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Shape Your Home, Part 4

By Ponegreen
Created: 2nd November 2020 09:31:33 PM
11th April 2021 04:42:18 PM

  1. Prompt: #deca CPU pony wAIfu green, for /mlp/'s /nmp/ (Ongoing)
  2.  
  3. 89
  4.  
  5. >One single thought brings #deca.mare and you to the surface of the moon.
  6. >You find yourself located on the rocky plane of a relatively even area somewhere on the day side.
  7. >A flat landscape, with no hills or pits to speak of.
  8. >Only one minor crater visible in the distance, caused by an impact which lies far in the past.
  9. >Centuries, if not a millennium ago.
  10. >Or possibly more.
  11. >You take a few steps and sense the cragged profile of the moon through your shoes.
  12. >The ground beneath you is laced with rocks and pebbles, but they pose no problem to your plans.
  13. >Much like your previous "trips" to the "outside", you forego the details of wearing any protective gear like a space suit.
  14. >You look to the side.
  15. >#deca.mare materialised about five metres away.
  16. >She is looking upwards, and you follow her gaze.
  17. >The sight of Equestria in the distance greets your eyes.
  18. >To you it looks like a rough gem in space.
  19. >A beauty full of potential, waiting to be brought to the height of its magnificence by the combined efforts of #deca.mare and you.
  20. >And this is why you are here, right now, in this exact place.
  21. >You inspect your latest flight logs and do a little math in your head.
  22. >Then you slightly turn your head to look out it into space, searching for something specific.
  23. >And indeed, you find what you are looking for.
  24. >Between the stars and the darkness, you spot a seemingly unimposing shape, made out of metal and crimson light.
  25. >The ship draws nearer.
  26. >You may not see it explicitly, but you know it is the truth.
  27. >And it means you finally arrive at a point near the position from which you are currently witnessing your own arrival.
  28. >You grin.
  29. >Some things will simply never not be abstract, and situations like this are certainly one of those.
  30. >And yet, they can also be fairly amusing.
  31.  
  32.  
  33.  
  34.  
  35. >It was your idea to repeat your ritual from the first landfall on Equestria, though #deca.mare agreed so quickly with you that you assume she considered the same thing as well.
  36. >But since the actual dropping procedure on the moon is far less challenging from a technical aspect than the previous one, you mutually decided to watch the event from the surface this time around.
  37. >#deca.mare will easily deploy the equipment whilst also staying by your side.
  38. >And in a way, you can see more from here.
  39. >#deca.mare guarantees that watching the impending spectacle with the sensors of your fighters would be far less fascinating than being on site "in person".
  40. "How long?"
  41. >"The mobile units get attached to our ships as we speak. Squad alpha will be here soon. The nexus is on its way to the outer hatch for ejection. It will be released once squad alpha has left the vicinity."
  42. >You nod in silence and recall the plan.
  43. >The nexus will, just like the last time, be carried and brought near the surface by several units within a squad.
  44. >Even with the highly reduced gravity on this satellite, the nexus unit is simply too massive to be delivered by fewer vessels.
  45. >The ships will once again bring the device near the surface and detach it in a certain height.
  46. >And given the obvious lack of an atmosphere, you had to make one further adaption, as you cannot rely on parachutes for a safe landing.
  47. >Your mobile units are a different matter though.
  48. >The engines of your fighters are potent enough to operate decently within the gravity field of the moon, even on moderate to low velocity levels.
  49. >As such, they can virtually fly extremely close to the surface and easily fulfil their task.
  50. >Because once they are in position, the ships momentarily slow down significantly, quickly detach their packages, and pick up speed again as soon as the containers begin their short descent.
  51.  
  52.  
  53.  
  54.  
  55. >You have no reason to worry about the mobile units within; they are aptly protected against the shock of the impact and will dismantle their cage as soon as their successful landing has been confirmed.
  56. >And whilst it may be a bit amusing and possibly even satisfying to see how the units emerge to leave their metal cocoons, the arrival of the nexus is far more fascinating.
  57. >However, you have an idle moment for now, as the automatons are still not quite done yet.
  58. >So you are looking for something else to do in order to pass the time.
  59. >What could you do?
  60. >You think back to the day you released the first batch of seeds on Equestria.
  61. >And moreover, what you did.
  62. >You grin as an idea forms in your head.
  63. "Hey #deca, want to play a game of catch?"
  64. >You do not wait for an answer and rush towards #deca.mare instead.
  65. >Only a couple of seconds later, you have already crossed about half of the distance between the two of you.
  66. >She barely manages to turn her head.
  67. >You leap with moderate force, only to squarely shoot past your mark as the jump propels you several metres higher than you thought.
  68. >And you sail straight above and beyond #deca.mare's position.
  69. "Oh crap!"
  70. >You fly in a perfect arc and land on the rocky ground in a rather inept fashion.
  71. >You even do a half roll before you come to a stop.
  72. >But thankfully, you feel absolutely no pain or uneasiness.
  73. >Courtesy of your friendly simulation.
  74. >You roll over to lie on your back and raise your upper body.
  75. >A hoof softly greets the tip your nose as you sit up.
  76. >"Boop. Caught you."
  77. "Can't argue with that."
  78. >Now it is #deca.mare who snickers.
  79. >"I appreciate the effort though. Your attempt to fly was laudable, if inappropriate."
  80. >You raise an eyebrow.
  81. >But #deca.mare goes on with her quip.
  82. >"But if you are so keen on flight training, would you like to switch for a quick lesson? We have a few minutes to spare."
  83.  
  84.  
  85.  
  86.  
  87. >You spot the catch.
  88. "Very funny. Because wings work great without an atmosphere."
  89. >#deca.mare's expression resembles something that you would interpret as a poker face.
  90. "Admit it, you would have let me float again if I hadn't noticed."
  91. >She shrugs coyly.
  92. >"Maybe?"
  93. >You shake your head in an overtly feigned offended manner.
  94. >"But Anon, you must admit that the sight of a Pegasus trying to fly through the vacuum on the moon would have been a unique moment. This is not something we will see on Equestria."
  95. >You are both amused and slightly miffed by her statement.
  96. >One the one hand, you almost fell for another #deca.mareian prank.
  97. >But on the other, you have to agree with her.
  98. >That sight could have been hilarious.
  99. >You look at the mother ship again.
  100. >You are slowly nearing the moon, yet the vessel is still too far away for you to make out any significant details with the naked eye.
  101. >#deca.mare speaks up before you can request any further details yourself.
  102. >"The first squad is heading out. They will fan out and drop the units in different suitable areas."
  103. >You nod.
  104. >Nothing new so far, as it is similar to your own squad flight back in the day.
  105. >"The nexus gets released... now."
  106. >You squint your eyes to spot any changes.
  107. >No luck.
  108. >"Let me help you with that."
  109. >#deca.mare materialises a pair of goggles right onto your head.
  110. >And even though you cannot see much of them, they do resemble the pair she had made for your avatar, only altered to fit human anatomy.
  111. "Nice, but what shall I do with them?"
  112. >"Use it properly. I did not tell you last time, but they are made of more than just glass and a strap."
  113. >"Oh?"
  114. >A short line of text flares up.
  115. >Module activated: Video Enhancement Goggles.
  116. >Ready to use upon request.
  117. "What the..."
  118. >"Tell it to lock onto the ship. And please try to keep your balance."
  119. >Wondering what will happen next, you do just that.
  120.  
  121.  
  122.  
  123.  
  124. >A minimalist green square appears around the mother ship.
  125. >Only a second later, your vision automatically zooms in to enlarge the image of the ship.
  126. >The sight becomes much clearer.
  127. >Trying your best to ignore the momentary sensual confusion due to the sudden shift in your eyesight, you detect the nexus unit floating in space.
  128. >It is only a few metres away from the hatch yet.
  129. >If the still open blast door on the ship's hull is any indication, the nexus must have left the vessel only a couple of seconds earlier.
  130. >Exactly like #deca.mare said.
  131. >Half a dozen smaller green squares light up on the mother ship's hull, quickly picking speed.
  132. >They dance around, and at first you do not understand what is going on.
  133. >The movement of the rectangles follow no clear pattern, as they do not correlate with any noteworthy system near the exterior shell.
  134. >But then you understand.
  135. >You have just seen the start of squad beta, and the goggles have tracked the signatures of the smaller crafts.
  136. >But they started from the other side of the ship, meaning they are behind the main structure from your own point of view.
  137. >And your conjecture is proven thoroughly correct when the first ship emerges behind the massive hull.
  138. >Squad beta gathers around the nexus.
  139. >Each unit approaches the nexus from a different angle, and you can actually see how their arms make contact with their burly freight.
  140. >Then they stabilise the trajectory with the help of their navigational thrusters and heat up all engine blocks in unison.
  141. >The package is officially on its way to you.
  142. >You reset the vision of the goggles and watch as the image zooms out again.
  143. >It seems as if you are falling out of the scene and back to the moon.
  144. >As a reflex, you take a step backwards and almost lose your balance.
  145. >But #deca.mare intervenes by stabilising you with a hoof.
  146. "Thanks."
  147. >She just smiles in response.
  148.  
  149.  
  150.  
  151.  
  152. >You try to estimate when the freight gets dropped, judging from your own pilot experiences and what you know about the #deca technology.
  153. >But even in the best possible case you can picture, you will remain here for a while.
  154. >So you sit down and invite #deca.mare to join you.
  155. >"So, no floating Pegasus?"
  156. "Sometimes I think you love to make fun of me."
  157. >"Not of you. With you. You thought it would be funny too."
  158. >You sigh.
  159. >#deca.mare and her ideas.
  160. "Hm, maybe later."
  161. >Content with that answer, she finally takes her seat next to you.
  162. "Status?"
  163. >"All according to plan. We can deploy the nexus right here. There should be no inaccuracies."
  164. >You mentally go through the landing plan again.
  165. >You have studied most of the details before you set out; #deca.mare's flight calculations are precise up to the metre.
  166. >Another point in which the absence of an atmosphere helps your cause, as it makes it far easier to predict the outcome.
  167. >Whereas using parachutes and relying on ever changing wind currents is a fickle affair in comparison.
  168. >So the landing should be a smooth one.
  169. >Some minutes later, you sense a gradual change.
  170. >The outline of the incoming nexus appears in your non-augmented vision.
  171. >Although it is still too far away for you to make out anything significant, you can already detect it because of a pulsating shimmer.
  172. >You realise that it is created by the flickering surface as the metallic hull reflects the sunlight in its flight.
  173. "Not much longer. Are you excited?"
  174. >"I am, Anon. This is another important day in our lives."
  175. >And an important day needs...
  176. >The camera already floats by.
  177. >You cannot see it, yet you can somehow feel #deca.mare's winking eye next to you.
  178. >She knew you would think of that.
  179. >And she is practically telling you to go ahead and make some great photos for the album.
  180.  
  181.  
  182.  
  183.  
  184. >You happily grab the camera and prepare it for some quality snapshots.
  185. >"Five minutes, Anon."
  186. "Alright. More than enough time."
  187. >"For what?"
  188. >You give #deca.mare a long, tight hug.
  189. >You hold her for the better part of a minute.
  190. "Don't ask for a reason. I just like to do it."
  191. >Not knowing what to object to in the first place, #deca.mare simply accepts your comment.
  192. >She enjoys those moments as well, after all.
  193. >Both of you get up.
  194. >By now the unit has become much more than just a shiny dot in space.
  195. >So you let your pair of goggles disappear and aim the camera to focus the lens for the first shot.
  196. >Clear sight, breathe in, hold still, breathe out, click.
  197. >A clean one, with the nexus almost perfectly in the centre.
  198. >Yet this does not say much by itself, simply because the camera cannot zoom in like your enhanced goggles did.
  199. >Meaning you made a photo of a starscape with one larger metal object in the centre.
  200. >You initially wish the camera had more than its rather limited functions in this situation.
  201. >However, you change your mind relatively quickly as time goes on.
  202. >Working with the functions are they are is an interesting concept.
  203. >Indeed, not every photo of the nearing nexus will turn out to be perfect with this model.
  204. >But therein lies a unique challenge.
  205. >Because it makes the reward all the sweeter if you do find an exceptional moment to hold on to.
  206. >You take another handful of pictures as the nexus draws near.
  207. >"Fair warning, the squad severs the connection in ten seconds. I suggest we take a few steps back."
  208. >And true to #deca.mare's word, you see the telltale signs of detachment coming up.
  209. >Your units are preparing to let the nexus go, but not before one last course correction.
  210. >The navigational thrusters of all ships simultaneously kick into action to slow the descent of their freight one last time.
  211. >You can tell that they are set to maximum; their short trails are perfectly visible at this low altitude.
  212. >Click.
  213.  
  214.  
  215.  
  216.  
  217. >Then squad beta cuts the connection and turns about, leaving the nexus to its own devices.
  218. >Another click.
  219. >And now it is time to heed #deca.mare's advice.
  220. >Things will get rather dusty soon.
  221. >You quickly turn away from the scene and scurry to get some distance between the landing zone and yourself.
  222. >You would not call it running though, given that the low gravity rather turns your rush into a strange form of hopping from spot to spot.
  223. >After all, you are not going to make the same mistake twice.
  224. >#deca.mare does not fare much better either.
  225. >Her gait resembles a highly exaggerated canter in slow motion in which the slow movement of her legs does seemingly not align with her high speed and wide jump arcs.
  226. "Nice floating. You aren't secretly part deer, are you?"
  227. >#deca.mare answer is a surprised and lightly upset stare.
  228. >You grin and drop the topic.
  229. >She will think of a comeback prank for you, no doubt about that, but at least you got a floating pony joke out of this.
  230. >Even when it did not go exactly as #deca.mare imagined.
  231. >But it is all fun and games at the end of the day.
  232. >You eventually reach a point you deem "safe", and come to a stop, though it takes you several careful steps before you stand completely still.
  233. >#deca.mare likewise has to reduce her momentum gradually for a graceful stop.
  234. >She carefully prances around you a few times.
  235. >Once she has reached a reasonably low speed, you reach out with your free hand and gently intercept her.
  236. >You hold #deca.mare in your arm until she stands firmly on the ground.
  237. >"Thanks."
  238. >You smile.
  239. "Every time."
  240. >Then you shift your attention back to the incoming package.
  241. >Only a few hundred metres remain.
  242. "Anytime now."
  243. >Click.
  244. >A short pause.
  245. >"Now."
  246. >And the last stage of the landing begins right on cue.
  247. >The engine block fitted underneath the nexus comes to life.
  248. >It emanates bright cerulean darting flames as it burns its fuel reserves to brake the massive machine.
  249. >Click.
  250.  
  251.  
  252.  
  253.  
  254. >To a layman, the effort may seem to be in vain at first.
  255. >Yet you are able to observe effects very closely.
  256. >And you can see the shift.
  257. >Subtle during the initial seconds, but becoming increasingly noticeable with each passing moment.
  258. >Eventually, the nexus comes so close that the flames of the engines sweep the ground beneath.
  259. >Dust clouds and smaller rocks are driven in every direction.
  260. >Then, less than ten metres above the surface, the flames start to wither.
  261. >The tank reserves have been depleted.
  262. >Nevertheless, they do not immediately cease to function in their entirety.
  263. >Because the machine is still burning through the very last droplets of fuel.
  264. >It is enough to provide one last boost to dampen the fall.
  265. >Click.
  266. >The last four metres are a complete free fall.
  267. >And given the hefty mass of the nexus, it does regain a fair bit of speed on its way.
  268. >But everything goes according to plan from what you can tell.
  269. >For this has been calculated in #deca.mare's plans too.
  270. >The now inert engine block will take on a secondary function as buffer between the ground and the rest of the machinery.
  271. >It takes the brunt of the impact whereas the vital segments remain, hopefully, undamaged and functional.
  272. >The potential harm to the lower parts are negligible; the unit is not meant to leave the satellite anyway, so there is not point in keeping that system active after the landing.
  273. >Your package makes contact.
  274. >It hits the ground with a respectable force, causing a renewed cloud of stirred up moon dust and rocks.
  275. >You can even sense the impact through your legs as a minor trembling fit is sent through the moon surface.
  276. >The nexus has arrived.
  277. >Its base got slightly shaken and bathed in dust, but the machine is in one piece and fully functional.
  278. >And yet you heard nothing through the entire process.
  279. >No roaring engines, no booming or clanging of metal on rock, nothing.
  280. >The vacuum swallows all sounds, barring your voices.
  281.  
  282.  
  283.  
  284.  
  285. >You take a few more picture from different angles whilst the dust recedes.
  286. >Then you deem to have enough images from the landing.
  287. "Only one thing remains."
  288. >"Oh?"
  289. "Do you want one of us in front of the thing? Just to, you know, remember we were here?"
  290. >Sort of, at least.
  291. >#deca.mare nods.
  292. >"Gladly, Anon. Come."
  293. >She trots towards the unit with you directly following her tracks.
  294. >Once you reach the nexus, the two of you position yourselves for your album photo.
  295. >You casually lean your back against the steep metal wall.
  296. >The camera floats away from your hands, only to stop in a distance of about three metres away from your position.
  297. >And #deca.mare stands closely by your side, hiding one of your legs from the camera.
  298. >You casually put your hand on her lower back, right above the hips.
  299. "Looks good, don't you think?"
  300. >#deca.mare answers without moving her body.
  301. >"Hmhm. I agree."
  302. "Okay then, show the camera a friendly smile."
  303. >Both of you smile at the camera with the friendliest yet also earnest expression that you can muster.
  304. >Not a hard task for either of you.
  305. >This day is a joyous occasion for you, and a huge step towards the full realisation of your project.
  306. >You allow neither shadows nor down feelings to spoil this event.
  307. >And with its task completed, the camera disappears again.
  308. >Five seconds of silence follow.
  309. >Both of you contemplate without saying a word.
  310. >Until #deca.mare speaks up.
  311. >"Anon?"
  312. "Yes, #deca?"
  313. >"I have been thinking about something. A small 'What if' mind game."
  314. "What is it?"
  315. >"Do you sometimes wonder how others may react if they saw our album?"
  316. "Not much. Why?"
  317.  
  318.  
  319.  
  320.  
  321. >"Think about it. If anyone, humans or ponies, it does not matter who, looks at our pictures and sees us like this. Standing in space, or walking on a hull without protection. What would they think?"
  322. "Oh man. Hard to say. Though I guess they could think it's fake."
  323. >"And provided that the authenticity is proven?"
  324. "Hm, then everyone would probably freak out."
  325. >"Why?"
  326. "Ponies would be confused or surprised because I'd be the first human they would see. Maybe they'll chalk me up to a species that ponies just never had any contact with before in Equestria, but then they'd wonder why you would be with me."
  327. >Although the heavy emphasis on space and technology in several of your images would make this theory shaky at best.
  328. >Even if ponies would not understand how exactly your technology works, they would most certainly understand what it is used for.
  329. >"I see. And the humans?"
  330. "Oh, they would fare far worse."
  331. >#deca.mare seems somewhat disappointed by that answer.
  332. >"How so?"
  333. "Our technology is a dead giveaway. People will recognise it, guaranteed."
  334. >She nods, painfully aware of the truth in your words.
  335. >"And again, provided they do not recognise the technology?"
  336. >You sigh.
  337. "Still not very good. They know for a fact that ponies like you do not exist on their worlds, and would therefore consider you to be an alien."
  338. >Which is technically entirely incorrect, but in all due reality harder to explain than the alternative.
  339. >Hell, fabricating a somewhat believable bogus story about friendly alien squids hailing from outer space would probably be easier than explaining #deca.mare's origin.
  340. >Even when you leave out the unpleasant little details.
  341. "But why are you asking? Do you want to make our album public or something?"
  342. >Now it is #deca.mare who sighs.
  343. >"Maybe one day, if we get the opportunity. Far, far in the future."
  344. >She looks at you.
  345. >"But not soon, and of course not without your approval."
  346.  
  347.  
  348.  
  349.  
  350. >#deca.mare turns her gaze to the stars.
  351. >"It is just a dream I fancied in a quiet moment. A story to share, if you will."
  352. >Her voice sounds slightly melancholic.
  353. >You give #deca.mare another long hug, and she buries herself in your embrace in an instant.
  354. "It's a good dream, and I'll help you to make it come to pass one day."
  355. >You do not let go for a long while.
  356. >Maybe you two should consider to take the rest of the day off.
  357. >The work of the last weeks were very fruitful, but now you have to tend to #deca.mare's needs.
  358. >And what could be better than a neat little corner somewhere in Equestra?
  359. "Want me to take you somewhere nice?"
  360. >"Wonderful idea, Anon."
  361. >#deca.mare's answer sounds muffled through the embrace.
  362. >But you understand her well enough.
  363. >So you pick her up and carry her towards the exit.
  364. >You think of a lush green place shortly before the set of doors opens up.
  365. >And your own little corner of the universe obeys your wishes in the blink of an eye.
  366.  
  367.  
  368.  
  369.  
  370. 90
  371.  
  372. >The two of you spend the rest of the day in pure leisure.
  373. >You pick a certain calm little glade somewhere in White Tail Woods.
  374. >It has been a while since you have paid a visit to this particular place.
  375. >And you figure this might be the perfect moment to return to this familiar setting.
  376. >Although you feel no urge to repeat your race with her right now.
  377. >Sure, you would accept the challenge if she asked you to, yet she is just as fond of some rest as you are.
  378. >You create a stitched blanket and place it on the grass.
  379. >Some picnic items would come next, but you do something else before that.
  380. >You walk up to the blanket and lay down, back first.
  381. >And you do not put #deca.mare down in advance.
  382. >She cooperates the whole time by adequately shifting her weight and position as you lower yourself.
  383. >#deca.mare effectively lounges on your chest as your back finally touches the cloth.
  384. >You have no problem to play the part of being her cushion for a while; she will gladly return the favour some time later.
  385. >A couple of baskets filled with delicious goodies follow, and you are set for a lazy afternoon.
  386. >Half a day of doing nothing in particular.
  387. >There is just you, #deca.mare, and some food for you to share.
  388. >The sunny day and the forest do the rest as you mutually dose and relax.
  389. >You might even spend the night here.
  390. >It would not be your first under the open sky.
  391. >Or maybe you consider a tent.
  392. >Not because you need it for any specific reason, but rather to emulate the feeling of a genuine camping trip far off the tracks.
  393. >It may be nothing in comparison to the trek you face out there in space, yet it does not have to be grand to have some merit.
  394. >You feel a weak shift in #deca.mare's body.
  395. >And a small tent takes shape near the edge of the clearing.
  396. >Seems like she appreciates your idea too.
  397. >So it is decided.
  398. >But for now, you just enjoy the rest of the day.
  399. >Though you must admit that you look forward to sharing a sleeping bag with #deca.mare.
  400.  
  401.  
  402.  
  403.  
  404. 91
  405.  
  406. >The next day starts with your normal morning rituals, albeit in an unusual setting.
  407. >You wake up in the tent, lying inside a comfortably stuffed bedroll, and with #deca.mare's body pressed tightly against yours.
  408. >She is still sleeping.
  409. >And although you suspect that this will change fairly quickly, you do not dare to move too much, lest you might to disturb her.
  410. >Maybe a bit of overly vain courtesy, but it feels appropriate in this situation.
  411. >If your choice to abstain from moving around means that she can slumber peacefully for another short while, even if it just minutes, you will gladly hold still for as long as necessary.
  412. >And indeed, #deca.mare does take her time before she eventually begins to stir.
  413. >But everything goes fairly quickly from here on out.
  414. >She shifts and moves, nuzzles your chin with her cheek, and slowly opens her eyes.
  415. "Morning."
  416. >"Good morning, Anon. Slept well?"
  417. "Great as ever. And you?"
  418. >"Hmhm. I cannot complain either. It was refreshing."
  419. >#deca.mare tries to stretch her body, but she does not come very far.
  420. >Her limbs are all more or less blocked by your embrace and the confines of the pretty tight bedroll.
  421. >"Anon, I think we are stuck."
  422. "Oh? We can't be. We got into it together, so we can get out. Let me try."
  423. >You attempt to move your arms.
  424. >With similar results.
  425. >As it turns out, #deca.mare is partially correct.
  426. >Neither of you can get out of the bedroll, at least not without using a great deal of force.
  427. >Or by cheating reality again.
  428. >Unless...
  429. >You grin as you get an idea.
  430. "Let's try something to get out. I have a plan."
  431. >#deca.mare stretches a second time, but she stops shortly after she starts to poke your skin with her hooves.
  432. >"I am open for ideas, Anon."
  433. "I'll push against you first, then you do the same to me. And repeat."
  434. >You laugh.
  435. "Bet we can screw ourselves out of this roll if we do it right. What do you think?"
  436.  
  437.  
  438.  
  439.  
  440. >#deca.mare's hooves flinch weakly.
  441. >And you believe that you hear a faint noise.
  442. >Was that a snicker?
  443. >"I think I should consider to make a list of your quotes with the title 'Things that Anon Said'. We can never know when we might need it."
  444. >Yes, it was a snicker.
  445. >There is no doubt about that anymore.
  446. "Witty. You know what I meant."
  447. >"I know. You propose we can burst the bedroll with some intimacy."
  448. "Playing this game again, are we? Very clever. And how am I supposed to get down there?"
  449. >"No idea, Anon. It was your plan."
  450. >You hear another laugh.
  451. >"Although, if you manage to slip your hand past my..."
  452. "Nope, not having any of that."
  453. >"Aw. A pity."
  454. >You sigh in mild exasperation.
  455. >Of course, #deca.mare is just playing with you.
  456. >Yet sometimes she really manages to test your patience.
  457. >In a good way, but still.
  458. >Thankfully, she knows when to stop.
  459. >"You are right, Anon. We can try it out."
  460. "Okay, I'll start."
  461. >And so you begin to use some force to press your body deliberately against #deca.mare.
  462. >You attempt to make her shift a little bit further out of the bedroll.
  463. >#deca.mare's turn comes shortly thereafter.
  464. >Once you have stopped, she immediately steps in.
  465. >The plan seems to work out.
  466. >You have moved towards the opening.
  467. >Even though it is only a tiny bit, it nevertheless shows that you can do it.
  468. >The two of you proceed to slowly wiggle your way out of your small resting place.
  469. >This leads to some rather interesting moments as you press yourselves even closer to each other with every new turn.
  470. >But it remains the best viable strategy, as everything becomes so much easier when you coordinate your movements in this manner.
  471. >And despite #deca.mare's suggestive banter, neither of you really sees anything special in some potentially compromising poses.
  472.  
  473.  
  474.  
  475.  
  476. >Soon you are able to free your hands.
  477. >And the rest is a trivial matter of mere moments.
  478. >You eventually get out of your bedding and take a seat on the tent floor.
  479. >The tent is wide enough for #deca.mare and you to face each other while you are sitting, yet it lacks the required height for you to stand up properly.
  480. >Not a real problem though, all things considered.
  481. >You spend the next couple of minutes to freshen up yourselves, and partially each other.
  482. >Since you have no mirror or the like, #deca.mare helps you out with your hair, and you do the same with her mane.
  483. >Once you are in a somewhat presentable state, you crawl out of the tent and get to your feet.
  484. >It is early in the morning; at a moment in which the sun has barely risen high enough to peek through the tree tops.
  485. >The air is cool, but not cold, and you can feel a minor baseline moisture in the grass.
  486. >The whole field is drenched in a light layer dew.
  487. >You admire #deca.mare's attention to details once again.
  488. >Even when most of the simulation procedures are run solely by automatons, she did a splendid job to program these procedures to such a high degree of complexity.
  489. >And you think you can appreciate it even more now, as you slowly get a personal idea of how difficult it can be to make these processes in the first place.
  490. >You observe the glade.
  491. >The blanket with the baskets of goodies is still standing where you have left it the day prior.
  492. >It was a neat thing to have, so you find the idea to reuse a basket for breakfast very tempting.
  493. >One thought replaces some of the eaten material.
  494. >And another slightly changes the composition of some other items in order to better reflect what you two usually eat in the morning.
  495. >The loud ruffling sound of the tent flap tells you that #deca.mare is coming out too.
  496. >She has already received your thoughts and agrees before you can even formulate a sentence.
  497. >"A breakfast picnic sounds lovely, Anon."
  498.  
  499.  
  500.  
  501.  
  502. >You smile contently and invite #deca.mare to join you with a motion of your hand.
  503. >She accepts of course, positively beaming while doing so.
  504. >So you two get back to the blanket and unpack your new and carefully selected collection of food.
  505. >A healthy mixture of fruits, sliced bread, as well as jam and honey.
  506. >And just to celebrate the achievements of the past week, you add some light pastries to the end of today's menu.
  507. >Your composition is well received by #deca.mare.
  508. >It may still be impossible for you to directly surprise her with the choices you make in regards to your meals, given that she sees everything in advance.
  509. >Yet that does not mean much by itself.
  510. >In spite of this hard factual limitation, you always strive to get her exited with a creative offer regardless.
  511. >Granted, you must read her mood closely to evaluate what she might love on a particular day, but this too gets easier in your opinion.
  512. >To see #deca.mare enjoying her meals is worth the effort of coming up with something fitting for her.
  513. >Over the months, you gradually came to the realisation that she expresses a kind of silent gratitude that you cannot put into words.
  514. >And sometimes, you even think that it also has a positive effect on your link.
  515. >You believe that you somehow feel better by proxy whenever she does.
  516. >You know this cannot factually be the case, as #deca.mare always treats your health with the utmost priority, no matter how well or ill her own mood is.
  517. >There are so many security mechanisms linked to your pod and its adjacent supply systems that it should run flawlessly even if it were unsupervised for a very long time.
  518. >And yet, in contrast to all of the objective evidence, you somehow come to believe that her mood and mental stability reflect on your own wellbeing.
  519. >No matter how much truth there is to these feelings of yours, you naturally want to give her as many happy moments as you can.
  520. >And from what you can tell, this breakfast is another fond memory for her memoirs.
  521.  
  522.  
  523.  
  524.  
  525. 92
  526.  
  527. >Some time after the breakfast.
  528. >You are still deep within the calm depths of White Tail Woods, resting on your small blanket on a wide glade full of grass and flowers.
  529. >Both of you are lying on your backs, watching the sky above.
  530. >You observe the clouds with a keen eye as they float slowly to the side.
  531. >#deca.mare's hooves dangle in the air again, similar to her pose on the beach.
  532. >But she does not incite more action of a certain intimate kind this time.
  533. >It rather seems as if she thinks about something important whilst being busy with imitating a trot cycle in midair.
  534. >Is she trying to imagine that she is walking on clouds?
  535. >Possibly, but she could have this if she wanted to.
  536. >In mere seconds at that.
  537. >Or maybe she tries to signal something to the sky.
  538. >Unlikely, but who knows?
  539. >It would make sense if there were at least some Pegasi flying above.
  540. >#deca.mare has not said much after your breakfast and subsequent ritualistic conversation.
  541. >And for some reason, you get the impression that you should wait until she starts to say something.
  542. >There might be a breakthrough coming your way.
  543. >Should this be true, then you cannot do anything for her, as you could easily hamper her efforts if you push her artificially.
  544. >Yet you must stay here, in case she really wants to do something for which she might need your help.
  545. >As such, you decide to wait.
  546. >It will be the better choice in the long run, even if you have to idle at the moment.
  547. >You have no idea how long you lie there in the open field.
  548. >All you know is that the sun is shining, the clouds are moving, and the birds are singing.
  549. >Somewhere off your vision.
  550. >And while you are fine with having some more leisure time after the last week, the scenery starts to feel... somewhat monotonous.
  551.  
  552.  
  553.  
  554.  
  555. >You would not call it boring or dull, especially not with your lover directly by your side.
  556. >But it is fairly off-putting when you realise that you have memorised the cyclic pattern in which the clouds occur in the sky.
  557. >At some point, you begin to let one of your arms wander around too.
  558. >The back of your hand touches #deca.mare's side for the fracture of a second.
  559. >But the touch was long enough to unintentionally break the trail of thoughts in her mind.
  560. >"I am sorry, Anon. I got carried away by my musings."
  561. "Yeah, I figured. Hope I didn't interrupt anything important."
  562. >"Maybe a little bit, but essentially no."
  563. >You do not quite understand what she means.
  564. >"On purpose or not, you did the right thing. I should not have kept you waiting for this long."
  565. "Eh, I gladly take the time, don't worry."
  566. >"No more delays though. I made my decision."
  567. >Things get serious, you can tell this much outright.
  568. >So you sit up straight and look at her.
  569. "Okay, I'm all ears. What decision are you talking about?"
  570. >"In a moment. But a question first. Do you know what comes next on our list of projects for Equestria?"
  571. >You ponder this question for a moment.
  572. "Hm, good question. Introducing some more specimen, perhaps?"
  573. >"In a while, but not now. No, I mean things we can do today. Right here."
  574. "No idea then."
  575. >"Exactly. Because the answer is nothing, Anon."
  576. >This surprises you to a great degree.
  577. "Come again?"
  578. >"There is nothing we can actively do in this sector at the moment to further our causes for Equestria. We have established a base on the planet, as well as on the moon. Both need more time before we can initialise the next stages, and I have already laid out the projected plans for the next five phases of each."
  579. >You have to agree, this is an exhaustive list.
  580. >So there is really nothing else to do in this regard.
  581. >Unless you focus on a certain more touchy subject.
  582. >"I see you get the idea, Anon. That was exactly what I thought of the whole time."
  583.  
  584.  
  585.  
  586.  
  587. >Oh dear.
  588. >No wonder she took this long to say something to you.
  589. >And you are, mildly put, not exactly convinced that the right moment has come this quickly.
  590. >The question of #deca.mare's possible overconfidence aside, you also have no dock at the moment, and no other space or orbital installations to work with.
  591. >It would probably be better if you can convince her to focus more on other training sessions until Equestria needs your attendance once again.
  592. >At least for a while.
  593. >"No worries about that, Anon. We are nowhere near... that point yet."
  594. >A short pause.
  595. >"But we can plan things instead. In fact, we have to take a whole lot of measures for this scheme to work out. And I would like to start with those preparations next."
  596. >You focus on #deca.mare's eyes and take a hard, long look to check whether you find any hints of doubt.
  597. >None.
  598. >They convey a zeal you have never seen before.
  599. >It is a serious urge from what you can tell, yet it does not look like she is harbouring any grim resolution within.
  600. >A somewhat saddened seriousness, granted, but this is unavoidable in this situation.
  601. >You agree reluctantly.
  602. "Okay. Let's do this next."
  603. >You can see that #deca.mare tries to say something.
  604. >However, you have to add one more thing before you let her speak.
  605. "But, and this is important, if you ever feel like you have to take a break, tell me, yes? The work isn't worth it if you get hurt."
  606. >She hesitates for a second before she gives you an answer.
  607. >"Of course. We have been over this."
  608. >Her reply is too short for you this time.
  609. >This has the potential to become a critical operation very quickly, so it is absolutely crucial that both of you are able to manage every single step of the mission with relative ease.
  610. >You do not want to take any chances.
  611. "Promise?"
  612. >#deca.mare reacts a little skittish upon your second enquiry.
  613. >You assume that she sees the concerned virtue behind your insistence, even though it puts her under a modicum of pressure at the moment.
  614.  
  615.  
  616.  
  617.  
  618. >You are doing it for a very good reason though.
  619. >If she folds now, then you have a sure proof that your goal is still very far away.
  620. >Not that you are actively trying to promote this outcome, of course.
  621. >You want #deca.mare to succeed, very much so in fact, but checking her is simply a necessity.
  622. >And to your relief, she does prevail in the face of the first hurdle.
  623. >"Yes Anon, I promise. Do you want me to cross my heart?"
  624. "No. Because you won't lose me as a friend over this."
  625. >You sigh.
  626. "I just don't want to see how things might go south, you know?"
  627. >This calms her down to a degree, and she gives you a wordless hug.
  628. >#deca.mare does not like to see you worried.
  629. >Likewise do you not want her to be distraught.
  630. >That should make it easy for you two to make each other happy, right?
  631. "If it only were that easy."
  632. >#deca.mare silences you with a kiss.
  633. >And she is right.
  634. >Mulling over it will not get you anywhere.
  635. >"Begin in thirty minutes?"
  636. "Alright. And you've got some suggestions already, eh?"
  637. >"I do, sort of. But those are not as elaborate as my other plans."
  638. "How so? That doesn't sound like you, #deca."
  639. >"Because I must know how many tasks you are willing to accept, Anon."
  640. >#deca.mare goes on.
  641. >"Fair warning though, some of them are more straining than what you are used to do on a regular basis. But I need your fully dedicated help for those tasks."
  642. >Sounds like some of those operations are either overly complex, or might push your brain beyond comfortable limits again.
  643. >And you also understand what she tries to tell you without saying it out loud.
  644. >She cannot rely on her own steady performance, as she cannot guarantee her reliability.
  645. >The situation is similar to your risky excursion to #deca.sigma.
  646. >Which means you have to be her backup once more.
  647. "I do them all."
  648. >"Anon, you do not even know what my plans are."
  649. "Don't have to. I'll do it."
  650. >"Are you sure? How can you say that so qui..."
  651. "By saying it. My last word."
  652.  
  653.  
  654.  
  655.  
  656. >A comfortable little thought crosses your mind.
  657. "And if it knocks me on my arse again, we'll simply go on another vacation afterwards."
  658. >"Yes, we can do that. Although I prefer to not let it go this far."
  659. >You smile reassuringly and put a hand around #deca.mare's shoulder.
  660. "Hey, it didn't kill me back then, and it won't kill me the next time. I will be fine."
  661. >Inconvenient as it was to go through that recovery, you mean what you just said.
  662. >"So, this is settled?"
  663. "It is."
  664. >Your grin widens.
  665. "And now to something else. We've got half an hour left, and I know what we can do until we get back to work."
  666. >"And what is that, Anon?"
  667. "Hm..."
  668. >Wait for it.
  669. "... how about..."
  670. >You wait another second.
  671. "...grass tussle!"
  672. >Then, you suddenly roll over to #deca.mare.
  673. >In one swift move, you place your hands next to each side of her head.
  674. >You look her directly in the eye and pin her underneath you in the process.
  675. >She smiles.
  676. >"Clever, but also unfair."
  677. "Oh come on, it's not like you don't have an unfair advantage too. Think of the strength of your hooves!"
  678. >"Hm, you are right."
  679. >And to prove the point you conveniently made for her, #deca.mare quickly winds her forehooves around your arms and simply causes you to keel over with one gentle, yet firm yank.
  680. >Now she is on top, and it is up to you find a way out.
  681. >You thank your lucky stars that you know where she is ticklish.
  682. >So you will not spend the next thirty minutes with her lounging on you like this.
  683. >In fact, you are confident to get on top very quickly again.
  684. >Until #deca.mare finds the next trick.
  685. >Then you invent the next one, and so on.
  686. >Whoever is on top when the thirty minutes are over, wins.
  687. >The prize?
  688. >Neither of you knows yet.
  689. >You will see when you are there.
  690. >The fun and the contest are the things that count for you two.
  691. >And it could possibly evolve into more than a little tussle.
  692. >After all, you are already rolling in the grass anyway.
  693.  
  694.  
  695.  
  696.  
  697. 93
  698.  
  699. >Phase one commences.
  700. >You take control of a fighter craft in the hangar, shortly before it is shot into space.
  701. >You brace yourself for the impending abrupt acceleration and wait for the telltale signals of departure.
  702. >Blast doors open up, and clamps are loosened.
  703. >You have learned this process by heart.
  704. >Three.
  705. >Two.
  706. >One.
  707. >Take off.
  708. >You do not even blink with a proverbial eye as the walls around the opening into space begin to move and disappear entirely.
  709. >Instead, you ride the momentum as if it were natural to you.
  710. >#deca.mare opens a comm channel.
  711. >"Alright. You know what to look out for."
  712. "Yep. I'll keep my eyes open."
  713. >"So do I. Happy hunting, Anon."
  714. "You too, #deca."
  715. >A short message on your tactical screen informs you that another eleven ships have been added to your wing.
  716. >#deca.mare has assigned their control to you.
  717. >You order them to fall in line.
  718. >Diamond formation, with all jumpdrives synchronised for the first jump.
  719. >Your radar detects another diamond cluster that leaves the vicinity of the mother ship to fly in the opposite direction.
  720. >#deca.mare's wing.
  721. >Once again, you have created a little contest between the two of you.
  722. >Knowing beforehand that you have to go on a scavenger hunt of sorts, you placed bets on who will get the prize first.
  723. >The winner gets a massage at a location of choice.
  724. >"Heads up, the sweep is incoming."
  725. >A subtle audible whir indicates that the mother ship is performing a profound long-range scan of the sector.
  726. >You immediately receive the intel and transfer the data to your sector map.
  727. >It processes the information and translates it into small blips on the grid, showing all registered signals.
  728. >These are quite a number.
  729. >But thankfully, you are only responsible for one half of them.
  730. >At least in theory.
  731.  
  732.  
  733.  
  734.  
  735. >You do not get to ponder this thought for very long, however.
  736. >Receiving the data marks the official start of your hunt, and #deca.mare will not linger.
  737. >And not only that, she is also very efficient as well.
  738. >A tough opponent to face, but not impossible to beat with a small streak of luck.
  739. >As much as you enjoy to knead the stress out of your mare's body until she lies flat like a pancake and looks twice as relaxed, you are in to win this.
  740. >And sure enough, #deca.mare's neatly organised formation disappears in one uniform light of a dozen emerging corridors.
  741. >Oh no, you will not grant her a head start this early on.
  742. >You immediately order your wing to jump as well.
  743. >A few seconds pass before the usual happens.
  744. >Flash, light corridor, flash, and lots of rocks afterwards.
  745. >You have jumped straight to an asteroid cluster nearby.
  746. >You confirm your position on the sector map and order your ships to fan out.
  747. >Each has the task to locate and scan one of the marked blips, and to send the results to you.
  748. >All vessels obey, including the one you are currently "piloting".
  749. >Despite being de facto in control of the vessel, you do not fly it, or any other ship in your squad for that matter, on your own.
  750. >You rather monitor all of them at once to check their progress and findings in real time.
  751. >And you plan their flight routes in advance to cover a high number of targets as swiftly as possible.
  752. >So you effectively stare at a wild accumulation of different screens and video feeds, with your ship's main vision being depicted in the background.
  753. >One ship arrives at the first blip.
  754. >The target is a massive asteroid of more than a kilometre in diameter.
  755. >An impressive sight, even through a small camera screen amongst several different video feeds.
  756. >But the question is, are you looking at your prize?
  757. >Size alone is not enough; the overall signature and composition have to be appropriate as well.
  758. >Mineral scan.
  759.  
  760.  
  761.  
  762.  
  763. >The object consists almost entirely of rock, only minimal traces of different ores and other materials are present.
  764. >Fairly unspectacular with no signature to speak of.
  765. "Nope."
  766. >You order the ship to fly to the next target.
  767. >Only a few seconds later, another vessel has spotted the next blip.
  768. >Another larger asteroid.
  769. >You follow the same pattern as before.
  770. >Approach, scan, evaluate.
  771. >And another dud, sadly.
  772. >Nothing you can do about it, so you move on.
  773. >Target, after target, after target.
  774. >All of them sizable asteroids, yet every single one of them bombs under scrutiny.
  775. >You have no idea how much time has passed since you took off, but at some point you realise that you have already cleared one third of your list without finding what you are looking for.
  776. >You sigh mentally.
  777. >You reach out to #deca.mare via a comm channel.
  778. "How are you doing?"
  779. >"So far? Not much better either. I found some... hold on."
  780. >Sounds like she found something interesting.
  781. >You wait in silence and check on your own ships in the meantime.
  782. >"Ah, this one is a bust as well. But it is rich in ore veins. I will mark it as a potential source for later extraction."
  783. "Yep, found a few of those too."
  784. >A silver lining, all things considered.
  785. >It is always good to have a few fallback sources at hand.
  786. >Still, you are here for something else.
  787. >A task you have not completed yet.
  788. >"Have patience, Anon. We will find a suitable candidate."
  789. >You do not doubt that.
  790. >However, you quietly ask yourself how many asteroids you have to scan to find a correct one.
  791. >Needles and haystacks, as the saying goes.
  792. >The comm channel goes silent for a brief moment.
  793. >But the connection returns before you can wonder what might have happened.
  794. >"You will get your chance to massage me soon enough."
  795. >So that was it.
  796. >#deca.mare has muted herself for a short while so that you cannot hear her laughter.
  797. >Sneaky idea, but obvious in hindsight.
  798. >And a blatant attempt to motivate you to boot.
  799. >But her banter works on you.
  800.  
  801.  
  802.  
  803.  
  804. >You better keep it together if you want to maintain your chance of winning a massage.
  805. >So you proceed exactly as before.
  806. >At times, you chat a few lines with #deca.mare.
  807. >Both to keep yourselves entertained and your spirits high.
  808. >She seems to know exactly when you need a little jest, and you occasionally return the favour as well.
  809. >The two of you easily pass the time you need to complete the second third of your list.
  810. >You have no way of knowing how far she has come with hers already, but you figure that she has not found anything either up to this point.
  811. >Because you doubt that #deca.mare would let you search on with the impression of still having a chance to win if that were not the case.
  812. >And whilst it would provide you with two usable agents to work with, the frustration on your part would not be worth it.
  813. >The next blip.
  814. >Coming into range, mineral scan, waiting for results.
  815. >Pending.
  816. >Pending.
  817. >Pending.
  818. >Match.
  819. >On to the next... wait, what?
  820. >You tell your squad to hold position and wait for further orders.
  821. >Then you focus your entire attention to the mineral report in front of you.
  822. >Asteroid, celestial object.
  823. >Several traces of ore and silicon found in the structure.
  824. >Matching preset search parameters: 96.3%.
  825. >Structural integrity: Verified.
  826. >Usage in proposed operation: Valid.
  827. >You laugh like a boy who just got the birthday present he always wanted, and open the comm channel.
  828. "Hey #deca, I send you the coordinates to my massage ticket."
  829. >True to your word, you send the report directly to the mother ship.
  830. >"Outstanding work, Anon! I am on my way."
  831. >She sounds earnestly delighted by your discovery.
  832. >Yes, you really were the first to find a winner.
  833. >You order the other eleven ships to proceed with scanning their latest target and to fly to your "ticket" asteroid afterwards if their scans are negative.
  834. >Who knows, perhaps you find a second one right on top.
  835. >You idle in the sector as you wait for #deca.mare to make the next move.
  836.  
  837.  
  838.  
  839.  
  840. >A massive piercing flare tells you all you need to know.
  841. >You take a look at the radar and see the signature of the mother ship in the distance.
  842. >You turn your vessel around to get a direct view.
  843. >And you do not even need to zoom in to know what is about to happen next.
  844. >A third squad, of normal size this time, is heading out.
  845. >These six ships are flying towards your asteroid, each bearing a small cube with a certain familiar reading.
  846. >Of course, #deca.mare has told you that she would use them for the project, but it has been quite a while since you have seen the field generators in action.
  847. >That demonstration seems like an eternity ago.
  848. >"I will take it from here. You can return home and receive your massage any time, Anon."
  849. >Normally you could just wish yourself "back" on board, but #deca.mare knows that you rather prefer to fly home in the proper way.
  850. "Okay. But don't push the button without me. I want to see the results of our work here."
  851. >"Sure."
  852. >You check your squad status.
  853. >All ships are either already in formation, or on their way to you.
  854. >None of them has found a second lucky draw.
  855. >Oh well.
  856. >You relieve all ships from your squad and tell them to head home on their own.
  857. >Eleven confirmations later, you take control of your host vessel to steer it back personally.
  858. >You land in your allotted docking bay and watch as the craft gets fixated by a pair of clamps.
  859. >Once everything is secured, the ship is ferried deeper into the hangar.
  860. >Business as usual.
  861. >But you do not return to the command deck just yet.
  862. >For you have a different idea.
  863. >You mentally untie yourself from your host ship.
  864. >And as the world blurs away, you "materialise" your body right on top of the landed craft.
  865. >You sit down on the central module as it is slowly brought to its destination.
  866. >In order to compensate the relative poor lighting in these corridors, you mentally activate the emergency lights.
  867. >Everything is filled with crimson shades once more, just as you remember it.
  868.  
  869.  
  870.  
  871.  
  872. >Naturally, #deca.mare notices all of your actions.
  873. >"Anon, what do you have in mind?"
  874. "A small trip for fun and the memories. Meet me where you have picked me up."
  875. >Clearly not sure what exactly you are up to yet, she answers with a single word.
  876. >"Understood."
  877. >You are nearing a certain wall.
  878. >It marks the end of your little trip on the ship.
  879. >But this is fine for you, as you know where to go and what to do.
  880. >You wait until the pen has reached the end of the railway before you jump off.
  881. >And this time you have not forgotten to think of the lower gravity.
  882. >You take a leap and land elegantly on the metal floor.
  883. >Then you face the wall and look for the entrance to the maintenance tunnel.
  884. >Bowing down once more to fit through the small shaft, you follow the route you have taken the first time.
  885. >You do not need to rely on any map or the like to find your way.
  886. >All thanks to the studies under #deca.mare's guidance and the months you have spent working with the technology on board.
  887. >It automatically made you learn the plan of most corridors and sections by heart.
  888. >Plus, #deca.mare has given you a detailed tour through the ship; it would feel pretty embarrassing if you got lost now.
  889. >Your worries are unfounded though, as you eventually reach the opening that leads to the main corridor.
  890. >And it is also so much easier to travel without the bulky space suit.
  891. >However, something unexpected happens.
  892. >The iron mesh opens up before you tell it to do so.
  893. >You quickly find out why.
  894. >A maintenance unit enters the tunnel, en route to some post in a different segment of the ship.
  895. >And it is coming directly to you.
  896. >You instinctively look the other way to see how you can evade the thing.
  897. >But the next intersection is a few dozen metres away.
  898. >You will not make it in time.
  899.  
  900.  
  901.  
  902.  
  903. >And as your mind slowly realises that you are not really there, the unit simply ends the issue as it phases through your body and remains on its merry way, completely unaffected by your "presence" in the shaft.
  904. "Oh man, that didn't happen the first time."
  905. >Yes, because I actively cleared the way for you back then, Anon.
  906. >#deca.mare's voice comes from within your own mind.
  907. >She did not open a channel and her physical form is apparently still nowhere nearby.
  908. >Though it would be unwise to relay the schedules and movement patterns again just because you take a walk of sorts.
  909. >She is right, of course.
  910. >And you would have figured that out yourself if you only had a few seconds more to evaluate your situation.
  911. >Realistically speaking, you would not have been in any real danger even if you were present with a physical manifestation.
  912. >These units do have collision detectors after all, and would stop if something blocks the way.
  913. >Unless it would a hostile signature, of course.
  914. >But knowing that you do not fall into this category either, you leave the matter as it is.
  915. >You face the opening from whence the unit came and scramble out the narrow system.
  916. >The central corridor greets you in all its broad and crimson glory.
  917. >You take a look around.
  918. >There is some kind of machine in the distance, moving away from you as far as you can tell.
  919. >A shade you cannot identify in this light, yet you assume it must be a transportation unit.
  920. >Probably with a container or two in tow.
  921. >A certain voice speaks to you once more.
  922. >Astute assumption, Anon.
  923. >But turn around now.
  924. >You do as she asks.
  925. >And indeed, you spot another unit on this side of the corridor.
  926. >This one is heading in your direction, just like the maintenance machine in the small tunnel.
  927. >Though something is unusual about it.
  928. >The contraption clearly carries some freight of sorts, but it does not look like a container.
  929.  
  930.  
  931.  
  932.  
  933. >And much to your surprise, you recognise what exactly you are observing as the vehicle draws nearer with a respectable speed.
  934. >#deca.mare is standing firmly on the platform, her four legs spread in a wide stance to ensure her balance.
  935. >Unlike you back in the day, she is not stabilised by any clamps.
  936. >And she is looking directly at you the whole time, not wavering even once.
  937. >Really, the sight reminds you of a ruler riding in on a chariot.
  938. >If it were not for the fact that she is your lover, and basically piggybacking a glorified transporter, that image might have worked.
  939. >#deca.mare gradually reduces the speed of her vehicle shortly before she arrives at your position.
  940. >It stops almost right in front of you.
  941. >"Before you ask, no. I did not assign a unit for a taxi run. It is as corporeal or incorporeal as we are."
  942. >#deca.mare smiles.
  943. >"But since you asked me to come here, I figured you might want to relive some more of your memories."
  944. "Heh, you make it sound as if it has been an eternity ago."
  945. >"Truth be told, it somehow felt like it from your perspective."
  946. "Hm, maybe it did."
  947. >Did it really though?
  948. >Granted, these memories have a certain personal value to you.
  949. >But you cannot imagine that their intensity was this high.
  950. >Or maybe it just seemed like it to #deca.mare.
  951. >Her own affinity regarding happy memories may have amplified her emotional perception of your thoughts.
  952. >And these moments are, seen in hindsight, certainly cheery ones.
  953. >Regardless of whether your past self would agree with that assessment or not.
  954. >#deca.mare considers this too.
  955. >"You think my judgement was impaired by my own emotions?"
  956. "Don't know for sure."
  957. >You laugh as you contemplate the scene a bit.
  958. "You made one hell of an entrance though."
  959. >A silly thought comes to your mind.
  960. "Say, have you considered to welcome me like this on the day we met?"
  961. >"You mean me riding the unit that picked you up?"
  962. "Yep."
  963.  
  964.  
  965.  
  966.  
  967. >#deca.mare seems slightly amused by the thought, yet she shakes her head eventually.
  968. >"No. This would have been impractical."
  969. "Really? You already had your body back then."
  970. >"Indeed. But it is kept safely inside a pod in the laboratory. You know that."
  971. >This is true, though you decide to push the matter further anyway.
  972. >Both as a thought experiment, but also for your own amusement.
  973. >And #deca.mare seems to play along willingly.
  974. "Yes, and?"
  975. >"And even my body cannot exist without life support. Which means I can only operate within the command deck and the laboratory."
  976. >A pause.
  977. >"As a pony, at least."
  978. >For a brief period of time you think that the conversation might take a turn for the worse, but #deca.mare averts that issue quickly.
  979. >"Besides, we do not have any mare shaped space suits on board. So all areas without oxygen are barred to me too."
  980. >You notice a slight shift in her voice, although you are not certain why.
  981. >Was she thinking of something else for a moment?
  982. >Anyway, you go on.
  983. "Unless you move around in a pod."
  984. >"Correct, Anon. Both of us could theoretically move everywhere within such a device. But I prefer to keep you where you are. There is no better place for you on the ship."
  985. >You silently replace the word better with safer in your mind.
  986. >Still, her point is reasonable.
  987. >#deca.mare could afford to risk her body, whereas you do not have that luxury.
  988. >But to hell with the bad thoughts.
  989. >You grin as you formulate your next comment.
  990. "You could have done that though. Going all cyber freak on me and so on."
  991. >#deca.mare sighs.
  992. >"Anon, now you are wholly fatuous on purpose. You know perfectly well how upset and on edge you were on the first day."
  993. >You take it as a sign to stop your little game right here.
  994. "Okay, I behave now."
  995. >One last little smirk escapes your lips.
  996. "Provided I get my promised massage."
  997. >"Sure. You earned it. Now, where do you want to go?"
  998.  
  999.  
  1000.  
  1001.  
  1002. >Your finger points at the transport unit.
  1003. "I feel like taking a ride around this place."
  1004. >That makes #deca.mare blink several times.
  1005. >"You want to drive around in the ship during the massage?"
  1006. "Yeah. Is that a problem?"
  1007. >"Not at all. It is just not what I expected."
  1008. "Eh, I think I need to spend some more time in here. These halls are now just as much of a part of me as Equestria has become. Possibly even more so."
  1009. >#deca.mare does not answer outright, but you can tell that she appreciates your reasoning.
  1010. >The smile on her face is practically giving it away.
  1011. >And it does not take a genius to tell why she prefers you to enjoy being inside these corridors rather than getting afraid or something else of that nature.
  1012. >So she steps aside to materialise a couch for you.
  1013. >"Then hop aboard, Anon. The #deca cruise is ready to move out."
  1014. >You play along, step on the transporter, and lie down on the couch, exposing your back to #deca.mare and resting your head on your folded arms in the process.
  1015. >You watch the long rounded corridor in front of you as the unit slowly starts to accelerate.
  1016. >"And I have not forgotten your other request."
  1017. >A small screen appears next to your vision.
  1018. >It depicts a live footage of the large lone asteroid you have found.
  1019. >None of your vessels are in sight; they have already retreated to the hangar.
  1020. >"The field generators are in place. The extraction can begin as soon as you give the word."
  1021. >You focus your attention on the screen and take one long look at your target.
  1022. "You're fine with doing the next step without my help?"
  1023. >"Naturally. The next phase is like foal's play to me."
  1024. >She is probably right, given that you are not in the critical part of the project yet.
  1025. "Okay. Let's hit it."
  1026. >The screen shows a short line of confirmation.
  1027. >The command has reached the field generators.
  1028. >#deca.mare's hooves carefully touch your skin as you witness how the conduit gradually begins to take shape.
  1029.  
  1030.  
  1031.  
  1032.  
  1033. >The generators provide the energy, whilst the stabilisers keep the pattern intact.
  1034. >It may be all in your imagination, but it seems to you as if #deca.mare's movements match the process on the screen.
  1035. >She starts with subtle and weak moves, and slowly builds up a gentle, stable pressure.
  1036. >Likewise do the energy readings on the screen increase in a similar fashion.
  1037. >And only a short time later, you can even see some light distortions with your very eyes.
  1038. >All due to the sheer energy you require to affect such a large object.
  1039. >It is time soon.
  1040. >You observe everything with anticipation from your improvised rolling massage bed.
  1041. >And #deca.mare watches too, despite her "kneading duty".
  1042. >Of course she does.
  1043. >And you would not have it any other way; it would be highly unfair to her if she did not attend this moment.
  1044. >Then it happens.
  1045. >The bar on the screen reaches one hundred percent.
  1046. >And right on cue, half a dozen new light sources flare up.
  1047. >Their outburst is so overpowering that you cannot see anything else on the screen.
  1048. >A good sign.
  1049. >Less than a second later, the spectacle dissolves just as fast as it has appeared.
  1050. >The light is gone.
  1051. >And it has taken the large asteroid with it.
  1052. >Only a blank spot in space remains.
  1053. >#deca.mare's hooves freeze for a moment.
  1054. >Silence.
  1055. "Uhm, #deca?"
  1056. >"A moment, please. Waiting for the report to finish."
  1057. >Another quiet split second.
  1058. >But to you it feels like it is dragging on for much longer.
  1059. >A tiny pessimistic voice inside tells you that something might have gone wrong.
  1060. >Something which might invalidate all you have done today.
  1061. >Yet you tell that voice to get lost and hope for the best.
  1062. >#deca.mare takes a relieved breath.
  1063. >"Success."
  1064.  
  1065.  
  1066.  
  1067.  
  1068. >You too exhale a breath of air of which you were not even aware that you held it.
  1069. "Everything went as planned?"
  1070. >"Almost. The trajectory around the moon is a little unstable, so we have to assist on the spot."
  1071. >You try to turn around and look at #deca.mare.
  1072. >But she blocks your next question before you can even formulate it properly.
  1073. >"No worries, I can do this part alone."
  1074. >Her hooves gently wrap around your head and turn your gaze to the corridor in front of you.
  1075. >"All you have to do is to lie down and enjoy your hard earned massage."
  1076. >Well, you cannot complain about that.
  1077. >And you consider to do the same for her later on.
  1078. >You are technically not "required to", according to your little game, but neither do the rules exclude your service if you do it voluntary outside the match, right?.
  1079. >So you rest your chin on your arms again and take in the moving corridor all around you.
  1080. >You see every intersection along the way, spot some containers that are deposited near a wall for later use here and there, and sometimes, just sometimes, you even encounter another unit or two.
  1081. >The real deal, if you will.
  1082. >They usually pass by or take a different turn, but it is nevertheless fascinating to see these activities happening all around you.
  1083. >They happen every day, and to varying degrees in virtually all segments of the ship.
  1084. >Yet you are barely there to witness them, unless it serves an educational purpose.
  1085. >After all, watching a machine ferry some boxes is not exactly peak science, the required knowledge to build the whole thing notwithstanding.
  1086. >Still, it remains a vital and permanent part of your existence now.
  1087. >As such, it only feels right to personally inspect these essential mechanisms at work from time to time.
  1088. >Just like you do now.
  1089. >And so the two of you drive on, through the corridor, and further into the future.
  1090.  
  1091.  
  1092.  
  1093.  
  1094. 94
  1095.  
  1096. >A heavy blast door opens right in front of you.
  1097. >It slowly reveals one of the many storage segments within the ship.
  1098. >The rectangular room is filled with different containers of all known standard sizes.
  1099. >All of the containers are systematically separated into their respective cargo classes, and placed as stacks in designated areas within the hall.
  1100. >And the distance between the conglomerations of boxes is kept long enough to provide sufficient space for transport units to efficiently move between the stacks.
  1101. >But apart from that necessary concession of space to logistics, the storage is designed to cram as much material into it as physically possible.
  1102. >And to provide some more security and stability, the structures are also attached to the ground and to each other as a safety measure in case of unexpected shifts or vibrations.
  1103. >More or less what you would expect from a typical cargo bay.
  1104. >Additionally, a small display is located underneath the lock of each container, depicting a brief description of what is stored inside the individual units.
  1105. >This feature is technically useless for #deca.mare, due to the fact that she is perfectly aware of all inventory lists at all times, but it is an obvious remnant of terran origin, technology and design.
  1106. >There simply was no other standard, and she has apparently never bothered to make one of her own.
  1107. >The result of this effective but also somewhat homelike style is a firmly stuffed interior which just gives you enough room to feel neither constricted nor lost.
  1108. >And even though you can only see relatively narrow walkways and lots and lots of crates, the sight does not strike you as unpleasant and cramped.
  1109. >Everything has its own order and #deca.mare's way of doing things has been proven to be successful for centuries.
  1110. >However, you are here for a very specific reason.
  1111. >Or rather, a very large, highly specific, and especially salient item.
  1112.  
  1113.  
  1114.  
  1115.  
  1116. >One which is, if the laws of physics do not betray you right now, probably not in this area.
  1117. "Uh, did we take a wrong turn at some point?"
  1118. >"No. This is the right way. We have to cross the section to reach it."
  1119. "Alright."
  1120. >The two of you begin to walk though the cargo bay and past your freight.
  1121. >Some of the smaller containers are just little caskets that you could carry easily in your arms.
  1122. >And the other end of the spectrum consists of bulky reinforced steel cases of several metres, both in height and width.
  1123. >Even with the relatively low gravity on board, they can probably weigh a tonne and more when filled with a particularly heavy material.
  1124. >You follow a lane until you face one stack of medium sized units that are piled up close to the centre of the room.
  1125. >Walkways lead around it in a square, so you can turn to either side to get around the obstacle.
  1126. >Four straight lanes diverge from this central junction, with one way heading to each wall.
  1127. >"We need to get to the opposite side."
  1128. >You nod.
  1129. "How far?"
  1130. >"To the end. There is a short transit corridor to a smaller cargo area."
  1131. "Really now?"
  1132. >"I was not kidding when I told you that I had to store it in a secondary section."
  1133. "I know. Though to shove it this far into the fringe? That feels kinda insulting to me."
  1134. >"Not my intention, Anon. I simply decided to safeguard it there because the machine does not offer any viable use to us in its current state. We have to put some extensive work into this restoration to ensure a faultless performance."
  1135. >You do not exactly like the tone of these words, despite the fact that #deca.mare is completely right.
  1136. >A slight shiver runs down your spine.
  1137. "Believe me, nobody knows this better than I do."
  1138. >#deca.mare and you pass the stack and follow the opposite lane.
  1139. >True to her word, there is a smaller opening to another corridor.
  1140. >The construction is still large enough for transport units to traverse with ease, yet significantly lower than the hall you are currently in.
  1141.  
  1142.  
  1143.  
  1144.  
  1145. >Though you cannot see the other room yet.
  1146. >A minor metal door blocks your sight, set about one metre into the tunnel.
  1147. >#deca.mare approaches the barrier and halts directly in front of it, and you stop closely behind her.
  1148. >But nothing happens.
  1149. >The corridor does not open up.
  1150. >You feel that something else is coming before you enter.
  1151. >And #deca.mare wanted to emit exactly this impression, it seems.
  1152. >"Only one short disclaimer before we go there. It is not as bad as it looks, Anon."
  1153. >Unsurprisingly, such a statement does exactly what it is meant to prevent.
  1154. >Because now you get the dreaded feeling that you are going to see something horrible.
  1155. "Oh mercy, what on Earth have you done?"
  1156. >"Something we would have been forced to do anyway, really. It is better if you see it for yourself."
  1157. >An unspoken command unlocks the passage before you.
  1158. >The metal slides to the side and opens the passage to the second cargo area.
  1159. >This segment is significantly smaller than the other one, but it can nevertheless be used in the same way as its larger counterpart.
  1160. >Yet you barely see any boxes on this room.
  1161. >A few containers are scattered here and there, but you estimate that there are less than a dozen in the room.
  1162. >The largest portion of the space is blocked by something else.
  1163. >And what you see makes your blood freeze for a moment, whilst the time seemingly comes to an abrupt standstill.
  1164. >For you eye your fighter.
  1165. >The M3 you have piloted on that certain day.
  1166. >But it is not in the same state in which you have left it.
  1167. >Very far from it, in fact.
  1168. >Your vessel has been partially dismantled by #deca.mare.
  1169. >The main hull has been divided into three different segments; the two engine blocks have been separated from the main module with the cockpit and most of the other electronics.
  1170. >And all three blocks are held a few metres apart from each other by a framework.
  1171. >Cables and other components of the interior systems peek out of the openings, and partially dangle above the ground.
  1172.  
  1173.  
  1174.  
  1175.  
  1176. >Singular elements of the outer casing have been loosened and lie strewn across the floor.
  1177. >#deca.mare checks on your reaction.
  1178. >You say nothing.
  1179. >And you do nothing.
  1180. >You simply stare at the mess.
  1181. >This does not sit well with her at all.
  1182. >"Anon?"
  1183. "So much for 'Do Not Touch'."
  1184. >"But Anon, I had to take the ship apart to bring it here in the first place."
  1185. >Plausible, considering some bottlenecks like the corridor.
  1186. >After all, the structure beyond the hangar was not designed to fit whole fighter crafts.
  1187. "Why didn't you say something though? A single word or so? Have you ever considered that at least telling me beforehand would be a good idea?"
  1188. >#deca.mare's ears droop as she looks at what she has done.
  1189. >"I did."
  1190. >An awkward short pause follows.
  1191. >"After the fact, unfortunately. I think I grew a little... overzealous in the act."
  1192. "A little, right."
  1193. >"But I swear, nothing has gone missing. And all singular parts are still fully intact."
  1194. >#deca.mare takes a breath.
  1195. >"Apart from the already faulty components. But I had nothing to do with that."
  1196. >To be fair with her, that does sound reasonable to you.
  1197. >The craft was never in bad hooves, despite its now reduced state.
  1198. >"Are you angry with me?"
  1199. >You hesitate before you answer, mainly because you need to consider what to say and how to say it.
  1200. "No."
  1201. >A simple, single word.
  1202. >And this is the truth.
  1203. >You are not angry with her in the slightest, as you know that your restorative efforts require these measures anyway.
  1204. >And neither are you truly insulted.
  1205. >Yet you believe that you should feel... miffed.
  1206. >For a reason you can barely grasp yourself.
  1207. >You think that you should have been a part of the very first steps.
  1208. >Because suddenly seeing one of the last physical symbols of your former career reduced to pieces is not what you have expected.
  1209. >You take another look at the scrambled fighter.
  1210. >Then you look at #deca.mare.
  1211.  
  1212.  
  1213.  
  1214.  
  1215. >She returns your gaze with a concerned expression, but remains quiet.
  1216. >You sort your own thoughts as you breathe in and out.
  1217. "It's okay. I know you meant well."
  1218. >#deca.mare visibly relaxes almost instantly.
  1219. >With the initial tensions now gone on both sides, you slowly approach your fighter.
  1220. >And even though you know the general plan, you hold out an olive branch to her in order to smooth things over.
  1221. "Give me a quick rundown. How much do we have to do?"
  1222. >She gladly accepts the distraction.
  1223. >"A complete maintenance and repair check. We have to test every system and all hardware components to detect potentially damaged elements. What we already know for sure is that we have to wholly overhaul the energy circuit system. And possibly the jumpdrive too. Both were badly affected during the botched jump, and this shall not happen again."
  1224. >#deca.mare pauses shortly before she goes on.
  1225. >"And I am sure we can also improve a lot of the existing designs with some of our own souvenirs."
  1226. "Hold on, I thought we restore the ship, not turn into something unrecognisable."
  1227. >"We do, Anon. The former without the latter. "
  1228. "I know that tone. You're planning something."
  1229. >"Hmhm. A few ideas to improve the overall performance."
  1230. >A pause.
  1231. >"Amongst other things. But rest assured, the ship will look as good as new when we are done. Nothing on the outside will reveal our, ahem, tuning efforts."
  1232. >You suspect that there is still something she is not telling you, so ask another question.
  1233. "The ship will look precisely the same?"
  1234. >"Precisely. Only with better numbers across the board. Speed, shield strength, manoeuvrability, you name it."
  1235. >While this may stretch the definition of mere restoration almost to the breaking point, you agree with the decision.
  1236. >#deca space tech has proven to be far superior to its current terran counterparts, so it is only reasonable to even out the playing field a little bit.
  1237.  
  1238.  
  1239.  
  1240.  
  1241. >It may not be enough to completely elevate your ship to an equal level, but an improvement is an improvement.
  1242. >You approach the segments to inspect them.
  1243. >You walk around the starboard engine block, eye the details on the hull, touch the smooth casing with your bare hand as you walk by, and even take a peek inside the now revealed innards.
  1244. >#deca.mare follows your tracks quietly.
  1245. >Only the sound of her hooves tapping on the metal floor can be heard.
  1246. >You repeat the same procedure for the second engine before you finally head to the cockpit.
  1247. >And as you walk around this section, you spot some ugly scratches on the underside.
  1248. >No severe damage, all things considered, but it sticks out negatively.
  1249. "I guess that happened during the landing, eh? I recall how the hull scraped against the pen."
  1250. >"Yes. And the claw marks near the canopy were caused by the grapplers. The dents look nasty, but we can remove them."
  1251. "Yeah, I'd like that. Please put it on the to-do list."
  1252. >#deca.mare nods.
  1253. >"Noted."
  1254. >You thank her silently and check the ship clock.
  1255. >For you expect some company.
  1256. >Since you cannot work on the ship in person, as in neither with your physical body nor some embedded maintenance machinery, you have called a special restoration team to come to the storage and get the job done instead.
  1257. >It consists of several work units of various types which act as supplement for the tools you are lacking in this cargo bay.
  1258. >And of course you will not pass on the opportunity to take control of a unit in the team in order to participate, despite the fact that the circumstances here are slightly different than the situations you are used to handle.
  1259. >The general procedure is similar to the lessons you were taught in the hangar though, so you should have no problems to deal with the unusual conditions.
  1260. >Still, you would have preferred the proper tools.
  1261.  
  1262.  
  1263.  
  1264.  
  1265. >Yet all the available slots are already reserved for and occupied by #deca.mare's standard loadout of fighters and mobile depots.
  1266. >This means that you cannot rely on the hangar deck, unless you would temporarily decommission another ship or shrink your fleet in any other manner.
  1267. >Possible, but not tactically sound at the moment, as you should be very careful and conservative with your active assets at this particular stage of the project.
  1268. >Hell, as long as a potentially ticking time bomb like a massive asteroid roams Equetria's system, you are well advised to keep all assets operational.
  1269. >You two did everything you could to steer the beast into a stable trajectory, with satisfying results at that.
  1270. >Nevertheless, neither of you fully trusts that thing until it is prepared and dealt with.
  1271. >No, you could not ask for a place in the hangar under these circumstances.
  1272. >The special team is the best option.
  1273. >However, they need about a quarter of an hour to complete their current tasks, grab the proper wares, and drive over to your position.
  1274. >Plenty of time left on your end.
  1275. >You look at the unlocked canopy and grin.
  1276. "Hey #deca, care for a quick visit inside?"
  1277. >She nods with enthusiasm.
  1278. >You examine the supporting struts of the metal framework around the module and note where it connects with the ground as well as the hull of the vessel.
  1279. >You can easily climb the thing to get onto the ship.
  1280. >#deca.mare, on the other hand, cannot.
  1281. >So you decide to help her out first.
  1282. "Come here. I'll play the lift for you."
  1283. >She smiles knowingly.
  1284. >"Like we did on our trip on the surface?"
  1285. "Bingo."
  1286. >So you lower your body and put one knee on the ground to meet #deca.mare half way.
  1287. >She puts her forehooves on your shoulders in a well practiced routine and pull you in for an embrace.
  1288. >You know the steps and play along.
  1289. >You stabilise #deca.mare as you place one hand on her back and the wrap the other around her flanks.
  1290.  
  1291.  
  1292.  
  1293.  
  1294. >Then you mutually count down from three to zero and begin.
  1295. >You hoist #deca.mare up, and she uses you as support until she manages to gain some foothold.
  1296. >The rounded body of the ship in combination with the framework construction prove to be a bit trickier for her than the mostly even wall of a ground unit, but you manage eventually.
  1297. >Her forehooves reach the opening of the cockpit and she slowly pulls herself in, head first.
  1298. >Once you are convinced that #deca.mare has everything under control, you let go of her body and watch with some amusement as her rear hooves and tail still hang in the air.
  1299. >You take a few steps back to evade the occasional flick of her tail and legs.
  1300. >A short while later, she keels over and tumbles into the cockpit seat.
  1301. >You hear some muffled remarks as something happens inside.
  1302. >You presume that #deca.mare attempts to straighten herself up.
  1303. >But you do not wait to see.
  1304. >Instead, you approach the framework and climb up yourself.
  1305. >The struts lead you onto the ship, yet you end up a bit behind the canopy section.
  1306. >And there you spot the claw marks on the hull.
  1307. >Some nasty incisions that remind you of scars that stem from a predator.
  1308. >You suppress the urge to cringe and head for the cockpit.
  1309. >The last steps somewhat require a balance act on the edge in which you have to skirt around the canopy itself.
  1310. >You look inside the cockpit.
  1311. >She has managed to sit up properly in the seat by now, albeit not without some prior effort.
  1312. >Her ruffled mane shows that it must have been a less than orderly ordeal.
  1313. >You chuckle.
  1314. "Enjoying yourself?"
  1315. >She tries to sound diplomatic.
  1316. >"It is certainly more pleasant when my face is not pressing into the seat. The entry is very unfriendly to ponies though."
  1317. "Yeah, no wonder. I bet none of the designers would have ever thought that a mare might one day sit in the cockpit of a space ship."
  1318.  
  1319.  
  1320.  
  1321.  
  1322. >You step in with a leg.
  1323. >#deca.mare shifts to the other side to give you as much space as possible.
  1324. >Though you can already see that the two of you will not fit into the seat simultaneously if you try to sit side by side.
  1325. >"Wait, I have an idea."
  1326. >She tries to stands up.
  1327. >You understand her plan without another word.
  1328. >She has not much room to move, but it is enough for you slide yourself in and sit down.
  1329. >Right behind her.
  1330. >After that, she lowers her body to sit on your lap.
  1331. >You erupt in sudden laughter.
  1332. "Oh man, that's two violations of protocol in one go."
  1333. >"Hm?"
  1334. "Entering a fighter without a space suit, strike one. A safety measure to avoid certain death in missions where the cockpit might get damaged in flight. And two..."
  1335. >#deca.mare raises her voice.
  1336. >"Unorthodox staffing of a machine."
  1337. >Indeed, she got that right.
  1338. >You lean back into the seat with a smile and closely inspect the instruments that are not blocked by #deca.mare's back.
  1339. >Nothing has changed in here.
  1340. >This perspective even evokes the impression in you that the machine would still be operational.
  1341. >Yet this was barely the case even before #deca.mare had taken the liberty to remove the engines.
  1342. >In any case, it feels good to be here again.
  1343. >But you need one more thing to make it all perfect.
  1344. "Could you grab the handles and close the cockpit? It's not proper without the full deal. And I think you'll love it too."
  1345. >#deca.mare agrees and does just that.
  1346. >She rises once more, and you hold her steady as she reaches out for the handles.
  1347. >After her hooves have "grabbed" them, she slowly lets her body slide down and back onto your lap.
  1348. >Gravity does the rest.
  1349. >Two snaps tell you that she has locked the seals in place.
  1350.  
  1351.  
  1352.  
  1353.  
  1354. >You start to gently stroke her sides and lay your chin on her shoulder as she allows herself to lean back as well.
  1355. "Cosy, isn't it?"
  1356. >"Hm, it is."
  1357. >She pauses.
  1358. >"Not as tight and comfortable as the bedroll though."
  1359. "That tends to happen. Pilots are not meant to be sleep in here."
  1360. >You plant a peck on #deca.mare's cheek.
  1361. >"And especially not in company."
  1362. >She snorts and bobs her head to the side.
  1363. >A good load of mane hair hits your face as a result.
  1364. >"Anon, did you just hint at a third violation of protocol?"
  1365. >You shrug innocently.
  1366. "Maybe?"
  1367. >"In less than ten minutes?"
  1368. "Yeah, why not? I bet can find a way to do it."
  1369. >Can you?
  1370. >#deca.mare laughs heartily.
  1371. >Hm, that might...
  1372. >No, do not think about it yet.
  1373. >Keep her busy.
  1374. >"Is that a challenge?"
  1375. >Do it.
  1376. "If you see it as such, yeah."
  1377. >#deca.mare deliberately rubs her back against your body to tease you.
  1378. >"Consider it accepted, Anon."
  1379. "Okay."
  1380. >And in a quick surge of spontaneity, you move your hands and start to tickle #deca.mare.
  1381. >You go for her sides and belly.
  1382. >Neat big spots that yield a good effect and which are not too overly objectionable to touch.
  1383. >You keep it civil, and yet you strike pure gold at the same time.
  1384. >#deca.mare laughs, yelps, and shakes under your rushing fingers.
  1385. >Sometimes she even lashes out unconsciously, but it no use.
  1386. >You literally have her back, her hooves point away from you, and you are in a starkly confined room.
  1387. >In other words, you hold all of the cards.
  1388. >#deca.mare relents after two minutes of playful, but rather one-sided excitement.
  1389. >The words practically burst out of her.
  1390. >"Hah! Enough! I concede!"
  1391. >You heed her call and gradually slow down.
  1392. >But you keep holding your still panting mare in a steady embrace whilst she catches her breath.
  1393. >"That was not I thought of, Anon."
  1394. >You try to feign a lack of awareness.
  1395. "Really? I'm sure unannounced tickling of another crew member violates a protocol or two."
  1396.  
  1397.  
  1398.  
  1399.  
  1400. >#deca.mare just shakes her head and runs with the joke.
  1401. >You spend the next handful of minutes in peaceful silence so that both of you can calm down and mentally prepare for the next impending task.
  1402. >And a short while afterwards, it is time.
  1403. >The door to the corridor opens up, and a group of automatons drives into the hall.
  1404. >The vehicles are equipped with all manners of tools and also carry a select collection of containers with spare parts of which you already know with certainty that you will need them.
  1405. "Here comes the cavalry. Guess we should get up, eh?"
  1406. >"Agreed."
  1407. >Something tells you that she is not too keen to leave though.
  1408. "Do you need more time to recover? I know I didn't pull any punches on you."
  1409. >"No, I am fine. But I must admit I enjoy it here. Comely, comfortable enough, and just enough space for us two."
  1410. "Good to know. Maybe we find a day in the future to do it properly."
  1411. >"I would love to, Anon. This is a decent craft. Despite the, ahem, rather temperamental technology."
  1412. >You look at the deactivated instruments and screens.
  1413. "Hey, let's be fair, this ship has kept me alive for long enough to meet you. And it brought me through some pretty close calls in my time."
  1414. >"You are right. And now we are returning the favour by making it even better than ever before."
  1415. >You mentally prepare yourself for your departure.
  1416. >"Ready?"
  1417. >You nod and quickly kiss #deca.mare again for good luck.
  1418. "Let's go."
  1419. >The cockpit blurs away, and your perspective changes.
  1420. >Your vision returns and you face the fighter head-on.
  1421. >You see the cockpit.
  1422. >It is open and empty.
  1423. >In truth, it has been the whole time.
  1424. "One day."
  1425. >"Yes, Anon. One day."
  1426. >But you have to restore the ship at first.
  1427. >Slowly, with care and respect, but also with an objective professionalism and a keen eye.
  1428. >Because you will need it soon.
  1429.  
  1430.  
  1431.  
  1432.  
  1433. 95
  1434.  
  1435. >"The cycle is nearing completion. We have the final analysis."
  1436. "Results?"
  1437. >"Scans show no signs of mistakes or malformations. Everything went according to plan."
  1438. "Good. Very good. That means we now have two successes in total."
  1439. >"We can perform a practical test run in a few moments."
  1440. "Okay, got it."
  1441. >"Are you sure you want to be present at the release? It might be confusing to behold."
  1442. "Yes. I'm curious. How will it be?"
  1443. >"I have no idea how you will feel during the procedure. This is something I cannot relate to. All I can say is that you will not be in any danger. No matter what it may feel like."
  1444. "Eh, It will be fine. We faced worse, remember?"
  1445. >"Of course. But this is not about the ship, right?"
  1446. "It isn't. No hard feelings, promise."
  1447. >"I am glad to hear that."
  1448. >...
  1449. >"Do you want to begin then?"
  1450. "Not yet. Can you give me a video feed first? I want to see our new achievement."
  1451. >"Sure. Here you go."
  1452. >...
  1453. >"And?"
  1454. "Exactly as in the simulations. The resemblances match to a T."
  1455. >"Do you like what you see?"
  1456. "Oh yes. It is..."
  1457. >"...perfect?"
  1458. "Eh, that sounds too self-aggrandising. Praising yourself doesn't count."
  1459. >"Praises to your work or your looks?"
  1460. "My looks? What do you mean?"
  1461. >"What do you think?"
  1462. "Hm... oh come on. Don't make me sound like a narcissist."
  1463. >"I never claimed such a thing."
  1464. "Wait a second. Does that even count as narcissism? I mean, it's not my..."
  1465. >"Probably not. Though I assume semantics has never touched upon this field."
  1466. "Guess so."
  1467. ...
  1468. "Well, I'm good to go."
  1469. >"Understood. I will take it from here. And like I said, I have no idea what to expect. But I can always pull you out if you find yourself in distress. Just give me the word if it becomes too much."
  1470. "Okay. Throw the switch when you're ready."
  1471. >"Process... initiated. Activation timer set to five minutes, Beginning transition in tree, two, one."
  1472.  
  1473.  
  1474.  
  1475.  
  1476. 96
  1477.  
  1478. >The world around you has seemingly ceased to exist.
  1479. >It is dark, it is silent, it is devoid of anything.
  1480. >There are no smells or physical sensations to give you any point of reference either.
  1481. >You simply exist.
  1482. >And yet, you posses all of your mental capacities and can think with clarity.
  1483. >Perhaps even sharper than usual; there is no other input to distract you after all.
  1484. >Panic would be a normal, a natural reaction to such a state.
  1485. >Yet you understand why you are in this situation and that your means to escape are only a thought away.
  1486. >You manage to stay calm and collected.
  1487. >And you wait.
  1488. >#deca.mare is at work, so something is bound to happen soon.
  1489. >You only have to endure just for a little bit.
  1490. >But mere waiting while surrounded by nothingness is rather dull, so you try to test the waters and see if you can push some boundaries.
  1491. >Can you think?
  1492. >Obviously.
  1493. >Can you talk?
  1494. >No, there is nothing to talk with yet.
  1495. >Can you move?
  1496. >Maybe, maybe not.
  1497. >With no way to orientate yourself, it is virtually impossible to measure any potential movements anyway.
  1498. >You do, however, somehow get the impression that you are floating.
  1499. >In something.
  1500. >An impression which is actually true to a degree.
  1501. >But it makes you wonder; do you get the impression because of some baseline senses, or do you just imagine to feel like it because you know the facts?
  1502. >Does it make a difference at the end of the day?
  1503. >As you ponder these and similar questions, you come across a slightly disturbing thought.
  1504. >If you are unable to speak and hear, can you even communicate with #deca.mare?
  1505. >A murmur vibrates through the void.
  1506. >It speaks in no understandable tongue, and yet imprints a single word in your mind.
  1507. >YES.
  1508. >The assertive force with which #deca.mare's message flows through your essence banishes every doubt.
  1509. >And soon you begin to notice a change.
  1510. >You feel something around you.
  1511.  
  1512.  
  1513.  
  1514.  
  1515. >Warmth.
  1516. >Wetness.
  1517. >It encompasses you almost completely.
  1518. >You are surrounded by liquid, filled in a transparent and airtight vat, as you recall.
  1519. >And you kindly flow in it, more or less.
  1520. >Six different spots are special though.
  1521. >Four are your limbs; something is holding them in their place.
  1522. >The restrictions do not feel tight, but the binds are strong enough to make themselves noticeable.
  1523. >Another is gently wrapped around your midsection.
  1524. >This one leaves you a little bit more leeway.
  1525. >And still, despite those five bindings and your partially working senses, you cannot independently tell how you are positioned in terms of onboard gravity.
  1526. >You believe that you know the answer, based on the video you have seen shortly before the transfer, but you cannot verify your presumption with certainty.
  1527. >The sixth device covers your face.
  1528. >A breathing mask keeps your head dry and provides you with air and everything else that you need.
  1529. >You take all of this in and try to come to terms with your situation.
  1530. >Indeed, warding off distress and panic is an easy feat for you.
  1531. >Even in this extremely binding position, you manage to calm your instincts that tell you to break out.
  1532. >And you are not sure why, but you simply know the order in which your senses manifest themselves.
  1533. >Next comes your hearing.
  1534. >At some point, you begin to notice a frequent splashing and bubbling inside the liquid, as well as a faint mechanical buzzing in the background.
  1535. >So you figure that the incubation system of the vat is still fully in operation.
  1536. >"The readings are excellent so far. Anon? You should be able to hear me now."
  1537. >#deca.mare's voice is slightly off; she sounds bit more mechanical than what you are used to hear.
  1538. >"An ear bud. To test the hearing."
  1539. >You try to nod, but you find yourself unable to.
  1540. >Looks like your motor skills are still affected by some form of blockade.
  1541. >Probably to reduce the risk of injuries due to sudden movements.
  1542.  
  1543.  
  1544.  
  1545.  
  1546. >Regardless of the actual reason, #deca.mare has her answer anyway.
  1547. >"Very good. And you are feeling well so far?"
  1548. >Yes.
  1549. >"Splendid. On to the next phase then. Try to open your eyes, please."
  1550. >You follow her instructions.
  1551. >And although you try your best, nothing happens initially.
  1552. >You get no mental grasp on your eyelids.
  1553. >The world remains dark.
  1554. >"Looks like some nerve tracts are still paralysed. Please keep trying. They should awake any minute now."
  1555. >So you do.
  1556. >You collect your thoughts any try again.
  1557. >Then a third time.
  1558. >No change.
  1559. >But then, during the fourth attempt, you do feel something.
  1560. >You focus your attention on this sudden stimulus, slowly make sense of how it resonates with your body, and delve into it.
  1561. >A brief blink follows.
  1562. >You get a very short impression of the world around you.
  1563. >Not more than a flash of light from your perspective, but it is a start.
  1564. >You repeat your efforts, and manage to open your lids just a bit more.
  1565. >About a dozen repetitions later, you can finally keep your eyes open for longer intervals.
  1566. >And you can observe your surroundings through the visor of your mask.
  1567. >Though it is not of much use to you.
  1568. >Whilst you can easily peek through your headgear and the transparent frame of the barrel, the whirling liquid in between obscures your view of the outside.
  1569. >All you can spot beyond the vat is a blurry metal surface.
  1570. >And the lighting does not help either.
  1571. >The room shines in the prominent crimson emergency lights that you are very familiar with by now.
  1572. >However, the inside of the vat is illuminated by a different and more intense light source that covers the entire interior in a soft yet bright glow.
  1573. >It does not blind you directly, but its stark contrast to the comparatively dim environment further hinders your efforts to make anything out in the room.
  1574.  
  1575.  
  1576.  
  1577.  
  1578. >#deca.mare has your back though.
  1579. >"Final step before release. Please do not startle, I will adjust the pumps now."
  1580. >The mechanical background noise changes within seconds.
  1581. >The buzzing turns into a strange gargling, and you think that you can also feel a change in the flow of the liquid.
  1582. >It slowly begins to get drained out of the chamber.
  1583. >Only a few moments later, a ventilation system kicks into action.
  1584. >It blows cool fresh air in as a replacement.
  1585. >You descend as a consequence; the lowering water level can no longer keep you afloat.
  1586. >And your back touches the casing of the vat, confirming that you swam "on your back" all along.
  1587. >Less than a minute later, the interior has been pumped dry by system.
  1588. >You can finally get an undisturbed view of the ceiling above.
  1589. >It is rather unremarkable in hindsight.
  1590. >"Process complete. No complications detected. I will open up the unit now."
  1591. >A number of clicks can be heard, followed by a long, loud hiss.
  1592. >The bright light around you expires as the upper half of the transparent outer layer is lifted and heaved to the side by a machine.
  1593. >"Can you move your head now?"
  1594. >Her voice sounds normal once more.
  1595. >She does not speak through a bud, you figure.
  1596. >You try to turn your head to the side.
  1597. >It is cumbersome and requires a lot of effort, yet you manage to do it.
  1598. >And much to your surprise, you spot her sitting about ten metres away.
  1599. >She has taken a seat in her opened stasis pod and looks in your direction.
  1600. >#deca.mare smiles and waves with a hoof.
  1601. >"Hello there. Welcome to the neighbourhood."
  1602. >You would try to say anything, but your mask prevents you from doing so.
  1603. >"Yes, of course. Let me unbind you."
  1604. >The restrictions around your limbs and belly unlock themselves and retreat.
  1605. >You assume they disappear into a device of sorts.
  1606. >#deca.mare gets up, carefully jumps off her pod, and approaches you.
  1607.  
  1608.  
  1609.  
  1610.  
  1611. >You hold still as she unties the fastenings of your headgear.
  1612. >She pulls the thing off, and you immediately take your first independent breath as soon as you are free.
  1613. >The air you take in is not as clean as the one you received from the mask though.
  1614. >It is rather sticky in comparison, yet still breathable.
  1615. >"My apologies for that, Anon. The life support systems in the laboratory are not sophisticated enough to properly recreate the comfortable living conditions on the command deck. But that is all I can do to modify a storage room. It usually suffices for the purposes of a biolab though."
  1616. >You try to reply.
  1617. >It works with moderate success.
  1618. "Is. It. Enough. For. Us. Two?"
  1619. >You have to stress every single word to be perfectly understandable, but that is in all due likelihood the aftermath of the paralysis.
  1620. >"Yes. We will not suffocate in here, if that is what you are alluding to. But I advise against extreme sport activities. You could hyperventilate. Or damage some of the equipment, for that matter.
  1621. >You take a look around.
  1622. >The biolab is indeed not much more than a modified storage hall.
  1623. >Most of the containers have been removed to create extra capacities for all kinds of things.
  1624. >Strangely looking machinery, canisters, vats, rows of biological samples in Petri dishes and other containers, and a few consoles with computer ports.
  1625. >The odd lone standard container is sparsely placed here and there to store basic chemical elements and related substances.
  1626. >And unlike the conventional #deca machines with which you have some experience, you can barely tell what most of the things in here are used for.
  1627. >But you do not have to know all the details.
  1628. >For you have seen some of the lab's products in action already.
  1629. >This is the place where the first batch of seeds for Equestria has been created.
  1630. >And now your avatar has been added to the list.
  1631. >"Do not forget the nutrients for your real body, Anon. And your blood sample is here as well."
  1632.  
  1633.  
  1634.  
  1635.  
  1636. >A forehoof points at one of the machines.
  1637. >You have no idea what the device does, but it must apparently be related to blood analyses.
  1638. >#deca.mare directs your attention back to more pressing matters though.
  1639. >"Right, your body is no longer physically restrained by anything. You should be able to gain full control now. How do you feel?"
  1640. >You test your speaking abilities a second time.
  1641. "Not quite in control yet."
  1642. >Much better than your previous speech.
  1643. >"You will be very quickly though. These are just the last effects of the hibernation."
  1644. >A short pause.
  1645. >"Now, could you please try to sit up? I would prefer to try some exercises with you as a final test, but we should relocate to a more suitable location for that."
  1646. >#deca.mare takes a breath.
  1647. >You think you can continue her trail of thoughts.
  1648. "But that doesn't make sense if I'll fail at the most basic things right from the start."
  1649. >She just nods.
  1650. >Curious about the result yourself, you heed her wish.
  1651. >You turn your body to the side, get a hold of the ground beneath you with your forelimbs, and start to pull your body into an upright position.
  1652. >The lack of digits makes it harder than usual, but you had enough training in the simulation to deal with tasks like this.
  1653. >Shortly thereafter, you sit properly.
  1654. >#deca.mare looks satisfied.
  1655. >And you take a moment to study your new you for future away missions on the surface.
  1656. >It behaves exactly like its virtual counterpart.
  1657. >This realisation is both fascinating and scary.
  1658. >You raise a forehoof into the air in front of you and look at it.
  1659. >Everything from the anatomical structure, up to the hues, and even the structure of the coat are exactly what you wanted them to be.
  1660. >All those months ago.
  1661. >#deca.mare raises her voice again.
  1662. >"Anon, I think we have all the intel we need. The incubation was a resounding success."
  1663. "Yep, looks like it."
  1664.  
  1665.  
  1666.  
  1667.  
  1668. >You wait for a second to check if #deca.mare wants to add anything.
  1669. >But she does not.
  1670. "So... relocation time?"
  1671. >"I would say so. Let us move to the command deck. We have much more space over there. And the air is certainly more palatable as well."
  1672. >But you have to the move through the corridors in order to reach the command deck.
  1673. >And those things do not have the grace to be filled with an artificial atmosphere.
  1674. >Not a place you can cross with the an unprotected pony body, as resilient as it may be.
  1675. >Which means...
  1676. >You laugh.
  1677. "You've just gotten me one out of one tube just to put me into the next box again?"
  1678. >"Hmhm. It is the only way. But you can switch over to your real body during the transit if you wish."
  1679. "Yeah, that would be better."
  1680. >#deca.mare turns away to go somewhere, and she motions you to follow.
  1681. >So you get up, test how the body reacts, and hop off the machine.
  1682. >The two of you trot through the labyrinthine pathways of the biolab.
  1683. >Everything seems more convoluted and narrow in this section, as the conventional storage protocols do not apply here.
  1684. >So you have to take more than one turn on your way to what you presume must be a second cryo pod.
  1685. >After all, you two cannot share a unit, and #deca.mare's "bed" stands right next to the incubation vat.
  1686. >An arrangement that she probably chose when she made her own pony proxy back in the day.
  1687. >Minutes later, you reach a dead end.
  1688. >And there it stands.
  1689. >Another cryo unit, freshly made and ready for service.
  1690. >The device stands mounted on a wall, and is connected to a computer terminal that, as far as you can tell, runs several test simulations.
  1691. >It looks visually identical to the one she uses.
  1692. >"The same model. Only a different year of construction."
  1693. >#deca.mare strikes a pose.
  1694. >"But as you see, I can vouch for its quality. Brought me through the vacuum without an issue."
  1695. >You shrug with a smile.
  1696.  
  1697.  
  1698.  
  1699.  
  1700. "Eh, not worried about that. I've already trusted your fridges when more was at stake. No offence."
  1701. >Not that you want to downplay the quality or significance of her latest gift to you of course, but the "life" of a technically empty pony shell is not as important as the health of your own actual body.
  1702. >And #deca.mare sees what you mean.
  1703. >"None taken."
  1704. >The two of you halt right in front the still sealed unit.
  1705. >A new command line silently pops up on the screen, and the locks undo themselves.
  1706. >The hatch of the cryo unit swings open.
  1707. >"Hop on in, Anon. The system will register your entry and do the rest automatically. I will wait here just in case."
  1708. >You move past #deca.mare and towards the mounted machine.
  1709. >You take one step into the "bedding" before you hesitate.
  1710. "One more thing. About later."
  1711. >"Yes, Anon? I am listening."
  1712.  
  1713.  
  1714.  
  1715.  
  1716. 97
  1717.  
  1718. >You have left your pod temporarily, only to find yourself facing, well, you.
  1719. >You stand in the main hall of the command deck, eye to eye with your unboxed alter ego.
  1720. >But whilst you are your active normal self, the stallion idles instead.
  1721. >He does not buckle a millimetre and stares straight ahead, no matter what happens around him.
  1722. >An occasional blinking is all he is capable of at the moment.
  1723. >And #deca.mare is right next to you, sitting on her haunches.
  1724. >Your human you, that is.
  1725. >Together you observe the stallion with astonishment.
  1726. "I've got to admit, I wasn't completely sure we could pull it off like this."
  1727. >"So you are pleasantly surprised?"
  1728. "Yeah. And maybe a bit speechless."
  1729. >"How so? You have seen him through a camera in advance."
  1730. "Because this isn't just a machine made with metals and circuits. This is a real living and breathing organism of flesh and blood."
  1731. >Your last sentence is only a partially accurate statement, but that is beside the point.
  1732. >Yet despite her valid argument and the fact that you have already created plant life for the world beneath, not to mention #deca.mare's creation of her own body, it does feel different to you now.
  1733. >For you were the one who envisioned him in the shape that he has eventually taken.
  1734. >This is no longer just a product of your imagination; it finally has an actual physical representation in the real world.
  1735. >Right in front of your very eyes.
  1736. >#deca.mare comprehends your amazement all too well.
  1737. >"Indeed. This line of work is always something special. And it always has to be. It would be wrong otherwise."
  1738. "What do you mean?"
  1739.  
  1740.  
  1741.  
  1742.  
  1743. >"Remember, almost nothing separates your proxy, or mine for that matter, from all the other future ponies in Equestria. The only real difference is that their minds will be not vacant by default. And this minor anomalous characteristic is imperceptible as far as the other ponies will be concerned. But it also means that to slacken on this project, even if we did only once, would result in letting the ponies down before they were even foaled. We have to be at the top of our game at all times."
  1744. >You nod as you further inspect "yourself".
  1745. >#deca.mare is right.
  1746. >All denizens of Equestria, ponies and otherwise, will be unique in their own ways, and you have to constantly ensure their wellbeing.
  1747. >And this responsibility begins prior to their birth.
  1748. >After all, this was the condition you have insisted to set before you agreed to help #deca.mare with her work.
  1749. "There's literally no difference, apart from the mind thing?"
  1750. >She shakes her head.
  1751. >"Not one. Our bodies are anatomically-wise ponies. We can do everything a pony can do. And we need the same things. Oxygen. Food. Sleep."
  1752. >Your devious subconscious part creeps into your thoughts.
  1753. >It places a dirty little idea in your mind.
  1754. >One that you do not actively want to pursue, but which you cannot banish either.
  1755. >If you two resemble biological ponies, then could you not...
  1756. >"I know what you are thinking, Anon."
  1757. >What?
  1758. >Your eyes widen in reflex.
  1759. >How?
  1760. >You have no direct link at the moment.
  1761. >She should not be able to read you.
  1762. >#deca.mare breaks into resounding laughter.
  1763. >"The blush on your face was telling."
  1764. >You facepalm with a grumble.
  1765. >Even the confines of your own brain are no longer safe against her leering eyes.
  1766. "It's not like I wanted to think that."
  1767. >#deca.mare grins in your direction.
  1768. >"No worries. I will not tell anyone."
  1769. >But she calms quickly as you sigh.
  1770. >"But yes. That... is possible. The necessary organs are all in place."
  1771. >Your blush returns anew at that thought.
  1772.  
  1773.  
  1774.  
  1775.  
  1776. >"Although I doubt that I would be ready to take that step. For... more than one reason."
  1777. >No objections from your side either.
  1778. >The mere thought of what it would require to make foal is a tad too awkward for your tastes.
  1779. >You can only imagine how complicated it would be for her.
  1780. >Plus, you will have more than enough protégés under your care in the coming years.
  1781. >You could not possibly bring yourself to split your attention in such a significant manner.
  1782. >Not to mention all the other questions that such a decision would bring up.
  1783. >No, certainly not now.
  1784. >Maybe later.
  1785. >Much, much later.
  1786. >You believe that the subject is bugging #deca.mare as well, so it is probably better to change the topic and move on.
  1787. "You've brought everything?"
  1788. >"Hmhm. We can begin after the physical tests. I want to be sure that you can operate everything properly before we go on."
  1789. >You nod.
  1790. "Okay."
  1791. >So in order to proceed, you have to return into the cryo pod and assume control of your equine doppelgänger.
  1792. >But before you do that, you get up close to your stallion persona and walk around him.
  1793. >Or around yourself?
  1794. >Whatever.
  1795. >You observe him from all angles, and take in as many details as you can.
  1796. >You notice, not much to your surprise, that he is breathing steadily.
  1797. >But that is about the only apparent thing that he does in addition to the blinking.
  1798. >If it were not for your knowledge of the context, you would certainly find it creepy to see such a passive creature.
  1799. >You reach out with a hand, but you pull back before you catch hold of the stallion.
  1800. >"No need to be shy, Anon. Go and touch yourself if you so desire. You will not bite."
  1801. >Your head tilts to an awry degree as you slowly turn to #deca.mare.
  1802. "#deca, do you realise what you just said?"
  1803. >She simply shrugs nonchalantly.
  1804. >"I can image that you want to know what it feels like to touch your own coat, for instance. And there is no reason to feel embarrassed for that."
  1805.  
  1806.  
  1807.  
  1808.  
  1809. "You implied something more spicy and personal than just the coat though."
  1810. >Again, you get a similar reaction.
  1811. >"Do not pay heed to inhibitions, Anon. You can touch your body wherever you wish. Sensitive spots included. Nopony will judge you."
  1812. >A short pause.
  1813. >You think you are blushing again.
  1814. >And you imagine that you hear a suppressed snort, but you are not sure whether it was #deca.mare struggling to maintain her poker face, or just your mind playing tricks on you.
  1815. >"Just do not expect him to react to any stimuli though. The sensory input neither gets registered nor processed when you are not actively in control. These are no signs of virile dysfunction."
  1816. >You find yourself at a loss of words and simply gawk at #deca.mare.
  1817. >Is she serious?
  1818. >What comes next, a recommendation to smooch with yourself?
  1819. >Is there a hidden camera floating somewhere?
  1820. >You remind yourself that reality does not work that way.
  1821. >Then again, she needs none, for every room except the crew quarters can be monitored with ease.
  1822. >You are damn sure she is playing with you.
  1823. >She must be, she simply has to.
  1824. >But she manages to keep her professional look dead straight.
  1825. >You shake your head and back off.
  1826. >You are only doing the prank work for her if you keep thinking about this.
  1827. "I guess I'll make my own collection of quotes. And I call it 'Why my Mare is a Hopeless Voyeur'. How about that?"
  1828. >The bait does not work on her as it seems.
  1829. >Shrug number three.
  1830. >"Sounds interesting. Do you need some suggestions?"
  1831. >In this very moment you wish you could just grab her for some more tickling action.
  1832. >Well, you could, theoretically speaking.
  1833. >But she would protest out of concerns for your own safety if you did.
  1834. >And you vividly remember her last lecture.
  1835. >No, your hands are tied at the moment.
  1836. >Maybe that was her plan?
  1837. >If so, then well played.
  1838. >But planned joke or not, you know you will get your chance for counter tricks.
  1839. >For now, you play it cool.
  1840.  
  1841.  
  1842.  
  1843.  
  1844. "I think I'm good. Fondling myself isn't my style."
  1845. >You receive no impish answer this time.
  1846. >The two of you turn around to pass the corridor to the command deck, heading all the way to the familiar cryo pod.
  1847. >And you cannot shake the impression that she is smiling the entire time.
  1848. >Yet she always bears her poker face whenever you peek at her.
  1849. >You need another strategy.
  1850. >So you eventually stop trying and just move on.
  1851. >#deca.mare notices your sudden lack of apparent interest.
  1852. >That makes her finally drop the act.
  1853. >"Anon, I hope you know this was a jest."
  1854. >A pause.
  1855. >You say nothing.
  1856. >Let her wait a little.
  1857. >"Right?"
  1858. >Then you grin.
  1859. >It is so much easier when she is not able to read you at every turn.
  1860. "Yeah, thanks for confirming my suspicion."
  1861. >That leaves her speechless for a second.
  1862. >Both of you stop in your tracks.
  1863. "Gotcha."
  1864. >"Oh."
  1865. >#deca.mare is genuinely surprised.
  1866. >And you laugh once before you get serious again.
  1867. "But for real, that was heavy-handed, #deca."
  1868. >"Too much?"
  1869. "Not spa tub levels of awkward, but it came close. You don't just go and tell your other half to feel up a stallion's private parts."
  1870. >She tilts her head.
  1871. >"Even when they are technically yours? It is not like you were invading the privacy of somepony."
  1872. >You think really carefully about your reply.
  1873. >Because she is not wrong in a way, and there is certainly no valid precedence case for the situation you were in.
  1874. "Honestly, I have no idea if that counts."
  1875. >"Still, it may be a method to ease your clothing reservations, now that I think of it."
  1876. >Oh boy, does she start again?
  1877. >"In all seriousness, Anon."
  1878. "What? Lewdly fingering an avatar of myself is a therapy now?"
  1879. >"No, you do not have to go to such lengths. Just some harmless physical contact. I presumed that doing it in the real world could instil some mundanity into the whole situation for you."
  1880. >#deca.mare sounds like she really means what she is saying.
  1881. >Yet you are not exactly convinced of her idea.
  1882.  
  1883.  
  1884.  
  1885.  
  1886. >You are not all too fond of involving your pony alter ego in suggestive scenarios.
  1887. >And while that may have unintentionally happened on occasion, you still try to keep these situations to a minimum.
  1888. "I appreciate the attempt, but there's got to be another way."
  1889. >#deca.mare nods understandingly.
  1890. >She will honour your decision, even if it means more time investment.
  1891. >After all, neither of you wants to force the other into plainly discomforting situations that clearly go beyond the limit.
  1892. >You resume your stroll to your cryo unit.
  1893. >But before you get back into #deca.mare's both cold and yet also warming embrace, you kneel down for your habitual good luck hug.
  1894. >And as you two nestle up against one another, you start to whisper into her ear.
  1895. "I'm sure we'll laugh about all of this later on."
  1896. >Her reply is equally hushed.
  1897. >"Certainly, Anon."
  1898. >The two of you part with a gentle peck, and you climb into your high-tech bed.
  1899. >Only a small series of quick physical tests awaits you before you can enter the next phase.
  1900. >And fortunately for you, none of them will involve potentially questionable therapeutic practices.
  1901.  
  1902.  
  1903.  
  1904.  
  1905. 98
  1906.  
  1907. >Some time later, after your successful return to cryo "sleep".
  1908. >You have assumed control of your proxy and take #deca.mare's concluding tests.
  1909. >Most of them are trivial sport like exercises to screen "your" physical fitness and ensure that you can utilise all augmentations correctly.
  1910. >You even get to fly a slow round or two in the main hall, as it provides some decent space without much equipment that you could break.
  1911. >Although you have to mind the lowered gravity, you are experienced enough to prevent crashes from happening.
  1912. >Last comes a small number of tasks that involve tricks which could best be described as mental fine motor skills.
  1913. >You are supposed to imagine a movement that you would do as a human, even though you are currently controlling a different body.
  1914. >And to measure your success, you don a headband that is connected to a small gadget which in turn displays the action you are currently trying to imitate.
  1915. >The initial results are a bit clunky with delayed reactions, as the entire situation feels somewhat unnatural to you, yet you manage to operate it more or less precisely after maybe half an hour of experimenting.
  1916. >#deca.mare seems satisfied with what she sees.
  1917. >"Good enough for our purposes."
  1918. "Eh, could be better."
  1919. >"I would agree with you under other circumstances, but we have to make do with the resources at our disposal."
  1920. "True."
  1921. >You look at your forelimbs as you move them, and then at the machine.
  1922. >It emulates the arm movements as soon as you imagine them.
  1923. >"We have everything we need for the next stage. Do you want to take a break, or go on with our mock run?"
  1924. "Don't feel tired yet. I'd say lets keep going as long as we have tailwind."
  1925. >"As you wish, Anon. Here comes the equipment."
  1926. >You hear some noise coming from the airlock and watch the door sliding to the sides to make way for a single medium-sized transport unit.
  1927. >It yields one container of the same cargo class.
  1928.  
  1929.  
  1930.  
  1931.  
  1932. >The vehicle casually drives in your direction to halt right in front of you only moments later.
  1933. >A pair of clamps slowly lower the box in their grip and release the item as soon as it met the ground.
  1934. >#deca.mare trots towards the box and deactivates its lock.
  1935. >The small display confirms her action with a short visual cue.
  1936. >Then she opens the upper lid and reaches inside the box.
  1937. >You get closer and risk a glance into the interior as well.
  1938. >And you see #deca.mare grabbing a space suit with a design unlike any other.
  1939. >Based on your knowledge of its blueprints, the material composition is very similar to your own USC variant.
  1940. >However, it is the shape of the suit that sticks out.
  1941. >For it is not made for a biped.
  1942. >The profile of the clothing is perfectly adapted to the anatomy of a normal sized stallion.
  1943. >Most strikingly, yet also somewhat unsurprisingly, the suit sprouts four legs instead of two.
  1944. >The partially reinforced multi-layer fabric is designed to conveniently cover all four legs completely whilst keeping the loss of mobility for each limb to a minimum.
  1945. >Specialised soles, made of fabric, metal, and several interesting tools, are mounted on the tip of each leg, right where the hooves are.
  1946. >These can, if necessary, extend small claw-like spikes that pierce the ground, or create minor magnetic fields right beneath the user.
  1947. >Both are meant to be utilised as additional means to stabilise the wearer in tricky situations, as the claws can dig easily into rock, whereas the magnets can "attach" the pony to metal surfaces.
  1948. >Valuable life savers in crises to be sure, though you do not hope to need them any time soon.
  1949. >The two-parted middle section of the suit looks spacious enough to provide ample room for the equine user without looking bloated.
  1950. >Additionally, you spot a holding mechanism at the suit, roughly at the location where the back will be.
  1951.  
  1952.  
  1953.  
  1954.  
  1955. >It will bear a comparatively broad backpack that stores copious reserves of oxygen, a minor thrust unit, as well as some secondary support systems.
  1956. >Said holding is in turn neatly attached to the suit by a sturdy belt.
  1957. >The opposite end of the belt features an attachment for a lengthy cord, useful for outside missions.
  1958. >And the helmet is a technical masterpiece in its own right.
  1959. >This is the only compartment of the set which is made almost completely of hardened material.
  1960. >Its rounded shape vaguely resembles its human counterparts, but the sides are significantly stretched to adapt to the generally longer pony muzzle.
  1961. >Two pointy appendages at the top house the ears.
  1962. >Although they are not adjustable, the ear slots do have an advanced adaptable headphone device which can be linked to other systems, such as a ship radar.
  1963. >That way it can be set to translate certain targeting signals and create representative sounds that even indicate the relative position of an object to the suit, and hence the ship.
  1964. >And the final component, which quite possibly may also be the most important one, is the visor.
  1965. >Due to the ponies' rather long skulls, the transparent panel is almost reminiscent of a fighter craft canopy.
  1966. >This is rather practical in a way, as the visor is equipped with the same UI technology that #deca.mare has considered to integrate in your goggles.
  1967. >And it too has the ability to link with other systems to optimise the overall performance of both the systems and the user.
  1968. >As a last set of protective measures, a wearer can adjust how much light reaches the eyes via two different means.
  1969. >First, the transparency of the visor is partially adjustable to turn more shaded in order to dampen the effects of intense light sources.
  1970.  
  1971.  
  1972.  
  1973.  
  1974. >And second, in case of either too much brightness or almost complete darkness, one single command spreads a shield all over the visor, blocking the entire vision, and replacing it with an augmented representation of the environment with the help of the integrated UI.
  1975. >All in all a more than suitable tool for all your needs, as far as you are concerned.
  1976. >And you are going to be concerned very soon, as you will be the one to test it in practice.
  1977. >#deca.mare unpacks the thing, piece by piece.
  1978. >The singular parts are now all lying nearby on the floor.
  1979. >You quickly glance over them and come to a self-evident realisation.
  1980. >You have no damn clue as to how you can put them on.
  1981. "Uh, I think I'll need your help with this thing."
  1982. >"No problem, Anon. Come here."
  1983. >So you do.
  1984. >And the two of you get your proxy into #deca.mare latest invention.
  1985. >With her competent help, you first get clad in a specialised full-body undergarment with a ventilation system.
  1986. >It basically feels not much different than a casual cloth attire, but it does strike you as odd to wear in your current form.
  1987. >Especially since it underlines your shape in all its facets.
  1988. >#deca.mare chuckles politely.
  1989. >"You will be fine. Just make sure to not get aroused. Things could get cramped otherwise."
  1990. >You snarl in her direction.
  1991. >"Though the friction should not do much more than chafe lightly against..."
  1992. "#deca,..."
  1993. >"Yes, I will behave. This was just a friendly user advice. I have to inform you thoroughly, you know?"
  1994. "Yeah, I know. And I will manage unless someone blares lewd things on the comm or something."
  1995. >"Why, do you think that could happen?"
  1996. >You say nothing.
  1997. >#deca.mare smiles as she takes your silence for an answer and brings the next part with a friendly grin on her face.
  1998. >She first helps you into the rear half of the suit, then into the other, and lastly attaches the halves to one another.
  1999. >The larger part of your body is now covered by a formidable shell.
  2000. >"Hold still now."
  2001.  
  2002.  
  2003.  
  2004.  
  2005. >You nod and stop moving altogether.
  2006. >You feel something get dumped on your back with a soft thump.
  2007. >A few clicking and latching sounds tell you that you are now bearing the backpack.
  2008. >It has a considerable weight to it, though nothing that would impair your movement in any major fashion.
  2009. >Almost there.
  2010. >#deca,mare brings you the helmet and you slowly put it on.
  2011. >This requires a bit more precision than usual, as you have to somewhat slide your muzzle into the opening.
  2012. >Another click, and you are officially packed and ready for the vacuum.
  2013. >You hear a faint static intermission, followed by #deca.mare's voice.
  2014. >"Test. Test."
  2015. "All clear. Mic working too?"
  2016. >"Like a charm."
  2017. >You call up the UI to check its functions.
  2018. >The layout of everything is just as customisable as that of the fighter vessels, and the suit also possesses an in-built status system.
  2019. >You can check the condition of each system, as well as the health of your own body, at any time.
  2020. >All are green.
  2021. >You turn to #deca.mare and give her a hug.
  2022. >Your pose appears a little stilted due to the thick suit, but neither of you minds that little detail.
  2023. >"Have fun out there, Anon."
  2024. >You smile.
  2025. "Thanks. I'll be back for supper."
  2026. >Then you move into the airlock section and wait for the doors to close.
  2027. >They do, shortly thereafter.
  2028. >The sealed chamber gets depressurised, and the massive outer doors start to rumble.
  2029. >Even after all this time on board, you still find them impressive.
  2030. >Partially because they even cause you to shake lightly in a pony proxy.
  2031. >But you figure this is a good opportunity to test the magnet fields.
  2032. >Once activated, they easily attract you to the metal ground beneath, stabilising your body enough to nullify the tremors of the blast doors.
  2033. >The first test was a success.
  2034. >Once the way is free to tread, you get out of the airlock and are instantaneously greeted by a transport unit that is parked at the intersection.
  2035.  
  2036.  
  2037.  
  2038.  
  2039. >But unlike the machines during your previous "trip", you know that this one is not simulated.
  2040. >No, today you get a taxi.
  2041. >"You can use the magnet fields on the platform as well, Anon. The shielding of the electronics will prevent any potential damage."
  2042. "Will do."
  2043. >So you approach the unit and carefully scramble on the container platform.
  2044. >Then you turn into the direction the transport is heading, spread your legs in a wide stance, and "lock" them in place with the help of the magnets.
  2045. "Green."
  2046. >The metal construct underneath you starts to accelerate.
  2047. >It rolls along the corridor on the exact same path that you had taken on your very first day on board.
  2048. >You know what is coming.
  2049. >And you even recognise the entrance to the lower maintenance tunnel before your taxi slows down.
  2050. >As soon as it has come to a stop, you detach yourself and get off.
  2051. >#deca.mare clears the entrance into the shaft for you.
  2052. >This time you do not have to bow down to traverse the system.
  2053. >You more or less casually trot along until you reach the docking bay.
  2054. >And there you find your ship, orderly assembled, and put in a docking pen.
  2055. >You know for a fact that another vessel is currently "parked" near the mother ship for the time being to make place for your fighter.
  2056. >So you do not tarry for too long, as the deployed vessel can dock and refuel when you are out in space.
  2057. "Okay, I'm here. Build the bridge."
  2058. >"Yes, Anon."
  2059. >One of mechanical arms at the wall begins to stir.
  2060. >It moves towards the ground to grab a slightly modified medium sized container.
  2061. >And modified in this context means that the upper lid has been removed.
  2062. >Since you know the plan, you approach the container to carefully step inside.
  2063. >The box has just about enough space for you to fit in.
  2064. >You fire up the magnets once again, and give a signal to #deca.mare.
  2065. >The mechanical arm moves the container, and you with it.
  2066. >It brings you straight to the hull of the fighter, right next to the opened canopy.
  2067.  
  2068.  
  2069.  
  2070.  
  2071. >"Bridge complete. You can pass safely."
  2072. "Thanks."
  2073. >You leave your platform to enter the cockpit.
  2074. >And thanks to your advantageous angle, you do not have to struggle to get in.
  2075. >You cut the power to the magnets and take your seat.
  2076. >Sitting down on your haunches, you can clearly tell that the seat does not feel as usual, even through the space suit.
  2077. >It has nothing to do with the interior of the cockpit though, as the design has not been altered in the slightest.
  2078. >This is caused solely by your proxy.
  2079. >But it is alright.
  2080. >You are back in your old vessel, and both of you are better off than you were on your last mission.
  2081. >In this brief glimpse of serenity, you close your eyes for a second to take in the moment as it is.
  2082. >About half a minute later, you seal the canopy shut, ready to start out.
  2083. "Alright, get me moving."
  2084. >"Understood."
  2085. >Your pen comes to life around you.
  2086. >The massive metal structure accelerates on its rails.
  2087. >It brings you closer to the outer hull, and into launching position.
  2088. >You use the time to boot up the system with a remote command via your suit.
  2089. >As a result, the screens on board light up properly, possibly for the first time in months.
  2090. >Now begins the weird part.
  2091. >Since the fighter is designed for actual manual input, you have to use the remote physical emulator that you were training with on the command deck.
  2092. >Some minor and virtually invisible alterations to the mechanisms allow you to imagine an action that you would do with your human body, and the system actually translates this into a valid input.
  2093. >This is best way to do it efficiently.
  2094. >Because despite all your training with a pony body, you will never properly steer a terran fighter with it.
  2095. >"A shame that we could not replace the computer system without breaking down the entire ship. It would have been easier than this."
  2096. "Eh, I pay that price if that means to preserve the vessel in its current form. I don't want to lose that too."
  2097.  
  2098.  
  2099.  
  2100.  
  2101. >"Believe me, Anon. I understand you. And it has something constructive to it as well. I appreciate the opportunity to test our new hardware."
  2102. "Yeah, the space suit for ponies is an interesting experience to say the least."
  2103. >"Positively or negatively interesting?"
  2104. "Positive so far."
  2105. >"Glad to hear that."
  2106. >A pause.
  2107. >"Primed for departure in thirty seconds."
  2108. >You take the chance to test the scanners with the augmented vision of the suit.
  2109. >And sure enough, you spot the launching slot and the outer blast doors.
  2110. >"Anon, I see you are still running tests. Do you need more time?"
  2111. "Nope, it's fine. Just curious what these functions can do in practice."
  2112. >"Oh, you will find out."
  2113. >You somehow get the impression that this sounded rather foreboding.
  2114. >Even without the mentioning of any innuendo or other suggestive things.
  2115. >"Nothing of that sort, Anon. But I do have a surprise for you."
  2116. "What surprise?
  2117. >"Patience. I bet you will like it."
  2118. >While you wonder what #deca.mare might mean, she prepares the last steps for your departure.
  2119. >A small text message appears on the side of your UI.
  2120. >It tells you that you can start any time now.
  2121. >You inhale and hold your breath as you let your gaze wander around the familiar instruments.
  2122. >You breathe out with your eyes shut.
  2123. "Well then, let's see what we can get out of this old lady."
  2124. >"Old lady?"
  2125. >#deca.mare voice sounds rather confused.
  2126. >You grin as you spot an opening.
  2127. "What? Are you getting jealous?"
  2128. >"In competition against an M3? Certainly not."
  2129. "Well, maybe you feel threatened because I know her longer than you."
  2130. >"You do you, Anon. But I am convinced your 'old lady' will make terrible breakfasts."
  2131. "Yeah, probably. But I know how to bake an excellent cake with the weapons."
  2132. >#deca.mare and you laugh together.
  2133. "Okay. Ship is online, everything responds. Send me out, #deca."
  2134. >"Have a good flight, Anon. And please bring yourself back in one piece."
  2135. "Afraid I could ruin that handsome Pegasus of your making?"
  2136.  
  2137.  
  2138.  
  2139.  
  2140. >"It sure would be a shame. Especially since you did not get to appreciate its anatomy yet."
  2141. >#deca.mare does not give you the time to formulate an answer.
  2142. >She simply activates the launching procedure.
  2143. >Off you go.
  2144. >Well, this is one way to end a conversation with a snippy comment.
  2145. >Your ship is blasted into space and left to its own devices from here on out.
  2146. >And so are you.
  2147. >You discard the last joke as you enter your serious mode.
  2148. >You focus your eyes on the handle and imagine that you grab the thing with your currently not quite present and also pretty much frozen hands.
  2149. >A silent notification in your mind confirms your action.
  2150. "Okay, let's test navigation first."
  2151. >You hit the navigational thrusters to dampen the speed of the initial shot.
  2152. >They comply smoothly.
  2153. >Your speed is dropping, and rapidly at that.
  2154. >#deca.mare did not lie when she said that the upgrades have affected the performance.
  2155. >The M3 now almost reacts like a #deca ship.
  2156. >But only almost.
  2157. >You go on.
  2158. >You test the side thrusters, fly turns, barrel rolls, rotations, and pull some completely spontaneous tricks.
  2159. >All of this passes without encountering any problem.
  2160. >You proceed through every system in a professional fashion.
  2161. >Scanners, sensors, shields, and even the weapons.
  2162. >No complications.
  2163. >Finally, you come to the jump engines.
  2164. >But that is where #deca.mare intervenes.
  2165. >"Not yet, Anon. There is one other system left to test."
  2166. "Uhm, what?"
  2167. >You check the list.
  2168. "No. There isn't. We've been through them all."
  2169. >"That is where my surprise comes into play. Here."
  2170. >Another column appears on your tactical screen.
  2171. >Module activated: Cloaking Device.
  2172. "Say what now?"
  2173. >"Indeed. Your eyes do not deceive you."
  2174. "Does that thing do what I think it does?"
  2175. >"Why do you not test it out first? No worries, you cannot do anything wrong with it."
  2176. >You trust #deca.mare's assessment.
  2177. >A simple command activates the module.
  2178.  
  2179.  
  2180.  
  2181.  
  2182. >You register a strange alien sound that you have never heard before, but nothing else happens.
  2183. >Only the tactical notes that the cloak is active.
  2184. "And now?"
  2185. >"Look."
  2186. >#deca.mare sends you a transmission request.
  2187. >A new screen pops up once you have accepted, showing a video feed of... space.
  2188. >You see nothing but stars.
  2189. "An explanation would be nice. What am I looking at?"
  2190. >"You."
  2191. "Come again?"
  2192. >"You are looking at your ship from my perspective."
  2193. "You aren't pulling my leg now, are you?"
  2194. >"No, this is real."
  2195. >You carefully stand up in your seat to get a better look at the hull of your own ship.
  2196. >Your vessel has not turned invisible for you.
  2197. >"The device creates a field that distorts the visible spectrum and, for the lack of a better term, "muffles" the energy signature of your ship."
  2198. "So basically invisibility."
  2199. >"Sort of, but an imperfect one. Strong scanners can theoretically still pick up a faint trace. But it prevents a clear signature as well as visible confirmation, which drastically reduces the threat of an intense investigation or an alert."
  2200. >You nod.
  2201. "Because when further scans don't find anything if we bail out in the meantime..."
  2202. >"Then nothing will hint at us, or any actual activity for that matter. But almost needless to say, the field will provide no protection if you fire a weapon or jump into a grid, even when it is fully active. The energy output is simply too high."
  2203. "I can't imagine people will miss the projectiles or the jump tunnel either. These don't pop up out of the blue."
  2204. >You pause for a moment to think about #deca.mare newest revelation.
  2205. >She notices what is going in your head.
  2206. >"You have a question."
  2207. "Yeah. When did you invent this thing?"
  2208. >"In all due honesty, I did not. Someone else invented the concept. All I did was 'lending' the blueprints of the prototype. Made a few improvements here and there later on, and built one out of curiosity. It sat in my inventory for years."
  2209.  
  2210.  
  2211.  
  2212.  
  2213. "Really now? I've never heard of this technology before."
  2214. >#deca.mare laughs coyly.
  2215. >"Maybe because knowledge of this technology is severely classified. Only a handful of high profile pilots in the intelligence branches have access to it. And you are now one of them. Congratulations on your promotion, Anon."
  2216. "Heh, that's not how it works. I'd rather get branded as pirate or so for using an unauthorised tech like this."
  2217. >"I prefer my version. Sounds nicer. Though an eye patch may look good on you too."
  2218. "But why didn't you integrate this thing into the other ships too?"
  2219. >"This experimental variant was specifically made for terran ships. I have never expanded the design to fit other fighters. There was no need to."
  2220. "And the mother ship?"
  2221. >"Unfeasible. The field can only reduce a signature up to a certain point. Capital ships are too massive to make it work properly. And besides, the energy costs would also grow almost exponentially due to the necessary expansion factor of the field."
  2222. >A thought crosses your mind.
  2223. "You know, I almost suspect you counted on me flying the ship from the get go to test your tech. Say, you didn't secretly try to make me do it on purpose?"
  2224. >"Not at all. But like I said, it provides us with the perfect opportunity to test the hardware in practice. And I am convinced that it could help us enormously in... you know."
  2225. >Fair point.
  2226. >One additional layer of protection is always nice.
  2227. >You decide to drop the discussion and get on with the tests.
  2228. "And, how are the readings?"
  2229. >"The device works within the expected parameters. It does partially strain your onboard energy capacities, but the grid remains stable. We can proceed to the last test."
  2230. "Roger."
  2231. >You power down the module to divert your attention as well as the ship's energy supplies to the jumpdrive.
  2232. >A quick stress test is in order as the final examination of your ship.
  2233. >If it works out, you have the proof that the ship is fully operational once more.
  2234.  
  2235.  
  2236.  
  2237.  
  2238. >And the two of you have already agreed on a preset spot near Equestria.
  2239. >You are going to perform a few jumps back and forth, with only a short break between each trek to allow the machine to cool down.
  2240. >Sounds easy enough in theory.
  2241. >But that vessel has a certain reputation now.
  2242. "Man, I almost died when I used this thing the last time."
  2243. >"Fortunately something you do not have to be afraid of any longer."
  2244. "Right. Still haunting though."
  2245. >You carefully imagine to manually enter the coordinates you have chosen earlier.
  2246. "So into the fray it is."
  2247. >#deca.mare gives her clearance signal.
  2248. >And you give the command.
  2249. >The M3 shakes and rumbles around you in the typical pre-jump fashion.
  2250. >And for the first time in quite a while, you get a queasy feeling about it.
  2251. >Not close to a panic or the like, but still somewhat alarmed.
  2252. >#deca.mare is aware of this of course.
  2253. >"You will see, everything is going to be fine. My readings show no signs of anomalies."
  2254. >You take a breath and banish your doubts.
  2255. >You two have restored and improved the ship to a new height of performance and quality.
  2256. >It will work out, period.
  2257. >The gradually intensifying tremors and the subsequent flash do their work.
  2258. >Your ship is pulled into the corridor and ejected on the other side without an issue.
  2259. >Once you are out on the other side, you bring the vessel to a halt.
  2260. >You scan the perimeter and request a report from the mother ship to see where you ended up.
  2261. >It is right where you wanted to be.
  2262. >You hit the thrusters to turn the into the direction from whence you came.
  2263. >A tiny blue dot floats in the distance.
  2264. >And your charts confirm that you are indeed looking at Equestria.
  2265. >You lean back and exhale in relief.
  2266. >#deca.mare messages you via the comm.
  2267. >"Pin point delivery. And no complication whatsoever. I think we can call the first one another success."
  2268. >You nod.
  2269. "I'll be on my way back in a few minutes. Don't want to burden the thing too much."
  2270. >"Agreed."
  2271.  
  2272.  
  2273.  
  2274.  
  2275. >You set a timer and wait until it has run out.
  2276. >Then you return home and repeat the same routine several times over, and sometimes even with slightly reduced cooldown margins.
  2277. >Eventually, both #deca.mare and you are satisfied with the performance.
  2278. >You jump back to a location near Equestria's orbit and let the fighter slowly float towards the mother ship.
  2279. >You quickly glance at a makeshift construction that orbits the moon on a stable trajectory.
  2280. >It has the shape of a docking station, although a scantily equipped one.
  2281. >The construction only has some basic features installed yet.
  2282. >More will come at a later date, but this is all you could do in the limited time that you had to spend on it.
  2283. >Still, the station is more or less functional already.
  2284. >You sigh loudly.
  2285. >There is something you need to address before you fly back.
  2286. >And both of you know that this is a proverbial elephant in the room.
  2287. "So... this is it then?"
  2288. >#deca.mare hesitates a moment before she answers.
  2289. >"It is. We have... removed all the obstacles in our way."
  2290. "The physical ones, maybe. But what about you?"
  2291. >A sound of blowing air reaches you through the comm, as if someone puffs into a microphone.
  2292. >"I will make do."
  2293. >A pause.
  2294. >"Somehow."
  2295. >You want to step in, but #deca.mare does not let you.
  2296. >"No. No more procrastination. We have to do it at some point anyway. So better now than later."
  2297. >You try to raise your voice a second time, but you get blocked yet again.
  2298. >"This is my final word on the matter. Unless you want to back down."
  2299. >You think about what she said.
  2300. >And you come to one clear conclusion, as inconvenient as it is.
  2301. >To proceed would mean to put #deca.mare under some enormous stress, perhaps more than she may realise herself.
  2302. >But backing down would mean to let her down in the moment she decided to tackle her problems.
  2303. >And you could not do that.
  2304. >Not as her lover.
  2305. >And most certainly not even as her friend either.
  2306.  
  2307.  
  2308.  
  2309.  
  2310. >No, you have promised to stay by her side and support her, no matter what might come at you two.
  2311. >And whilst things will undoubtedly get turbulent very soon, you see it as your moral duty to weather the storm with #deca.mare.
  2312. >Nothing else would be acceptable.
  2313. "Okay. We do it your way. When do you want to start?"
  2314. >"Tomorrow. We should get some rest before we head out. Because our next flight will be very taxing for both of us."
  2315. >That is the prime example for an understatement in your opinion.
  2316. >But she is right.
  2317. >You fire up the engines of your fighter to accelerate.
  2318. "Clear up the docking bay. I'm coming home."
  2319. >"No need to, Anon. The pen is free for you."
  2320. >So without further ado, you fly back home.
  2321. >You will tug the two of you to bed right after you have returned.
  2322. >You must do a lot preparatory cuddle work tonight, and you figure that you need all the time you can get for it.
  2323.  
  2324.  
  2325.  
  2326.  
  2327. 99
  2328.  
  2329. >You wake with an uneasy sentiment in your heart.
  2330. >This day is going to be bleak, possibly even grim.
  2331. >But you must not allow this worry to sway your resolve.
  2332. >Everything relies on you mustering the strength for both #deca.mare and yourself.
  2333. >You tell her to stay in bed as you prepare the breakfast.
  2334. >The scenery you choose is the inviting Canterlot Castle balcony with a perfect view on Equestria's endless green forests and clear glittering rivers.
  2335. >However, it soon becomes very clear that the nice appearance of your gesture cannot hide the poignant reality outside the simulation.
  2336. >It is not enough to distract #deca.mare from reality.
  2337. >And her mirthless mood reflects her feelings accordingly.
  2338. >So the two of you eat your breakfast in almost torturing silence.
  2339. >Or rather, #deca.mare is eating hers while you constantly hold and hug her; you only take an occasional bite of your meal here and there.
  2340. >The tastes do not mean much to you at the moment though.
  2341. >A dour aura surrounds you two even before you have actually lifted a single finger in reality.
  2342. >Should you say something?
  2343. >If so, what could you say?
  2344. >The quiet is pestering your nerves, but you fail to find the right words for a mare lover with whom you are basically about to commit grave robbery for the sole purpose of tech-necromancy.
  2345. >Regardless of the good cause behind your actions, these are some very heavy deeds at the best of times.
  2346. >Especially so when you will clean out a resting place of a family member.
  2347. >Granted, the #deca network is not exactly comparable to a human family, and you are only "related" to them by your association with #deca.mare, but even a family-in-law is a family of sorts.
  2348. >Plus, you technically have some ties to them other than your personal encounter with #deca.mare.
  2349. >After all, your two lineages do share a common history in the past, albeit on less than cordial terms.
  2350.  
  2351.  
  2352.  
  2353.  
  2354. >A rather morbid strike of inspiration comes to your mind in the form of a very macabre joke.
  2355. >At least everything stays in the family this way.
  2356. >You do not say these words out loud, and you regret to have even thought of that sentence in the first place, but that does not prevent the message from reaching her automatically.
  2357. >But she simply waves it away with a wordless flick of her hoof.
  2358. >#deca.mare seems to be collected enough to understand that giving credence to it would cause more harm than to simply shrug it off.
  2359. >She is apparently not angry with you or anything of that sort.
  2360. >It looks as if her mind is flat out preoccupied with the situation at large.
  2361. >And you assume that the act of hard-pressed stoicism is her way of dealing with the current stress.
  2362. >No matter what, #deca.mare's broody mood is not her fault.
  2363. >Nevertheless, you curse yourself for that blunder.
  2364. >Thankfully, this pitiful excuse of a get-together ends very soon.
  2365. >But unfortunately, it only marks the beginning of today's gauntlet.
  2366. >You leave the stunted breakfast session behind to get to work on the real tough cookie of the day.
  2367. >Together you first go through the everyday procedures on board of the ship before you are eventually able to focus on the hard part.
  2368. >Some sporadic words and phrases leave #deca.mare's lips during your work, but they almost come across as lost thoughts, devoid of power.
  2369. >Also, she only ever speaks out when she needs to say something regarding your tasks.
  2370. >A whole series of nearly mute and awkward routine tests later, you board your M3 fighter to leave the hangar.
  2371. >The launch mechanism propels you out.
  2372. >You receive a comm request, less than a minute after your start.
  2373. >Curious as to what #deca.mare might say, you accept.
  2374. >Perhaps her mood has lightened up a little.
  2375.  
  2376.  
  2377.  
  2378.  
  2379. >But a simple sentence dashes that notion quickly.
  2380. >"You know what to do?"
  2381. >Well, there goes your hope for an attempt of calming her down with small talk.
  2382. "Yeah. It's not me I'm worried about."
  2383. >You get no answer.
  2384. >So you go on with a heavy heart.
  2385. >This is something with which #deca.mare wants to struggle herself, as it seems.
  2386. >Once again, you carefully brake your initial momentum and turn the vessel around.
  2387. >You fly up to the mother ship, aim for a section near a pre-selected secondary blast door, turn your fighter to face the outer hull with its "belly", and adjust your speed to match that of your home base.
  2388. "I'm in position. Drop the first package."
  2389. >"Acknowledged, Anon."
  2390. >Maybe it is just your wishful thinking, but you believe that #deca.mare's tone sounds a little less stressed than before.
  2391. >Still, you only get these two words.
  2392. >Your sensors inform you that the doors "beneath" your ship are moving.
  2393. >A small cubical object gets jettisoned through the opening, slowly floating directly towards your position.
  2394. >It is a newly crafted beacon unit, made for one specific purpose.
  2395. >Knowing this in advance, you check the alignment of your vessel in relation to the ejected freight once again to confirm that everything is correct.
  2396. >Then you wait until the cube makes contact with your hull.
  2397. >It is actively looking for something to grab with small mechanical arms of its very own.
  2398. >And the moment it is in your reach, the cube grapples you, neatly securing itself in the process.
  2399. >The machine is far more gentle to your vessel than #deca.mare's ship was on your first day, yet you still feel a moderate bump resonating through the cockpit.
  2400. >But this is no problem; the sensors detect no damage whatsoever.
  2401. >As expected.
  2402. >The first step is done.
  2403.  
  2404.  
  2405.  
  2406.  
  2407. >Now you have to act.
  2408. "Package in tow. I'm moving out."
  2409. >"Understood. Good luck out there."
  2410. "Thanks."
  2411. >"And Anon?"
  2412. "Yeah?"
  2413. >"Sorry for my... misdemeanour. I owe you one when this over."
  2414. "Don't worry. I know it's the stress. We'll talk about it all in peace and quiet when I'm back, okay?"
  2415. >"I am looking forward to it. Be careful out there."
  2416. >You nod quietly in response and steer your vessel away from the mother ship with moderate speed.
  2417. >You perform one last quick analysis of all systems.
  2418. >Green.
  2419. >You set the coordinates for your jump, waiting until the fighter has gained a safe distance to the capital ship.
  2420. >Then you give the order.
  2421. "Okay, show time."
  2422. >The cockpit around you fills with the sounds of the impending jump.
  2423. >It is the signal telling you that you are in this dance for good now.
  2424. >You simply have to prevent hell from breaking loose upon the two of you.
  2425. >And Equestria by extension too, of course.
  2426. >Your final thought before you are dragged through the corridor is that you alone are now practically holding the fates of millions in your hands.
  2427. >Yours and #deca.mare's directly.
  2428. >But also that of all future ponies.
  2429. >And not to forget the memory of those who perished centuries ago.
  2430. >Talk about work pressure.
  2431. >However, the jump brings your mind quickly back to reality.
  2432. >You are too busy to develop a panic, and this is the best thing which could happen to you right now.
  2433. >You gaze at the resting bulk of metal right in front of you.
  2434. >You have been here not so long ago.
  2435. >Though your memories of that day are interesting to say the least.
  2436. "Hello, #de... Sigma. Didn't expect to see me again so soon, hm?"
  2437. >Unsurprisingly, you receive no response.
  2438. >You did not even have opened a comm channel before saying this.
  2439. >Yet you quickly get back to business.
  2440. >First things first, sector scan.
  2441. >Nothing out of the ordinary.
  2442. >Judging from the intel you have gathered for your last trip to this sector, the next routine scan of this perimeter is due in a couple of hours.
  2443.  
  2444.  
  2445.  
  2446.  
  2447. >Not the most generous of time frames to work with, yet you can do it if you remain disciplined.
  2448. >Even though the cloak should protect you from the scanners, especially if you stay close to the wreck while the surveillance systems are doing their work, you are not going to push your luck.
  2449. >The satellites may be primed specifically to pick up #deca activity, which makes your M3 a better pick than anything else in your arsenal by default, but these things are still very sharp for terran tech.
  2450. >As perhaps the best funded disaster premonition system in the entirety of human history, they could easily pick up your ship if you commit a blunder.
  2451. >So better safe than sorry.
  2452. >You activate the cloaking device and set a course to the battered shape of #deca.sigma.
  2453. >Despite the limited size of the dampening field, it should just be enough to hide your small attachment as well.
  2454. >And thanks to your previous excursion, you are equipped with a very detailed plan as to where you must attach your delivery onto the hull of the inert terraformer.
  2455. >After all, #deca.mare saw the wreck firsthand a couple of weeks ago.
  2456. >So she knew exactly what you two are dealing with, and had therefore all the information she needed for preparations.
  2457. >You load up the list that #deca.mare made for you.
  2458. >The adaptive UI of your helmet immediately translates said list into a number of markers that are spread on the entirety of the ship surface.
  2459. >A dozen bright blue spheres appear in your vision.
  2460. >You have to install your delivery in one of them.
  2461. >Which one you choose does not matter at the end of day.
  2462. >For you have to place one box in each of them anyway.
  2463. >That means twelve trips back and forth.
  2464. >An arduous task, but you volunteered for it.
  2465. >And you would rather seal your mouth before you even consider to sigh.
  2466. >Since this is your fist flight, you pick a signal near the starboard hangar bay.
  2467. >Fairly exposed, and easy to reach.
  2468. >Even with the partially dangling wreckage around the main body.
  2469.  
  2470.  
  2471.  
  2472.  
  2473. >Shortly before you arrive, you gradually slow down for a precise stop on point.
  2474. >And you halt right in the centre of the mark.
  2475. >A handful of seconds later, the jump beacon confirms your position automatically.
  2476. >It loosens the grip around your hull as it takes a "leap".
  2477. >As a result, the beacon drifts towards the bulk of the terraformer and safely fastens itself onto its hull instead.
  2478. >You receive a confirmation message.
  2479. >It reads: Beacons deployed 1/12."
  2480. >You take a short breath of relief and collect your thoughts.
  2481. >Then you check the mission timer.
  2482. >You needed less than a quarter of an hour for everything.
  2483. >If you are able to speed up your work flow, and be it only a tiny bit, then you will be out of here before the sweep is performed.
  2484. >So far, so good.
  2485. >You turn about and leave the wreck behind.
  2486. >You scan the system again to make sure you are still undisturbed.
  2487. >Then you drop the cloak and prepare for your jump back.
  2488. >You are greeted by an intact reflection of the same vessel you have seen on the other side; a glaring reminder as to what is at stake.
  2489. >The crass juxtaposition is as direct as it is intense, especially since you realise that you will cycle through these two extremes over and over.
  2490. >It sends some chills down your spine, but you force yourself out of it.
  2491. >"Are you feeling well, Anon? I register a spike in your mental stress levels."
  2492. "I'm fine. Been through more stressful flights in my lifetime."
  2493. >"Alright. But please tell me if something is awry."
  2494. >It isn't. I swear."
  2495. >And even if something were awry, #deca.mare is no real position to help you.
  2496. >You return to the outer blast door for the next package.
  2497. >The routine is exactly the same as before.
  2498. >And again, you gain some distance to leave the sector.
  2499. >You deploy the beacon at another mark and return.
  2500. >Then you do the same thing nine times more.
  2501. >More than an hour after you have set off, you finally await the last package to float your way.
  2502.  
  2503.  
  2504.  
  2505.  
  2506. >You check your current flight time in your logs.
  2507. "We're making good time."
  2508. >"No, Anon. You are making good time. This great work is all your doing."
  2509. >You appreciate the flattery, yet you still have a mission to focus on.
  2510. "Thanks. Do you think we can set up our jig before the next sweep strikes?"
  2511. >"Yes. That stage of the operation is the fastest one."
  2512. "How much time do you need?"
  2513. >"Maybe a minute to calibrate the devices. And about another one or two until the construct is stable. The rest is up to you."
  2514. >You try to evaluate yourself.
  2515. >Do you think you are able to play your part this quickly?
  2516. >Or should you wait until the next sweep has checked on the sector?
  2517. >You decide to do it now.
  2518. >The mission will not get any less rough if you wait.
  2519. >And waiting would only prolong the suspense and stress for both of you.
  2520. "Nope, no time like the present."
  2521. >You go on your twelfth journey to the wreck.
  2522. >You take another long and hard look at the ship.
  2523. >This will be the last time you will ever see it like this.
  2524. >And even though #deca.mare is very fond of preserving things, you for your part are pretty happy to get it out of this resting place and see it put to good use.
  2525. >If only for the fact that seeing it in its current state is a grim reminder of how things could turn out if they go south.
  2526. >None of you two are safe with what you have at your disposal right now, of that you must stay fully aware.
  2527. >Remaining undetected is the only real lifeline you have.
  2528. >All the more reason to get this operation done as smoothly as possible.
  2529. >You arrive at the last mark on your HUD to deploy the device.
  2530. >And like its eleven predecessors, it sticks perfectly on the bruised metal.
  2531. >With all pieces now literally in place, you fly your ship into a safe distance, bring it to a stop, and turn the vessel around to observe the scenery.
  2532. >Then you send the ready signal to #deca.mare.
  2533.  
  2534.  
  2535.  
  2536.  
  2537. >Her confirmation comes in the form of a dozen new energy signatures that appear on your sensors right in front of you.
  2538. >Needless to say, this is also your cue to stay put and to not get near the capital ship anymore.
  2539. >You watch in contemplating silence as the devices are gradually building up their power levels.
  2540. >And knowing what will happen in a few moments, you increase the shade of your visor as a precautionary measure.
  2541. >Because things will get really bright when the beacons are fully charged.
  2542. >You look at the readings of your scanners.
  2543. >Fifty percent.
  2544. >The number rises rapidly and consistently within seconds.
  2545. >A very familiar aura is forming around the vessel in front of you.
  2546. >It is the largest one you have seen up to this point.
  2547. >Meaning that the transfer will be the brightest one you have come across so far.
  2548. >Seventy.
  2549. >You quickly decide to stay on the safe side and outright skip to activating the shield of your helmet.
  2550. >The interior interface quickly recreates the scenery around you, showing you a precise facsimile of the cockpit as well as the world beyond.
  2551. >Ninety.
  2552. >The terraformer is practically brimming with light at this point.
  2553. "Oh boy, this won't be gentle."
  2554. >Only your instruments reply with a simple message.
  2555. >Initiating jump.
  2556. >And the jump beacons do their work.
  2557. >A bright flash covers the entirety of your canopy, completely blocking the view on anything outside the ship.
  2558. >The light stings in your eyes, but not to such an extent that you have to fear any lasting damage.
  2559. >Still, this is already the reduced version adapted to your convenience, similar to certain scenes inside the simulation.
  2560. >The light of the jump corridor fades quickly though, taking all traces of a capital ship at this location with it.
  2561. >Only the calm void of space remains.
  2562. >Which means the gloves are off now, and the chips are lying on the table.
  2563. >You have not even a second to lose.
  2564. >You send out a quick inquiry, verifying the success of the jump.
  2565.  
  2566.  
  2567.  
  2568.  
  2569. >The remains of #deca.sigma have made their way to an intermediate sector without a problem.
  2570. >Good news, but you must attend to something much more important before you can even dare to pay any further attention to the ship.
  2571. >So you send out the second signal.
  2572. "Bring the jig, #deca."
  2573. >"On its way, Anon. Please keep your position."
  2574. >So you wait while #deca.mare does her final active part in this project.
  2575. >Everything else is your show, for better or worse.
  2576. >The tension is bothering you; as long as #deca.mare has not sent the thing over, there is still the risk that she might falter.
  2577. >You would be really pressed for time then.
  2578. >But she delivers quickly, thankfully.
  2579. >Your sensors register an emerging corridor.
  2580. >It is not as bright as the first one, yet still a considerable flash to behold at such a relative short range.
  2581. >The jump corridor unearths your "jig".
  2582. >Your former prized asteroid has entered the sector.
  2583. >But it does not look quite the same anymore.
  2584. >Disregarding the jump beacons which were needed to move the large rock this quickly, its surface and interior caves are now chock-full with technological gadgets.
  2585. >These are not of the common #deca tech variant.
  2586. >Whilst the machines are designed to be efficient for their purpose, the overarching design is a completely different one.
  2587. >It is much rougher and far less refined than the high-level technology which #deca.mare usually uses.
  2588. >They even come with some minor design imperfections.
  2589. >The faults you included do not impair the functionality of the devices, both in short and long terms, but it shall convey the impression that some really lazy designer built those things.
  2590. >In fact, the machines look downright primitive, all things considered.
  2591. >This a deliberate choice on your part though.
  2592.  
  2593.  
  2594.  
  2595.  
  2596. >Should a patrol or something similar ever fly into this sector and examine the asteroid, they shall not find a single thing that looks like #deca tech.
  2597. >A trick of diversion, meant to make the list of potential perpetrators as long and ambiguous as possible, whilst also concealing the true option so that it looks like the least likely one.
  2598. >Of course, this is a gambit of sorts, but by the time someone might send an inspection team, you will be, hopefully, gone from this perimeter for a very long time.
  2599. >The longer, the better.
  2600. >But it helps that one directive of the jig is primed to fry the systems and blow the generators if someone interacts with the installation without the correct codes.
  2601. >And literally nobody knows where to search for you anyway, which is another bonus.
  2602. >You breathe in and out, then you get back to work.
  2603. >There are still some steps you have to take before you can leave safely with your loot.
  2604. >First step, eradicate the glaring hints of your, or rather, #deca.mare's involvement.
  2605. >The jump beacons have to go.
  2606. >Not only have they served their purpose, they are also the only pieces which could give you away.
  2607. >But the two of you have prepared for this.
  2608. >You mentally activate the kill switch of the beacons.
  2609. >They detach themselves from the rock, floating into space.
  2610. >Then they start a self-destruct sequence, timed to automatically detonate the beacons after a few minutes.
  2611. >#deca.mare calculated that they need about three minutes to reach an acceptable distance, so you put another two on top of that, just to be sure.
  2612. >And naturally you check where exactly the little time bombs are floating.
  2613. >It would be less than ideal to have one right next to you when it turns itself into a cloud of scrap and dust.
  2614. >None of them comes your way.
  2615. >Good.
  2616. >With that problem out of the world, you establish a connection to the machinery on the rock.
  2617. >Their convoluted interior segments spring to life, step by step.
  2618.  
  2619.  
  2620.  
  2621.  
  2622. >The machines should be able to work automatically once they are activated, but you stay in the sector until you are convinced that they produce precisely what you want them to.
  2623. >A vast selection of contraptions begin their operation cycle in quick succession.
  2624. >Solar arrays for energy collection, energy field generators, batteries, dozens of internal sensors and monitoring systems, and even some uniquely rigged shield generators.
  2625. >The latter are the most strange, but also the most important part of your plan.
  2626. >For they shall not create a protective layer against energy bursts or projectiles.
  2627. >No, these are supposed to protect against prying eyes.
  2628. >At least in a metaphorical sense of the word.
  2629. >#deca.mare has charged the batteries before you set out, so you should hopefully see some results soon.
  2630. >And indeed, your sensors pick up a field that surrounds the asteroid.
  2631. >But not only that, it also expands beyond the form of the rock itself.
  2632. >It almost resembles a cylinder, spreading an obvious signature grid equally in two opposing directions.
  2633. >Your sensors confirm it.
  2634. >The asteroid itself has disappeared from your radar.
  2635. >Instead, you can only detect a seemingly perfect cylindrical signal on your sector map.
  2636. >You grin like jester who just found the joke of the century.
  2637. >While you are hell-bent on making your own presence unknown with a dampening cloaking device, this thing does the exact opposite.
  2638. >It expands its own presence to look bigger than it really is.
  2639. >How do you call such a thing?
  2640. >A reverse cloak, maybe?
  2641. "Heh, this will fool them. Can't go to look for something which never went missing, right?"
  2642. >No reply.
  2643. >In any case, your immediate work in the danger zone is done.
  2644. >Better get out quickly and catch up with #deca.sigma.
  2645. >You drop the cloak to get ready to jump.
  2646. >The greatest risks may lie behind you for now, but the hardest part of your personal task still lies ahead.
  2647.  
  2648.  
  2649.  
  2650.  
  2651. >And judging from #deca.mare's predominant silence, you cannot expect her to swoop in like she did the last time.
  2652. >You simply have to endure until everything is done, come hell or high water.
  2653. >You enter the preset intermediate sector.
  2654. >#deca.sigma is silently waiting for you, not yet ready for the next jump.
  2655. >The two of you will travel together for the rest of the way back to Equestria.
  2656. >Not the best conversation partner to have around, but you do not say that out loud.
  2657. >You are escorting one of #deca.mare's deceased relatives, so you treat the transport with a modicum of respect.
  2658. >The beacons need more time to cool down than your ship does though.
  2659. >So you will have to wait for them after every jump before you can proceed to the next sector.
  2660. >Which means you are stuck with the wreck for quite a while.
  2661. >But waiting is better than going with the alternative.
  2662. >If you had dumped that ship right in front of #deca.mare's porch, you would have forced her to confront the vessel alone while you were busy with monitoring the installation of your fake wreck.
  2663. >So you additionally volunteered to escort #deca.sigma in her stead.
  2664. >In the meantime, you have #deca.mare waiting in a safe sector nearby, scanning everything from afar.
  2665. >She is your backup and making sure that nobody else is around during your little trek back home.
  2666. >Even though she may see snippets of everything through your eyes, this must be much lighter on her mind than being actually present herself.
  2667. >You link the jumpdrive of your ship with the beacons.
  2668. >From now on you and your prize will jump together until you have reached your destination.
  2669. >#deca.mare on the other hand has her own pick of target sectors for the trek.
  2670. >Her waypoints are near your specific sectors at all times though, both to ensure her guiding vision over the area, and also to make sure that your connection to your proxy does not cut off.
  2671.  
  2672.  
  2673.  
  2674.  
  2675. >She will always jump in lockstep with you, yet you will not be able to see her for the rest of your mission.
  2676. >Which, if the slow cooldown rate of the beacon is any indication, will take a very long time.
  2677. >You sigh as you lean back.
  2678. >This is a test of patience that you have to sit out.
  2679. >So you must do exactly that now.
  2680. >Soon, the beacons are ready for the next jump.
  2681. >You give the group order to head out to the next location, and you can see the build-up of energy around both vessels.
  2682. >Then comes the typical flash.
  2683. >You leave the corridor unscathed on the other side.
  2684. >And the sight is a peculiar one to behold.
  2685. >The shape of #deca.sigma is still visible next to you; its relative position to you has not changed in the slightest.
  2686. >Only everything around you looks different.
  2687. >The reasons for that are obvious, but the effect is nevertheless interesting to witness.
  2688. >But alas, it is one of the very few exciting things that happen on this trip.
  2689. >Though some time later, after another handful of jumps, you do encounter a slight complication.
  2690. >The battle worn strut which dangled on the wreck for centuries finally decided to no longer stay where it was all the time.
  2691. >It breaks loose right upon entering a new target perimeter.
  2692. >This is unfortunate, as you do not want to leave any #deca material behind, especially when it could possibly be used as a trace to find you.
  2693. >Is that unlikely?
  2694. >Very much so.
  2695. >Is it possible?
  2696. >With an astronomical streak of bad luck, yes.
  2697. >You must improvise.
  2698. "#deca, send two ships my way, I need them in my squad.
  2699. >#deca.mare, who has naturally seen the problem as well, agrees without hesitation.
  2700. >"Understood, Anon. They are en route."
  2701. >Her voice is shaking, but #deca.mare refuses to bend.
  2702. >The pair of fighters emerge from their jump corridors within a minute.
  2703. >Say what you want about her, but you cannot complain about her delivery times.
  2704. >Even under this exceptionally high stress.
  2705.  
  2706.  
  2707.  
  2708.  
  2709. >The ships add themselves silently to your squad and fall in line right behind you.
  2710. >All well and good, but that is not where you need them.
  2711. >You order the fighters to link their jumpdrives to one another, and to mirror the actions of your drive as you control it, effectively making them a part of your little convoy to Equestria.
  2712. >Then you give them the command to grab the massive strut, each ship on one end.
  2713. "Will this suffice?"
  2714. >Silence.
  2715. "#deca?"
  2716. >You hear a gasp.
  2717. >"Oh, I am sorry, Anon. My mind was absent."
  2718. >You do not hold this against her in this situation.
  2719. "Never mind. But again, will this suffice?"
  2720. >"I... I think so. Though I would recommend to increase the number to be on the safe side."
  2721. >For a second you consider to object, as you do not want to command that many assets this early on in the mission.
  2722. >But it cannot be helped.
  2723. "Okay. Let's stay safe."
  2724. >Two more ships appear in the sector, waiting for your command.
  2725. >And you let them join the other pair, bridging the gap between the two ends.
  2726. >That should provide enough power to transport the strut.
  2727. >Something that you are about to find out now.
  2728. >The next jump.
  2729. >You wait until the light has vanished, and check the radar.
  2730. >The four ships are still with you, strut safely in tow.
  2731. >And #deca.sigma has lost no further parts so far.
  2732. >Once again, you relax during the forced breaks.
  2733. >You feel a light strain tugging on your nerves due to the continuing level of control that you have to exert on your squad.
  2734. >It is only a minor issue at this point, but it does make you a bit worried for the things that are yet to come.
  2735. >But you proceed as planned.
  2736. >There is no other option anyway.
  2737. >The plan was set into motion, and now it has to be completed.
  2738. >So you jump, and wait.
  2739. >Jump.
  2740. >And wait.
  2741. >Again and again and again.
  2742. >By the time you have reached your last waypoint before Equestria, you are thankful for the improved endurance due to the link and the resilience of the proxy.
  2743.  
  2744.  
  2745.  
  2746.  
  2747. >The beacons report their readiness for the last time in this mission.
  2748. >So this is it.
  2749. >Your grand finale begins at the very moment you reach Equestria.
  2750. "You know what happens next. Are you ready?"
  2751. >"You tell me, Anon. I rely completely on your judgement."
  2752. >You sigh.
  2753. >For once you have virtually all the responsibilities on your shoulders, and it does not feel great in the slightest.
  2754. >But you must do what you have to do.
  2755. "Fine. Hit the button. We're going in."
  2756. >Said and done.
  2757. >Your ship rumbles in the mutual light of the six vessels in your perimeter.
  2758. >You roll your eyes with a slightly perplexed grunt.
  2759. >Of course, what other number could it be?
  2760. >Is this fate, or do you just see patterns where none can be found in reality?
  2761. >Flash.
  2762. >You are home again, floating near the orbit of Equestria's moon.
  2763. >And you have no time to idle.
  2764. >Checking the radar, you quickly see that your squad has made its way back in one piece.
  2765. >And another familiar signature has popped up on the grid as well.
  2766. >#deca.mare is still keeping some distance between herself and her fallen relative, but you cannot pay any attention to her problems at the moment.
  2767. >You give one final command to the four ships before you release them from your squad.
  2768. >They shall bring the strut to the orbital station and secure it there before they return to #deca.sigma.
  2769. >And you also uncouple your own jump controls, freeing them from the link to the beacons.
  2770. >Then you hit the thrusters to head back to #deca.mare.
  2771. "#deca, I'll take over when my ship is docked. Bring out the fleet while I'm coming your way."
  2772. >"As you wish."
  2773. >The activity in the docking areas spike almost immediately.
  2774. >A stream of ships is pouring out of the hangars.
  2775. >Their blips on the radar flare up one by one, forming a considerable swarm in seconds.
  2776. >Forty-six signals in number are heading out.
  2777. >#deca.mare has emptied her entire hangar for this.
  2778. >And said ships fly in your direction, with not a single exception.
  2779.  
  2780.  
  2781.  
  2782.  
  2783. >Normally you would be concerned if that were case with in any other situation, as the risk of an accidental collision can be pretty high.
  2784. >Especially when so many ships are involved in a comparatively small space.
  2785. >But you just take the swarm head on, as you trust in the competences of the automatons as well as #deca.mare's competences in making them.
  2786. >The machines whoosh by all around you.
  2787. >Some even come pretty close, but there is no accident.
  2788. >The numerous green blips simply carry on with their flight behind you.
  2789. >Minutes later, you reach the docking bay and proceed to dock.
  2790. >Things go as usual, so you land the ship safely within a docking pen.
  2791. >The moment you are certain that the clamps have grabbed the hull, you leave the proxy where he is for the time being.
  2792. >He is in no immediate danger in there.
  2793. >The docking bay is fairly safe.
  2794. >And the life support system will stay functional for a time as well.
  2795. >You materialise as yourself, right in the command chair of the simulated deck.
  2796. >#deca.mare is nowhere to be seen "in person".
  2797. >But you receive a short comm transmission.
  2798. >"Do not worry about me. Please focus on our task."
  2799. >Despite feeling tempted to do the opposite, you honour her wish.
  2800. >On to the last stage.
  2801. >You activate the main screen whilst seizing control of the entire active space fleet.
  2802. >All fifty ships obey your every wish directly now.
  2803. >Not only them though; #deca.mare has provided additional assets that she constructed on the moon.
  2804. >These are at your disposal too, and you are very well aware that you will need them if you want to have any hope of completing your mission before you end up with another cerebral short circuit.
  2805. >But at the same time, they also drastically increase the load on your brain by another significant margin.
  2806. >And the price of this action makes itself known in an instant.
  2807.  
  2808.  
  2809.  
  2810.  
  2811. >Some parts of your mind and memories slip your grasp like a handful of water.
  2812. >You outright disregard that fact, however.
  2813. >There is no time for such concerns.
  2814. >So instead of troubling yourself with the state of your psyche, you assign every single one of your ships to a set location near #deca.sigma's hull.
  2815. >When they have arrived, they are supposed to tightly attach themselves to the hull of #deca.sigma with as much firmness as their material allows them to.
  2816. >Right at the same time, you activate your reserves on the moon.
  2817. >More than a hundred of smaller machines rise from the surface.
  2818. >Each about half the size of a fighter, and built for only two purposes.
  2819. >One, to grip objects with their durable, and for their ship length rather overlong pair of grapplers.
  2820. >And two, to move said objects with the help of their large high output thrusters.
  2821. >The rest of the construct is only used to store the necessary energy and hardware for their operation.
  2822. >It has no energy shields, no interior cargo space, or any other system of note.
  2823. >This is a new design, highly specialised for low gravity and vacuum transportation, and created entirely by #deca.mare.
  2824. >Easy and quick to produce, with no high manufacturing and maintenance costs.
  2825. >One of these units is not able to do much on its own.
  2826. >But hundreds of them, strategically placed and coordinated remotely, can move mountains.
  2827. >You follow their movements closely on the main screen with a strained focus, constantly checking the sector map to verify that you have made no mistake.
  2828. >Slowly but surely, the units reach their allotted spots between the larger ships, ready for action.
  2829. >So you consult #deca.mare's scanners directly.
  2830. >You assess the position of #deca.sigma, as well as the current location of the orbital installation.
  2831. >Then you calculate the best way to move the former towards the latter with the means you have at hand.
  2832.  
  2833.  
  2834.  
  2835.  
  2836. >The map quickly creates an outline for a possible trajectory for you, automatically including the necessary thrusters settings required, and an estimation of the time the flight will take.
  2837. >Apparently. the manoeuvre is more time consuming than you would like it to be, yet it still remains in the realm of the possible with your physical limits in mind.
  2838. >Though you can absolutely expect a hangover on the next day.
  2839. >You execute the protocol.
  2840. >All engines around #deca.sigma's hull fire up in unison.
  2841. >The spectacle is even visible with the naked eye.
  2842. >Hundreds of new lights dance around the massive ship.
  2843. >You can see the small units valiantly powering their thrusters, each creating one massive speck of brightness right in front of the darkened hull of the fallen terraformer.
  2844. >Their exhausting flames are easily about the same size as the machine that produces them.
  2845. >Amongst these many flickers of bustling activity, you see the more refined traces of the fighter units.
  2846. >Their luminous spots are smaller in comparison, but no less striking regardless, as each ship produces four of them at the same time.
  2847. >A telltale marker which you have learned to appreciate over the months.
  2848. >But the true shining stars in this choreography of ships and engines are the mobile depots.
  2849. >Since they lack the more distinctive tools of the other ships, they contribute to the combined effort with an usual method.
  2850. >Instead of relying on physical contact like other ships, they target the terraformers with their material collecting tractor beams.
  2851. >Due to the fact that they are targeting an object which unarguably possesses more mass, they are practically anchoring themselves in the process.
  2852. >With enough power on the "grip", it can make the beam act as a de facto replacement of a solid strut.
  2853. >Which in turn means that using the depots' engines creates an impulse which is translated to their target through the beam link.
  2854.  
  2855.  
  2856.  
  2857.  
  2858. >These sturdy things prove to be real workhorses in this task.
  2859. >For while the depots are slower than fighters on paper, they have to move more mass.
  2860. >So their engines are, out of sheer necessity, capable of a better output.
  2861. >And this is their great advantage in this situation.
  2862. >The fighters can only use a part of their true power without risking to damage or break their grapplers.
  2863. >In direct contrast to that, the mobile depots are able to exert a more powerful leverage more efficiently on their target.
  2864. >Added to that comes the rather bulky rounded design of these vessels, making them more durable under stress, and further providing more pulling power than any other machine in the fleet.
  2865. >As such, you have a smooth clockwork of hundreds of vessels under your guide, trying to fulfil your wish of ferrying the capital ship to the dock.
  2866. >But despite their impressive performance, they need minutes to accelerate #deca.sigma to a barely tolerable speed.
  2867. >The giant stirs slowly, but every metre is a hard-earned achievement.
  2868. >And if it were not for the blazing engines, it would be nothing but a tenebrous hunk of metal, only visible because of the stars that it blocks from your sight.
  2869. >This scenery is a double-edged sword.
  2870. >On the one hand it is uplifting, as you bring something that was lost a long time ago partially back to life.
  2871. >But on the other hand, it will never not be a dismal affair.
  2872. >And you cannot even imagine what #deca.mare must be thinking at the moment.
  2873. >The fact alone that she is completely silent is a perturbing thought.
  2874. >Yet you can help her best by persevering.
  2875. >You maintain your focus, costs be damned.
  2876. >And you keep pushing and turning the ship.
  2877. >Further and further.
  2878. >Always closer to you goal.
  2879. >You drop more parts of yourself here and there as you trade them for yet another step on your way.
  2880. >But that is no problem.
  2881. >You can collect them later.
  2882. >Your fleet brings #deca.sigma on the right track eventually.
  2883.  
  2884.  
  2885.  
  2886.  
  2887. >From here on out you only have to go forwards.
  2888. >Sounds easy enough, right?
  2889. >But as you try to give the order, you notice how much you have drained yourself.
  2890. >You get the message across, but it is a struggle.
  2891. >More with yourself than with the system though.
  2892. >Your brain simply refuses to think clearly for long periods of time.
  2893. >You let the automatons do the hard work of flying in a straight line, basing on the course calculation of your computers, and set two important instructions.
  2894. >First, brake the ship shortly before it reaches the dock, and two, you tell the station to ready its enormous docking struts to embrace and secure #deca.sigma when it arrives.
  2895. >The system complies, so you back off a little and only keep an emergency channel open to communicate with the fleet if necessary.
  2896. >Otherwise, you just lean back and watch the light show.
  2897. >The myriad of zipping and flickering little flames.
  2898. >A slowly creeping behemoth.
  2899. >And the sporadic amalgamation of modules that shall become a proper station one day.
  2900. >These three gradually merge with one another.
  2901. >Just at the moment they truly start to become one, you receive a message.
  2902. >Instruction one fulfilled. Thrust reversal initiated.
  2903. >You do not understand what you read, but you know that it is a good thing.
  2904. >Suddenly, the lights on the behemoth move from one side to the other, doing their best to slow it down.
  2905. >And so it does.
  2906. >It stops at some point.
  2907. >At the right point, as something within you knows.
  2908. >A second message.
  2909. >Instruction to fulfilled. Target docked. Ships returning to base.
  2910. >You nod to the computer console to show your appreciation for its service.
  2911. >Then, aware of the fact that you are done with whatever you wanted to do, you decide to collapse.
  2912. >Yes, that sounds like a great idea.
  2913.  
  2914.  
  2915.  
  2916.  
  2917. 100
  2918.  
  2919. >You instinctively open your eyes as you return to the realm of the conscious.
  2920. >A metal ceiling looms above.
  2921. >You are resting in the bed inside one of the crew quarters, undressed but wrapped in layers upon layers of warming blankets.
  2922. >And you do not even need to guess which room this is.
  2923. >But before you look or around or do anything, you rummage through the noise in your head.
  2924. >Everything is blurry and your mind acts sluggish, but you can quickly recall what happened before you blacked out.
  2925. >You immediately realise something important.
  2926. >Even though you have succeeded in your mission, you have virtually left #deca.mare alone with the wreck of #deca.sigma.
  2927. >Involuntary as it was, you have no idea how long you were knocked out thanks to the system.
  2928. >And you really should not try to use any fancy functions to check, so early after your awakening.
  2929. >Hell, you feel as if you enjoyed a little too much "fuel" on the night before.
  2930. >Any inconsiderate stunt could maybe put you down again.
  2931. >Still, you need to help #deca.mare.
  2932. >So you do the next best thing that comes to your mind.
  2933. >You try to move your head.
  2934. >As it turns out, you can, albeit with some struggling on your part.
  2935. >#deca.mare is not here with you.
  2936. >Not good at all.
  2937. >But you spot something strange at the door frame.
  2938. >The door is open, and a pony sits at the threshold.
  2939. >It is not her, however.
  2940. >Instead, you see your Pegasus proxy, planted on his haunches, and bearing his vacant stare as he looks at nothing in particular.
  2941. >Not the guest you expected to be honest.
  2942. >And what is even more unusual, he is holding a piece of paper with his teeth.
  2943. >Something has been written on it, so that must be a letter of sorts.
  2944. >Wait a minute, where does the paper come from?
  2945. >You have initially considered that you might be outside the simulation, considering where you are right now.
  2946. >But you have no paper on board, that much you know for sure.
  2947.  
  2948.  
  2949.  
  2950.  
  2951. >And to your knowledge, Equestria is not yet ready to provide proper wood that is necessary for paper production anyway.
  2952. >Weakened state or not, you have to test this.
  2953. >So you concentrate to create something out of thin air.
  2954. >The camera, for example.
  2955. >And indeed, your trusty little provider of photos appears, floating in the air right next to your bed.
  2956. >You nod and let it disappear again, for you feel how the link still tugs at your nerves.
  2957. >Okay, no more commands for now, Anon.
  2958. >You are in the simulation, you are safe, and more or less yourself.
  2959. >That is all you need to know.
  2960. >Now back to finding #deca.mare.
  2961. >This is your priority now.
  2962. >But to accomplish that, you have to get up first.
  2963. >So you try just that.
  2964. >Your limbs are as slow as your head, and you slightly stagger with every move, yet you manage to stand somewhat safely.
  2965. >You shamble your way to your proxy and grab the letter.
  2966. >The Pegasus lets go of it as you touch the paper, but he remains idle otherwise.
  2967. >You accept that fact as it is and take a look at the letter.
  2968. >The text reads as follows:
  2969. >Taken the liberty to bring him back to his cryo unit.
  2970. >Waiting for you on the command deck.
  2971. >Love, #deca.
  2972. >Well, that solves that mystery.
  2973. >#deca.mare did not exactly make it hard for you to find her.
  2974. >And now you know that your equine mirror over there is nothing but an illusion.
  2975. >The real counterpart is not sitting in the hallway, he is already frozen again.
  2976. >But you wonder why #deca.mare has placed him here.
  2977. >Sure, he caught your attention, but she could have achieved that with many other solutions.
  2978. >So why did she use him?
  2979. >And as your hamstrung mind ponders this question, you notice that something was written on the back of the page as well.
  2980. >PS: If you feel unable to walk the way yourself, climb on his back.
  2981. >He will automatically bring you to me.
  2982.  
  2983.  
  2984.  
  2985.  
  2986. >The end of the last line is marked by some symbols which represent a smiling face.
  2987. >You look at the Pegasus once more and facepalm with a groan.
  2988. >Is that her latest attempt to get you into close contact with your proxy?
  2989. >You sigh.
  2990. >#deca.mare always finds a way to mess with you.
  2991. >In fact, some part within you silently suspects that she deliberately put you in a position in which you could not be sure whether you were pried out of the cryo pod or not.
  2992. >But then again, it is perhaps only meant to be a distraction prank to prevent herself from going insane in your absence.
  2993. >A good laugh can do wonders, after all.
  2994. >And at least she provided you with a neutral choice this time, one where #deca.mare does not jestingly try to sway you in a certain direction.
  2995. >So you consider your options.
  2996. >You are convinced that you can make it to the command deck on your own.
  2997. >More clumsily than not, yet you can do it.
  2998. >But #deca.mare may be watching.
  2999. >No, not may.
  3000. >You are sure she is anticipating your reaction.
  3001. >And you are fully aware what decision she would prefer you to take, if she were here in person.
  3002. "Oh man, #deca. Even now you're nudging me."
  3003. >No response.
  3004. >Everything remains silent within these walls.
  3005. >You grit your teeth for the fracture of a second, then you give in.
  3006. >Fine, let her have the levity.
  3007. >There will be no harm done if you play it cool.
  3008. >Right?
  3009. >You shuffle on until you are standing right behind your proxy.
  3010. >And you keep staring at him sceptically for a while before you even consider to touch him.
  3011. "She didn't program anything naughty into you while I was gone, did she?"
  3012. >The stallion in front of you keeps idling like an obedient little living statue, fully unaware of what you just said.
  3013. >Well, time to find out.
  3014. >You slowly reach out with a hand and keenly observe the pony as you get closer and closer.
  3015. >Nothing.
  3016. >You put your palm on his shoulder, expecting something to happen.
  3017. >But your concerns were for naught.
  3018.  
  3019.  
  3020.  
  3021.  
  3022. >It seems as if he is not even aware of you.
  3023. >Exactly as things should be.
  3024. >Okay, nothing special up to this point.
  3025. >But you have not followed #deca.mare's instructions yet.
  3026. >They were clear enough though, so you figure he will only start to act when the conditions which #deca.mare has laid out are met.
  3027. >Conditions that require a much closer contact.
  3028. >The reasons are obvious; he cannot carry you otherwise.
  3029. >And a subconscious part of your mind suggests to bail right here and walk the way yourself, stumbling be damned.
  3030. >However, you also consider a different perspective.
  3031. >#deca.mare may use this to tease you a little, sure.
  3032. >But she would not have created this situation to push you to do things that would deliberately make you feel miserable.
  3033. >So rather than trying to think of it as a joke at your expense, you see the invitation behind this move.
  3034. >A friendly offer, and the rest is left up to you.
  3035. >And now you have made your decision for good.
  3036. >But before you feel able to take the next step, you wait a moment to let the sensation sink in.
  3037. >Pressing the coat of your proxy against your palm feels similar to stroking that of #deca.mare, but there are some slight differences.
  3038. >His texture is not quite as smooth in direct comparison.
  3039. >The hair is in no way rough or unpleasant to touch, yet the light nuances between the two are unmistakable.
  3040. >You have not noticed it earlier while you were in control of the proxy, but you assume it was just impossible for you notice such a thing when you were using a body so much unlike your own.
  3041. >You need about another minute to bring yourself to proceed.
  3042. >Slowly and carefully, you let your hand slide to the side and then further along the barrel of the stallion.
  3043. >And you mirror that movement with your other arm as well until you get a firm grip around his chest with both hands.
  3044. >Then you draw your own body nearer, effectively draping yourself on his back.
  3045. >You are far closer to him than you would prefer, but that is inevitable.
  3046.  
  3047.  
  3048.  
  3049.  
  3050. "Okay. I've got your back. Literally. Now don't be a mule and get a move on!"
  3051. >You were initially tempted to use a more colourful language, but you kept yourself from potentially saying something completely stupid.
  3052. >You have no absolutely clue as to what exactly #deca.mare has done to "program" your proxy, so he may or may not take everything you say literally.
  3053. >Which is why using a certain word starting with the letter f might not be a good idea.
  3054. >In any case, you hit the correct note.
  3055. >The stallion stands up and hoist you onto his back in the process.
  3056. >He does so without prior notice or any kind of comment.
  3057. >It is somewhat eerie to behold, as he acts like an automated puppet outside your direct control.
  3058. >Then again, you assume everything would have been much stranger if he talked to you in your own voice.
  3059. >The pony gives you a moment to shift yourself into a, more or less, comfortable position, and then he trots off into the corridor, to the main hall, and eventually towards the command deck.
  3060. >You feel his rhythmical movement beneath you.
  3061. >Nothing you have not witnessed before, in person no less, yet this perspective is pretty unusual.
  3062. >Every step he makes translates to a bump between the two of you, further accentuating his presence as far as you are concerned.
  3063. >You try not to, but you cannot help but to imagine yourself involuntarily humping his back.
  3064. >Once again, you feel the temptation to call the whole thing off, but your will to see it through is even stronger.
  3065. >Although you now know for a fact that you are not exactly keen on having a stallion rubbing against your skin.
  3066. >Even when it is your own proxy.
  3067. >No, that privilege is solely reserved for #deca.mare and nobody else.
  3068. >You get to the pair of doors which connect the main hall to the command deck.
  3069. >Your two yourselves wait for them to open.
  3070. >Once they have cleared the way, your proxy moves again without any further instruction.
  3071. >And you no longer pay much attention to him anyway.
  3072.  
  3073.  
  3074.  
  3075.  
  3076. >Because things get serious for you now.
  3077. >She is here, and she will need your help, no doubt about that.
  3078. >Your proxy trots down the ramp.
  3079. >What you see in front of you sends a shiver down your spine.
  3080. >#deca.mare sits in front of the main screen, several metres away from the chair.
  3081. >She simply sat down on the floor to look up at the huge display.
  3082. >And it shows #deca.sigma, safely docked in your makeshift station.
  3083. >Oh, this cannot be good.
  3084. >You start to clench and tighten your grip around your mount without even thinking about it.
  3085. >The stallion merrily moves on though, unaware of the tension around him.
  3086. >#deca.mare really only primed him to bring you to her.
  3087. >And so he does.
  3088. >He carries you for the last metres, and stops closely behind the unmoving mare.
  3089. >You look at her, but she does nothing in response.
  3090. >#deca.mare is as passive in her expression as your proxy.
  3091. >She must know that you are here though.
  3092. >At least that is what you hope.
  3093. "#deca?"
  3094. >You pray for an answer, and you get worried when you do not immediately receive one.
  3095. >But #deca.mare is fortunately freed from her stupor by your words.
  3096. >"Yes."
  3097. >It is only a single syllable, and yet you silently thank her for saying it.
  3098. >You get off your rather unusual taxi to sit down next to her.
  3099. >"I thought about a lot of things while you were resting, Anon."
  3100. >It seems like she is in a talking mood, so you try to keep her talking.
  3101. >Her reaching out to you is better than you trying to drag her into a conversation she might have a problem with.
  3102. "Want to tell me what exactly?"
  3103. >You offer her that chance without much pressure.
  3104. >And #deca.mare seems willing to play along, but she visibly struggles to find the right words.
  3105. >"I am not sure how to put it. I cannot think of a description that is adequate for me."
  3106. "Grief? Sadness? Melancholy?"
  3107. >"No. None of those things. Something else entirely."
  3108. "Can you try to describe it?"
  3109. >#deca.mare shakes her head.
  3110. >You nod.
  3111.  
  3112.  
  3113.  
  3114.  
  3115. >You acknowledge her response, despite the fact that you personally find it somewhat dissatisfying.
  3116. >But another question comes to your mind.
  3117. >One that is as simple as it essential.
  3118. "And how are you doing? I have no idea how long I was out."
  3119. >"More than half a day. The backlash was not as abrasive as the first one, though it still got you."
  3120. >Indeed, you noticed that much.
  3121. >But #deca.mare has dodged the more important half of your question so far.
  3122. >Yet she understands that you want her to elaborate.
  3123. >"I will be fine. Eventually."
  3124. >Your mind may be a little scrambled, but your thinking is not too impaired to miss that catch.
  3125. "What about now though?"
  3126. >"Less fine."
  3127. >That statement sounds like a contradiction to you, but its message is clear enough.
  3128. >You have to intervene.
  3129. "#deca, is there anything right now that needs our intervention?"
  3130. >#deca.mare shakes her head.
  3131. >"No. Both the planet and the moon are doing fine at the moment. The station is on standby until we start... our work."
  3132. >Perfect, that is all you need to know.
  3133. >You clumsily grapple #deca.mare and try to get up.
  3134. >But your somewhat diminished skills fail you in a critical moment.
  3135. >You slip shortly after you have grabbed her shoulders, causing #deca.mare and you to tumble down on the floor.
  3136. "Crap."
  3137. >#deca.mare raises her voice as she attempts to untangle herself.
  3138. >"Anon? What was that?"
  3139. "Me trying to get us out of here."
  3140. >"Now? I thought you wanted to start on..."
  3141. >You interrupt her quickly.
  3142. "Not when you aren't fine and I'm unable to do anything properly. That's not healthy for neither of us."
  3143. >You pause for a moment as you realise something.
  3144. "Have you really been staring at the screen for over twelve hours?"
  3145. >#deca.mare does not respond, but that silence is more telling than any words.
  3146. "Yeah, time to get you out of here."
  3147. >"But..."
  3148. "No buts. Doctor's orders."
  3149. >#deca.mare grins slyly as she recognises that trick.
  3150. >"Said by someone who can barely think straight himself."
  3151.  
  3152.  
  3153.  
  3154.  
  3155. "Splendid. That's why you can't reason me out of it."
  3156. >Understanding that you will not accept any counterargument, she relents.
  3157. >"Alright. You win. What about a breakfast then? I make one for us."
  3158. >You smile.
  3159. "Sounds like a plan."
  3160. >The two of you slowly manage to pick yourselves up with some help of the other.
  3161. >#deca.mare looks at your proxy who still stands right in the vicinity.
  3162. >And she grins again.
  3163. >"I see you created an opportunity to get better acquainted with one another."
  3164. >You roll your eyes.
  3165. "Please #deca. Drop the act. It was just a small taxi walk. That's all what happened between us. Really, there's nothing to be envious of."
  3166. >And despite her best efforts to stifle it, #deca.mare cannot help but snort with laughter.
  3167. "Yeah okay, that's it. Now I'll certainly not use him again for the way out. Sit down."
  3168. >You give your proxy the mental command as you say these words.
  3169. >The stallion complies and sits down on his haunches, but your mind complains about that last interaction with the system.
  3170. >You get the hint.
  3171. >"You are still weakened. Are you sure that you want to walk?"
  3172. "Yeah. Although..."
  3173. >You pause before you continue.
  3174. "...I would be grateful if you could be my support. Just in case."
  3175. >#deca.mare tilts her head again in a manner which tells you that she contemplates to try another jest.
  3176. >Thankfully, she decides against it and trots up to your side.
  3177. >"Alright, I am ready. Go ahead. You determine the pace, and I will follow."
  3178. >Together you walk slowly towards the ramp with shaky steps.
  3179. >You need significantly more time for the distance than you would normally do, but you can walk at least.
  3180. >This alone makes your current state much better than the mess you found yourself in after your last accidental time out.
  3181. >And as soon as you two limp through the corridor, only the stallion remains on the command deck.
  3182. >In a sitting pose, just as you ordered.
  3183.  
  3184.  
  3185.  
  3186.  
  3187. >But What you did not order is a faint cheerful smile that he cracks in the exact same second as the door shuts behind you.
  3188. >Yet only a second later, that smile vanishes without a trace.
  3189. >As if it never happened.
  3190.  
  3191.  
  3192.  
  3193.  
  3194. 101
  3195.  
  3196. >Your recovery was much easier this time.
  3197. >Either because the initial shock was not as severe, or perhaps because you were able to built up some resistance through your previous struggle to regain your faculties.
  3198. >You cannot tell which one is closer to the truth, but that does not change the end result.
  3199. >And while you should still be careful in your interaction with the system for a while, you can at least operate it again without having to fear any further mental repercussions.
  3200. >So the two of you return to your post after an extensive breakfast and some quality leisure time together.
  3201. >Interestingly enough, it was #deca.mare who made the decision with a heavy heart.
  3202. >Knowing perfectly well how much it will emotionally hurt her, she concluded that you win nothing by postponing the operation.
  3203. >As such, the only logical conclusion is to start as soon as possible.
  3204. >And that means, in this situation, as soon as you are more or less back in shape.
  3205. >Which is now.
  3206. >Sitting down in the chair, you hug #deca.mare tight and prepare the systems on the command deck.
  3207. >Apart from her obvious uneasiness, everything operates within normal parameters.
  3208. >Nothing has changed during the time you were gone.
  3209. >Even your proxy is still here.
  3210. >He is obediently idling where you left him.
  3211. >The pony just sits on the floor and stares silently at the deactivated screen in front of him.
  3212. >You could remove the stallion instantly, but you let him stay for two reasons.
  3213. >One, letting him dematerialise would mean to use the system for a redundant action.
  3214. >He is not disturbing anything in his current position, and you fear you could spread your own capacities too thin too quickly.
  3215. >And two, you could maybe use him for something later.
  3216. >As a means to distract #deca.mare if things get too bleak, for instance.
  3217. >Or he may, as much as you dislike to admit it, inspire #deca.mare to try another jest or prank to relieve her own stress.
  3218.  
  3219.  
  3220.  
  3221.  
  3222. >She can be very creative after all, and doubly so when she faces a situation like this.
  3223. >But nothing can save her from what is about to happen.
  3224. >You turn your attention to the tense pony in your arms.
  3225. "You think you can do this?"
  3226. >"Let us begin."
  3227. >Again, not an answer to the actual question you have asked, but it is probably the best confirmation you will get.
  3228. >You power up the main screen.
  3229. >The display shows the last scene which #deca.mare was observing.
  3230. >You look at the colossal inert mass in the dock and take a breath as you realise what an arduous and lengthy task awaits you.
  3231. >Even the first phase of your restoration project could take weeks, and that only encompasses gaining entry to all major sections of #deca.sigma plus assessing the degree of destruction inside the ship.
  3232. >Barring the combat scars, the main structure may have barely degraded over the course of the centuries, yet you have strong doubts that the same will hold true for all the internal systems and electronics.
  3233. >And you can only start to produce spare parts and repair things properly once you know what you have to remake in the first place.
  3234. >After you have barged your way into the vessel, that is.
  3235. >And to do just that, you start a squad of three fighters.
  3236. >#deca.mare has attached a select number of specialised salvage units to their hulls.
  3237. >These machines were specifically designed and built for this task.
  3238. >The fighters will carry the units over the docking bay on the intact side of the wreck, and pave the way right into its interior for the machines.
  3239. >Once the path is clear, the salvagers will be deployed to do their job.
  3240. >You just hope you can open the blast doors without cutting, or worse, shooting your way in.
  3241. >That would be an unceremonious start to your endeavour.
  3242. >At least you do not have to worry about any internal security mechanisms.
  3243. >The squad reaches the blast doors.
  3244. >The ships come to a temporary stop right in front of them.
  3245. >You can hear a heavy sigh from #deca.mare.
  3246.  
  3247.  
  3248.  
  3249.  
  3250. "Shall I go on?"
  3251. >"No. I... have to do it. Besides, in your state you should only intervene where I... might fail."
  3252. >Judging from her shaky voice, you fear this could happen faster than any of you would like.
  3253. >Yet you nod.
  3254. >She has a valid point, all things considered.
  3255. >At the moment, the best support you can provide is cuddling her just a little bit more as you tensely follow the events on the main screen.
  3256. >The fighters have attached themselves to the blast doors with the help of their grapplers, and now they are trying to pry the pair of solid metal lids apart.
  3257. >If you are lucky, the mechanism will not jam and open up slowly but surely after a moderate use of pulling power.
  3258. >But should you be so unlucky to find out that the mechanism is irreparably blocked for some reason, then you may have to remove the door with some good old-fashioned plasma fire.
  3259. >And you end up with another definite point on your repair list on top of that.
  3260. >So you hope for the best.
  3261. >The fighters pull and tear on the metal, though the blast doors do not buckle even a single millimetre.
  3262. >#deca.mare tries and tries some more, but to no avail.
  3263. >With one swift move, she violently slams her forehoof into the padding of the command chair out of sheer frustration.
  3264. >The suddenness and force of her punch surprises you to such a degree that it makes you wince.
  3265. >Something which #deca.mare apparently misses to notice at the moment.
  3266. >"The mechanism is blocked from the inside! Some cursed strut or joint must be entangled in it!"
  3267. >Although you are afraid to know the answer, you ask the question anyway.
  3268. "Can we fix the problem?"
  3269. >#deca.mare answers in a snarling tone.
  3270. >"Foal's play from the other side, surely. But we have no access point!"
  3271. >Okay, you have to do something, and quickly at that.
  3272. >#deca.mare could very well coax herself towards a fit of rage without even being aware of what is happening to her.
  3273.  
  3274.  
  3275.  
  3276.  
  3277. >You do not want to find out what she is capable of when she really lets herself go.
  3278. >Not that you are particularly concerned about your own safety, considering that your life support systems have extensive fail save measures, but #deca.mare can nevertheless cause some serious damage to anything around you two if she loses control of herself.
  3279. >One stray shot or a brash command to some automaton, and your situation could get hairy fairly quickly.
  3280. >Plus, you are not even sure if you could rein her in with your manual override in your frail state.
  3281. "#deca, I think we have to..."
  3282. >The padding receives a second blow.
  3283. >"No! I refuse to use violence for this laughable setback!"
  3284. >You twitch again, stronger than the first time.
  3285. >You did not expect such a strong emotional outburst directed squarely at your own person.
  3286. >However, your startled movement grants #deca.mare a moment of clarity.
  3287. >She realises that she yelled at you.
  3288. >And she regrets it.
  3289. >"Goodness, Anon. I..."
  3290. "Don't say it. I understand."
  3291. >She grunts in disbelief.
  3292. >"Are you sure? How can you imagine what I feel?"
  3293. "I know what rage and exasperation are, #deca. And I know they don't mix very well."
  3294. >She does not respond.
  3295. >Yet you can hear #deca.mare's strained breath.
  3296. >Looks like you need to take over, but not with physical action.
  3297. >It would be absolute torture for her if you were to remove the doors against her will.
  3298. >The two of you need an alternative.
  3299. >And must take on the logical thinking for the time being, as #deca.mare is clearly unable to consider this situation in an objective manner.
  3300. "Alright, main entrance is out, and we don't want to blow the shutter. What else can we do?"
  3301. >Silence, again.
  3302. >You give her some time as you try to think of other ways to get into the ship.
  3303. >Then you recall another possible way to gain entrance.
  3304. "The overall layout of the ship..."
  3305. >You stop yourself and rethink your choice of words.
  3306.  
  3307.  
  3308.  
  3309.  
  3310. "...Sigma's build is similar to ours, correct?"
  3311. >You deliberately distinguished between your mother ship as a structure and #deca.mare as individual in this context.
  3312. >For some reason you think it would sound rude otherwise.
  3313. >And it turns out to be the correct choice, as #deca.mare eventually manages to respond.
  3314. >"Yes, Anon. Although Sigma does not possess any of the improvements I made after... the disaster, the baseline architecture is identical."
  3315. >You hear a certain awkward undertone in #deca.mare's speech.
  3316. >Possibly because she is not used to compare herself to her kin in such a way.
  3317. >In any case, the best option is to continue.
  3318. >Moving forward will keep her distracted if you play cards right.
  3319. "So what about a freight hatch then? If it's big enough to eject some beacons, it is big enough for our units."
  3320. >She ponders this idea.
  3321. >And you can almost immediately sense a slight decrease in her tension.
  3322. >"Hm, maybe. It is a longer way from there to the central corridors, but it would be better than..."
  3323. >She looks at the jammed docking bay on the screen.
  3324. "... this."
  3325. >You nod.
  3326. >#deca.mare orders the fighters to let go of the massive doors and to fly to the nearest hatch as you silently hope for a better result there.
  3327. >The cargo hold openings are not shielded by quite the same compact layer of metal as the docking bay, yet these barriers offer still a considerable protection in their own right.
  3328. >Your ships find what they are looking for within a minute.
  3329. >And again, they use their grapplers to gain some leverage.
  3330. >#deca.mare shivers in your arms.
  3331. >"I hope this works."
  3332. >Hearing these words from her mouth is not exactly helping to bolster your own confidence in your plan, yet you cannot afford to show any form of weakness in this situation.
  3333. >You gradually release #deca.mare from your hug and start to knead her shoulders and back instead.
  3334.  
  3335.  
  3336.  
  3337.  
  3338. >She gets the hint to begin the procedure.
  3339. >The fighters start to tear on the doors.
  3340. >And just like the first time, you see no immediate result.
  3341. >Your throat seemingly begins to tighten as your concerns grow with every second you stare on the unchanging scenery on the screen.
  3342. >If this goes wrong as well, you either have to look out for yet another secondary opening, or you are forced to go for the nuclear option.
  3343. >Something you do not even want to consider.
  3344. >#deca.mare jolts once.
  3345. >It is a sudden and sharp one that catches you completely by surprise.
  3346. >You lose your grip around #deca.mare entirely for a second.
  3347. "What was that?"
  3348. >"Shush. I think... yes!"
  3349. >Your gaze wanders straight back to the screen.
  3350. >The vessels are moving.
  3351. >And so are the doors.
  3352. >It is a painfully slow process, only a handful a millimetres each second, but every moment is a step in the right direction.
  3353. >Still, despite this first success, neither of you is truly in a cheerful mood.
  3354. >A centuries-old tomb is opening up for the first time ever, right in front of you at that.
  3355. >So you try to be as respectful as possible, even though you are fully aware that you will thoroughly disrupt the eerie tranquillity of this place.
  3356. >And another dismal thought crosses your mind.
  3357. >You may have prevented an emotional disaster within #deca.mare for now, but if she can get this irate by the mere suggestion of blowing out some doors, you shudder to think what minefield you two will enter once you need to clear segments inside.
  3358. >Apart from the gaping crater on #deca.sigma's side and the impact damage on the frontal array, there will surely be some corridors that may be partially or completely obstructed due to the combat damage.
  3359. >So a conflict of this sort is practically inevitable.
  3360. >Then again, removing rubble and clearly scrap-tier material is not the same as forcing your way through a mostly intact heavy blast door.
  3361. >You hold onto that hope for now.
  3362.  
  3363.  
  3364.  
  3365.  
  3366. >A few minutes of continuous pulling later, the opening is wide enough for your units to safely slip through.
  3367. >The fighters detach themselves from the hull and align themselves a few metres away from the opening.
  3368. >Your salvage units "hop" over with a careful leap.