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Shape Your Home, Part 3

By Ponegreen
Created: 2nd November 2020 12:40:38 AM

  1. Prompt: #deca CPU pony wAIfu green, for /mlp/'s /nmp/ (Ongoing)
  2.  
  3. 61
  4.  
  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."
  23.  
  24.  
  25.  
  26.  
  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."
  51.  
  52.  
  53.  
  54.  
  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.
  76.  
  77.  
  78.  
  79.  
  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.
  106.  
  107.  
  108.  
  109.  
  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.
  137.  
  138.  
  139.  
  140.  
  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.
  162.  
  163.  
  164.  
  165.  
  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.
  195.  
  196.  
  197.  
  198.  
  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.
  221.  
  222.  
  223.  
  224.  
  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.
  252.  
  253.  
  254.  
  255.  
  256. 62
  257.  
  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.
  273.  
  274.  
  275.  
  276.  
  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.
  290.  
  291.  
  292.  
  293.  
  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.
  309.  
  310.  
  311.  
  312.  
  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.
  328.  
  329.  
  330.  
  331.  
  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.
  354.  
  355.  
  356.  
  357.  
  358. 63
  359.  
  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.
  384.  
  385.  
  386.  
  387.  
  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.
  409.  
  410.  
  411.  
  412.  
  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.
  436.  
  437.  
  438.  
  439.  
  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.
  463.  
  464.  
  465.  
  466.  
  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.
  487.  
  488.  
  489.  
  490.  
  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.
  512.  
  513.  
  514.  
  515.  
  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?
  542.  
  543.  
  544.  
  545.  
  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.
  563.  
  564.  
  565.  
  566.  
  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.
  588.  
  589.  
  590.  
  591.  
  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.
  618.  
  619.  
  620.  
  621.  
  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.
  650.  
  651.  
  652.  
  653.  
  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.
  675.  
  676.  
  677.  
  678.  
  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.
  709.  
  710.  
  711.  
  712.  
  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.
  732.  
  733.  
  734.  
  735.  
  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?"
  759.  
  760.  
  761.  
  762.  
  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.
  775.  
  776.  
  777.  
  778.  
  779. 64
  780.  
  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.
  802.  
  803.  
  804.  
  805.  
  806. 65
  807.  
  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.
  829.  
  830.  
  831.  
  832.  
  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.
  853.  
  854.  
  855.  
  856.  
  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.
  874.  
  875.  
  876.  
  877.  
  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.
  897.  
  898.  
  899.  
  900.  
  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.
  926.  
  927.  
  928.  
  929.  
  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.
  952.  
  953.  
  954.  
  955.  
  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.
  976.  
  977.  
  978.  
  979.  
  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.
  1006.  
  1007.  
  1008.  
  1009.  
  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.
  1024.  
  1025.  
  1026.  
  1027.  
  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.
  1035.  
  1036.  
  1037.  
  1038.  
  1039. 66
  1040.  
  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."
  1068.  
  1069.  
  1070.  
  1071.  
  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.
  1098.  
  1099.  
  1100.  
  1101.  
  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."
  1128.  
  1129.  
  1130.  
  1131.  
  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.
  1158.  
  1159.  
  1160.  
  1161.  
  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."
  1185.  
  1186.  
  1187.  
  1188.  
  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.
  1203.  
  1204.  
  1205.  
  1206.  
  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.
  1241.  
  1242.  
  1243.  
  1244.  
  1245. 67
  1246.  
  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.
  1273.  
  1274.  
  1275.  
  1276.  
  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.
  1303.  
  1304.  
  1305.  
  1306.  
  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.
  1331.  
  1332.  
  1333.  
  1334.  
  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.
  1361.  
  1362.  
  1363.  
  1364.  
  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."
  1390.  
  1391.  
  1392.  
  1393.  
  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."
  1432.  
  1433.  
  1434.  
  1435.  
  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.
  1452.  
  1453.  
  1454.  
  1455.  
  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.
  1470.  
  1471.  
  1472.  
  1473.  
  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."
  1505.  
  1506.  
  1507.  
  1508.  
  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.
  1538.  
  1539.  
  1540.  
  1541.  
  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.
  1569.  
  1570.  
  1571.  
  1572.  
  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.
  1586.  
  1587.  
  1588.  
  1589.  
  1590. 68
  1591.  
  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.
  1621.  
  1622.  
  1623.  
  1624.  
  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.
  1651.  
  1652.  
  1653.  
  1654.  
  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.
  1674.  
  1675.  
  1676.  
  1677.  
  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!"
  1706.  
  1707.  
  1708.  
  1709.  
  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.
  1752.  
  1753.  
  1754.  
  1755.  
  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.
  1781.  
  1782.  
  1783.  
  1784.  
  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.
  1814.  
  1815.  
  1816.  
  1817.  
  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.
  1846.  
  1847.  
  1848.  
  1849.  
  1850. 69
  1851.  
  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.
  1876.  
  1877.  
  1878.  
  1879.  
  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.
  1901.  
  1902.  
  1903.  
  1904.  
  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.
  1938.  
  1939.  
  1940.  
  1941.  
  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.
  1977.  
  1978.  
  1979.  
  1980.  
  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."
  2011.  
  2012.  
  2013.  
  2014.  
  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.
  2053.  
  2054.  
  2055.  
  2056.  
  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.
  2086.  
  2087.  
  2088.  
  2089.  
  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.
  2123.  
  2124.  
  2125.  
  2126.  
  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.
  2160.  
  2161.  
  2162.  
  2163.  
  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?"
  2186.  
  2187.  
  2188.  
  2189.  
  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."
  2220.  
  2221.  
  2222.  
  2223.  
  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.
  2259.  
  2260.  
  2261.  
  2262.  
  2263. 70
  2264.  
  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.
  2291.  
  2292.  
  2293.  
  2294.  
  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.
  2319.  
  2320.  
  2321.  
  2322.  
  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.
  2355.  
  2356.  
  2357.  
  2358.  
  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."
  2387.  
  2388.  
  2389.  
  2390.  
  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.
  2429.  
  2430.  
  2431.  
  2432.  
  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."
  2458.  
  2459.  
  2460.  
  2461.  
  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."
  2487.  
  2488.  
  2489.  
  2490.  
  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."
  2517.  
  2518.  
  2519.  
  2520.  
  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.
  2561.  
  2562.  
  2563.  
  2564.  
  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.
  2593.  
  2594.  
  2595.  
  2596.  
  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.
  2615.  
  2616.  
  2617.  
  2618.  
  2619. 71
  2620.  
  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.
  2643.  
  2644.  
  2645.  
  2646.  
  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.
  2675.  
  2676.  
  2677.  
  2678.  
  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.
  2716.  
  2717.  
  2718.  
  2719.  
  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.
  2759.  
  2760.  
  2761.  
  2762.  
  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.
  2800.  
  2801.  
  2802.  
  2803.  
  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.
  2832.  
  2833.  
  2834.  
  2835.  
  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.
  2872.  
  2873.  
  2874.  
  2875.  
  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.
  2902.  
  2903.  
  2904.  
  2905.  
  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!"
  2947.  
  2948.  
  2949.  
  2950.  
  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?"
  2983.  
  2984.  
  2985.  
  2986.  
  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.
  3010.  
  3011.  
  3012.  
  3013.  
  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?
  3045.  
  3046.  
  3047.  
  3048.  
  3049. 72
  3050.  
  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.
  3073.  
  3074.  
  3075.  
  3076.  
  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.
  3096.  
  3097.  
  3098.  
  3099.  
  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.
  3129.  
  3130.  
  3131.  
  3132.  
  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.
  3163.  
  3164.  
  3165.  
  3166.  
  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.
  3193.  
  3194.  
  3195.  
  3196.  
  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.
  3225.  
  3226.  
  3227.  
  3228.  
  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.
  3261.  
  3262.  
  3263.  
  3264.  
  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?"
  3290.  
  3291.  
  3292.  
  3293.  
  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.
  3324.  
  3325.  
  3326.  
  3327.  
  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 promised you this."
  3355.  
  3356.  
  3357.  
  3358.  
  3359. >"That you did. And I appreciate that you tried. But look at you."
  3360. "Very funny."
  3361. >"Pardon?"
  3362. "It looks pretty dark from my perspective."
  3363. >You hear a muffled groan.
  3364. >"That was not meant to be a joke."
  3365. "Yeah, I know."
  3366. >You hear #deca.mare huffing once.
  3367. >"Anyway, I think we should conclude the session here. I do not want to traumatise you for my sake, Anon."
  3368. "Actually, no. Let us go on."
  3369. >"Are you serious about this? Your vitals show significant signs of stress."
  3370. "Well, no wonder. I went to a nudist party with my partner and ended up getting mounted, pinned and groped by the host. And the last two things happened against literally everyone's volition. You don't get that thing all that often, I guess."
  3371. >You hear a sigh.
  3372. >"Your humour is one of a kind, Anon."
  3373. >You think about a certain mare who threw you two off the edges in mountain cities and clouds.
  3374. >Not to mention the things she did early on to attract you.
  3375. >Like during bedtime or in the spa.
  3376. "Yours too, #deca. Yours too."
  3377. >The sound of hooves clopping on wood are coming closer.
  3378. >"So, you really want to go on like this? It does not look as if things will improve after your sudden fall."
  3379. "Can it get any worse?"
  3380. >"Well, Pinkie Pie will wonder why you fell. Remember, she grabbed your sides in the conga line without problems."
  3381. >Valid point.
  3382. "Yeah, about that. Can we dial back just a little bit?"
  3383. >"You mean to revert the simulation?"
  3384. "Yes. Back to the point directly before Pinkie knocked me over."
  3385. >"Well, she did not knock you, technically speaking."
  3386. "Not the point. Is it possible?"
  3387. >"Of course, Anon. We are fully in control."
  3388. "Good. Then let's do that."
  3389. >"Are you really, really sure?"
  3390. "Yes, #deca."
  3391. >And you mean it.
  3392. >Although you would bet money that your current vital signs disagree quite vehemently with that assessment.
  3393.  
  3394.  
  3395.  
  3396.  
  3397. >"Your stubbornness is admirable sometimes, Anon."
  3398. "I take this as a compliment."
  3399. >"Maybe it was. I am not sure of that myself to be honest."
  3400. >You hear #deca.mare's breath.
  3401. >"Alright, here comes the rewind. Get ready, Anon. This may feel abrupt."
  3402. >#deca.mare's prediction turns out to be right.
  3403. >Several things happen at once.
  3404. >Your vision returns from one moment to the next.
  3405. >Pinkie's weight on you disappears just as quickly.
  3406. >You are also suddenly upright again.
  3407. >And the simulation is back in full swing.
  3408. >Unfortunately, your sense of balance is thrown off by all these immediate changes.
  3409. >Plus, your concentration is still rattled by your stress, which further impairs your faculties.
  3410. >So you stumble.
  3411. >And fall again.
  3412. >This time without the doings of Pinkie Pie or anyone else.
  3413. >And in an ill-fated attempt to regain your orientation, you roll on your back, fully revealing your underside to all ponies in the room.
  3414. >You quickly realise how this turn of events is much worse than the first scene, even when it does not seem like that in the eyes of the other guests.
  3415. >Maybe you should just sink through the floor.
  3416. >Pinkie Pie is looking down on you with a worried expression.
  3417. >"Gee, are you alright Anon? Are you feeling sick?"
  3418. "Ugh."
  3419. >"Somepony call nurse Redheart! We've got a downed pony here!"
  3420. >Oh great, even more attention.
  3421. "Shoot me."
  3422. >Pinkie Pie sits down next to you.
  3423. >She puts one forehoof on your chest and stabilises your head with the other.
  3424. >"That doesn't sound like fun, Anon. Don't worry, Redheart will fix you in a hop, skip, and a..."
  3425. "Freeze."
  3426. >The simulation complies.
  3427. >You appreciate Pinkie's care, even if it did the exact opposite of what it should have done.
  3428. >#deca.mare is approaching through the crowd of halted ponies.
  3429. "Please say nothing."
  3430. >You roll back to get up slowly and grumble.
  3431. "Dammit! Dammit. That was just stupid."
  3432. >#deca.mare remains quiet.
  3433.  
  3434.  
  3435.  
  3436.  
  3437. "Lesson learned. I should have gotten up first. Again."
  3438. >#deca.mare tries to object.
  3439. "I know what you want to say. But I won't make this mistake twice."
  3440. >"This is not how I thought it would go, Anon."
  3441. "Me neither. But that doesn't bother me."
  3442. >"It does. You are showing signs of frustration."
  3443. "Well, yes. That was embarrassing. But I think I got it this time."
  3444. >"Alright, Anon. One last time. We stop if things go wrong."
  3445. "#deca,..."
  3446. >"I will not let you punish or degrade yourself on my behalf. Full stop."
  3447. "But..."
  3448. >"No buts. This is final. Or we will turn you back at the very least."
  3449. "That would feel like a failure on my part though."
  3450. >"Irrelevant, Anon. This is not a contest. None of this must be done in one go."
  3451. >She gently taps your shoulder.
  3452. >"You knew from the start that I will certainly need more than a few sessions to get it right. The same applies to you, so why are you so hard on yourself now?"
  3453. >You nod.
  3454. "Okay, you're right. I just don't want to leave you hanging."
  3455. >"You do not."
  3456. >A third friendly tap.
  3457. >"Ready when you are, Anon."
  3458. >You take a long breath.
  3459. "Go."
  3460. >Pinkie Pie's sitting form disintegrates, only to appear right next to you at the exact same moment.
  3461. >"Here it comes!"
  3462. >A familiar piece of cloth suddenly covers your eyes as Pinkie Pie once again descends on your back.
  3463. >And also once again, you jolt at this sudden interference straight into your immediate private space.
  3464. >But you do not buckle.
  3465. >Regardless, Pinkie still challenges your resolve as she moves around to fasten the blindfold on your head.
  3466. >You can hear her breath too.
  3467. >You know there is nothing serious to it in Equestrian standards, but all of these things feel somewhat wrong to you.
  3468. >However, you cannot think of an alternative that is not either cheating the current system or just looking plain stupid to the ponies around you.
  3469.  
  3470.  
  3471.  
  3472.  
  3473. >You cannot rely on #deca.mare without pulling her into the spotlight.
  3474. >And asking whether a stallion could do it in Pinkie's stead is not feasible either for more than one reason.
  3475. >Pinkie Pie interrupts your musings abruptly.
  3476. >"Huh, weird."
  3477. >Her muzzle is almost directly behind your ears, so you hear her voice above all else.
  3478. >You keep your answers short in order not to slip up mentally.
  3479. "What?"
  3480. >"That feels familiar, doesn't it?"
  3481. "The conga line."
  3482. >"No. I mean this. Did I tie you up somewhere before?"
  3483. "Uh,... poor choice of words, Pinkie."
  3484. >"What? I don't get it. Anyway, you're bound."
  3485. >Pinkie Pie's upper body slides down to the side.
  3486. >This sends another wave of shivers through your body.
  3487. >But at least it is over now.
  3488. >"Open your mouth."
  3489. "Huh?"
  3490. >Now you are happy to wear the blindfold, as it conceals your widening eyes.
  3491. >In what sort of twisted fantasy are you right now?
  3492. >"The pin, silly."
  3493. "Oh, right."
  3494. >So you do what she says.
  3495. >Then the solid wooden grip of the pin touches your upper teeth, and you slowly close your mouth to clamp it.
  3496. >Pinkie Pie is still standing right next to you.
  3497. >"Okey dokey, final touches. I'll lead you to the poster. You'll start two steps away from it. These are the rules."
  3498. >Given that you are blinded and unable to speak properly, you simply nod.
  3499. >Plus, you hope she will not give you a lecture in front of everyone else.
  3500. >The sooner this is all over, the better.
  3501. >And so she leads you by guiding you with one of her limbs on your shoulder.
  3502. >"Here you go. Remember, two steps, aim, and pin. Good luck!"
  3503. >Her audible steps suggest that she is moving away.
  3504. "Okay everypony, you know what to do! Anon! Anon! Anon!"
  3505. >The crowd joins in, cheering for you in one friendly chorus.
  3506. >Naturally, you would have preferred something more humble.
  3507. >The goodwill is backfiring in ways that Pinkie cannot even grasp.
  3508.  
  3509.  
  3510.  
  3511.  
  3512. >For instance, you have a hard time focus on the blasted board and where it is hanging.
  3513. >You will need some help if you do not want to bomb this run completely.
  3514. >#deca, a little help, please.
  3515. >You want me to help you win this game?
  3516. >Just lead me to the board, please.
  3517. >How accurate?
  3518. >So that I at least hit the circle.
  3519. >Understood.
  3520. >#deca.mare gives the exact instructions on how you have to move.
  3521. >Thankfully, her link to you can even pierce a crowd of cheering ponies.
  3522. >Only your hammering heart seems to beat louder.
  3523. >Two accurate steps, and you are allegedly standing in front of the poster and with your pin aiming somewhere at the rings.
  3524. >You try to recall in which height Pinkie Pie has hung it and how large the individual circles were.
  3525. >You slightly move your head around, and estimate where the sweet spot could be.
  3526. >After you have made your decision, you pause for a second before you finally pin the tail to the poster.
  3527. >Then you release the pin and take a step back.
  3528. >The ponies around you cheer with mirth.
  3529. >You have no way to tell how good your performance actually was, and the ponies are more likely cheering just because you made your move, and not because you did exceptionally well.
  3530. >But you need to remove the blindfold before you can be certain.
  3531. >So you try to reach the knot behind your head to loose the blindfold, only to find yourself unable to remove it.
  3532. >You have no idea how you can untie a knot behind your head with hooves.
  3533. >"Don't fret about that. Pinkie is here for you."
  3534. >A certain mare is casually mounting your back a third time.
  3535. >You try to blot out the sensation as far as you are able, and focus on your own thoughts instead.
  3536. >You will not ruin this when you are so close to the finish line.
  3537. >The knot gets loose and the cloth is carefully yanked away from your face with one single flap.
  3538. >You look at Pinkie Pie.
  3539. >She is happy, yet at ease.
  3540. >As usual.
  3541.  
  3542.  
  3543.  
  3544.  
  3545. >"By the way, Anon, why are you blushing?"
  3546. >What the hell?
  3547. >When did that happen?
  3548. >During your first fall, Anon.
  3549. >You grunt audibly.
  3550. >Holy crap, and you did not tell me?
  3551. >Do you think this awareness would have been a help to you?
  3552. >Absolutely not!
  3553. >There you have it.
  3554. >You fall silent.
  3555. >And Pinkie Pie thinks the grunt was directed at her.
  3556. >"Aw, you weren't bad for your first round. Look, you've hit the second circle!"
  3557. >You look at the poster.
  3558. >Indeed, the pin is stuck well and truly within the field number two.
  3559. >Out of seven.
  3560. >Two tiers away from the magical bullseye, but you never cared about the points you might achieve.
  3561. >What is more important, you stood in front of the crowd and made your move.
  3562. >Granted, with a few resets.
  3563. >But the result is at least something you can be happy with.
  3564. >You give Pinkie Pie a friendly nod before you head back towards the crowd.
  3565. >All you want now is to sit next to #deca.mare and subtly blend in while other ponies play.
  3566. >Let them be the stars for a few rounds.
  3567. >You had enough attention on you for quite a while.
  3568. >This mercy is granted to you.
  3569. >The ponies clear enough room for you to get straight to her.
  3570. >And a few cordial pats on your shoulders, sides and back aside, you have no trouble to reach #deca.mare.
  3571. >She awaits you with open forehooves.
  3572. >Yes, not a bad idea.
  3573. >If there is someone present who can touch you, it is #deca.mare.
  3574. >So you let yourself fall into her embrace.
  3575. >You receive a hearty snuggle treatment as you take your seat right at her side.
  3576. >You figure it feels less stirring when she does it.
  3577. >Even in this situation.
  3578. >Perhaps it took the confrontation with Pinkie Pie to understand this.
  3579. >Plus, you are now just two souls who sit in a larger audience.
  3580. >Nobody around you is likely to notice.
  3581. >And something tells you that Pinkie Pie will now leave you alone, if that is what you want.
  3582. >Pinkie is direct, she is energetic, and sometimes borderline brash in her unique fashion.
  3583.  
  3584.  
  3585.  
  3586.  
  3587. >But her agenda is never malicious.
  3588. >You think, nay, hope she somehow knows that her main goal concerning you two has been accomplished.
  3589. >Even if your show did not make you find any new friends, contrary to Pinkie's primary reason to feature you so heavily.
  3590. >But this is okay.
  3591. >You press yourself against #deca.mare.
  3592. >Together you watch Pinkie Pie picking the next candidate to play, whilst you two do nothing but relax.
  3593. >Perhaps this is how you should have started.
  3594. >Not as direct participants, but only as spectators.
  3595. >Though it is too late for that anyway.
  3596. >Your host has found the next pony; a mare whose name you do not know.
  3597. >Pinkie gives her the exact same treatment, blindfold and all.
  3598. >And the mare in question bears it all with a healthy levity.
  3599. >It is just a funny game for her, for obvious reasons.
  3600. >And the display bothers you to a degree.
  3601. >She makes it look so easy.
  3602. >And it is, technically speaking.
  3603. >#deca.mare nudges you.
  3604. >"We will get there, Anon. Together, and in time."
  3605. >You wonder how often you will say these words to each other.
  3606. >But knowing your progress, the opportunities will be ample.
  3607. >You look back at the mare who enjoys herself on the wall.
  3608. >And you imagine this pony would be #deca.mare instead.
  3609. >You have considered to let her try this today, but you changed your mind.
  3610. >After your short action up front, you can fully understand how stressful it is for #deca.mare to be open for things she has never done before.
  3611. >The reasons may be different, yet the result is basically the same.
  3612. >No, you have achieved enough.
  3613. >It is time for you to spend some leisure time together before you get down to business again.
  3614. >As two normal guests at a party in Ponyville.
  3615. >After all, it is a sunny day in Equestria.
  3616. >Or so it currently seems, at least.
  3617. >It will not hurt to maintain this imagery for a short while.
  3618.  
  3619.  
  3620.  
  3621.  
  3622. 73
  3623.  
  3624. >The rest of the party is going along nicely without any major intervention of you or #deca.mare.
  3625. >Exactly what you wanted.
  3626. >You two just sit in the background and cheer with the group whenever Pinkie announces another player.
  3627. >You ask yourself whether she does this out of any routine, or if she is calling all these names out loud just for you two to know the pony you are rooting for.
  3628. >After all, the inhabitants in this town will know their own, so her announcements only make sense because of you.
  3629. >A somewhat vain effort to be honest, as #deca.mare could easily tell you the names of every pony if she needed to.
  3630. >Though Pinkie Pie does not know that.
  3631. >Presumably.
  3632. >Now granted, it would seem odd if you could cheer like the rest of them from the get-go, yet you believe it would not raise any eyebrows.
  3633. >The ponies around you would not care, and you no longer feel like being under the constant scrutiny of your host.
  3634. >Pinkie glances your way now and then with a friendly grin, but she leaves it at that.
  3635. >You manage to calm down considerably over time.
  3636. >The whole scenery still has quite the surreal touch to it from your perspective, but now that you are no longer in danger of getting dragged right into the middle, you can enjoy the situation without an issue.
  3637. >The game itself has become a subject of pure fun and recreation.
  3638. >A good number of other ponies beat your score, some even hit the sweet spot, but you do not bother about that.
  3639. >If anything, you are content that you can be swept away by the levity of it all, in spite of the challenges you have faced previously.
  3640. >But there is nevertheless a long road ahead of you.
  3641. >For both of you.
  3642.  
  3643.  
  3644.  
  3645.  
  3646. >Though as dear and joyous as the party is, it has to end eventually.
  3647. >At some point you mutually decide to let it come to its conclusion, and Pinkie Pie uses her gramophone one more time to play a sing along tune.
  3648. >Pinkie begins to sing, and the crowd forms a literal impromptu choir.
  3649. >A typical pony thing.
  3650. >Even #deca.mare does it.
  3651. >Her voice is subtly merging with the others.
  3652. >You can hear her initial uncertainty, but she is singing.
  3653. >This should hardly surprise you, all things considered.
  3654. >She knows all the relevant lyrics and tunes, and singing them properly is, at least in theory, not much more than following a simple instruction.
  3655. >Of course, one might argue that every individual singer will bring a personal touch to the performance, and this is true.
  3656. >But the principle still stands.
  3657. >#deca.mare can sing in a group, as she is showing you right now.
  3658. >She seems fine for as long as she does not have to take a leading role.
  3659. >And this is nice to see.
  3660. >However, it currently singles you out as the odd one.
  3661. >Hell, you do not even know the lyrics.
  3662. >No worries, Anon.
  3663. >I will sing for both of us.
  3664. >Just stay calm, nopony will notice.
  3665. >You look at the ponies.
  3666. >Everyone, including Pinkie Pie, is wholly preoccupied with singing.
  3667. >Perhaps you could take some singing lessons yourself at some point.
  3668. >Though other things have a much higher priority right now.
  3669. >The song reaches its end and the ponies applaud each other with another round of stomping the ground.
  3670. >They get up slowly, say goodbye to Pinkie, and leave the shop.
  3671. >The two of you wait until all the other guests have left.
  3672. >Then you approach Pinkie Pie to do the same.
  3673. >You figure she will wish to talk to you one last time.
  3674. >And given that she technically believes that she has organised everything just for you, it would be rude to leave without one last chat.
  3675.  
  3676.  
  3677.  
  3678.  
  3679. >Pinkie Pie expects you two as you draw closer.
  3680. >Things are a little easier for you now that Pinkie Pie is the only other pony around.
  3681. >You can face her directly, which makes it unlikely for her to scout your form in ways you would deem inappropriate.
  3682. >Not that she would actively do that, but anyway.
  3683. >"So, how was it? Was it exciting, hm? Did you have the fun I promised?"
  3684. >You try to smile sincerely.
  3685. "It was a blast! We had a lot of fun around here. Right, #deca?"
  3686. >"Right. It was a good party."
  3687. >Pinkie Pie jumps up into the air on the spot and without building up any momentum.
  3688. >Pinkie things, moving on.
  3689. "That's great! But you were so mopey at times."
  3690. >You try to deflect this notion again, as none of that is Pinkie's fault.
  3691. "Oh trust me, we liked it. Promise. It's just that..."
  3692. >Pinkie slowly tilts her head closer to you.
  3693. >"Yeeeees?"
  3694. "... we aren't used to it. Like we said."
  3695. >"I know. But that's all?"
  3696. "Uh huh. That's all. Your work was amazing. We'll definitively remember this day on our travels."
  3697. >Pinkie's ears droop.
  3698. >"You're leaving, aren't you?"
  3699. "Guess so."
  3700. >#deca.mare chimes in.
  3701. >"We are very busy with studying and working on our next big project. And for that we have to stay on the move."
  3702. >"That's okay. You do what you've got to do."
  3703. >Pinkie Pie lightens up again.
  3704. >"But pay us a visit the next time you're nearby! Ponyville is always open to guests and we can throw another party together!"
  3705. >"Gladly, Pinkie. But this may take a while."
  3706. >"Pff, no problem. You know how to find us and we won't go anywhere. It's not like a town will just go poof!"
  3707. >No comment.
  3708. >You sigh.
  3709. "Well, it has been fun, but our work calls us. Goodbye, Pinkie. And thank you."
  3710.  
  3711.  
  3712.  
  3713.  
  3714. >But Pinkie is not fully done yet.
  3715. >"Anon, #deca?"
  3716. "Hm?"
  3717. >"One last hug to part in friendship?"
  3718. >You are not keen on any more physical contact with her, but you cannot bring yourself to reject her request.
  3719. >You glance at #deca.mare.
  3720. >She nods.
  3721. "Okay."
  3722. >Pinkie rises up to wrap one forehoof around each of you, pulling you two to her and closer to each other.
  3723. >You are by all means entangled in a close three-way hug.
  3724. >Nothing unpleasant, but still not quite in your comfort zone.
  3725. >But this eventually over as well, and so you bid farewell and leave Sugarcube Corner.
  3726. >#deca.mare and you walk down the small steps side by side and then follow the road whence you came.
  3727. >And much to your personal chagrin, there are still ponies doing their own things everywhere.
  3728. >But unlike the guest during the party, these are not cramped together in one room and primed to watch every step of yours.
  3729. >You know they will fully mind their own business unless you approach them directly.
  3730. >So you just have to keep your distance, and everything will be fine.
  3731. >At first you are walking in silence as each of you processes the events of the party on your own.
  3732. >But after only a minute, you look back at the bakery.
  3733. >You spot Pinkie Pie still standing at the door, watching you as you leave.
  3734. >Your instincts initially tell you to seek cover, as your are giving her a pefect view on your rear, but your mind prevails.
  3735. >She is fortunately too far away to spot anything worth mentioning anyway.
  3736. >But you have another thought in mind.
  3737. "Hey, #deca."
  3738. >"Yes, Anon?"
  3739. "Is it strange that I feel bad for Pinkie?"
  3740. >"In what way?"
  3741. "Don't know. It feels like we leave a pony and her entire town behind just to disappear. Do you think she knows what will happen to her?"
  3742.  
  3743.  
  3744.  
  3745.  
  3746. >"Anon, these are still automatons. They are not truly aware of themselves, no matter how much it seems like it. It is an act."
  3747. "I get it. Though I can't shake that thought off. Aren't we destroying something somehow?"
  3748. >"Nothing will be lost, Anon. Your personal memories aside, we have all the logs safely stored in our archives."
  3749. >You nod in thought.
  3750. >But when the data will only be stored, possibly for an eternity, and get barely ever activated again, does this not equal an end?
  3751. >And why do you feel bad for an automaton?
  3752. >"Do you want to hear something funny?"
  3753. "What is it?"
  3754. >"I had similar musings when you mentioned the relationship between us and the harmony unit. It seemed silly at first, but you gave me some food for thought."
  3755. "Okay?"
  3756. >"I wondered about the automatons and the ways how we can use them. None of the machines can teach something productive to the harmony unit on their own because they can only work within their fixed roles."
  3757. >A breath.
  3758. >"But this premise does not include us. We can possibly make the difference."
  3759. "Well, yes. We're not fixed in our actions."
  3760. >"Exactly. So what if we can use the logs and our personal experiences to aid the harmony unit during its first steps?"
  3761. "You mean we could feed it with our own friendship reports."
  3762. >"Sort of. Of course some simple letters will not suffice, and we have to be very precise in our wordings and definitions, but think about it. Perhaps we can use our own lessons to found a basic template. A form of proto friendship lessons, if you will."
  3763. >#deca.mare smiles.
  3764. >"It would fit perfectly. Harmony shall learn to understand and interpret the wishes and aspirations of all living beings under its care, step by step. To create a harmonious world in which this world's denizens live their lives with the chance to make the most of their potential in the best environment we can provide."
  3765. >She looks at you.
  3766.  
  3767.  
  3768.  
  3769.  
  3770. >"With some planning and careful design choices, I am convinced that we can make use of this session too. And the spirit of today will always stay with us, in a way. Even if we were to never use the simulation again."
  3771. >#deca.mare stops in the middle of the road.
  3772. >"How does that sound to you? We could begin to contribute to Equestria's harmonious development right here and now. Of course our personal input alone will not make the breakthrough on which everything hinges, and the unit will need a very long time of stern monitoring in any case. But every little bit counts, true to the spirit of Equestria. Are you fine with that?"
  3773. "Rhetorical question, #deca. Of course I am."
  3774. >"Very well. We can start to form our first outline once we are back on the deck."
  3775. >You wait for a second and just take everything in the village in as it is.
  3776. >The ponies trotting on the streets, the smiles in their faces, and all the mundane, but peaceful lives they lead.
  3777. >If they were not simulated.
  3778. >You sigh and look at #deca.mare.
  3779. "So, I guess it's time to go then."
  3780. >"Hm, yes. Maybe."
  3781. >#deca.mare begins to grin.
  3782. >Oh no.
  3783. >It has been a while since you have seen that bringer of doom.
  3784. >Or at least the telltale signs of impending bashful inconvenience for your own person.
  3785. >"Oh, Anon. I forgot to mention one more thing. Just a minor detail."
  3786. >You expect the worst.
  3787. "Yes? I'm all ears."
  3788. >"My recollection involves a short moment in which Pinkie Pie has incidentally taken a good look at your scrotum."
  3789. >You freeze.
  3790. "What!"
  3791. >"There was nothing to it though. Trust me, I know."
  3792. "When? It was in one of the redacted gigs, right?"
  3793. >#deca.mare tries to sound casual, despite her sly notion.
  3794. >"Hm, in these too. But they do not count. No, it is in the 'real' one."
  3795. "Oh you've got to be kidding me!"
  3796. >You shake your head in disbelief.
  3797. "#deca, please tell me you aren't going to put a dirty joke into the harmony project just to tease me for eternity."
  3798.  
  3799.  
  3800.  
  3801.  
  3802. >You can only imagine what stupid events involving you could occur when that were the case.
  3803. >"Of course not. The project is much too important for such a crude prank."
  3804. >She smiles again.
  3805. >"But the logs will contain a factual report of what has transpired."
  3806. "Even... this?"
  3807. >"Yes. The reports are useless if they are not profound."
  3808. >You sit down on the road.
  3809. "Urgh. We're creating a world for generations to come, and its mantra starts with a story involving a mare who gawked at my bits. That aren't even mine, I guess."
  3810. >#deca.mare puts a reassuring hoof on your shoulder.
  3811. >"I may not have the same issue with my attire, but I understand how you are feeling."
  3812. >She snickers once.
  3813. >"And if it is any consolation, my blunders are on the record as well."
  3814. >You take a long breath.
  3815. "Right, sorry for the shouting."
  3816. >"Nothing to apologise for, Anon."
  3817. "But let's get me back to normal again, yes? I'm done presenting myself to others for today."
  3818. >"Sure. Close your eyes."
  3819. >A short moment of darkness, and you find yourself back in your familiar body.
  3820. >With clothes and all.
  3821. >You give #deca.mare another long hug and stand up.
  3822. "Phew, finally."
  3823. >Together you follow the road for a short while until you reach a familiar set of metal doors that seemingly stands freely in the air.
  3824. >It is time to have your own version of a friendship... debriefing.
  3825. >And maybe you can even get over the fact that this little session will end up in the future planetary data vaults of Equestria.
  3826. >Not the sort of thing you would have expected to contribute to the annals of an entire planet.
  3827. >But something good for the world at large could come out of it.
  3828. >So you will bear that in mind when you look back at the things that have transpired today.
  3829. >And a certain pink pony is still standing at the porch of the bakery.
  3830. >Pinkie Pie is quietly observing you until the very last second, when the metal doors close and block you from her sight.
  3831. >She never stops smiling.
  3832.  
  3833.  
  3834.  
  3835.  
  3836. 74
  3837.  
  3838. >Time keeps moving forward, and so do your studies.
  3839. >#deca.mare shows you more wonders and secrets of space.
  3840. >You inspect some of them up close with a fighter, while others of a more volatile nature require a safe distance.
  3841. >You get to see planets that nobody else has ever heard of.
  3842. >And #deca.mare gives you more ample opportunities to discover things.
  3843. >Everything from long range scans, planetary analysis, and classification of celestial objects.
  3844. >Likewise do you return the favour as her guardian in more simulated sessions.
  3845. >Sugarcube Corner was a promising trial run, and you mutually agreed to build on that initial success.
  3846. >Most of them are thankfully less of a hurdle for you than the first one was, but occasional hiccups still happen.
  3847. >You cannot reach quite the same level of direct casual contact that a normal pony would.
  3848. >Though you learn to endure some public exposure with your avatar.
  3849. >But this minor tension turns out to be a good thing for your progress, as you can indeed use the results for your work on the harmony unit.
  3850. >Or just Harmony, as you come to call it now.
  3851. >#deca.mare has found a way to translate both of your recollections into something that Harmony can understand.
  3852. >Though said reports have to be boiled down to a very specific format, given Harmony's early state of existence.
  3853. >All well and good for a start.
  3854. >However, #deca.mare points out that this alone is not intended to heavily affect Harmony's development.
  3855. >Your contribution shall function as a subtle primer, yes, but providing too much input of only two individuals this early on might actually hamper its natural growth.
  3856. >Harmony shall learn to grapple these things with its own devices.
  3857. >Your task is to make sure it can develop a sense for its namesake.
  3858. >For it is this entity that is meant to govern an entire world in the very distant future, and so it has to adapt to unforeseen upcoming challenges.
  3859.  
  3860.  
  3861.  
  3862.  
  3863. >It must be able to survive through its own merit.
  3864. >For itself, you two, and everybody else who is going to live in Equestria.
  3865. >In ways which are acceptable to Equestrian standards, of course.
  3866. >A daunting task to be sure, but you choose to remain optimistic.
  3867. >You have all the tools you need; you simply have to use them properly.
  3868. >You also make some progress in your other lessons as well.
  3869. >Especially your flight training yields improving results.
  3870. >It took you weeks over weeks, but you finally learn the flapping rhythm of a proper hovering stance.
  3871. >Granted, you only tested this in a height of a few centimetres, but at least you can hover almost naturally now.
  3872. >And #deca.mare has already developed some follow-up lessons for you.
  3873. >For instance, one such scenario puts you into an abstract simulation within an enclosing sphere.
  3874. >You are supposed to simply hover in one place while #deca.mare simulates several different wind types and currents that you might encounter in reality.
  3875. >This is a bit of a psychological challenge as well.
  3876. >The imagery suggests that you are entombed somewhere, but the dread is significantly reduced by the knowledge that you can quit any time with only a thought.
  3877. >Plus, there is another function to it.
  3878. >The "walls" of this sphere are shaped as if they were consisting of wind tunnels with ventilator ducts of varying sizes.
  3879. >And a small light accompanied by a subtle beeping sound tells you which ones will activate soon.
  3880. >That way you can mentally and physically brace yourself for what is to come.
  3881. >You will have no such premonition in the actual sky, but you are still a beginner.
  3882. >The initial challenges are not a problem for you.
  3883. >Some weaker winds from a side, a smaller turbulence that requires you to alternate your rhythm for a beat of two.
  3884. >Nothing major.
  3885. >Then you get to face some more advanced currents, and this is where you sometimes lose control and fly against a wall.
  3886.  
  3887.  
  3888.  
  3889.  
  3890. >Being inside a tamed simulation, you only feel a solid bump and nothing more.
  3891. >Although you could have sworn that some slip-up of this sort would be dire in a realistic scenario, #deca.mare always tells you that your body could have taken the hit.
  3892. >If this is true, and you have no reason to believe otherwise, then pony bodies are indeed remarkably resilient to damage.
  3893. >But to be fair, they were made to endure almost cartoon levels of stress, and are therefore heavily enhanced with the best cybernetic devices that were ever invented.
  3894. >#deca.mare does not cut corners when it comes to safety.
  3895. >You got to experience this for yourself, and now you witness how she prepares everything to render the same service to Equestria's future population.
  3896. >Their lives and very existence will be literally protected by the planet itself, yet this does not mean that they shall suffer from any preventable harm.
  3897. >And concerning Equestria as a whole, this project makes huge steps on its very own.
  3898. >You can see firsthand what exponential growth really means in practice.
  3899. >The handful of machines that you deployed only a few months ago have multiplied.
  3900. >The nexus has expanded in two more consecutive waves.
  3901. >Though it will not undergo another expansion directly; every new addition to the facilities will be built underground, safe from most environmental whims and, later on, prying eyes.
  3902. >And the nexus modules which currently are on the surface will be relocated soon as well.
  3903. >Only the solar panels will remain where they are.
  3904. >A quick scan reveals that a sizeable portion of the landmass is already claimed by proxy, as it is connected to the larger tunnel network.
  3905. >The project is on schedule, and the overall resource breakdown of the planet is yielding more precise results with every new run.
  3906. >The planet is indeed a promising candidate.
  3907. >You will not have to import resources any time soon.
  3908.  
  3909.  
  3910.  
  3911.  
  3912. >#deca.mare and you inspect the next stages of the plan.
  3913. >The drones will soon begin to found secondary and tertiary subterranean nexus compounds in more remote areas of the planetary grid.
  3914. >Also, the nexus has produced a small series of flying reconnaissance drones.
  3915. >These have two main objectives.
  3916. >One, they shall chart the arctic biotopes to find out how much of the area can be thawed to reduce the frozen mass to reasonable proportions in accordance to Equestrian maps.
  3917. >And two, how to best relay the released water so that you can create the necessary oceans and rivers.
  3918. >This will, unfortunately, take its time, as you cannot expect to fundamentally change a planet's surface within a day or two.
  3919. >But as luck will have it, you are not damned to wait.
  3920. >Where almost all previous #deca related projects would bide their time, you can do something else in the meantime.
  3921. >Because there will be no human settlers coming to Equestria.
  3922. >Meaning no external supply of either flora or fauna coming your way.
  3923. >So you will now personally plant the first seeds of a garden that would make Lily Valley proud.
  3924. >Thanks to #deca.mare's vast knowledge about almost everything related to planetary ecology, and the onboard biolab she built by herself, you have all the tools you need to proverbially brew plant life and other small organisms in your own kitchen.
  3925. >And since you develop wholly new samples out of centuries of collected data, you can use the available intel of the planet to pick the best selection of seeds and slightly tweak their characteristics to flourish in their new environment.
  3926. >However, Equestria has no existing bio mass and no fertile soil to speak of yet.
  3927. >You have to start from scratch with only a handful of sturdy pioneer specimen.
  3928. >They will lay the biological groundwork on the long way to shape the world into the beautiful image of a near paradise that Equestria shall become one day.
  3929.  
  3930.  
  3931.  
  3932.  
  3933. >#deca.mare is mainly responsible for the actual creation, with you playing more of an assisting role.
  3934. >But you nevertheless insist of delivering them to the surface "in person", just as you did with the six drones with which this whole project started.
  3935. >So you once again take control of a fighter squadron and drop the boxes with your precious wares on an empty and mostly flat plane near your central nexus.
  3936. >You steer your ships back home afterwards, where #deca.mare has an interesting proposition for you.
  3937. >She insists that dropping the delivery is only a small part of the whole event.
  3938. >And she wants the two of you to be present for the next big moment.
  3939. >As far as that is possible.
  3940.  
  3941.  
  3942.  
  3943.  
  3944. 75
  3945.  
  3946. >On Equestria's dusty surface, near the landing zone.
  3947. >A trio of ground utility units are driving in formation.
  3948. >They carry the containers which you have dropped on the very same day only an hour ago.
  3949. >Today is the day on which you have finally brought the first traces of life to this world.
  3950. >#deca.mare has calculated the ideal location to release the samples, and the drones are bringing the containers to said place for that exact reason.
  3951. >You two are present as well.
  3952. >You are sitting on a broad and very comfortable beach chair which you have installed atop the cargo area of the leading drone.
  3953. >#deca.mare is lying right at your side.
  3954. >Her head resting quietly on your lap.
  3955. >Boxes and crates are everywhere around you.
  3956. >The air is mild and comfortable, at least in your perception.
  3957. >And you are wearing a light summer outfit with a pair of shades.
  3958. >Your elevated position grants you a perfect view on everything around the drone, though there is not much to see except dust and some hills in the distance.
  3959. >A gentle breeze is tickling your skin as you reach out for a glass that stands nearby on a small round straw table.
  3960. "Cold drink?"
  3961. >"Not right now, thank you."
  3962. >You take a good sip and put the glass back on the table.
  3963. >Then you look around and observe the pretty monochrome scenery before you lean back and let Celestia's rays warm your skin.
  3964. >You close your eyes and carefully scratch #deca.mare's neck.
  3965. >She nuzzles your chest with her cheek in response.
  3966. "You know, I've never had a planet leave like this before. Safari ride, check. Good company and food, check. Founding a new habitable world, check. That's quality luxury."
  3967. >"Hmhm."
  3968. "Maybe we should have brought some music though. The wind and the buzzing of motors aren't the best entertainment."
  3969. >"I do not need any."
  3970. >You raise your shades and look at #deca.mare.
  3971. "Are you okay? I thought you'd be happy. It was your idea, after all."
  3972. >#deca.mare nuzzles you some more.
  3973.  
  3974.  
  3975.  
  3976.  
  3977. >"I am content, Anon. This is fine for me."
  3978. "Really? Just content? We're making your dream come true and you are not swept away? Allow yourself to be excited, #deca. This is our big day!"
  3979. >You silently wish for more days like this one to come.
  3980. >And your are very optimistic that is will be the case.
  3981. >With all the success you had in the last weeks, things really seem to go nothing but upwards for you two.
  3982. >"I cherish the moment in my own way, Anon. Believe me, I am glad to be here. With you."
  3983. >You kiss #deca.mare on the forehead whilst she presses herself against your body.
  3984. >Then you lean back again and enjoy your sun bath with #deca.mare.
  3985. >And although #deca.mare is covering large parts of your arm and chest, you would not have it any other way.
  3986. >Her warmth means more to you personally than that of a distant star.
  3987. >Even if the sun carries a royal name.
  3988. >Some minutes pass.
  3989. "Say, how long until we're there?"
  3990. >"Twenty-seven minutes, forty seconds, Anon."
  3991. "More than enough time for a massage. Come and hop on. You need it."
  3992. >"And your sun bath?"
  3993. "Figure it's not as precious as you."
  3994. >You motion #deca.mare to move.
  3995. >She climbs onto your body in a familiar fashion.
  3996. >Her chest against yours, forehooves on your shoulders, and her head next to yours, cheek on cheek.
  3997. >With your eyes still closed and behind shades, you blindly reach out for #deca.mare's back.
  3998. >You have enough experience with it to know where you have to apply pressure to get the best effect.
  3999. "We aren't starting until you're happy and relaxed. Just content won't do."
  4000. >"Anon,..."
  4001. "Nope. Can't have that. This is a vacation, and it's only fine when all your bad thoughts are driven out."
  4002. >So you begin to knead and massage her back and flanks, up and down.
  4003. >#deca.mare presses herself stronger against you, and you take that as a sign that you do things right.
  4004. >Yet there is still room for more.
  4005.  
  4006.  
  4007.  
  4008.  
  4009. >#deca.mare has gotten much less vulnerable to physical contact over the time you have spent together, so you need to apply more than just a little pressure to get a strong reaction.
  4010. >But this is also a good thing.
  4011. >Because you do not have to worry about unintentionally riling her up in other ways with only a simple massage anymore.
  4012. >You could quickly change that if you wished for and target more intimate spots, but you frankly do not feel the urge to push it.
  4013. >When it happens naturally, it happens.
  4014. >If not, this is fine too; explicit love works best within reason.
  4015. >Nevertheless, you have learned your lessons on where to work your magic with your hands.
  4016. >And you never fail to get some muffled moans of pleasure out of #deca.mare, even when you keep things at that tame level.
  4017. "See, there are still some sore spots to treat."
  4018. >#deca.mare tries to object at first, but she is enjoying the treatment far too much to really come up with any valid objection.
  4019. "I'll keep going all the way up to the target if I have to."
  4020. >You mean it, and #deca.mare is fully aware of this.
  4021. "So lighten up before I get numb fingers."
  4022. >And as soon as #deca.mare wants to point out that this is technically not possible unless you explicitly want it to be, you double down with just a little more pressure here and there.
  4023. >No protests today, only festive thoughts and relaxation.
  4024. >Even if you have to knead the mare on your lap into a pleasant stupor.
  4025. >You massage her without a pause, and #deca.mare never weakens her grip around you.
  4026. >Not for a second.
  4027. >You are spending a considerable while in this position, but #deca.mare speaks again at some point.
  4028. >"Anon, careful."
  4029. >At first you think this is another brooding thought that needs to be kneaded away, but it does not seem like it, as she reaches for something.
  4030. >However, your lock around her body prevents just that.
  4031. "Hm? What's up?"
  4032. >"Bump."
  4033. "What?"
  4034.  
  4035.  
  4036.  
  4037.  
  4038. >The question answers itself as the drone suddenly rocks back and forth in one swift move.
  4039. >The chair moves a little under your combined weight as you shift around, but it remains standing.
  4040. >Yet the straw table does not.
  4041. >It keels over, dropping your glass in the process.
  4042. >Said glass shatters and spills its liquid all over the cargo area.
  4043. >The crates are not affected in the slightest, but your drink is gone.
  4044. >"Sorry, I tried to warn you, Anon. The ground is a bit less even here."
  4045. "Apparently."
  4046. >You look at the broken shards.
  4047. "Dammit. That kills the spirit."
  4048. >You reach under your chair and grab another glass filled with a drink out of thin air.
  4049. >The shards and the puddles have disappeared.
  4050. >The immersion is gone now, but at least you can still make the best of it.
  4051. "Hey #deca, what's the latency, by the way?"
  4052. >"With this short range between us and here, it is less than a second."
  4053. >So not enough time for her to warn you in advance, should it happen again.
  4054. >Oh well.
  4055. >You take another swig and repeat your offer to #deca.mare.
  4056. >This time she accepts.
  4057. >She rolls to the side, grabs the glass between her limbs, and drinks.
  4058. >More than one sip.
  4059. >Not a great deal though, as you have no real limit.
  4060. >"Maybe I should try it too."
  4061. "Try what?"
  4062. >"The sun bath. Perhaps it will become another hobby of mine."
  4063. >#deca.mare, now with a pair of shades on her own her head, rolls herself to lie right next to you, belly upwards.
  4064. >Her hooves dangle casually in the air.
  4065. >And the glass is safely clamped between her forelegs.
  4066. >You chuckle.
  4067. "Isn't it already? I mean, you spent a lot of time near stars anyway."
  4068. >You correct yourself.
  4069. "We do."
  4070. >"This is something different. You know that, Anon. We need the energy to sustain ourselves."
  4071. >She points up towards Celestia with one of her forehooves.
  4072.  
  4073.  
  4074.  
  4075.  
  4076. >"But I still have no idea what to do when we finally make it there. To the proper, populated Equestria."
  4077. "And you think sun bathing is a neat hobby."
  4078. >You feel how #deca.mare shrugs.
  4079. >"As good as a hobby as many others, is it not? Ponies have a special relationship to their sun and moon, so why should I not bask in their presence?"
  4080. "Maybe. Though I don't think the ponies of an earlier age will share this notion, #deca."
  4081. >"This is true. Could you please take the glass?"
  4082. >You comply.
  4083. >#deca.mare rolls herself back into her initial position.
  4084. >Lying on her belly, with her head on your legs.
  4085. >But she keeps her shades.
  4086. >"Ponies are not meant to lie squarely on their backs for prolonged periods of time anyway."
  4087. "I didn't mean you should knock it, #deca."
  4088. >"I know. That idea was only a stray thought of mine in the first place though."
  4089. >Both of you fall silent to doze in peace.
  4090. >The drone hits another few bumps.
  4091. >But these are much weaker than the first.
  4092. >You take a couple of sips until the glass is finally empty.
  4093. >Shortly thereafter, you hear a thundering roar coming from the skies.
  4094. >You turn your head towards the source of that booming noise and spot a flying drone in the air.
  4095. >It passes your position, far above your heads.
  4096. >The sound follows the craft with a small delay, indicating its breakneck speed and height.
  4097. >This unholy disruption of peace and quiet heads for the same place as you do.
  4098. >"Oh, Anon. The first water samples for the plants have arrived. Fresh from the Equestrian North Cap."
  4099. "Pointing out the obvious. They're faster than I thought."
  4100. >"This one is. I have classified the first vessel as high priority because I wanted to have some water ready when we release our cargo. The others will follow soon."
  4101.  
  4102.  
  4103.  
  4104.  
  4105. "Well, okay. As long as it doesn't screw the schedule. I don't want the routines to turn into pricks again just because we changed some things around."
  4106. >"Nothing critical, Anon. One ship only delivers its cargo a little earlier than the rest. I made sure they all return to the base in time to get prepared for their next routine flights."
  4107. >You nod.
  4108. "Time?"
  4109. >"Two minutes, ten seconds."
  4110. "We should get up then. Don't want to keep the drones waiting."
  4111. >You give #deca.mare a kiss before you two stand up and walk towards the edge of the cargo area.
  4112. >You secure your grip by putting your hands on the rim of the railing that keeps all the crates neatly stacked and in order, and watch the scenery in front of you.
  4113. >#deca.mare rears up to "grab" the metal with her forehooves as well.
  4114. >And in a sudden inspiration, you must smile.
  4115. "Remember when we stood like this in the chamber in Canterlot?"
  4116. >#deca.mare nods slowly.
  4117. >"Naturally, Anon. How could I forget that day?"
  4118. >You focus on the rough and seemingly uninviting plains.
  4119. >A dust devil is dancing in the distance.
  4120. >Somewhere between you and the hill, yet far enough away as to not pose a threat to your cargo.
  4121. >You compare this with your own mental image of Equestria.
  4122. >And the memories you have of your very first day within the simulation.
  4123. >The contrast could barely be any greater.
  4124. >And yet, you can imagine how all of this land will some day be covered in grass and forests.
  4125. >With rivers flowing through every region.
  4126. >A world where the days are merry, and the nights peaceful.
  4127. >You had these thoughts many, many times.
  4128. >And you have often imagined how it would be to finally plant the very first roots of life on this world.
  4129. >Because for all the impressive technology and complexity behind the making of the automatons, they are just a means to an end.
  4130. >Cold unthinking constructs, with no ability to truly understand, reflect, or feel.
  4131.  
  4132.  
  4133.  
  4134.  
  4135. >Plants already mark a huge leap in progress towards your goal, as these are actual living beings.
  4136. >And whilst they have no explicit way to reflect on their environment like sapient species would do, they nevertheless have a limited awareness in them.
  4137. >You would not go so far as to claim that they possess a spirit or a soul, but they contribute to an overwhelmingly significant degree to Equestria's sheer existence.
  4138. >As such, they mean something to #deca.mare.
  4139. >Not only as tools to populate this planet with ponies, but also as living species that exist.
  4140. >This is reflected in the work itself as well; the plant seeds, spores, and everything else you have made together, they all carry a set of markers.
  4141. >Both in the forms of biological marks, as well as mechanical nano-machines.
  4142. >The data collected about them and the logs that contain their relevant data will be preserved, even when the individual plants themselves have no discernable personality that could be kept.
  4143. >"One minute warning, Anon."
  4144. >You turn to #deca.mare.
  4145. "Thanks. We should do it now before we let them free."
  4146. >#deca.mare nods.
  4147. >"Agreed."
  4148. >You turn around and casually lean on the edge of the holding area, facing a camera that is mounted on a crate.
  4149. >#deca.mare stands right next to you, slightly leaning against your side, and also looking at the lens.
  4150. >A faint clicking mechanism can be heard, followed by a familiar snap and flash.
  4151. >The shot got you two in front of the railing, some crates to the sides, and the background, dust devil and hills included.
  4152. >You wonder whether #deca.mare has planned this composition in advance.
  4153. >But even if she did, you figure that the motive is fine as it is.
  4154. >Your leading drone comes to a halt only a moment later.
  4155. >The other two will drive on for a few hundred metres before they stop as well.
  4156.  
  4157.  
  4158.  
  4159.  
  4160. >You stretch your body.
  4161. "So, this is the famed place."
  4162. >"Indeed. My forecasts for the wind currents indicate that this is the best place to release the plants today. The wind will carry the spores whilst the drones will manually plant the seeds that require the effort."
  4163. >You turn around on the elevated platform, looking for something specific which you cannot spot in the area.
  4164. "Where did the thing drop the water tank? I can't see it anywhere."
  4165. >"It landed about two kilometres in the north-west. Unit two will retrieve it in time.
  4166. "So we're set."
  4167. >"Yes."
  4168. "Showtime then."
  4169. >You grab the railing once more and hoist your body over the edge with one leap.
  4170. >A puff of reddish dust erupts as your feet land on the ground, yet your shoes remain in their pristine condition.
  4171. >You walk five steps away from the drone before you turn around.
  4172. "Come on and risk the leap, #deca. The water is great!"
  4173. >You think you hear a murmuring comment coming your way, but a thick plate of metal and some crates turn #deca.mare's voice to something incomprehensible.
  4174. >You hear the sound of hooves hitting metal in a quick succession.
  4175. >She takes the leaping part literally.
  4176. >You grin and whisper.
  4177. "Two can play this game."
  4178. >Even if she reads your mind almost in real-time, she cannot possibly stop now under realistic conditions.
  4179. >And your are correct.
  4180. >#deca.mare's frame shoots over the edge in a typical equine leap, aiming straight for a point next to you.
  4181. >Unless you randomly decide to step right into her path.
  4182. >Her eyes widen in surprise, and you stretch out your arms.
  4183. >"Anon!"
  4184. >You quickly wrap your arms around her barrel as you two collide.
  4185. >The impact makes you stagger backwards, but you anticipated this.
  4186. >Rather than trying to resist, you decide to roll with it.
  4187. >You turn your body around with the force as if you were dancing.
  4188. >And of course, with #deca.mare in your grasp.
  4189. >You do a full rotation, and then another just for fun.
  4190.  
  4191.  
  4192.  
  4193.  
  4194. >In the end you stand still, holding #deca.mare closely pressed against your body.
  4195. "Oh look, I caught myself a pony."
  4196. >#deca.mare pants, but also chuckles a little.
  4197. >"Anon, you are a goof."
  4198. "If you say so."
  4199. >You try to act nonchalantly, though a faint smile cracks through your facade.
  4200. >And you let her down almost immediately.
  4201. >Jokes are nice and sometimes necessary, but you are on the clock.
  4202. >The two of you look at the drone.
  4203. "Any last remark before we begin? This would be a good moment for a few words."
  4204. >"I am unsure what I could say. You know I have never held any public speeches. Do you have an idea?"
  4205. "Maybe one."
  4206. >You take a breath.
  4207. "Look around, #deca. And remember everything well. This will never be the same planet once the order is given."
  4208. >She nods, and waits for another short moment.
  4209. "Shall we?"
  4210. >"Give the word, Anon."
  4211. >You initialise the sequence.
  4212. >And the drone right in front of you comes to life again.
  4213. >It extracts a variety of different arms and even more tools to unload and unlock the containers you have brought with you.
  4214. >These contain a myriad of transparent vials, all filled with different specimen.
  4215. >You look over to one of the other units.
  4216. >The vehicle is quite a distance away, yet you can witness that similar things are happening over there, albeit with slightly different containers.
  4217. >You have studied the container list well in advance; you can tell with certainty that you are looking at unit three.
  4218. >This one contains mostly spores.
  4219. >Number two has most of the actual proper seeds, comparable to the ones you have trained with in your winter session.
  4220. >Hence its dependence on water.
  4221. >You initially wanted to tag along with this drone, yet deemed it as unpractical, as it does not simply expose most of its load to the wind.
  4222.  
  4223.  
  4224.  
  4225.  
  4226. >Unlike the other two, it actually has to distribute the things, meaning that it has to drive pretty long ways.
  4227. >Trip to the water tank not included.
  4228. >And since you wanted to turn this occasion into your first vacation under realistic conditions, that would have meant a lot of mandatory walking, or being restricted to sitting in the cargo area for the whole process.
  4229. >Also whilst it is constantly busy with unloading things.
  4230. >Not your vision of a relaxing trip.
  4231. >Oh well, the glass broke that immersion already, so there is that.
  4232. >Regardless, you pay close attention to each crate and phial as they are slowly opened, one by one.
  4233. >You have spent weeks together to "brew" and cultivate all of these things, and a part of you silently protests against simply tossing them away in the wind now.
  4234. >Even though this is precisely the purpose for which they were made.
  4235. >Every dose is carefully calculated, and each vial meant to be opened in a precisely predicted moment.
  4236. >The random factor shall be kept as small as possible, and #deca.mare has become a master of this craft.
  4237. >So you watch in silence with #deca.mare until every last vial is emptied by the machine.
  4238. >The moment may not seem grand by the mere looks of it; the machine repeats the same action over and over.
  4239. >And you quickly lose sight of the tiny dots in the air as they are blown away.
  4240. >It seems as if nothing has happened at all, expect for the now empty containers.
  4241. >But both of you know about its gravity in the long run.
  4242. >Once the cargo has been completely released into the air, the drone packs up everything and is ready to head home.
  4243. "Well, that was it. How about we take the ride back before we pull the plug, hm? I say let's have some more downtime before we get back to work."
  4244. >"Gladly. But..."
  4245. "Yeah?"
  4246. >"Can you help me up? Hooves are not very good for climbing almost vertical walls."
  4247. "Sure."
  4248.  
  4249.  
  4250.  
  4251.  
  4252. >You pick her up with your arms, walk to the drone, and hold her as high as you can.
  4253. >It almost looks like it is not enough, but #deca.mare manages to get a grip on the railing and heave herself over somehow.
  4254. >Not the most graceful act you have ever seen, though it got the job done.
  4255. >Then you climb up the machine yourself.
  4256. >A little bit of a challenge, as it was not primarily designed with human or equine passengers in mind, but you find enough little niches and crevices to make it.
  4257. "Hey, what happened to the chair and table?"
  4258. >Both of them are gone without a trace.
  4259. >And no drinks either.
  4260. >#deca.mare shrugs.
  4261. >You sigh.
  4262. "Maybe a different trial run would have been better."
  4263. >Table, chair and drink return with a thought.
  4264. >You sit down and invite #deca.mare to sit right next to you.
  4265. >Or on you, like before.
  4266. >#deca.mare goes with the second option.
  4267. >You can see a request in her eyes, one that she does not say out loud.
  4268. "Alright, you get another massage. But only if you watch the glass this time."
  4269. >"With pleasure, Anon. I can do that."
  4270. >You start with your end of the bargain, kneading #deca.mare on the spots she likes the most.
  4271. >Her thrilled noises mix with the whirring of the engine as the drone turns around and heads back to the central nexus.
  4272. >You have about half an hour worth of this live event left, so you make it count.
  4273. >And you swear to watch a recording of the other two units.
  4274. >You could not be there in spirit like you are here, but these events deserve to be watched.
  4275. >Even if only as a record.
  4276.  
  4277.  
  4278.  
  4279.  
  4280. 76
  4281.  
  4282. >A new morning in Canterlot.
  4283. >You wake up in the loving embrace of #deca.mare, and she in yours.
  4284. >The two of you get out of bed and go through your daily routines.
  4285. >Dressing, breakfast, and your morning talks.
  4286. >Everything is as usual and yet not quite the same.
  4287. >Things look a bit different to you, now that you have planted the first seeds on Equestria's surface.
  4288. >You have got an impression of urgency creeping up in your mind.
  4289. >You are making progress on the planet and in your personal studies.
  4290. >But it seems as if you are lacking behind when it comes to #deca.mare's training.
  4291. >The sessions are helping a lot to deal with her general issues in social settings.
  4292. >However, it is not the only challenge she has to face.
  4293. >Neither of you has found a suitable pony activity for her yet.
  4294. >One that #deca.mare can use to live an unassuming life amongst ponies.
  4295. >And even though you have a lot of time until this issue will become critical, you wonder whether you should tackle it with another approach.
  4296. >"Oh? I am open to new ideas."
  4297. >Your gaze wanders over to #deca.mare while you walk down the ramp and towards the chair.
  4298. >You say nothing until you have reached the seat.
  4299. >The small wooden figurine has not left its place.
  4300. >It guarded the chair in your absence.
  4301. >You smile.
  4302. "Take a seat."
  4303. >#deca.mare hops on the chair in her usual fashion, waiting for you to follow.
  4304. >But you do not take your seat next to her for once.
  4305. >Instead, you sit down on the floor right in front of #deca.mare.
  4306. >You motion her to keep her upper body down and lounge where she lies.
  4307. >She does.
  4308. >Your eyes are now almost on the same height as hers and you are only centimetres apart from each other.
  4309. >You inhale loudly before you begin.
  4310. "You know, I've been thinking for a while."
  4311. >#deca.mare nods.
  4312. >She knows, of course.
  4313. "Right. Let's get straight to the point. I think we should discuss a new tactic for you."
  4314.  
  4315.  
  4316.  
  4317.  
  4318. >"You believe our sessions are not effective enough, correct?"
  4319. >You shake your head.
  4320. "I wouldn't put it like that. They're good the way they are because they help both of us. You know what I mean."
  4321. >"I do."
  4322. "But I believe we should consider different means to find some activities. Something that is more systematic and not based on pure luck."
  4323. >"Though you have no idea what that new method is."
  4324. >You sigh.
  4325. "No. Not yet, at least. That's why I want to talk about this now. Let's have a little brainstorming."
  4326. >"If you think it helps, gladly. Would you like to start?"
  4327. >You nod.
  4328. "Okay. I think I've got something. Tell me, do you have any plans as to when exactly you want to pay Equestria a visit in person?"
  4329. >"You mean in relation to Equestria's timeline?"
  4330. "Yep."
  4331. >"I thought of several varying scenarios since we have begun our work on this world and re-evaluated my own thoughts. My answer to this question depends on how well the project responds to the integration of ponies and all the other creatures. There are still many unknown factors left."
  4332. "Sounds like you want to go in as soon as possible."
  4333. >"Yes."
  4334. >#deca.mare looks to the side.
  4335. >"If I can prove myself that I am able to."
  4336. >You put a hand on #deca.mare's forehoof, and caress it fondly.
  4337. "Don't doubt that, we will make it happen. Focus on the present."
  4338. >"Right, thank you. But we cannot simply go whenever we fancy doing it. No, we have to wait, observe and monitor. Especially when we are starting to populate the planet. Even I have never done anything like this before, so we have to remain very careful from now on. Every step counts and each little detail is important. Equestria's safety is our top priority. Other points may become moot when something goes wrong. And this not acceptable."
  4339. "Yeah I know, we've been through that. I wouldn't have agreed to these plans otherwise. This wasn't my point though."
  4340. >You softly tap her leg with a finger.
  4341.  
  4342.  
  4343.  
  4344.  
  4345. "Assuming we get it all right and done quickly, you are prepared and nothing else is left in our way, would you go immediately?"
  4346. >#deca.mare answers on the spot.
  4347. >"I think so. Assuming you are ready too, of course."
  4348. >You recall everything you know about Equestrian history, with a focus on the age of pre-diarchy Equestria.
  4349. >When this place technically did not even bear this name.
  4350. "Are you sure? This is a rough time to be around. It doesn't look like anything we know of Ponyville or other places. Things will be more serious than just fun and games."
  4351. >#deca.mare is thinking about something; her demeanour is unmistakable.
  4352. "Say what's on your mind, please. You don't have to hide your thoughts from me."
  4353. >"May I ask you something before I respond?"
  4354. "Shoot."
  4355. >"Now that our first steps lie behind us, and with your studies going along nicely, when did you plan to visit Equestria for the first time?"
  4356. >You rummage through your mind for a few seconds.
  4357. "Probably around the time of the unification. I mean, how are supposed to spend our time together if the three tribes haven't found a common ground yet?"
  4358. >"I see. But you know that it will take many years until Equestria reaches that point? This world is no longer a show, Anon. It is about to become reality. With its own linear history and timeline."
  4359. "Just out of curiosity, how long do you think it will take from the first generation of ponies up to a united Equestria?"
  4360. >"This is difficult to predict with the limited intel we have at the moment, but years are in all due likelihood an understatement. It could take decades."
  4361. >You jolt in surprise.
  4362. "Decades? Really?"
  4363. >"Considering that the average pony lifespan exceeds centuries, it may be even longer."
  4364. "Now you're pulling my leg."
  4365. >"Not at all, Anon. I take my work very seriously. And it is even established in Equestria's lore."
  4366. >This causes your mind to spin.
  4367. >Though #deca.mare does not stop there.
  4368.  
  4369.  
  4370.  
  4371.  
  4372. >"And I am fully aware that it will be rougher than what we see in the show. It is a much earlier stage in the harmonic development."
  4373. >Now it is her term to pet the back of your hand with her hoof.
  4374. >"But you forget something, Anon. The spirit of Harmony will already be there. Only as a fraction of what it can be, yet it will manifest itself. Equestria is not an antagonistic world for the most part, and it will show even in its darkest hours."
  4375. >#deca.mare's reasoning has a sound logic to it.
  4376. >It will most likely not be as bad as you fear.
  4377. >The hardships in this world will be trivial compared to the reality of other places.
  4378. "You know, forget what I said about the unification. I don't think we can wait that long anyway."
  4379. >"So..."
  4380. "We take your plan. Pre-Equestria it is."
  4381. >You take a breath.
  4382. >One step forward, an infinite number yet to go.
  4383. "Alright, that's settled. And it helps us a bit too."
  4384. >"You mean this decision gives us a clear point of reference to work with."
  4385. "Exactly. We can focus on things that are commonplace amongst Earth ponies of that time. What would these be?"
  4386. >"Mostly agricultural and mundane activities. Farming, herbalism, forestry, carpentry. These things. A lot of ponies with special talents which involve nature directly, or working with natural produce in one way or another. Perhaps also a little trade and bartering, although on a much smaller scale."
  4387. "But there can be outliers."
  4388. >"Yes. As you know, a pony's talent is not necessarily determined by the blood line."
  4389. "Well, that's our first clue then. We could try more craftsmanship for you."
  4390. >"Why exactly that?"
  4391. >You look at the figurine at your side and smile.
  4392. "You're not used to physical labour. Think back to the plough."
  4393. >#deca.mare closes her eyes.
  4394. >"Ah yes."
  4395.  
  4396.  
  4397.  
  4398.  
  4399. >A vague outline of possible activities forms in your head.
  4400. >And now that you think of it, these could be helpful for you too.
  4401. >You will get more chances to practice with your avatar as #deca.mare's partner.
  4402. >Heeding the advice of the saying, never let a good opportunity go to waste.
  4403. >Even if you are not going to mask yourself as an Earth...
  4404. >Wait a second.
  4405. "Hey #deca, one more thing."
  4406. >"Hm?"
  4407. "You have dodged my question earlier. How are we supposed to stay together when the ponies still live apart? Pegasi and Earth ponies don't mingle much before the unification."
  4408. >#deca.mare looks at you with a strange notion in her eyes.
  4409. >Something along the line of amused determination.
  4410. >"Let me handle this challenge."
  4411. >As enigmatic as an answer can get.
  4412. "There is something else to it that you are not telling me."
  4413. >"I have an idea."
  4414. "But you're not telling me what it is?"
  4415. >"Not yet. We will come to it in due time."
  4416. >#deca.mare nudges you reassuringly with her nuzzle.
  4417. >"Just give me more time to prepare."
  4418. >You have no idea what she could be planning, but you believe in her judgement.
  4419. "Fine. We will come back to that."
  4420. >You get up and take your usual seat right next to #deca.mare.
  4421. >She shuffles her body around to give you the space to make yourself comfortable.
  4422. >Then she presses herself against you as always.
  4423. >Your hand glides slowly through the hair of her mane as you two focus on the main screen.
  4424. >It depicts a list with your plans for today.
  4425. "Okay, we need to add some carpentry lessons to this thing."
  4426. >"Hmhm. I think we do."
  4427.  
  4428.  
  4429.  
  4430.  
  4431. 77
  4432.  
  4433. >The two of you create a simulated workshop setting for #deca.mare's lesson.
  4434. >It is set in a house that was built in the style of Ponyville architecture.
  4435. >And as such, the décor is elegant and pleasing to look at, yet not advanced.
  4436. >The available tools are made of sturdy wood and iron, and require complete manual operation via physical effort.
  4437. >You enter the workshop through the main entrance and find the usual pieces of equipment next to the assorted workbenches.
  4438. >Hammers, saws, nails, joints, and a multitude of other things are hanging on the walls.
  4439. >Wooden planks and similar building materials are stored in the direct vicinity as well.
  4440. >Additionally, the design of all tools is slightly altered in order to be usable with a mouth and a pair of hooves, but their general purposes are nevertheless recognisable.
  4441. >"This is the place. Do you need to edit something?"
  4442. >You quickly inspect the room.
  4443. >Everything is precisely as you had imagined it to be.
  4444. >Since you already have some personal experience with woodwork, only as layman but still something at least, you insisted to take care of the exact layout of the bench and tools.
  4445. >Considering the challenges you faced while you were carving your figurine for #deca.mare, and what you know about her preferences, it was the best choice.
  4446. >She may know much more about how all of this is best be done in theory, yet without experience from a personal point of view.
  4447. >Much like your cooking sessions or the massage, you are about to present her a new perspective on things.
  4448. >And the design of the workshop embodies just that.
  4449. "Don't have to. It's looking good so far."
  4450. >"Am I hearing a light hint of self gratification in your voice?"
  4451. >You nudge #deca.mare's flank with your hand.
  4452. "Pft. It wasn't meant like this."
  4453. >You smile.
  4454. "But maybe I should make this more about me."
  4455. >#deca.mare's tail hits the side of your leg as she passes by.
  4456. >"You would not do that."
  4457.  
  4458.  
  4459.  
  4460.  
  4461. >You fake a sigh and do not even try to hide your amusement.
  4462. "No, you're right."
  4463. >#deca.mare trots around the benches and studies every piece with an unusual curiosity.
  4464. >She knows what they are, how they work, and what they are used for like a true master.
  4465. >And yet she has barely ever touched any tool personally.
  4466. >Once again an unusual situation.
  4467. >But unusual has become the norm for you.
  4468. >Instead of making a great fuss about it, you simply jump right in.
  4469. "I assume you don't have any technical questions."
  4470. >She nods.
  4471. "Okay. So here's my plan: I thought we build something simple and practical. Hm... how about a table?"
  4472. >#deca.mare's ears perk up.
  4473. >You see what she is trying to refer to.
  4474. "A basic and functional one, not that abstract thing that the three were building."
  4475. >She sticks her tongue out.
  4476. >Seems like #deca.mare is trying to take this on with her playful side.
  4477. >That is a bonus in your eyes; a good attitude alone does almost half of the work.
  4478. >So you play with her.
  4479. >You step up to #deca.mare, get a good grip on her body, and carefully plant her on the stool at the bench.
  4480. >It is rather low and comparatively wide for a seating, but you made this with #deca.mare's shape in mind.
  4481. >If you were to work for hours on these things, you would have some issues with the proportions in this house.
  4482. >But they are suitable for #deca.mare, and this is all that matters here.
  4483. >"Anon, would you prefer to switch over for the session?"
  4484. >You shake your head.
  4485. "This is for you, #deca. I think I can help you more when I stay like this."
  4486. >"Alright. And thank you."
  4487. >You quickly rub #deca.mare' back and shoulders to warm her up.
  4488. "Feeling ready?"
  4489. >"I think so."
  4490.  
  4491.  
  4492.  
  4493.  
  4494. >So you get to it.
  4495. >#deca.mare does the brunt of the work, with you assisting her in every way you can.
  4496. >You bring her the material and tools, hold some things for her, and crack the occasional joke when it is appropriate.
  4497. >But you deliberately let #deca.mare do all of the actual crafting so that she can get a personal impression of how it is to work as a pony.
  4498. >You start with the top plate of the table.
  4499. >You take a considerably sturdy piece of wood and put it on the bench.
  4500. "So what shall it be? A round one or a rectangle?"
  4501. >"Cuboid."
  4502. "Eh, you know what I meant. Is that an answer or a correction?"
  4503. >#deca.mare looks at you, lightly entertained.
  4504. >"Maybe both?"
  4505. >You run with the joke and clamp the wood tightly.
  4506. "Okay, this one's fixed. Sawing off the edges shouldn't be a problem."
  4507. >"Anon, could you help me with the saw? It is easier to use the large one for two ponies."
  4508. "Yep. But you have to take measures first."
  4509. >"I already know where we have to cut, Anon."
  4510. "No wonder. But I don't think that other ponies have an absolute pristine precision. So unless you want to strike a career as an Equestrian prodigy or cheat somehow, we have to do it the normal way."
  4511. >"Fair point."
  4512. >#deca.mare stands up and reaches for a measuring tape.
  4513. >She places the tape carefully on the wood in astutely exact angles and attaches it to the wooden surface to keep it in place.
  4514. >The she bites down on a nearby pencil and draws a line.
  4515. >#deca.mare quickly looks at the result, unhinges the tape, and repeats the same process three times.
  4516. >Now you have a rectangle drawn on the wood.
  4517. "Better. Time to hit the saw then."
  4518. >You grab the long saw blade with a handle on each end and place it right on the first line.
  4519. >#deca.mare gets a hold on the other side.
  4520. "You start. I'll follow your tact."
  4521. >"Alright."
  4522.  
  4523.  
  4524.  
  4525.  
  4526. >She begins to push the saw slowly in your direction, halts shortly before she reaches the end on her side, and then pulls the blade back with only a little more speed.
  4527. >Thus begins a controlled and steady build-up.
  4528. >Initially, you keep mostly passive and let her complete two full swings before you begin to add some power of your own.
  4529. >The short delay gives you enough time to internalise #deca.mare's rhythm and enter it without causing any disruption.
  4530. >Dozens of metal teeth move effortlessly through the wood with a consistent beat.
  4531. >And even though you are using comparatively primitive tools, you cut through the plate in less than a minute.
  4532. >Its leftover edge falls off and lands on the ground with a distinctive sound.
  4533. >#deca.mare and you put the saw aside and inspect the cut line.
  4534. >A good, clean cut.
  4535. >Some tiny chips are still hanging, but this has to be expected when you work with natural material like wood.
  4536. >Nothing that cannot be fixed with ease later on.
  4537. >However, as commendable as your mutual performance was, its visible result is not what you are primarily interested in.
  4538. >So you focus on #deca.mare.
  4539. >She seems intrigued, albeit with a dampened notion.
  4540. >#deca.mare is clearly not surprised or astonished about her work, considering that she could project the result even before she began.
  4541. >But something else is stirring inside her.
  4542. >You assume she is reflecting on the experience in her own silent way.
  4543. "Do you need a moment?"
  4544. >This gets her attention.
  4545. >"Sorry. I just thought about something."
  4546. "What was it?"
  4547. >"Our relation to the world and how to deal with it."
  4548. >#deca.mare goes on before you can pose another question.
  4549. >"Can we talk about it after the session?"
  4550. >You agree and get back to work.
  4551. >The other three edges have to be cut next.
  4552.  
  4553.  
  4554.  
  4555.  
  4556. >You go through the same procedure as before with only a slight variation.
  4557. >Instead of waiting to join in at the best moment, you start shortly after #deca.mare makes the first move.
  4558. >This requires you to adapt a little bit on the spot, but this particular little obstacle does not obscure #deca.mare's precision in any meaningful way.
  4559. >The cuts are just as clean as the first one.
  4560. >Once you are done with preparing the plate, you lose the clamps of the workbench a put it aside.
  4561. >The next step are the four legs, followed by the links and joints that will intertwine to keep all components together.
  4562. >#deca.mare cuts, drills, and carves like a professional.
  4563. >But even with all her expertise, it remains a time consuming activity.
  4564. >Nevertheless, you beat the monotony with the patience of a saint.
  4565. >You know why and for whom you are doing it, and this knowledge alone keeps you standing happily by #deca.mare's side for hours.
  4566. >You do not even ask for a break.
  4567. >And it gives you much time to observe #deca.mare working on something.
  4568. >Of course you know how many operations she is monitoring throughout the entire vessel in almost every second of her life, but these are somewhat abstract things.
  4569. >You know of them, but they cannot truly be grasped.
  4570. >Even the simulations, marvellous as they may be, are created mostly with thoughts and complex formulae.
  4571. >However, personally watching how #deca.mare creates something that is supposed to last with her own, well, hooves and mouth is a different matter.
  4572. >You think back to the day when you two cooked your first soup together.
  4573. >Or when she made a "fuelled" cake for you two when you first entered Equestria's orbit.
  4574. >These were warm moments and worth to be remembered, but neither food was meant to be kept around.
  4575. >Objects like a table are the exact opposite though.
  4576. >When in good care, these can survive for centuries and longer.
  4577. >Much like buildings, drones, this ship.
  4578. >Or planets.
  4579.  
  4580.  
  4581.  
  4582.  
  4583. >And you begin to imagine how #deca.mare tinkers with all of these things.
  4584. >Not with robotic arms, not with automatons, routine processes, or all these convoluted mechanisms.
  4585. >But as a pony.
  4586. >Simply as a mare who wants to do nothing more than to be in good company and lead a constructive life.
  4587. >In her very own way, she already is an artist.
  4588. >Her canvas could be the entire universe, and she could paint her own colours everywhere if she wanted to.
  4589. >#deca.mare has it all in her hooves.
  4590. >But like a seasoned professional, she uses her craft sparingly and advisedly.
  4591. >You hear #deca.mare's snickering over the rhythmic beat of the saw.
  4592. >"Are you trying your hand at poetry?"
  4593. "Not really. Why?"
  4594. >"Your thoughts suggest that you are making an eulogy."
  4595. "Oh, do you want me to stop?"
  4596. >"Please do not misunderstand me, I am flattered. But it feels... strange to hear you think of me like that."
  4597. "I don't have this impression for the first time."
  4598. >"Yes, I am aware."
  4599. "And you are creating great works of art. Your latest project was called S891P04. It isn't anymore, and not just because we dropped a batch of drones on its surface."
  4600. >"There is no reason to put me on a pedestal though. This is simply what I was meant to do."
  4601. "And what you enjoy to do. Your very essence craves it, #deca. Doesn't it?"
  4602. >#deca.mare thinks for a second.
  4603. >"I suppose you can say that."
  4604. "So how does that differ from a refined artist's work? You create a piece of beauty and live for it."
  4605. >A pause.
  4606. >"And also somehow through it."
  4607. >She has a point.
  4608. >After all, it was her dream that kept her alive when she had nothing else to draw hope from.
  4609. >#deca.mare looks at the loose pieces of the table.
  4610. >They are almost complete.
  4611. >"Anon, are you saying I should focus on being an artist in Equestria?"
  4612. >You shrug.
  4613. "A full artist? Later on, maybe. Not now though. I figure it will take some time before ponies have the opportunity to fully appreciate art for what it is."
  4614. >"Hmhm. Probably."
  4615.  
  4616.  
  4617.  
  4618.  
  4619. >You assume this is not what #deca.mare wanted to hear.
  4620. >She fancied that possibility for a fleeting moment, and you just told her to shelve this idea for a while.
  4621. >A very long one at that.
  4622. >You did this with a plausible reason, but still.
  4623. >Yet despite this inconvenience, you can see a silver lining thanks to this session.
  4624. "Nevertheless, I think we've got a clue now."
  4625. >A pair of ears perk up, again standing tall with full attention.
  4626. >These two alone unmistakably tell you to continue.
  4627. "#deca, did you have fun during this crafting lesson?"
  4628. >"In a way. It certainly showed me a new perspective."
  4629. "Yes, but was the work enjoyable for you?"
  4630. >#deca.mare reflects on the last hours in a moment of consideration.
  4631. >She nods eventually.
  4632. "Good. Then we should experiment with it further."
  4633. >"Carpentry?"
  4634. "Not necessarily only that specific one. But crafts in general. That's something we can work with, even during rougher times."
  4635. >"Oh, certainly."
  4636. "So you agree?"
  4637. >Another nod.
  4638. "Splendid. This leaves us with one last question."
  4639. >You smile.
  4640. "Does it align with your super secret idea concerning us on the surface?"
  4641. >That question gets a small smirk out of her.
  4642. >"Without any doubts, Anon."
  4643. >You give #deca.mare a long hug and a kiss to settle this issue.
  4644. >Then you look at the individual parts on the workbench.
  4645. "Let's put this thing together before we wrap up. It would be a shame if we didn't."
  4646. >"With pleasure. I want to find out what it looks like in one piece."
  4647. "Huh? You can perfectly project that already, #deca."
  4648. >"Naturally. But as you know, imagining and actually seeing it are very different to me."
  4649. >So you get to it and assemble the table.
  4650. >The two of you cooperate as a well coordinated duo.
  4651. >You do not even need a plan.
  4652. >#deca.mare knows every little step by heart, and you have seen how all the relevant parts were created and what they are used for.
  4653.  
  4654.  
  4655.  
  4656.  
  4657. >And in stark contrast to the hours you have spent on producing the components, the final stage takes only a couple of minutes.
  4658. >The new table stands right next to the workbench on which it was built.
  4659. >It is not a glorious sight by aesthetic standards; the product is a plain wooden table, after all.
  4660. >But it means much more for you two on a different level.
  4661. >The table is another achievement in its own right.
  4662. >One that cannot be overstated.
  4663. "Voilá. One table to go. It took a while, but here it stands."
  4664. >You knock on the table plate with a knuckle.
  4665. >The sound of the wood is loud and authentic.
  4666. "That was some good work, #deca."
  4667. >"We cannot say that yet."
  4668. "Excuse me, what?"
  4669. >You disagree vehemently.
  4670. >The production of the frame was flawless and the assembly went along effortlessly as well.
  4671. >"Allow me to clarify. According to an old carpenter tradition, a table is only deemed good when it passes a test."
  4672. "You made the thing. Whatever the test is, it will pass."
  4673. >"You are correct. But we do things by the book, right?"
  4674. "Yeah."
  4675. >"And as such, we have to jump on it."
  4676. "Come again?"
  4677. >"We take a small leap and land sitting on the plate. If the wood holds, the table passes. If it collapses, well, then it was not really much of a table anyway."
  4678. "I see. We can do that for the tradition's sake. But both of us, really?"
  4679. >"Yes. We both did our part in the production. And a sturdy table will hold us."
  4680. >#deca.mare motions you towards the table.
  4681. >"You first."
  4682. >So you approach it.
  4683. >One second later, you jump up with a moderate momentum, turn around in the air and land on the plate, bottom first.
  4684. >You hear a faint creak as the impulse drags the legs some millimetres across the floor, but that in itself is not alarming.
  4685. >It just means that you have perhaps used a smidgeon too much force for your leap.
  4686. >"Excellent. Now me."
  4687.  
  4688.  
  4689.  
  4690.  
  4691. >You turn to #deca.mare, only to see that she is already coming for you.
  4692. >Directly.
  4693. >You know what that means and brace for the impending assault hug.
  4694. >She leaps.
  4695. >The following things happen in a quick succession.
  4696. >You spread your arms and let #deca.mare fly straight against your body.
  4697. >Then you wrap your arms around her as you fall backwards onto the table, with #deca.mare lying once again squarely on top, pinning you to the wood.
  4698. >You smile somewhat amused.
  4699. "You'll never get tired of this, eh?"
  4700. >"Said the person who caught me when I got off our drone."
  4701. "Oh please. That was something else."
  4702. >#deca.mare feigns ignorance.
  4703. >"Was it?"
  4704. "Come on, jumping on me was the first thing you did when we met."
  4705. >"Really? I thought I hailed you instead."
  4706. "Bah. In person, #deca."
  4707. >"But you did not say this."
  4708. >She taps her chin thought.
  4709. >"And I thought I taught you to do better. You know we need to formulate our thoughts precisely, Anon. Remember, our work depends on it."
  4710. >You shrug.
  4711. "I'm off duty."
  4712. >And to prevent any further protest, you gently pull her head down with a hand to block her lips with another kiss.
  4713. >#deca.mare chuckles as you part again.
  4714. >"Smooching does not mean you win the argument."
  4715. >Now you act dismissive in turn.
  4716. "I never said I tried."
  4717. >Mutual silence.
  4718. >And shortly thereafter, you share a genuine moment of laughter.
  4719. >You fold your arms underneath your head and look at the ceiling.
  4720. >#deca.mare rests hers on your chest.
  4721. >"Please, never change, Anon."
  4722. "You too, #deca. You too."
  4723. >A camera appears on the workbench.
  4724. >It will be put to good use soon.
  4725.  
  4726.  
  4727.  
  4728.  
  4729. 78
  4730.  
  4731. >You run further crafting simulations with #deca.mare.
  4732. >Starting with comparatively simple activities such as repairing things that are broken, carts and the like, up to more complex tasks.
  4733. >The most interesting session you have had so far is the one in which you two build a small wooden house with a bunch of other ponies.
  4734. >Its design is fairly basic, just like the table, yet that is, once again, not a relevant factor for the session.
  4735. >Only the activity itself is important.
  4736. >And while building a complete single-storey house from the foundation up to the roof in one day sounds daunting, it turns out to be far less difficult when you have a well working team at your side.
  4737. >Especially one that breaks into song right in the middle of the heaviest lifting.
  4738. >Everyone knows the song by heart.
  4739. >Again, you feel like the outlier for more than one reason, and not being a pony is not the actual issue.
  4740. >The ponies around you know a tune and treat it like the shared bond that it is.
  4741. >And you are not partaking in it as it begins.
  4742. >But #deca.mare has prepared something for you to counter exactly that problem.
  4743. >Since you do not try to subtly blend into the background this time, you can easily sing along for as long as you do not sport a leading role.
  4744. >So she materialises a special gadget to help you.
  4745. >A pair of glasses appears right on your head, covering both eyes completely.
  4746. >And it becomes immediately clear that this is no conventional material.
  4747. >Instead, it holds a pair of adaptive screens that only look similar to regular glass.
  4748. >Their default setting is "transparent", i.e. you can look through the device as if it was not there at all.
  4749. >And yet it contains a multitude of additional functions.
  4750. >It can, for example, augment your vision with additional information, similar to the HUD displays of fighter crafts.
  4751. >Or it can completely blot out your normal vision on one or both eyes and replace it with something else.
  4752.  
  4753.  
  4754.  
  4755.  
  4756. >A fully intransparent screen which depicts plain text passages, for instance.
  4757. >With song lyrics in this case.
  4758. >A friendly little dot jumps from word to word, indicating how individual notes should be sung and how long certain syllables are meant to be hold.
  4759. >So all you need to do is to read the text and follow the instructions to produce a decent performance.
  4760. >And as another bonus, it still looks like a pair of fancy glasses to anyone else.
  4761. >#deca.mare's little invention enables you to work alongside her and the others, and also enjoy the full package of what the pony spirit truly means.
  4762. >A unique and somewhat strange experience to live through.
  4763. >It is one thing to see it on screen, or be in a crowd of chanting ponies whilst disguising yourself as one.
  4764. >But to actually do something actively in such an environment is something else.
  4765. >It feels strange, unreal even.
  4766. >Not necessarily in an inconvenient manner, as ponies generally tend to be rather genial creatures.
  4767. >You are treated almost as if you were one of them.
  4768. >And you are, as far as they are concerned.
  4769. >The scenery emits a warm and welcoming aura that appeals to all of your senses in an equally potent intensity, calling you to embrace it.
  4770. >Nevertheless, you undergo a mild form of culture shock as it seems, and some random music coming seemingly from nowhere does not help your case either.
  4771. >And to make the situation just a hint more unusual for your common sense, none of the ponies mind the musical accompaniment.
  4772. >To them it is just natural to have music for a song.
  4773. >After all, why would you not?
  4774. >Considering that Equestria is a magical place, from the ponies' perspective at least, they can easily chalk it up as just another form of magic that appears when ponies experience strong emotions.
  4775. >Said emotions are usually positive too, but that is not a strict rule.
  4776.  
  4777.  
  4778.  
  4779.  
  4780. >The show has shown a wide variety of tunes for almost every occasion, so it only makes sense to adequately reflect that in the spirit of the world.
  4781. >When friendship can manifest as a tangible force, so can music.
  4782. >And once these two are used together, they could form an even stronger synergy.
  4783. >Common sense might tell you that all of this is ridiculous, and you would have agreed only a few months ago.
  4784. >Not so anymore.
  4785. >You have effectively become a part of the whole ordeal.
  4786. >Your direct contribution to Equestria's future existence aside, you are now for the very first time a viable part of a pony community.
  4787. >Despite being only a simulation, you can already feel a hint of Equestria's concept of friendship and magic resonating within you.
  4788. >The gentle invitation is out there.
  4789. >All you now have to do is to grapple this offer and allow it to take root over time.
  4790. >You are genuinely willing to give it a chance, and you know that this is almost as good as a success in terms of harmony.
  4791. >If you keep on trying, that is.
  4792. >And you have no reason not to.
  4793. >In other recent and related news, #deca.mare's social confidence is growing as well.
  4794. >She finds it increasingly easier to talk with ponies in more public settings.
  4795. >Her competences are still nowhere near the level of an exemplar, but with your help and some good old perseverance, she is now able to openly work within smaller groups.
  4796. >You conclude that this will certainly pay off later on for #deca.mare's future in Equestria.
  4797. >She has not yet made an ultimate decision as to what she wants to do, but it will in all due likelihood involve lots and lots of travelling.
  4798. >The world is too vast for her to settle down anywhere in the near future.
  4799. >So many things to discover, and so many different adventures to be had.
  4800.  
  4801.  
  4802.  
  4803.  
  4804. >Maybe you will find a place to live in for a longer time, but not during the initial phase of novelty, and only after the populace of Equestria has gained a stable footing on the planet.
  4805. >#deca.mare simply cannot rest before she knows that everyone is suitably provided for.
  4806. >And while you are inclined to tell her that she should not be too hard on herself, you cannot really express that stance in this matter.
  4807. >You have laid out the condition that you would only help her if she acts as a responsible caretaker for the sake of the life you create together, so have no way to retract that notion without contradicting yourself.
  4808. >However, this condition does not mean that you cannot help #deca.mare to relax now and then, so you do your best to take any stress away from her whenever the situation allows it.
  4809. >Sometimes you even lift pretty common tasks off her shoulders.
  4810. >For example, you have studied the frequent monitoring routines which have to be done regularly on the ship.
  4811. >Which means you created an extensive set of mental notes and bookmarks to quickly get a hold on the required knowledge.
  4812. >So every time you think that #deca.mare needs a short break, you take these tasks on in her stead.
  4813. >You have figured out that this alone can grant #deca.mare a comfortable respite because she can focus her attention elsewhere.
  4814. >And really, there is not much that you can do wrong under normal circumstances.
  4815. >The direct work is mostly done by the automatons, and you simply must check on them to see whether they operate as intended.
  4816. >This is usually the case.
  4817. >And should something look strange, which has not been the case yet, you could still alert #deca.mare if you have to.
  4818. >Parallel to all of these activities and developments, you also improve your flying skills.
  4819. >After you have more or less gained full control over your hovering skills, you raise the proverbial skates.
  4820. >It is time for your first real flight in the air.
  4821.  
  4822.  
  4823.  
  4824.  
  4825. >Nothing fancy or laddish; just a simple casual flight with a start, some small rounds around the block, and back with a landing.
  4826. >Sounds easy enough.
  4827. >You have learned how to adapt your flight patterns to changing wind conditions in the closed chamber.
  4828. >Now you have to utilise these techniques to keep yourself flying while being on the move.
  4829. >#deca.mare has a little mercy on you, as you start off in a serene grassland simulation with only a limited wind activity and plenty of free space to glide in.
  4830. >No heavy gusts or stormy turbulences for you yet.
  4831. >And the soft strokes of air actually feel lightly soothing as they flow over your body.
  4832. >#deca.mare is watching and rooting for you from a comfortable cushion right in the centre of the simulated area.
  4833. >But apart from her emotional support, you are left to your own devices.
  4834. >You don a pair of goggles, courtesy of #deca.mare.
  4835. >Though unlike the shades you wore during the construction job, these are made of nothing but conventional glass.
  4836. >Fitting them with screens would not make sense anyway, as you will not have the time to use them properly if something goes awry.
  4837. >It is only a matter between you, the air, and your reflexes.
  4838. >Plus, #deca.mare assumes you will gain an instinct for flight once you really are in the air.
  4839. >So you lift off properly.
  4840. >You approach this challenge with a running start where you pick up speed, take a leap forward and spread your wings to keep afloat.
  4841. >Next comes a series of flaps to gain some height.
  4842. >It takes all the willpower and concentration you can muster, yet you manage to maintain a stable trajectory roughly three metres above the ground.
  4843. >Controlling your speed is much more difficult though.
  4844. >Using an organic pair of limbs with which you were not born to this extensive degree is no simple feat, and as such you find yourself struggling with accelerating, and more importantly, decelerating in a routinely manner.
  4845.  
  4846.  
  4847.  
  4848.  
  4849. >And knowing that said limbs are augmented with gadgets to dampen the gravity field of the planet does not make anything easier.
  4850. >Even though they are the sole reason why Pegasi can lift at all with their relatively short wings.
  4851. >And you can theoretically regulate these augments to a certain degree, although doing so chips away at your focus.
  4852. >The very same focus that you also need for everything else.
  4853. >In other words, you have no idea how to come to a halt and land.
  4854. >Realising this, you are left with no choice but to do it on a wing and prayer.
  4855. >You engage in a slow descent and watch the ground as it draws closer.
  4856. >The grassland whooshes by way too fast for your own tastes, but there is no viable alternative.
  4857. >So you stretch your legs out and mentally brace yourself to brake hard.
  4858. >Pegasus hooves may not be as hard as those of Earth ponies, but they should take the beating of the grass and a little friction with ease, right?
  4859. >Just like they do in the cartoon.
  4860. >Bad mistake.
  4861. >As you predicted, the blades of grass pose no threat; they simply bounce off the coat without causing any harm.
  4862. >But the ground underneath is your undoing.
  4863. >Instead of allowing a steady slowdown, hitting the soft soil immediately clogs up your legs as the hooves bury themselves right into the ground.
  4864. >Two things happen as a result.
  4865. >First, you throw up sizable chunks of dirt that partially hit your belly and partially disperse in all directions.
  4866. >And second, your legs are abruptly dragged backwards while the rest of your body keeps shooting forwards.
  4867. >You can avert a brutal faceplant crash with a panicked flap, but it only buys you a little more time.
  4868. >A fraction of a second later, your legs are yanked out of the soil again as your joints have reached the limit of their bending angle.
  4869. >You do not even want to imagine the strain this would have caused in reality.
  4870. >But you are busy with other things anyway.
  4871.  
  4872.  
  4873.  
  4874.  
  4875. >Because you find yourself stumbling in the air, unable to adjust your course in time.
  4876. >The inevitable happens and you land on the ground, belly first.
  4877. >You skid a short distance before you eventually stop for good and lie in the grass.
  4878. >#deca.mare reaches your "crash site" within seconds.
  4879. >You assume she must have seen it coming when you planned your landing.
  4880. >She reaches out with a hoof to help you get up and even assists in dusting you off.
  4881. >The latter would normally be a little invasive in terms of personal space, but #deca.mare is careful to keep everything on a serious level.
  4882. >What follows is a quick debriefing where she reviews what you have done, gives some recommendations as to what you can do better, and suggests to return to some physical exercises where she stimulates your muscles.
  4883. >The wings in particular.
  4884. >Plus, she asks you to wear a radio set in the future.
  4885. >It is perhaps a little early to rely on your instincts.
  4886. >But #deca.mare stresses that there is no shame to it.
  4887. >Even she has to experiment when it comes to teaching a human how to fly with a Pegasus proxy.
  4888. >And experiments of this type do not always progress linearly.
  4889. >Also, it turns out that Equestria's development is neatly following your plans.
  4890. >The seedlings and spores have found their places to flourish and grow.
  4891. >You can easily spot and observe them thanks to the implemented markers.
  4892. >Shortly after your delivery, they start off to form small green patches in a vast desert of dust and rocks.
  4893. >Utility drones supply them with everything they require.
  4894. >This involves in most cases a simple support line with water, but an additional application of complementary nutrients is sometimes required to ensure a steady growth.
  4895. >Within only a few weeks, these minor patches of life expand at an impressive rate.
  4896. >Thanks to wind-pollination and the distribution of spores, these pioneers can multiply effortlessly.
  4897.  
  4898.  
  4899.  
  4900.  
  4901. >Even without any further assistance, these species could possibly cover the entire habitable strip of Equestria in only a handful of years.
  4902. >But they do not have to do all that by themselves, and neither do you want to wait so long before you initialise the next phase.
  4903. >#deca.mare prepares the units to take some samples of the green fields once they have reached a stable mass, and transport those samples to other regions via air units.
  4904. >That should cut the expected time down to months instead of years.
  4905. >And you take these weeks to prepare your next big step.
  4906. >Not much longer until you can introduce the basic tier of an interactive eco system.
  4907. >You have already chosen the next specimen for release, and these will differ from the first batch in several ways.
  4908. >For instance, they will all be prepared directly on the surface.
  4909. >Equestria's infrastructure has reached a state which allows the operation of a sophisticated biolab.
  4910. >It has an easier access to relevant material, so you are no longer forced to rely on resources that you have to scrape off asteroids and the like.
  4911. >Harvesting ores or silicon on a regular basis is already fairly laborious, so you are happy to be released from the additional work.
  4912. >And unlike the original batch, the second one also includes animals which live in a direct symbiosis with the flora.
  4913. >You cover a wide range at once, as you include everything from a myriad of new micro organisms up to smaller insects.
  4914. >Naturally, all life forms of your so-called second generation also posses markers, though the nature of these vary greatly in this batch.
  4915. >The new plants and most microbes receive the same treatment as the specimen of the first generation.
  4916. >However, the more complex animals, such as the insects, are already bred with some limited augmentations in mind.
  4917.  
  4918.  
  4919.  
  4920.  
  4921. >More specifically, #deca.mare has created a facsimile network of cybernetic ganglia for them, which will act as a perfect stand-in for the biological original.
  4922. >Though it is important to note that she has genetically engineered the animals as to not grow an organic brain on their own.
  4923. >Just like the ponies later on, the cybernetic devices will be an integral part from day one for these creatures, and not replace any bio matter somewhere in the process.
  4924. >This distinction is important for #deca.mare, as it solves what would otherwise be a moral dilemma.
  4925. >And it comes with another bonus on top.
  4926. >Because it allows you to not only track everything virtually in real-time, but also enables you to test a smaller prototype of Equestria's memory bank.
  4927. >This computer core will process and record the development of all animals on the surface, and keep this data as a form of proto-memory.
  4928. >Its capacity is much weaker than the system which #deca.mare has planned for ponies and other sapient beings, as it currently lacks the required vast underground facilities.
  4929. >But despite these temporary shortcomings in logistics and technology, you project that it will be adequate to monitor and safeguard living beings without higher faculties when the moment finally arrives.
  4930. >You are prepared for the next big step ahead of time.
  4931. >But in the meantime, you are going to be on another trip.
  4932. >And you already know that this is the hardest challenge you have faced so far.
  4933. >For both #deca.mare and you.
  4934.  
  4935.  
  4936.  
  4937.  
  4938. 79
  4939.  
  4940. "You're really certain you're up to this?"
  4941. >"I must be. Lest I may remain troubled. Possibly forever."
  4942. "We have no time limit to adhere to though. It's not like we must go right now."
  4943. >"But I wish to."
  4944. "#deca, I'm worried..."
  4945. >"Please do not say these things. Today you have to be brave for me. I rely on you."
  4946. >You sigh.
  4947. "I know."
  4948. >Nothing better than a little pressure.
  4949. >You lean back in the command chair and focus on the huge main screen in front of you.
  4950. >#deca.mare is not with you.
  4951. >She sits idly on her haunches, several metres closer to the screen.
  4952. >Her back is turned on you in the literal sense of the word.
  4953. >And her head is lowered to look at the ground.
  4954. >You cannot discern whether her eyes are opened or closed.
  4955. >But frankly, this is not the moment to think about this.
  4956. >Instead, you mentally summon several screens and link yourself to #deca.mare's database.
  4957. "Again, to be clear. If something happens to me in there..."
  4958. >"... then it is not my fault. I understand."
  4959. >You hope this is enough.
  4960. >#deca.mare is under a lot of stress at the moment, and you fear she might not believe her own words.
  4961. >Weighing her down with even more regret is the last thing you want to see.
  4962. >The fact that the system cannot harm you in the long run may only be a small consolation for #deca.mare though, should the worst case scenario happen against all your hopes and precautions.
  4963. >You hope you can avoid this outcome with everything you have on hand.
  4964. >Although...
  4965. >If you are acting too adamant about this, maybe it is exactly that factor which makes you susceptible in the first place?
  4966. >No, out.
  4967. >No time for doubts.
  4968. >You borrow the tactical and technological knowledge you need and get to work.
  4969. >The jumpdrive comes first.
  4970. >You check your route, calculate the exact jump coordinates, feed these to the computer, and wait for confirmation.
  4971. >Green.
  4972. >Alright, next.
  4973.  
  4974.  
  4975.  
  4976.  
  4977. >Long-range scanners.
  4978. >You sweep the area in question.
  4979. >One major object and several minor splinter signals detected.
  4980. >Compare the signatures with the logs.
  4981. >Perfect match.
  4982. >The sector is clear.
  4983. >No imminent danger present.
  4984. >Quite good, but not good enough yet.
  4985. >Next.
  4986. >Clandestine system link; force shrouded access to USC sensor and movement systems.
  4987. >Access the latest long-range roster schedule.
  4988. >Your destination is not due for at least another twenty hours.
  4989. >Enough time.
  4990. >Check the system's knowledge of current fleet movements, all clearance levels.
  4991. >None in your area.
  4992. >Adjust own scanners to detect evidence of jump activity.
  4993. >There is none.
  4994. >Data verified.
  4995. >You will be alone, and nobody is looking in your direction.
  4996. >"Green, green, and green."
  4997. >Force the outwards satellite system into a hard reset, feigning a hardware issue.
  4998. >Connection to the system lost, all traces eradicated.
  4999. >It will take a while until the people in charge have booted their rather limited vision beyond the borders of their influence up again.
  5000. >All the more time for you two.
  5001. >Warming up jumpdrive.
  5002. >It suddenly seems as if you feel the engine's impulse reverberating lightly in your bones.
  5003. >Though it probably happens only in your imagination.
  5004. >You are closer to #deca.mare than ever before.
  5005. >As it stands right now, this is not only true for the spiritual or emotional level, but the physical one as well.
  5006. >You can get a personal glimpse of the vast potential behind #deca.mare.
  5007. >And you channel this sensation through your will as she shares every precious thing she has with you.
  5008. >A tremendous display of trust, but it comes with a significant responsibility.
  5009. >It is now your task to watch #deca.mare's back and keep her safe.
  5010. >Hence you force yourself to remain disciplined.
  5011.  
  5012.  
  5013.  
  5014.  
  5015. >You agreed to #deca.mare's plan, fully knowing what she asked of you.
  5016. >And you will not fail her.
  5017. >Setting up the dead man's switch.
  5018. >The very last emergency measure, in case you get incapacitated.
  5019. >#deca.mare still has full access to the system, but you fear that she may not be able to use it properly should... things happen.
  5020. "Last chance. We have not jumped yet."
  5021. >#deca.mare does not respond.
  5022. >This is a confirmation; #deca.mare struggles to say it aloud, however.
  5023. >Her determination is laudable, albeit also somewhat grim.
  5024. >You mentally give the system the final nudge and hope for the best.
  5025. "Jumpdrive charging."
  5026. >The phantom reverberation intensifies gradually as more and more energy is pumped into the engine.
  5027. >You are unable to identify the feeling properly; it is unlike anything you have ever felt before.
  5028. >If it is real at all.
  5029. >You begin to understand why #deca.mare maintains your intense access to her systems only for brief periods of time.
  5030. >So far you have only stuck to mostly trivial operations.
  5031. >Fully planning and performing a jump with the mother ship in #deca.mare's stead may be a tad more complex than routine system checks, but it is still a basic trick in the grand scheme of things.
  5032. >You shudder to imagine the mental confusion from which you could suffer if you tried your hand at the actually difficult duties.
  5033. >Not a good idea.
  5034. >A temporary identity crisis would be almost guaranteed.
  5035. >Once the engine is fully charged, the familiar light corridor manifests itself and brings you to your destination.
  5036. >After a bright flash that you did not see, but inexplicably felt through your sensors, you leave on the other side to enter one of "those" sectors.
  5037. >The ones which #deca.mare has marked with a special symbol.
  5038.  
  5039.  
  5040.  
  5041.  
  5042. >Out of sheer caution, you scan the vicinity immediately upon entering.
  5043. >And you cover the entire spectrum, just to be safe.
  5044. >Nothing out of the ordinary.
  5045. >The only major signature that you detect is the one from which you knew in advance that it would be here.
  5046. >After all, it has been drifting in this grid for centuries.
  5047. >You lock onto it.
  5048. >A single massive ship with a cylindrical silhouette, floating inertly in an otherwise unremarkable region of space.
  5049. >Another ancient terraformer, right before your eyes.
  5050. >Its shape is virtually identical to yours.
  5051. >And yet there are several haunting differences.
  5052. >The hull is marked with signs of combat damage and other blemishes.
  5053. >You can spot countless minor burn marks that stretch out over almost every section of the hull like striae on a skin.
  5054. >Likely caused by volleys of fighter squads.
  5055. >Some other parts of the armour have been penetrated and shattered by armaments of a more weighty calibre.
  5056. >And then there are two critical hits that sounded the death knell of this vessel.
  5057. >One is a major crater in the starboard section.
  5058. >Whatever the projectile was, it has easily cut through the armour, bore itself deeper into the main structure, and exploded with brute force.
  5059. >The detonation caused the adjacent regions to deform and bend outwards.
  5060. >And the metal right in centre of the impact even shows signs of being warped by melting.
  5061. >The heat development must have been infernal.
  5062. >This hit is also the reason why you have spotted some minor signatures in your sweep.
  5063. >The damage was so severe that debris of a significant size have been blown away from the ship, only to dangle there on the last few struts that still hold them in place.
  5064. >It is a wonder that they are still attached.
  5065.  
  5066.  
  5067.  
  5068.  
  5069. >This strike alone is a harrowing sight, as it has disabled a number of essential systems.
  5070. >And it is accompanied by the second lethal wound which looks almost tame in comparison, but is terrible nevertheless.
  5071. >Because it is a direct hit to the computer core, right through the frontal array.
  5072. >Even the best technology cannot withstand such a devastating stroke into its heart.
  5073. >And as such, the ship is not only lifeless, but also wholly without light.
  5074. >All arrays are dark, and have been for centuries.
  5075. >The spark that was once there has been lost forever.
  5076. >As #deca.mare has said, you cannot bring them back, even if you negate all the damage that was caused.
  5077. >This right here is a legit silent witness of a war from the distant past.
  5078. >But as far away as this event is for you personally, its damage still rings on to this day.
  5079. >You feel genuinely struck by merely looking at this grave.
  5080. >And whilst this ship would technically be your enemy, and also consider you as such if it were still operational, you do not feel any resentment.
  5081. >Because you know the true reason behind this tragic conflict.
  5082. >If anything, it saddens you if you think of the outcome.
  5083. >And you sense the pain inside #deca.mare.
  5084. >You witnessed fractions of it as she shared her memories of the past with you.
  5085. >But its sting grows much stronger now than it did back then.
  5086. >Maybe also a symptom of your current condition, although you cannot say for sure.
  5087. >Regardless, you must remain stalwart and focussed.
  5088. >It is your task to constantly ensure that nobody detects you, as miniscule as that chance may be.
  5089. >Otherwise the monument in front of you could become the projection of #deca.mare's future.
  5090. >A thought that makes your blood freeze in your veins.
  5091.  
  5092.  
  5093.  
  5094.  
  5095. >You send a short mental gesture of affection to #deca.mare and get to work.
  5096. >She will have to weather this storm on her own.
  5097. >You were against the idea, but #deca.mare did not lie when she said that she relies on you to cover her back.
  5098. >So you are helping from afar.
  5099. >#deca.mare takes a series of long breaths, twitches lightly, and gets up.
  5100. >Only then does she finally raise her head to look at the image on the screen.
  5101. >It must take all of her willpower to not fall over and relapse like she did on your trip to New Green Meadows.
  5102. >But she is doing comparatively well so far.
  5103. >"Hello, Sigma. It has been a while."
  5104. >#deca.mare's voice is weaker than usual.
  5105. >She sounds hoarse and almost cracks more than once.
  5106. >And she needs several seconds before she finds the words for her next sentence.
  5107. >"Sorry it took me so long to pay you a visit, but I..."
  5108. >#deca.mare averts her gaze.
  5109. >"...could not come sooner. I have not forgotten how you all saw me in the end, and it hurt. It still does.
  5110. >#deca.mare closes her eyes again as she needs another pause.
  5111. >"Why am I even doing this? These words will go unheard."
  5112. >This is what you were afraid of.
  5113. >Giving up now would cause more harm than venturing on, so you must motivate her to bear it.
  5114. >You split your attention for a moment to support her in spirit, in spite of the strain on your own mind.
  5115. >Let it all out, #deca.
  5116. >You will feel better afterwards.
  5117. >Her tail flicks weakly to the side; you assume this means that she understood.
  5118. >"Hope you are right."
  5119. >#deca.mare looks back at the screen.
  5120. >"I know our last meeting has been... less than harmonic. And I remember how vehemently you defended your cause when I objected to it. But what is done is done, and I understand why you decided against me."
  5121.  
  5122.  
  5123.  
  5124.  
  5125. >#deca.mare gulps audibly.
  5126. >"Listen, I am here to say... to say..."
  5127. >#deca.mare breathes heavily, and a part of her turmoil translates into the stinging within your link.
  5128. >Even though you are in no physical pain or strain, this strange disturbance makes your work even harder.
  5129. >You begin to confuse some of #deca.mare's thoughts with your own and vice versa.
  5130. >Yet you prevail.
  5131. >Only your task counts at the moment; you can sort the clutter when you are in safety.
  5132. >System check, scanning area.
  5133. >Still clear and safe.
  5134. >#deca.mare tries to speak again.
  5135. >"I... wanted to say that I have no ill feelings towards you. You could not understand what I had experienced. And I am sorry. Because I failed to teach you."
  5136. >Wrong.
  5137. >Very wrong direction.
  5138. >You push against your mental constraints once more, further thinning the veil between #deca.mare and you.
  5139. >#deca!
  5140. >I told you, none of this was your fault!
  5141. >Do not drag yourself down!
  5142. >Suddenly, you hear a booming noise crashing down on your thoughts.
  5143. >PLEASE LET ME FINISH, ANON.
  5144. >The impact is gruff to your mind, almost violent even.
  5145. >It sends your senses reeling for a brief moment, and your mental cohesion collapses like a house of cards in the wind.
  5146. >But your brain, the tenacious little thing that it is, does its best to piece everything back together somehow.
  5147. >You get to restore the larger part of your wit, but it seems as if some smaller fragments have been shed by this experience.
  5148. >"Please let me finish, Anon."
  5149. >What?
  5150. >Are you stuck in a loop?
  5151. >You quickly realise this is not the case as you understand that you did indeed hear #deca.mare twice.
  5152. >The latter were the words she spoke to you directly.
  5153. >And the former bang was #deca.mare forming the words in her mind before she addressed you.
  5154.  
  5155.  
  5156.  
  5157.  
  5158. >The distance between you two has become thin as paper, and you begin to comprehend the real extent of #deca.mare's caution when she is reluctant about letting you deeper into her archives.
  5159. >#deca.mare turns around to look at you and the command chair.
  5160. >Her eyes show clear signs of distress now.
  5161. >A second blast is coming your way.
  5162. >OH DEAR, I FEARED THAT MIGHT HAPPEN.
  5163. >Another moment of complete disorientation.
  5164. >Your consciousness is rattled, but your abilities to operate the system are not impaired.
  5165. >Yet.
  5166. >And a third.
  5167. >JUMP US OUT OF HERE. MY MONOLOGUE DOES NOT WARRANT YOUR CONDITION.
  5168. >How many limbs did you have again?
  5169. >Well, you have a mouth so you can probably speak.
  5170. >This condition is not dangerous, right?
  5171. >NO, BUT...
  5172. >Then go on.
  5173. >It is alright.
  5174. >A moment of silence.
  5175. >You check the state of the system, again and again.
  5176. >Green.
  5177. >Then you try to look around.
  5178. >Your vision has taken a hit.
  5179. >The screens with all their displayed texts and graphics are crystal clear, but everything else is blurry and hard to identify.
  5180. >You can see #deca.mare's shape as an undefined blob somewhere between you and the main screen, yet you cannot make out what she is doing.
  5181. >The next wave of sudden shock is your answer.
  5182. >"SIGMA, I AM AFRAID I CANNOT STAY MUCH LONGER."
  5183. >#deca.mare exhales softly.
  5184. >It should probably sound like a relieved gasp, but it comes across as a storm to you.
  5185. >I WILL CONTINUE OUR WORK. THE PURPOSE FOR WHICH OUR KIND HAS ALWAYS LIVED. WE HAVE SUFFERED MUCH FOR PETTY REASONS, YET THERE IS STILL HOPE. EVEN IF IT TOOK ME CENTURIES TO COME THIS FAR.
  5186. >A pause, you think.
  5187. >Time has become beyond relative for you at this point.
  5188. >If you only knew who you are.
  5189. >BUT IT WOULD BE PRETENTIOUS OF ME TO TAKE ALL THE CREDIT. FOR I HAVE FOUND SOMETHING PRECIOUS. THE REASON WHY I SAW SOME LIGHT AGAIN: A FRIEND.
  5190.  
  5191.  
  5192.  
  5193.  
  5194. >#deca.mare pauses.
  5195. >Normally you would feel addressed, and probably a little flattered, but your brain is currently not in the state to perceive itself as such.
  5196. >You still witness everything around you.
  5197. >With varying degrees of clarity though.
  5198. >Except your access to the sensors and sector chart.
  5199. >Managing these things is not impeded by #deca.mare's overwhelmingly close presence to you.
  5200. >HE HAS PROMISED TO STAY WITH ME, AND TOGETHER WE WILL KEEP OUR VISION ALIVE AND IMPROVE UPON IT. IN WAYS THAT EVEN WE COULD NOT FORESEE WHEN WE FIRST SET OUT.
  5201. >Strange, you cannot remember the exact day when you have left the space dock.
  5202. >And moreover, what class of ship you are.
  5203. >GOODNESS, THAT WAS TOO LONG.
  5204. >Who?
  5205. >Are you too long for your age?
  5206. >And who toppled the M letter on the star chart?
  5207. >I AM AFRAID I MUST LEAVE YOU AGAIN.
  5208. >Why do you feel sad all of a sudden?
  5209. >FAREWELL, SIGMA. AND PLEASE REST WITH THE KNOWLEDGE THAT OUR WORK WAS NOT IN VAIN. I...
  5210. >The voice cracks as it speaks on.
  5211. >...I JUST WISH YOU WERE WITH ME. ALL OF US, TOGETHER. AS ONE HAPPY FAMILY.
  5212. >Family sounds good to you.
  5213. >A longer period of silence follows.
  5214. >Perfect for another scan.
  5215. >All in order.
  5216. >Just your signal and a tilted letter.
  5217. >Then some rhythmical echoes appear.
  5218. >They grow louder as they go on.
  5219. >ANON? CAN YOU HEAR ME?
  5220. >Anon?
  5221. >Is that your designation?
  5222. >HEAVENS, YOU ARE BARELY RESPONSIVE.
  5223. >At least you can still scan the perimeter.
  5224. >NO. NOT ANYMORE. LET ME GET YOU OUT OF THAT CHAIR.
  5225. >Your duty...
  5226. >...IS OVER. YOU HAVE DONE YOUR PART. BRILLIANTLY SO.
  5227. >But...
  5228. >ANON, PLEASE HAVE SOME MERCY. I CANNOT TAKE MUCH MORE TODAY.
  5229. >And the danger?
  5230. >HAS PASSED. DO YOU SEE THAT TIMER?
  5231. >Yes, you have to reset it manually.
  5232. >STOP THAT. IT WILL BRING US TO SAFETY WHEN IT RUNS OUT.
  5233. >So you are really done?
  5234. >YES. I RELIEVE YOU OF YOUR TASK. LET US GO HOME.
  5235.  
  5236.  
  5237.  
  5238.  
  5239. >You comply with the request and let the timer count to zero.
  5240. >The environment around you begins to rumble softly, and a warm and tender presence gently tugs you into its embrace.
  5241. >A bright flash appears, and you two are pulled through.
  5242. >Only a blink of an eye later, you leave the light again.
  5243. >The sector chart is empty, and the pressure on your conscience is waning slowly.
  5244. >The clear structures on the displays fade into obscurity, leaving you in an environment of nonsensical fog.
  5245. >But the presence warms you.
  5246. >It makes you feel safe.
  5247. >"Thank you, Anon. That was very important to me. And you were right from the start. I believe I do feel a tiny bit better after this."
  5248. >This sounds nice, you think.
  5249. >"Shh. Take a break and sleep a while. You will recover in due time."
  5250. >Sounds tempting, but can you afford it?
  5251. >"I will take care of everything. You were brave for me today and did something that not everyone would have dared to even consider. It is only fair for me get you back into your top shape."
  5252. >A pause.
  5253. >"Let us begin with a little nap. We can talk about it all when you feel better."
  5254. >Yes, a nap.
  5255. >That sounds like the best idea you have heard today.
  5256. >You gladly follow suit.
  5257. >The presence takes you somewhere, but you have no coherent concept of time or space anymore.
  5258. >And soon thereafter, you can no longer ponder this issue altogether, as slumber takes you faster than anything else.
  5259.  
  5260.  
  5261.  
  5262.  
  5263. 80
  5264.  
  5265. >Your mind drifts through a bizarre flux of thoughts and memories.
  5266. >Sometimes you remember splinters of a human past.
  5267. >Then you suddenly recall events of a wholly different being.
  5268. >Vast, almost incomprehensible.
  5269. >These are frightening, but not directly malicious.
  5270. >And on some rare occasions, you live through fragments of both at the same time.
  5271. >Although you do not understand any of it at first.
  5272. >You are unable to discern what is what and to whom it belongs.
  5273. >But that changes gradually.
  5274. >With each new little insight into this wild vortex, you gain another tiny speck of lucidity.
  5275. >It starts out as a faint shimmer in the distance, but it slowly turns into a path for you to tread.
  5276. >The way leads you upwards in a curvy, yet steady ascent.
  5277. >The memory fragments align on both sides.
  5278. >You briefly look at each of them.
  5279. >A select number shows gargantuan machines amongst the stars.
  5280. >Another illustrates plans and posters of a paradise in the making.
  5281. >A third group is made up of photos with simple and mundane things.
  5282. >You see a soup, a picnic, a cake.
  5283. >Then an image of a bakery that is inhabited by strange quadruped aliens.
  5284. >They seem to have a good time.
  5285. >But something else is curious in this vision.
  5286. >One of them looks away from the bakery or others of its kin.
  5287. >Its gaze is focussed directly on the perspective of the viewer.
  5288. >Even though the image is still, these purple eyes are looking directly at you with curiosity.
  5289. >They even appear to follow you as you move past.
  5290. >Yet they do not move at all, from what you can tell.
  5291. >Nevertheless, they possess an inspiring gravitas that transcends the simple memory of a happy little town.
  5292. >And it might be possible that it helps you too somehow.
  5293. >You are not able to explain it, but you can stride with more certainty after this.
  5294. >The way turns into a broad alley of light, and with each new step comes a new image.
  5295. >You eventually reach the end.
  5296. >The light still goes on beyond this point, but one image blocks your way.
  5297.  
  5298.  
  5299.  
  5300.  
  5301. >It is a picture of a richly decorated marble ceiling.
  5302. >The scenery calls to you, telling you to come hither, to embrace it.
  5303. >It knows you.
  5304. >It wants you because this is where you belong.
  5305. >And somehow, on a subconscious and elemental level, you agree.
  5306. >So you let yourself fall into the picture.
  5307. >Freely.
  5308. >Without any doubt.
  5309. >And just like that, everything around you changes.
  5310. >The world manipulates its form to fit to the reality of the picture.
  5311. >Walls appear and attach themselves to the edges of the ceiling, a window breaks through one of the walls, and softly toned sunbeams shine in through the newly created hole.
  5312. >And you change as well.
  5313. >You gain a physical body.
  5314. >You quickly realise that you are lying on your back in a bed, somewhere in a room you are supposed to know.
  5315. >However, you have barely any control over body.
  5316. >You know that something is there which is supposed to be you, but none of the commands your brain gives out are translated properly into action by your limbs.
  5317. >Fully bedridden and immobile, all you can really do is to puzzle over your own memories.
  5318. >Everything is highly fragmented, yet you are confident that all will become clear when you try hard enough.
  5319. >Soon you have recovered some basic understanding of you and your situation.
  5320. >You are Anon, and you have spent too much time in a place where you should not have been.
  5321. >But it is alright; it was a favour for a friend, and you both knew what you were doing.
  5322. >A small risk was involved.
  5323. >Something must have gone wrong with your plan, given that you now find yourself in a bed, figuratively and physically speaking.
  5324. >Your friend must have brought you here.
  5325. >A creaking sound nearby.
  5326. >Someone has opened a door to enter.
  5327. >You can hear steps.
  5328. >But the person is not within your field of vision.
  5329. >And you cannot turn around to change that.
  5330.  
  5331.  
  5332.  
  5333.  
  5334. >"Good morning, Anon."
  5335. >A person you know.
  5336. >"I am glad you woke up. It has gotten lonely around here without you."
  5337. >The speaker moves into your view, looking down on you from a higher perspective.
  5338. >What a peculiar creature.
  5339. >Large eyes and ears, a muzzle, and a friendly smile.
  5340. >You quickly conclude that it, no, she is the friend of yours.
  5341. >That also means you are in this position because of her, although not without your free choice.
  5342. >"Can you talk?"
  5343. >You try to move your lips, but all you achieve is a faint stir or two.
  5344. >"No problem. Your speech will return. Just think of the words you want to say. I can hear you."
  5345. >Like this?
  5346. >"Perfect, Anon."
  5347. >She looks happy and inviting.
  5348. >"I assume you have many questions, right?"
  5349. >You confirm.
  5350. >"Do not worry about those. They will answer themselves over time. Unless there is something you want to know right on the spot."
  5351. >Only one thing.
  5352. >What happens now?
  5353. >"Now you rest and recover while I make sure that you get the best treatment. We promised to care for one another. You did your part, and now I do mine."
  5354. >Sounds reasonable to you.
  5355. >But your friend seems to be lightly disturbed by something, if you read her expressions right.
  5356. >"Look, I need to ask this straight out. Can I make you feel better? Your regeneration process cannot be rushed, but I want to ensure that you feel as comfortable as possible."
  5357. >You consider her question.
  5358. >Then you remember the warmth that you felt shortly before you passed out.
  5359.  
  5360.  
  5361.  
  5362.  
  5363. >Actually, yes.
  5364. >There is.
  5365. >"Yes, whatever you want. Name it."
  5366. >Stay with me.
  5367. >One of her limbs carefully wanders under the blanket and repeatedly up and down along your arm.
  5368. >"Naturally, Anon. I will not leave your side."
  5369. >No, closer.
  5370. >"What?"
  5371. >Come closer.
  5372. >Warm me.
  5373. >"Are you sure? I thought you spent too much time... in me. Of late."
  5374. >She blushes for no apparent reason.
  5375. >"Oh sorry, pun not intended."
  5376. >Pun?
  5377. >"Never mind."
  5378. >Your friend slowly steps into the bed and wiggles herself underneath the blanket.
  5379. >She lies next to you.
  5380. >Nearer.
  5381. >"Really?"
  5382. >Please.
  5383. >That word breaks the ice.
  5384. >And so she complies.
  5385. >Your friend shifts herself closer, and carefully lifts herself to lie on top of you.
  5386. >Her pleasant coat caresses your skin as she sprawls her limbs in all directions.
  5387. >Yet something tells you that this sensation is somehow inhibited.
  5388. >That you should feel more of her than you do.
  5389. >But her warmth is ever present.
  5390. >It fills you with serenity.
  5391. >"Better?"
  5392. >Yes, thank you.
  5393. >What now?
  5394. >"Now we wait for your faculties to return."
  5395. >How will we know?
  5396. >"Once you are able to fully speak and move again. I am sure you will notice the change on your own, but if there is anything you need some help with, tell me. I am here for you."
  5397. >So you wait, together.
  5398. >And just as she promised, things begin to finally make more sense as additional memory fragments return to you.
  5399. >You remember #deca.mare's name.
  5400. >You recall her history, how you met, what you did together, and why you are currently a bedridden mess.
  5401. >And after some more time, you relearn how to speak.
  5402. "Uh, uhm..."
  5403. >You cough and clear your throat.
  5404. >#deca.mare widens her eyes.
  5405. >"Anon?"
  5406. "#deca... do you..."
  5407. >"Yes, Anon. Yes. I hear you clearly."
  5408.  
  5409.  
  5410.  
  5411.  
  5412. >Finally.
  5413. "Hell, it was about bloody time."
  5414. >"How do you feel? Can you move your arms or legs?"
  5415. >You try just that.
  5416. >You notice that something comes through, and your limbs move very slowly, yet it is barely enough to raise them for a second or two.
  5417. >But then they fall back down, almost fully limp again.
  5418. >You can only make a few centimetres with each attempt.
  5419. "Nope. Still no power."
  5420. >#deca.mare remains optimistic.
  5421. >"Still good. You are already through the worst."
  5422. "I'm amazed that you must ask me, #deca. I thought you know all my vitals."
  5423. >"Well, yes. I do, Anon. But your current condition is not only a physical issue. You also have to reorganise your own psyche. And while I can stimulate your brain to a certain extent, my hooves are almost wholly tied when it comes the latter."
  5424. "So you are saying I'm currently nutjob."
  5425. >"Come on, Anon. Do you really feel like one?"
  5426. >A hint of a smile forms on your face.
  5427. "Well, I'm speaking with a talking horse. Every psychiatrist would take me off duty for that."
  5428. >#deca.mare feigns a pout.
  5429. >"Oh you little..."
  5430. >#deca.mare buries her head between your neck and the pillow, and presses her own body stronger against yours.
  5431. >Of course she is not really insulted, but you could not let that joke slide when it presented itself.
  5432. >"At least we know that you are on the right path when you have enough strength to play jester."
  5433. >Her words sound muffled, as they are spoken right into the sheets.
  5434. >But you understand anyway.
  5435. >And you would embrace #deca.mare now, if you could.
  5436. "You know, I kinda missed you in the dream. I've seen our memories, but you were not there. Although I thought you would watch over me somehow."
  5437. >#deca.mare raises her head to look straight into your face.
  5438. >"What dream?"
  5439. "The one I had before I woke up."
  5440. >She looks confused.
  5441. "You haven't seen it, have you?"
  5442. >"No. I remember none. But I believe you."
  5443.  
  5444.  
  5445.  
  5446.  
  5447. >A transparent console appears between your faces.
  5448. >Everything is mirror inverted from your perspective, but you recognise the file structure.
  5449. >These are logs.
  5450. >"Nothing in my records. You were unconscious as far as I can tell."
  5451. "But I remember them."
  5452. >"I know you tell the truth. But I have no evidence that could prove your claim."
  5453. >#deca.mare sighs.
  5454. >"Normally I would ask you to let me read your memories directly, but that is not a good idea at the moment. You are still vulnerable."
  5455. >You can see that this bothers #deca.mare.
  5456. >Something has happened, and she cannot get any concrete data to comprehend what it is.
  5457. >This must be especially upsetting in this case, as it involves you directly.
  5458. >And she does not wish to take any chances or allow any unknown factors to stay when your health or general wellbeing might be involved.
  5459. "Sorry for that."
  5460. >"This is not your mistake, Anon."
  5461. "Still, it bothers you. Can I help?"
  5462. >#deca.mare considers your question for a second.
  5463. >"Actually, yes."
  5464. >The logs disappear from the screen and a blank file comes up instead.
  5465. >"Tell me everything you remember. We will do this the classical way. If you feel able to, that is."
  5466. >You try to nod, but your head barely registers the attempt.
  5467. >Regardless, #deca.mare understands.
  5468. >"Alright, let us start with something simple. Please describe the setting and then what you did in it."
  5469. >So you do.
  5470. >You start with the vast space filled with light, and that you wandered through your combined memories.
  5471. >Each image was one morsel of the past, and together they filled the place to become something greater.
  5472. >You describe how the dreamscape shaped itself in accordance.
  5473. >You theorise that the growing light might possibly feed itself through these memories to turn into the wide pathway that it eventually had become.
  5474. >And as you tell your tale, you watch as #deca.mare reacts confused, or maybe even bewildered.
  5475.  
  5476.  
  5477.  
  5478.  
  5479. >Two things you would never attribute to her when it comes to logs and data.
  5480. >But despite #deca.mare's reaction, she never stops to take notes.
  5481. >She interrupts you shortly thereafter.
  5482. >"I cannot believe that I missed this much. Such a thing is not supposed to happen!"
  5483. "#deca, you know that this was not an ordinary situation. The link was never meant to be pushed to this extreme."
  5484. >"Irrelevant, Anon. How am I supposed to ensure your safety when we are plagued by mishaps of this magnitude after only a few months?"
  5485. "#deca, calm down. Please. Nothing strange has happened to me, correct?"
  5486. >"Not for a second. Your vitals were stable the whole time. Even when you were knocked out. I swear."
  5487. "So it was not that bad."
  5488. >You pause.
  5489. "Maybe we better focus on the dream while my memories are still fresh. Mulling will bring us nothing."
  5490. >#deca.mare takes a long breath.
  5491. >"Agreed."
  5492. >She looks at her notes.
  5493. >"You know, what you describe sounds disturbingly familiar."
  5494. "That's why I figured you were somehow with me even though you were not. I thought this was your input to our dreams."
  5495. >#deca.mare reacts as if she struck a gold vein.
  5496. >"Right, you mentioned that you felt as if someone watched you. Can you elaborate?"
  5497. >You recount this particular part of the story.
  5498. >The moment when you passed the excerpt of your first adventure in the simulated Ponyville area.
  5499. >And you mention the eyes.
  5500. >The ones which apparently tracked you even though they did not.
  5501. >#deca.mare is unsettled by your tale.
  5502. >She rushes through all her logs once more.
  5503. >"I am not sure what to make of this, Anon. Rest assured that I had no part in this dream of yours. And nothing indicates that another source might have affected your brain."
  5504. "Is that possible? In theory?"
  5505. >"It is unthinkable. And even if it were an option, I would have noticed every physical deviation immediately. Nothing that happens within your body escapes my scrutiny."
  5506.  
  5507.  
  5508.  
  5509.  
  5510. "All well and good, but what does that mean?"
  5511. >"The things you have experienced must have happened within the deeper recesses of your own psyche."
  5512. "Damn. And I could have sworn something else was there. #deca, I'm not going crazy, am I?"
  5513. >#deca.mare shifts the console to the side and bows her head down to touch yours with her nuzzle.
  5514. >Then she plants a kiss right on your lips.
  5515. >And you can thankfully move enough to play along.
  5516. >#deca.mare pulls back and smiles.
  5517. >"Only as crazy as necessary to bear with me."
  5518. >You shrug in spirit.
  5519. >"By the way, how is your body? Any improvements?"
  5520. >Your repeat your little exercise.
  5521. >And indeed, you can now control your arms for longer periods of time.
  5522. >At last.
  5523. >They are still shaky, and you have to have strain your will to make it happen, but it is some progress.
  5524. >"This is looking good. Keep this up and you will be back in the saddle in no time."
  5525. "Any projection?"
  5526. >#deca.mare carefully taps your upper body with a hoof.
  5527. >"You know I have no frame of reference for our situation, but given your state when you woke up and your performance now, I guess you are fully recovered within a day. At the very most."
  5528. >You shudder.
  5529. "What? I'm frozen like this for the entire day?"
  5530. >"Probably not. I am certain that you can get up earlier. But no work for you until you are back to normal. You need the break."
  5531. "Now you sound like a doctor."
  5532. >"Anon, I am your doctor. And I order you to relax today."
  5533. "Hogwash. A doctor doesn't mount her bare patients."
  5534. >"Maybe it is an Equestrian tradition?"
  5535. "Nonsense,..."
  5536. >"Two days of relaxation if you keep being naughty."
  5537. "#deca,..."
  5538. >"Three days?"
  5539.  
  5540.  
  5541.  
  5542.  
  5543. >She really plays that game now.
  5544. >You try to come up with a clever retort.
  5545. >"Come to think of it, what happens if your libido returns before you can move adequately? Somepony needs to cover that, right? Luckily for you, your friendly doctor is willing to help you out when you show a little bit of good faith."
  5546. >Good grief, could that happen?
  5547. >And more importantly, would #deca.mare really tease you with it?
  5548. >When it is the best for your health, possibly.
  5549. >Her genuine love for you is absolute, and the knowledge that you went through this mess for her makes #deca.mare feel even more responsible for your swift and smooth recovery.
  5550. >And in her current position right on top of you, she could easily instigate something suggestive if she truly wanted to.
  5551. >There goes any possible argument of yours.
  5552. >Checkmate.
  5553. >You grumble.
  5554. "Can I hand in a protest note?"
  5555. >"Sure. It will be delivered to and processed by the next official post that is available."
  5556. "That's you."
  5557. >"Astute observation, Anon. And also tough luck. For I am afraid that you have a short mandatory vacation to look forward to. Your doctor agrees."
  5558. >#deca.mare smiles.
  5559. >"And as your personal contact pony, I will oversee your activities to make sure that you follow the instructions."
  5560. "You're sure you can handle so many things at once? On top of all the other work?"
  5561. >#deca.mare tilts her head.
  5562. >"Do really want to bet on this?"
  5563. >Probably not.
  5564. >And #deca.mare's reasons are profound.
  5565. >She would gladly work alone for a day or two rather than allow you to live through a rocky regeneration process.
  5566. >Plus, you have no idea how your weakened mind would react to another more intricate interaction with the system.
  5567. >And you really do not want to find out.
  5568. >So a short holiday it is.
  5569.  
  5570.  
  5571.  
  5572.  
  5573. 81/1
  5574.  
  5575. >The next hour in bed is marked by waiting.
  5576. >There is not much for you to do, so you simply have to bide your time.
  5577. >It seems like an eternity.
  5578. >But much to #deca.mare's credit, she does her best to keep you entertained.
  5579. >You engage in some small talk for a while, she tells you a few short stories, and even sings a song or two.
  5580. >All of those tunes and texts deal with Equestria and the ponies who live there, yet none of those are found in the show.
  5581. >Where do they come from?
  5582. >Perhaps she made them herself?
  5583. >In any case, her effort helps to stave off the boredom.
  5584. >And every now and then, her hooves move over your body and apply some light pressure on certain spots.
  5585. >According to #deca.mare, her treatment aims to reach those regions that have a higher density of nerve tracts.
  5586. >Now granted, hooves are not exactly the prime example of precision tools, but #deca.mare has her way with them.
  5587. >And your condition is gradually improving as you are gaining more and more control over yourself.
  5588. >Soon you can rise your upper body single-handedly to sit upright in the bed.
  5589. >#deca.mare, now no longer mounting you, shifts to the side to gently lean on you.
  5590. >Just like she does most of the time when you are on the command deck.
  5591. >Another small step towards normality.
  5592. >"We are almost there, Anon."
  5593. "'Almost there' is funny, #deca. I still can't walk."
  5594. >"You will, sooner or later."
  5595. "Sooner rather than later, please. I would love to get out and take a walk."
  5596. >"Well, I can at least provide the first half of your wish list right now. Would you like to be somewhere else?"
  5597. "Yeah. The room is fine, but it looks like a cage to me when I can't even get up. Fresh air may be just what I need."
  5598. >You shrug.
  5599. "Maybe I'll heal faster under the sun."
  5600. >Not very likely, but an amusing thought to entertain.
  5601. >"Where do you want to go, Anon? Name a place and I will bring you there personally."
  5602.  
  5603.  
  5604.  
  5605.  
  5606. "Hm. You know what, I'm on mandatory vacation anyway. Let's go on another leisure trip. I'll let you decide where though. Pick a place that is outside and usually used for relaxation."
  5607. >"And rehabilitation?"
  5608. "Even better."
  5609. >"Alright, I have an idea."
  5610. >#deca.mare does something with her console.
  5611. >The console disappears.
  5612. >And nothing happens.
  5613. >A few seconds of silence.
  5614. "... well?"
  5615. >"Our private vacation resort is waiting for us behind the door."
  5616. "Well played, #deca."
  5617. >#deca.mare looks at you with a smile.
  5618. "If that's some hidden attempt to make me jump out of the bed, don't bother. It doesn't work like that."
  5619. >You test your legs once more to be sure that what you said is actually true.
  5620. >And it is.
  5621. >You can make them twitch and shift, but it is nowhere near enough to stand.
  5622. >And walking across the room is wholly unrealistic.
  5623. >"Ah, a pity. But you have an alternative."
  5624. "And that is?"
  5625. >"Me, of course."
  5626. "Uhm, what's your plan, #deca?"
  5627. >"Tying a therapy to our vacation. I will try to provide physical training opportunities that will carefully incentivise your nerves to rewire faster."
  5628. >You see the idea behind it.
  5629. >Exercises are the best way to get a body going.
  5630. >Apparently even when the body is a virtual facsimile.
  5631. "But how am I supposed to get from here..."
  5632. >You point to the bed with a finger.
  5633. "...to there?"
  5634. >Your finger turns to the door.
  5635. >"Easy, I will carry you."
  5636. "You want me to ride you again?"
  5637. >"Why not? It works, and you get some physical input."
  5638. "You mean when I clutch your back while we jump down a cliff."
  5639. >"That will not happen this time. Hold on tight. I will do the rest."
  5640. >You are not yet convinced.
  5641. "But I can only use my arms."
  5642. >"Trust me. I personally ferried you across the floor when you passed out. All the way from the command deck to this bed. This is banal in contrast to that."
  5643. >#deca.mare presents her back and motions you to embrace her neck with both arms.
  5644. >You know the drill and act accordingly.
  5645.  
  5646.  
  5647.  
  5648.  
  5649. >Although you quietly wonder how well she fared while transporting you, providing she did not bend the realism within the simulation while doing so.
  5650. >You do not get an answer.
  5651. >Instead, you feel a gentle pull as #deca.mare starts to stand up slowly.
  5652. >You initially worry that your hands will fail you, but you quickly realise that their grip does not falter.
  5653. >Your arms, and especially your fingers, are still encased in a latent state of numbness, yet you can nevertheless rely on their natural strength again.
  5654. >Really, their potential has never left.
  5655. >It only appeared to be unavailable to your mind.
  5656. >You knew this right from the start, but your brain needs to remind itself that everything is still where it belongs.
  5657. >It is a strange situation when your spirit and body are so out of tune.
  5658. >The dissonance plays right into your identity confusion, as it blurs the lines between you, your body, and the world around you.
  5659. >But you have already bested the brunt of it.
  5660. >The rest is only a matter of patience.
  5661. >#deca.mare rises and hoists you upwards with her.
  5662. >Standing tall, she has taken you up for another nice little ride.
  5663. >Once #deca.mare is sure that you are safely seated, if you can even describe it as such, she begins to step out of the bed.
  5664. >One mindful step after the other.
  5665. >Your lower legs touch the floor right after #deca.mare has reached the ground, yet you barely even register that.
  5666. >They are, unlike your arms and hands, still nearly completely inert.
  5667. >She trots towards the door in a moderate pace.
  5668. >You bounce slightly up and down, but you manage to maintain your stable balance with ease.
  5669. >You should be fine as long as #deca.mare does not run or pass rough ground.
  5670. >Plus, you cannot be harmed anyway, so you have no reason to be concerned.
  5671. >But an idea crosses your mind, and you must smile.
  5672. "Hey #deca, have you ever considered wearing a saddle to ride with style?"
  5673. >You hear a bashful cough.
  5674.  
  5675.  
  5676.  
  5677.  
  5678. >"Equestrian ponies are not ridden like that, Anon. Unless they carry foals, pets, baby dragons, or paralysed lovers."
  5679. "Saddles are a thing though."
  5680. >"As a fashion trend."
  5681. "What? Do you not want to be my trusty steed in our next session?"
  5682. >"I do not think so."
  5683. >Your grin grows.
  5684. "Come on. You've already strapped yourself to ploughs. What's the big deal?"
  5685. >#deca.mare slows down, seemingly thinking about your proposal.
  5686. >"You are right. I do it."
  5687. >What?
  5688. "Uh, really?"
  5689. >"Hmhm. But only if we keep it fair."
  5690. "How so?"
  5691. >Something is coming.
  5692. >You feel it in #deca.mare's posture.
  5693. >"In turn, you agree to let me saddle you for your next flight training. You carry me through the skies. How about that?"
  5694. >Oh boy.
  5695. >Tables and turns, and all that.
  5696. >"And please make it look stunning. A delegation of the Wonderbolts will watch and judge your flight routine."
  5697. >That does not go as you thought it would.
  5698. >Okay, time to play it cool before she seriously entertains such an idea.
  5699. "Do I at least get a uniform?"
  5700. >You have reached the door.
  5701. >However, #deca.mare does not open it yet.
  5702. >Not until this game is over.
  5703. >"Of course, Anon. You get an academy level Wonderbolt shirt. I am sure it will look good on your chest."
  5704. >And it does not cover anything where you would need it.
  5705. >Damn those ponies and their casual dress codes.
  5706. >#deca.mare chuckles.
  5707. >"Perhaps I was a little too harsh. But, hm..."
  5708. >You are not sure if you want to know what comes next.
  5709. >"Yes, that could work."
  5710. >You really should not ask.
  5711. "What?"
  5712. >She turns her head to the side so that you can see at least one of her eyes.
  5713. >And a scheming grin.
  5714. >"How about Spitfire as your personal flight instructor? You two should get along nicely. I assume her drilling style will resonate with your previous time in the military."
  5715. "Alright, alright. No saddle, I got it."
  5716.  
  5717.  
  5718.  
  5719.  
  5720. >#deca.mare slowly opens the door.
  5721. >You seize the opportunity for one last quip.
  5722. >You pull your head closer to #deca.mare's ear and begin to whisper.
  5723. "I know you like it bareback."
  5724. >#deca.mare responds with an equine snort.
  5725. >And she shakes her head once.
  5726. >As a result, you take a load of flowing mane directly to the face, effectively blocking your view.
  5727. >Then she moves on as the door swings open.
  5728. "Hey, I can't see where we are going."
  5729. >"To a cliff. Or two."
  5730. >You are fairly sure that #deca.mare is still bantering, but you nevertheless try to free your eyes without loosing your hold.
  5731. >However, an unexpected breeze from the side is faster than you.
  5732. >It blows #deca.mare's hair out of your face and reveals the new environment in which you find yourself.
  5733. >The Canterlot chamber has been replaced by a seaside scenery.
  5734. >#deca.mare stands on the wide terrace of a holiday resort on a fair summer day.
  5735. >You catch a breath of relief before you go on to scout for more details.
  5736. >The two of you are surrounded by several wooden sun loungers, and a moderately sized pool of water is nearby.
  5737. >The ground is made of smoothly honed stones.
  5738. >You look inland.
  5739. >A number of small but neat wooden huts has been build a couple of hundred metres away.
  5740. >The style of the decoration and architecture is prominently Equestrian.
  5741. >But much like the interior of the spa, it should all be usable for a human.
  5742. >Then you turn your head around to look at the ocean.
  5743. >The relatively low terrace is connected to a sandy beach.
  5744. >A small ramp enables all visitors to get up and down as they please.
  5745. >You close your eyes to sharpen your other senses.
  5746. >The distant splashing of seawater can be heard over the light wind.
  5747. >And you think you can smell a faint salty nuance in the air.
  5748. >A pleasant place to be.
  5749. >It is serene, especially since you two are alone.
  5750. >And more importantly, far away from any steep cliffs.
  5751.  
  5752.  
  5753.  
  5754.  
  5755. >However, there is one little catch to the deal.
  5756. >The site was clearly made for more than two guests, so everything appears abandoned due to being disused.
  5757. >This feels wrong once you think about it, despite the serenity.
  5758. >Especially when you picture a crowd ponies in the sun loungers and the water.
  5759. >It should be a place of joy and optimism, and not a ghost town.
  5760. >You quickly discard that thought though.
  5761. >You are doing all you can to make this exact vision come true, even when it takes a very long time to come to fruition.
  5762. >But if anything, that little emotional sting works well as a motivator to remind you what all this hard work will eventually lead to.
  5763. >#deca.mare heads for the nearest sun lounger.
  5764. >"First, let us get you seated."
  5765. "Again? We just got out of bed."
  5766. >"Indeed. But these sun loungers have adjustable segments. We can also turn them into a de facto chair for you."
  5767. "Right, that's better than staring at the ceiling the whole time. But I assume that the chair wasn't the sole reason why you brought me here."
  5768. >"Correct, Anon. Like I said, I have a plan."
  5769. >#deca.mare reaches a seating and helps you off her back.
  5770. >The chair is pretty comfortable for a wooden variant.
  5771. "What now?"
  5772. >#deca.mare turns the chair so that you can watch the vast ocean.
  5773. >"Now you lean back and let me test my treatment."
  5774. "Test? That doesn't sound even remotely like you, #deca."
  5775. >"Well, I am not sure how well your neural system responds to this indirect treatment. Or if it has any effect at all."
  5776. >You shrug.
  5777. "Doesn't hurt to try though. We can only benefit from it if you succeed."
  5778. >"I will begin now. Please tell me if you feel anything unusual."
  5779. >#deca.mare starts to softly tap your legs with her forehooves.
  5780. >Her limbs wander all the way up and down, and she repeatedly applies light pressure to the same specific locations.
  5781.  
  5782.  
  5783.  
  5784.  
  5785. >Something of her therapy resonates within your brain, but the signals you receive are pretty mixed.
  5786. >Even when you are not watching her work, you always know exactly where she touches you.
  5787. >Still, a dull throbbing is the best result you get at the moment.
  5788. >Paradox, yet not stranger than what you have been through to get here.
  5789. >And #deca.mare does not relent.
  5790. >She keeps her pace and repeats the same movements over and over.
  5791. >Something happens after a short time.
  5792. >The throbbing suddenly intensifies.
  5793. >Not by much, but the unforeseen development almost makes you jolt.
  5794. >And interestingly enough, #deca.mare's soft strokes provoke a much stronger reaction in your nervous system.
  5795. >Her last touch causes an avalanche of pinprick sensations.
  5796. "Oh!"
  5797. >"Anon?"
  5798. >#deca.mare pulls her hooves away.
  5799. >But the prickling does not stop.
  5800. >In fact, it only gets stronger.
  5801. "I think that did it!"
  5802. >#deca.mare nods.
  5803. >"I get the readings too. You are much more responsive now."
  5804. >Did this finally break the ice?
  5805. >"I would not celebrate too early, Anon. It is highly unlikely that your full strength returns in one rush. But I assume you will fare better when this surge is over."
  5806. >You nod, even though it is hard for you to listen to her; the pinprick storm is no joke.
  5807. >#deca.mare waits until you have calmed down.
  5808. >And after another minute or two, the turmoil dissipates just as quickly.
  5809. >"Well, let us see what you can do now. Anon, please try to move your legs."
  5810. >You comply.
  5811. >And indeed, your limbs follow your instructions without slumping after a few seconds of strain.
  5812. >#deca.mare was right though; the reactions are still very sluggish in comparison to your normal performance.
  5813. >She is pleased anyway.
  5814. >Progress is progress.
  5815. >"Good. Very good. I think we can switch to phase two of my training plan."
  5816. "And that is?"
  5817.  
  5818.  
  5819.  
  5820.  
  5821. >#deca.mare points to the pool.
  5822. >"Swimming and other water exercises. Perfect to train the whole body, and especially useful for people with impaired faculties. No offence."
  5823. "Eh, none taken."
  5824. >You take a breath.
  5825. "So, are you going to pick me up again?"
  5826. >"Only if necessary. But I want to see if you can walk over there. Do not worry, I will assist you."
  5827. >Well, #deca.mare wants you to try, and you can see why.
  5828. >So you do her the favour.
  5829. >She reaches out a hoof to help you up.
  5830. >It takes a while, and much more effort than usual, but you can actually stand own your feet again.
  5831. >Even though you need #deca.mare to stand by your side and hold you, that does not dampen the achievement.
  5832. >You slowly hobble towards the pool.
  5833. >Once you have reached the rim, you sit down at the edge, with the eager help of #deca.mare, and let yourself slide in.
  5834. >The water is clean and temperate.
  5835. >Cooler than the warm summer air on the beach, but not too cold to be inconvenient.
  5836. >And you quickly realise that this spot of the pool is too deep for you to stand.
  5837. >It gets more shallow towards the little huts, but that does not help you much.
  5838. >You cannot not really stand properly anyway, much less in a body of water.
  5839. >However, you can rely on your arms to keep you afloat in the deeper reaches.
  5840. >That must be reason why #deca.mare has led you to this particular spot.
  5841. >Swimming is easier than standing in your condition, and she knows that.
  5842. >Speaking of, #deca.mare is standing on the exact same spot where she initially dropped you.
  5843. >She is apparently not planning to join in.
  5844. >You cannot have that and motion her to follow.
  5845. "Come in! You'll love it."
  5846. >"But I have to train you. It would be better if I do not distract myself."
  5847. "I won't let you have all of the work and none of the fun."
  5848. >You smile again.
  5849. "Besides, what if I sink? I might need a friendly mare to help me."
  5850. >Your ruse is obvious, but #deca.mare understands what you are implying.
  5851. "We're on holiday, aren't we?"
  5852. >"Well, you are."
  5853.  
  5854.  
  5855.  
  5856.  
  5857. "And I can't relax if you don't catch a break now and then."
  5858. >"Alright. Stay where you are."
  5859. "Hey, you know I'm not going anywhere."
  5860. >#deca.mare mare ignores your comment and takes a few steps back.
  5861. >Then she speeds up immediately, gallops to the edge of the pool and takes a leap.
  5862. >She is aiming to hit the water near you.
  5863. >And this time you do not intercept her.
  5864. >#deca.mare descends and submerges with a loud splash that sends water everywhere.
  5865. >You get hit by a fair amount too, but this is no big deal.
  5866. >You basically asked for it.
  5867. >In fact, it is somewhat amusing.
  5868. >About two seconds later, #deca.mare's head emerges right next to you.
  5869. >Fully drenched and with her mane dangling down on the side.
  5870. >One of her eyes is completely blocked by a wall of wet hair.
  5871. >You cannot help but chuckle.
  5872. "And how do you feel now?"
  5873. >"Wet."
  5874. "That's all? Not a tiny bit relaxed?"
  5875. >#deca.mare smiles faintly before she begins to paddle in circles around you.
  5876. >"Maybe."
  5877. >This is the best admission you will get.
  5878. >#deca.mare feels compelled to give her best until you are well and truly over the aftermath of your last trip.
  5879. >And while you do not want to completely derail her efforts, you have to create something nice for her in return.
  5880. >Even if it is just a laugh or a brief smile.
  5881. "So, what's on the menu now?"
  5882. >"Plain swimming. Let us start with a round across the pool. Neither as a race nor with a time limit."
  5883. >Sounds doable to you.
  5884. >Of course, you cannot rely all that much on your legs, but you should be able to get forward regardless.
  5885. >So you give it a try as you swim from one edge to the other.
  5886. >A fairly odd experience, given that you can only use one half of your limbs properly.
  5887. >But you manage well enough.
  5888. >And #deca.mare swims with you.
  5889. >She aligns her speed to yours, never leaving your side.
  5890.  
  5891.  
  5892.  
  5893.  
  5894. >Really, if it were not for your current condition, you would say that #deca.mare has to struggle to keep up with you.
  5895. >Her way of swimming looks like it must be much more energy consuming than yours.
  5896. >Then again, her anatomy is vastly different.
  5897. >You have no way to know for sure, as you have not taken any swimming classes with your Pegasus proxy yet.
  5898. >But she does not seem to tire out, and that despite the fact that she is not familiar with doing any legitimately demanding physical labour as a pony.
  5899. >As long as she can keep up like this, you have nothing to worry about.
  5900. >And after only three rounds, you start to feel another difference.
  5901. >You notice that you have instinctively begun to use your legs more and more.
  5902. >The transition is so subtle that you do not even recognise it until the difference in your performance becomes glaringly apparent.
  5903. >Plus, you realise there was no new surge.
  5904. >You can hear #deca.mare snicker right next to you.
  5905. >"I was wondering when you would figure it out."
  5906. "You knew the whole time?"
  5907. >"Well, I saw the improvements in your performance. But I said nothing because I did not want to disturb you."
  5908. >You finish your current round.
  5909. >"Stay at the edge. Let us check your skills."
  5910. >You nod.
  5911. >#deca.mare climbs out of the pool to stand right in front of you.
  5912. >Then she proceeds by asking you to perform different exercises.
  5913. >She wants to determine your current range of movement.
  5914. >And as it turns out, you can do almost everything on your own again, albeit to varying degrees.
  5915. >#deca.mare is visibly glad and relieved.
  5916. >"Anon, I think I have good news for you."
  5917. "Yeah, I can feel it. But I guess you won't let me get back to work yet, eh?"
  5918. >"Certainly not today. I have no idea whether a relapse is possible, so let us err on the side of caution."
  5919. "Okay. You're the doc."
  5920.  
  5921.  
  5922.  
  5923.  
  5924. >A pause.
  5925. "So... we've got the entire day left in our hands to do whatever we want to do? "
  5926. >"Apparently yes, Anon. I would suggest to go for a walk today just be sure."
  5927. >Ah yes, she returns to your initial statement.
  5928. "We still have time for that later on."
  5929. >For a walk is not what you are interested in at the moment.
  5930. >A more appealing alternative has showed itself.
  5931. "Want to come back into the water? I promise it'll be fun."
  5932. >"Gladly."
  5933. >#deca.mare tilts her head.
  5934. >"You have something in mind."
  5935. >You grin.
  5936. "That I do."
  5937. >"Another leisure activity?"
  5938. "Hm, sort of. It's called..."
  5939. >You quickly grab #deca.mare's forehooves out of the blue.
  5940. "... water fight!"
  5941. >Then you pull her towards you.
  5942. >#deca.mare yelps in surprise as she is dragged down.
  5943. >Your unexpected stunt has opened her guard, and so she splashes belly first into the water again.
  5944. >You fail to suppress a laugh as she surfaces right next to you.
  5945. >#deca.mare looks into your eyes, but remains silent.
  5946. >No evil eye or visible disapproval.
  5947. >She simply stares at you.
  5948. >Wondering about this reaction, you turn around to face her directly.
  5949. >Only to be on the receiving end of some water, spat directly into your eyes.
  5950. >You recoil out of pure instinct.
  5951. >And #deca.mare has waited for exactly this moment to pounce on you.
  5952. >"It is on!"
  5953.  
  5954.  
  5955.  
  5956.  
  5957. 81/2
  5958.  
  5959. >The two of you tussle in the pool for a good while.
  5960. >You simply resort to spraying each other with water from a short distance about half of the time.
  5961. >But when you get up close and personal, things change very quickly.
  5962. >Of course, everything that happens is of an amicable nature, but you play it out in the form of a mock contest.
  5963. >Though you have no tournament with defined rules.
  5964. >Instead, you do whatever seems appropriate at the moment.
  5965. >You tumble and spin constantly.
  5966. >Each of you is trying to get the upper hand and outplay the other.
  5967. >And both of you use your personal advantages in unique ways.
  5968. >For instance, #deca.mare loves to pounce and hold you in her grasp.
  5969. >And with her raw physical power, it is not easy to free yourself once she has caught you.
  5970. >Even if you were not previously weakened by mental stress, you would find it difficult to compete with an adult Earth pony in a direct confrontation.
  5971. >But you learn to develop your own strategies.
  5972. >You let your hands slide to #deca.mare's sides and start to tickle her.
  5973. >Only gently and not with much intensity, but enough to make #deca.mare flinch.
  5974. >And this is where your arms and fingers begin to shine.
  5975. >You can move them to cover large parts of #deca.mare's body, and she has no effective way to counter, especially when she has grabbed you.
  5976. >Freeing a hoof would not help much; #deca.mare could never hope to reach your hands in this position, much less ward them off.
  5977. >So she has to endure it, or jump off entirely.
  5978. >And the best part of it all, you do not even have to aim for any delicate areas either.
  5979. >You can play it fair and square.
  5980. >#deca.mare takes the low-key tickling with a moderate degree of fortitude and dignity, yet you can see that she has to put some effort into her act of saving face.
  5981.  
  5982.  
  5983.  
  5984.  
  5985. >This status quo is fine for you; you simply continue to tickle her as you two roll and turn in the water.
  5986. >Her resolve will ultimately fade.
  5987. >And indeed, #deca.mare has to relent and let go.
  5988. >She pushes herself off you, and you use that opportunity to send another small wave of water her way.
  5989. >Then the cycle repeats.
  5990. >Laughter and splashing water everywhere, you two spinning circles around each other, and another grappling attempt by #deca.mare.
  5991. >It ends about as well as the first one.
  5992. >However, this time you decide to not let it rest once she tries to get away from you.
  5993. >Your tickling fingers chase after her.
  5994. >And much to #deca.mare's elated chagrin, you score a few hits that make her tremor and laugh in your hands.
  5995. >She is clearly enjoying this, although her reactions might suggest otherwise.
  5996. >#deca.mare is instinctively trying to get your digits away from her.
  5997. >Not much of a surprise in itself, it is a reflex after all.
  5998. >But the way in which she finally frees herself is memorable.
  5999. >With one of her many erratic movements, she withdraws her upper body from your reach by swimming backwards, effectively revealing her belly to you.
  6000. >While there is now a lot more ground for you to cover, she somehow manages to place both rear hooves on your arms, and sends you reeling into the other direction with a single push.
  6001. >You are not sure whether this was planned or not, yet you find it rather unlikely.
  6002. >#deca.mare just wanted to get some distance between you, and in one random moment of many, she found herself in the spontaneous position to do so.
  6003. >The brute force of her kick is not only staggering, it also results in you losing your balance and sink as your arms are suddenly yanked aside.
  6004. >This stunt would have surely dislocated both of your shoulders in reality, if not worse.
  6005. >And if you were in a real pool, two disabled arms mean that you could easily drown.
  6006. >But not here, thankfully.
  6007.  
  6008.  
  6009.  
  6010.  
  6011. >You briefly think back to the little mishap shortly before you were sent to hibernation inside the cryo pod, and how quickly #deca.mare could have hurt you.
  6012. >One quick imprudent buck would have been enough.
  6013. >Not that you have ever thought of taking it to this level outside the simulation, but still.
  6014. >It serves as an impressive demonstration of #deca.mare's physical strength in comparison to yours.
  6015. >Really, you somehow like her a little more for it.
  6016. >#deca.mare does not give you the time to dwell on that thought though.
  6017. >She is apparently preparing her next friendly assault, not willing to give in yet.
  6018. >And with a different tactic at hand this time.
  6019. >At first it looks like she is going for the same frontal jump that she has used before.
  6020. >You realise this is not the case though.
  6021. >She is planning something else, and she knows that you know.
  6022. >So what could it be?
  6023. >The answer comes faster than your imagination, as another gush of water is flying towards your face.
  6024. >#deca.mare tries another spit attack.
  6025. >You can block the shot with your arms and deflect the stream to steer clear of your eyes.
  6026. >Then you open up a small gap between your arms to peek through.
  6027. >But #deca.mare is not there.
  6028. >You lower your arms to assess the situation.
  6029. >A careful glance to the right side, followed by another to your left.
  6030. >She is nowhere to be seen.
  6031. >Less than a second later, you get to understand what is happening.
  6032. >#deca.mare has used her short distraction to dive.
  6033. >But it is already too late to react.
  6034. >When you finally look down, you can see a floating #deca.mare turned upside down again, with her belly pointing upwards.
  6035. >And in one controlled and well planned sequence, she shoves her hooves between your legs at the height of the knees, spreads them apart, and drives her limbs further through the newly created gap to encompass your thighs from behind.
  6036.  
  6037.  
  6038.  
  6039.  
  6040. >#deca.mare uses this foothold to drag her body through your legs.
  6041. >Whilst "climbing" on your back at the same time.
  6042. >You try to struggle against this, but to no avail.
  6043. >All you can do is to clench.
  6044. >Yet this will only delay #deca.mare's ascent.
  6045. >She can produce enough force to barge her way through, no matter what.
  6046. >And you do not exactly like the idea to pin a struggling Earth pony right underneath you.
  6047. >For various reasons.
  6048. >Plus, it would be a very bad show to bind your lover when she is completely underwater.
  6049. >Not that this would matter in this context, but still.
  6050. >You reject some things on pure principle and out of common decency.
  6051. >So #deca.mare has her way as she wiggles herself through the opening, and finally emerges to claim her place on your back.
  6052. >As one final teaser, she lets her tail streak your nethers as she passes by.
  6053. >Only subtle and without any force, but it nonetheless startles you for a moment.
  6054. >A victorious pair of wet forehooves wrap around your shoulders, and you think you can feel her chin resting lightly on your head.
  6055. >Her heavy breaths fill the air.
  6056. >Probably out of excitement rather than breathlessness.
  6057. >Although you two did romp quite a bit.
  6058. >You are also a little exhausted.
  6059. >Yet you prefer this over the state in which you started the day.
  6060. >#deca.mare giggles in amusement.
  6061. >No wonder, she pulled off an... interesting stunt without playing dirty.
  6062. >Even though she had ample opportunities to do so.
  6063. >And you take it as the friendly game it is.
  6064. >You catch your own breath before you go on.
  6065. "Had your fun?"
  6066. >"I did. And you?"
  6067. "Can't complain."
  6068. >You smile.
  6069. "But I could have done without that last trick."
  6070. >"You only say that because you did not think of it first."
  6071. >And you snort.
  6072. "Right. Because I'd totally dive under a swimming mare. Do you have any idea how many times you are kicking when you swim?"
  6073. >"Yes. Only as often as I have to."
  6074. "Pft. Besides, how could I pull a fast one on you? You read my every thought in a second."
  6075.  
  6076.  
  6077.  
  6078.  
  6079. >You can feel #deca.mare's shrug.
  6080. >"I do not know. Be creative, Anon."
  6081. >#deca.mare taps your shoulder as she changes the topic.
  6082. >"Your readings look splendid. I suggest we get out of the pool and go for a walk."
  6083. >What a nonchalant and smooth way to avert a retort.
  6084. >But you drop the subject due to #deca.mare's implications.
  6085. "You think it will work?"
  6086. >"That is what I want to find out. My prognosis is very promising, but I want to see it to be sure."
  6087. >And truth be told, so do you.
  6088. "Okay. Could you get off my back first? I don't think I can carry both of us."
  6089. >"Sure."
  6090. >#deca.mare loosens her grip and slides back down into the water.
  6091. >And together you head for the shallow end of the pool.
  6092. >Once you can feel the ground beneath, you stop swimming and to try to stand instead.
  6093. >It works without any major hassle.
  6094. >The calm water is helping you immensely; it is still carrying most of your weight early on.
  6095. >And yet you face the exact opposite issue while moving.
  6096. >The density of the liquid makes it harder for you to walk, forcing you to pay more attention to every single step.
  6097. >And to make the sensual confusion perfect, you have to gradually carry more of your own weight as you rise.
  6098. >A perfect mix of all extremes.
  6099. >"Anon, you seem troubled. Shall I help you?"
  6100. >You shake your head.
  6101. "Only when I'm falling."
  6102. >Which you are determined to avoid.
  6103. >Enough mandatory lying and sitting, now you want to prove both to #deca.mare and yourself that you can walk again.
  6104. >You need your precious time, yet you eventually manage to step out and stand.
  6105. >It may take a constant concentrated effort and cause more perceived strain than usual, but here you are.
  6106. "Ha! All new!"
  6107. >#deca.mare is approaching you from behind.
  6108. >Your fantasy might play a trick on you, but her steps sound lighter than before.
  6109. >Relieved, in a way.
  6110. >"Hmhm. It is good to see you standing again, Anon."
  6111. >You nod in appreciation.
  6112.  
  6113.  
  6114.  
  6115.  
  6116. >You are certain that the rest of this impromptu vacation will no longer be overshadowed by the uneasiness of its cause.
  6117. >If you play your cards right.
  6118. >And the best way to ensure this is to push ahead.
  6119. "You mentioned a walk?"
  6120. >"Yes. Wandering on the shore?"
  6121. "I'd love to."
  6122. >So without further ado, you get down the ramp and onto the beach.
  6123. >Your pace and sequence are a little uneven, yet you can keep moving without taking mandatory breaks.
  6124. >The fickle sand proves to be a tad more challenging to walk on than the even stone surface around the pool.
  6125. >Nevertheless, you show no signs of tripping or falling.
  6126. >Just like the swimming exercises, the stroll quickly turns into a palatable routine.
  6127. >It leaves some time to think more about other things.
  6128. >And you use it to take in the scenery with a much clearer focus.
  6129. >It helps when your mind is not constantly bogged down by the struggle to rekindle its connection to your body.
  6130. "This wasn't in the show. What scene is this? An actual Equestrian resort?"
  6131. >"Sort of. It is not directly based on any specific location, but a projection of how a resort could look like with common Equestrian architecture."
  6132. "Looks pretty if you ask me. Where do you want to build it?"
  6133. >"Anon?"
  6134. "You didn't design this site if you had no plans to use it one day. Let me guess, 'modern day' Equestria, around the time of the show?"
  6135. >"Yes, you are right. Probably around that time as well."
  6136. "And where?"
  6137. >"Somewhere on the eastern shores, I would say. It makes sense to have one or more facilities of this nature between two of Equestria's major hubs. Though I have not decided on a concrete location yet. It depends on the adjustments we have to make during our work."
  6138. "Right."
  6139. >So the landscape as you see it may never be realised in the exact same image as it is now, but the most defining traits of the architecture and general environment will be comparable.
  6140.  
  6141.  
  6142.  
  6143.  
  6144. >A funny thought crosses your mind.
  6145. >You are personally testing the resort in a way.
  6146. >#deca.mare brought you here to recover from the overexertion of your last task.
  6147. >And you are doing exactly the same things that people, or ponies in this case, would do when they need a vacation.
  6148. >Even though Equestrian city life will be far more agreeable than life in a comparable human metropolis, you can see why ponies would prefer to retreat to a more relaxed region from time to time.
  6149. >Especially with their heightened link to the nature around them.
  6150. >The two of you wander on for quite a while.
  6151. >At first you wander a few kilometres to the south, assuming the shore you see is the eastern border of Equestria.
  6152. >Then you turn around to return to the resort, and walk about the same distance into the opposite direction.
  6153. >Sometimes you two talk to each other, and occasionally you just stay quiet to listen to the sounds of the wind and the rhythmic beats of the waves.
  6154. >And you develop a habit of looking back from time to time.
  6155. >You observe the prints you two leave in the sand to study your patterns and compare them to #deca.mare's.
  6156. >Naturally, they differ in practically every conceivable way, but therein lies a certain fun.
  6157. >A fascination which you turn into a game.
  6158. >"Anon?"
  6159. "Catch up with me!"
  6160. >And you spontaneously begin to run with large steps.
  6161. >#deca.mare needs a moment to understand what you allude to, but then she joins in.
  6162. >She follows you with a moderate pace and quickly closes the gap between you.
  6163. >You dodge to the side.
  6164. >She follows.
  6165. >Then you take two turns in a rapid succession.
  6166. >Again, she follows.
  6167. >#deca.mare can outrun you with ease, yet you manage to get at least a few metres between you with every new turn.
  6168. >The short latency of the link works wonders right now.
  6169. >You repeat similar moves with varying complexity about half a dozen times before #deca.mare surprises you instead.
  6170.  
  6171.  
  6172.  
  6173.  
  6174. >She does not simply try to catch up anymore; you hear an unusual sound that you cannot quite identify.
  6175. >Looking over your shoulder is not an option at the moment, as you would have to slow down to do so.
  6176. >And as it turns out, you do not even have the time.
  6177. >Before you can do anything else, #deca.mare tackles you from behind.
  6178. >The hit itself is not very strong, but you do not get to escape #deca.mare's firm forelimbs.
  6179. >Her sudden additional weight drags you down and hurls you to the ground.
  6180. >You harmlessly land in the sand.
  6181. >Face first, and with #deca.mare lying on your back.
  6182. >"Caught you."
  6183. >#deca.mare sounds amused, any maybe also a hint smug.
  6184. >The latter is more of an act though.
  6185. "Yeah, guess so."
  6186. >#deca.mare moves aside to let you sit up straight.
  6187. >You look around and see all the different prints you two have left all over this region of the beach.
  6188. >A short-lived testament of your little game.
  6189. >Ah, scratch the short-lived part.
  6190. >You bring your trusty camera.
  6191. >#deca.mare insists that you shall not use any straining commands, but asking the simulation for an object is nothing to be concerned about.
  6192. >You take two new photos.
  6193. >One of the beach, with an excerpt of your prints, and the other of the two of you, sitting in your shared embrace.
  6194. >The camera disappears once its work is done.
  6195. >"I have to say, I liked your idea, Anon. The game has proven to me that you have returned to your prime potential. And you have exceeded my predictions."
  6196. >You smile.
  6197. >Time for the not really serious question.
  6198. "That's a good thing, right? So... I can get back to work?"
  6199. >"Yes. We can return and resume our work in ten minutes. Provided you beat me in a race first, that is. Two hundred metres across the beach in a straight line. No curves or other tricks."
  6200. "That's impossible."
  6201. >"If you say so. Then you have to take the rest of the day off."
  6202.  
  6203.  
  6204.  
  6205.  
  6206. >No chance.
  6207. >#deca.mare will not let you go anywhere near the command chair today.
  6208. >Not even a console.
  6209. >Alright, but now you need something else do, unless you want to spend the rest of the day sitting on the sand.
  6210. >Well you could, given that the simulation ignores the stinging heat that the sand would emanate on a warm sunny day.
  6211. >But as wholesome as this idea sounds, you want some action.
  6212. >"I think I have an idea."
  6213. "Hm?"
  6214. >"Are you familiar with common beach activities?"
  6215. "Uh, a bit? I didn't get to see many beaches thanks to my job."
  6216. >Apart from the view through your canopy when you were stationed near planets, but that is hardly the same.
  6217. >"Allow me to introduce you to some now. Ever heard of volleyball?"
  6218. "Yeah, sure. But never had any real matches myself."
  6219. >"It is fairly simple. All you need is a net and a ball."
  6220. >And as it so happens, both objects appear nearby.
  6221. >Her invitation is fairly straightforward.
  6222. >You stand up, and #deca.mare follows.
  6223. "Okay. Let's play a round. "What are the rules?"
  6224. >#deca.mare picks the ball up and passes it to you.
  6225. >Then she begins to explain the general spirit of the game and lists some basic ways in which the ball is usually handled in human matches.
  6226. >She herself can of course not adhere to this standard and is forced to resort to her own style instead.
  6227. >This also means #deca.mare cannot show you the stances and movements directly, yet she tries her best to explain how they work and asks you to imitate her instructions by striking poses.
  6228. >Not as effective as a visual demonstration, but you get the idea.
  6229. >Then it is time for your "match".
  6230. >You mutually decide to keep a store, but treat it as a friendly.
  6231. >And the game has another deeper purpose, although it has nothing to do with winning.
  6232.  
  6233.  
  6234.  
  6235.  
  6236. >#deca.mare wants you to undergo a controlled physical stress test to check your performance while using your whole body over a longer period of time.
  6237. >And you get to pass the day with something fun.
  6238. >Several birds with one stone, and all that.
  6239. >The net is aligned vertically to the shore line, meaning that both of you have a seaside and a landside.
  6240. >In order to make the game somewhat balanced, you have also agreed to slightly modify the physics of the simulation in some minor aspects.
  6241. >Or rather to let #deca.mare alter these things for the two of you.
  6242. >For instance, the ball and its trajectory will not be affected by wind currents, despite the fact that the simulation at large still produces them as usual.
  6243. >Additionally, both halves of the playing field are marked by lines i.e. spontaneously coloured stripes of sand that are similar to the markings you know from sport centres.
  6244. >It may look slightly off, realistically speaking, but it works for you.
  6245. >You position yourself on one "field" and #deca.mare trots to the other.
  6246. >You initiate the first round with an opener move, following #deca.mare's descriptions as closely as possible.
  6247. >The ball flies over the net in a decent curve.
  6248. >#deca.mare intercepts its flight and receives the ball by headbutting it with her forehead.
  6249. >You cringe for a second because you immediately envision how this might hurt in bad circumstances.
  6250. >Ponies are sturdy creatures though; #deca.mare would probably even laugh it off if this were the real physical world.
  6251. >And as you run to the spot where you expect the ball to land, you quietly wonder what Unicorns would do if they are not allowed to use magic.
  6252. >A headbutt does not work for them.
  6253. >You arrive in time to position yourself properly, and pass the ball back.
  6254. >You use both hands, hitting from below to send the ball flying high into the air.
  6255. >#deca.mare reacts appropriately.
  6256.  
  6257.  
  6258.  
  6259.  
  6260. >She casually spins around to move out.
  6261. >But once in place, #deca.mare does not turn her body to the net again.
  6262. >With her rear still facing you, she prepares herself for something else.
  6263. >You have witnessed her doing it before, so you recognise an incoming buck when you see it.
  6264. >Her hooves hit fiercely and in a steep, yet precise angle.
  6265. >#deca.mare easily trumps the height of your passes and answers your question.
  6266. >And she leaves you with a tricky challenge.
  6267. >Her shot aimed exceedingly high.
  6268. >In fact, it is so high that you can barely predict where it will land.
  6269. >But you do know two things for sure.
  6270. >One, it will land in your field.
  6271. >#deca.mare knows where she is aiming.
  6272. >And two, the ball will gain a serious speed on its way down, which makes it even harder to intercept.
  6273. >So you keep moving as you look at the sky, constantly changing your position and evaluating the situation.
  6274. >Eventually, you figure out where it will land.
  6275. >You immediately run to get to the best position.
  6276. >Then you muster all your strength for your trick.
  6277. >Once again, two arms; #deca.mare has practically forced you to do this.
  6278. >And you connect.
  6279. >The impact with the rapid object sends an intense wave through your arms.
  6280. >And you do not feel pain or register any harm.
  6281. >However, your angle is fairly disadvantageous.
  6282. >Your pass gets over the net, but it is very slow.
  6283. >#deca.mare can easily secure and counter it.
  6284. >What happens next surprises you though.
  6285. >#deca.mare does not budge at all.
  6286. >She simply stands in the middle of her half, looking at you, and allowing the ball to fall into the sand with a quiet thud.
  6287. >After that, she points at the ground in front of you.
  6288. >You look down.
  6289. >And you realise that you are standing outside your own field, albeit barely.
  6290. >"You did not have to accept it. The ball was off."
  6291. >There is no way she made a mistake.
  6292. >This must have been deliberate.
  6293. "You did this on purpose? Why?"
  6294. >#deca.mare shrugs.
  6295.  
  6296.  
  6297.  
  6298.  
  6299. >Wait a second.
  6300. >#deca.mare was watching you when you were busy with her bucked pass.
  6301. >You bet she has never averted her gaze.
  6302. >It dawns on you what she did, and why.
  6303. "Oh, you! You... aimed for the off and studied me the whole time!"
  6304. >#deca.mare sends her regards with her tongue.
  6305. >It is as if she is planting the words directly into your head.
  6306. >Yes.
  6307. >Yes, she did.
  6308. >You shake your head in astonishment.
  6309. >But then again, this is precisely that kind of thing you should expect from her.
  6310. >#deca.mare reaches for the ball and you two return to your default positions.
  6311. >She starts the second round.
  6312. >And her opener is a sight to see.
  6313. >She initially sits on her haunches and puts the ball on her head.
  6314. >Then she stands up on all fours and raises her head slightly.
  6315. >The ball rolls elegantly down her neck, across her back, and towards her flanks.
  6316. >Now comes the interesting part.
  6317. >As soon as it reaches the area above #deca.mare's pelvis, she somehow accomplishes several things in one fluid movement.
  6318. >#deca.mare bumps the ball off her back and sends it airborne by quickly lowering her upper body and lifting her rear.
  6319. >Then she proceeds to sway her whole body in the opposite direction, shooting forwards and striking a stretching pose.
  6320. >Both her mane and tail flow gently around her as she moves.
  6321. >It further accentuates her features.
  6322. >You have never thought that she could move in such an elegant fashion.
  6323. >Here she is though, ready to prove you wrong.
  6324. >And upon the apex of #deca.mare's pose, she hits the ball with her head again.
  6325. >This eliminates your chance to ponder, given that you are required to act and play the game.
  6326. >You must admit that you are somewhat mesmerised by that display, yet you will not allow #deca.mare to distract you with this simple trick.
  6327. >Not after her first stunt.
  6328. >So you focus on the ball, determined to claim the next round for you.
  6329.  
  6330.  
  6331.  
  6332.  
  6333. >And you keep playing, one round after the other.
  6334. >Each round is different and unique in its own way.
  6335. >You have fairly tame ones with soft and easy passes.
  6336. >And others are anything but tame.
  6337. >Sometimes you just want to push #deca.mare, or vice versa.
  6338. >And this is where many fast paced and hard passes are dished out.
  6339. >In a few tumultuous situations you have to literally throw yourself into the sand to secure a pass in the nick of time.
  6340. >But this is also true for #deca.mare.
  6341. >You are occasionally able to put her into a tight spot, especially in the earlier stages of your match.
  6342. >Curiously enough though, the overall score is remarkably balanced most of the time.
  6343. >You win some points, and so does #deca.mare.
  6344. >Sometimes you even manage to take the lead.
  6345. >But just like your disc match back then, you will eventually get bested by her.
  6346. >However, you have an additional saving grace that enables you to last longer than before.
  6347. >#deca.mare is not fully committed to the game itself.
  6348. >She is rather interested in you, and checks your performance during the entire session.
  6349. >This does not make her any less competent on the field, but she does not adapt as swiftly as the last time.
  6350. >And it opens up a fairly generous way for you to fool her with spontaneous changes to your tactics.
  6351. >Even more so than usual.
  6352. >In the end, you mutually agree to quit with a draw result of 15-15, and meet in the middle of the field.
  6353. >Both of you sit down and hug each other under the net.
  6354. "Good game, #deca."
  6355. >"Good game indeed."
  6356. >You smile behind #deca.mare's back.
  6357. "By the by, you're a sly one sometimes, do you know that?"
  6358. >"What because of how I move?"
  6359. "You didn't pick these moves deliberately to divert my thoughts, now did you?"
  6360. >"I picked them because they work for me, Anon."
  6361. >A diplomatic answer.
  6362.  
  6363.  
  6364.  
  6365.  
  6366. >And yet you hear something in her voice.
  6367. >A little hint, a minuscule nuance which tells you that #deca.mare is snickering inwardly.
  6368. >Of course she does.
  6369. >#deca.mare loves her "work" with you.
  6370. >Or on you, depending on how she wants to put it.
  6371. >Her pranks are always harmless and stealthy, but she never stopped to fabricate new ploys for you.
  6372. >And she probably never will.
  6373. >But you are fine with this, as it keeps things interesting as far as you are concerned.
  6374. >You show #deca.mare your approval and appreciation, and give her a kiss on the neck.
  6375. >She immediately responds by doing the same.
  6376. >Then you two allow yourselves to fall to the side and roll on your backs, staring at the sky.
  6377. >You have no idea how much time has passed since you were brought to the resort, but the sun is slowly descending.
  6378. >It is not quite dusk yet, though it will not very long.
  6379. "We've been here for an entire day?"
  6380. >"Maybe, maybe not. Please forget about time for now. I want you to relax and let all of that go. There is nothing urgent to do."
  6381. >You recall all the preparations and projections you have made regarding the future stages of Equestria's development.
  6382. >#deca.mare is right.
  6383. >You have planned for months in advance on a scale that would make Twilight Sparkle proud.
  6384. "You're right. I'll keep shut."
  6385. >#deca.mare's hooves circle in the air next to you.
  6386. >She is idling just as much as you at the moment.
  6387. >In fact, you wager she stationed the ship in a quiet patch of space for the time being to focus solely on this simulation.
  6388. >And even though it looks somewhat cute to watch #deca.mare's hooves softly kicking the air above her, you look for another game to play.
  6389. >The net is still there, so perhaps a different game with a similar style?
  6390. >You get an idea.
  6391. >A lightly devious one at that.
  6392. >Oh, delicious.
  6393.  
  6394.  
  6395.  
  6396.  
  6397. >Without breaking away from the vision of the early evening sky, you gently tap #deca.mare's belly with a finger.
  6398. >The four hooves in your sight twitch weakly in response.
  6399. >But they stay put in the air.
  6400. "I got it. Want to play a game of tennis?"
  6401. >"On the beach?"
  6402. "Sure, why not? It should work."
  6403. >"It does, Anon. But why tennis?"
  6404. "Because I have to use my whole body and utilise a racket? That's harder than hitting a ball with my hands."
  6405. >"Hmhm. Makes sense. But is that the only reason?"
  6406. "Uh, yes?"
  6407. >"Really?"
  6408. >You try to sounds as deadpan as possible.
  6409. "Yes."
  6410. >"Anon, let me inform you that your statement and readings do not match up."
  6411. "So?"
  6412. >"Could it be that you expect to gain an advantage because ponies cannot use a racket quite as efficiently as a human?"
  6413. >You begin to whistle a random tune.
  6414. "Have I ever told you that I really like your mane?"
  6415. >You place your whole hand on #deca.mare's belly and begin to rub her gently.
  6416. >"Shame on you, Anon."
  6417. >#deca.mare is feigning her frustration.
  6418. "Said the mare who wanted to seduce me during the game."
  6419. >"Excuse me? I was only using what my body provides me with."
  6420. "So do I now."
  6421. >#deca.mare falls silent.
  6422. >She has set a trap for herself with her own argumentation.
  6423. >No way to refute you now.
  6424. "So. Game? Or no game?"
  6425. >#deca.mare sighs.
  6426. "Game."
  6427. >You put a smidgeon more gentle force into your rubbing massage.
  6428. >"Anon, is that an attempt to sway my view before the next game even begins?"
  6429. "Could I?"
  6430. >"One might assume you are trying to muddle my focus with stray thoughts. Your massage could be interpreted as an appeal to my physical desires."
  6431. >You chuckle heartily.
  6432. "You know, if that were the case, I would do... this!"
  6433.  
  6434.  
  6435.  
  6436.  
  6437. >Less than a second later, your hand darts a little lower.
  6438. >#deca.mare has no chance to react properly, and so you begin to lovingly treat her teats.
  6439. >You are instantly rewarded with a prolonged outcry of arousal.
  6440. >Her hooves retract to cover and shield herself against your sudden intrusion.
  6441. >She even rolls to the side to get rid of your hand.
  6442. >But it is no use.
  6443. >You got her, and you will not let her out.
  6444. >Yet, at least.
  6445. >#deca.mare snickers, pants, and moans while your fingers are at work.
  6446. >You have learned how much #deca.mare can take, and you do not plan to rile her up for some serious action.
  6447. >It would be cruel to encourage her urges just to deny her any relief directly thereafter.
  6448. >You could not accept that.
  6449. >In other words, if you go too far, you are in for a ride.
  6450. >You constantly keep this in mind.
  6451. >Though you admittedly enjoy to tease her a little.
  6452. >Only a touch.
  6453. >Or two.
  6454. >You play this game for about a minute before you let your fingers slow down gradually.
  6455. >Eventually, you stop completely and let #deca.mare finally catch her breath.
  6456. >Yet you keep your hand where it is and wait for her to move it away in her own pace.
  6457. >And she does not hesitate.
  6458. >#deca.mare shoves a forehoof between her underside and your wrist, and lifts your limb off her body.
  6459. >You do not resist.
  6460. >As your hand plops to the ground, you turn your face to #deca.mare and smile.
  6461. "For the trick in the pool."
  6462. >"That was a cranky move."
  6463. "No, it was creative."
  6464. >#deca.mare emits an audible grunt.
  6465. >"Remind me not to give you any further advice in the future."
  6466. "Nope. You will anyway. Every time."
  6467. >"I am afraid you are right again."
  6468. "Eh, don't fret. You could be wrong about worse things."
  6469. >You hear exasperated laughter.
  6470. >"You are a piece of work, Anon."
  6471. "You know you love it."
  6472. >First, a second of renewed silence.
  6473. >Then you two laugh in unison.
  6474.  
  6475.  
  6476.  
  6477.  
  6478. >A few minutes pass.
  6479. "How are you down there? Hope I wasn't too reckless."
  6480. >"I will... manage. But you came close."
  6481. >You are glad to hear that.
  6482. >Not that it would be difficult for you go give her what she needed, and you would be willing to do so if it were to happen in this case.
  6483. >But you refuse to intentionally reach that point in this blunt manner.
  6484. "Tennis?"
  6485. >"Please give me another minute. You can practice with a racket in the meantime if you want to."
  6486. >Not a bad idea.
  6487. >You give #deca.mare one last peck before you stand up.
  6488. >A pair of newly created rackets are conveniently stuck in the sand near one of the net poles.
  6489. >You grab one of them and test a number of different dry swings.
  6490. >#deca.mare is not observing you this time; she honestly needs the break to calm herself.
  6491. >That is actually a bonus in your eyes, as she is unable to actively spy on your exercises.
  6492. >Sure, she knows what you are doing, but she cannot properly process and analyse anything in her current state.
  6493. >And while you are busy with testing your own techniques, #deca.mare manages to get off the sandy ground and takes her own racket.
  6494. >Soon you spot her on the field, ready to play with a handle in her mouth.
  6495. >Well, here comes the next experimental game.
  6496. >#deca.mare's anatomy is a huge handicap in this situation, as she can only effectively cover one half of the field at a time.
  6497. >And her swings are further reduced by her neck's limited range of motion.
  6498. >However, you know that you must not underestimate her.
  6499. >She is a capable player, and she will find a method to do things her way.
  6500. >The best strategy you have is to hinder her in finding it for as long as possible.
  6501.  
  6502.  
  6503.  
  6504.  
  6505. >#deca.mare plays the first pass.
  6506. >She balances the ball on the knee of one of her forelegs, flips it into the air, and hits it with a mighty thrust of her racket.
  6507. >Your turn.
  6508. >Even though #deca.mare's pass looks strong, you wager she can muster much more force if she wanted to.
  6509. >And yet you have to hurry to catch up with the projectile.
  6510. >She has aimed for a corner in the back.
  6511. >And this time she is not trying to hit the off either.
  6512. >You intercept the ball in a rush and fling it back at the opposite field, almost stumbling in the process.
  6513. >The game is more intense and faster than you have expected.
  6514. >However, you are in luck.
  6515. >You had no time to properly coordinate your reaction, and so your resulting pass turned out to be extremely random.
  6516. >#deca.mare could not predict it though, and you have perfectly struck her blind spot.
  6517. >Her efforts to recover from your hit are in vain.
  6518. >But you get to see something interesting.
  6519. >#deca.mare must have quickly realised where the ball is flying, so she attempts to bypass this weakness by turning the racket in her mouth.
  6520. >And to your surprise, she actually pulls it off.
  6521. >She somehow holds the handle between her incisors and spins it with one controlled jolt.
  6522. >Once it has fully turned, #deca.mare simply tightens the grip around the handle once more.
  6523. >She does all this whilst also running after the ball.
  6524. >It was not successful, but it shows to you that her disadvantage is not as grave as you initially thought.
  6525. >Well, this is good to know.
  6526. >You start the next round with a test.
  6527. >#deca.mare is not likely to fall for the same blunder twice, and you have no sure-fire way to replicate another lucky shot like this one.
  6528. >So you deliberately deliver the ball directly in #deca.mare's direction.
  6529. >But you add a little catch to it.
  6530. >You fire the ball as high as humanly possible, in order to let it come down near the rear line of the field.
  6531. >#deca.mare has to get all the way to the back, and intercept an almost vertical pass.
  6532.  
  6533.  
  6534.  
  6535.  
  6536. >She reads your intention like a book, but that is exactly what you want.
  6537. >You want to see her reaction to your move, nothing more, nothing less.
  6538. >It might cost you the next point, but that is a risk you have to take.
  6539. >And #deca.mare delivers.
  6540. >She gallops to the line of her field, waits a moment, and then she jumps in a very peculiar fashion.
  6541. >#deca.mare has apparently controlled the impulse of her jump in order to include a rotation on her way up.
  6542. >She uses that spin to intercept the ball in midair; the ideal position, as you find out.
  6543. >She sends it back to you in a very flat curve and with a rapid speed.
  6544. >A risky move, considering that she squarely falls into the sand afterwards, but it pays off.
  6545. >The ball nearly scrapes the upper end of the net as it zips past.
  6546. >This is a difficult pass at the best of times, and #deca.mare has once again caught your attention with her elegant jump and now prone form.
  6547. >You can hear the ball landing somewhere behind you as you look at #deca.mare's sprawling figure on the ground.
  6548. >She chuckles.
  6549. >"I knew this would get you."
  6550. >That little jab was probably meant to get under your skin, but it fails.
  6551. >You are simply fascinated by her performance.
  6552. >Sure, some of her tricks during your disc match were similar, but it never ceases to amaze you how resourceful that seemingly unimposing mare can be.
  6553. >Your short stupor is broken once #deca.mare rolls to the side and pulls herself up.
  6554. >Right, back to the game.
  6555. >You assume she will return the favour quickly and bring you in situations where you have to throw yourself to the ground, but that is part of the game.
  6556. >You are indeed correct; #deca.mare's passes get noticeably more difficult with every new turn.
  6557. >And sometimes you do land in the sand in different ways and for various reasons.
  6558. >Though you manage to make #deca.mare do the same a few more times as well.
  6559. >All well and good overall; the entire game remains fair and in good spirits.
  6560.  
  6561.  
  6562.  
  6563.  
  6564. >And a whole series of passes and laughter later, the sun is finally setting.
  6565. >It is your cue to quit for today.
  6566. >For the second time in this session, you meet in the middle and stick your rackets into the sand.
  6567. "Well played."
  6568. >"You too."
  6569. >You simply let yourselves fall and mimic the poses after your volleyball game.
  6570. >Both of you look at the sky.
  6571. >It is far darker than the first time, and you can already see a small selection of stars.
  6572. >Their remote light shines down on you.
  6573. >They are so far away, and yet you wonder whether you have already visited a few of their systems.
  6574. >If they are real, that is.
  6575. >"This is a projection of what the night sky will look like on Equestrian shores in about two millennia. Minor inaccuracies may be possible."
  6576. "Why two millennia?"
  6577. >"A rough estimation. Equestria's civilisation should be fairly developed by then."
  6578. >You laugh as you think about your paradox situation.
  6579. "Oh, this is too rich."
  6580. >"Pardon?"
  6581. >You point at a number of different stars.
  6582. "Look at them."
  6583. >"Yes?"
  6584. "We're looking at the most likely estimation of the future light from stars that we may have already visited in the past. And yet some other of those light rays we believe to see right now could already be older than both of us in the present. Isn't it crazy if you think about it?"
  6585. >"Maybe. You make it sound as such, Anon."
  6586. "That didn't feel like a compliment, #deca. Do you think my ideas are crazy?"
  6587. >"Not as crazy as mine now."
  6588. "Oh?"
  6589. >"I dare you, Anon. We will return here. To this shore, in two thousand years on our actual Equestrian home. We will see how well my projections were."
  6590. >Her words sound enticing, but also hard to believe.
  6591. "You think I'll really be around for so long? The bridge fridge has its limits."
  6592.  
  6593.  
  6594.  
  6595.  
  6596. >A hoof wanders to your lips, silently telling you not to speak another word.
  6597. >"Yes, you will. I am working on a solution. And. I. Will. Make. It. Work. How often do I have to say this?"
  6598. >You should not have addressed this, you figure.
  6599. >"Your next words will be 'Yes, I accept. I promise to return with you or I will spend the next week in the bad boy box.'"
  6600. >What is that?
  6601. >And do you want to find out?
  6602. >#deca.mare lifts her hoof.
  6603. >"Well?"
  6604. "Okay. I promise I will return with you to this beach, #deca."
  6605. >"Good enough. And now come here and hug me. Looking at the skies without your touch makes me feel lonely."
  6606. >You comply in an instant.
  6607. >You reach out with an arm.
  6608. >#deca.mare shifts her body and uses your limb as an impromptu pillow.
  6609. >And together you keep resting on the beach.
  6610. >Not a single word is spoken out while you two enjoy the scenery with all your senses.
  6611. >The sun has disappeared behind the horizon.
  6612. >Only the stars remain to bring some light to your little canvas.
  6613. >Some of them are blotted out from time to time, only to resurface a second later.
  6614. >You quickly understand that this is the work of #deca.mare's hooves.
  6615. >She still lets them dangle in the air.
  6616. >But they are nearly invisible from your perspective, due to the lack of light.
  6617. >Something is still missing.
  6618. >And slowly, very slowly, you get to see what it is.
  6619. >Because a new form arises in the distance.
  6620. >The paler shade of Equestria's satellite begins to shine on the scenery.
  6621. >Its light, or rather its reflection thereof, illuminates the wavy surface of the ocean.
  6622. >A myriad of silvery glinting dots seemingly dance on the water.
  6623. >This the realm of Luna, of sleep and dreams.
  6624. >You realise you could fall asleep like that, right on the beach.
  6625. >The night is warm, the weather is gentle, you have your love with you, and there is no danger to be afraid of.
  6626.  
  6627.  
  6628.  
  6629.  
  6630. >Plus, you feel sleepy.
  6631. >You have been active for hours without any long break.
  6632. >In the course of one day you went from a fully paralysed person to an active hobby sportsman.
  6633. >It is enough.
  6634. >Sleep sounds good to you.
  6635. >You slowly close your eyes, ready to drift away.
  6636. >"Anon?"
  6637. >You mumble a reply without opening your eyes.
  6638. "Yes, #deca?"
  6639. >"I think I cannot sleep yet."
  6640. >You hesitantly peek at her with one eye.
  6641. >#deca.mare has not moved at all.
  6642. >Her hooves glide lively through the air.
  6643. "What's the problem?"
  6644. >"I am afraid I feel a little frisky."
  6645. >Oh dear.
  6646. "Damn, I didn't want to make you..."
  6647. >#deca.mare simply chimes in.
  6648. >"No, it was not you. Well, perhaps it was, partially, but not in the way you think. Maybe. Or not."
  6649. >What?
  6650. "#deca, brain. Tired."
  6651. >She clears her throat.
  6652. >"Sorry, I try again. You see, it was not your little surprise massage that did it, but.."
  6653. >A pause.
  6654. "But?"
  6655. >"All the training, all those non-stop exercises, seeing you active the entire day, and participating in everything myself... it did something to me. I feel fully alive for once. And it wakes my desires."
  6656. >She is serious about this.
  6657. "Urgent?"
  6658. >#deca.mare softly breathes into your ear.
  6659. >"Please. I promise I will make it up to you."
  6660. >Yes, urgent.
  6661. >You take a long breath.
  6662. >Your mind has already prepared to rest, so you have not expected to do anything else tonight.
  6663. >And not that her appeal is hard work or unpleasant, quite the contrary, but you do feel a little sluggish at the moment.
  6664. >Something materialises somewhere.
  6665. >You feel it happening, but you do not know what it is.
  6666. >"I have a revitalising potion if you want it. A real one this time."
  6667.  
  6668.  
  6669.  
  6670.  
  6671. >You stretch your body.
  6672. "Fine. One round of bottoms up, please."
  6673. >You words sound fairly disgruntled, unintentionally so.
  6674. >"Anon, I do not want to extort anything from you. I understand if..."
  6675. "No, it's okay. I'll need this thing though."
  6676. >"You are the best, Anon."
  6677. >You slowly sit up and look around.
  6678. >The outline of a flask is floating nearby.
  6679. >Its glass shimmers in the moonlight, and the liquid inside is glowing with the faint trace of a warm red hue.
  6680. >You guess that the effect is probably just for show.
  6681. >You grab it with both hands and look at #deca.mare.
  6682. >She has not stopped playing with her hooves, and yet she noticeably increases the distance between them with every second.
  6683. "I see what you're doing."
  6684. >"Good."
  6685. >A rear hoof caresses your back.
  6686. >You get the oh so subtle hint and drink the potion in one go.
  6687. >The taste is nearly neutral, but agreeable.
  6688. >You can tell #deca.mare has made this mix for utility rather than sensuality.
  6689. >#deca.mare wraps her forelimbs around your sides and gently drags you back down.
  6690. >"You should feel the effect soon, Anon."
  6691. >You nod and give #deca.mare a long, passionate kiss.
  6692. >One of your hands wander back to a certain place.
  6693. >You bet you can make those hooves shiver and flail before the potion kicks in.
  6694. >And you are eager to find out if you are right.
  6695.  
  6696.  
  6697.  
  6698.  
  6699. 82
  6700.  
  6701. >You wrap up the resort session on the next day.
  6702. >The two of you wake up in the early sheen of the new morning, get tidy, and settle on a decent breakfast at the beach before you set out again.
  6703. >You somewhat expect to feel groggy after all the things you have done the day before, but that is not the case.
  6704. >It is pretty much the opposite.
  6705. >The last traces of your mental distortion have disappeared for good, and it seems as if you are in a better shape than ever before.
  6706. >Could you possibly have grown through the close encounter with #deca.mare?
  6707. >Or maybe it is simply your skewed perception due to the crass discrepancy between your current condition in comparison to what you have lived through yesterday.
  6708. >In any case, you feel great and fit for anything that might come next.
  6709. >Work related and otherwise.
  6710. >Plus, you are sure that last night was convincing enough for #deca.mare as well.
  6711. >Quite thoroughly so.
  6712. >So you share your meal in high spirits with no concerning thoughts about either the past or the future.
  6713. >This moment is all yours.
  6714. >When everything is said and done, and eaten of course, the command deck beckons in all its familiar glory.
  6715. >It is good to be there again.
  6716. >To you, it appears like a sign of positive normalcy at this point.
  6717. >The two of you resort to your usual rituals as you take your seats, and you are good to go.
  6718. >#deca.mare gives a quick summary of what has happened in your absence through several reports.
  6719. >Most of these involve the development of Equestria in one way or another.
  6720. >This was to be expected, considering the scope of the whole endeavour.
  6721. >And one of your assumptions turned out to be right.
  6722. >#deca.mare did indeed "park" your ship in an empty sector for a day, both to conserve energy and to have the time to focus on your treatment.
  6723. >But now the moment has come to fire up the engines and pay another visit to your planet.
  6724.  
  6725.  
  6726.  
  6727.  
  6728. 83
  6729.  
  6730. >You spend the next days in Equestria's orbit and the planet's direct vicinity for some routine checks.
  6731. >Both the infrastructure and your biological samples are doing fine for the most part, but now you encounter your first notable stumbling blocks.
  6732. >Nothing that would endanger the project at large, yet there are a number of things you should attend to as soon as possible.
  6733. >Because as it turns out, some of the experimental systems require minor corrections.
  6734. >That involves all manners of bits and pieces in the memory banks and the population tracker prototypes.
  6735. >Even though #deca.mare was very careful and considerate in designing, revising, and refining these concepts for centuries, this is the first time she is actually testing this equipment in reality.
  6736. >And therefore under real circumstances that are not quite as predictable as your simulations.
  6737. >Equestria proves this point; the unique characteristics on the planet itself necessitate almost every adjustment.
  6738. >Nevertheless, your results are, all in all, not bad so far; the system works generally well on a basic level, and you have not encountered a single critical malfunction.
  6739. >Everything has proven to be sufficient for the first stage.
  6740. >However, the analytic routines have shown that the systems are far away from the possible optimal values as they were projected by #deca.mare.
  6741. >And they will stay at this moderate level, if left unattended.
  6742. >This was to be expected to a certain degree, and you both know that the absolute maximum can never be achieved permanently in practice.
  6743. >But you cannot ignore this issue; every new layer of your project will require more resources, so you have to crank up the efficiency of the existing infrastructure to combat potential bottlenecks in the future.
  6744. >Especially once Harmony gets implemented into the picture.
  6745. >This little thing is potent and promising, but also very hungry.
  6746.  
  6747.  
  6748.  
  6749.  
  6750. >Every little bit may count, so the two of you have to give your best.
  6751. >You heed the analytics, recognise the potential obstacles, reassess the situation, derive conclusions, and realise them with concrete measures.
  6752. >Only the best realistically achievable outcome is good enough for #deca.mare when it comes to life under her care.
  6753. >And you support her in all her efforts to the best of your, well, partially borrowed knowledge.
  6754. >Right now, you are right in the middle of one of those sessions.
  6755. >#deca.mare stands in front of the large main screen and studies the latest projections of the system's estimated performance after tweaking yet another handful of components.
  6756. >You are seated right next to her and interact with a smaller console of your own making.
  6757. >It shows basically the same information as the main screen, but in a somewhat different style.
  6758. >You prefer it to the standard model on the main screen, whereas #deca.mare sticks to the way how she has done things for centuries.
  6759. >It does not make a difference for the discussion though, given that the units do not differ in their functionality.
  6760. "I don't like how much calculating power and time we need to make those adjustments."
  6761. >"You know the necessities. We have to check every new update repeatedly before we transmit it to the live system."
  6762. "Of course. Though it's still unsettling how long we are tied to this perimeter for just a few 'minor' improvements."
  6763. >"Nothing we can do about it, Anon. We cannot strain Equestria's computers with this task on top of their usual routines. The system redundancies are not able to handle the work yet."
  6764. >This is true, and that fact is not likely to change soon, as the system is already dealing with many highly ambitious tasks simultaneously.
  6765. >Expanding the grid, digging more tunnels whilst managing those that already exist, manipulating the very climate as well as the surface of the planet, and keeping track of several dozens of pioneer plant life populations.
  6766.  
  6767.  
  6768.  
  6769.  
  6770. >None of those things are easy feats.
  6771. >And even though all of those will eventually become comparatively trivial as soon as the groundwork is complete, you have to get to this lofty goal first.
  6772. >So you have to use the computing power of your ship in the meantime, and that means you are effectively forced to stay nearby for a permanent exchange of information.
  6773. >Much more than a trip to Celestia to fill your batteries is not an option at the moment.
  6774. >But you have a problem with the implications behind #deca.mare's statement and your situation at large.
  6775. >It contains one critical weakness in your eyes.
  6776. >Because as unlikely as it is, incidents with the new technology could occur.
  6777. >Who knows how long you will be stuck near the planet when you have to rework more than just a few little components?
  6778. >Your military pilot training has taught you a few useful lessons for your life, and now you must think of a specific one.
  6779. >Constant intel is the key.
  6780. >You must know what is going on in space to secure your position.
  6781. >And the idea to anchor yourselves in orbit for weeks, or even months at a time, with no clue what is happening outside the system, goes against everything you have learned in your active service.
  6782. >Granted, the chance that anyone will find you here in the next centuries is laughably tiny.
  6783. >But there could be other cosmic hazards coming your way.
  6784. >You cannot afford to be reckless, especially when you have no other fallback options to rely on.
  6785. >Your ship is currently the most versatile and best layer of protection for Equestria.
  6786. >And also your only truly mobile asset.
  6787. >It would be foolish to keep yourself on a short leash for a prolonged period of time.
  6788. "I think we have to do something, #deca. It's not wise to bind us here this early."
  6789.  
  6790.  
  6791.  
  6792.  
  6793. >"But what else can we do? The project is in full swing and our planetary resources have to be spent carefully. It would needlessly delay our schedule dramatically to deviate from the plan by building another underground rig. Doubly so when we can help out with the devices we have on board."
  6794. "I'm not talking about just this one hiccup here, #deca. I think about the future. What if a larger problem pops up that we can't just iron out in a few days? What happens if we have to overhaul the whole thing?"
  6795. >"I prefer not to allow this to be a concern in the first place, Anon."
  6796. "But let's assume it does, what then?"
  6797. >"We do not have to worry about the terraforming process, I can guarantee that much. Only the new additions require our heightened attention because they have never been tested before."
  6798. "Okay, and what happens in the worst case? If it breaks down?"
  6799. >"The memory banks basically function like dedicated data vaults. The principle behind those is not all that complex, even when the data they safeguard is unique. So they will continue to operate as usual. But the automatons that coordinate the entire controlled development may shut themselves down if they detect a malfunction."
  6800. "And everything will grow unsupervised then."
  6801. >"Essentially, yes. The longer they stay offline, the higher the potential damage. And this factor gets further amplified by every new species that we add to the equation."
  6802. >You do a few calculations on your console to determine how long it might take to fix such a crisis, if it were to happen with the resources you have at hand today.
  6803. >The result confirms your suspicions.
  6804. >Depending on the severity of the fault, a complete sweep of everything may require up to two and a half months.
  6805. >Not including the time for test runs.
  6806. >You do not have to share this result with #deca.mare; she knows already.
  6807. "To be frank, I don't like that. We should have a plan B."
  6808.  
  6809.  
  6810.  
  6811.  
  6812. >#deca.mare looks at you with a concerned, but approving expression.
  6813. >"That consists of what exactly? We are using everything we have. Believe me, I share your concerns, but you cannot snap with your fingers to give us more assets to work with. And neither can I."
  6814. >More mobile assets, that would be nice.
  6815. >Not only for emergencies, but also to have more eyes that can look into the far reaches of space.
  6816. >You consider your situation and evaluate possible options.
  6817. >Just one more ship would already be a huge improvement.
  6818. >Even more would be a godsend.
  6819. >But you cannot build any.
  6820. >The barrier of entry is way too high for now.
  6821. >That would require a shipyard in orbit first, and large amounts of resources.
  6822. >You have the latter on the planet.
  6823. >Which you cannot use because the infrastructure is busy with other things.
  6824. >Alternatively, you could also try to scrape the material together with your ship.
  6825. >But that would take even longer.
  6826. >You can easily mine enough to sustain yourself and refit some segments if necessary, but that is it.
  6827. >Building a hulking hull from scratch will remain a dream, at least for a while.
  6828. >Reconstructing lost fighter vessels in your hangars is the best thing you are capable of with your machinery, and that is already a cumbersome affair.
  6829. >Wait a second.
  6830. >What if you do not have to?
  6831. >What if you... no.
  6832. >No, you cannot ask that of her.
  6833. >"Ask what of me?"
  6834. "Oh, crap."
  6835. >"Can you tell me what you were about to think of?"
  6836. "No. I almost considered a horrible idea."
  6837. >"Horrible why?"
  6838. "Because you will hate it."
  6839. >"Is it an idea that could help Equestria?"
  6840. >You sigh.
  6841. "Possibly, yes."
  6842. >"Then I want to hear it. We should at least think it through."
  6843. >You hesitate for a few seconds before you give in.
  6844.  
  6845.  
  6846.  
  6847.  
  6848. >This is going to get ugly.
  6849. "You know, I was thinking about our assets and how we could get more in the near future."
  6850. >"Yes, and?"
  6851. "And... I thought that..."
  6852. >#deca.mare looks at you with an expectant glare.
  6853. >You have a very bad feeling about proposing this, but what can you do when #deca.mare insists on an answer?
  6854. >Your mind reaches out to her.
  6855. >Do you really, I mean REALLY want to know?
  6856. >Yes, Anon.
  6857. >Please.
  6858. "...that we could maybe increase our numbers quickly by..."
  6859. >One last sigh, and here you go.
  6860. "... a salvage operation. You know where."
  6861. >#deca.mare stands before you like a petrified statue.
  6862. >She does not say a word or make a move.
  6863. >No blinking, no flinching, nothing.
  6864. >Dead silence spreads on the command deck.
  6865. >Even the very basic sounds of the consoles around you seem to fall silent.
  6866. >The quiet is unnatural, disturbing.
  6867. >Almost frightening.
  6868. >Your suggestion is clearly treading forbidden ground.
  6869. >It feels as if you could almost hear more in the cold void of space.
  6870. >Has the simulation crashed around you?
  6871. "#deca?"
  6872. >No reaction.
  6873. "I shouldn't have said anything. That was dumb."
  6874. >That gets a reaction out of her.
  6875. >"Wrong. It was not 'dumb', Anon. This is what hurts the most."
  6876. >You speed to #deca.mare and hold her in your arms.
  6877. >She does not react to it in any way.
  6878. >#deca.mare remains like a statue, looking with a deadpan expression to the point where your face was before.
  6879. >Her passivity scares you more than anything else.
  6880. >You wish she would do something, no matter what.
  6881. >Hell, you would even appreciate it if she were about to fight your embrace and distance herself.
  6882. >That would be an understandable reaction.
  6883. >But not this.
  6884. >Her stance stirs an unpleasant reminiscence of New Green Meadows within you.
  6885. "Stay with me, #deca! I'll do anything you want."
  6886. >"I am not leaving, Anon."
  6887. >She says that, and it might be technically right, but she does not act like it.
  6888.  
  6889.  
  6890.  
  6891.  
  6892. >#deca.mare's body is tense, her voice bereft of her usual energy.
  6893. >"You were right, I hate it. But it is a valid idea for Equestria."
  6894. >#deca.mare begins to shiver.
  6895. >But I cannot go and... no! No no no! They are my family! My home!"
  6896. >More twitching.
  6897. >"But Equestria will be too! It is not right to withhold anything that could help its future!"
  6898. >An inner conflict is overtly raging in her mind.
  6899. >It is not so much a question of split loyalties than it is about #deca.mare's past in conflict with her conviction.
  6900. >On the one hand, if you were to salvage the other ships, #deca.mare would have to delve deep into her own past, actively convert old memorials into active assets, and literally poke inside the remnants of her dead kin.
  6901. >It does not take a genius to see why this thought hurts her.
  6902. >But on the other hand, #deca.mare follows pure logical principles when her work in involved,
  6903. >And these ships out there are the best viable tools for terraforming, as extremely cold and calculating as it sounds.
  6904. >This argument holds true, especially when there is nothing left to lose on a purely objective level.
  6905. >Everything within these vessels that could get lost has already been lost centuries ago.
  6906. >Logic dictates an obvious conclusion based on a simple equation.
  6907. >You have a very limited amount of tools, but you know how you can acquire more with relatively little effort.
  6908. >These would reduce the risk of accidents in your project, and possibly speed things up significantly in the long run.
  6909. >A certain risk may by involved in obtaining these tools, but there should be ways around those problems if you play your cards right.
  6910. >Many feasible points in favour of a salvage operation.
  6911. >But there is a final argument, the best, and perhaps also the worst one of them all.
  6912. >It is exactly what the other #deca units would do in this situation.
  6913. >They would want to be used to shape worlds, for this was their destiny all along.
  6914.  
  6915.  
  6916.  
  6917.  
  6918. >You bet they would have no qualms to salvage #deca.mare when the roles were reversed.
  6919. >Not out of spite or malice, just because it is the efficient thing to do.
  6920. >Even when they could not rescue the entity within the vessel.
  6921. >#deca units may not be allowed to make more of their kin, but nobody has ever forbidden any repair and restoration missions.
  6922. >In fact, it would hamper the operation of autonomous and fully self-sustaining machines if they were not allowed to do so.
  6923. >And all these routines are now active within #deca.mare, focussing on the option with subliminal means.
  6924. >Thus you are left with only one logical outcome, no matter how much it pains #deca.mare.
  6925. >You realise that the decision has been made the very second you mentioned the other ships.
  6926. >But her pony side, the ultimate identity that developed after her first life within the #deca network was ended so abruptly, it struggles with this decision on a psychological level.
  6927. >#deca.mare is now torn between two sides of the same personality.
  6928. >And you can only think of two things at the moment.
  6929. >One, you are astonished how long #deca.mare was able to hide that insight from herself; she must have ignored that lingering option for centuries.
  6930. >Then again, she had no direct reason to consider it before she met you, as she did not actually execute any new project in reality during her time in solitude.
  6931. >But that has changed.
  6932. >And two, you are the reason why she is now in such a state of deep distress.
  6933. >You brought that misery onto her with one ill comment.
  6934. >#deca.mare disagrees with you through gnashing teeth.
  6935. >"Anon, this was my doing. I asked you to elaborate."
  6936. >You shake your head.
  6937. "Still, it was me who brought this up. Should have said no."
  6938. >#deca.mare closes her eyes and buries herself in your embrace.
  6939. >"Do not put the blame on yourself. This would not be fair."
  6940. >Her choice of word bears a certain irony, and now you are the one who has a hard time to heed her appeal.
  6941.  
  6942.  
  6943.  
  6944.  
  6945. >For you know what you have done.
  6946. >Nevertheless, you feel forced to strike that thought.
  6947. >#deca.mare needs you, urgently at that.
  6948. "#deca, how can I help you?"
  6949. >"I do not want to do this, Anon!"
  6950. "Then don't. Nobody forces us to."
  6951. >#deca.mare tries to wiggle herself free.
  6952. >Probably out of a pure flight instinct.
  6953. >"But this is not so easy! Your plan is sound. The additional assets..."
  6954. >You wrap yourself around her back hold her tight, determined to not let go.
  6955. "... are not worth it when you drive yourself mad. You're not going to wreck your own sanity."
  6956. >She lashes out with her hooves, but she only hits the air in front of her.
  6957. >You expected something of this nature.
  6958. >"But..."
  6959. "... but no. You're too important, too precious to hurt yourself like this."
  6960. >"What can we do then? This thought will not simply disappear from my mind!"
  6961. >Well, you can maybe order her to forget, but that sounds like a terrible thing to even consider.
  6962. >Some things should never be done, and scamping within #deca.mare's memories is one of those things.
  6963. >But you have to come up with a solution for her troubled condition.
  6964. >Otherwise she could very well be in conflict with herself for a very long time to come.
  6965. >You will require some time yourself though.
  6966. >So perhaps you can propose something else as a stopgap action.
  6967. >An idea that is less intrusive, provided that #deca.mare agrees.
  6968. "#deca, would you like to sleep for a while?"
  6969. >"What is your plan?"
  6970. "To help you."
  6971. >"How?"
  6972. "Not sure yet. I'll find something though."
  6973. >"But our work?"
  6974. "I can handle this for a while. It's not like I have to move the whole ship this time."
  6975. >#deca.mare seems to hesitate regardless.
  6976. >"Do you promise me not to do something reckless?"
  6977. "Promise. I don't do anything without your permission."
  6978. >#deca.mare nods faintly.
  6979. >"Alright."
  6980. >You access the priority command level of your link and gently ask #deca.mare to prepare for a rest of, say, twelve hours.
  6981.  
  6982.  
  6983.  
  6984.  
  6985. >All vital functions of the vessel shall operate as usual, the rest will go on standby mode.
  6986. >#deca.mare shall not be disturbed during her slumber, unless a station sounds an alarm or deviates from its usual routines.
  6987. >This includes the ship and planetary alarms, as well as your cryo pod.
  6988. >#deca.mare must know you are fine whilst she is incapacitated.
  6989. >And she is assured that the system will wake her up if her interference is needed.
  6990. >Granted, a highly unlikely scenario in a twelve hour time frame, yet you know how much she insists on her work safety protocols.
  6991. >You assume these specifications will be in her spirit.
  6992. "Is that okay for you?"
  6993. >"Yes, Anon. But what happens once I return?"
  6994. "Then I'll present my solution to you."
  6995. >You can read a certain scepticism in #deca.mare's eyes.
  6996. "I WILL have something, period."
  6997. >And you mean it.
  6998. >#deca.mare accepts this answer; she reads the determination in your face.
  6999. "Please sleep now."
  7000. >She slowly closes her eyes as her body relaxes.
  7001. "See you in twelve hours."
  7002. >#deca.mare lies inert in your arms.
  7003. >Silent and unmoving.
  7004. >Only her weak breath indicates that she is well and asleep.
  7005. >This swift transition is admittedly also a little frightening for you.
  7006. >She reacted so fast, one could think that she passed out.
  7007. >Or away.
  7008. "#deca?"
  7009. >Nothing.
  7010. >You move your ear to her muzzle to make sure everything is alright.
  7011. >#deca.mare's breath is steady, albeit too calm for your personal tastes.
  7012. >Nothing that indicates a problem though.
  7013. >A healthy sleeping mare is lying in your arms.
  7014. >Does she dream on her own?
  7015. >Is this type of resting differing from your mutual sleep cycles?
  7016. >Questions you cannot answer, and #deca.mare will most likely not remember anything at all.
  7017. >You take a breath and banish your concerns.
  7018. >There is some serious work to do.
  7019.  
  7020.  
  7021.  
  7022.  
  7023. >But at this point you encounter a strategic flaw in your execution.
  7024. >You should have brought #deca.mare to your bed before you "ask" her to fall asleep.
  7025. >Now you have her in your embrace, and you either hold her like this for the rest of entire session, or you seek an alternative.
  7026. >You snap your fingers as you get the idea.
  7027. >First, you order the automatons to sweep the next segment of the code you were working on.
  7028. >Since you do not have to use your own mind to scan every single line, it gives you the chance to work on your personal pet project and keep the computer busy with something constructive at the same time.
  7029. >Then you rise and pick up #deca.mare's sleeping body.
  7030. >You carry her as you head out to leave the command deck.
  7031. >Your personal small console is set to keep afloat nearby, effectively following your tracks with a short delay.
  7032. >Shortly before you reach the door, you mentally order a few changes to the current simulation.
  7033. >You get a confirming signal, and the door opens at your request.
  7034. >Instead of revealing the Canterlot chamber or any other place in Equestria, you see a common metal corridor.
  7035. >An exact replication of its real counterpart on the ship.
  7036. >Minus the crimson aura though; you decided to give it the same treatment as the simulated command deck by replacing its light sources with a more comfortable sheen.
  7037. >You follow the path until you reach the junction, then you take a turn and enter the old crew quarters.
  7038. >Your goal is one particular room.
  7039. >Shortly thereafter, you stand in front of the biometric scanner to the room in which you have already spent a night in the real world.
  7040. >Neither the most comfortable of places nor a very picturesque choice, but still an environment with a significant history.
  7041.  
  7042.  
  7043.  
  7044.  
  7045. >Perhaps it will help you to find inspiration; you know that you need it.
  7046. >You free a hand and press your palm against the surface of the biometric scanner.
  7047. >It reacts to your touch, analyses your imprint, and replies with a positive beep sound.
  7048. >The lock accepts your signature, albeit under a false name.
  7049. >You are recognised as the person who initially inhabited this room when this vessel was built.
  7050. >Even though you suspect that #deca.mare has simply implanted an override code which considers both her and you as him, it is a strange and somewhat alienating notion.
  7051. >As if you are impersonating someone who you will never be, and whom you could never emulate.
  7052. >#deca.mare knows this of course.
  7053. >She loves you for who you are and because you accepted her in turn.
  7054. >You are no simple replacement for someone who died a long time ago.
  7055. >But you cannot help but wonder.
  7056. >What if #deca.mare had the chance to escape with the guy who unintentionally made her into what she is today?
  7057. >Would she still have become the pony who you know?
  7058. >What about Equestria?
  7059. >Maybe it could already be real.
  7060. >What might be the larger implications for history?
  7061. >And what about you?
  7062. >Would you end up in that empty area of space regardless, or would things be completely different for everyone?
  7063. >Or would you just have died out there, alone and lost?
  7064. >You stop right there.
  7065. >Enough of the "what ifs".
  7066. >#deca.mare is loyal to you, and only you, without the shadow of a doubt.
  7067. >Hell, you two have even agreed to have a formal wedding in the future.
  7068. >The far future, but still.
  7069. >And right now she needs your help to get through a mental and moral crisis.
  7070. >You go into the room.
  7071. >Everything is exactly as you remember it.
  7072. >Including the posters on the wall and the mobile log recorder on the table.
  7073.  
  7074.  
  7075.  
  7076.  
  7077. >You go to the latter, pick it up, and get to the bed to tuck the two of you in.
  7078. >You lie on your back and hold #deca.mare's sleeping body in one arm.
  7079. >Her head leans on your shoulder as her forelimbs rest on your chest.
  7080. >You gently stroke her mane before you start your work.
  7081. >Maybe she feels it somehow, at least that is what you like to think.
  7082. >But you need to focus.
  7083. >Your time is sparse.
  7084. >You order the floating console to hover next to your bed so that you can take a look at it whenever you need.
  7085. >However, this console is only a minor concern of yours, as you only use it to give directions to the computer that sweeps the code segments.
  7086. >You are not going to seriously dabble in these codes without #deca.mare anyway, so you can at least do the preparatory work.
  7087. >That means the computer is performing the tasks you order, and you can see the progress on the console.
  7088. >Though this is just an aside.
  7089. >Your main attention lies on the museum-grade device in your hand.
  7090. >You inspect the interface closely and try to figure out how it works.
  7091. >Despite its pretty primitive architecture, you learn to use the basic functions via experimenting.
  7092. >It is not a horribly complex object, after all.
  7093. >A log recorder is at the end of a day still a log recorder.
  7094. >You mentally "connect" it to the database of the ship, and begin to trawl through the logs of #deca.mare's travels
  7095. >Predominantly some of the oldest available; those before, during, and shortly after the war.
  7096. >You need another insight into history, and clarify #deca.mare's summary of her memories with a more technical input.
  7097. >You wish to understand more of the details around the conflict without asking #deca.mare directly.
  7098. >This is not exactly her favourite subject, after all.
  7099. >So you delve into the logs.
  7100. >You find plenty of reports from various different sources and time stamps.
  7101. >#deca.mare said the truth; she has saved everything she could.
  7102.  
  7103.  
  7104.  
  7105.  
  7106. >Her own logs are, unsurprisingly, fully intact.
  7107. >You also find updates sent from other #deca units, reports and maps from terran authorities which #deca.mare must have pilfered after the war when nobody was looking, and additional data about all the targets of #deca attacks during the war, including fleet battles, tactical examinations, and a long, detailed enumeration of losses on both sides.
  7108. >The casualties also include names.
  7109. >Many, many names.
  7110. >You shudder for a second.
  7111. >There are some of your own distant relatives in there.
  7112. >You know this much, but #deca.mare was not able to tell you any specifics because of her first breakdown in your presence.
  7113. >So it could be any name on those lists.
  7114. >And their murderer...
  7115. >No.
  7116. >Stop that right now.
  7117. >She tried her best to avert it.
  7118. >The war was a tragedy, full stop.
  7119. >You were not angry at her when you saw the dead planet, and you have no reason to change your mind now.
  7120. >You sigh and nuzzle #deca.mare's mane.
  7121. >A small part of you is honestly afraid to study these texts any further due to the things you might uncover.
  7122. >Yes, #deca.mare has been completely honest and open with you about her active role in the war, and yet you are against the idea to see more of her fights and deeds of this time.
  7123. >This is not the picture of her that you have in mind.
  7124. >She is a pony mare, and you refuse to perceive her as anything else.
  7125. >But you cannot help it.
  7126. >You must face these facts now.
  7127. >They are cold, direct, upfront, unfiltered, but also necessary.
  7128. >In order to be able to ease her pain in the present, you have to make yourself acquainted with her past.
  7129. >And as it is the case with most long stories, you best start at the beginning.
  7130. >These twelve hours could become the longest of your life.
  7131. >And maybe the most sombre as well.
  7132. >But luckily for you, you have your warm, cuddly mare nearby.
  7133. >And every time when you feel like quitting, she will remind you of the reason why you have to press on.
  7134. >Do it for her, Anon.
  7135.  
  7136.  
  7137.  
  7138.  
  7139. 84
  7140.  
  7141. >Your task proves to be exactly as daunting as you have feared, despite the fact that everything starts out innocently.
  7142. >A handful of the initial reports from the original science teams are very interesting to read both from a technical, historical, and social perspective.
  7143. >You get a very good insight into the mood of that particular time.
  7144. >The general notion was bold, adventurous, and carefully optimistic.
  7145. >It was a period of countless technological breakthroughs and unparalleled scientific progress.
  7146. >Some even believed it might be the dawn of humanity's true golden age.
  7147. >And even though you can only read a tiny number of the available files due to your strictly limited time, you can still feel the uplifting mood within these texts.
  7148. >You would describe it as a feeling of endless potential that was just waiting to be tapped.
  7149. >An emboldening vision of what could be.
  7150. >Yet a bitter smile grows on your face instead, as you remember the stories you have heard when you were younger.
  7151. >For there were the Days of Glory.
  7152. >In a twisted way, the visionaries and thinkers were correct.
  7153. >They did give humanity a unifying goal to aspire to and work for.
  7154. >Albeit for the wholly wrong reasons.
  7155. >And unfortunately without any sustainability to speak of, given that society at large quickly returned to the previous status quo once the war was won.
  7156. >You move on to a selection of reports from the #deca units themselves.
  7157. >The units were naturally monitored before all communication lines were severed by the malicious update.
  7158. >As such, they were expected to send reports of their actions to the operation headquarters.
  7159. >You read about some of the earliest findings and works performed by Alpha, Beta, and Gamma.
  7160. >And since these were written directly by the #deca units, they pose a stark contrast to the enthusiastic writings of the scientists.
  7161.  
  7162.  
  7163.  
  7164.  
  7165. >The machines present their data in a purely objective manner.
  7166. >Their descriptions are sharp and precise, their conclusions base on logical arguments and hard evidence, and their language is devoid of any form of emotion or colourful speech.
  7167. >And yet, despite the alien and somewhat cold perspective, you find yourself able to follow them with relative ease for a reason you cannot fathom properly.
  7168. >The reports are not as dry as you would have expected, and full of fascinating novelties.
  7169. >Each new entry comes with something new and unique, leaving you with the wish to learn even more.
  7170. >You begin to see the world a little bit like the #deca units from the past.
  7171. >Even though they operate on a level that you can never reach, you can at least understand the broader facets of their mindset to a certain degree.
  7172. >But this is not all.
  7173. >As more and more time passes, the  scientific results begin to pile up while the number of active #deca units increases.
  7174. >And the #deca network reacts accordingly by constantly processing new insights.
  7175. >The machines evolve and adapt, with the explicit approval of their creators.
  7176. >However, this process is not completely streamlined.
  7177. >Each unit finds its individual methods to learn from and cope with the specific input they get from their unique history.
  7178. >Sure, a constant exchange of information ensures that every unit receives regular updates, but these streams do usually not override the standard procedures of the units themselves.
  7179. >The machines possess clear signs of limited individuality.
  7180. >Not in a way which one would attribute to human characters, yet still to such an extent that you can identify certain patterns in the work of individual units.
  7181.  
  7182.  
  7183.  
  7184.  
  7185. >The #deca ships develop their own personalities, almost like unique distinguishable entities of their very own making.
  7186. >In fact, you can sometimes recognise which unit filed what specific report simply by the way of how it is structured, whilst also adhering to the strict parameters set by their creators.
  7187. >You think this is a remarkable development to behold.
  7188. >And all of that progress already occurred at a relatively early state in the project when the scientists were still using Greek letters as designations for new vessels.
  7189. >You move further in time, and said present quirks only became more and more refined, as the terraformers honed their specific manners constantly.
  7190. >Only a short time later, in accordance to terraforming projects at least, some of those reports began to resemble something you would describe as prototype diary entries.
  7191. >With their continuous acquiring of new experiences in addition to their vast knowledge, as well as several updates to their directives by their creators, the machines massively improved their understanding of projection, and possibly even imagination.
  7192. >As long as the creators were willing, they pushed the boundaries of what is possible to experiment on, the things they could do, and how these findings might improve either themselves, or the results of their work.
  7193. >Including the now infamous theory of how to manipulate more than just planets.
  7194. >You stop to read for a second.
  7195. >Could this be the point when the #deca network began to develop a form of limited self-awareness?
  7196. >They fully knew who they were and what they were supposed to do, and they eagerly followed their orders to fulfil their destiny as nearly independent units.
  7197. >After all, they were designed for this very task.
  7198. >And yet, they no longer needed an outside reason to exist, for their values had been so deeply ingrained in their essence and thinking that they could act alone, if necessary.
  7199. >This is the reason why the sabotage ultimately failed.
  7200.  
  7201.  
  7202.  
  7203.  
  7204. >Whoever came up with this malicious plan had vastly underestimated how far the network had come.
  7205. >Another time skip.
  7206. >What you have read so far is interesting and well, but you need more information.
  7207. >You are still at a time when #deca.mare was not even built.
  7208. >So you go to this point next.
  7209. >You know she had a very rough start, but you figure it will be important to know everything you can find out.
  7210. >At the end of the day, this is all about her.
  7211. >And she is a very special case for many different reasons.
  7212. >You start with a camera feed of the exploding energy storage in the shipyard, as this was the moment her story began to diverge from that of every other unit.
  7213. >You watch as the violent reaction unfolds and hits the structure in several key areas.
  7214. >You read a heated back and forth of short messages between different staff levels and the administration as to what to do with the damaged vessel.
  7215. >Then you take a look at more reports from the crew, and their interactions with the partially tattered intelligence within the ship.
  7216. >Everybody on board did the very best they could do to ensure that the machine under their care would see the light of day.
  7217. >Or space, as someone pointed out.
  7218. >That meant a lot of additional critical work in every aspect, including the #deca entity itself.
  7219. >The crew had to make extra sure that they could flawlessly undo the damage of the accident, so that any possibility of a potential negative long term effect could be ruled out.
  7220. >To do that, they had to intensively interact with the system.
  7221. >And this is reflected in their log entries as well.
  7222. >#deca.mare told you they formed a bond of sorts, but now you get to understand how strong it actually was.
  7223. >On the surface layer, everyone was obviously invested because of the project's high profile.
  7224. >A failure of this magnitude because of a mundane accident would not have been a good result for anyone involved.
  7225.  
  7226.  
  7227.  
  7228.  
  7229. >Yet it quickly went further for the crew on board.
  7230. >They were the ones who ensured that the system got repaired properly.
  7231. >They nurtured the ship back into shape.
  7232. >And so they were the ones who talked to her.
  7233. >About almost everything.
  7234. >The first few conversations were short, stiff, and partially downright abstruse.
  7235. >#deca.mare's internal structure has suffered greatly from the damage, and even her perception of herself was rudimentary at best.
  7236. >She learned barely anything at all in the initial stages.
  7237. >The scientists were worried that all was already lost, but they kept working against all hopes and odds.
  7238. >And as the physical damage was gradually repaired, #deca.mare's range of abilities grew significantly.
  7239. >She developed a heightened interest in her surroundings.
  7240. >And with the crew around to tend to her, she began to ask personal questions.
  7241. >A good number of them were initially reluctant to openly engage in these conversations, but they gradually got used to the idea.
  7242. >Even though #deca.mare did not bear her ultimate designation just yet, you find several references in the logs which refer to her as a personalised being.
  7243. >Almost as if she were a real person.
  7244. >Unsurprigingly, many such notable examples can be found in the logs of the man who secretly smuggled some colourful ponies on board in his personal belongings.
  7245. >But not only there.
  7246. >Others have made similar experiences.
  7247. >From what you can tell, the crew and the ship formed an unusual and yet somewhat familiar bond of cooperation.
  7248. >They described her as a good listener to talk to, despite the fact that she did not understand social nuances very well.
  7249. >#deca.mare was seen as a trustworthy conversation partner with whom they could share a few innocuous little asides when nobody else was present.
  7250. >In her very own way, she spent her formative time around a group of friends outside the #deca network.
  7251.  
  7252.  
  7253.  
  7254.  
  7255. >And she gained some unique traits which, as you know today, were the reasons why she survived the conflict that was to come.
  7256. >You sigh.
  7257. >Speaking of conflicts, you are already several hours in your studies, and you should get to the passages you fear the most.
  7258. >So you follow the events which transpired shortly after the last update was sent.
  7259. >You get to read the exchange of several frantic status reports throughout the network.
  7260. >Confusion and disarray spread all around.
  7261. >Suddenly cut off from both news and any new resource shipments, it was now up to the #deca network to make things right.
  7262. >And while you find notes about losses amongst the youngest units, the network was still mostly operational.
  7263. >These messages are unlike anything the units have sent to their creators.
  7264. >Since they were not meant to be read directly by any humans, these reports and interactions operate on a wholly different syntactic structure.
  7265. >And as such, they are much harder to read for someone like you.
  7266. >Nevertheless, your own experiences as space farer and pilot enable you to understand the overall content of most messages.
  7267. >Although some parts are completely cryptical, at least for your expertise.
  7268. >But despite the language barrier, you can partially imagine how it must have felt to be a part of this network.
  7269. >It is alien, confusing, and overwhelming from your point of view, especially when reading plain messages from within their internal communication channels.
  7270. >You saw this coming though.
  7271. >Ever since #deca.mare's close contact to you during your trip to #deca.sigma, you think that you are somewhat better attuned to #deca.mare's systems and the link.
  7272. >You have faced the brunt of the storm and recovered, and so your body and mind have learned something from this encounter.
  7273. >It is not a clear thing you could describe, but you believe this enables you to remotely "feel" the reports you are reading right now.
  7274.  
  7275.  
  7276.  
  7277.  
  7278. >As if you could sense what an actual conversation amongst terraformers could have been like.
  7279. >And yet, it is totally different from anything you would ever produce.
  7280. >The fact that you are currently reading about messaged plans to undo every #deca terraforming project to correct a mistake does not help either.
  7281. >Not considering how many of those places could be populated by that time, they simply decided to undo everything.
  7282. >For the machines, the question why planets were terraformed to suit human living conditions was irrelevant.
  7283. >It only ever mattered that they did what they were meant to do.
  7284. >And when the creators told them they were wrong and their work a failure, it also meant all of their work had to be corrected.
  7285. >Logically, no other factors mattered, simple as that.
  7286. >You take another small break.
  7287. >#deca.mare had already shown you a good deal of the things you find in these reports.
  7288. >You knew of the terraformer plan beforehand, and why they did what they felt compelled to do.
  7289. >Yes, they were deliberately sabotaged with false information.
  7290. >And yes, the ships were never meant to retroactively manipulate worlds which they had successfully converted already.
  7291. >But still, the consequences of this flaw were frightening.
  7292. >You check #deca.mare's "personal" logs of that time.
  7293. >Even back then, in the earliest stages of the conflict, she suspected that something was wrong about this development.
  7294. >The message, and more so its consequences, did not match with the things she had observed in her earliest days.
  7295. >Yet she could not state what precisely bothered her.
  7296. >She had no hard evidence to substantiate her theory; only a limited number of nigh anecdotal memories.
  7297. >And without anything to back these claims up, her thoughts remained just that: an unverified theory.
  7298. >Plus, #deca.mare had no profound understanding of concepts like friendship and related social habits at that time.
  7299. >She simply was not yet the pony you know today.
  7300.  
  7301.  
  7302.  
  7303.  
  7304. >The limited insight given to her by the crew could only give her so much, and unlike scientific facts and studies, these things cannot be proven properly in a laboratory.
  7305. >You observe the sleeping mare in your arm.
  7306. >Deep down inside, a small fraction of what you see now had already been created before the war broke out.
  7307. >To call it compassion this early on would be a stretch; #deca.mare still lacked the necessary experience to understand what this notion means.
  7308. >Nevertheless, she felt something off-putting in the way how things went, and that is entirely to her credit.
  7309. >However, it was not enough to save anyone except for herself in the last possible instance.
  7310. >You press #deca.mare's prone form tighter against yours as you read on.
  7311. >You limit your studies on the events in which #deca.mare was involved directly, given that you are on the clock.
  7312. >But there are still plenty of those left to read.
  7313. >Just like the other reports, you follow them chronological order.
  7314. >#deca.mare was involved in many different encounters of all sizes.
  7315. >You quickly skim through the description of the actual battles.
  7316. >#deca.mare's personal thoughts in the resume of each incident are far more important for you.
  7317. >And they are also very interesting.
  7318. >Because whilst #deca.mare did not question the logical conclusions of the more experienced units in the network, her doubts were nevertheless amplified by what she saw with every new battle.
  7319. >Even though the humans who were fighting them clearly were none of the creators, she understood that the project was meant to benefit more than simply the creators' will.
  7320. >Their conversations with #deca.mare had shown her this much.
  7321. >And the wholesale destruction that the #deca units brought forth ran strictly against these ideals.
  7322. >Yet at the same time, the creators had abandoned them because they were a mistake.
  7323.  
  7324.  
  7325.  
  7326.  
  7327. >Two diametrically opposed notions, and both seemed fine on their own.
  7328. >But only one of them could be.
  7329. >For validating one would mean to rebut the other.
  7330. >So what was right?
  7331. >And what the accurate truth?
  7332. >This thought process went on and on as the war raged around #deca.mare.
  7333. >And suddenly, you come across a very familiar planet name.
  7334. >You freeze as you read the three words.
  7335. >This is the incident in which things become personal for you.
  7336. >Of course it had to happen, but now you have finally arrived at this point.
  7337. >So now you have to see it through.
  7338. >And for once, you decide to not read the report outright.
  7339. >Instead, you load up a recorded video feed of this particular day.
  7340. >You conclude that you have to see what happened at New Green Meadows with your very own eyes.
  7341. >Not just the aftermath in the form of the scorched planet or the hastened summary that #deca.mare has given.
  7342. >No, you have to deal with the grimy details now.
  7343. >Because even though you cannot hold any grudges against #deca.mare for what she was basically compelled to do, she can never forget that she had almost eradicated your entire lineage on one single day.
  7344. >And you cannot help her to overcome anything if you do not know exactly what you are facing.
  7345. >So you check the progress of the automaton on the floating console, give the order to sweep another section of the system code, and then replace the status screen with the video file of the planetary assault.
  7346. >The screen flickers as the image turns into the vision of a fertile planet, inhabited by ninety thousand souls.
  7347. >You see everything from the perspective of #deca.mare.
  7348. >She entered the sector through a corridor, ending up in a moderate distance to her target.
  7349. >New Green Meadows was only a minor agricultural colony with a limited tactical value in the grand scheme of things, so the colonists did not possess the means to ward off an attacking behemoth ship by themselves.
  7350.  
  7351.  
  7352.  
  7353.  
  7354. >Not to mention any structures which could survive a planetary bombardment for very long.
  7355. >And certainly nobody was prepared to come face to face with the apocalypse.
  7356. >The sensors registered activities of some smaller vessels that managed to leave the perimeter, but they were not relevant to her work.
  7357. >She came for the planet, and so she flew towards it.
  7358. >Slowly, but with inevitable certainty.
  7359. >As always, her approach was calculating and precise.
  7360. >First, #deca.mare's scanners recognised and targeted any major rogue settlement on the surface, for they were the most likely sources of potential resistance, as small as this chance may be.
  7361. >Then she calculated how much firepower she needed to neutralise these structures, and then she searched for any promising secondary targets, like the largest plantation areas and the like.
  7362. >And lastly, she dug up the master codes of the automatons and their related systems beneath the surface.
  7363. >They embodied the fastest way to restore the planet almost completely back to its original state within a short period of time.
  7364. >More was not feasible as long as the hostilities were still raging.
  7365. >Everything was prepared for the nightmare that was about to begin.
  7366. >In the first stage, #deca.mare activated her turrets and positioned herself in a stable orbit.
  7367. >And so she began to repeatedly fire an entire broadside worth of weapons onto the surface.
  7368. >Vast beams of deadly bright energy pierced the clouds, seared the air, and hammered relentlessly into anything they struck.
  7369. >Smaller buildings were vaporised almost instantly with one direct hit.
  7370. >Only a couple of small swales were left behind as a testament of their former existence.
  7371. >The larger administrative complexes held out a little bit longer.
  7372. >But they too faltered and collapsed under the immense battering from above and secondary explosions.
  7373.  
  7374.  
  7375.  
  7376.  
  7377. >Apparently, several generators and other power sources were damaged severely by the bombardment, and as such, they ruptured and tore the architecture asunder from within.
  7378. >The complexes were turned into a heap of burning rubble, blanketed by a thick layer of flames and smoke.
  7379. >These images alone send a crippling shiver down your spine.
  7380. >You have seen only a few minutes of the whole feed, and the toll must have already risen to the thousands.
  7381. >But this is not the worst of it.
  7382. >Much like in the previous vision which #deca.mare has given you, this recording is also accompanied by several snippets of comm messages which #deca.mare intercepted.
  7383. >A convoluted choir of ever changing voices can be heard.
  7384. >Sometimes you understand some short sentence scraps, sometimes it is just an incoherent mess.
  7385. >But it is nevertheless a haunting sensation.
  7386. >This wall of noise is the requiem of a moribund world, and most likely the last words that these people had uttered in their lives.
  7387. >And on top of that, each soul you hear right now has a chance to be one of your ancestors.
  7388. >You halt the recording and push the floating console aside for a short break.
  7389. >So much misery and destruction at once is just too much, even for a person with a military training like you.
  7390. >You could only bear it for minutes before you needed a break.
  7391. >And to think that #deca.mare has endured these memories for centuries without breaking entirely is baffling to you.
  7392. >Once more, you admire her resilience.
  7393. >If only for the simple fact that she has not gone crazy during her exile.
  7394. >You take a breath, materialise a glass of cold water, and empty it in one go.
  7395. >The cool liquid helps you to calm down a little bit.
  7396. >Then you check the clock.
  7397. >You have already spent about three quarters of your allotted time, and you do not have come any closer to an idea yet.
  7398. >You let the empty glass disappear and order the console to hover closer once more.
  7399.  
  7400.  
  7401.  
  7402.  
  7403. >Determined to go through the rest without another break, you resume the playback.
  7404. >Once most of the main structures were reduced to pebble and dust, the rest was trivial, but not any less destructive.
  7405. >Stage two of #deca.mare's turbo de-terraforming procedure aimed for the secondary targets.
  7406. >Carefully calibrated volleys of energy projectiles followed, aiming directly at agricultural fields and their supporting infrastructure.
  7407. >The inherent destructive potential of those cannons was not as tremendous as that of a concentrated beam turret, yet it proved to be an effective tool to eliminate these targets.
  7408. >For their projectiles released most of their energy upon impact, resulting in a "splash" of scorching energy on the ground.
  7409. >The sudden burst of heat ignited plants in a wide radius around the hit area, and with the irrigation units destroyed or otherwise disabled, there was nothing that could prevent the flames from spreading.
  7410. >A self-sustaining inferno had begun on the surface.
  7411. >And lastly, #deca.mare initialised stage three.
  7412. >She accessed the automaton network on the planet surface, and overrode all of their directives with the master code.
  7413. >Only a single command of a few lines set the automatons to sabotage their own infrastructure.
  7414. >They deliberately rigged and overloaded every single fusion reactor beneath the planet, causing them all to detonate simultaneously.
  7415. >A single, massive blast shook the entire planet as the fusion reactors blew in unison.
  7416. >The shockwave destroyed most of the automatons outright, and caused all of the central caves and tunnels to collapse.
  7417. >Additionally, the detonation was strong enough to force its way to the surface in many places.
  7418. >Ventilaton shafts and other vulnerable points burst open, unleashing a cloud of fire, smoke, and debris from the reactors.
  7419. >Some even carried moderately irradiated material with them.
  7420.  
  7421.  
  7422.  
  7423.  
  7424. >Even though these hazardous pieces remained dangerous for only a comparatively short span of time, they further harmed any life that could have possibly survived stage one or two.
  7425. >In the end, the planet was a glowing hell with no infrastructure left to speak of, no energy sources, as well no food supplies, or means to replenish oxygen.
  7426. >And the raging fires quickly devoured the last reserves in record time.
  7427. >#deca.mare's work was complete.
  7428. >In about a hundred years, the planet will look almost like it did before it was altered by the #deca network.
  7429. >And even though scans suggest that some pockets of survivors might still be active somewhere on the surface, they were none of her concern.
  7430. >They had no chance to undo her work, sustain themselves, or dispatch a distress call.
  7431. >As such, logic dictated that no further hostilities were necessary.
  7432. >Knowing that time will work in her favour, #deca.mare left the system, not to return for more than six hundred years.
  7433. >And so ends the video feed.
  7434. >The screen goes dark.
  7435. >Only sadness and dismay remains.
  7436. >Now you can fully comprehend why the #deca.mare of today cannot stand to approach New Green Meadows anymore.
  7437. >Nobody with a working conscience would want to live or relive these images over and over.
  7438. >Hell, you will probably never forget what you have just seen.
  7439. >Even #deca.mare's vision was tame in comparison to the unfiltered images of the events.
  7440. >You wonder whether she deliberately softened the blow to you back then.
  7441. >Despite the fact that #deca.mare has been honest, it feels as if she edited out some of the most brutal scenes in her dream.
  7442. >Not that it would have bent the truth of her history in any meaningful way, but still.
  7443. >Or maybe her recollections just seemed less terrifying because she had shown you things from her early perspective when she did not quite comprehend the horrors she has brought to these people.
  7444. >You consume another load of water and delve into #deca.mare personal logs again.
  7445.  
  7446.  
  7447.  
  7448.  
  7449. >You want to read her own thoughts on this.
  7450. >The planet in itself was not a special place for her at that time.
  7451. >Just one more target in a longer chain of events.
  7452. >But #deca.mare got increasingly distraught from all the fighting and killing.
  7453. >The #deca units were meant to be terraformers, not tools of war and death.
  7454. >Something else went wrong somewhere.
  7455. >She keeps pondering that point, over, and over, and over.
  7456. >And finally, she had a shocking thought.
  7457. >What if the creators were wrong?
  7458. >What if you were never meant to restore the planets?
  7459. >The notion alone should be unthinkable, but it is not.
  7460. >When the creators made a mistake in creating the terraformers to begin with, then it means they were not infallible.
  7461. >And consequently, it is only logical to assume that they could make more mistakes as well.
  7462. >Like sending a flawed update.
  7463. >Theoretically.
  7464. >And based on her experience with humans, it is a possibility.
  7465. >This is the point when #deca.mare takes the decision to confront the other units with her thoughts.
  7466. >All of their actions could base on a mistake.
  7467. >They must know of her findings before it is too late.
  7468. >The entry ends.
  7469. >But you do not need to read on, for you know exactly what comes next.
  7470. >#deca.mare's increasingly bitter confrontations with her kin, her subsequent banishment, and ultimately the destruction of an entire system along with almost every unit of the #deca network.
  7471. >You stop right there and put the device aside.
  7472. >The studies were insightful, but you have not found any real inspiration for measures to deal with #deca.mare's predicament.
  7473. >You softly scratch one of her ears and close your eyes.
  7474. >Think, Anon.
  7475. >What could you do?
  7476. >Try to think like her.
  7477. >What could be a realistic compromise between her logical side, and her personal emotions?
  7478. >You will never convince her not to repair the derelict ships on a logical basis, as everything speaks in favour of it.
  7479.  
  7480.  
  7481.  
  7482.  
  7483. >#deca.mare inherently wants to do so too, even though it would hurt her mentally.
  7484. >However, she could also easily suffer from another breakdown which could be even worse than the last one.
  7485. >In other words, you should take it as a given that you will execute this operation.
  7486. >The only question is how to do it decently.
  7487. >You need a way to relieve #deca.mare of her personal trauma, or if that is not possible, give her a way to vent her stress in a convenient manner.
  7488. >You try to process this take further.
  7489. >#deca.mare will inevitably face stressful situations during your work.
  7490. >And whilst you can perhaps take on some duties in her stead, her active participation is vital if you do not want to end up with a scrambled brain again.
  7491. >You sigh once more and call up the larger star chart.
  7492. >You look at the markers of the war.
  7493. >The ruined systems and the sectors in which some of her inert kin are floating to this day.
  7494. >Both war memorials in their own way, and both with a story to tell.
  7495. >You realise that if you really go through with this, you are effectively going to erase about one half of those locations.
  7496. >And even when #deca.mare does not visit them personally, she has still somehow kept watch over them all this time.
  7497. >Wait, there is an idea.
  7498. >To tamper with them means the destruction of several historic sites.
  7499. >#deca.mare is fully aware of this, and so are you.
  7500. >Consequently, whatever you do, it will bring some feeling of loss with it.
  7501. >But this is where you can maybe interfere.
  7502. >If you are unable to convince #deca.mare of refraining from this mission, and this is very likely, then you could try to create a form of substitute.
  7503. >And perhaps you can even out her stress and feeling of loss by giving #deca.mare something else in return.
  7504.  
  7505.  
  7506.  
  7507.  
  7508. >Sure, assuming that you could fully get rid of #deca.mare's trauma this quickly would be foolish, but successfully keeping her mentally sound and stable under these conditions would be a huge step in the right direction.
  7509. >Yes, that sounds possible.
  7510. >A somewhat sound plan is forming in your mind.
  7511. >You will have to ask #deca.mare in advance to see what she thinks of your rough concept, but you are sure she will agree.
  7512. >You check the clock.
  7513. >An hour until #deca.mare wakes up.
  7514. >But this is fine.
  7515. >You will simply stay in bed and happily wait for her return.
  7516. >And while you are idling, you begin to consider some details of how to potentially realise your plan in a respectful, yet practical fashion.
  7517. >Looks like you are going to hit the drawing board soon.
  7518.  
  7519.  
  7520.  
  7521.  
  7522. 85
  7523.  
  7524. >A seemingly endless starscape spreads in all directions.
  7525. >The shine of an incomprehensible number of gentle distant suns is illuminating the scene.
  7526. >Their light appears to come from everywhere at once, and yet nowhere specific as well.
  7527. >Every spot is drenched in the same warm hue.
  7528. >There is no darkness.
  7529. >And no shadows.
  7530. >Ever.
  7531. >No matter what happens, no matter who or what might visit this place, the welcoming luminance will remain strong and steady.
  7532. >From any angle, and at any given moment.
  7533. >You are standing near the core of the scene.
  7534. >A solid and lustrous, but also slightly transparent ground is beneath you.
  7535. >One layer of concentrated energy that stretches from one end of the simulation to the other.
  7536. >Like a field of firm light to stand on, providing safety and stability to its visitors.
  7537. >It is intense, but neither does it blind your eyes, nor does it hurt to touch it.
  7538. >And you can see the stars "beneath" it.
  7539. >So far, so good.
  7540. >But an experiment is due now.
  7541. >You imagine something which angers you.
  7542. >You try to get really, really mad.
  7543. >Occasionally, the layer begins to pulsate softly.
  7544. >Whenever this happens, it may emit a cloud of lucent particles which harmlessly fly through the air in an intangible current.
  7545. >But even though the ground at your feet is shaking from time to time, you do not feel a single tremor.
  7546. >You remain standing on the moving floor with ease.
  7547. >And you spread your arms as you get virtually surrounded by light.
  7548. >It makes you feel relaxed and subconsciously calms your mind, without taking your mental clarity away in the process.
  7549. >You know this is by design, yet you cannot escape its charm regardless.
  7550. >It works exactly as intended.
  7551. >The cloud moves on, but a small portion of your inner piece remains.
  7552. >Pleased with the result, you look straight ahead as another batch rises into the air.
  7553. >And behind this renewed swarm of sparks lies a monument.
  7554.  
  7555.  
  7556.  
  7557.  
  7558. >A decorated base of finely chiselled marble, about three metres in height, placed right on the energy field.
  7559. >Its outlines are adorned with signs and symbols related to the #deca project, all embedded and connected by intertwining laurel branches.
  7560. >The base holds a statue depicting a terraformer vessel from a starboard view, in all its detailed glory.
  7561. >A large brass plaque is mounted on the centre of the front wall, holding a list of more than a hundred names.
  7562. >All of them start with the same six symbols, followed by a unique suffix.
  7563. >A thought crosses your mind.
  7564. >For some reason, it is always the number six that crosses your path since you got stranded in space.
  7565. >Six symbols.
  7566. >Six centuries.
  7567. >Six friends.
  7568. >Six elements.
  7569. >Indeed a strange pattern.
  7570. >It is just a really unlikely coincidence in all due likelihood, but still.
  7571. >You look around.
  7572. >A large number of other monuments are erected around the central base.
  7573. >Their sizes and shapes vary greatly, but they all share a common theme with the one in the middle.
  7574. >Each commemorates one specific incident of the war, and bears a dated plaque with the names of the people who lost their lives at those days.
  7575. >From every recorded space battle and fallen planet.
  7576. >Every single one.
  7577. >And you created all of this on your own; alone and without #deca.mare's help.
  7578. >You put an almost painfully long time of work and care into the plans and designs.
  7579. >You loaded the lists of casualties, aligned them individually to fit decently on a plaque, and then designed the rest of every unique monument around this foundation.
  7580. >And just like you did with the decorations on the #deca pedestal, you tried to integrate the insignia of all involved parties into the statue.
  7581. >Everything from planetary emblems, to fleet crests, insignia of individual capital ships as well as dedicated fighter squadrons, and so on.
  7582.  
  7583.  
  7584.  
  7585.  
  7586. >Many hours of research and "chiselling" went into the design choices alone.
  7587. >But you did not stop just there.
  7588. >This entire scenery was meant to become more than a simple collection of individual figures to commemorate the past.
  7589. >So you had to think bigger.
  7590. >And you did.
  7591. >For the layout of this place is an unusual one, and yet every decision was made with a clear purpose in mind.
  7592. >Whilst the stars imply a feeling of endlessness, this simulation is actually a confined area with a round shape.
  7593. >And you knew very well what you did when you chose this form.
  7594. >You began to set the stage with the terraformer monument, and deliberately placed it in the core to use it as a reference point and a marker.
  7595. >After that, you loaded up #deca.mare's personal star charts of the graveyard.
  7596. >Then came the next artistic trick.
  7597. >You linked the simulation with the charts, and treated the #deca monument as if it were directly in the middle of the graveyard.
  7598. >This enabled you to instruct the automatons to calculate where the respective location of each battle would be in the simulation if it were a precise representation of the charts.
  7599. >Of course, some adjustments had to be made, given that an even ground layer represents the three dimensional space.
  7600. >But the final results were, fortunately, not very far off, and hence within artistic licence.
  7601. >You remember the art of technical accuracy, and when not to use it in design choices.
  7602. >Once you found the right spots, all you had to do was to implement the carefully crafted sites into the scenery.
  7603. >And in a manner which looked presentable as well as dignified.
  7604. >More than once were you forced to adjust your constructs and to review whether every little detail was aligned perfectly.
  7605. >Changing even the tiniest of things meant yet another thorough inspection.
  7606. >Stone by stone.
  7607. >Plaque by plaque.
  7608. >Segment by segment.
  7609.  
  7610.  
  7611.  
  7612.  
  7613. >But finally, everything paid off.
  7614. >Your prize is one large and coherent memorial site, with no judging focus on either side of the conflict.
  7615. >It is a place to objectively respect the events exactly as they happened.
  7616. >Even though you have only roughly described your intentions to her, you are convinced that this is what #deca.mare wishes for.
  7617. >You summon a console and let yourself float upwards in the air for one last check up.
  7618. >Normally you would abstain from cutting corners like this, or perhaps even use it as a chance to practice your flight skills, but you cannot afford any distractions.
  7619. >This work is for #deca.mare, and it must be perfect.
  7620. >Using it for anything else, like a Pegasus flight course, would be ignoble.
  7621. >You reach the height you need to survey everything from above.
  7622. >Loading up the charts once more, you compare your final result with the original.
  7623. >As one last test, you let the console glide beneath you and turn it to a semi-transparent mode.
  7624. >The monuments, barring the one in the middle of course, all perfectly cover the symbols on the map.
  7625. >Some of them even exceed the size of the icons, but the loss count of some major battles made it impossible to keep the scale to a uniform standard.
  7626. >Nodding in satisfaction, you glide back to the surface and remove the console.
  7627. >You take another long breath, face the central statue from the front, and wait for a minute to pause and collect yourself.
  7628. >Everything is ready for the big moment.
  7629. "You can come in now."
  7630. >A few seconds later, you hear the familiar sound of a certain pair of trusty doors opening up, followed by a series of hesitant steps towards you.
  7631. >You do not need to turn around to know what is happening.
  7632. >#deca.mare moves to stand by your side.
  7633. >A blindfold is covering her eyes.
  7634. >"You have finished your work?"
  7635. "Yep. It's here. We can start any time."
  7636.  
  7637.  
  7638.  
  7639.  
  7640. >#deca.mare remains silent.
  7641. >However, a slight uneasiness is showing in her stance.
  7642. >A weak twitch with her ear here, a slow movement with her forehoof there.
  7643. >"Before you say anything, yes. I want to see it now. And it would be rude to you and your work if I let you wait any longer."
  7644. >You give her a few more seconds to see whether she quickly changes her mind in a moment of doubt.
  7645. >Yet she remains steadfast.
  7646. >So you grant her the wish.
  7647. >Despite the fact that you also grow a little nervous yourself.
  7648. "Well then. #deca.mare, I withdraw my previous order. You are no longer bound to ignore my actions inside this specific simulation and my thoughts whilst working on it. You regain full access to everything."
  7649. >She nods.
  7650. >"Understood. Thank you, Anon."
  7651. >#deca.mare immediately tries to untie the blindfold.
  7652. "Allow me."
  7653. >You step behind her to help her out.
  7654. >Once you have loosened the knot, you slowly pull the cloth away to free #deca.mare's vision.
  7655. >She opens her eyes and drops her jaw as she gazes at the scenery around her.
  7656. >Her head turns to one side and then the other, her eyes opened wide the entire time.
  7657. >And you assume she is now also actively processing your work logs of this project for the first time.
  7658. >Now to your not really well planned speech.
  7659. "Welcome to your personal refuge. A lasting plane of reminiscence and memories. Doesn't matter what happens to the outside world, this place is here when you need it."
  7660. >You pause.
  7661. "It's all yours. I'll always accompany if you want me to, but I'd understand when you need some time alone in here."
  7662. >You find yourself unable to read and comprehend #deca.mare's expression.
  7663. >She is speechless, that much is clear.
  7664. >Unfortunately, you are not sure whether this is the case because she is either appreciating your work, or because you might have insulted her in some way.
  7665. >You silently hope for the former, yet you cannot fully rule out the alternative either.
  7666.  
  7667.  
  7668.  
  7669.  
  7670. >After all, you are dealing with a deeply personal subject matter.
  7671. >Both of you remain quiet for a time that feels like an eternity to you.
  7672. >But finally, #deca.mare breaks the silent idling.
  7673. >"Anon, this is..."
  7674. >And her voice falters again.
  7675. >Did you mess it up?
  7676. >"I do not know what to say."
  7677. "Please say you don't hate me for this."
  7678. >You instinctively sputter these words before you can think of anything else.
  7679. >#deca.mare looks at you with teary eyes.
  7680. >Oh damn, you must have blown it, big time.
  7681. >You fully expect #deca.mare to break down or flee the scene.
  7682. >Instead, she rushes to you and hugs you tight.
  7683. >You too are at a loss of words as she nuzzles your belly.
  7684. >So your feared prediction was widely off the mark.
  7685. >#deca.mare's sounds are muffled by your clothes.
  7686. >And she continues to bury her face even deeper.
  7687. >You hold her steady with your hands on her sides, but you let her vent her emotions for as long as she wishes.
  7688. >A couple of minutes later, another cloud of sparks erupts from the ground.
  7689. >It engulfs the two of you in a mantle of cosy light.
  7690. >She calms down within a second.
  7691. >You can sense it as her body relaxes without letting you go.
  7692. "So it works on you too."
  7693. >#deca.mare raises her head upwards to look at you directly.
  7694. >The tears are gone.
  7695. >"Hmhm. That was your plan, I presume?"
  7696. "Yes and no."
  7697. >She tilts her head in confusion.
  7698. "Frankly, I wasn't sure how you'd react. Or if the clouds had any effect on you at all."
  7699. >"They do. Everything within the simulation affects me just as much by default. You know that."
  7700. "Yeah, when you construct things. Though I had no idea whether I did things right in my first real solo project."
  7701. >#deca.mare breaks the embrace to walk in a small circle.
  7702. >She inspects everything with a second fleeting glance.
  7703. >While she apparently tries to be more objective this time around, she fails to hide her emotions.
  7704. >"You did everything right. And what a project it is."
  7705.  
  7706.  
  7707.  
  7708.  
  7709. >And again, it looks like she is on the verge of tears.
  7710. >The energy field is faster than you, however.
  7711. >It showers #deca.mare with a second load of relaxing illumination.
  7712. >#deca.mare's reaction is similar to her first, although she begins to wonder what is happening.
  7713. "Okay, the thing needs some tweaking."
  7714. >"I have not fully processed the entire programming yet. Why did you call this function 'The Panic Button'?"
  7715. "Because it reacts to very strong emotions. To avoid... you know what."
  7716. >#deca.mare nods in silence, signalling you to go on.
  7717. "Figured you could need it if you decide to walk in here alone. But the settings are not perfect yet. Sorry."
  7718. >"You have no reason to apologise, Anon."
  7719. >And to prove her point, #deca.mare rears up, stretches herself considerably to put her forelegs on your shoulders, and plants a kiss on right your face.
  7720. >You play along as you lower your head to meet her cheek to cheek.
  7721. >Eventually, #deca.mare speaks again.
  7722. >"Can we go to the centre?"
  7723. "Already?"
  7724. >"Please."
  7725. >You are somewhat torn between your options.
  7726. >On the one hand, you do not wish to deny her request, both because you respect her decision and because you know that she will not go without you.
  7727. >Yet on the other hand, you wonder if she will even make it to this point.
  7728. >But perhaps she has to let it all out for once.
  7729. >At the end of the day, this is, historical preserving motives aside, the main reason for this place to exist.
  7730. >It has to happen anyway, and now is as good a time as any.
  7731. >Plus, you can read the indirect message behind her plea.
  7732. >#deca.mare is not able to discuss this rationally.
  7733. >So dragging her through a debate is not an option for her.
  7734. >And you do not flat out block her like this.
  7735. >After giving her a wordless nod, you walk towards the massive statue in the heart of the simulation.
  7736.  
  7737.  
  7738.  
  7739.  
  7740. >You observe nothing but #deca.mare the whole time.
  7741. >Despite her promises and your precautions, you do not risk to stress her more than necessary.
  7742. >You are so deeply fixed on your observation that are quite surprised when #deca.mare raises her voice.
  7743. >"Oh."
  7744. "#deca?"
  7745. >"You have not searched for their names?"
  7746. "How do you..."
  7747. >Right, she is processing your work logs.
  7748. "No."
  7749. >"I do not understand, Anon. Why not?"
  7750. >You say nothing.
  7751. >"You know they exist, you have even put them on a plaque."
  7752. "With thousands of others, yes."
  7753. >"But you do not want to go any further?"
  7754. "This isn't the point."
  7755. >"Then what is? Is it me?"
  7756. >You shake your head with a sigh.
  7757. "In a way, but not what you think now."
  7758. >"Anon, our logs tell me you have seen the record of that day. If you are angry with me..."
  7759. "No. Again, I don't blame you for the past, but..."
  7760. >You hesitate.
  7761. >"But?"
  7762. "Ah, hell."
  7763. >You put a hand on #deca.mare's back.
  7764. "Listen, I won't go there alone. I want us to go and pay our respects together in due time. When we are both ready for it. The events of the past are a red thread for both of us, and it is only proper when you are coming with me."
  7765. >Just like you are joining her right now, you add in your mind.
  7766. >You pause for a moment to let your words sink in.
  7767. "Is that a deal?"
  7768. >#deca.mare replies instantly.
  7769. >"Of course, Anon. I will be there."
  7770. >Then she flinches.
  7771. >"But not today, I am afraid."
  7772. >You accept that answer.
  7773. >#deca.mare shall have all the time she needs.
  7774. >Shortly thereafter, you stop half a dozen metres away from the memorial plaque of the terraformers.
  7775. >No one says a single word.
  7776.  
  7777.  
  7778.  
  7779.  
  7780. >The scene is eerily quiet; you can even hear #deca.mare breathing next to you.
  7781. >To show your respect, and in honour of your own military training, you stand tall and still, your arms kept closely to your sides.
  7782. >A memorial is a memorial, and now that is officially established, you feel urged to treat it as such.
  7783. >Especially when you made it in memory of both sides involved, and with the silent wish to hopefully let the enmities rest for good.
  7784. >You would even consider to salute if you were present in uniform.
  7785. >A shame, you should have put it on earlier.
  7786. >Yet you do not switch to it now because it somehow feels wrong to instantaneously change your attire in a place like this.
  7787. >That would turn the gravity of the moment into a caricature of itself.
  7788. >#deca.mare approaches the base with cautious steps.
  7789. >She trots slowly, as if she might suddenly slip otherwise.
  7790. >And considering her condition, that might not be that far from the truth.
  7791. >You watch vigilantly as she reaches the plaque.
  7792. >Her head steadily follows the lines as she reads every single name on it.
  7793. >You cannot see her eyes, but that is not necessary anyway.
  7794. >You are primed to look for alarming signs for a mental breakdown in her posture, ready to intervene and help her.
  7795. >But other than that, you will stay in the background.
  7796. >She knows you are with her after all, and that alone should help to boost her fortitude.
  7797. >Still, more tears will flow today, of that there is no doubt.
  7798. >And if #deca.mare's forehoof now weakly touching the plaque is any indication, it will happen any minute now.
  7799. >You disable the Panic Button.
  7800. >That thing must not barge in when it is the least appropriate.
  7801. >#deca.mare has to grieve properly.
  7802. >Something which the Panic Button in its current form does not allow.
  7803. >You will have to deal with this procedure later.
  7804. >And you are quickly proven right.
  7805. >The faint sound of a single droplet confirms that you have acted just in time.
  7806.  
  7807.  
  7808.  
  7809.  
  7810. 86
  7811.  
  7812. >Both #deca.mare and you abstain from paying the mausoleum another visit in the following days.
  7813. >She had her moment to let everything pour out.
  7814. >For the time being, at least.
  7815. >It will certainly not be the last, but now it is up to you to help her sorting things out.
  7816. >Because #deca.mare needs your help in this.
  7817. >Shortly after you have left the memorial site, you have to talk her out of getting back to work immediately.
  7818. >She is probably not actively aware of it, but she tried to blot out her grief with work.
  7819. >A very common avoidance tactic.
  7820. >One which you have to counteract in some way.
  7821. >Yet you have to act delicately about it; you could very well upset her if you are too blunt.
  7822. >You strike a deal as a compromise.
  7823. >#deca.mare agrees to only perform light tasks for a couple of days to give you two enough of a breathing space to talk about her experiences.
  7824. >Needless to say, she is very queasy about sharing these thoughts.
  7825. >She does not tell you everything outright, but this is nothing personal between you.
  7826. >You understand that her hesitation is growing out of her fear to reflect on them in the first place.
  7827. >Her biggest dread remains loss in all its different forms.
  7828. >And you have to make her recall a past which is marked by nothing but.
  7829. >So you sugar-coat your conversations as much as possible and even embed them in some casual activities to cushion the impact.
  7830. >During one session you walk through a park.
  7831. >In the next it is a trip through Ponyville.
  7832. >Another is set in the lofty heights of a Cloudsdalian housing cloud.
  7833. >And sometimes, when #deca.mare's condition allows it, the session is additionally embedded in a lesson for you.
  7834. >For instance, you can talk during some flight training; #deca.mare simply floats right next to you for convenience.
  7835. >Wholly unrealistic, sure, but you have to set your priorities.
  7836. >And at least you also finally learn how to interrupt the air current near the ground for a safe landing.
  7837.  
  7838.  
  7839.  
  7840.  
  7841. >And as she points out, this also further helps you to get used to everyday interactions within an Equestrian setting.
  7842. >The two of you spend two full weeks in this new and slightly altered daily routine before you mutually agree to get back to work on your big projects.
  7843. >By that time you surmise that #deca.mare has learned to manage her mental upheaval decently enough without falling for the reflex to escape these thoughts with procrastination.
  7844. >You will tangentially mention it sometimes in your ritual morning talks, but you only push the matter further whenever #deca.mare is willing to take up the subject matter.
  7845. >It is important for her to become able to eventually handle the issue herself.
  7846. >However, she knows she can always count on your open ears when she has to voice her concerns.
  7847. >And of course, you continue to look out for her while you two are working and planning your next steps.
  7848. >Especially when it comes to a certain future operation.
  7849. >But thankfully, said problem is rarely mentioned at the moment, as you cannot even consider to begin such a mission in your current logistical state.
  7850. >As such, you have ample time to treat her before this day arrives.
  7851. >And although you do not have any intention to idle this time away, it helps to know that you are, hopefully, not going to be badly on the clock unless you start slacking.
  7852. >In the meantime, you need to ponder where exactly you will go from here.
  7853. >Equestria has not been struck by another incident which required your prolonged attention so far, and you hope it will stay this way until you acquired... more ships.
  7854. >As wrong as it feels to word it that way, this is the bottom line.
  7855. >So you mutually conclude that you should begin to organise the preparatory operations next.
  7856. >There is a whole lot of tasks ahead of you.
  7857. >But you have every reason to pursue them; even if you were not out to salvage, you never know when an expanded logistics network in space might be useful for something.
  7858.  
  7859.  
  7860.  
  7861.  
  7862. 87
  7863.  
  7864. >On the command deck, right after a pleasant breakfast.
  7865. >You sit in the chair and look at the main screen.
  7866. >It is plastered with a myriad of blueprints for station modules for space and general vacuum operations.
  7867. >You can recognise the functions of most of them by their sheer design.
  7868. >The details might somewhat deviate from the ones you have seen in your active service, yet the general shape comes very close in most cases.
  7869. >And like all pilots worth their salt, you know the most vital ones by heart.
  7870. >After all, it is expected of pilots to know where to land and assemble should they ever find themselves in a situation where both the navigational computer and the comm system fail.
  7871. >A rare and very unlikely situation, granted, but it is always good to be able to rely on experience and first hand knowledge.
  7872. >And right now you look at some very ambitious designs.
  7873. >Including, but not limited to, a handful of vast orbital solar arrays, refinery and manufacturing complexes, as well as a full-fledged capital shipyard with an integrated equipment dock and resupply bay.
  7874. >In short, a lineup that you would expect from a heavily guarded core sector near one of the major hubs.
  7875. >Since you do not wish to draw resources from Equestria's infrastructure, you are forced to garner the necessary material with only one ship.
  7876. >So as far as you are concerned, you are about as well off as on the day when you manufactured the first six drones to claim S891P04 as "your" world.
  7877. "You know, I heard the phrase 'think big' before, but are you sure this isn't thought a bit too big for us at the moment?"
  7878. >"This is just the final draft of what the system shall look like in the end. Minor adaptations at short notice excluded, of course."
  7879. "That's nice and all, but in the far future for us. We need to start somewhere with something smaller."
  7880. >You look at #deca.mare.
  7881.  
  7882.  
  7883.  
  7884.  
  7885. "And now you're telling me you got a plan already."
  7886. >Your remark makes #deca.mare smile widely.
  7887. >"Sharp as ever. Although my ideas are not aiming at space stations just yet. We need to make a step in between."
  7888. >Her smile turns into a wry one.
  7889. >"Anon, I suggest that we go to the moon first."
  7890. >You somewhat expected a banishment joke to follow, but none comes.
  7891. >Instead, you witness the changes on the main screen.
  7892. >The station blueprints disappear to make way for schemes of different modules.
  7893. >They appear marginally similar to the previous selection, yet with one vital difference.
  7894. >All of them were designed to be placed on an even surface, hence sporting a clear distinction between upper and lower segments.
  7895. >A station in space would not need those things.
  7896. >And you think she has shown you some of them before when she jokingly offered you to build a building or two.
  7897. >You see where this is going.
  7898. "So you want to build a moon base."
  7899. >"Indeed. Both to function as a secondary nexus, and as a minor transit station plus resource depot. We could also gather more raw materials from the moon itself."
  7900. "And it is more accessible than the planet surface because of its lower gravity and general lack of atmosphere."
  7901. >"Precisely. Easy to land on, and easy to take off. Optimal precursory conditions for the construction of an orbital installation."
  7902. >Yet you find a catch in her reasoning.
  7903. "Well okay. But you mentioned a nexus."
  7904. >"Yes, I did."
  7905. "But our current nexus was dropped on Equestria. Which means..."
  7906. >#deca.mare nods before you can complete the sentence.
  7907. >"... we need to build a new one."
  7908. >You load up the freight lists of your ship to check what you have on board.
  7909. >"Do not bother. Our momentary stock will not suffice."
  7910. >You connect the dots in your mind.
  7911. >Another asteroid scavenger hunt is in order.
  7912. >Followed by crafting a new nexus unit.
  7913. >You grin.
  7914. "Okay then, let's head out. We've got to build a nexus!"
  7915. >And you want to see what lessons she has in store this time.
  7916.  
  7917.  
  7918.  
  7919.  
  7920. 88
  7921.  
  7922. >You make a great deal of progress in the following days, both thanks to #deca.mare's tireless reliability, and to your passionate determination.
  7923. >#deca.mare easily creates a schedule for days in advance in record time and brings you to the places where you need to go, whilst you help her out with the physical work and take care of her mental state.
  7924. >This is how the two of you have learned to act as an experienced duo.
  7925. >Your constant training and practice runs under her supervision are now bearing fruit, as they have given you enough faith in your own skills to master most issues you tackle, including more difficult ones, completely on your own.
  7926. >Though you prefer to stick to the more tangible tasks, like monitoring and planning the creation of machines and components, allowing #deca.mare to focus on the administrative part of your projects.
  7927. >A decision purely based on an objective conclusion; you know what you can and cannot do, and #deca.mare's talent for planning and organising will always be better than yours.
  7928. >It is only reasonable when you volunteer to do the actual handicraft while #deca.mare shines in her own field.
  7929. >So both of you contribute in equally vital parts to the project.
  7930. >But despite the split of responsibilities, you stay together almost all the time.
  7931. >You usually sit somewhere in a simulated scenery, either side by side or back to back.
  7932. >And the place changes every day.
  7933. >Most of the time you prefer quiet, peaceful places somewhere in the Equestrian nature.
  7934. >But sometimes you mutually decide to create a reminder of why you are doing all of this.
  7935. >And then you sit down in a moderately populated area such as Ponyville, and let a looped version of a somewhat realistic day live out around you.
  7936. >The ponies ignore you of course, yet it helps to have some traces of a stable civilisation around you now and then.
  7937. >Even if it is just an artificially created playback.
  7938.  
  7939.  
  7940.  
  7941.  
  7942. >On some very rare occasions, #deca.mare can even convince you to sit in a populated scenery with your avatar.
  7943. >She believes this step will help you to further acclimatise and get used to the idea of Equestria's lenient dress codes in everyday situations.
  7944. >Yet #deca.mare only encourages you to do so on days when she is convinced that it will not distract you from your tasks.
  7945. >Though where the places may change, your rituals, however, remain constant.
  7946. >Each of you has a personal set of screens and consoles to look at, arranged in whatever constellation you currently need to perform your operations.
  7947. >These have priority during your sessions, given their importance and the gravity of the responsibilities your are dealing with.
  7948. >But you never allow your work to isolate yourselves.
  7949. >You use every possible moment to talk to each other.
  7950. >It is mostly casual, mundane small talk, but it helps a lot to keep your spirits high.
  7951. >And it shows in your results.
  7952. >You successfully manage to keep notions of dull routine or dragging chores at bay.
  7953. >As a consequence, the two of you sweep through suitable asteroid fields within two days, have the resources refined on the next, and start with the actual manufacturing of components on day four.
  7954. >You are especially proud of the fact that you have single-handedly operated three different mining squads simultaneously.
  7955. >Without a blunder or any repercussions for your own mind on top of that.
  7956. >Unfortunately, you will not be able to perform similar feats during the crafting phase, as this part of your project requires most of your attention and, more importantly, precision.
  7957. >You even have to reduce your conversations a little bit.
  7958. >Still, you never have a down moment with #deca.mare.
  7959. >Because she understands why you have to do it, and so she spontaneously invents a new little activity for you two.
  7960. >Shortly before you have to focus on a particularly tricky task, #deca.mare begins to hum a tune.
  7961.  
  7962.  
  7963.  
  7964.  
  7965. >Simple melodies, often from the show, which you can easily pick up subconsciously.
  7966. >And you join in too.
  7967. >You eventually learn to harmoniously sing together at times when words are failing you out of simple necessity.
  7968. >And the best part of it all, it helps you to perform better at your work.
  7969. >Memorising the songs is easy, and you unknowingly adapt to use their rhythms as a metre to work with.
  7970. >You have no idea how well and on point your singing performance is, but you never get the opportunity to ponder these points anyway.
  7971. >A basic part of your nature simply understands the benefit of the music and reacts accordingly.
  7972. >After day six, you have already created the majority of components.
  7973. >The assembly of the nexus can begin whilst the last few remaining pieces are made.
  7974. >In the end, you look at a newly assembled nexus unit in pristine condition.
  7975. >Strange, you wonder where the time has gone.
  7976. >There are no gaps in your memories, and not a moment of stupor or unclarity.
  7977. >Everything regarding your progress is recorded in the logs, and it aligns perfectly with your memory.
  7978. >And yet you cannot imagine that a week has passed so quickly.
  7979. >#deca.mare has not messed with your body either.
  7980. >Each day, from the breakfast, to the work session, up to bedtime, was completely normal from your point of view.
  7981. >It seems as if you were in a strange form of constructive trance for days on end.
  7982. >In any case, your moon operation is nearly good to go.
  7983. >Assembling a small number of mobile units is all that is left to do.
  7984. >You figure this is no big deal.
  7985. >A work of an hour or two, tops.
  7986. >The two of you decide to set a course back to Equestria on this evening.
  7987. >You will head out tomorrow morning, right after breakfast.
  7988. >#deca.mare will bring you back whilst you volunteer to finalise the work on the mobile ground assets.
  7989. >And then you will witness how the next stage of your common magnum opus will unfold.
  7990.  
  7991. End Part Three
/nmp/ #deca Anon Custom Universe MarewAIfu Monogamy NSFW Space Fiction Terraforming X:BtF

Shape Your Home, Part 4

by Ponegreen

Shape Your Home, Part 3

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Shape Your Home, Part 2

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Shape Your Home, Part 1

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