most of which are wholly incompatible with a mostly peaceful Equestria as either of you imagine it.
  867. >So you both agree that this is a point you have to revise substantially before it can be implemented into Equestria with an eventually constructive solution.
  868. >But this is not the only incident of that nature.
  869. >A second one shortly follows thereafter with Trouble Shoes; a pony whose fate has led him down an unfortunate path for no apparent purpose.
  870. >He found his destiny in the end, but only after an unnecessary long period of personal hardship and isolation.
  871. >One which does not even come with a lesson for others to learn from, effectively wasting this long time alone completely.
  872. >Not a very appealing thought, you must admit.
  873. >And also one which #deca.mare of all ponies would loathe to pointlessly subject another creature to.
  878. >It is things like these for which #deca.mare suggests some re-envisions she has made herself.
  879. >Both to dampen some generally avoidable pain and to not burden Equestria with more stress than it already has to go through.
  880. >However, as she is not the most socially apt creature, given her own personal history, she wants to have your opinion on these matters as well.
  881. >A second and more competent insight, if you will.
  882. >On somewhat related news though, you are quite lucky about the things #deca.mare has said concerning magic tricks such as time travel.
  883. >You were relieved when you realised that you will not have to juggle with half a dozen actual different timelines while Starlight Glimmer goes on her second, and last, little crusade.
  884. >At one point you unintentionally confuse #deca.mare by asking what you shall do with her once the crisis is over.
  885. >The answer is obvious of course; Starlight is going to live her life like everyone else.
  886. >Strange, you cannot point your finger on it, but this unicorn somehow has something disrupting to her.
  887. >Perhaps it is the way she plotted or executed her plans.
  888. >She has a strange ability to present her poisoned chalice in a positive light to masquerade the vile details of what her plans actually entail.
  889. >But at least she saw these problems herself eventually, after finding herself in a desolate ashland.
  890. >Anyway, you will inspect #deca.mare's plans in a quiet moment and find a way to solve this issue.
  891. >#deca.mare also gives you more lessons in operating a pony body.
  892. >To do this, you go for similar related activities in new scenarios.
  893. >Harvesting, simple crafting, and the like.
  894. >But there is also the big one left.
  895. >You have chosen to assume the form of a pegasus while in disguise, so you have to learn how to fly.
  896. >This presents you with a strange mosaic situation in terms of skills.
  901. >As a pilot, you have been taught all you need to know to keep aircrafts and space ships flying.
  902. >So you have a somewhat decent foundation to rely on.
  903. >Yet this is also where the crux lies.
  904. >Because as much as you know about handling flying machines, you literally have no idea how to emulate this with a living body.
  905. >In this case you are at a severe disadvantage, even compared to pegasus youngsters.
  906. >At first you have to learn how to fully deal with a foreign shape.
  907. >Walking and holding things is fine, yet far from enough.
  908. >#deca.mare assures you that the body you have is sufficient to become a decent flyer, but only if you know how to use it.
  909. >So you get some rather unusual training practices.
  910. >Before you can even hope to hover above the ground, you must be able to properly feel your wings.
  911. >In the absolutely literal sense of the word.
  912. >Since #deca.mare and the simulation were forced to invent a proper sensual translation of pegasus wings from scratch just for you, it is a somewhat artificial feeling.
  913. >You inherently know something is not quite right about it.
  914. >It is up to you to train your brain and make it ignore this very knowledge.
  915. >Surely a hard thing to do, yet far from impossible.
  916. >Especially when you have such a patient and cordial teacher like #deca.mare.
  917. >In fact, #deca.mare has to work more than you in the initial lessons.
  918. >Physically speaking, at least.
  919. >She simply has you lying down on a comfortable place like a spa mattress while she tends to your wings.
  920. >You are simply required to focus on what you feel.
  921. >Your brain shall grow familiar to the input it gets.
  922. >To do that, she treats your new and temporary set of limbs in a variety of ways.
  923. >#deca.mare carefully flexes, stretches, and relaxes your wings by leading them with her forehooves.
  924. >That way you get the opportunity to memorise how far they can move in every possible direction and how every particular pose feels like.
  925. >Then things get a little more spicy.
  930. >#deca.mare begins massaging your wing muscles, all along the way from the socket up to the tip and back.
  931. >Even though she works with a particular caution, she still applies a little more pressure to you from time to time.
  932. >Especially in moments when you do not expect them at all.
  933. >Far from painful, but inconvenient nonetheless.
  934. >But the effect is exactly what #deca.mare hoped to achieve, as you yourself begin to jolt your wings in surprise.
  935. >A coordinated movement looks different, but these are important first steps.
  936. >And indeed, a new sensual impression begins to manifest itself in your brain.
  937. >It begins as a numb throbbing, as if you were under the effect of phantom pain.
  938. >But instead of losing limbs, you have just grown two more.
  939. >Luckily for you, this peculiar little feeling does not carry over to your real form outside the pony body.
  940. >#deca.mare repeatedly assures you that this will have no negative effect on your natural shape.
  941. >Just like you did with other machines; you learned how to "feel" the fighter's tools during your work on the asteroids without any side effects for yourself.
  942. >The same is true for this one.
  943. >The only difference is that the senses of this "vessel" are far closer to what you sense in reality, as the pony body is, at least mostly, made of flesh and blood.
  944. >And it does not take long for you to conquer the first milestones.
  945. >Within a couple of days, you learn how manage a passable flapping movement.
  946. >For a rookie, at least.
  947. >That is the point where #deca.mare brings you to a learning site in the aesthetics of Cloudsdale; high above the ground and mostly made of clouds.
  948. >In the next phase she wants to teach you how to use your wings to improve your jumps by flapping.
  949. >Followed by gliding, and, eventually, hovering above the ground.
  950. >These will require much more time, however.
  951. >You cannot expect to learn in a few days what pegasi learn in the course of their entire youth and for what they have specialised flight schools.
  956. >No matter, you are in no rush.
  957. >From time to time you also check on the automatons' progress on Equestria.
  958. >More and more tunnels are dug and resources gathered.
  959. >By now the mobile fleet on the surface has already doubled in number, with another batch currently in production.
  960. >Some of the tunnels are now being used as secondary storages.
  961. >The nexus is in the process of upgrading its own capacities too.
  962. >One new manufacturing module and another solar panel array to keep up with the energy demand of both the nexus itself and the driving units.
  963. >As the infrastructure grows, it is ultimately planned to construct fusion reactors, as they are, generally speaking, highly efficient with an exceptionally low rate of waste production.
  964. >Solar panels alone will never be efficient enough on their own, and the resources required to build them are limited too.
  965. >The reactors, as well as most new gadgets, will be preferably built in caverns deep below the surface.
  966. >Not only to cover them from too many prying eyes, but also to safely dispose the small amounts of produced waste in a safe underground environment where no living creature will ever reach them.
  967. >Plus, fusion reactors have another bonus in your current situation.
  968. >They create copious amounts of heat.
  969. >The same heat which makes it impossible to install these reactors in nearly all ships.
  970. >But what would quite possibly melt the systems onboard the limited space of a vessel, can be used for warming certain currently frozen areas on the planetary crust.
  971. >The plan is simple, yet efficient.
  972. >Vent the excessive surplus heat through some of the tunnels, direct it towards the colder reaches of the world, and let it pour out onto the surface.
  973. >This alone will not be enough to warm Equestria within a person's life time, but it is a first step.
  974. >After all, you will need the land under the ice to cultivate green pastures and lush forests.
  975. >Well, most of it at least.
  980. >Equestria is known to have a frozen biotope in the far north, albeit to a much smaller degree than what you are having at the moment.
  981. >And in the midst of all your studies and travels, you also spend some quality time with #deca.mare.
  982. >In simple, yet important leisure activities.
  983. >You do a variety of different things.
  984. >Like sports, trying a new game or two, and even some casual hobbies.
  985. >You for yourself have begun to craft a few decorative objects in the old and traditional way.
  986. >On one occasion you have carved a pony figurine out of a wooden block for #deca.mare.
  987. >Sure, you could have simply chosen to let the automaton materialise it with the power of your imagination.
  988. >But where is the heart in that?
  989. >And while yours is by far not artistic in comparison, it was more than enough to touch #deca.mare's heart.
  990. >This is all it was meant to do.
  991. >The figurine quickly finds its place next to the command chair on the deck, at least in the simulation.
  992. >And a place in your album as well.
  993. >Because why not.
  994. >The act is also accompanied by a barrage of kisses from #deca.mare and statements about how she does not deserve someone as precious as you.
  995. >This then encourages you to tell her to forget this nonsense about not being worthy.
  996. >In the end you can convince her with lots of intimate hugs and cuddling right on the spot.
  997. >It later on evolves to a complete and wholesome loving act.
  998. >The fact that you are on the command deck be damned.
  999. >There is nobody around to witness anyway, and all that matters is your mutual comfort.
  1000. >So when you feel like it, why should you not express your love and affection for one another?
  1001. >Where you are does not matter, only with whom you share this moment.
  1002. >And for you there is only one answer.
  1003. >Not only because #deca.mare is the only one around anymore, but also because she is all you ever need.
  1004. >You would never trade her for anything.
  1005. >And you can tell in #deca.mare's eyes that she thinks similar about you.
  1010. >After another short while, you get to test something new.
  1011. >In order to let #deca.mare hone her social skills around individuals other than you, you begin to re-enact scenes from the show.
  1012. >With an obvious focus on slice of life passages rather than adventure ones.
  1013. >To do so, you manage to feed the automatons with enough data to vaguely resemble show characters for this.
  1014. >These do not even closely possess traits of any actual living being, as automatons are not able to adapt and develop themselves like individuals could.
  1015. >However, they can give #deca.mare an idea of how it feels to interact with others.
  1016. >Granted, after the time she has spent with you, she will probably not repeat some of her earlier rushed mistakes.
  1017. >For instance, one does usually not tackle someone to the ground and cuddle said person or pony on the spot as an initial greeting.
  1018. >Never mind incidents like that one back in the spa.
  1019. >Such actions do leave a lasting impression, yes, but perhaps not the one #deca.mare wants to leave behind in the wider public.
  1020. >Plus, her last interactions with others were less than cordial, to put it very, very mildly.
  1021. >Her own kin virtually disowned her right before they marched to their death.
  1022. >And the last time she has met humans, excluding you of course, was through the lens of turrets which then quickly proceeded to either pulverise said humans in weaponised beams of energy, or by obliterating the protective hull of their ships, watching as the decompression flushed them out of the decks and into merciless void of space.
  1023. >In all due likelihood, she has personally seen more ruptured and shock-frosted human corpses than actual living ones.
  1028. >Indeed, some additional social training may not be a bad idea, you figure.
  1029. >Even if she is about to meet ponies instead of humans.
  1030. >Traumata do not have to follow logically consistent rules, after all.
  1031. >And the last thing you want to have is her breaking down later on in Equestria.
  1032. >So you work yourselves through the days, with many different goals in mind.
  1033. >Ever onward, slowly, but with determination, always minding to improve yourself and your partner.
  1034. >One step at a time, and a little bit more with every new day.
  1039. 66
  1041. >You are finding yourself in Ponyville.
  1042. >It is a beautiful summer day.
  1043. >The sun is shining, birds are singing left and right in the trees, and everypony is busy with casual everyday activities.
  1044. >Cheer and light-heartedness are all around.
  1045. >Exactly what a perfect day in this small town is supposed to look like.
  1046. >You and #deca.mare walk right through the scene.
  1047. >Some market stalls are a short distance away.
  1048. >None of the ponies pay any attention to the strange bipedal creature or the slightly skittish grown mare without a Cutie Mark, and gather near the marketplace instead.
  1049. >"Do you think this is a good idea?"
  1050. "Yep. I know it is nothing to the real deal, but we must make do with what we have."
  1051. >"Anon, I feel uneasy."
  1052. "How so?"
  1053. >"Because none of this is real. These ponies are not real, and everything we do is just an act."
  1054. "#deca, every performance is an act. Even those in relationships."
  1055. >"What do you mean?"
  1056. "It's the key to play your acts well. Just because they are performed does not mean they are not sincere."
  1057. >#deca.mare's ears droop.
  1058. >You understand that sign.
  1059. "Think of it like this: Imagine I would, say, write a song for you and sing it."
  1060. >You hold up both hands.
  1061. "Now imagine me performing this very piece in two ways. One time I really put every effort into singing it well and hit every tone. And in the second I just bawl away with no rhyme or reason. Both of them are meant to be sincere, but which one would you appreciate more, if compared?"
  1062. >"The one with more effort, I would say."
  1063. "Exactly. Now, I'm not saying every social act has to be a peak performance, but it certainly helps to maintain a certain standard."
  1064. >You point at several ponies in the crowd around you.
  1065. "And that's why we're here."
  1066. >"But these are no individuals. I know how they will react to anything I say or do."
  1067. "Doesn't matter. You first must feel comfortable with yourself around others before you can represent it well."
  1072. >You look at the ponies around you.
  1073. "Imagine they are real. Try to get a feeling for the situation. Imagine what it would feel like to talk from pony to pony."
  1074. >#deca.mare sighs.
  1075. >"I will try. Now who shall I talk to?"
  1076. "With whomever you feel the most comfortable to talk in your opinion."
  1077. >#deca.mare looks around.
  1078. >You have chosen a number of ponies who have at least some form of characterisation in the show.
  1079. >You used this as reference material to instruct the automatons.
  1080. >So you end up with a healthy number of possible candidates, most of them mares.
  1081. >Hardly surprising, considering your source, yet it has virtually no bearing on the wider context.
  1082. >With the exception of the two immortal alicorn princesses, it does not seem to matter to whom you are talking to in principle; be the pony in question a mare or a stallion.
  1083. >There is no apparent major societal difference.
  1084. >And that simplifies things a lot in your opinion.
  1085. >You wonder who #deca.mare will pick.
  1086. >One of the Mane Six, perhaps?
  1087. >Surely an obvious option, but who would suit her best as conversation partner?
  1088. >An extrovert character like Pinkie Pie surely not.
  1089. >Far too energetic for someone like #deca.mare when she is skittish.
  1090. >Rainbow Dash?
  1091. >Same problem with slightly different nuances.
  1092. >Fluttershy could work, if #deca.mare can feign some common interest in animals.
  1093. >She could of course tell the automatons anything, but this is not the point of this training.
  1094. >Applejack is maybe too upfront, and Rarity is probably the worst choice for now.
  1095. >Especially when you think back to #deca.mare's simple attempt at a dress.
  1096. >It was not a bad thing, but it certainly lacked, for the lack of a better term, personality.
  1097. >Twilight seems like a suitable choice, although you wonder which version of her would be the best.
  1102. >#deca.mare has not yet decided for herself either.
  1103. >And from the way she looks, you could spend a good while here before she does.
  1104. >Well, here goes nothing.
  1105. >You have to give her a little push into the cool water then.
  1106. >This is for her own good, and you are not exactly exposing her to anything harmful with it.
  1107. >An anonymous hoof from somewhere in the crowd nudges the shoulder of a certain purple mare, and then points directly at #deca.mare.
  1108. >The pony in question is of course none other than Princess Twilight Sparkle herself.
  1109. >Who now happens to stare right at #deca.mare.
  1110. >She casually trots in your direction with a sincere smile.
  1111. >"Anon,..."
  1112. "Trust me. Or even better, trust yourself. Get a feeling for what you do. We can stop any minute if it is too much."
  1113. >#deca.mare nods and looks towards the nearing alicorn.
  1114. >Twilight Sparkle on her part is fully focused on #deca.mare.
  1115. >You are virtually invisible at the moment, at least as far as the "ponies" around you are concerned.
  1116. >She stops a few metres away from where you two stand, and addresses #deca.mare directly.
  1117. >"Hello there. May I help you somehow? You seem a little lost."
  1118. >#deca.mare hesitates for a second.
  1119. >"Oh, pardon my manners. My name is Twilight Sparkle. What's your name?"
  1120. >#deca.mare clears her throat before she answers.
  1121. >"I am called #deca.mare."
  1122. >A faint voice in your head tells you that you should maybe come up with an alias in the future.
  1123. >Such a name is bound to arouse suspicion in a pony society.
  1124. >Nevertheless, Twilight accepts the answer for what it is.
  1125. >"Nice to meet you. Ponyville always welcomes guests with open hooves. Please feel free to ask if you need something. We are one of the friendliest places in Equestria for a reason!"
  1126. >Her last statement is accompanied by a friendly wink.
  1127. >"Thank you. Maybe we, uhm, I mean, I am looking for directions. I have never been here before."
  1132. >Utterly untrue, but you run with it.
  1133. >And so does the automaton.
  1134. >"You are in luck. I can tell you all you want to know. What are you looking for?"
  1135. >You must grin a little at this question.
  1136. >Because no matter what #deca.mare asks for, it will most likely end with directions to another public place.
  1137. >"A place where I can, well, get to know the town better. To, uhm, get in touch with ponies, perhaps?"
  1138. >"Well, the marketplace over there is a great way to start. You'll meet all kinds of ponies there. Someone will always be up for a small chat. Or you talk with the local salesponies. They love to talk about their craft and wares."
  1139. >Got her.
  1140. >But #deca.mare is less amused with the answer.
  1141. >She surely saw it coming, she must have.
  1142. >Although it seems the situation is so alien to her that she does not even try to sway the automaton into a certain direction.
  1143. >"And what about something more, how do I put it, quiet? I am... not used to large crowds."
  1144. >"You can always try your luck in one of the cafes or restaurants. The staff ponies are very polite and the service is good."
  1145. >That seems to be more to #deca.mare's liking.
  1146. >"If you want my personal favourite, try Sugarcube Corner. It is the best destination if you are into sweets and pastries."
  1147. >A pause.
  1148. >"Just don't get spooked by Pinkie Pie. Her behaviour takes some time to get used to, but she is a good pony at heart."
  1149. >Another smile.
  1150. >"Especially when you are new in town."
  1151. >It is clear what she means by that.
  1152. >You know it, and #deca.mare knows where this is going too.
  1153. >"Ahem, thank you, princess."
  1154. >"Please, no formalities. Everypony simply calls me Twilight outside of official events."
  1155. >"And where do I find this 'Sugarcube Corner'?"
  1156. >You can hear in #deca.mare's voice that she is trying too hard to make it sound like a new name.
  1157. >You will have to address that later on.
  1162. >Luckily, this Twilight is not bothered one bit and happily responds to #deca.mare's question.
  1163. >"Just follow this path straight until you see the house with a pink facade and a gingerbread styled roof. You can't miss it."
  1164. >"Thank you. I will certainly try it out."
  1165. >"You are welcome, #deca.mare. I will be on my way then. Hope to meet you again!"
  1166. >You have to grimace upon hearing Twilight's last words.
  1167. >It sounds absolutely outlandish to hear #deca.mare's name in Twilight Sparkle's voice.
  1168. >These two things do not mix well together in your ears.
  1169. >Because it makes it painfully obvious how staged this conversation was.
  1170. >Twilight Sparkle waves with a forehoof as a farewell gesture and moves back into the crowd.
  1171. >#deca.mare sits down on the spot and sighs.
  1172. "And? How do you feel?"
  1173. >"Like a cheap actor. I was playing a charade and nothing more."
  1174. "#deca,..."
  1175. >"Anon, do I really belong there? To Equestria? I am not sure if I can keep this up."
  1176. "You will belong there. Equestria is our project, remember? We do what we can to bring good into this world. An island of harmony. And also to give you the home you deserve. You know that."
  1177. >"But how can I act like a normal pony? Knowing the things I know, and having these memories. I will have to tell one lie after another."
  1178. "#deca, are you telling me you have doubts now? After centuries of preparation?"
  1179. >"Maybe I never stopped having doubts."
  1180. "We have an idiom for what you have, #deca. It's called cold feet."
  1181. >"Anon, I am not joking. Perhaps all this was a mistake. I cannot be a true part of... all this."
  1182. "And that's where you are wrong."
  1183. >"I am afraid I do not follow, Anon."
  1184. "You already are a part of 'all this'. Nothing here would exist without you."
  1189. >You put a reassuring hand on #deca.mare's shoulder.
  1190. "You are a resilient pony who has shown her ability to adapt time and time again. You can do this too."
  1191. >#deca.mare tries to raise her voice, but you will not let her.
  1192. "And in our very own way, we both are part of Equestria's harmonious forces."
  1193. >Now you get a blank stare.
  1194. >"Anon, the harmony unit is still in its infancy. It cannot form complex plans which might include us in the planet's fate. In fact, it cannot do much at all in this early state."
  1195. "Wrong again. We need no fancy technology unit to think for us in order to partake in it. Remember what you said to me about all those different creatures and their relationship to harmony?"
  1196. >"I said they all contribute in some way for the world in its entirety."
  1197. "Even...?"
  1198. >"Even when they are not aware of this."
  1199. "I think I must remind you of your role because you have lost sight of it. You and I are a part already. Exactly like all the others. You wanted to live amongst equals, right? Well, here you have it. We don't stand outside of it all, #deca. No matter how much it seems like it. And I believe your issue isn't about the acting itself either, am I correct?"
  1200. >A pause.
  1201. "Look, I can't even pretend to imagine how unusual all this here must feel to you. But what I can tell you is that it is the right thing to do for us. I will play my role. And I'll help you finding the strength for yours too. This will pay off in the end. Please believe me. You have poured too much love into this project to give up on it just because things get hard for once."
  1202. >A somewhat bold statement of yours, but #deca.mare understands what you are trying to say.
  1207. >She stands up and breathes loudly.
  1208. >"You are right, Anon. I am sorry for being so... mentally brittle."
  1209. "Don't mention it. I promised to catch you every time you fall."
  1210. >You smile.
  1211. "And I'm ready to prove it."
  1212. >#deca.mare nuzzles your side.
  1213. "Feeling better?"
  1214. >"Enough to go on, I believe."
  1215. "Glad to hear that. Now, shall we heed Twilight's advice and pay Pinkie a visit?"
  1216. >"Agreed. It would feel rude not to."
  1217. >You laugh.
  1218. "It's not like she'll be insulted or anything. She can't."
  1219. >"I know. But it does feel like the right thing to do."
  1220. >You must chuckle again.
  1221. "And you worry about not fitting in. You are in a way the most empathetic creature I have ever met."
  1222. >"It just does not feel that way to me."
  1223. "I think it will pretty soon."
  1224. >You smile.
  1225. "If we keep trying."
  1226. >"You are very optimistic about this, Anon."
  1227. "Nah. Just patient. I know you will need some time. And I'm more than willing to invest that."
  1228. >You stop #deca.mare right in the tracks as she wants to go on another monologue about why she does not deserve a partner like you.
  1229. "Let's go and get ourselves a treat, hm? I want to see how Pinkie Pie's welcome party looks like."
  1230. >"Anon?"
  1231. "Yes?"
  1232. >"May I use your body to hide behind?"
  1233. "Yeah, but I would rather prefer if you could try not to."
  1234. >"I will. But it makes my life easier if I know you watch my back. I may need that much confidence."
  1235. "Every time, #deca. For you I'll do it every time."
  1236. >You walk along the street together, aiming for Sugarcube Corner.
  1237. >As usual, none of the ponies pay any overt attention to you while you pass them.
  1238. >Except for one set of purple eyes.
  1239. >She raises her head to look your way as you walk off.
  1240. >And for the fraction of a second, she shows the subtle hints of a smile before she lowers her head again to disappear in the crowd.
  1245. 67
  1247. >You two walk on the path that was shown to you by the simulated Twilight Sparkle.
  1248. >The way is an uneventful one, and leads through the more densely populated parts of the town.
  1249. >Although dense is a relative term, given the size of Ponyville.
  1250. >On your way past all the cosy little houses, you occasionally spot small groups of ponies standing near the entrances, casually chatting with friendly faces nearby.
  1251. >Some others trot past as if they were on the way to somewhere.
  1252. >None of them react to your presence.
  1253. >You watch their activities and imagine they were real living ponies.
  1254. >The idea alone is heartwarming, yet still pretty far away.
  1255. >And #deca.mare uses the time to calm her nerves after her last conversation.
  1256. >You are confident in her endurance, but for now you let her have that moment of silence; she seems to need it.
  1257. >Not long thereafter, you can spot the outlines of Sugarcube Corner in the distance.
  1258. >From now on it is only a short walk of maybe a few minutes at most.
  1259. "Almost there. Think you can face Pinkie?"
  1260. >"I will. It feels rude to ignore Twilight's advice."
  1261. >You laugh.
  1262. "It's not like you can insult her or anything, #deca. This is an automaton we're talking about."
  1263. >"Right, but backing off now is not an option. Later on we cannot just run away in Equestria either."
  1264. >Fair point.
  1265. >Well, you could, technically speaking, always get out with a small amount of trickery and cheating.
  1266. >But this is not what either of you is willing to do.
  1267. >Part of your future life in Equestria means building a good and honest bond to its population.
  1268. >Or at least as honest as you can afford to be in your situation.
  1269. >You now stand before the richly decorated bakery with its unique architecture.
  1270. >The solid wooden door is currently closed, although the shop itself looks like it is opened.
  1271. >With #deca.mare idling next to you and staring at the door, you decide to go first.
  1272. >You take the pair of low steps with one leap.
  1277. >Right in front of the door, you look back to #deca.mare.
  1278. >She breathes in, hesitates but a mere moment, and nods once.
  1279. >You knock.
  1280. >A muffled, though clearly energetic voice rings through the thick wood.
  1281. >"Come in!"
  1282. >You would recognise this pitch anywhere.
  1283. >Pinkie Pie's sound is one of a kind.
  1284. >You open the door and step in.
  1285. >#deca.mare's hoofsteps clop loudly behind you.
  1286. >She is following along.
  1287. >Although you can hear her nervous anticipation in the way the pace of her hooves sounds.
  1288. "Just remember, we can stop any time. There is no shame to it if we need more than one attempt."
  1289. >"Hmhm. I want to make it today anyway."
  1290. "Alright."
  1291. >The scene you enter is a faithful adaption of Sugarcube Corner's interior.
  1292. >A pretty wooden counter with a glass display is located directly opposite to the entrance in a moderate distance.
  1293. >Several different sweet treats are stocked inside.
  1294. >A certain lively pony with a light pink coat and a vibrant magenta mane is facing you; she stands right behind the counter.
  1295. >Behind her is another doorframe.
  1296. >This one leads to the kitchen with its various stoves and other gadgets that are used to make all the treats this bakery offers.
  1297. >The interior decorum between the counter and the entrance is kept in a simple, yet charming style.
  1298. >The visually pleasing walls are similar to those of the other houses found in Ponyville, and they are accompanied by artistically carved structural wooden beams and pillars.
  1299. >Wooden tables, stools and benches are strewn across both sides.
  1300. >The ones to the left are arranged to form a separate seating area.
  1301. >Probably designed for those ponies who want to consume their orders right here.
  1302. >It is also a great socialising spot to meet others, you figure.
  1307. >A few steps in, you stop and wait for #deca.mare.
  1308. >Pinkie Pie ignores you completely.
  1309. >Although this is not what you feel like.
  1310. >You cannot put your finger on it, yet she somehow makes you nervous.
  1311. >It is as if she knows you are present, despite the fact that this should be utterly impossible.
  1312. >Then again, this is Pinkie Pie.
  1313. >Reality bender extraordinaire, with a such an... interesting way to use logic that it is beyond the understanding of mere mortals.
  1314. >You never know what is going to happen with this mare around.
  1315. >#deca.mare trots forwards.
  1316. >And she is very well within Pinkie Pie's vision, as Pinkie begins to speak in her friendly, but also taxing fast paced chatter.
  1317. >"Welcome to Sugarcube Corner! One of the best places for sweets and treats in all of Ponyville. Want to order something? Oh, silly me, of course you want something. Why else would you come here? What can I do for you?"
  1318. >Unsurprisingly, #deca.mare hesitates.
  1319. >She tries to come up with a reasonable order for a pastry shop.
  1320. >You let the scene run its course for the time being.
  1321. >Pinkie Pie behaves rather tame.
  1322. >At least for Pinkie Pie standards.
  1323. >And ever the friendly social mare that she is, Pinkie keeps the conversation going when #deca.mare fails to come up with a decent response.
  1324. >"You're new in town."
  1325. >A rather simple attempt at getting the words to flow, but an effective one.
  1326. >It does exactly what it is intended to do.
  1327. >"Uhm, yes. We, no, I have just arrived. How do you know?"
  1328. >And here you go.
  1329. >You know very well where this inevitably leads to.
  1330. >You just hope Pinkie will not organise the most drastic party she can possibly conceive in her mind.
  1335. >The following response is predictable.
  1336. >"Because I know and am friends with everyone in Ponyville. I haven't seen you before and that means you must be new."
  1337. >"You are right. I arrived today and am looking around. This place in particular was recommended to me by prince..., ahem, Twilight Sparkle."
  1338. >Pinkie begins to bounce on her spot with a high pitched giggle.
  1339. >"Good choice. She sent you to the best place to start. This calls for something special."
  1340. >Oh boy, you have heard a similar phrase before.
  1341. >You think you see #deca.mare flinching slightly, but this could also just be your imagination.
  1342. >Nevertheless, she musters the courage to ask Pinkie Pie further, fully aware what she is doing.
  1343. >"And what exactly does it call for?"
  1344. >You listen very closely now.
  1345. >Pinkie Pie is on the loose and thirsting for fun.
  1346. >Once you have left these halls, you have to stay vigilant to make sure she does not startle #deca.mare to... death?
  1347. >No, this is certainly not possible.
  1348. >But anyway, the point stands.
  1349. >"Let me welcome you personally to Ponyville. And what could be better for it than... a party!"
  1350. >Wait, what?
  1351. >Before your brain can process Pinkie Pie's implications, it is already too late.
  1352. >Half a dozen more friendly looking ponies appear from behind the counter.
  1353. >Others have hidden underneath the tables and in the seating area.
  1354. >A third group has silently moved in to stand front of the entrance, peeking in happily from the outside.
  1355. >All of them shout one merry word under Pinkie Pie's directions.
  1356. >"SURPRISE!"
  1357. >You can hear two minor detonations going off somewhere in the entrance hall.
  1358. >Vast clouds of colourful tinsel, confetti and streamers are shot up high into the room.
  1359. >They float upwards for a short time before they peacefully glide towards the ground.
  1360. >The glossy surface of these particles occasionally shimmer in the light as they gently toss and turn in their flight.
  1365. >The whole sight is, all things considered, a pretty and wholesome one.
  1366. >Or it would be under normal circumstances.
  1367. >But both you and #deca.mare have been, well, caught by surprise as you quickly get surrounded by merry ponies from all sides.
  1368. >Although you two react very differently to this sudden change.
  1369. >#deca.mare almost immediately turns into the pony equivalent of a fainting goat.
  1370. >And while you are not as badly affected, you also take a sudden step back in order to make sense of what is happening.
  1371. >Similar to Twilight Sparkle, they all keep a healthy distance for casual conversations.
  1372. >However, as soon as you regain your wits, you quickly turn your attention to #deca.mare, and her only.
  1373. >All the attention in the room lies squarely on her.
  1374. >You must do something to salvage the situation.
  1375. >Not willing to blow it all up just yet, your very first command turns yourself visible to the ponies around you.
  1376. >About half of them now turn to you, almost as if they were moving in unison.
  1377. >These ponies begin to greet and chatter with you.
  1378. >Not one comments on your unusual anatomy.
  1379. >To them you are just like any other pony, contrary to the obvious evidence against this notion.
  1380. >Good start, but the only important thing is #deca.mare's wellbeing.
  1381. >So you ignore the hearty equines around you while you try to address her.
  1382. "#deca? #deca? Are you okay?"
  1383. >"Too many at once!"
  1384. >This response is gut wrenching for you.
  1385. >However, someone else reacts before you can do anything.
  1386. >"Oh nononono. You aren't enjoying yourself. This will not do at all."
  1387. >As if on cue, a good three quarters of the present ponies leave the place through the door.
  1388. >Pinkie Pie is still addressing #deca.mare, holding out a hoof to help her up.
  1389. >"I'm sorry. Is that better? I would have invited less ponies if I had known."
  1394. >You are absolutely perplexed by what you just witness.
  1395. >Not only has this "Pinkie Pie" a remarkably strong sense of empathy for an automaton, she has also actively manipulated the simulation.
  1396. >Twice.
  1397. >And just as if Pinkie has read your mind, she turns her head to lock onto you.
  1398. >You would be scared if you were not so speechless.
  1399. >"Hey there. Nice to finally see you too. You're tall for a pony."
  1400. >Finally?
  1401. >Did she say finally?
  1402. >You speak up before you think.
  1403. "You mean you knew I was here?"
  1404. >Pinkie Pie laughs in her typical cheering way.
  1405. >"Of course, silly. Nice trick though. How did you do it?"
  1406. >Enough.
  1407. >This is spiralling out of control.
  1408. >You form a command to the system in your head.
  1409. >But instead of just thinking it, you shout it out in a reflex.
  1410. "Freeze!"
  1411. >The simulation complies.
  1412. >All the present ponies strike an idling position.
  1413. >They stand upright on all four hooves, and look forward with an infinity stare.
  1414. >Including Pinkie Pie.
  1415. >You rush over to #deca.mare and give her a firm hug.
  1416. >She nuzzles your body with her side, still breathing heavily.
  1417. "You okay?"
  1418. >"Yes, I am. Thank you for asking, Anon."
  1419. >You wait a few seconds before you let go of her and walk over to the idling pink pony.
  1420. >No reaction.
  1421. >She remains completely still.
  1422. >You wave a hand before her yes and carefully poke her coat once.
  1423. >Still nothing.
  1424. >You begin to relax somewhat.
  1425. "That was close. I have no idea what went wrong with Pinkie."
  1426. >#deca.mare calms her breath before she answers.
  1427. >"Nothing. The system did what it was meant to do."
  1428. "We didn't design the program to fiddle with its own settings though. I don't get how this overreach could have happened."
  1429. >"It did not. The fail-safe systems we integrated do not allow the simulation to reach outside."
  1430. "I know, but Pinkie could clearly affect the world around her. What happened here?"
  1431. >"Let us have a look together."
  1436. >#deca.mare summons her console and shows you the code.
  1437. >By now you do not even have to point out how useless this intel is for you in your current state.
  1438. >You give her a nod, and she connects you to her archives.
  1439. >You quickly borrow the knowledge you need to make sense of the text in front of you and take a second look at #deca.mare's console.
  1440. >It shows you the code master file of the automatons working both on and in the simulation.
  1441. >Every unit is a subordinated entity under this file, sometimes also referred to as slaves in certain circles.
  1442. >Meaning that if the master routine is not working, not working properly, or detects a major error either in its own code or its slave units, it will deactivate itself, and all the other units with it.
  1443. >The fail-safe works on several layers too.
  1444. >The master file runs frequent routine checks both on itself and the units, and vice versa do the units monitor themselves and the master code to a smaller degree.
  1445. >They too can detect some aberrations in the code and signal the master to deactivate itself, which again deactivates all units in turn as well.
  1446. >And of course the ultimate control over the system and the tweaks in its calibrations is still in #deca.mare's hooves, and therefore by extension also in your possession.
  1447. >All in all, the system is rather primed to freeze up rather than doing anything else.
  1448. >In the case of such an event, an automated message is sent to both #deca.mare and you.
  1449. >However, this would be considered to be a major breakdown and the worst case scenario.
  1450. >So in order to prevent that, the codes are equipped with various forms of self-repair, in which massive redundancies are meant to work as a measure to replicate sections of code which might get damaged or corrupted somehow.
  1451. >The principle is somewhat similar to how DNA replicates itself to keep a body alive and well, just on a digital medium instead of an organic one and with far less risks of mutations.
  1456. >Similar systems have been developed for all kinds of automatons used by the #deca network.
  1457. >And it has been brought to nigh perfection, as dozens, and partially even hundreds, of these intelligences have worked on developing and improving these principles constantly, making sure using them is absolutely safe and reliable.
  1458. >In other words, it is as fool-proof as an automated system can possibly be.
  1459. >#deca.mare shows you several sections of code.
  1460. >"See here? We have clearly defined the simulation as a closed system, and that even considering a single attempt of reaching outside by the program is considered a priority one breach, followed by an immediate termination order. It cannot reach outside, no matter what."
  1461. >This situation is somewhat strange to you.
  1462. >Because you know you have worked together with #deca.mare to build and establish the system.
  1463. >You know this perfectly well; you can even remember the sessions vividly.
  1464. >But the finer details of what exactly happened are not quite there, as there are parts in the pictures which you simply cannot identify.
  1465. >You are fully aware this is the aftermath of the link usage; your brain tries to connect dots which simply are not present anymore.
  1466. >It feels almost as if you have a cut mental string in your mind.
  1467. >Yet at the same time it strikes you as unnerving that #deca.mare has to explain the functions while you are fully aware about your own participation in the project.
  1468. >You could of course borrow the written records of your sessions, but this is a pointless effort, as this knowledge will depart with the link as well.
  1469. >Her explaining it to you is the only way to make sure you can remember once the access is sundered.
  1474. >Anyway, you have to play along.
  1475. "That's all fine, but it doesn't explain how Pinkie Pie could seize control of the simulation."
  1476. >#deca.mare scrolls further down to another segment.
  1477. >"She did not. The way I see it, it was the simulation itself which worked for Pinkie Pie."
  1478. "I'm not sure how this is any better though."
  1479. >"Because the premise is different. Pinkie Pie herself has no active control. But, we have given her a special trait based on her unique way to interact with others and with fate."
  1480. >A third segment.
  1481. >"By doing so we gave the simulation a certain leeway when she is involved. The system will make some things happen for her. And Pinkie is unconsciously aware of this link."
  1482. "Hold on there, she's sentient?"
  1483. >#deca.mare shakes her head.
  1484. >"No. We are still talking about a stiff automaton. Perhaps I worded it poorly. What I meant was that the automaton knows about its relationship to the wider simulation. Like a minor breach of the fourth wall, if you will."
  1485. >You look at the idling Pinkie Pie.
  1486. >She seems like perpetually frozen in time.
  1487. "Could this pose any kind of danger?"
  1488. >Another shaking head.
  1489. >"Not at all. Like I said, Pinkie's routines have no actual control over the system, and the simulation itself is also closed. Nothing can happen."
  1490. >You check the relevant lines of code yourself and confirm #deca.mare's statements.
  1491. >This is a relief.
  1492. "Thank goodness. I was worried for a moment."
  1493. >You hold your head with a hand.
  1494. "I swear, you have no idea how frustrating it is to have these holes in your mind."
  1495. >#deca.mare gently pulls you to the ground to give you a full body embrace.
  1496. >"No worries, I understand. Besides, you saved me from a crowd of ponies. I appreciate that."
  1497. >You nuzzle each other some more.
  1498. "Well then, shall we try it again?"
  1499. >"Good idea. Maybe I can survive a party."
  1500. >You chuckle.
  1501. "Hey, you've survived me for weeks. What's a sugar crazed pink pony for you?"
  1502. >"Aw come on, you are not that bad."
  1503. >You shrug nonchalantly.
  1504. "If you say so."
  1509. >You stand up.
  1510. >#deca.mare restores the original state of your link.
  1511. >All the precious knowledge begins to cloud again.
  1512. >You are no longer able to decipher the cryptic salad of #deca tech coding.
  1513. >But at least you remember enough to know that the simulation is safe, Pinkie Pie included.
  1514. "I hate when that happens."
  1515. >#deca.mare removes the console as well.
  1516. >"I would love to share everything with you permanently, Anon, but I do not wish to risk overloading your senses. It does not cause you any lasting harm, although it must be less than pleasant to say the least."
  1517. "No sweat, #deca. You're not to blame for this."
  1518. >You give her a hearty kiss to underline your notion.
  1519. "Ready when you are"
  1520. >"I am. Give the command."
  1521. >And so you order the simulation unfreeze.
  1522. >Pinkie Pie springs to life and shakes herself with a hefty fervour.
  1523. >"Brrr. That was a doozy. My sense must be tricking me."
  1524. >The few other remaining ponies begin to move again as well.
  1525. >Yet instead of bothering you two, they look for ponies nearby to talk to.
  1526. >Just a second later, Pinkie spots #deca.mare and you in the crowd of ponies.
  1527. >"Oh you're still here? Fantastic! I thought you left a while ago. Did you not like my surprise?"
  1528. >The last words are spoken with true concern.
  1529. >Because there is nothing more sacred to Pinkie than her parties and making ponies happy with them.
  1530. >You take things into your own hands this time.
  1531. "Nah, your party is great. We just had to settle something urgent."
  1532. >She resumes to her usual constant hopping.
  1533. >"Wee! That's what I like to hear! Want to play some games?"
  1534. >The pony crowd cheers in unison to encourage you.
  1535. >Except it has not quite the wanted effect on #deca.mare.
  1536. >She flinches upon hearing the choir of different voices.
  1537. >Albeit she holds her ground better this time.
  1542. >You rush over to #deca.mare's side again.
  1543. >"Gee, did I startle you?"
  1544. >You want to answer for #deca.mare, yet that turns out to be unnecessary.
  1545. >She finds her own words quickly enough this time.
  1546. >"No! No. But I am not familiar with parties."
  1547. >A cough before she goes on in a mumbling voice.
  1548. >"With more than two, at least."
  1549. >Pinkie hops to #deca.mare's other side and stands next to her.
  1550. >"High time to change that!"
  1551. >She raises a forehoof straight up into the air, and another pair of party cannons fire their load into the room.
  1552. >You three are peppered with confetti and tinsel.
  1553. >#deca.mare takes it with a modicum of dignity.
  1554. >Partly because she wants to show her determination, and partly because she has nowhere to go.
  1555. >She is flanked on both sides.
  1556. >It does not take long for her to overcome the flinching.
  1557. >She is far away from fully conquering her multiple issues, but at least you do not have to quit the simulation any time soon.
  1558. >And frankly, there are worse things to be bombarded with than shiny paper.
  1559. >A pony whose name you do not know comes forth with an archaic gramophone, putting it on one of the many smaller tables.
  1560. >With the needle getting carefully put on the edge of the record disc, it begins to play an upbeat, festive music.
  1561. >It takes #deca.mare another breath, but she still stands upright and steady.
  1562. >Pinkie Pie raises her voice.
  1563. >"First we'll have some food and then we'll play games. You absolutely must try 'pin the tail on the pony'. You'll love it, it's a classic!"
  1564. >More hopping.
  1565. >"Wanna take the first order? You're the guest of honour, after all."
  1566. >"Hm not yet. I am still undecided."
  1567. >"Okey dokey. Call me when you found something."
  1568. >She zips through the room to take orders and then back to the counter to bring pastries and other food to all the attending guests.
  1573. >You let go of #deca.mare as well and try to evaluate her composure.
  1574. >She seems determined to pull this trough, despite the chattering and music around her.
  1575. >And the confetti fragments in her coat and mane are not bothering her much either, apparently.
  1576. >You lean over to #deca.mare's head to whisper in her ear.
  1577. "You're really okay with this? I bet Pinkie isn't holding back."
  1578. >"I must. We will not get anywhere when I cannot even pass this simple hurdle."
  1579. >You put a hand on her shoulder.
  1580. "Alright. But please, don't stress yourself too much. We're in no hurry."
  1581. >"Duly noted, Anon. Although this is my personal challenge for today."
  1582. >You nod once.
  1583. "Fine, I've got your back."
  1584. >#deca.mare gives Pinkie Pie a sign.
  1585. >It is time to really kick off the party with her first order.
  1590. 68
  1592. >Naturally, Pinkie Pie does not hesitate.
  1593. >She finishes her current delivery and returns to you.
  1594. >You are amazed how fast she can be with a plate of sweets on her back.
  1595. >Then again, this is probably one of the less fascinating ones in her assortment of skills.
  1596. >"You rang?"
  1597. >"Indeed. I would like to have something from the local cuisine. Do you have a stock of apple products? I heard the farm of Ponyville is famous for these fruits."
  1598. >This sounds somewhat stilted in your ears, given that you know what she knows about this place.
  1599. >However, it is noticeably better than her first interaction with Twilight Sparkle.
  1600. >She could maybe pass as a clueless tourist if she keeps this attitude up.
  1601. >Still not the best of things, granted, but an improvement is an improvement.
  1602. >And it is fitting for your current setting.
  1603. >"Sure! Applejack delivers apples all the time. Sometimes we even bake together. That's fun."
  1604. >Pinkie Pie grins sheepishly.
  1605. >"At least when she's awake."
  1606. >Oh, right.
  1607. >The baking debacle.
  1608. >Never mind, this is neither here nor there.
  1609. >#deca.mare manages to keep her composure so far.
  1610. >"Speaking of baking, could you bring me a slice of apple pie? I would love to test it out."
  1611. >Pinkie Pie nods with delight.
  1612. >"One slice for our guest. No problemo."
  1613. >She turns to you.
  1614. >"And you? I haven't forgotten we have met two new friends today."
  1615. "What? Me?"
  1616. >As courteous as the gesture is, you have been so preoccupied with how #deca.mare fares in here that you have completely forgotten about your own order.
  1617. "Make that two. Apple pie sounds great."
  1618. >"Apple pie for you two coming up! I'll be back in a jiffy!"
  1619. >And Pinkie Pie does what she does best as she disappears behind the counter.
  1620. >You have a second in relative privacy.
  1625. >You settle down near one of the vacant tables.
  1626. >Everything goes fairly civil so far.
  1627. >Although you spot #deca.mare's occasional glances left and right.
  1628. >She is certainly not used to having so much happening around her.
  1629. >No wonder.
  1630. >Especially since she has taught herself to be wary of every activity which might indicate involvement of intelligent life.
  1631. >For someone who has learned that every surprise could lead to a potential discovery, and quite possibly her end, it must be a nightmare to get caught off guard.
  1632. >Really, it is a small miracle she has not freaked out more often when you surprised her.
  1633. >Maybe this is the case because she has seen you all the time and knew where you were.
  1634. >What happened with Pinkie Pie at the counter was different though.
  1635. >She was suddenly surrounded by dozens of "ponies" which she did not expect.
  1636. "You doing okay?"
  1637. >#deca.mare nods, and you mirror her gesture.
  1638. "Shall we invite Pinkie Pie to your table? I mean, we need to assimilate somehow and it would be a polite gesture to our host."
  1639. >"Hmhm, you are right. Would you like to ask her?"
  1640. "I can, but please try to lead the larger part of the conversation with her. I'll help you help out when you need me."
  1641. >Another nod.
  1642. >"I will do my best."
  1643. >A lively Pinkie Pie resurfaces, laden with two plates on her back.
  1644. >She is balancing both perfectly along her spine.
  1645. >The plates barely even tilt, despite her being in full motion.
  1646. >You have absolutely no idea how she does it, and yet it is entirely within the realm of physical possibility.
  1647. >At least she is just trotting rather swiftly instead of using her characteristic hopping.
  1648. >Otherwise you would have an even harder time to understand what is going on.
  1649. >Pinkie halts next to your table and carefully places the plates on it.
  1650. >To do so, she bites down on the rim of each one to safely move them over.
  1655. >This appears alien to you at first.
  1656. >#deca.mare has done similar things before, and you quickly began to accept it for what it is, given that you share everything with her.
  1657. >But having another pony bite down on your plate is a different thing; disregarding the fact that she barely got the rim and never touched the food with her lips or teeth.
  1658. >A behaviour like this would never fly on Earth or amongst most other humans.
  1659. >However, you have seen enough of the show to know how this is a common practice in Equestria.
  1660. >So you say nothing and try to stifle your mental protests against something which is not meant to offend at all anyway.
  1661. >Plus, Pinkie Pie keeps you busy with different things.
  1662. >"Here you go. It's all on the house today."
  1663. >Just as she is about to return to the counter, you intervene.
  1664. "Pinkie, wait."
  1665. >She obliges and looks at you expectantly.
  1666. "Would you like to join us for a more personal talk? It's only fair because nothing of all this here would have happened without you."
  1667. >"Of course. I love hearing stories of new friends. Just a moment."
  1668. >She quickly zips to the counter and returns with a seating cushion of her very own.
  1669. >Oddly enough, it does somewhat resemble those which #deca.mare and you use in your Canterlot chamber setting.
  1670. >Although this one is dyed in the characteristic colours of Pinkie Pie and adorned with her Cutie Mark.
  1671. >You are not sure whether this is meant to ruffle your senses or simply tries to be a subtle reference.
  1672. >You figure you can never be sure when she is involved.
  1673. >In any case, she plants her cushion to best face both of you and sits down.
  1678. >"Who starts first? Me? You? Or your silent companion? You two are travelling together?"
  1679. >Well, at least the start has been made already.
  1680. "Yeah, we're travelling together. More than that, actually."
  1681. >Pinkie Pie's face beams with excitement.
  1682. >"Oooh. We have a new pair of lovebirds in this town?"
  1683. >Now you must chuckle.
  1684. "Yeah, you got us. But let's start at the beginning. We haven't even introduced ourselves properly yet."
  1685. >You take a breath.
  1686. >This will be just as awkward as the first time, but she will accept it somehow.
  1687. "Pinkie Pie, my name is Anon. This..."
  1688. >Your gesture towards your "silent companion" with a hand.
  1689. "... is #deca.mare. We are travelling across the land during... our honeymoon."
  1690. >You are not sure whether #deca.mare would agree with that statement.
  1691. >After all, you have promised to each other a proper wedding ceremony further down the line.
  1692. >And considering this trip as your honeymoon prior to the ceremony itself is unusual to say the least.
  1693. >Nevertheless, this statement is not too far off, technically speaking.
  1694. >And you said it yourself already.
  1695. >You two do everything in the wrong order.
  1696. >#deca.mare on her end blushes profusely upon pondering this idea.
  1697. >It must fluster her to no end.
  1698. >Pinkie Pie simply waves with a hoof and smiles.
  1699. >"Hi! Nice to know you! And I wish you the best on your travels."
  1700. >No comment about the name.
  1701. >Could it be that you get off lightly?"
  1702. >"Buuuut, you're here for now and we have a party to celebrate!"
  1703. >Nope, it is a party for you two.
  1704. >But Pinkie has shown that she is not fully unaware of #deca.mare's inhibitions.
  1705. >"Don't worry, you'll get the hang of it. I bet a batch of cupcakes you'll love it when we're done!"
  1710. >"You are not the first to say that."
  1711. >#deca.mare looks at you, still uncertain.
  1712. >You shrug again.
  1713. "Got to agree with Pinkie."
  1714. >Pinkie Pie taps her chin in thought.
  1715. >"Hmm. But where to begin? There are so many spectacular things to do."
  1716. >You get an idea.
  1717. >A great one in your opinion.
  1718. >#deca.mare's eyes open wide.
  1719. >"Oh no. You cannot ask that of me."
  1720. "Please, I know what I'm doing."
  1721. >She seems unconvinced.
  1722. >Nevertheless, she believes in you.
  1723. >A nod.
  1724. >Okay, your next turn.
  1725. "Pinkie, do your parties include dances?"
  1726. >"What a question, of course they do!"
  1727. "Could you do us the honour?"
  1728. >"Uh huh. Get ready to hit the floor!"
  1729. >Pinkie Pie hops up from her seat and into the middle of the small hall.
  1730. >Her voice rings loudly through the room.
  1731. >"Listen up, everypony! It's time for a dance round!"
  1732. >Her exclamation is met by another wave of jolly cheer.
  1733. >The crowd is with her.
  1734. >Not a surprise.
  1735. >And as if on cue, the ponies begin to shove the tables and seats closer to the walls to make more space for the impromptu dance floor in the centre of the main room.
  1736. >You two help out as well.
  1737. >Out of courtesy and because you want to assimilate.
  1738. >And in #deca.mare's case, probably also to block out what is coming next.
  1739. >You use the time of moving things around to appeal to #deca.mare.
  1740. "Listen, I did this for a very good reason."
  1741. >"I am still not seeing it, Anon."
  1742. "Soon. Just please, I want you to do one thing when we go on the dance floor."
  1743. >"And that is?"
  1744. "Focus on me. And only on me. Don't think about the other ponies around us."
  1745. >"To what end?"
  1746. >You smile.
  1747. "We'll give them a show of our very own."
  1748. >You keep pushing and pulling wood until the middle section is mostly free.
  1749. >The only table left in the vicinity is the one with the gramophone.
  1750. >Makes sense if you want to have music.
  1751. >A grey mare with an ebon mane and a purple clef for a Cutie Mark hold up another shellac record while she carefully takes the needle off the first one with her mouth.
  1756. >You recognise her.
  1757. >The posh pony from the gala who happens to live with a certain DJ.
  1758. >#deca.mare has mentioned that these two were amongst the ponies who got a special attention back in the day.
  1759. >Neither of both seem very striking to you personally, but that is beside the point.
  1760. >With skilled precision, Octavia replaces the first record with the second, and gives a quick sign to the crowd.
  1761. >Everyone in the room pairs up on the stage.
  1762. >Well, no big deal.
  1763. >Already knowing your respective partner, you two do it like the rest.
  1764. >#deca.mare does exactly as you told her.
  1765. >She is focussing on you the entire time.
  1766. >The music begins playing, and you must suppress a laughter.
  1767. >Pinkie Pie and Octavia have chosen a waltz.
  1768. >Unexpected, as you did not think she would be the type for picking this.
  1769. >Especially considering how Pinkie has one time blown Octavia's concert at the gala.
  1770. >Yet deep down inside she indirectly knows what this is about, so Pinkie puts her own interests aside for making you two happy by playing right into your hands.
  1771. "Exactly like we practiced it last time, #deca."
  1772. >"Hmhm."
  1773. >#deca.mare rears up and you step forward.
  1774. >She slings both limbs around your neck and places her hooves on your shoulders.
  1775. >You in turn carefully reach for #deca.mare's shoulder with your left hand and sling your other arm around her back, directly above her haunches.
  1776. >Your heads get very close to each other.
  1777. >In fact, #deca.mare's muzzle now caresses your cheek.
  1778. >You can once again hear her breath over the music and feel how it tingles on your skin.
  1779. >The position may not be ideal overall, and you get to carry most her weight too, but it works well enough.
  1780. >None of you is aiming to win a prize or so anyway.
  1785. >You stand your ground while you hold #deca.mare.
  1786. >She has closed her eyes
  1787. "And?"
  1788. >"You are the lead."
  1789. "Right."
  1790. >And you take the lead by making the first steps.
  1791. >In your previous practice session you were quickly forced to tackle a pony's limited ability of turning around while standing on two legs.
  1792. >You solved this challenge with a little trick.
  1793. >Instead of turning around each other like one would expect from a traditional waltz, you rather step around #deca.mare in slow, yet swinging movements.
  1794. >This enables her to stay in one spot with relative ease.
  1795. >All she has to do is aligning her rear hooves properly to keep up with your rotation.
  1796. >It took you some stumbling and controlled falling the first time, but now you can do this more or less fluently at a moderate speed.
  1797. >Luckily a waltz does not require any fast paced actions.
  1798. >And so, you spin to the tune of the music.
  1799. >Slowly.
  1800. >Gently.
  1801. >One delicate rhythm between her and you.
  1802. >Everything else is secondary.
  1803. >And your calmness translates nicely over to #deca.mare too.
  1804. >She can feel you and hear the music.
  1805. >Although she must undoubtedly hear the subtle clopping sounds all around you as well.
  1806. >For her, it does not matter for as long as you are her anchor.
  1807. >And whilst #deca.mare tries to weather her own emotional issues, you keep your eyes open and observe your surroundings while turning around.
  1808. >You do not even need to move your head, and yet you get to witness the full scene.
  1809. >Happy pony pairs dance all around you.
  1810. >Although their routine differs greatly from yours.
  1811. >They stand facing their partner, and dance by mirroring a learned choreography in which both ponies of each pair move around the other.
  1812. >Forming a constant, yet ever turning unbroken circle.
  1813. >These movements are clearly dances, and they are thought up to elegantly fit to the music.
  1818. >But for all the joy and beauty at display, all their dances lack something that only you have.
  1819. >A special aura of intimacy.
  1820. >One which cannot be learned to feel by simply learning an art.
  1821. >It has to be found together with your special somepony.
  1822. >Once you have fully pondered this thought, you bury your head deeper into #deca.mare's coat.
  1823. >She also softly nuzzles you while you keep on spinning.
  1824. >You figure she was listening to your thoughts the whole time.
  1825. >Quietly as to not interrupt you, but also to alleviate any stress she might feel otherwise.
  1826. >And in some way, you can see that she enjoys all of this, despite her instincts telling her to be on edge.
  1827. >Well, it seems she can draw enough power from your presence to momentarily neutralise these bad notions.
  1828. >And this is good enough for you at the moment.
  1829. >"Anon, you were right."
  1830. "Glad you think this way, #deca."
  1831. >Just in this very moment, your sight turns back to the gramophone.
  1832. >Pinkie is standing there, watching you.
  1833. >With Octavia right next to her.
  1834. >Both look satisfied; Pinkie Pie with her usual wide grin, whereas Octavia settles for a more moderate approving expression.
  1835. "But I think we need to thank them as well."
  1836. >"I believe they already know."
  1837. >You do not need to consult the console this time to agree with her.
  1838. "Yeah."
  1839. >You keep spinning ever onwards to the tune like one body.
  1840. >Round and round, until the musical piece has run its course.
  1841. >You stop your movements with the growing silence.
  1842. >But instead of parting outright, you keep standing there.
  1843. >With your bodies entangled, and your spirits united.
  1844. >Whatever comes next in Pinkie Pie's plans, you will revel in this moment first.
  1845. >For as long as your souls demand it.
  1850. 69
  1852. >You dance until the melody of the song ceases.
  1853. >The record has run its course.
  1854. >You could ask Pinkie Pie to put on another one, but both of you are content with the situation as it is.
  1855. >This dance was something special; something you designed with #deca.mare.
  1856. >And part of what makes it unique is to use it sparsely in order to not cheapen its significance and symbolism.
  1857. >You two look at each other intimately one last time before you part.
  1858. >To follow an ancient custom, you thank each other simultaneously for the mutual dance with a light elegant bow before you grant Pinkie Pie her place in the spotlight again.
  1859. >The pink mare looks like she is having a great time too.
  1860. >And even though you know there is no real feeling from the cold automaton behind this, it does emanate an enthralling aura which urges everyone in the room to join the flow of the party.
  1861. >"Alright you party dwellers, now let's put these limbered up legs to good use! Show me your best conga line!"
  1862. >The crowd of ponies once again cheers in approval.
  1863. >Now that is a rapid shift in tone.
  1864. >From waltz to conga with only a few minutes in between.
  1865. >You are more than willing to join in, if #deca.mare is up to it as well.
  1866. >However, she shows obvious signs of doubt.
  1867. "Want to join?"
  1868. >#deca.mare steels herself.
  1869. >"Yes."
  1870. "Okay. I've got an idea. We'll join at the end of the line. I'll be the rear, and you go in just before me. You'll get to see the whole thing and don't have to worry about what is happening behind you."
  1871. >She considers this option and agrees quickly with a nod.
  1872. >"Sounds reasonable."
  1873. >You two approach the forming lines of ponies.
  1874. >Unlike the waltz, this one does not differ significantly from the human version.
  1875. >Upon forming a line, all ponies from the second one onwards rear up to place both forehooves on the hips of the pony in front of them.
  1880. >Now granted, grabbing the hips instead of the shoulders would be considered as pretty risqué in many human communities, yet this is a minor and necessary adaptation due to the equine anatomy.
  1881. >Plus, the less stringent rules regarding physical contact within pony society are helping a lot too.
  1882. >You wait together with #deca.mare until all ponies are gathered and properly lined up.
  1883. >However, Pinkie Pie sees that two participants are still missing.
  1884. >"And what of our two lovebirds? Want to join the fun?"
  1885. >Without saying another word to Pinkie, you look at #deca.mare and invite her to go first.
  1886. >She accepts and trots carefully towards the end of the line.
  1887. >Now that you think about it, you have never asked #deca.mare whether she is okay with touching other ponies.
  1888. >While she was more than eager to get you as close and intimate to her as possible, that was because she wanted, nay, desired to hastily build a lasting bond with you.
  1889. >It was #deca.mare's way of ensuring you would like to stay with her and accept her as your true and loving partner.
  1890. >Yet getting up close physically with any other pony is a different matter.
  1891. >And given her sensual vulnerability, she may opt out of it now.
  1892. >You wonder whether you should bring this up.
  1893. >But #deca.mare takes the leap of faith.
  1894. >She steps up to the end of the line and imitates the pose of the mare in front of her.
  1895. >Said mare turns her head to the side to get a fleeting glance of #deca.mare.
  1896. >She seems happy to see another new face in town, but does not speak a single word.
  1897. >And she eventually looks away once more.
  1898. >You hold true to your promise and position yourself right behind #deca.mare, putting your hands right next to her hips.
  1899. >That means you have to lower your upper body to a small degree to comfortably reach #deca.mare's sides.
  1900. >You would never last long in this pose under natural circumstances; your back would be killing you in minutes.
  1905. >But the simulation is fortunately a more graceful environment.
  1906. >A new tune begins to play, and the line is ready to head out.
  1907. >Or so you think.
  1908. >But a key element is missing.
  1909. >A certain pink pony is no longer next to the gramophone.
  1910. >You look around for Pinkie Pie, yet you cannot find her anywhere.
  1911. >And just a second before you begin to worry, you suddenly feel two hooves grabbing your sides from behind, around midway between your own hips and arms.
  1912. >"Yoink! Heya."
  1913. >Pinkie Pie.
  1914. >The initial surprise of her little action has startled you for a second, but you recover quickly.
  1915. >Similar to what the mare did with #deca.mare, you turn to look at Pinkie.
  1916. >Her head is almost on your eye level, and she is grinning widely at you.
  1917. >"You thought I'd skip a great party line? Never!"
  1918. >And then she gives the sign.
  1919. >"Everypony! Ready, steady, go!"
  1920. >The line begins to move in a trot that is manageable to keep up with.
  1921. >A merry train of ponies, with you right amongst them.
  1922. >Despite being the outlier, they still consider you as one of their own.
  1923. >Hell, even Pinkie thinks you are nothing but a very tall pony.
  1924. >Despite her small reaches beyond the narrative fourth wall, she is clearly not omniscient.
  1925. >However, another pony comes first of course.
  1926. >You observe #deca.mare.
  1927. >She looks mostly composed.
  1928. >Mere innocent physical contact to another pony does not seem to bother her thanks to your intense groundwork over the weeks.
  1929. >Although you can still spot some ripples in her mental fortitude.
  1930. >At least she does not have to actively interact with others, so there is a mitigating factor to it.
  1931. >Using both hands, you rub her sides weakly without letting her go.
  1932. "How about now?"
  1933. >#deca.mare turns her head while trotting.
  1934. >"It will work. The dance was harder for me."
  1935. >You nod.
  1936. >Your pony conga goes on and on.
  1937. >The mood is cheery and everything what one can expect from a party.
  1942. >But you begin to see a pattern in their behaviour.
  1943. >They repeat their actions in certain intervals with only slight variations.
  1944. >It feels artificial.
  1945. >"Hey, you! Anon colt!"
  1946. >Pinkie Pie's voice interrupts that trail of thoughts quickly.
  1947. "Uh, yes?"
  1948. >"You're not having a good time?"
  1949. >You answer before you think.
  1950. "Yeah. Uh, no. I mean, I have."
  1951. >Her head comes a little bit closer.
  1952. >You have no idea how she does it, but she seems almost like an impending menace, despite her friendly pink exterior.
  1953. >No, not menace.
  1954. >A presence of sorts.
  1955. >Imposing, yet not intentionally threatening.
  1956. >Extroverted, but also compassionate.
  1957. >And inquisitive.
  1958. >"Really?"
  1959. "Pinkie..."
  1960. >"No pony shall leave my parties with a frown. This is my Patented Pinkie Pie Party Pony Promise! The clue is in the 'P'."
  1961. >You can feel the determination emanating from her.
  1962. >A party pony does not cut corners when it comes to parties, ever.
  1963. "It's not your fault. I've got a lot of things on my mind."
  1964. >For some reason you do not point out the obvious.
  1965. >Regardless, the pink mare's smile widens knowingly.
  1966. >"Ooooooh. It's your lovebird over there, isn't it? You brought her here to spice things up, hm?"
  1967. >Oh boy, this is a dilemma.
  1968. >The innuendo in Pinkie's words is a minefield of its own.
  1969. >This time you think long and hard before you answer.
  1970. >But you are still pressured.
  1971. "I..."
  1972. >A deadpan voice blocks your attempt to speak up.
  1973. >"I can hear you two, you know?"
  1974. >#deca.mare's dry performance says everything you need to know.
  1975. >She is clearly abashed, and her face must be blushing beyond belief.
  1976. >The fact that she avoids any direct eye contact is another not so subtle hint.
  1981. >Combined with her earlier blush, you understand that #deca.mare does not wish to have Pinkie Pie actively involved in the private aspects of your relationship.
  1982. >At least the deeper ones.
  1983. >You must snicker.
  1984. >Some parts of #deca.mare's emotional state remind you of a juvenile.
  1985. >Her mind and competences are matured, no doubt about that, yet her personal impressions are still very fresh.
  1986. >And now she tries to cover her uncertainty and inexperience.
  1987. >There is no malice or distrust involved; she is simply not yet ready to go that far around others.
  1988. >But #deca.mare is growing under your care, just as you are under hers.
  1989. >Nevertheless, it was Pinkie Pie who steered the conversation into this minefield.
  1990. >And now you think you are pressured to act on that.
  1991. >Fortunately, Pinkie Pie is also willing to take the blow.
  1992. >By laughing.
  1993. >"Don't be silly, silly! It's okay, I wont push you. Cranky has taught me that lesson."
  1994. >You silently thank her for getting you out of the moral frying pan.
  1995. >But Pinkie is Pinkie.
  1996. >And Pinkie does not let ponies get off the hook this easily.
  1997. >"I want you two to enjoy yourselves. A good laughter can do wonders when you are feeling down. Believe me, I know."
  1998. "Yeah, you once sang a song about it."
  1999. >Upon realising what you just did, you freeze for a short moment.
  2000. >You lose your balance as your arm are dragged forward by #deca.mare's trot while Pinkie Pie shoves you from behind.
  2001. >You almost stumble and fall on #deca.mare, but you can regain your footing just in time.
  2002. "Oh crap."
  2003. >Pinkie Pie nods energetically.
  2004. >"That I did! How do you know?"
  2005. >Trapped.
  2006. >Pinned by a simple question.
  2007. >You need a sound explanation, and fast.
  2008. "Do you remember the letters you and your friends sent to Celestia, or the journal you have written about your experiences?"
  2009. >"Uh huh!"
  2010. "Well, they were published in some regions as friendship guides for ponies to learn from your adventures."
  2015. >"They were? I've never heard of that."
  2016. "Because it didn't happen. I just made that up."
  2017. >Pinkie Pie giggles.
  2018. >"I like the idea, Anon. Sounds like a great plan for good party lessons!"
  2019. >Something in your mind makes suddenly click.
  2020. "Pinkie, would you like to sing it? I liked the song."
  2021. >"If you want me to, sure!"
  2022. >She takes a long breath.
  2023. >"When I was a little filly and the sun was going down..."
  2024. >Good, you got her busy for a minute.
  2025. >Now you can fully turn your focus back to #deca.mare.
  2026. >She listened to your whole conversation with Pinkie Pie.
  2027. >And it seems like she is more or less satisfied with your reaction to her feelings.
  2028. >But she has to come out of the shades eventually.
  2029. >You bow your upper body a little bit closer to #deca.mare and begin to gently scratch her ear with a hand.
  2030. >#deca.mare slightly raises her head to make it easier for you.
  2031. >Pinkie Pie is too busy with singing to comment on that.
  2032. >You take a breath.
  2033. "Maybe we should swap places."
  2034. >"Are you sure?"
  2035. "You need to talk a little bit more. I don't want you to feel left out."
  2036. >"I am not, Anon. I am learning much from observing."
  2037. >Fair, but not the whole picture.
  2038. >You smile again.
  2039. "True. Though you can't observe results without a little experimentation, right?"
  2040. >#deca.mare sighs.
  2041. >"Anon,..."
  2042. "Please, give it a shot. We have nothing to lose."
  2043. >You try to nudge her into a certain direction, but you do not put her under pressure.
  2044. >She has to take the step on her own.
  2045. >#deca.mare agrees, albeit reluctantly.
  2046. >And something else happens which you did not foresee.
  2047. >#deca.mare smiles.
  2048. >Subtle, yet smug.
  2049. "Uhm, what's this about?"
  2050. >"I believe you have created a challenge for yourself too, Anon."
  2051. >#deca.mare lets go of the other mare and motions you to take her place.
  2052. >The line stops for a moment.
  2057. >Now it becomes clear what #deca.mare alluded to.
  2058. >You need to touch that other mare in front of you.
  2059. >A complete stranger, as far as you are concerned.
  2060. >And while you know that this is not perceived as immoral during such parties by Equestrian standards, and therefore by extension probably not by #deca.mare's standards as well, it strikes you as inconvenient.
  2061. >You actually begin to blush slightly yourself as you reach out.
  2062. >Subconsciously expecting some form of disaster, you shudder once as your hands make contact with this mare's sides.
  2063. >But the mare in question simply reacts to you as she did to #deca.mare.
  2064. >A friendly glance, and that is the end of it.
  2065. >Though you are still painfully aware where your hands are, as you can feel her fur with both palms.
  2066. >And much to your own surprise, you rwalise her coat feels slightly different than that of #deca.mare.
  2067. >You doubt this has anything to do with her being controlled by an automaton, as that factor does not affect a pony's physical appearance.
  2068. >Do all ponies have unique coats with slightly individual features?
  2069. >Before you can ponder on this question for too long, a very familiar set of forehooves wrap themselves around your sides.
  2070. >#deca.mare whispers in your ear.
  2071. >"Eyes up front, Anon."
  2072. >You look back at her, blushing.
  2073. "I didn't take a look!"
  2074. >#deca.mare winks and sticks out her tongue.
  2075. >"Does not hurt to make sure."
  2076. >Devious.
  2077. >Her implication has injected some uncouth images in your mind.
  2078. >Imagines you did not have before.
  2079. >Another one of #deca.mare's little pranks.
  2080. >However, her sneaky composure is quickly blown away as Pinkie Pie comes to the concluding line of her song.
  2081. >"Laaaauuuuuugh!"
  2082. >She quickly grabs #deca.mare's sides to fall in line.
  2083. >Though #deca.mare is less than pleased by this.
  2084. >In fact, she does react like, well, a startled horse.
  2085. >#deca.mare straight up bucks the air behind her out of sheer instinct while she tightens her grip around your body.
  2090. >The sensation is almost like how it must feel if you get trapped in the iron grasp of a transport unit, whereas Pinkie Pie evades the blow in her typical nonchalant fashion.
  2091. >Pinkie fastens her grip around #deca.mare in turn, and hops into the air.
  2092. >Perfectly timing her jump with the flow of the buck.
  2093. >She is practically riding on #deca.mare's rear for a second.
  2094. >The hooves hit nothing.
  2095. >Pinkie remains attached.
  2096. >A second later, she lands on the ground without a scratch and still in good spirits.
  2097. >#deca.mare on the other hand is not that amused about the surprise.
  2098. >The touch is not so much of a problem; the sudden nature of the action was though.
  2099. >But Pinkie, with a smidgeon of possible empathy in her, notices the mild distress she caused.
  2100. >"Too much?"
  2101. >"Yes, Pinkie. Too much."
  2102. >Pinkie Pie giggles sheepishly with folded ears, aware of her overreach.
  2103. >But when she attempts to retreat her hooves as an apology, she is stopped by #deca.mare.
  2104. >"No. It has happened. Keep them there."
  2105. >Pinkie Pie tilts her head.
  2106. >"Okey dokey. If you're peachy with it."
  2107. >"'Peachy' is not the word I would use."
  2108. >#deca.mare sighs.
  2109. >"But Anon is right and I am willing to try it."
  2110. >"Uh, are you sure? You look a lot like Cranky. Your secret name isn't #deca.mule or something, right?"
  2111. >That was a crass attempt to get casual.
  2112. >You can see #deca.mare in the corner of your vision.
  2113. >Slowly and without a word, she turns her head to Pinkie Pie in a way you have never seen before.
  2114. >It looks awkward.
  2115. >But the message of Pinkie's faux pas gets across.
  2116. >"Eheh, sorry. No jokes, got it. Conga?"
  2117. >"Yes. That would be for the best."
  2118. >A signal from Pinkie, and the train of ponies parties on.
  2119. >This time you solely focus on the conversation behind you.
  2120. >Primarily for the sake of #deca.mare of course, but also to get your mind off the moving flanks before you.
  2121. >Damn, it would have been far less raunchy without #deca.mare's little comment.
  2122. >But you assume she wanted to give you a challenge as well.
  2127. >Casual nudity is something you will see a lot in Equestria.
  2128. >Yet this is currently not a difficult obstacle to pass, as Pinkie begins to chatter with #deca.mare.
  2129. >"Is there anything I can do to pick you up?"
  2130. >"Talk. Just talk, please."
  2131. >"Easy peasy. So, what are you two doing outside your honeymoon travels? I can't tell from your Cutie Marks."
  2132. >You can virtually feel the gears moving in #deca.mare's mind while she is looking for an appropriate answer.
  2133. >But you can quietly help out by sending a message to her through your own thoughts.
  2134. >Even Pinkie will not be able to get into your minds after all.
  2135. >Give her an answer that aligns with her worldview, #deca.
  2136. >Something that is not wrong and what she would understand as a normal pony.
  2137. >You get a reaction.
  2138. >#deca.mare turns her ears to you.
  2139. >She is listening.
  2140. >You go on.
  2141. >Use metaphors if you have to.
  2142. >Some inaccuracies won't matter if they are similar to the truth in a general sense.
  2143. >#deca.mare turns her ears away and subtly nods once.
  2144. >A gesture which Pinkie Pie could have also perceived as a reaction to her own question.
  2145. >"We are... gardeners of sorts. We travel across the world to study, create, and improve the gardens in all the different regions that we find."
  2146. >"Sounds great! So you get around?"
  2147. >"More than you can imagine, Pinkie."
  2148. >"And you have never partied in any other place? I can hardly believe that. I'm not the only party pony in Equestria, you know."
  2149. >"Well, we, no, not we. I have kept largely to myself for a long time."
  2150. >Pinkie Pie's smile beams for some reason.
  2151. >"In the quest for a lover? I take it you aren't a couple for very long when this is your honeymoon."
  2152. >#deca.mare sighs.
  2153. >"Yes."
  2154. >And Pinkie giggles.
  2155. >"See, I was right! I knew you reminded me of him."
  2156. >Another sigh.
  2157. >"Maybe a little bit. But my story did not involve a missed note. Much more than that happened to me."
  2158. >"Soooo, what was it then?"
  2159. >Uh oh.
  2164. >"Sadness and heartbreak."
  2165. >#deca.mare's voice begins to sound dangerously close to deadpan again.
  2166. >You make yourself ready to intervene at any time.
  2167. >"Oh. Do you wish to talk about it?"
  2168. >Silence.
  2169. >"Was it, you know, your fault?"
  2170. >"Depends on who you ask. But my reputation is ruined. Things are... complicated."
  2171. >"I've never heard about that either."
  2172. >Silence, again.
  2173. >There is clearly nothing that #deca.mare can say at this point.
  2174. >Pinkie Pie uses her best empathetic voice.
  2175. >"But whatever happened, it can't be that bad. There's always some joy and fun in for you. All you need to do is to see it."
  2176. >"I doubt my troubles can be solved with a conga line, Pinkie."
  2177. >"Of course not, silly. But it's a start. You need joy the most when you don't think you can feel it anymore."
  2178. >"Well, I..."
  2179. >"And don't fret too much about the past. Everypony makes mistakes. Some smaller, some bigger. But this isn't the end of the world. Don't believe me? I was there when Princess Luna returned. She was celebrated with cheers and a wreath! And cake! Celestia brought lots and lots of cake!"
  2180. >#deca.mare does not try to object anymore.
  2181. >"Imagine that! Lost for a thousand years, comes back as a Black Snootie meanie, and then suddenly, POOF! She's all Luna again and we're all happy!"
  2182. >Pinkie Pie pats #deca.mare on the back as a sign of camaraderie.
  2183. >"You're not a lost case either. I mean, you found a special somepony who cares about you, so what makes you think you're so bad?"
  2184. >"Pinkie, you have no idea what I did!"
  2185. >"Don't have to. You aren't a meanie, and ponies will see that if you give them the chance. You just have to forgive yourself first. Nopony is perfect. And why should you make yourself sad for past mistakes when have learned your lesson and could have fun today instead?"
  2190. >"I heard this advice before."
  2191. >Pinkie Pie giggles.
  2192. >"It's a good one. You should follow it. Your colt is smarter than he seems."
  2193. >#deca.mare jolts once.
  2194. >"How do you know it was him? I never told you that!"
  2195. >"Oh pft, please. You think I can't see why he's the Matilda to your Cranky?"
  2196. >For a second you feel the urge to protest.
  2197. >Nobody has ever called you Matilda before, even when it is just meant as a metaphor.
  2198. >And it somehow feels wrong for you to be associated with a jenny.
  2199. >But at least it is the most creative way you have ever been called an ass, so there is that.
  2200. >"Wasn't hard to figure that out. You're a mare too, not a machine."
  2201. >You do not even try to count how many layers of irony that last statement has dished out.
  2202. >Instead, you quietly bring yourself into the equation with another thought before your mind goes down the rabbit hole.
  2203. >Do you need a moment, #deca?
  2204. >"No, I am fine. Thanks."
  2205. >"What?"
  2206. >"Never mind, Pinkie."
  2207. >"Goody."
  2208. >Pinkie Pie retracts her hooves and leaves the conga line.
  2209. >"Give me a sec, I'm bringing the games. You go and party on in the meantime. Be nice to each other!"
  2210. >And so Pinkie Pie disappears upstairs for the moment.
  2211. >Leaving behind both some food for thought, and the time which #deca.mare needs to ponder on the given advice.
  2212. >You simply walk with the line, take in the atmosphere, and observe how #deca.mare fares.
  2213. >Eventually, she speaks up.
  2214. >"Anon, what do you think?"
  2215. "Well, she isn't wrong. More importantly right now, how are you? Pinkie Pie didn't go softly on you."
  2216. >"I will manage, no worries."
  2217. "Okay. Back to your question then. I think she is right. But we had that conversation many times before."
  2218. >"I know. But you two make it sound so easy."
  2219. "I don't think she meant to, and neither did I. But I've got to admit, the principle behind it really is that simple."
  2224. >"And what do you think of me?"
  2225. "What? As a whole? You know the answer."
  2226. >"No, I meant my performance."
  2227. "Oh, sorry. I think you're slowly getting there, #deca. It was better than the first."
  2228. >"Was I too harsh?"
  2229. "Not for Pinkie Pie, she's used to that. Remember her sisters."
  2230. >"Right."
  2231. "Though we should work on our background story. Your take wasn't bad, but you've seen where it led to."
  2232. >"Indeed. But thanks for your hint, Anon. It helped me a lot."
  2233. >The party goes on.
  2234. >A few minutes later, a certain pony returns, laden with colourful boxes of all sizes.
  2235. >"Grab your games, everypony! We've got all the favourites here!"
  2236. >The conga line slowly breaks apart as the ponies begin to surround Pinkie Pie.
  2237. >#deca.mare and you follow suit.
  2238. >You observe the boxes.
  2239. >The images on their surfaces all depict different types of games.
  2240. >And while you have never seen the boxes in such lively details in the show, you recognise some of the games in the mix, such as 'Pin the Tail on the Pony!'.
  2241. >This presents a challenge to you, as all of them designed for ponies.
  2242. >Which means...
  2243. >Pinkie Pie notices your sudden confusion.
  2244. >"Hey Anon, did an Ursa steal your tongue?"
  2245. "What? No. I was looking at the games, nothing more."
  2246. >"Don't you like them?"
  2247. "Uhm, they aren't what I expected."
  2248. >Pinkie Pie laughs as if she heard the best joke ever.
  2249. >"Oh, don't be goofy! We aren't playing 'those' types of games just because the number of the day is sixty-nine."
  2250. >You wonder whether #deca.mare has left out some key aspects of the Equestrian calendar in her lessons.
  2251. >But a thought crosses your mind.
  2252. >Perhaps it would be better for you to switch over to your temporary pony avatar for the next steps
  2253. >It certainly would make some things easier to deal with.
  2254. "#deca?"
  2255. >"Yes. I agree."
  2256. >#deca.mare gives you a sign.
  2257. >You let yourself fall into her embrace as you close your eyes.
  2258. >And once again, she holds you tight during the process.
  2263. 70
  2265. >You open your eyes again as your alter ego.
  2266. >Apart from your personal perspective, nothing has changed.
  2267. >You are still inside a simulated instance of Sugarcube Corner, and in the safe embrace of #deca.mare.
  2268. >Figuratively and literally.
  2269. >#deca.mare releases you as soon as you are confident enough to stand on your own.
  2270. >The other ponies, including Pinkie Pie, ignore you for the time being.
  2271. >This is probably the work of #deca.mare, but you have not seen her giving any commands.
  2272. >And you can never be sure when Pinkie Pie is involved.
  2273. >But you quickly realise something else.
  2274. >Namely to what extend your current situation differs from all the others in which you used your disguise.
  2275. >You are supposed to interact with the crowd as if you were an actual pony.
  2276. >A simple premise, but it comes with a load of different social norms, clashing with your own personal inhibitions.
  2277. >#deca.mare taps on your shoulder.
  2278. >"We can get you a cape if you need it."
  2279. >Initially tempted to say yes, you eventually decide to refuse.
  2280. "No, don't. It wouldn't be fair if I'd ask you to push yourself without doing the same on my end.
  2281. >"Please do not rush things just because you feel compelled to."
  2282. "Eh, it's alright. Some friendly games shouldn't get too hard to endure, right?"
  2283. >#deca.mare nods.
  2284. >Although a certain energetic mare might pose a challenge.
  2285. >You have seen how eagerly she engages in physical contact, and considering what you have seen of her in the show, this is not a wrong depiction in the slightest.
  2286. >So it could take an awkward turn pretty quickly, even with Pinkie Pie's innocent intentions.
  2287. >Nevertheless, you brace yourself and approach Pinkie again, with #deca.mare following closely.
  2288. >You take a breath as you get closer.
  2289. >Despite your personal doubts, you are having this session to primarily help #deca.mare, not the other way round.
  2290. >And she will most certainly need your guidance.
  2295. >#deca.mare whispers into your ear.
  2296. >"This could actually work in our favour, Anon."
  2297. >You raise an eyebrow.
  2298. >#deca.mare cannot see it from her position, but you know she is aware of it regardless.
  2299. >"Maybe you will be too distracted by taking care of me to notice your lack of clothing most of the time."
  2300. >For a second you think she might not be serious, so you turn around to look #deca.mare directly in the eyes.
  2301. >Though a quick glance reveals her personal uneasiness.
  2302. >You assume she is simply trying to play it cool by reducing the pressure on herself.
  2303. >Which in turn means some additional heat for you.
  2304. >You sigh and take a breath.
  2305. >She is right in a way.
  2306. >You are going to take this particular proverbial bullet for #deca.mare's sake.
  2307. >And when this means to deflect attention from her when she needs it the most, so be it.
  2308. >It is a small price to pay.
  2309. >The two of you reach the crowd.
  2310. >You blend in carefully, clearing enough space between the ponies for #deca.mare and you to stand side by side, while also trying to not have any major physical contact with the ponies around you.
  2311. >And you succeed for the most part.
  2312. >Yet whenever you even slightly touch the coat of another pony who is not #deca.mare, you flinch for a second.
  2313. >But the bystander ponies do not visibly register your unusual behaviour, and Pinkie Pie is still busy unpacking all sorts of games.
  2314. >Aforementioned 'Pin the Tail on the Pony!' aside, the collection includes everything from additional casual party games for all to enjoy at the same time, up to board games with smaller groups in mind.
  2315. >Given that you two are the only ones with actual leverage, you consider what would suit your needs.
  2316. >Or rather, what suits #deca.mare's needs.
  2317. >Sure, you could also let Pinkie Pie decide, but you would rather do it yourself.
  2318. >So you evaluate the positive aspects of each choice.
  2323. >Smaller groups create a smaller general audience, which is good.
  2324. >But they also lead to a situation where #deca.mare cannot simply blend into the crowd to lower her profile if necessary.
  2325. >And you would bet an entire month's worth of pay in credits that Pinkie Pie will find a way to sit on a table with you.
  2326. >However, if you participate in the pinning game or similar ones, it comes with its own set of drawbacks.
  2327. >#deca.mare might then be able to blend into the crowd most of the time.
  2328. >Yet she will quickly become the only centre of attention when it is her turn to play.
  2329. >Unless she decides to fully hide herself, which would completely defeat the point.
  2330. >You sigh yet again.
  2331. "I'm sorry, #deca. But I can't make this choice for you."
  2332. >You can tell she would have liked to hear something else, but she understands why you hesitate to decide for her.
  2333. >"I think a smaller group is better."
  2334. "You sure? Our pink friend here will be onto us in a matter of minutes."
  2335. >"True. But we have survived this before, did we not?"
  2336. "Last time you tried to kick her off you, #deca."
  2337. >Silence.
  2338. "Never mind. We do it your way. Shall I give her a signal?"
  2339. >"Yes, thank you, Anon."
  2340. >You turn to Pinkie.
  2341. "Hey Pinkie, do you have a board game for us?"
  2342. >"What flavour?"
  2343. "Something easy to get into?"
  2344. >"Ah, a beginner's game for you and your companion?"
  2345. "Bingo, Pinkie."
  2346. >"Not the game I thought of, Anon. But here, take this instead!"
  2347. >Before you can ask what her first comment was supposed to mean, you see a box merrily flying your way.
  2348. >You try to adapt to its trajectory in order to catch it, yet not fast enough.
  2349. >The box leaves your vision on its flight above your head.
  2350. >And lands safely on your back with a weak thump.
  2351. >No, do not question how.
  2352. >This is Pinkie magic at work, just take it for what it is.
  2353. >You carefully turn around and head for the nearest table, always minding the box on your back.
  2354. >The box tilts a few times, but it never falls off.
  2359. >You make it to the table without letting the box fall and shuffle the game on its surface.
  2360. >#deca.mare stands right behind you.
  2361. "A little help would have been nice, #deca."
  2362. >"Maybe, but it was a good exercise for you, was it not? You managed it quite well."
  2363. >She has a point there.
  2364. >So instead of trying to argue further with #deca.mare, you inspect the box.
  2365. >It is a board game you have never seen before.
  2366. >So much for knowing the rules.
  2367. >Although Pinkie Pie was right.
  2368. >The game does not look overly complex.
  2369. >It consists of one large board, a set of dice, and some small pony figurines which are supposed to be moved around the board.
  2370. >The baseline concept is trivial and almost universally known; you are unfamiliar with the specific rules of this particular game though.
  2371. >#deca.mare notices your thoughts.
  2372. >"Anon, you forget something. I know every Equestrian game which was ever invented. I think I can help you out."
  2373. >Right, makes sense.
  2374. >No game could be here without #deca.mare's knowledge.
  2375. >And so you move your table back into its original position and begin to unpack the board with all the figurines and dice.
  2376. >Other groups of ponies do similar things with their respective games.
  2377. >Thanks to the previous lessons, you can easily help #deca.mare with the finer parts of the work as well, albeit a little slower than you are used to.
  2378. >Hooves can never fully replace hands after all, especially when you have learned to rely on the latter from the very beginning.
  2379. >Shortly thereafter, you are busy with the finishing touches.
  2380. >You raise your head to look around.
  2381. >Pinkie Pie is nearby.
  2382. >She shows up at your table with another mare.
  2383. >You do not know her name, yet you know she is one of the flower trio.
  2384. >She has a pink coat, a smidgeon darker than Pinkie, blond hair, and light golden eyes.
  2385. >Her Cutie Mark is a set of three flowers, identical to the one she is wearing in her mane, right next to her ear.
  2386. >"Hey you two! Mind if we join? The game's best played with four."
  2391. >You look at #deca.mare.
  2392. >She nods.
  2393. >You turn back to the other two.
  2394. "Come and make yourselves comfortable. We've just set everything up."
  2395. >Pinkie Pie and the other mare grab one cushion each and sit down.
  2396. >You wait and see whether #deca.mare will take the initiative.
  2397. >Yet she remains silent for the time being.
  2398. >"Hey, Anon! Is it just me, or did you shrink in the last minutes?"
  2399. "Huh?"
  2400. >"I could have sworn you were bigger the first time I saw you. Say, you aren't a changeling, are you?"
  2401. >Pinkie Pie's expression hardens.
  2402. >Well, temporary shapeshifting does not turn one into a changeling, right?
  2403. >So...
  2404. "I don't think so, no."
  2405. >"Pinkie Promise?"
  2406. >Oh boy, you are in for it.
  2407. "Yes. I, Anon, am not a changeling. Pinkie Promise."
  2408. >Pinkie Pie returns back to her normal attitude and smiles.
  2409. >"Great!"
  2410. >Phew, that was close.
  2411. >At least she did not ask you whether you are a pony or not.
  2412. >For some reason you doubt you would have enough courage to break a Pinkie Promise, even when it is not the real Pinkie you deal with.
  2413. >Anyway, you need to address something else before Pinkie Pie finds the next apocalyptic discussion topic.
  2414. "Don't you want to introduce the fourth in our little round?"
  2415. >"Oh! Right! Lily Valley, this is Anon and #deca.mare. #deca.mare and Anon, this is Lily Valley. She's a florist here in Ponyville."
  2416. >The mare smiles with a little restraint.
  2417. >She too seems to be a rather soft type, albeit nowhere near the level of #deca.mare's social inhibitions.
  2418. >"Hello, everypony."
  2419. >#deca.mare and you answer almost simultaneously.
  2420. "Hello, Lily."
  2421. >"Hello, Lily."
  2422. >Not the smoothest performance, but good enough.
  2423. >Pinkie Pie goes on.
  2424. >"I figured you might want to know her after what you've told me about your gardening thingy. Common bonds and all that, am I right?"
  2425. >Lily's ears perk up.
  2426. >"You two are professional gardeners? Oh goodness! You've got to tell me all about it!"
  2427. >And here you are.
  2428. >Pinkie Pie did it again.
  2433. >You wonder whether you will ever see #deca.mare's body deflating like a balloon.
  2434. >But if there is a chance, then moments like this one would be the best occasion for it.
  2435. >Then again, you are not far away from doing the same either.
  2436. >One of you must act now if you want to keep the conversation going.
  2437. >The problem is, #deca.mare has the knowledge, but not the adequate confidence for a very long conversation in a group.
  2438. >And you can survive the chatter, but with barely any knowledge about professional gardening to work with in turn.
  2439. >While it is true that #deca.mare has taught you some things already, your whole botanical experience is limited to a few lines of planted seeds on a field, and some basic education in biology.
  2440. >Not enough to keep up with a mare who has worked as a florist for probably her entire adult life.
  2441. >Your thoughts rush as you analyse the situation.
  2442. >There is something you have to do if the session shall not break apart.
  2443. >You think back to the moment in which you have sent #deca.mare a message through your thoughts.
  2444. >Maybe you can somehow use this here too.
  2445. >An interesting concept forms in your mind.
  2446. >Perhaps you could...
  2447. >First things first though.
  2448. >You need to buy some time.
  2449. "Alright, we can talk during the game. But someone needs to explain the rules first. I've never played it before."
  2450. >#deca.mare looks at you with a doubtful expression.
  2451. >You assume she is not happy with your liberally made promises.
  2452. >She knows the delay will not avert the inevitable.
  2453. >And this time it is her who freezes the simulation.
  2454. >Just when Pinkie Pie wants to cite the rules.
  2455. >You need a second before you understand why everything has suddenly become static.
  2456. "#deca? What's the problem?"
  2457. >"Anon, do you think this was wise? I think your promise was poorly thought through to be honest. You put us in a tricky situation."
  2462. "I had to do something to keep the conversation going, #deca."
  2463. >"But this is more than a simple performance or charade, Anon. What you intend to do requires a complete and cohesive narrative. Lily Valley will ask things. Specific things. We cannot use simple allegories on her."
  2464. >You wrap a limb around #deca.mare.
  2465. "Look, if you think I went too far with my..."
  2466. >"No, not that either. I fully understand why you did it."
  2467. "Then what's the issue?"
  2468. >"I am unsure how we can solve this situation without halting the simulation after every question."
  2469. "Well, we could do that if you want to. There's no shame in asking, #deca. This is our trial run, remember?"
  2470. >"Still, it does not sit well with me. I want to learn to be more spontaneous. To develop. You see?"
  2471. "That's the point of it all, #deca."
  2472. >"Yes, I know. But it still looks like it so far away."
  2473. "Give it some time while we go over the basics first."
  2474. >You smile.
  2475. "And maybe you have given me an idea as well, #deca. Remember when I gave you some hints previously?"
  2476. >"Of course."
  2477. "Do you think you could do the same for me?"
  2478. >"You mean like sending a message without saying anything?"
  2479. "Yeah."
  2480. >Absolutely no problem, Anon.
  2481. "What? Where did that come from?"
  2482. >#deca.mare tilts her head.
  2483. >You heard her voice like it was coming from everywhere and nowhere at once.
  2484. >Yet it also comes with a certain risk because of the intensified link between us, Anon. Similar to what happens when you can borrow my knowledge.
  2485. "I swear this is confusing."
  2486. >"Another reason why I prefer the mundane way of talking."
  2491. "But maybe we can use that to our advantage. Do you think you can keep these channels open for the conversation? We could use this as a way of silent communication."
  2492. >Well, technically not silent as you both hear each other, but never mind that.
  2493. >#deca.mare's eyes widen.
  2494. >"This is risky, Anon. Even I cannot say when we might accidentally push too far."
  2495. "You said it isn't dangerous, right?"
  2496. >"Like I said, it will not leave any long term damage. But I cannot imagine it to be pleasant for you to go through if it happens. Though this is naturally not an experience I can relate to personally."
  2497. >Right, no biological brain and all that.
  2498. >"But imagine a small fraction of my thought processes accidentally leaking into your mind due to the close bond between us. It can force your own thoughts to go haywire for a short-lived fit."
  2499. "How likely is the chance?"
  2500. >"I have no way to know for sure. I will try my best to avoid it, but I cannot guarantee anything with certainty. So the best forecast I can make is 'not likely'."
  2501. "Do it, #deca."
  2502. >"Are you sure, Anon? I do not want you to suffer."
  2503. "Then let me say this right here and now. If we have bad luck and things do go wrong, I won't blame you for it. You've warned me three times now. I take the risk willingly."
  2504. >#deca.mare sighs.
  2505. >"Understood, Anon."
  2506. >After another short break, you give the order to resume the simulation.
  2507. >Pinkie reacts to it once more.
  2508. >"Brr! There it was again! Did anypony feel it?"
  2509. >#deca.mare, Lily, and you shrug almost in unison.
  2510. >So Pinkie Pie drops the topic and returns to explaining the rules to you.
  2511. >They are almost as you would have expected them to be.
  2512. >You use your dice to determine how far your figure can move on the map drawn on the board, and depending on where it ends up, something might happen.
  2513. >Simple, yet entertaining.
  2514. >Everone picks a coloured figurine and places it on the starting field.
  2515. >#deca.mare speaks up.
  2516. >"Clockwise rotation? We toss two dice each. The highest number starts."
  2521. >Pinkie and Lily agree, and so do you.
  2522. >But you have not determined who throws first.
  2523. >"Hey, Anon colt! You've got the dice over there. Show us what you've got!"
  2524. >This is exactly what you hoped to avoid, as you would have preferred to see how the ponies around you do it.
  2525. >You know you have seen it somewhere in the show, but you currently cannot remember exactly how they used them.
  2526. >So which one is it, hooves or mouth?
  2527. >Hooves, Anon.
  2528. "What?"
  2529. >Pinkie thinks you mean her.
  2530. >"The dice, silly. You know, the squares with numbers?"
  2531. >#deca.mare chimes in to correct her.
  2532. >"Cubes, actually."
  2533. >Pinkie shrugs with a smile.
  2534. >"Same difference. And now you sound like Twilight."
  2535. >"I heard this one before."
  2536. >"You said this already."
  2537. >"What?"
  2538. >"You're repeating yourself."
  2539. >"I do?"
  2540. >"Uh huh! It's okay though. Nopony is perfect."
  2541. >"Not so fast. What did I repeat?"
  2542. >"I heard this one before."
  2543. >"Which one?"
  2544. >"That one."
  2545. >"Pardon me, I believe I do not understand."
  2546. >"I heard this one before."
  2547. >"You are repeating yourself."
  2548. >"That's what I said!"
  2549. >Meanwhile, you use this unexpected distraction to fumble with a pair of dice.
  2550. >It is not as simple as holding a box with seeds, but you eventually manage to get a grip on them while Pinkie Pie has dragged #deca.mare into this confused loop.
  2551. >You toss the dice.
  2552. >Both to be over with it and to release #deca.mare from this conversation.
  2553. >All three mares look at the rolling dice on the table.
  2554. >You get an eight.
  2555. >Not too shabby.
  2556. "Next."
  2557. >Eager to escape advanced Pinkie Pie rhetoric, #deca.mare is more than happy to grab the two little things.
  2558. >Much to your surprise, she only rolls a five.
  2559. >Odd, you expected her to fare better, given her precise body control and creative freedom inside the simulation.
  2560. >The discussion must have rattled her focus a little bit.
  2565. >You inspect her closely.
  2566. >Despite being affected by Pinkie Pie's rather straightforward manners, she shows no signs of imminent distress.
  2567. >So far, so well.
  2568. >Nothing to worry about for as long as she keeps herself together.
  2569. >Pinkie rolls.
  2570. >An eight.
  2571. >Why oh why are you not surprised?
  2572. >Unless Lily scores higher, you have to face Pinkie Pie directly in another round.
  2573. >And the game has not even begun yet.
  2574. >Fortunately for you though, you get another short period of grace as the unexpected happens.
  2575. >Lily trumps you all with a twelve.
  2576. >"Haha! Lucky!"
  2577. >The florist mare practically beams with delight.
  2578. >Now you fully realise what you technically knew all along.
  2579. >"Lily Valley" is controlled by an automaton, just as all the others.
  2580. >Including Pinkie Pie, of course.
  2581. >And so all of them have the same theoretical potential.
  2582. >Just because she is not as overtly messing with reality as Pinkie Pie, does not mean she has no potential herself.
  2583. >Sure, this one dice roll could have been lucky in theory, like a good shot of a random number generator, but you somehow doubt that inside this particular situation.
  2584. >Pinkie Pie is here, and she wants to make friends and spread fun.
  2585. >And there is no such thing as simple luck involved when Pinkie Pie is with you.
  2586. >You will not put it past her to indirectly affect Lily with her presence.
  2587. >After all, this is what an aura does.
  2588. >You assume everything is calculated precisely, even when neither Pinkie nor Lily are actively aware of it.
  2589. >So you could not even call it cheating should a pony roll a perfect score when it happens to further the larger picture.
  2590. >Your game is only secondary in comparison to the reason why you are here in the first place.
  2591. >The system will naturally attempt to make things look realistic, but there are only so many patterns a closed system can create.
  2592. >Similar to what you have witnessed in the conga line, you will see repetitions or other immersion breaking moments if you keep at it long enough.
  2597. >And while Lily herself may have less of a clear personality due to her limited screen time in the show, she can still act more or less like any other pony.
  2598. >Or at least as close as automatons can emulate one.
  2599. >And so she can potentially surprise you in a more subtle manner.
  2600. >Though the same is less likely true for #deca.mare.
  2601. >Without that special leeway of Pinkie, Lily by herself can barely act in a way which could catch #deca.mare off guard.
  2602. >Yet Pinkie Pie may distract #deca.mare enough to make her overlook a few minor details.
  2603. >In other words, #deca.mare should be able to read Lily like a book, unless Pinkie acts like the wildcard she is.
  2604. >The question is, how much do Pinkie and Lily cooperate, if at all?
  2605. >In any case, she is perhaps a good addition to the team regardless; her more polite attitude may dampen Pinkie's pretty lively outbursts.
  2606. >You hope that this alone will grant #deca.mare some respite now and then.
  2607. >Lily Valley grabs the dice again.
  2608. >While she prepares to throw the dice, you check the order of the game.
  2609. >You have agreed on #deca.mare's suggestion to go clockwise based on the seating order.
  2610. >That means Lily Valley starts, followed by you, then #deca.mare, and lastly, Pinkie Pie.
  2611. >You find it hard to say whether this sequence will have any particular effect on the game as a whole.
  2612. >There is only one way to find out.
  2613. >Throw the dice and see what happens.
  2614. >And this is exactly what Lily Valley does.
  2619. 71
  2621. >Lily Valley scores a seven.
  2622. >Not a maximum roll like the last, but this does not say much in itself.
  2623. >The rules of the game do not necessarily favour endless high rolls; much depends on which field a figurine ends up, as they all have different effects which may or may not form a synergy with other field effects.
  2624. >The circumstances cannot easily be broken down to singular turns.
  2625. >It is the entirety of the game process which determines who reaches the goal first.
  2626. >Reaching the goal means one point for the player, and then the loop starts anew.
  2627. >The default winning score is three points.
  2628. >Plus, there are different pathways that branch out now and then, further complicating a clear forecast of which choice might be the best under what circumstances.
  2629. >Lily Valley moves her figurine forwards.
  2630. >A clear field, no effect yet.
  2631. >She offers you the dice and addresses you while doing so.
  2632. >"So, Pinkie said you two are travelling gardeners?"
  2633. >Lily is probing the field carefully.
  2634. >Though her gaze is clearly fixated on you, and only you.
  2635. >In fact, you notice how she studies your frame closely since this is the first time she gets to inspect you directly.
  2636. >Inquisitive and somehow piercing, but not with the same pressing force that her party pony counterpart can muster.
  2637. >Pinkie kept your mind focussed when she had you hooked, leaving you very little time to think about anything else.
  2638. >But watching Lily study you does make you feel slightly flustered.
  2639. >The table is fortunately blocking her view on your more delicate parts.
  2640. >This makes you wonder for the fraction of a second how much weight simply studying someone might have within pony society.
  2641. >It surely cannot mean as much as you are used to think of it, given how easy ponies can catch a fleeting glance of practically almost anyone with ease.
  2642. >You figure that Lily has nothing shady in mind.
  2647. >Nevertheless, you feel a slight blush coming your way under her friendly scrutiny.
  2648. >Mostly because you realise how different it feels when a pony other than #deca.mare is studying you actively, and how anyone can do the same from anywhere at any given moment.
  2649. >And no way to hide with conventional means.
  2650. >Anon.
  2651. >That was #deca.mare's voice, coming from somewhere within your head.
  2652. >Just your name is enough to bring your mind back on track for the time being.
  2653. >So you muster the discipline to keep stray thoughts at bay and focus on what you should do next.
  2654. >You can tell that Lily is somewhat excited to talk about her expertise, despite her attempts to hide it.
  2655. >Though you also know how passionate she can be when it comes to flowers.
  2656. >Plus, you are aware of her tendency to overreact with her other two friends when something disturbs their profession.
  2657. >Hopefully you can get through that conversation without causing her to faint.
  2658. >And it seems like you have to make the first step.
  2659. >Ignore your own botanical inexperience for now.
  2660. >Start to talk and see what happens.
  2661. "That's right."
  2662. >You take the dice.
  2663. >"Can you tell me some stories? Where have you been? What have you done? Have you visited some exciting gardens? What are your favourite flowers?"
  2664. "That's much at once."
  2665. >You roll.
  2666. >A nine.
  2667. >You move the figurine accordingly as you rummage through your brain.
  2668. "We've been around, that's for sure. And I've seen a lot. Grasslands, forests, deserts, you name it."
  2669. >You land on an effect field.
  2670. >You go on as you look up what happens.
  2671. "But I'm admittedly the new guy here. #deca.mare has brought me into this thing. She picked me up when I was in a rough spot. It wasn't that long ago, though we've been travelling together ever since."
  2672. >Pinkie Pie's knowing grin grows with every word you say.
  2673. >You just hope she does not make another song and dance about it.
  2674. >You find the effect in question.
  2679. >Cursed Triplets: If your roll is three or divisible by three (whole numbers), skip the next round.
  2680. >Ouch.
  2681. >You pass the dice to #deca.mare.
  2682. >She speaks up hesitantly as she rolls.
  2683. >"This is true. I am teaching Anon on the road and he helps me out with... everything that needs to be done at the moment. He is a great help for me."
  2684. >#deca.mare rolls an eight.
  2685. >"The Quick Paint Bucket: Your figurine can swap places with another figurine within three fields. One use and in this round only. You are immune to any effects during this round."
  2686. >She looks at you.
  2687. >"Sorry, Anon."
  2688. >#deca.mare replaces your figurine with hers and sets yours one field back.
  2689. >You shrug.
  2690. "A game is a game."
  2691. >Pinkie's turn.
  2692. >"This will be the best round ever!"
  2693. >A two.
  2694. >"Ah, shoot!"
  2695. >But she gains a pretty decent effect.
  2696. >Stumbler's Luck: If your next roll is between seven and five, gain two additional movement points. If you roll four or lower, double your value.
  2697. >And so the dice return back to Lily for the second round.
  2698. >"So where have you been?"
  2699. >Lily's attention now rests on #deca.mare.
  2700. >"Too many places to list them all. But rest assured, I know most of the famous places in Equestria. And some beyond."
  2701. >"You have been beyond Equestria?"
  2702. >"Well, sort of."
  2703. >"What do you mean?"
  2704. >"How do I put it..."
  2705. >You chime in.
  2706. "Let's say she's shown me some places so remote that they're on no official maps."
  2707. >Lily looks surprised.
  2708. >"You make it sound like a super secret, Anon."
  2709. "Not really. They're just outside the grid as you know it. I mean, we once travelled through some dusty plains with our, uhm, cart. We wanted to find a special place to found a new garden."
  2710. >Now you have the attention of both mares on you.
  2711. >That does not make anything better.
  2712. >Maybe you have a dug a pit for yourself with this little anecdote.
  2713. >Lily is the one who asks as she rolls.
  2714. >"How did it turn out?"
  2715. >You need to improvise to get out of that hole again.
  2720. "Turned out to be a dry and mostly barren place. It would take ages to get anything to grow there."
  2721. >A four for Lily.
  2722. >"And what was your favourite so far?"
  2723. "I don't have one yet. I've spent most of my previous life in confined spaces."
  2724. >Lily looks aghast at hearing this.
  2725. >"You can't be serious. You've spent no time in nature?"
  2726. "Apart from some brief and rare vacations, no."
  2727. >Lily Valley gasps.
  2728. >"Not even potted plants?"
  2729. >Do hydroponic decks count?
  2730. "Barely. The ones I know of were exclusively used to grow food."
  2731. >"This is horrendous! A pony shouldn't live a life without plants. #deca.mare did the right thing when she took you with her."
  2732. >Not exactly how it all played out, but never mind.
  2733. "Yeah."
  2734. >Lily gains an effect.
  2735. >Small Checklist: When you roll a four or lower, you can reroll one die. Two uses.
  2736. >You have to skip, so it is #deca.mare's turn.
  2737. >"#deca.mare?"
  2738. >"Yes, Lily?"
  2739. >"From botanist to gardener, what plants do you like the most?"
  2740. >#deca.mare flinches and almost loses her grip on the dice.
  2741. >"That is hard to say."
  2742. >"Why?"
  2743. >"Because I rather prefer to list, analyse, and categorise them. I have no strict take on personal taste."
  2744. >"But you must have worked with many different plants, no? Hundreds, maybe even thousands?"
  2745. >"Easily, yes."
  2746. >"And you never liked some more than others? Not even a tiny bit?"
  2747. >"No. Some were more tricky to work with than others, but that never affected my personal opinion of any of them."
  2748. >Lily tilts her head in confusion.
  2749. >"You're a strange bunch."
  2750. >#deca.mare's ears perk up.
  2751. >"We are?"
  2752. >"A gardener without personal favourites and an apprentice who never has been around plants before. I've never heard of anything like it."
  2753. >You look at #deca.mare.
  2754. >Her expression looks like she is considering whether she has blown your cover or not.
  2755. >Let's go with it, #deca.
  2756. >There is nothing lost yet.
  2757. >Just let us deflect, and then you turn the tables by asking her something in return.
  2758. >#deca.mare nods faintly.
  2763. "I figure we all have our own ways, Lily."
  2764. >#deca.mare rolls.
  2765. >A six.
  2766. >"So what is your favourite thing about plants? Your name suggests you like lilies?"
  2767. >"Oh where to begin? Of course I like them, but that's far from everything."
  2768. >#deca.mare lands on a clear field with no effect.
  2769. >Her attention is still on Lily Valley.
  2770. >"It was just a guess of mine, you know?"
  2771. >Lily Valley laughs.
  2772. >"Just because I was named after one tribe doesn't mean I can't enjoy other things as well. Ask Roseluck, it's the same for her. She always has a small plot for growing cacti."
  2773. >#deca.mare passes the dice to Pinkie Pie.
  2774. >She seizes the opportunity to talk.
  2775. >"Lily and her two best friends are real flower lovers! I know nopony who pours more love into their beds than them."
  2776. >Lily laughs coyly.
  2777. >"Thanks, Pinkie."
  2778. >"You should have seen them after the bunny stampede! You can't fake these feelings."
  2779. >"Please, don't remind me."
  2780. >You know of course what they refer to, but you play the ignorant role anyway.
  2781. "May I ask what happened?"
  2782. >Lily closes her eyes.
  2783. >"An unfortunate accident. Applejack has one day unintentionally driven a large group of bunnies into Ponyville. The hungry little fur balls have eaten everything they found."
  2784. "Sounds bad."
  2785. >"It was awful! But I can't blame them. The bunnies just did what they're used to, and Fluttershy did everything in her power to help us."
  2786. >There is an opportunity here, #deca.
  2787. >She understands.
  2788. >"Excuse me, who is Fluttershy?"
  2789. >"Our local animal caretaker. She knows her way around animals."
  2790. >"Ah, I see."
  2791. >#deca.mare sighs, and Lily notices it.
  2792. >"#deca.mare? Is everything alright?"
  2793. >"Yes. Your story reminded me of something that happened to myself. An unintentional accident as well."
  2794. >Pinkie Pie looks up.
  2795. >"You mean the reason why you're travelling on the road now?"
  2796. >#deca.mare hesitates.
  2797. >"Yes."
  2798. >You look at this development with considerable concern.
  2799. >For some reason it always comes back to this haunted issue.
  2804. >Though you understand this is not #deca.mare's fault.
  2805. >It is no wonder that her bad memories pop up every time someone mentions events of the past, as these moments incite active self-reflection.
  2806. >Naturally the simulation will attempt to further this sentiment once it is raised, as that is a common development in natural conversations.
  2807. >Then it is just a question of how strong the blow is going to get.
  2808. >And you have to do everything to lessen the impact if possible.
  2809. >Of course Lily has to ask the question.
  2810. >"What happened?"
  2811. >You feel tempted to curse aloud.
  2812. >#deca.mare does not need this kind of stress twice in her very first interactive session.
  2813. >Although Lily Valley has probably understood that she stepped on thin ice right upon asking this.
  2814. "Please let us change the subject."
  2815. >"Oh my. That bad?"
  2816. "Let's say your equivalent would be watching a garden burn down to the ground."
  2817. >That got her.
  2818. >Your statement has brought Lily Valley close to fainting herself.
  2819. >You did not try to hurt or shock her in any manner, but you needed to be frank and direct to get the point across.
  2820. >But just before the whole conversation could have tilted completely, you hear a loud cheer from Pinkie Pie.
  2821. >"Aha! Stop moping and look this!"
  2822. >Pinkie has rolled a twelve.
  2823. >Even though she could not capitalise on her field effect, she immediately receives the next bonus.
  2824. >Small Mirror: When another player uses an effect, you can mirror it. You are immune to all other effects during this round. One use.
  2825. >Perhaps it was just what the conversation needed, as nobody seems keen to pick it up where you left.
  2826. >And now to the third round, starting once again with Lily.
  2827. >She rolls in careful silence.
  2828. >A two.
  2829. >She shakes her head and uses one reroll to turn it into a four.
  2830. >Another clear field.
  2831. >Just as you take the dice, Pinkie Pie speaks up again.
  2836. >"You need to brighten up, everypony. We are here to have fun, remember?"
  2837. "Pinkie, it isn't that simple."
  2838. >But she has none of this now.
  2839. >"Doooot. Wrong, Anon. It is that simple. A party means you shall live in the present."
  2840. >#deca.mare replies.
  2841. >"So what is your suggestion?"
  2842. >"Live now, smile, be happy. Simple as that."
  2843. >An eleven for you, and a effect.
  2844. >Sailor's Tailwind: You can add another five movement points to any of your rolls. Field effects apply. One use.
  2845. >Seeing that this would get you on a clear field, you do not use it outright and pass on the dice.
  2846. >#deca, I have an idea.
  2847. >Try talking to Lily again, but this time make sure to steer clear of the past.
  2848. >But how?
  2849. >You know how.
  2850. >Anon?
  2851. >Lily is not Pinkie.
  2852. >You know how she will react to the things you do.
  2853. >I thought a scripted conversation is exactly what we wanted to avoid, Anon.
  2854. >Yes, but let this be an exception for now.
  2855. >It is our first session, #deca.
  2856. >Maybe we should cut ourselves some slack, right?
  2857. >#deca.mare nods in agreement, and Pinkie Pie reacts to her gesture.
  2858. >"Why do you keep nodding all the time? Do you have a little helper in your ear?"
  2859. >#deca.mare's ears droop.
  2860. >"Uhm, no?"
  2861. >Pinkie snickers.
  2862. >"Just kidding."
  2863. >#deca.mare takes a breath and turns back to Lily.
  2864. >"Maybe we should start anew. I did not want to disturb you with my antics. Things simply were not always easy for me."
  2865. >Lily Valley nods.
  2866. >"Of course, I understand. Can I help you somehow?"
  2867. >"Not really. But please let us stay in the present. Pinkie Pie is right in this matter."
  2868. >"I think I can do that."
  2869. >"Thank you."
  2870. >"So where were we? Ah yes, you asked about my favourite things about plants. There are so many to choose from at once. Well, of course I like lilies, for starters. They're my namesake after all. But all plants are fascinating in their own ways. For example, have you ever heard of..."
  2871. >And so Lily goes on with reciting everything what comes to her mind.
  2876. >#deca.mare listens intently.
  2877. >Not because Lily could tell her anything she does not already know, but rather because she is training herself to listen while other things happen around her which she does not control directly herself.
  2878. >This leaves you somewhere in between.
  2879. >You are partially listening to Lily Valley explanations because you are interested, yet you are also observing #deca.mare at the same time.
  2880. >Luckily, #deca.mare seems pretty calm.
  2881. >Good.
  2882. >And you notice something that is both peculiar and funny.
  2883. >#deca.mare's thrown dice result in a score of six, and she moves her figurine correctly across the board without looking at either the dice or the board itself.
  2884. >She must have split just enough attention to follow this development.
  2885. >But neither Pinkie nor Lily says something.
  2886. >You keep quiet too for obvious reasons.
  2887. >Field number twenty-one being a blank makes things even easier.
  2888. >The game goes on.
  2889. >From time to time, #deca.mare responds to Lily Valley's opinions.
  2890. >Plus, she does it with a botanical competence which erases any possible doubts someone could ever have about #deca.mare's qualifications.
  2891. >As an added bonus, you can learn some things about flowers too.
  2892. >And although you contribute not all that much to the conversation as a whole, you regularly check on #deca.mare's mental state via direct means.
  2893. >You give a short mental ping, and #deca.mare quickly reaffirms her readiness to proceed, thanks to your continuous support.
  2894. >Your very presence is a positive anchor for her; she admits that she could bear none of this without you.
  2895. >So far so good.
  2896. >The mood is amiable and starts to become a little bit personal, at least on the surface.
  2897. >You cannot exactly tell how much time has passed or how many turns you have gone through, yet at some point you wonder what Pinkie Pie is up to.
  2898. >She has been very quiet during all of this.
  2899. >Very atypical.
  2900. >You look at Pinkie Pie.
  2901. >And much to your personal discomfort, you watch her watching you.
  2906. >Pinkie does this whenever she is not rolling.
  2907. >Her look is friendly and hearty.
  2908. >Just as always.
  2909. >Yet with an unexpected curiosity.
  2910. >And she is doing so in total silence.
  2911. >You are once again grateful that most of your exposed body is blocked form her view by a table, but her unusual behaviour unnerves you greatly.
  2912. >Even enough to address her while Lily is talking to #deca.mare.
  2913. "Pinkie?"
  2914. >Maybe she wants you to say more, given your sparse apparent contribution to the conversation.
  2915. >"Oh nothing! I'm only super excited to see you enjoying the party!"
  2916. >Alright, this was unexpected, but still reasonable.
  2917. >So what is this about?
  2918. "Well, you looked like you wanted to say something."
  2919. >Pinkie Pie tilts her head.
  2920. >"Really? Why?"
  2921. "I thought you might think I'd feel left out or something because these two are doing most of the talking."
  2922. >"Do you?"
  2923. >You look at #deca.mare.
  2924. >She seems to be fairly content with her botanical discussion for as long as it does not contain personal nuances.
  2925. >And she gives you another nod.
  2926. "Not really. I'm fine the way it is."
  2927. >"Are you sur..."
  2928. >Pinkie Pie suddenly shivers.
  2929. >It comes as a total surprise, both for you and #deca.mare.
  2930. >In fact, she even interrupts her conversation with Lily to see what is going on.
  2931. >Anon, what did you do?
  2932. >You give no answer to #deca.mare's question.
  2933. >She is very well aware of your own confusion.
  2934. >Then you understand.
  2935. >Pinkie's special sense is tingling.
  2936. >You need an emergency rundown.
  2937. >#deca, what does this combination mean?
  2938. >Insight, Anon.
  2939. >Pinkie Pie got an idea.
  2940. >And #deca.mare's evaluation proves to be correct as Pinkie Pie raises her voice after the... seizure?
  2941. >"Anon, you're a genius!"
  2942. "Uh, me? What did I do?"
  2943. >"You gave me a great idea!"
  2944. >At least she shows no signs of being able to read your mind.
  2945. >Pinkie Pie turns around to address the crowd.
  2946. >"Everypony, the next game will be 'Pin the Tail on the Pony!', so get ready when you're through with your matches!"
  2951. >And of course, there is not a single voice of dissent in the crowd.
  2952. >Oh damn, from small groups straight up to a single large one.
  2953. >This is going way too fast.
  2954. >Perhaps you can convince her to reconsider.
  2955. "That's your idea?"
  2956. >Pinkie Pie shakes her head.
  2957. >"Nope, that's the result."
  2958. "So what was it?"
  2959. >"You."
  2960. "Me? I'm an idea?"
  2961. >"No, you're a pony."
  2962. >You take a breath.
  2963. >You have to keep calm and maintain your cover story.
  2964. >Though Pinkie Pie is making it hard this time.
  2965. >Thankfully, she goes on before you lose your composure and say something stupid about who you really are.
  2966. >"But you made me think. You've been awfully quiet lately."
  2967. "Trust me, I'm having a great time."
  2968. >"Of course you do. That's my party promise, remember? But I told myself, 'Pinkie, this Anon colt is so quiet, maybe you can make him talk?'"
  2969. >What?
  2970. "Make me talk? Is this turning into an interview?"
  2971. >"No, pay attention. It's turning into a game of 'Pin the Tail on the Pony!'."
  2972. "Yes, but... never mind. Why do you want me to talk?"
  2973. >"To increase your party fun, of course! And what's better than having many new friends around?"
  2974. "So you invite all ponies in here for one and the same game."
  2975. >"Yup, and you'll be the first to play! I'm sure you'll find some new ponies to talk to."
  2976. >Pinkie Pie bows over the table with her upper body and motions you to do the same.
  2977. >You quickly look at #deca.mare and Lily Valley.
  2978. >#deca.mare is not overly alarmed, but she does not appear to know what is going to happen either.
  2979. >Lily valley is simply waiting patiently for Pinkie Pie to finish whatever she is doing at the moment.
  2980. >She is certainly familiar with the party pony and her peculiar manners.
  2981. >You play along and bow over the table as well, and Pinkie whispers into your ear.
  2982. >"Between you and me, I think it'll do you some good. You're a little shy around other ponies, aren't you?"
  2987. >Now that went awry in a spectacular fashion.
  2988. >Pinkie is thinking you are the one who needs more social interaction.
  2989. >And she even offers to give you some training, inadvertently dragging #deca.mare down with you in the process.
  2990. >The worst part is, she must be thinking that #deca.mare is the more socially experienced one of you two, as she was the one who found another conversation partner first.
  2991. >Despite, or maybe even precisely because of her previous hardships.
  2992. >You wonder if Pinkie even considers #deca.mare's earlier insecurities at the moment.
  2993. >Then again, mentioning this right now will be detrimental to #deca.mare's progress.
  2994. "Pinkie, you misunderstand."
  2995. >"Do you have stage-fright?"
  2996. >Usually not, yet this particular case is an exception.
  2997. >Pinkie Pie is expecting you to become the sole centre of attention of the entire room, observed by ponies from all possible angles around you.
  2998. >And this is possibly too much for you at the moment.
  2999. >Anyway, you have promised #deca.mare to soak up the heat if necessary, so you cannot blatantly pull out.
  3000. >If you admit an insecurity, it could very well lead to an inversion of the roles.
  3001. >Perhaps Lily and Pinkie might even suggest to #deca.mare to take care of you instead.
  3002. >But at the same time, you do not want to be the one to cancel the session.
  3003. >#deca.mare's wellbeing in the long run is more important than your temporary embarrassment.
  3004. >No way around it, you have to agree.
  3005. >Although you still try apply at least some damage control.
  3006. "Not at all, but..."
  3007. >"Then try it, Anon. You'll feel better afterwards, trust me. And maybe you'll be richer in friends too. One friend is nice, but more are always better!"
  3008. >Pinkie Pie winks.
  3009. >You initially want to object Pinkie's assessment, given that #deca.mare is more to you than just any friend, but you remember that the social borders between lovers and associates are not that thick in Equestrian circles.
  3014. >It is, morally speaking, a very innocent structure compared to Earth.
  3015. >But this is beside the point.
  3016. >You sigh and agree.
  3017. "Fine."
  3018. >Pinkie Pie, now satisfied with your answer, retreats to her side of the table.
  3019. >You do the same.
  3020. >#deca.mare, who has inevitably listened to your conversation in one way or the other, comments on your interaction through your mental link.
  3021. >Anon, you did not have to do this for me.
  3022. >But I did.
  3023. >You glance over to #deca.mare.
  3024. >I think this session will now go both ways, #deca.
  3025. >Anon,..
  3026. >No doubts, #deca.
  3027. >Maybe it will get hard, but I do this without regrets.
  3028. >Another nod, albeit a concerned one.
  3029. >Pinkie curiously turns to #deca.mare as she sees it, but remains silent.
  3030. >Eventually, #deca.mare and Lily Valley pick up their conversation where they left it.
  3031. >The four of you play on.
  3032. >All the while, three things play out simultaneously.
  3033. >#deca.mare and Lily Valley speak with each other.
  3034. >Pinkie Pie is content to observe how everything is going.
  3035. >And your mind grapples with the realisation that you will be fully put on a show in less than an hour.
  3036. >An inconvenient thought, especially since there will be no way for you to get out of the spotlight without interrupting the session.
  3037. >Additionally, to make matters just a smidgeon worse, you will also have to actively keep the attention glued to yourself for #deca.mare's sake.
  3038. >You will gladly do it for her, but that does not miraculously remove the challenge.
  3039. >Maybe you should have accepted the cape right after you have switched to your avatar.
  3040. >But materialising it now could possibly raise the attention of Pinkie Pie's heightened sense of the simulation around her.
  3041. >And more of Pinkie's curious attention is the last thing you will need during the next game.
  3042. >You take a breath and try to calm yourself.
  3043. >All things considered, it will not get so bad.
  3044. >Right?
  3049. 72
  3051. >The next rounds of the game follow similar variants of the same routine.
  3052. >Things get a little easier for both #deca.mare and you with every new turn.
  3053. >Yet the game's end is inevitably approaching.
  3054. >And you know what is coming next.
  3055. >A small part of your subconscious self is tempted to panic, though you can suppress it most of the time.
  3056. >You will keep your word, no matter what.
  3057. >Nevertheless, that does not make you immune to impulsive reactions.
  3058. >And sometimes you instinctively try to prolong the game just a little through subtle means.
  3059. >Like not using your field bonuses optimally when you are in the lead, since that could end the game even faster.
  3060. >Really, nothing depends on winning or losing the game.
  3061. >It is rather the surrounding context that counts, like a meta game that you try to win in a way.
  3062. >#deca.mare is apparently fine with it.
  3063. >She is clearly aware of what you are doing, yet she does not mention any of it.
  3064. >Most likely because she does not want to pressure you more than necessary either.
  3065. >#deca.mare is willing to give you the time you need.
  3066. >After all, she is in a relatively comfortable position and theoretically still in full control of everything.
  3067. >Even without halting the simulation in its entirety; she knows exactly how she can handle Lily Valley.
  3068. >So #deca.mare can experiment a little bit on her own in a beginner friendly setting.
  3069. >Whilst you dance with the devil in pink.
  3070. >But to be fair, Pinkie is not that bad most of the time.
  3071. >You simply have to carefully balance your interactions with her in order to not set off another delicate discussion.
  3072. >And you can still partially shrug it off when you get into such a situation despite your cautious approach.
  3077. >At least up to a certain point.
  3078. >But in one quick and unforeseen move, Pinkie Pie unleashes a total mayhem on the board.
  3079. >She activates an effect.
  3080. >Discord's Box (Open at your own peril! (Not that you have a choice.)):Forces every player to activate one of their stored effects, including the user of Discord's Box. The effect in question is randomly picked by shuffling cards. If a player does not have any, that player draws a random effect from the pile. (Hahaha!)
  3081. >Needless to say, this event can cause a meltdown.
  3082. >And Pinkie Pie delivers exactly that with her drawn effect, as it forces her to immediately mirror the last effect that she used.
  3083. >Discord's Box squared, essentially.
  3084. >Now everyone is exposed to a crossfire of seven cumulative effects that affect each other in one way or another.
  3085. >Everything from movement bonuses, to effects that trigger when other players activate an effect, up to another set of combinations that emerge from the new fields where you four find yourselves on.
  3086. >If you had to personally check the exact order in which this mess has to be played out, you would probably emit smoke from your ears.
  3087. >You assume the same would be true for any regular pony as well.
  3088. >But thankfully, you have #deca.mare with you.
  3089. >Systematic work is like bread and butter for her.
  3090. >Unsurprisingly, she can immediately tell everyone what happens where, why it happens, and what this consequently causes as a result.
  3091. >This would probably raise suspicions in a real situation, but neither Pinkie nor Lily ask any inconvenient question as to how #deca.mare could figure this out in less than a second.
  3092. >So you all follow her instructions.
  3093. >You notice her concerned expression when she glances over to you.
  3094. >But you do not need to ask her why, for the reason reveals itself very quickly.
  3095. >Thanks to your conservative strategy of storing movement points via effects, you can now theoretically cover a lot of ground in one turn.
  3100. >And you do.
  3101. >Your effects are automatically set to activate, shooting you forward like a cannon ball across almost one half of the board.
  3102. >Straight into the goal, earning you your third point.
  3103. >You have just won the game because of Pinkie Pie.
  3104. >Lily Valley congratulates you whilst Pinkie Pie praises your cunning.
  3105. >"That was clever, Anon. Keeping all your cards until the very end, I didn't know you had it in you!"
  3106. >You nod as a sign of appreciation, although you are not feeling like it.
  3107. >Because now comes the more public part.
  3108. >With you at the very first row of the spectacle.
  3109. >Thankfully, Pinkie Pie at least grants you a small mercy as she proposes to keep on playing with the three still remaining players.
  3110. >You take this short period of peace to lean back and mentally ready yourself for the next game.
  3111. >Just a small mental note first.
  3112. >Hey #deca, tell me if you need me.
  3113. >I am still your shield.
  3114. >#deca.mare waits for Pinkie to look at Lily before she nods.
  3115. >Her gesture remains under the radar.
  3116. >You will keep that in mind as an "emergency" solution when you absolutely need to do something that Pinkie Pie is not supposed to see.
  3117. >The game eventually comes to its conclusion.
  3118. >You have gained the first place.
  3119. >Lily Valley is the runner-up.
  3120. >Closely followed by #deca.mare and lastly, Pinkie Pie.
  3121. >The latter is in high spirits as usual, and #deca.mare is content with herself just because she kept her composure intact.
  3122. >"Wee! That was good! I can't wait for the next one!"
  3123. >She stands up and grabs her cushion.
  3124. >"I'll see how the others are doing. Oh! And I'll bring the pins and the poster of course. Can't leave you all waiting for too long, right?"
  3125. >She trots away.
  3126. >"Be right back!"
  3127. >You wave after her politely without a word.
  3128. >And you remain seated for now.
  3133. >Your sides and back are still exposed to everyone, but it is nevertheless the best strategic pose you can think of.
  3134. >Minus hiding underneath the table, that is.
  3135. >Shortly after Pinkie has disappeared behind the counter, Lily Valley stands up as well.
  3136. >"Maybe I should help her. Pinkie Pie does the craziest things when nopony is looking."
  3137. >You nod in agreement.
  3138. >Mainly to get at least a little bit more privacy before things get serious.
  3139. >Now you it is only #deca.mare and you.
  3140. >You look at her.
  3141. >She is nervous and excited about your next number, albeit for slightly different reasons than you are.
  3142. >And both of you know that.
  3143. >"Anon, may I help you with something? I think you might need it."
  3144. >You subconsciously hope she has found some loophole to ease your inhibitions.
  3145. >Or something along these lines.
  3146. "Uh, sure. What's this about?"
  3147. >"It is better if you do not ask and just let me do it."
  3148. >You tilt your head.
  3149. >This enigmatic answer is not the help you hoped for.
  3150. >But #deca.mare must know what she is doing, so you agree.
  3151. "Okay, go ahead."
  3152. >#deca.mare nods and stands up.
  3153. >She places her cushion next to yours and sits down again.
  3154. >Then she tilts her body towards you to lean on yours.
  3155. >This in itself is not such a big deal compared to what you have been through, but the context is different.
  3156. >You were always alone when you got physically close.
  3157. >Here you are surrounded by a couple of other ponies in public.
  3158. >While you are aware that most of the "ponies" around you will not react to it, you could see a comment coming from someone like Lily.
  3159. >Not to mention Pinkie herself.
  3160. >But worse, #deca.mare doubles down.
  3161. >Not only does she touch you in public without a single shred of cloth between you, she also nuzzles you.
  3162. >From the neck, to your sides and your back.
  3167. >Advanced pony tolerance or not, these gestures signal more than platonic friendship to everyone around you.
  3168. >Plus, it does the exact opposite of making you feel better, as your heartbeat picks up the pace.
  3169. >And to add just the crowning tip on the sundae of alienation, #deca.mare occasionally grazes your body with her breath.
  3170. >It does not take long for you to get the Equestrian variant of goose bumps, only multiple times worse.
  3171. >You quickly address #deca.mare in a hushed voice.
  3172. "Dammit, #deca! What the hell are you doing?"
  3173. >"Improvised stimulation training."
  3174. >Her tone is even and casual.
  3175. >She does not do any of this to rile herself up.
  3176. >"To quickly familiarise you with casual physical contact."
  3177. "Are you kidding me?"
  3178. >#deca.mare leans in some more, and you can feel your heart responding to it.
  3179. >Not your real heart though, as you quickly figure out.
  3180. >It beats faster than your real heart ever has, and you assume a real human would have already suffered from a heart attack at this rate.
  3181. >This glaring discrepancy to your real state is not exactly helping either.
  3182. >"Not at all, Anon. The more you get exposed to it now, the faster you can come to terms with it."
  3183. >More nuzzling.
  3184. >"Consider this a crash course."
  3185. >You shiver.
  3186. "The only thing I'll crash is the party if you keep going. What if I... you know what."
  3187. >You cannot bring yourself to say it, but #deca.mare understands anyway.
  3188. >"No worries. I think I have a fairly clear picture of you by now. I know how far I can go with you."
  3189. >You absolutely hope she is right.
  3190. >Although you have to respect her restraint.
  3191. >She would not have been able to endure this earlier herself.
  3192. >And even whilst she has become much less frisky around you when it comes to intimacy, this is more effort than you would have thought possible in her current state.
  3197. >"That is simple, Anon. Two reasons."
  3198. "Huh?"
  3199. >Oh right, she listened.
  3200. >Frightening how often you can forget this simple fact when you are sufficiently freaking out.
  3201. >"One: Because you need me to stay collected right now. And I need you to keep calm too."
  3202. >Fair so far.
  3203. >"And two: As I said, I do not wish to change you, Anon. This shape of yours is only a utility in my eyes. It helps a great deal to remain focussed as well."
  3204. >You understand her point and are glad to hear it.
  3205. >Because even if you unintentionally get aroused as you are at the moment, you certainly do not wish to live it out with #deca.mare like this.
  3206. >It helps to know she is thinking alike.
  3207. >So you endure #deca.mare's procedure, despite your brain being in a constant emotional alarm mode.
  3208. >But one question remains.
  3209. "Why all of a sudden?"
  3210. >"It is better if you just trust me and focus only on what I am doing."
  3211. >She knows something that you do not think of at the moment, and you are not sure if you really want to find out what that is.
  3212. >#deca.mare must be right.
  3213. >You remain silent and do as she asked you to.
  3214. >After a short while, you begin to actually calm just a little bit.
  3215. >Sure, having your lover rub your body with hers is never not an intimate experience, but given her moderate approach and your overall situation, you can easily avoid any unfavourable thoughts.
  3216. >Fortunately, #deca.mare knowingly avoids certain body parts with a wide berth.
  3217. >She manages to avert the looming disaster.
  3218. >#deca.mare's work is admittedly outstanding.
  3219. >She is keeping her movements precise, yet pleasant, but also without stepping over the edge into the questionable territory.
  3220. >And it may only be a second or two, but you actually manage to mentally phase out for a very short moment, as you lose yourself in #deca.mare's treatment.
  3221. >However, reality eventually catches up, simulated as it might be.
  3222. >Pinkie Pie is emerging from behind the counter with another box in tow.
  3223. >This is it.
  3224. >#deca.mare slowly backs off.
  3229. >But not without giving you one swift peck on the cheek.
  3230. >#deca.mare smiles.
  3231. >"For good luck."
  3232. >You decipher the implicit message.
  3233. >She too is still nervous, and her therapeutic work on you was a welcome distraction for her as well.
  3234. >You give her a nod, but you do not dare to give her a kiss in response.
  3235. >You scan the room.
  3236. >The other ponies are already packing their games.
  3237. >Pinkie Pie could see you, and you personally prefer that she does not get to see you nuzzling like this.
  3238. >From now on you try to keep the profile as low as possible.
  3239. >A nearly futile task, given the part you have promised to play.
  3240. >You take a breath.
  3241. "Only the way forward."
  3242. >So you rise, albeit very slowly.
  3243. >You look around once more.
  3244. >The ponies are gathering in an open spot near a wall.
  3245. >Pinkie Pie is busy with hanging up the poster, and you can see Lily Valley with a selection of pins nearby.
  3246. >For now you are completely unnoticed.
  3247. >But Pinkie Pie will inevitably call for you, so you decide to approach the crowd.
  3248. >The last thing you need is everyone watching you while you get closer.
  3249. >#deca.mare stands up as well.
  3250. >"Go ahead. I will stay at your side."
  3251. >One second of hesitation before you head out.
  3252. >You try to focus more on your breath to keep it even.
  3253. >It helps to fight the doubt.
  3254. >#deca.mare tags along.
  3255. >She is always exactly only one step behind, with her head near your side.
  3256. >You are her shield now, and you need to act like it.
  3257. >Once you have reached the crowd of ponies, you do what you did the last time.
  3258. >You mingle with them, clearing just enough space for #deca.mare and yourself.
  3259. >Yet this time you know that you will not get away that quickly.
  3260. >On the contrary, Pinkie will drag you right into the thick of the bustle.
  3265. >Maybe it is just your personal perception of things, but it feels as if the ponies are standing closer to each other than before.
  3266. >You cannot say for sure though.
  3267. >But what you can say is that you sometimes lightly bump into some of them and vice versa.
  3268. >With no intention from both sides course, but every little contact makes you shiver, if only a little bit.
  3269. >At least #deca.mare is helping you somewhat, as she is blocking one side almost completely.
  3270. >And you prefer to softly nudge #deca.mare rather than bumping into a pony who is basically a stranger to you.
  3271. >Only some moments thereafter, you are amidst the crowd with a good look on the Pinkie Pie and the poster.
  3272. >The latter is as you expected: A simple image of a pony that is lacking a tail.
  3273. >You can see some concentric circles, dividing the poster in different layers, with a "bullseye" in the middle.
  3274. >Its purpose is self-evident.
  3275. >The closer you are to the middle, the more points you get.
  3276. >Pinkie Pie is discarding the box in the same fashion in which she handed out a game to you.
  3277. >The box flies squarely through the room, presumably to safely land somewhere else.
  3278. >Pinkie Pie addresses the whole room.
  3279. >"Welcome to a friendly game of 'Pin the Tail on the Pony!'"
  3280. >A short pause for cheers.
  3281. >"As you all know, we've come here because we got some guests in town today, and Anon over there is willing to play the first turn."
  3282. >A second pause.
  3283. >"So let's show them our best cheers! And give us some applause for Anon!"
  3284. >Then Pinkie looks at you with a smile, immediately knowing where you stand.
  3285. >The ponies around you stomp on the ground with their forehooves.
  3286. >You know this is their form of showing support and applause, but it does not feel that way for you right now.
  3287. >You could have done without all the fanfare around you.
  3288. >Pinkie Pie stretches out a hoof as an offering gesture.
  3289. >"Anon, could you come over? You can't play the game over there, you know?"
  3294. >You feel a reassuring tap on your side.
  3295. >You quietly appreciate the gesture before you start to walk up to Pinkie.
  3296. >And suddenly you understand why #deca.mare has worked her unusual attempt of a crash course on you.
  3297. >Pinkie Pie will blindfold you.
  3298. >You will get temporarily blinded by her whilst everyone else is watching you.
  3299. >Oh boy, this is going to be something.
  3300. >No, just focus on your breath.
  3301. >"Alright, big colt. Eyes to the wall and hold still."
  3302. >Pinkie Pie is grabbing a piece of cloth.
  3303. >It confirms your expectations.
  3304. >So you do what she says and take a good look at the poster.
  3305. >You try to memorise how it looks, but your mind is still preoccupied with other things.
  3306. >Pinkie Pie approaches you.
  3307. >You briefly wonder how she will apply the blindfold, and you get that answer immediately.
  3308. >"Here it comes!"
  3309. >She rears up.
  3310. >And her upper body lands on your back as her hooves wrap the cloth around your eyes.
  3311. >You are blinded and feel Pinkie Pie's coat all over your back in one fell swoop.
  3312. >Not that she is rough or reckless by any means.
  3313. >But seeing absolutely nothing, and having a fully bared mare draped atop, in a public setting no less, is way too much, way too quickly.
  3314. >Especially when said mare is not #deca.mare, and you are not wearing anything at all as well.
  3315. >In a body that is not your own.
  3316. >No.
  3317. >Just no.
  3318. >The instincts inside you rebel against this treatment momentarily.
  3319. >This is no longer a simulation, at least as far as your senses are concerned.
  3320. >You find yourself unable to think as your mind locks up.
  3321. >Then your body stiffens for a second before your legs decide to buckle all on their own.
  3322. >"Anon? What's wro...whoa!"
  3323. >You fall to the side.
  3328. >Of course, the worst case scenario kicks in when Pinkie Pie lands right on top.
  3329. >No wonder, she has relied heavily on your hold when she grappled you.
  3330. >You can hear some gasps, followed by concerned murmuring.
  3331. >Even Pinkie Pie seems surprised.
  3332. >"That just happened."
  3333. >Pinkie shifts her hooves around in order to get up, accidentally poking you in several different spots, starting from your neck all the way down to your rear.
  3334. >And the fact that she lies belly first on one of "your" wings makes this even harder to endure.
  3335. >These limbs are still mostly alien to you, and #deca.mare has always minded to treat them with care.
  3336. >Now a fumbling grown pony lies on one of them directly, and the weight of said pony plus your own are weighing down on the other.
  3337. >Which is also pressing against hard wooden planks at the same time.
  3338. >This alone may not be painful in the classical sense, but it swamps your emulated nervous system in a way you cannot discern properly.
  3339. >But despite all the commotion, the cloth has not moved at all, leaving you completely without eyesight.
  3340. >These moments last only seconds, but they feel like an eternity to you.
  3341. >Something changes.
  3342. >Pinkie Pie stops moving and the room grows quiet.
  3343. >Her weight on you has not disappeared, but she is somehow no longer pressing you down.
  3344. >You guess that #deca.mare has paused the simulation.
  3345. >Then you hear her voice.
  3346. >"Yes, I did. I could not bear to watch any longer. This has gone too far."
  3347. >And just like that you feel the urge to go on, despite your mental protests.
  3348. "#deca, I told you I take this one for you. I'm fine."
  3349. >"Nonsense. You feel exposed and humiliated."
  3350. >Indeed, this is not far from the truth.
  3351. >"Give me the word, and I will stop this session right here."
  3352. "No, don't!"
  3353. >"Anon,..."
  3354. "Don't mind me! I prom