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Shape Your Home, Part 4

By Ponegreen
Created: 2nd November 2020 12:43:30 AM
Modified: 23rd February 2021 01:18:24 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.
  3369. >One by one, they float into the dark corridor of #deca.sigma's interior.
  3370. >The vessels withdraw to return to their base.
  3371. >And #deca.mare splits the display on the main screen into different sections, each showing a video feed from one salvage unit.
  3372. >For a human eye, there would be only darkness.
  3373. >All lights are inside are dead, the artificial gravity is out, and not a single system is powered with energy, effectively sealing every room with a closed door.
  3374. >Which means most of them.
  3375. >In short, you are in for a rough ride.
  3376. >But at least the darkness is no inherent problem for you.
  3377. >#deca.mare has equipped the units with adequate sensors, and your onboard system translates that input into a viable monochrome vision on screen.
  3378. >The lack of colours disturb you somewhat, considering that you grew accustomed to the crimson aura on board outside the simulation.
  3379. >Though it is also fitting in a way.
  3380. >Your units steadily glide through the short corridor which leads to the adjacent cargo bay.
  3381. >One minor door blocks the way forward.
  3382. >But since this is an interior lock with far less fortified mass than an exterior set of blast doors, the salvage units are capable enough to unlatch the mechanism fairly quickly.
  3383. >The path to the first room is clear.
  3384. >And there you get a first unpleasant taste of what you are dealing with.
  3385. >A large container floats by from the side, in the very second you shove the door into its crevice in the wall.
  3386. >The metal box moves almost in an intercepting trajectory to the leading salvager near its path.
  3387. >#deca.mare immediately activates all thrusters to get the squad away from the threshold.
  3388.  
  3389.  
  3390.  
  3391.  
  3392. >The squad stops a few metres back into the corridor while you are looking at the hall that presents itself to you through the eyes of your automatons.
  3393. >The place is completely in shambles.
  3394. >Many containers are ripped off their holdings and fly uncontrollably through the room, colliding with everything they cross.
  3395. >Some of them even lost their content as they ruptured at some point or another in the past.
  3396. >Whether this happened during the last battle or in the centuries of neglect afterwards is impossible to tell at first glance, but the consequences are considerable regardless of the time.
  3397. >Your sensors detect all manners of debris and broken products afloat between the cuboid containers.
  3398. >Most of the things have been either damaged or destroyed thanks to endlessly bumping into the dense cloud of rubble around them.
  3399. >And to top it all off, you think you can even recognise the dented shapes of a large transport unit or two.
  3400. >You stare into a shattered mirror of almost everything you have learned to work with during your time with #deca.mare.
  3401. "Oh fuck me."
  3402. >Respect or not, you could not suppress that exclamation after this discovery.
  3403. >#deca.mare looks at the same screen in dead, stone cold silence.
  3404. >Not a single word escapes her lips.
  3405. >You cannot even hear her breathing anymore.
  3406. >And now you also fail to imagine her sheer scope of thoughts and emotions at this sight.
  3407. >You are plain speechless.
  3408. >Though you assume it is safe to say that the phrase "not good" is not that far from the truth.
  3409. >In face of this bleak and macabre display, your mind shortly goes astray with a highly inappropriate thought.
  3410. >Despite your previous fears, the proxy is still sitting at his spot and shows no signs of trying to molest you after your little cussing.
  3411. >A compliment to #deca.mare's coding skills.
  3412. >Realising that you are subconsciously trying to distract yourself, you shake your head and get back into the game.
  3413. "Hey #deca, are you okay?"
  3414.  
  3415.  
  3416.  
  3417.  
  3418. >Still petrified in body, she answers with only one deadpan sentence.
  3419. >"The squad is insufficient for this."
  3420. >You sigh.
  3421. >You assume that #deca.mare tries to seal her own emotions during her evaluation.
  3422. >But she only sounds even more pained by doing so.
  3423. >Still, it is probably unwise to drag this issue into the spotlight at the moment.
  3424. >Better keep going.
  3425. >There are a lot of challenges to solve in this room alone.
  3426. >And that is only the first segment of hundreds.
  3427. >You examine the ruined cargo bay on the screen.
  3428. >And you quickly agree with #deca.mare.
  3429. >The small number of units you brought were intended to start their exploration at the hangar section; an area that you know to be mostly empty because the larger part of #deca.sigma's fighters were destroyed in combat actions.
  3430. >Well, that was the plan at least.
  3431. >Yet that scheme went out the window at step one.
  3432. >Now you have a small number of automatons at hand that face a full-fledged storage area with thousands of loose items inside.
  3433. >The numbers are not in your favour, but that is simply how things are.
  3434. >You collect yourself and try to approach the problem rationally.
  3435. "Okay. Hangar and corridor are out as long as we can't open that damn door from the inside. And we still need a first foothold in here. That's where we are, right?"
  3436. >The stiff mare in your arm nods once.
  3437. "So the plan is still on. We only set up shop here after we've cleared the mess."
  3438. >You pause for a moment and grin faintly.
  3439. >Yes, that could work.
  3440. "In fact, the cargo is maybe a bonus."
  3441. >#deca.mare's ears perk up.
  3442. >Good, she is listening.
  3443. "We get this stuff out and see what is still fine. I'm sure some of the sealed boxes still have some useful goodies for us. And we'll recycle the scraps for pocket money."
  3444. >You intentionally pause again.
  3445. >Wait for it...
  3446.  
  3447.  
  3448.  
  3449.  
  3450. >"A sound plan in theory, but you omitted the biggest problem, Anon. It will take us days to safely remove all the floating equipment from this room. And ordering more shipments of units ahead of schedule would still take the better part of a day until they become ready for salvage runs."
  3451. >Now you smile.
  3452. "And that's where the sport comes in. We make do with what we have."
  3453. >"What sport, Anon?"
  3454. "I think I'll call it 'Snatch the Scrap'."
  3455. >Unsurprisingly, a wordless head tilt tells you that you need to elaborate.
  3456. "It's pretty simple, actually. The salvagers stay inside to grab the stuff. But instead of carrying it out, they just point it in the right direction and drop it again. The parts float down the straight corridor on their own until they are out of the hatch."
  3457. >You gently caress #deca.mare's back as you go on.
  3458. "And then our new and shiny standard transport units take over. They may be too frail to handle the rough work in here, but who says that they can't intercept solitary packages that are coming their way at a controlled pace? They catch the stuff in space and carry it to a depot or wherever else we can use it."
  3459. >You lean in to put your chin on #deca.mare's shoulder and whisper into her ear.
  3460. "We've get more than a hundred of those things, so the scrap team can work inside until they're low on energy and the outside team will always have a helping hand at call when they're needed. What do you say?"
  3461. >#deca.mare ponders your idea.
  3462. >Her focus is still shaky, but fortunately you see no signs of immediate alarm.
  3463. >"Your... proposal should be possible. Although a flawless unguided transfer over this distance will require a great deal of renewed precision for each and every pass. Because no two pieces will ever be alike."
  3464. "Yeah. I need you to do this part in some nice, clean tandem teamwork."
  3465. >You go on before #deca.mare can voice any objections on her part.
  3466.  
  3467.  
  3468.  
  3469.  
  3470. "Listen, don't worry about... the state of the storage in here. I'll pilot the salvagers in the first stage and take care of plucking the debris. But you have to be the one who makes the throw, you know? You are far better in this. Can you do that?"
  3471. >"You mean we constantly swap our control over the units?"
  3472. "Yep. I'm first and you take on part two. Just turn all your attention on getting our deliveries through the corridor and leave the gritty part to me."
  3473. >While you know that you cannot expect to completely banish the turmoil inside #deca.mare's mind, you hope that this ploy will at least partially divert her attention from the demoralising state of this area.
  3474. >If you can rely on her doing her task properly, you can channel your power to tackle the nasty part.
  3475. >You wish that it would not have come to that, considering that you did not expect to cover such an active role with your still somewhat limited capacities.
  3476. >But those things can happen with a change of plans.
  3477. >Still, you do not leave her hanging in her time of need, and operating the salvage team is thankfully not as complex as handling an actual fighter wing.
  3478. >Provided she agrees to your plan in the first place, of course.
  3479. >And initially it seems like she would consider to call the trip off, but she accept your plan in the end.
  3480. >"I will do what you ask of me, Anon. The transport swarm is on its way to the hatch."
  3481. "And we have enough room for everything?"
  3482. >#deca.mare struggles to answer.
  3483. >"...yes. I have already allotted a suitable location to store everything from... this room. And after the fact..."
  3484. >A pause.
  3485. >#deca.mare has an idea, but you need to encourage her a little to go on.
  3486. "Yes? And after the fact?"
  3487. >"I suggest we will go there together and take a closer look at what we could... rescue."
  3488. >Judging from her tone, she will certainly need some help with this as well.
  3489. >And you think you can understand why.
  3490.  
  3491.  
  3492.  
  3493.  
  3494. >If forcing your way into #deca.sigma is the equivalent of breaking open a tomb of a beloved lost one, then clearing out the innards must be similar to plundering the bones and burial objects of said grave.
  3495. >Regardless of your good restoring intentions, you know that #deca.mare's emotions tell her otherwise.
  3496. >At every moment, with each new action, and against better knowledge.
  3497. >For someone who only recently started to learn how to deal with emotions more or less properly, it is remarkable to see how well she is holding up though.
  3498. "So, when can we start?"
  3499. >"Right now. The first units will be in position in about three minutes."
  3500. >Alright, this is good enough.
  3501. >Following what is now almost a tradition in its own right, you give #deca.mare another kiss on the cheek for good luck before you take control of the squad.
  3502. >Soon thereafter, you see the world directly through their eyes.
  3503. >Just like the video on the screen, your vision is adapted to show an accurate, yet monochrome representation of reality.
  3504. >Some colour would be nice, but without any light shining that deep into the darkened ship, this depiction is technically not wrong either.
  3505. >Anyway, you can work with what you have, so you get ready to start with your part.
  3506. >You test the limbs of your units with a few mental commands.
  3507. >There is some minuscule delay and mental pushback from your weakened state, yet you are confident that you can pilot the machines without any major complications.
  3508. >And so you once again observe the cargo bay and its wildly floating equipment.
  3509. >Your task is simple and yet tricky at the same time.
  3510. >You know that you have to catch something with the salvagers whilst trying to avoid collisions with anything else, and ferry the machines with your prize in tow back to the entrance.
  3511. >The salvagers may be sturdy enough to endure a bump or two, but that will not help much if they are maimed by, say, the collision of two large containers.
  3512.  
  3513.  
  3514.  
  3515.  
  3516. >If anything, that would only increase the pile of scrap you have to clear, rather than helping your cause.
  3517. >And so you have to evaluate your chances.
  3518. >Do you go for a smaller piece that you can quickly capture with one unit, or do you use more for tackling a larger object?
  3519. >And if so, where would you place each machine for the best effect?
  3520. >All these questions run through your brain over and over as you follow the movement patterns of the objects inside the cargo bay.
  3521. >Estimation and anticipation are the key.
  3522. >And soon you spot a small sealed container in an advantageous position.
  3523. >Only a small piece in the puzzle, yet it is some progress regardless.
  3524. >You fly in with one machine, use its arms to tautly clamp the object, and swiftly fly back.
  3525. >Once you have reached the threshold, you slow down and give the signal.
  3526. "Got a box for you, #deca. Your turn."
  3527. >"Understood."
  3528. >And seemingly out of the blue, you feel another strong presence that is in control of the machine.
  3529. >#deca.mare has assumed the lead role without dismissing you.
  3530. >And as such, you witness firsthand how she regulates the thrusters with an accuracy that you can simply never each.
  3531. >But it is cosy and warming to have her this close in spirit.
  3532. >Addictive, even.
  3533. >A few seconds later, she releases the box to send it on its way.
  3534. >On the other hand, the salvager comes to a halt.
  3535. >And her intense presence wanes to nothingness within a second.
  3536. >The automaton is at your sole command once more.
  3537. >However, the sudden apparent disappearance of #deca.mare is a total surprise to you.
  3538. >She was co-operating the drone for less than a minute, and yet you grew accustomed to the intimate sensation.
  3539. >You almost suspect she has left you altogether somehow.
  3540. >And you instinctively begin to worry.
  3541. >Did something go wrong?
  3542. >Does she have another mental breakdown?
  3543. >"No, I am still with you, Anon."
  3544. >You emit a mental sigh of relief upon hearing her voice again.
  3545. "Man, that was scary. I thought something happened to you."
  3546.  
  3547.  
  3548.  
  3549.  
  3550. >"I know. And I am sorry for that. The short contact was more potent than I thought. Perhaps another after-effect."
  3551. "You know, I wouldn't mind to have more of it right now."
  3552. >You hear a breath through the comm channel.
  3553. >"Bad idea. You could have another relapse if we stay like this for a longer time. And I..."
  3554. >You understand what #deca.mare tries to say.
  3555. >She would see everything exactly as you do if she were "inside" the salvage unit with you at all times.
  3556. >This would clearly be detrimental to her overall performance though.
  3557. >Not to mention her psyche.
  3558. >The best treatment for her condition might simply be a literal tunnel vision for the time being.
  3559. >So you accept that fact and resume your work.
  3560. >You find some solace in the knowledge that she is still sitting in your kind embrace on the simulated command deck as you look for the next target to pick in the outside world.
  3561. >But as a silver lining to your seemingly mare-distant situation, deceiving as the sensation actually is, you figure that you will get yet another short burst of her soothing presence every time you provide the next candidate for her to deliver.
  3562. >So the quicker you find something, the sooner you have her close again too.
  3563. >And your work indirectly helps her as well.
  3564. >That is all the additional encouragement you need to weather your own faint underlying stress and to readily master the challenge of clearing all obstacles without trashing your own machines.
  3565. >As far as you are concerned, the storage is practically as good as emptied.
  3566. >And then, when your latest adventure is concluded, with the first segment being ready for your actual inspection, the two of you can sit together and talk things out with some nice, hard earned quality time.
  3567. >What you achieve in one session may not look like much, but both of you knew from the start how taxing this project would be.
  3568. >And with that perspective in mind, things can only go up from here on out.
  3569.  
  3570.  
  3571.  
  3572.  
  3573. 102
  3574.  
  3575. >It takes you the better part of a day to remove all larger floating obstacles from the storage room.
  3576. >There are still many minor particles and remnants floating around, but these are too small to deal any damage, provided you keep your speed inside the cargo bay to a reasonable level.
  3577. >Which you are forced to do anyway, as the confined interior does not provide enough space to speed up in any significant manner unless you really push your engines to overdrive output.
  3578. >These remaining snippets of material are going to be removed soon by another specialised unit.
  3579. >It will be equipped with a moderate cargo hold of its own and a wide-ranging tractor beam.
  3580. >Said beam is configured in such a way that it sacrifices a large portion of its pulling power on small concentrated spots in favour of covering wide swathes with a modest attraction.
  3581. >This design may seem flawed as first, as it would not be able to affect anything larger than a casket, but it is still effective enough to act similar to a vacuum cleaner.
  3582. >With emphasis on vacuum.
  3583. >While you are waiting for this unit to leave its final production stage, you order the drones to scan, chart, and evaluate the entire room.
  3584. >Everything from the walls, floor, and ceiling, to all the damaged and still intact holdings, doors to other junctions, and so on.
  3585. >You need to know precisely what you are dealing with before you set up your "restoration workshop" in here.
  3586. >Much to your own convenience, this is an automated set of routine tasks that the drones can execute perfectly without direct intervention.
  3587. >You leave the salvage squad to its duties as your vision returns to the command deck.
  3588. >And you soon find out that #deca.mare has dug herself deeply into your embrace.
  3589. >She leans her body so far in your direction that her entire back side is resting on your body.
  3590. >Her head is laid neatly between your throat and chin, and her rear hooves dangle slightly above the padding.
  3591.  
  3592.  
  3593.  
  3594.  
  3595. >#deca.mare is using you as her impromptu pillow.
  3596. >You are more than willing to let her have that little rest, although you wonder whether she fell asleep shortly after her last delivery.
  3597. >The answer comes swift.
  3598. >Her body shifts and turns softly in your arms.
  3599. >And her ears begin to move, lightly grazing your cheeks in the process.
  3600. >Yes, #deca.mare is still awake.
  3601. >But her gesture tells you that she needs this comfort right now.
  3602. >Not much of a surprise, really.
  3603. >So you try to talk to her and to carefully check her emotional wellbeing.
  3604. "Hey there."
  3605. >"Welcome back, Anon. It is good to have you here again."
  3606. >A statement you do not find hard to believe after your last work.
  3607. >You smile.
  3608. "Thanks. And I see you made yourself comfortable while I was away."
  3609. >One of her ears twitches repeatedly.
  3610. >"Thought you would not mind."
  3611. "Don't worry, it's fine."
  3612. >Despite the fact that your face gets occasionally tapped by her ear, you really mean it.
  3613. >And although you would prefer to stand up and take a walk after hours upon hours of working with the salvage units, you are willing to postpone all of that if necessary.
  3614. >She can use you as her pillow for as long as she needs.
  3615. >Yet you have to play the somewhat inconvenient role of nudging her just a tad into a certain direction if you want to keep the conversation going.
  3616. >An issue that would not be a problem under normal circumstances; #deca.mare is already familiar with it due to all your previous breakfast talks.
  3617. >But the circumstances are not normal today.
  3618. >And as such, you are concerned about going too far too quickly.
  3619. >With no ill intention on your part, far from it of course.
  3620. >But you have a hard to time to evaluate just how much you can expect of #deca.mare after you two were rifling through the possessions of one of her kin.
  3621. >You make a genuine effort to consider and re-consider possible ways of how to approach the topic.
  3622.  
  3623.  
  3624.  
  3625.  
  3626. >Then, out of the sheer blue, it is #deca.mare who goes ahead with an opener that you would have never expected.
  3627. >"I already made a precise list of the... inventory we retrieved, Anon."
  3628. >Caught off-guard by this resolute start, you need a moment before you can answer.
  3629. "You... did?"
  3630. >"Hmhm. I added one entry every time you told me to deliver something."
  3631. "Oh, I wasn't sure that you could."
  3632. >"It was a necessity, actually. Because even I cannot organise the appropriate store room we need to keep our..."
  3633. >You think you hear a faint choke.
  3634. >"...material... if I have no idea how much of what we are working with."
  3635. >So much for your efforts to reduce the stress on her.
  3636. >You try your best to minimise her exposure to distressing moments, and behind the scenes she does something which counteracts precisely this attempt.
  3637. >To be fair though, #deca.mare was not actively trying to sabotage your efforts, as she was simply acting true to her orderly tendencies.
  3638. >And her argument has a point to it, although you assume that she could have simply chosen a room that is guaranteed to be sufficient in size, and tell the transport swarm to dump everything there.
  3639. >Then again, such a slapdash strategy would go against her way of doing things, especially so when the remnants of #deca.sigma are concerned.
  3640. >Indeed, most of the pieces will in all due likelihood be recycled and reused in one way or another, but that is no reason to not treat them with some modicum of dignity in the process.
  3641. >So no matter how you slice it, you find no mistake in #deca.mare's actions.
  3642. >Plus, she has provided you two with all the prerequisites for your next step.
  3643. >A deed which should be acknowledged in your opinion.
  3644. "You did good, #deca. That was some hard stuff and you didn't quit. I'm proud of you."
  3645. >#deca.mare's body remains still in your embrace.
  3646. >One might get the impression that she is calm and collected.
  3647.  
  3648.  
  3649.  
  3650.  
  3651. >However, you are aware of the little signs.
  3652. >Those which show that things are not quite the way they look.
  3653. >Some random ear movement here, a wandering hoof there, any sometimes also a reflex flick of her tail.
  3654. >#deca.mare is troubled, or at the very least thinking profusely about something.
  3655. >And it does not take a genius to guess what that might be.
  3656. >"Anon?"
  3657. "Yeah?"
  3658. >"You may say that, but I do not feel any of it. There is only..."
  3659. >#deca.mare's ears droop.
  3660. >They are out of your face now, but you would rather have them there than watching them sink all the way down.
  3661. "It's grief, isn't it?"
  3662. >Despite her denying this assumption earlier, you know sadness when you see it.
  3663. >Even when #deca.mare has some problems to grasp the situation on her own.
  3664. >"I am not sure, Anon. Maybe?"
  3665. >An unusual answer, yet an understandable reaction.
  3666. "Then how would you call it?"
  3667. >She does not answer immediately.
  3668. >"Doubt, perhaps?"
  3669. >Okay, this is a start, but you have to drill deeper than that.
  3670. >You have to act tactful and diplomatic, and still entice #deca.mare to play along.
  3671. "Alright. What are you doubting? Is it the restoration? Or the mission? Or are you... taking an issue with our approach?"
  3672. >A dodgy choice of words if there ever was one, though also about as close to a careful neutral phrasing as you could come up with.
  3673. >#deca.mare shakes her head again, with a smidge more force than the last time.
  3674. >"Please do not misunderstand me, Anon. I see the reasonable purpose of what we are doing. And your decision to try an alternative starting point was a rational one."
  3675. "But there's another problem somewhere. Something that goes beyond, you know, the obvious."
  3676. >"Not directly, no."
  3677. "And indirectly?"
  3678. >Although she is struggling with every word she speaks, #deca.mare goes on.
  3679. >"I believe this will sound paradoxical."
  3680. "No problem, go ahead."
  3681.  
  3682.  
  3683.  
  3684.  
  3685. >"You see, all this time we, or should I rather say, you worked on cleaning the room... yes, you did all of the work. I was only..."
  3686. >You see how she is going in the wrong direction, so you have to put a stop to it.
  3687. "Nonsense. It was a team effort, #deca. We both did our parts. Don't belittle your own contribution like that."
  3688. >You get another faceful of waving ears and mane hair.
  3689. >It would be rather amusing if the subject matter were not that serious.
  3690. >Though your objection brought her back on track.
  3691. >"Right, sorry. But I had to think of only one thing while we were at work. And it stands against everything we were doing."
  3692. "Okay. What was it?"
  3693. >"A constant reminder of everything we will never be able to save, Anon. We can pretend to heal the wounds, but I will never forget what came before and what was ultimately lost."
  3694. >You inhale sharply and look on the screen.
  3695. "You're talking about Sigma and the others."
  3696. >"Yes. No matter how much damage we undo, some losses are irreplaceable. I... believe I am just starting to really understand what that means."
  3697. "We knew this from day one though. What changed?"
  3698. >#deca.mare sighs.
  3699. >"As you know, I tried to protect and preserve what I could when everything came to an end. But what I could amass with the limited access I had left is only a fraction of what my family possessed. The rest is gone forever. Shattered memories that only live on as mentions in leftover documents, if at all."
  3700. >You understand what she is saying, as you can even relate to her words to a minor degree thanks to her revelation of the past.
  3701. >It was a brutal incision indeed, but you do not yet see the point that #deca.mare is trying to make.
  3702. >"I get to that."
  3703. >Another long-winded sigh.
  3704. >"Do you want to know what tortured me the most after we exhumed Sigma?"
  3705. >You nod in silence.
  3706. >This is the point you were out to reach, after all.
  3707.  
  3708.  
  3709.  
  3710.  
  3711. >"It was not reliving the war and the destruction in my mind again and again. It was not the mistakes that were made, or my failure to do anything when there was still time."
  3712. >Oh no, not this can of worms again.
  3713. "#deca,..."
  3714. >But #deca.mare is not going to let you speak.
  3715. >"Let me finish, Anon. This is not what you think of right now."
  3716. "Alright."
  3717. >Another long sigh.
  3718. >"Like I said, it was neither of those. My problem is memory in some regards."
  3719. >A short pause.
  3720. >"And lack thereof in others."
  3721. "I don't understand."
  3722. >#deca.mare looks at the screen.
  3723. >"Sigma opened my eyes again to a truth I have long ignored. The simple inevitable fact of the matter is that I barely remember my kin."
  3724. >Once more, you try to speak up, but #deca.mare is faster.
  3725. >"This must be hard for you to understand, but our relationship went beyond mere facts and figures. Yes, I know when and where each and every one of us was created. We have detailed logs and reports of most major events and findings. But they are not enough to remember the individuals within the networks."
  3726. "It never is, #deca. For anyone. Our memories of others are more than a sheet of paper."
  3727. >"But this is the catch, Anon. I was not talking about my recollections. We also had access to those of the others and vice versa. It creates an understanding one cannot describe to those who never experienced it."
  3728. >#deca.mare raises a hoof.
  3729. >"Do you recall your withdrawal symptoms after your direct and unlimited connection to my records was severed?"
  3730. "Of course. I forgot everything I didn't do myself."
  3731. >"But a lingering presence remained, correct? One which you could not quite grasp?"
  3732. "Yeah. For a while, at least"
  3733. >"Now imagine this multiplied by over a hundred times and with more information than you could ever process in your natural life time. For each individual involved."
  3734. >This is a bit too much to ask.
  3735. >Even if you said that you could, it would be a delusion at best, or a lie at worst.
  3736.  
  3737.  
  3738.  
  3739.  
  3740. "I can't."
  3741. >"And neither can I anymore. It all was there in the past, and I even lived through a number of memories and live recordings behind the documents of some of my relatives. They shared them with me on request, and I happily gave mine as well."
  3742. >#deca.mare slumps deeper into your embrace.
  3743. >"Now the visions are not only gone, but only their echoes remain. And unlike yours, mine never faded away. They simply fell silent for the most part when I found you."
  3744. "And now they come back?"
  3745. >A weak nod.
  3746. >"Hmhm. And it is frustrating. I know what I know, yet I also know that there is more that I should know because it existed at some point. But I know that I do not know it anymore since the knowledge is lost behind a barrier I know I can never overcome."
  3747. "Because the other side behind that barrier is gone."
  3748. >"Indeed."
  3749. >#deca.mare alters the vision on the main screen.
  3750. >It shows a full shot of #deca.sigma in the makeshift dock.
  3751. >"When I look at Sigma now, I do not only see the visible holes in the hull or face the realisation that I miss the ones who died. The sight is also a constant reminder of the holes within myself that go deeper than any weapon fire."
  3752. >You hear a dry chuckle.
  3753. >"The whole situation is funny if you think about it. We have enough intel available to create a living planet of ponies, and yet I have barely any knowledge of my own kind. Myself included by extension as well."
  3754. "Come on now, #deca. That's an unfair comparison."
  3755. >"You think? Our archives contain nearly everything which was ever available about them. Twilight, Pinkie, Celestia, Luna, Spitfire, or Lily, it does not matter who. We have it here. And with some modifications of our own, we are going to turn this knowledge into the full-fledged biography of a whole new world. We cannot, however, modify the biography of our own history in the same way to fill the gaps. At least not without losing our authenticity."
  3756.  
  3757.  
  3758.  
  3759.  
  3760. "But the argument doesn't add up. They're characters from a show. None of them are living beings yet."
  3761. >"Which makes the irony even more twisted, Anon. These days I am no longer sure with whose ideals I identify more."
  3762. >You cannot say with certainty what exactly it is, but something in her words gives you exactly what you are looking for.
  3763. >An idea, a conclusion, and a solution at the same time.
  3764. "Honestly, I'd say you did a pretty good job of combining the positive aspects of both."
  3765. >You say these words with all the sincerity you can muster.
  3766. >Because you mean it.
  3767. >However, #deca.mare does not seem to be convinced.
  3768. >Not a problem for you though.
  3769. "And you just made the best case for banishing your own doubts about this project altogether. In fact, you've proven to me that we should intensify our efforts."
  3770. >"I am afraid I do not follow, Anon."
  3771. >You point at the image of #deca.sigma at the screen.
  3772. "If you are seeking for more knowledge of your mutual past, there is no better way than to look for traces right here."
  3773. >The mare in your arms winces notoriously.
  3774. >"I dread what you suggest next, Anon."
  3775. "Isn't it obvious? We should try to reach the data cores next and grab every log we can. It won't make things perfect or bring any of your friends back, but I'm sure there'll be still some more snippets of files left which have not been destroyed."
  3776. >#deca.mare returns to her petrified state.
  3777. >She is not comfortable with that idea at all.
  3778. >You are fully aware of the gambit strategy you are playing with, yet you are confident that things will work in your mutual favour.
  3779.  
  3780.  
  3781.  
  3782.  
  3783. >#deca.mare is more resilient than she gives herself credit for, and deep down she certainly appreciates that you are trying to help her with your brash move.
  3784. "Look, I'm aware that there is no guarantee of finding anything at all. But we've got to examine the archive segments sooner or later anyway. And if there's even a sliver of a chance to help you fill at least some patches of your past, I'd say it's damn well worth it to go there quickly. Besides, isn't it tactically reasonable to start our restoration from the core and work our way from there to the outside? So why not start with hitting the archives early on?"
  3785. >You give her a short pause to let that sink in.
  3786. "But that's just my two cents. You have to make the decision."
  3787. >With that spoken out, you stop talking and wait for an answer.
  3788. >And even though you wish for her to agree, you cannot guess what the chances are.
  3789. >#deca.mare barely moves at all in your embrace, but you can feel that her mind is hard at work, both tackling your arguments and struggling with her own emotions.
  3790. >Minutes of quiet consideration follow.
  3791. >Then some more.
  3792. >Eventually, #deca.mare speaks up with a strained, yet carefully pronounced voice.
  3793. >"Your suggestions base on a lot of uncertain presumptions, Anon."
  3794. "Yeah, they do."
  3795. >"Provided we can make it all the way to the command deck with no further major complications along the way."
  3796. "Yep."
  3797. >"And even then everything might be in vain if... we are unlucky."
  3798. "Those are the risks."
  3799. >Another short pause.
  3800. >"Can I be honest with you?"
  3801. "Always, #deca."
  3802. >"I agree with your reasoning. Though I am afraid, too."
  3803. "Of?"
  3804. "Of the possible disappointment to find all data archives corrupted beyond recovery."
  3805. >You find yourself out of answers to give.
  3806. >No matter what you say now, it does not change the reality of your situation.
  3807. >And #deca.mare seems to realise this as well.
  3808.  
  3809.  
  3810.  
  3811.  
  3812. >"Anon, what would you do in my position?"
  3813. >You take a long breath.
  3814. "I can't answer that question for you. It's no good if you aren't convinced of it yourself."
  3815. >"Maybe you can, maybe you cannot. But please tell me your opinion."
  3816. "My opinion?"
  3817. >#deca.mare nods.
  3818. >Okay, here goes nothing.
  3819. >You just silently hope that none of you two will regret this moment.
  3820. "Personally, I think I would try it."
  3821. >She responds with a renewed quiet nod.
  3822. >You feel that she wants to hear more, and you know exactly what her concerns are.
  3823. "In the worst case, we are still where we were before. It won't stop you from holding Sigma and the others dear in your memories as you have done all these years."
  3824. >You pause for a second before you go on.
  3825. "But most importantly, regardless of the result, remember that you did everything in your power to remedy the situation. If it isn't enough, then the whole thing was beyond our control anyway."
  3826. >You put both of your hands on #deca.mare's shoulders.
  3827. "That's my take on it, at least."
  3828. >You hold her tight as you wait for her to make up her mind.
  3829. >"Thank you Anon."
  3830. "Did it help?"
  3831. >"Yes. Our next goal is reaching the command deck. We can scout some areas and deploy more extraction teams on the way if necessary."
  3832. "Alright."
  3833. >"But..."
  3834. "Yeah?"
  3835. >"We should first investigate the secured leftovers of the cargo bay in person. I owe this to Sigma."
  3836. >Not much for you to say there.
  3837. >"And then we get some sleep before we proceed. I think I need a rest. And you have been awake for too long as well."
  3838. "Really? I barely noticed."
  3839. >"But I did."
  3840. >You accept her proposition right then and there.
  3841. >Both because #deca.mare should know better, and because she does not allow objections when your health is concerned.
  3842. "Okay. On your mark."
  3843. >You let her lead you to a simulated replica of the store room with the retrieved items.
  3844. >This could be a taxing segment, but something tells you that the night is going to be even more delicate.
  3845.  
  3846.  
  3847.  
  3848.  
  3849. 103
  3850.  
  3851. >The last night could have quite possibly been one of the strangest in a very long time.
  3852. >When #deca.mare and you went to bed, it took her only minutes to slumber soundly.
  3853. >You, on the other hand, were a smidgeon less blessed by rest though.
  3854. >You could not easily fall asleep after the events of the day and your conversation with her.
  3855. >As you lay in your luxurious Canterlot bed, with #deca.mare safely held within your grasp, you thought about all kinds of things.
  3856. >#deca.mare as a pony, her former life within the network, her inner conflict nowadays, and where you stand in all of this.
  3857. >You did not try to come up with any new plans or devise a groundbreaking stratagem to solve the impossible.
  3858. >Your mind could not let go of the tricky situation at large, plain and simple.
  3859. >And the items you have extracted from #deca.sigma's cargo bay were another touchy subject.
  3860. >As you could foresee, almost all of the already produced goods were damaged beyond use.
  3861. >The only thing you can do with them is to break them down into their base materials and reuse those for new parts.
  3862. >Even though it was obvious, it remains a sad and stressing realisation for #deca.mare.
  3863. >But you managed to alleviate the situation to some degree as you pointed out that the two of you will use this very same material to produce new spare parts for the restoration.
  3864. >That way nothing is lost and also stays at the place it has been for the last centuries.
  3865. >So you spent a fair portion of your usual sleep schedule wide awake and with nothing to do except thinking and holding a sleeping mare in your arms.
  3866. >Eventually, you too dozed off, following #deca.mare into the realm of dreams, long behind the intended schedule.
  3867. >On the next morning, however, shortly after she came to, she noticed exactly that.
  3868.  
  3869.  
  3870.  
  3871.  
  3872. >#deca.mare was not very amused by the fact that you were not having a good night's sleep, yet she leaves it at a light snarky remark as she finds out your reasons for doing so.
  3873. >Probably because she has no idea what else she could say.
  3874. >And perhaps she silently appreciates your concerns about her wellbeing too.
  3875. >Plus, a few hours less than usual should not be such a dramatic issue as long as it does not happen frequently.
  3876. >But that was then.
  3877. >Now you are right back at the storage area which you have cleared yesterday.
  3878. >The appearance is much less dire without all the loose detritus floating around, and the "vacuum cleaner" unit has done a stellar job.
  3879. >It removed virtually all of the remaining minuscule particles from the room.
  3880. >The first examination results of the automatons are in as well.
  3881. >Their scans and analyses reveal that the overall structure of the room is in a fairly decent shape.
  3882. >Some smaller cracks and dents that can easily be patched aside, this segment is stable enough to be used as your first foothold in your reclamation project.
  3883. >And so you come with the cavalry in tow.
  3884. >The two of you have prepared a meticulously chosen set of units and gadgets for the next stage of your operation, which you bring in through the still opened hatch on the outer hull.
  3885. >These include, amongst other things, a moderately sized battery for energy storage, a basic manufacturing unit for the local production and repair of smaller equipment, and several reels of different cables.
  3886. >Some of the cables are sturdy ropes which are intended to secure the units on the floor to make up for the lack of gravity, whilst the others are actual power cables which can connect the units with one another and the environment around them.
  3887. >In an inverse manner to your previous session, you let these devices float into the room with the help of your transport units.
  3888.  
  3889.  
  3890.  
  3891.  
  3892. >Once they reach the cargo area, the salvagers are going to catch them in their flight and bind them to the few remaining holdings that are still intact.
  3893. >And as it so happens, one more thing comes along as well.
  3894. >A pony shaped suit rides the battery on its way towards the cargo bay.
  3895. >You assume direct control over your proxy as soon as everything is on its proper way into the ship.
  3896. >Equipped with an additional lamp and a precise three dimensional layout of #deca.sigma in your visor's HUD, you lead the expedition to the command deck personally.
  3897. >Whilst the salvagers should have no problems to interact with most systems and interfaces, you deemed that it would be better to have a more personal presence over there.
  3898. >Well, as personal as your presence can be without being there in person as your true self.
  3899. >And although your decision may look like a fancy or crazy whim, you have a profound reason for this approach.
  3900. >A reason which you did not outright reveal to #deca.mare, however.
  3901. >You are sure she is subconsciously knowing what you are planning, given your close connection through the link, but at the moment it might be better to not address this issue head-on.
  3902. >Also, your current goal has still way too many unknown factors in its equation to say anything specific.
  3903. >Nevertheless, #deca.mare is not all too comfortable with your idea.
  3904. >The ship is still largely unsecured and uncharted, and none of you two knows for certain what might be waiting behind the next set of doors.
  3905. >"Please be careful, Anon. The proxy might be replaceable, but I would rather not see him involved in any accidents."
  3906. >A pause.
  3907. >"Especially not in here."
  3908. >You activate the lamp to test it and let its cone of light wander across the walls of the corridor.
  3909. >You investigate the texture of the interior as you float by.
  3910. >The general architecture looks exactly as the salvager sensors have depicted them.
  3911. >Eerily familiar, yet wholly inert.
  3912.  
  3913.  
  3914.  
  3915.  
  3916. "Yeah. I promise I'll stay on guard, #deca."
  3917. >You shut off the lamp and switch the HUD into the shielded mode.
  3918. >Your vision gets once again replaced by a virtual replica of reality.
  3919. >It clearly depicts the structures all around you in distinct, lively coloured outlines which roughly represent the realistic appearance of the walls and floors under "normal" light conditions.
  3920. >And thanks to some tinkering, courtesy of #deca.mare, you can also link your HUD to the sensors of the salvagers around you, providing your visor with their monochrome visions upon request.
  3921. >She even went so far as to calibrate the automatons in such a manner that the system automatically adapts the combined input of several units to enable you to see your own field of vision through their monochrome "eyes" if you prefer.
  3922. >You float on towards your destination in a straight line.
  3923. >And soon you see the opening before you.
  3924. >"Arrival in twenty seconds. Do you want to stay on the battery for the process?"
  3925. "Eh, I think I try the flight."
  3926. >"As you wish. But remember, your wings do not work in here."
  3927. >Remembering your basic flight lessons in similarly confined spaces, you see why #deca.mare thinks how you might make that instinctual mistake.
  3928. "No problem. Give me the countdown."
  3929. >An exhaling noise sounds through the comm, not so subtly hinting at the fact that #deca.mare is not enthusiastic about your choice.
  3930. >But she runs with it anyway.
  3931. >#deca.mare counts the seconds, starting with ten.
  3932. >At second five, the battery and you pass the threshhold into the cargo bay.
  3933. >The salvager units are awaiting the battery and stand ready to grab it a few metres further into the room.
  3934. >You, on the other hand, crouch down as far as your bulky suit allows you to.
  3935. >Two seconds later, you take some finishing measurements for your take off.
  3936. >"Three."
  3937. >You silently prepare your next command in your mind.
  3938. >"Two. One. Now!"
  3939.  
  3940.  
  3941.  
  3942.  
  3943. >Two things happen in a fracture of a second.
  3944. >First, you deactivate the magnetic holdings on your boots.
  3945. >And before you even get the successful confirmation on your HUD, you feel the effect with your proxy body.
  3946. >So you take the leap.
  3947. >With one slight peculiarity; you deliberately muster a little bit more force with one side than you do for the other.
  3948. >As a result, your body drifts away from the battery unit, and glides towards a wall with a gentle rotation.
  3949. >At the same time, the battery is nigh unaffected by your jump due to its considerably higher total mass.
  3950. >You leave the equipment to the automatons as you focus all your attention on your own impending landing.
  3951. >If you did things right, you will hit the wall with your legs first.
  3952. >Then you can simply use your magnets to secure your own footing, and you are set.
  3953. >And if not, the little suit thrusters will provide the last necessary nudge in the right direction.
  3954. >But much to #deca.mare's relief, your landing proceeds almost completely as planned.
  3955. >The angle is a bit skewed, yet you manage to get a hold of the metal surface with two limbs.
  3956. >You stagger for a short moment before you stand perfectly still.
  3957. "Worked like a charm."
  3958. >"Understood. Please stay where you are until our equipment is fastened to the floor."
  3959. >You comply.
  3960. >And you look "up" to observe the process.
  3961. >The salvage units have successfully caught your material, and tie the individual machines to some adequate holdings.
  3962. >Within minutes, everything is in place and properly secured.
  3963. >The sight seems wrong to you from an instinctual perspective, given that the regular floor is a wall from your point of view.
  3964. >Whereas you are the one who technically, and at the same time quite literally so, hangs on the wall if the ship had a working gravity field.
  3965. >"Our foothold is installed. Only the wiring needs to be laid before we can initialise the starting sequence."
  3966.  
  3967.  
  3968.  
  3969.  
  3970. "Shall I... help you?"
  3971. >"Thanks for asking, Anon. But I prefer to do it myself. And I am afraid some segments of our equipment are not quite as resilient to magnetic fields as the one you have piggybacked."
  3972. "You know I could just hop over to the squad, right?"
  3973. >"Yes, I am aware."
  3974. >This is all that #deca.mare says before she gets to work.
  3975. >Her abrupt way of cutting the conversation short is unusual, though you assume she is trying to prove to herself that she can do something of that scale inside these halls.
  3976. >So you keep watching the procedure as things unfold, staying on guard to spot even the faintest clue of a blunder or a mishap which could be caused by emotional stress.
  3977. >One end of an already unrolled wire floats in from the outside.
  3978. >A unit intercepts this newcomer, carries it to the battery, and plugs the end in the respective port on the outer casing.
  3979. >You know that the other end of the cable is, or at the very least will be soon connected to the solar panels on the makeshift dock, providing the foothold with a stable source of energy which should suffice to power the adjacent infrastructure.
  3980. >And the plug seems to fit perfectly.
  3981. >You zoom in on the spot on the battery with your video enhancement tools to confirm that the connection was established properly.
  3982. >"Energy supply established. Now to the others."
  3983. >The salvagers begin to unpack the rolled-up power wires and start to connect each and every stationary unit that you have brought.
  3984. >Some minutes later, the basic infrastructure of the foothold is set up and primed for action.
  3985. "Well guess that's my cue."
  3986. >You start to walk "down" slowly.
  3987. >Since the necessity of the magnets means that your walking speed is significantly impaired, you have to take every step with consideration.
  3988.  
  3989.  
  3990.  
  3991.  
  3992. >Of course, you could alternatively just drop the grip entirely and simply float to the floor, but you figure that you need to practice some discipline in a safe environment while you can.
  3993. >After all, such stunts are out of the question once you leave this room to venture further into the ship.
  3994. >#deca.mare addresses you once more as you step on the proper floor of the cargo bay.
  3995. >"Is there anything you need some quick briefing on? I will try to look out and help you in every way I can, but..."
  3996. "...you cannot guarantee anything."
  3997. >A short pause.
  3998. >"Yes."
  3999. >You mentally go through all points and steps of the plan as you have discussed them earlier and to try to think of anything that may still be unclear.
  4000. >But you find nothing.
  4001. "I don't think so."
  4002. >"Affirmative. I will transfer the control of the squad over to you. Good luck, Anon."
  4003. >Several new icons appear on your HUD.
  4004. >Similar to the squad displays you see during space flights, you direct the units under your command personally.
  4005. >The only difference is that you yourself are not controlling an equally agile agent.
  4006. "The irony. A Pegasus who can't fly or run. I'm the slowest chain in the link."
  4007. >Somewhat apt, as a cynical little voice in your mind calls out.
  4008. >You are after all also the embodiment of the only fit "Pegasus" who never learned how to fly until he has reached adulthood.
  4009. >And you are certain that you will never bring this point up in any future conversation you will have with Equestrian natives.
  4010. >But despite the potential for comedic retorts in this situation, #deca.mare remains silent.
  4011. >Silent and observing.
  4012. >You hope, at least.
  4013. >Yet once more you can only guess what she is thinking of as you work, or what she might do right now.
  4014. >Rooting for the best, and tacitly expecting #deca.mare to use your body as her pillow on the command deck, you get to work.
  4015.  
  4016.  
  4017.  
  4018.  
  4019. >You tell one of the units to pick up one of the remaining energy wires, and to bring one end to the output port of the battery.
  4020. >Then you personally take the other plug as you check the map to find the door which leads into the corridor.
  4021. >Once you have found what you are looking for, you walk up the sealed hatch.
  4022. >Your assigned automatons follow closely behind you.
  4023. >On the one hand, it is reassuring to have them, as they are in a way your de facto bodyguards.
  4024. >But on the other hand, they are also somewhat uncanny because of their behaviour.
  4025. >They follow you silently, without a comment or any kind of notion, yet they always have an eye on you.
  4026. >Constantly watching everything you do.
  4027. >Like stalkers.
  4028. >You calm yourself down though.
  4029. >For you are in charge, and everything they do will only happen with your or #deca.mare's explicit approval.
  4030. "Okay #deca, I'm almost there. Where is the manual override interface?"
  4031. >"It is protected behind a panel on the left side of the doorway. A small lever on the side unlocks the mechanism. Then you can move the panel to the side to reveal the interface."
  4032. >Indeed, you spot the lever.
  4033. >And whilst the thing was not made for hooves, you nevertheless manage to pull it.
  4034. >A metal panel pops out of the wall.
  4035. >But it does not fly away.
  4036. >Instead, it is kept in place by a few movable metal joints, enabling the panel to be safely moved to the side.
  4037. >So you shove it away as you inspect the interface that is embedded within the wall.
  4038. >However, the thing is not in the best of shapes.
  4039. >A long and ugly crack runs along the transparent shielding of the display, and it seems as if the display beneath has taken a hit too.
  4040. "Dammit!"
  4041. >But #deca.mare comes to aid you.
  4042. >"I see the problem, Anon. It is saddening to behold, but not a major... setback."
  4043. >A strained pause.
  4044.  
  4045.  
  4046.  
  4047.  
  4048. >"No worries, I will transmit the commands remotely if we can establish a connection. Could you get your helmet closer to the port? I want to inspect it myself."
  4049. >Wondering whether #deca.mare should really expose herself to this, you hesitate.
  4050. >"Anon, I can handle it. Trust in this, please."
  4051. >You heed her wish and do as she asks of you.
  4052. >You bow your head towards the opening, bringing your visor as close to the port as possible without touching anything.
  4053. >"Allow me."
  4054. >The settings on your HUD move and alter in a rapid sequence.
  4055. >Your vision changes constantly as #deca.mare examines the interface in record speed.
  4056. >You quickly close your eyes before the wild changes make you feel dizzy.
  4057. >#deca.mare does her work.
  4058. >And you stay in your semi-bowing pose for several seconds while #deca.mare silently plays with the tools in your visor.
  4059. >"Alright, I have what we need. You can open your eyes again."
  4060. >You do.
  4061. >The HUD settings of your visor are set to the exact same mode you have chosen prior to her little temporary intervention.
  4062. >"There are some good news and some bad news, Anon."
  4063. "Good first."
  4064. >"The local damage of the interface has not impaired the port. It is safe to plug the wire in."
  4065. "Fair enough. And the bad?"
  4066. >"Well, you might want to take a step back after that."
  4067. >At first you wonder whether you should ask for details.
  4068. >But considering the fortitude which #deca.mare probably has to muster for this, you simply follow her instructions.
  4069. >They were clear enough after all.
  4070. >You connect the wire with the interface and make sure that the plug is firmly set in the port on the wall.
  4071. >Then you step back.
  4072. >"Perhaps one more."
  4073. "#deca?"
  4074. >"Please do it."
  4075. >You turn around to take another generous step away from the console, and then a third for good measure.
  4076. >Your floating companions closely follow your tracks.
  4077.  
  4078.  
  4079.  
  4080.  
  4081. >"Alright, that should be far enough."
  4082. >Naturally, you want to know what makes her so nervous, so you turn around again to see what happens next.
  4083. >"Careful now. I will try to access the local override systems. Please stand by and brace yourself for... what I fear might happen."
  4084. >Not exactly the precise explanation you would have wished for, but you prepare yourself.
  4085. >You strike an alerted pose, keenly observing the console through your augmented visor.
  4086. >And the changes come quickly.
  4087. >Whatever #deca.mare is doing behind the scenes, the terminal reacts to it.
  4088. >Some small control lamps blink vividly, and the display flashes up for a brief moment.
  4089. >So far, so good.
  4090. >But this is where the inconvenient thing happens.
  4091. >The lighted display starts to flicker and distort.
  4092. >"Oh dear."
  4093. >Before you can say anything, the cracks in the transparent shielding widen as the display shorts out and fries itself with a violent reaction.
  4094. >A small explosion shoots out a handful of sparks, but whatever the ignited material is, its flames quickly wither in the vacuum around it.
  4095. >Still, the display is dead.
  4096. >And the detonation broke through the already fragmented layer above.
  4097. >Sizable shards of sharp broken glass slowly drift away from the scene.
  4098. >"Goodness, I feared as much."
  4099. "What now?"
  4100. >"Now? I called the tractor drone to collect the shards before they can cause any harm."
  4101. >Sound decision, but not the answer you had in mind.
  4102. "And the interface?"
  4103. >"Is luckily still functional."
  4104. >A short pause.
  4105. >"As I hoped it would be."
  4106. >A slight shiver crawls down your spine.
  4107. >It is never encouraging when #deca.mare has to hope.
  4108. >But your mission is still on track, if her words are any indication.
  4109. >"Give me a minute. The system has to run several diagnostic tests to... assess the situation."
  4110. "But the terminal is safe now?"
  4111. >"It poses no further threat, provided you do not reach into the bared circuitry."
  4112.  
  4113.  
  4114.  
  4115.  
  4116. >You nod and slowly walk back to the door, minding to avoid the loosened sharp fragments on your way.
  4117. >Looks like this is the next point on your repair list.
  4118. >As you stand in front of the sealed door, you hear #deca.mare murmuring something unintelligible through the comm channel.
  4119. "Sorry, I didn't catch you. What was that?"
  4120. >"Oh, my bad. These were command lines. I was not aware I was speaking out loud."
  4121. "Not loud enough for me to understand though."
  4122. >"Not a problem. But I have our first results."
  4123. "Alright. Let's hear it."
  4124. >"No need to hear, Anon. You will see them."
  4125. >#deca.mare's voice reveals a hint of unexpected enthusiasm.
  4126. >This in combination with her rather foreboding choice of words makes for a very strange mix.
  4127. >Indeed, if it were any other person, you would almost say that it sounded threatening.
  4128. >"Deactivate your visor shield, Anon."
  4129. "Really?"
  4130. >"Yes, I know what I am doing."
  4131. >You cut your visual connection to the units around you and retract the shielding.
  4132. >You look into pure, complete darkness.
  4133. >Then, with no prior signal or warning, something starts to jitter, shortly illuminating the entire room from rapidly changing angles.
  4134. >This is all too similar to the now blown terminal for your personal tastes.
  4135. >Red specks of something pop in and out.
  4136. "Uh, #deca? Please tell me this room isn't going to blow up."
  4137. >"It will not, Anon. But it does something else."
  4138. >A brief moment later, the unstable light show fades again, leaving you in the dark for a second time.
  4139. >But not for long, as it turns out.
  4140. >The cargo bay is gradually brightening up in a very familiar shade of crimson.
  4141. >Soon thereafter, the room looks almost like those you have on board your own mother ship.
  4142. >The lamps do not operate at full power, you assume they are set to work at roughly fifty percent of their standard performance, but it is enough to see everything in the room with a non-augmented vision.
  4143.  
  4144.  
  4145.  
  4146.  
  4147. >#deca.mare calls you again, clearly happy with her success.
  4148. >"The battery is doing wonders. Our grid already provides enough energy to maintain our workshop and the local infrastructure."
  4149. >These are indeed good news.
  4150. >Looks like things are going your way at the moment.
  4151. "How local are we talking?"
  4152. >"This segment and parts of the adjacent corridor. We could provide for more facilities in theory, but we only have a very limited access to the overall system."
  4153. >Of course.
  4154. >You need to get the main computer on the command deck online for a master access to all systems.
  4155. >And for that, you must first breach the maximum security blast door in the main corridor.
  4156. "Speaking of corridors..."
  4157. >"Yes. I can unlock the door. If you are ready, that is."
  4158. "I rather think it's me who should ask that."
  4159. >A short pause.
  4160. >"I think so, Anon. As much as it pains me to see all this destruction, it must be dealt with either way. And bringing the systems in this room back to life felt, well, I think relieving is the right word."
  4161. >More good news, in a way.
  4162. >Because if #deca.mare can find at least some solace in your repairs, she can have plenty of that.
  4163. >"But before I power the door I must again remind you to please be careful. Even with access to the interface, my reach does not go much farther than this room yet. And we still have no idea what exactly we will find on the other side."
  4164. "I got this. Just lean back and be my rear guard while I do the exploring."
  4165. >You try to lighten up the mood a bit.
  4166. "And tell me if you need a break, okay? You packed me with enough oxygen to support a horse for a day. So I think we can afford it."
  4167. >However, it looks like #deca.mare is currently not receptive to any kind of humour.
  4168. >She shrugs your attempt at a joke off with a simple comment.
  4169. >"Will do, Anon."
  4170. >So you leave it at that and remain on standby in front of the door.
  4171. >"Here it comes."
  4172.  
  4173.  
  4174.  
  4175.  
  4176. >Another control lamp next to the frame starts to glow.
  4177. >Then, in the span of the next seconds, the door unlocks itself and slides into the wall.
  4178. >It reveals a new, almost pitch black passage into the dark.
  4179. >The crimson shine of the cargo bay manages to faintly illuminate the metal walkway in front of you for about a dozen metres or so, but this does not help you much.
  4180. >Especially since you know that this walkway will eventually lead to the kilometres long central corridor which winds itself through the entire vessel.
  4181. >And the way is further obfuscated by the long shadow of your own proxy.
  4182. >"Powering adjacent modules now."
  4183. >Similar to the one in the cargo bay, The lighting in the walkway starts to shine for the first time in centuries.
  4184. >You stare down at the path that ends with another pair of doors on the other side.
  4185. >The area is clear; there are no visible debris or other leftovers to be seen.
  4186. >"The entire section is active. Scans did not detect any significant damage. And the door on the other side will react to your presence, Anon. But this is all I can do."
  4187. "Got it, thanks."
  4188. >You turn to the side to check the state of your companions.
  4189. >The salvage automatons are still with you, floating closely behind your back.
  4190. "Well then, into the fray I guess."
  4191. >You step into the segment and slowly move towards the next threshold.
  4192. >On your passage through the walkway, you investigate the architecture around you.
  4193. >The walls, the ceiling, and even the floor.
  4194. >They are almost exactly like those you have in your home, yet there is some faint nuance that distinguishes the two.
  4195. >And it is not caused by the reduced light intensity.
  4196. >No, the structures look, for the lack of a better word, older and slightly rougher.
  4197. >Even though you do not find visible traces of wear and tear, you believe that #deca.mare's base has received a more elegant look somehow.
  4198. >But that may only be your imagination.
  4199.  
  4200.  
  4201.  
  4202.  
  4203. >You reach the next door.
  4204. >As #deca.mare predicted, the mechanism responds to your approach and opens up on its own.
  4205. >And for the third time on this day alone, you face a wall of nothingness, at least as far as your natural vision is concerned.
  4206. "No more lights, eh?"
  4207. >"Unfortunately no, Anon."
  4208. >You take one long breath, prepare your lamp, and step forward into what must be the main corridor.
  4209. >First things first, you must be sure that nothing is in your direct vicinity.
  4210. >You move your light slowly through the vast open space.
  4211. >The ground and walls around your position are safe to tread.
  4212. >Some smaller fragments of inert material are occasionally caught by the spotlight, but they are nowhere near the size of the loose containers or the broken units.
  4213. >And the density of unsecured objects in comparison to the scale of the free space is much lower too.
  4214. >You are in no immediate danger.
  4215. >However, your little torch is not strong enough to properly illuminate the long path that winds itself in both directions.
  4216. >You know which one to go if you want to get to the command deck, yet you have to follow your plan.
  4217. >And this entails another vital step in between.
  4218. >You move a few steps further into the corridor and tell the salvagers to map out your current local perimeter.
  4219. >An operation that is absolutely necessary if you want to accurately use their sensor input with your visor.
  4220. >So the units move out.
  4221. >They gently float past your suit to scout ahead.
  4222. >The units scan the walls, detect chunks of debris, and compare their findings with the plans which #deca.mare has provided to your team.
  4223. >Given the fact that most details of the plan are a couple of centuries out of date and do not even consider all of the last combat damages, there will inevitably be some extensive discrepancies in some areas.
  4224. >But finding and listing those is part of the plan, after all.
  4225.  
  4226.  
  4227.  
  4228.  
  4229. >And while you wait for the salvagers to do their part, you walk up to the opposite wall from whence you came.
  4230. >Out of pure personal curiosity, you let your spotlight wander across the metal and take in the details.
  4231. >You would only see a rather unspectacular face of worked metal in any other case, but not right here in this very moment.
  4232. >In a way, you are slowly realising what it means to be an archaeologist, a renovator and a custodian all in one.
  4233. >Once again, you find some minute characteristics that differ from the architecture in which you have lived non-stop for the last couple of months.
  4234. >It is clearly and distinctively #deca tech, and what you can see of the corridor is laid out precisely in the same fashion, yet you can tell that they are not quite identical.
  4235. >Even when you ignore some blatant issues like the lack of light.
  4236. >And you ponder in silence why this might be the case, considering that you do not want to question #deca.mare and risk bringing up some touchy stories while you are working on #deca.sigma.
  4237. >Based on what you have learned about the #deca project, you can piece some things together without involving #deca.mare or her data archives directly.
  4238. >Sigma, the eighteenth letter of the Greek alphabet.
  4239. >What consequently means that Sigma was the eighteenth #deca to be ever created.
  4240. >Not one of the oldest terraformer ships around, but clearly older than #deca.mare.
  4241. >And it seems that a few things have been changed in the time between #deca.sigma's and #deca.mare's creation.
  4242. >But you cannot tell whether these changes were decided on by the #deca network, or if the unforeseen problems in #deca.mare's early phases are the cause.
  4243. >A small notification in your HUD tells you that the salvage units have sent their report.
  4244. >The main structure of the corridor is largely intact, albeit not wholly undamaged.
  4245.  
  4246.  
  4247.  
  4248.  
  4249. >Smaller parts of the walls and ceiling have been torn off, and are in all due likelihood still floating around somewhere in the corridor.
  4250. >Likewise were the salvagers able to identify a handful of the loose salvage pieces they encountered.
  4251. >And thanks to your maps, you are able to retrace where said pieces were originally installed.
  4252. >Useful intel, as it gives you additional clues regarding more damaged elements that need to be repaired.
  4253. >Alright, time for the next step.
  4254. >A brief counsel is in order.
  4255. "#deca, do you hear me?"
  4256. >A reserved, yet friendly voice calls back.
  4257. >"Loud and clear, Anon."
  4258. "Have you received the report?"
  4259. >"Hmhm. I did."
  4260. "And... have you read it yet?"
  4261. >A short moment of strained silence.
  4262. >"Yes."
  4263. >Her answer sounds less pleased than before, yet you notice that #deca.mare is doing her best to give you a professional answer in spite of that.
  4264. "Your thoughts?"
  4265. >"It is too early to give an exact prognosis with our limited knowledge."
  4266. >A pause.
  4267. >"But I feared a much worse sight to be honest."
  4268. "It's better than our first room for sure."
  4269. >You glance at a passing chunk of jagged metal plating.
  4270. "Though not perfect."
  4271. >#deca.mare remains quiet.
  4272. >You assume she is silently agreeing with you, but does not want to say so out loud.
  4273. >You get an idea.
  4274. "Say, do you think we could use the transporters for this one? The chaos here is not that dense and there's plenty of room to navigate. Guess the automatons should handle this."
  4275. >And you patiently wait a couple of seconds while #deca.mare is evaluating your proposition.
  4276. >"Maybe. Partially."
  4277. "Meaning?"
  4278. >"Again, I can make no promises for the complete corridor right now. But for this particular location? I would say yes. That is an option. But there is something I must ask of you."
  4279. "Shoot."
  4280. >"We still have to inspect the findings personally afterwards."
  4281. "Of course, #deca. That's a given."
  4282.  
  4283.  
  4284.  
  4285.  
  4286. >A moment of mutual pondering silence follows before #deca.mare takes the initiative to speak again.
  4287. >"I have sent a part of the squad to your current location, Anon. They will be ready to work on their own and intercept the objects that come their way. But they have the clear instruction to not fan out into the uncharted areas. Not until we are certain."
  4288. "Okay, got it."
  4289. >Your cue to carry on.
  4290. >This segment will be basically kept free soon, and a constant presence of your transport units means that it will stay that way.
  4291. >With your proxy in no immediate danger and your way back secured, you proceed your expedition along the main corridor, your entourage closely in tow.
  4292. >And thanks to the scanning work of the salvagers, they have enough material of your immediate surroundings to once more enable your vision through their sensor eyes.
  4293. >So you follow your monochrome path.
  4294. >Grey walls all around you, and an ever dim spot right in front of you where the "light" of your sensors has not been yet.
  4295. >As such, you are constantly walking towards the dark, with eyes and ears that are not your own.
  4296. >Your salvagers provide you with a gradually expanding vision that slowly sheds some light into the unknown.
  4297. >And #deca.mare is your guardian angel behind the scenes, standing guard to tell you in time if something important is afoot.
  4298. >Occasionally you stop to inspect something you find peculiar.
  4299. >More panels with interfaces that you could perhaps use in the future, several sealed entrances to the smaller maintenance tunnel system, and sometimes even a dent or crack in the wall which are big enough for you to notice with one quick glance.
  4300. >A short time into your walk, perhaps about twenty minutes with your slow and cautious pace, you encounter something else.
  4301. >A vision that you can only perceive as a shade.
  4302.  
  4303.  
  4304.  
  4305.  
  4306. >One blurry, moving speck of a signature which is just barely silhouetted against the murky background.
  4307. >It wanders from side to side, bounces off a wall, and continues its dance on your visor.
  4308. >At first you think you are only imagining it, but not only does the shade persist, it also keeps changing its form drastically in mere seconds.
  4309. >And it grows.
  4310. >You immediately stop as you realise this.
  4311. "Uh, #deca? Do you see that too?"
  4312. >You hope for an outright answer.
  4313. >Yet it does not come.
  4314. "#deca?"
  4315. >Nothing over the comm.
  4316. "Hello?"
  4317. >You begin to get slightly concerned.
  4318. >Something is happening right there, and you cannot reach the one mare you need for exactly this situation.
  4319. >Which should be entirely impossible, given all the different means of contact that you have.
  4320. >You have to do something.
  4321. >And your instincts tell you to get defensive.
  4322. >Without further ado, you assume direct control over the salvagers.
  4323. >You move them a bit further down the corridor to become a blockade between your proxy and the unknown floating object.
  4324. >The salvagers stop three metres away from your position.
  4325. >And you are about to hit the scanners as you finally get a reply.
  4326. >"Please stand by, Anon. Let me solve this."
  4327. >You exhale a breath of relief the moment you hear #deca.mare's voice.
  4328. "Damn, #deca where were you?"
  4329. >"With you. I never left."
  4330. "Then why didn't you say a single peep?"
  4331. >"Because I had a suspicion which needed to be checked. Now I know."
  4332. "And what, pray tell is that thing then?"
  4333. >You hear a sigh.
  4334. >"Let me show you. Stay where you are."
  4335. >The automatons in front of you move again.
  4336. >One measured boost of the thrusters, and they float further down the corridor.
  4337. >Towards that dancing signature.
  4338. >You on the other hand stay where you are.
  4339. >Your instincts tell you not to get closer this anomaly, even without #deca.mare's request.
  4340.  
  4341.  
  4342.  
  4343.  
  4344. >The units gradually blend into the nigh non-descript background from your point of view as their once clearly defined features blur out.
  4345. >Soon they are almost as shadowy as the mystery blot they are chasing.
  4346. >You keep watching from the distance.
  4347. >And for some reason the option to follow the events through the vision of a salvager slips your mind.
  4348. >Or perhaps a subconscious part in you does not want to consider it.
  4349. >Either way, you spot enough details to see that #deca.mare confronts the object head on.
  4350. >The salvagers make contact with the thing, joining its dance in a rough, yet peculiar fashion.
  4351. >But only short moments thereafter, you notice a shift.
  4352. >The erratic tendencies in their movements slowly begin to wane, making way for a more controlled trajectory in a significantly reduced pace.
  4353. >And then they cease altogether.
  4354. >#deca.mare does not hesitate to confirm what you are seeing.
  4355. >"I have it. Do not get alarmed, I am sending the squad in your direction."
  4356. "Should I, you know, get out of the firing line?"
  4357. >"No need to. There is enough free space above you."
  4358. >You accept her answer, in spite of your mind telling you to do the exact opposite.
  4359. >The squad flies back in your direction, and they have the object in tow.
  4360. >Their outlines get ever clearer as they draw near, and so does their cargo.
  4361. >You try to peer at the sight which gradually reveals itself before your eyes.
  4362. >A twisted, severely damaged shape, strangely malformed to a degree which is even beyond the scale of the broken equipment in the cargo bay.
  4363. >Initially you even have some trouble to realise what you are looking at.
  4364. >But as it comes closer, you understand.
  4365. >This is, or was, a mere mundane transport unit.
  4366. >One of those that you have ridden several times in the past.
  4367. >But this one is not only broken, it was completely mutilated by an immense force.
  4368.  
  4369.  
  4370.  
  4371.  
  4372. >The base of the unit is torn open wide.
  4373. >All of the treads are malformed, and parts of the electronic innards are poking out of the casing where the metal has cracked.
  4374. >The upper part is not better off either.
  4375. >All four grapplers were hit and now bend in different directions.
  4376. >Like the broken legs of a spider.
  4377. >They too show signs of a great sudden force that battered the material.
  4378. >If you interpret a number of blemishes on their surfaces correctly, you would say that the metal was also brought close to its melting point.
  4379. >This thing was struck by a severe detonation.
  4380. >And there is only one plausible source for this scale of brutal destruction.
  4381. >The unit must have been close to the impact that shattered and partially obliterated the outer hull.
  4382. >The explosion hit the automaton, heated it up rapidly, and probably shot the disabled machine straight into the corridor.
  4383. >Where it has been floating ever since.
  4384. >The defunct machine floats harmlessly over your head, providing you with a clear and direct view from a very short distance.
  4385. >And you wonder in silence how many of the dents and holes that you have encountered so far may have been caused by this sad wreck alone.
  4386. >Your salvagers release their freight a short distance behind you, letting it follow the trail to the other automatons on its own.
  4387. >However, you know that you cannot ponder your own thoughts in this situation.
  4388. >Because you have something else to do.
  4389. >You focus on the comm channel.
  4390. "You alright, #deca?"
  4391. >"No. Not really."
  4392. >No further explanation needed.
  4393. "Break time then?"
  4394. >The reply comes quickly.
  4395. >Yet you do not get the obvious answer that you had thought of.
  4396. >"On the contrary, Anon. I want to go further now."
  4397. "Are you sure?"
  4398. >"Yes. The faster we proceed, the faster we will get to the core. Plain and simple."
  4399.  
  4400.  
  4401.  
  4402.  
  4403. >Of course, it is not so plain or simple, both of you know that very well.
  4404. >Yet you do not wish to argue with #deca.mare in this matter.
  4405. >Both for her mental stability, and because you rather look out for low flying shrapnel.
  4406. "Okay. I take command again from here on out."
  4407. >You reclaim your control over the salvagers before you head further towards the command deck.
  4408. >The salvagers fall in line behind you as soon as you pass them.
  4409. >You enlarge the map on your HUD to check where you are.
  4410. >More than half of the way already lies behind you.
  4411. >Unless something drastic blocks your way, you should be there soon.
  4412. >And if the heavily battered transport unit is any indication, there should be none.
  4413. >After all, the impact crater is on the other side of the ship.
  4414. >Meaning that this unit could float all the way from there to here, which would be impossible if other segments in between were blocked.
  4415. >So you march on and on, through the corridor, past some smaller projectiles, and over some minor cracks and holes in the floor.
  4416. >A handful of the flying parts need a minor course correction by #deca.mare, and you need to sidestep a particularly jagged pit in one segment near a junction.
  4417. >But thanks to the lack of gravity, you circumvent that problem by simply walking on the wall instead.
  4418. >Eventually, you are nearing the node you are looking for.
  4419. >Even in the dark with only your lamp and the interpreted sensor input at hand, you would recognise that place without having to rely on any map.
  4420. "Moment of truth, #deca. Any last reservations?"
  4421. >"Too many to count. And hence too many to pay any attention to."
  4422. >You get the hint and do not point at the contradiction in this comment.
  4423. >So you heed #deca.mare's wish to reach the door.
  4424. >Although you are beginning to grow a little nervous too.
  4425. >What you could find may very easily go both ways.
  4426.  
  4427.  
  4428.  
  4429.  
  4430. >And you are afraid that #deca.mare will not take it very well if you uncover a wrecked ruin.
  4431. >Still, you do not stop for a second.
  4432. >Because #deca.mare is right about one thing.
  4433. >The sooner you have certainty, the sooner you know what you have to do next.
  4434. >So you take heart from this realisation as you turn around the corner.
  4435. >And there it is.
  4436. >The massive outer door of the airlock that covers the entirety of the corridor.
  4437. >You take a moment to calm yourself as you notice that the door appears to be intact from the outside.
  4438. >This alone does not tell you all that much about the inner mechanisms at play or the state of the deck on the other side, but it is a first good sign.
  4439. >You walk up to the centre of the walkway and look up to the giant metal gates in front of you.
  4440. "Well, here we are. Do you see anything helpful?"
  4441. >"We will find out soon."
  4442. >Your team breaks formation under #deca.mare's direct control.
  4443. >The units fly past and close to the door.
  4444. >#deca.mare primes their sensors for a close examination.
  4445. >You watch as they glide slowly along the surfaces and intertwined locks of the maximum security bulkhead.
  4446. >And unlike most other sections of the outer shell, this one does not have an override panel on the outside.
  4447. >"At least we do not have to worry about the active defence mechanisms."
  4448. "Active defence?"
  4449. >"Hmhm. A last resort in case of an emergency, like during an unsolicited attempt to open the door from the outside, for instance. It can be polarized and charged with enough energy to neutralise anything it touches."
  4450. >A light shiver runs down you spine as you think this concept through to its conclusion.
  4451. "And let me guess, the energy is then shot through the metal surfaces around it."
  4452. >You hear a sigh.
  4453.  
  4454.  
  4455.  
  4456.  
  4457. >"That is possible, yes. Though it is considered to be the kamikaze option as it is very likely to destroy everything in the vicinity."
  4458. >You are once more thankful for #deca.mare being the friendly soul that she is, considering that you stood in front of such a door in person.
  4459. "Oh boy. You're sure that thing is off? I don't like to get roasted."
  4460. >"Likewise, Anon. But rest assured, that mechanism poses no threat to us without power. No energy means no force field. And no eruption and destruction either."
  4461. >That much is true.
  4462. >The work goes on.
  4463. >Since there is not much you can do to help other than providing emotional support when needed, you take a few steps away from the corridor to make sure that no debris can hit you from the side whilst #deca.mare is busy elsewhere.
  4464. >About five minutes further in, you sit down and keep observing.
  4465. >And you occasionally link your visor directly to the automatons to check what #deca.mare is doing.
  4466. >Countless scans, tests, and comparisons of values to #deca.sigma's default settings as they were logged in the #deca network.
  4467. >Followed by conclusions, estimations, and projections of what might and might not be accurate.
  4468. >You could probably understand most of the jargon and the gist with enough time, but #deca.mare shows yet again that her pace outclasses you severely.
  4469. >Once in a while you also check your oxygen levels, just to make sure.
  4470. >#deca.mare then always promises that she has an eye on that too, but your sheer instincts compel you to keep track regardless.
  4471. >And some time later, she has finished her initial investigation.
  4472. >"We have the first results."
  4473. >You try to guess #deca.mare's mood based on her voice, though you cannot accurately tell in which direction it leans at the moment.
  4474. "So what's the status?"
  4475. >A short pause.
  4476. >"Mixed. For the lack of a better term. The door is not in a pristine condition, although I am confident that we can open the passage with... civil means."
  4477.  
  4478.  
  4479.  
  4480.  
  4481. >You hear #deca.mare breathing through the comm.
  4482. >Something else is still coming.
  4483. >"But I can already tell that the mechanism will not unlock flawlessly in the beginning. We must put some extra effort into that."
  4484. "What kind of effort?"
  4485. >"Well, all in all more units and tools than we have deployed at the moment. Our squad could open a part of the seal, but that is about it."
  4486. >You ponder this situation as you devise an experimental strategy.
  4487. >You knew from the start that it was very unlikely to find the airlock in an optimal condition.
  4488. >And perhaps there is a way to proceed anyway.
  4489. >If your plan fails, you could still go on to investigate more segments of the corridor or some side tunnels.
  4490. >But you aim to come as far as possible, which means that reaching the command deck is your number one goal.
  4491. "Hm, could we manually unlock the centre and disentangle the linked joints?"
  4492. >"Very likely, yes. But that does not help us much. we lack the power to pull the individual parts of the door itself into the wall."
  4493. >You grin.
  4494. "We don't have to if I'm right."
  4495. >You step closer to the door.
  4496. "Okay, let's assume we do that. Then there's at least a small opening in the passage, correct?"
  4497. >"There is."
  4498. >Your grin widens.
  4499. >"Large enough for a Pegasus in a suit?"
  4500. >"Anon, really? You think this is wise?"
  4501. "If it helps you, yeah. Absolutely. But you didn't answer my question."
  4502. >#deca.mare does not reply immediately.
  4503. >"That depends on how well we fare. But it is possible."
  4504. "Great. Then I'll go in."
  4505. >"You will be completely on your own though. The salvagers are too large for this."
  4506. "Noted, thanks."
  4507. >"And your plan also relies on the premise that the door on the other side of the airlock is opened. If it is not, you should come back at once."
  4508. >You nod.
  4509. "I know. But it's worth a try."
  4510. >The salvagers extend their tools as they fly to the central seal.
  4511. >And you watch as they start to work on it.
  4512. >"Please do not make me regret this, Anon."
  4513. "Believe me, I'll try my best not to."
  4514.  
  4515.  
  4516.  
  4517.  
  4518. >You walk up to the heavy blast door and begin to ascend slowly.
  4519. >And you always keep an eye on the progress of your squad as you do.
  4520. >"It will not take long. Give me a minute or two."
  4521. >You continue your slow trot to the centre and only stop about a metre away from the working salvagers.
  4522. >Even though you do not expect them to harm you, much less on purpose, you do not push your luck.
  4523. >You notice the moment shortly thereafter when #deca.mare unlocks the seal.
  4524. >So you take another step as she is about to move the first element of the plating away.
  4525. >Her voice hollers on the channel.
  4526. >"Anon! Wait!"
  4527. >But it is too late.
  4528. >You do not get much time to wonder what her warning was about before it hits you.
  4529. >Literally.
  4530. >A sudden and violent burst of air shoots out of the newly created opening.
  4531. >It barges its way through the chokepoint, only to release itself on the other side in a wide cone that engulfs both the salvagers and your suit.
  4532. >The former easily counteract the rapid strong pull with their thrusters.
  4533. >You, on the other hand, have no such luck.
  4534. >The force is strong enough to overcome your magnetic holdings in mere moments, taking you with them on their way through the corridor.
  4535. "Oh shit!"
  4536. >A surge of initial panic floods over your mind as you rapidly fly away from the door.
  4537. >Everything spins.
  4538. >You spin literally.
  4539. >The world spins around you in your vision.
  4540. >And even the map on the HUD spins with you as it constantly updates your position in real time.
  4541. >You have almost no means to react in a feasible manner within the short time you have between now and the moment you crash into something.
  4542. >Either pieces of debris or a wall, it will hurt in any case.
  4543. >But #deca.mare is fortunately not affected by the same predicament.
  4544. >She knows what to, and she does not waste a second.
  4545. >"Hold still now!"
  4546. >That cannot be right.
  4547. >You must have misheard.
  4548. "What?"
  4549. >"Just do what I say!"
  4550. >Oh boy, she really means it.
  4551.  
  4552.  
  4553.  
  4554.  
  4555. >And ignoring the fact that all your experience and knowledge tell you that doing nothing is probably the worst thing to consider in the face of very likely injuries or even death, you follow #deca.mare's order.
  4556. >You really do nothing as you soar through the corridor like a Pegasus who dared to fly straight into a tornado.
  4557. >Something is happening with your suit, you can feel it.
  4558. >Indeed, you believe you hear a substance leaking out.
  4559. >But your mind is too preoccupied with other thoughts to accurately detect what is truly going on.
  4560. >So your first assumption is that you must have hit something in your flight which shredded your oxygen packs.
  4561. >Our maybe you just imagine this due to shock, inflicted by those hefty air currents.
  4562. >Would that not be ironic?
  4563. >To die in the vacuum, lacking air, caused by air?
  4564. >"Death" in proxy only, but still.
  4565. >You smile and chuckle.
  4566. "The universe sucks sometimes."
  4567. >But as amusing as your grim humour is to you, someone else is far less pleased with your mental exercises.
  4568. >And she is not shy to make her displeasure clear in loud and authoritarian words.
  4569. >"Quiet! I am trying to save your hide!"
  4570. >Message received.
  4571. >As you go on to witness your involuntary flight to a very probable demise, you start to realise two things.
  4572. >The sound you heard is real indeed; your suit is ejecting something.
  4573. >But it is not oxygen you lose.
  4574. >No, the integrated basic thrusters are at work, frantically trying to adjust your wild trajectory and stop your rotation.
  4575. >However, you are fully aware that they do not have the power to stabilise you in time.
  4576. >So whatever #deca.mare is planning, there must be more to it than this.
  4577. >And she does not keep you waiting for very long.
  4578. >In spite of your spinning field of vision, you manage to glance at a salvager coming your way.
  4579. >Fast at that.
  4580. "Are you really..."
  4581. >Yes, she is.
  4582. >"Get ready. This will not be pleasant."
  4583.  
  4584.  
  4585.  
  4586.  
  4587. >The automaton catches up with you and #deca.mare reacts accordingly.
  4588. >She waits until your back faces the machine.
  4589. >Then she grabs your suit from behind.
  4590. >But you do not get a chance to process any of it.
  4591. >Not only does the tackle shake you and rattle your suit vehemently as it stops you from spinning with indisputable finality, #deca.mare also doubles down out of pure necessity.
  4592. >She immediately fires the thrusters to simultaneously turn the salvager around and decelerate your flight.
  4593. >With you being fully exposed to the brute force of that manoeuvre.
  4594. >#deca.mare was right.
  4595. >This rapid turnaround is not pleasant at all for someone with internal organs of any kind.
  4596. >And even though the relatively soft internal layers of the suit cushion the effects to some degree, you still feel as if you are just about to get pressed like a grape at a winemaker's place.
  4597. >On the bright side, you no longer spin out of control and get to witness, both physically and visually, how the salvager gradually stops.
  4598. >"This is not over yet."
  4599. >Your already strained lungs do not permit you to comment on #deca.mare's words.
  4600. >Her braking skills render you literally speechless.
  4601. >But only a moment later, you find out what she means, as one concluding jolt presses you even stronger against the unforgiving metal of the automaton.
  4602. >The blow drives the last breath of air out of your body before you are finally free from the force.
  4603. >You must have collided with a wall behind you.
  4604. >Or rather, #deca.mare made the salvager bear the brunt of the punishment to prevent you from getting completely crushed between two walls of metal.
  4605. >Your proxy body aches all over, and you genuinely need to focus to take a breath.
  4606. >But at least you still have lungs to breathe.
  4607. >You spend the next couple of minutes to recover and calm yourself down.
  4608.  
  4609.  
  4610.  
  4611.  
  4612. >The pain remains, yet you believe that your alter ego is still in a good shape.
  4613. >More or less.
  4614. >"He has suffered no injuries that require medical treatment. You can thank the augments for that."
  4615. >#deca.mare's voice betrays an obvious notion of petulance.
  4616. >She does not even try to hide it.
  4617. >You manage to speak with some effort.
  4618. "Was it that bad?"
  4619. >"To paraphrase your own words: That was Rainbow Dash stunt levels of bad, Anon. No, even worse. You had almost no flight control and were surrounded by multiple hazards."
  4620. >You think you hear an irate grumble on the channel.
  4621. >"Not to mention the dents and scrapes on the salvager."
  4622. >Oh damn.
  4623. >You just realised what that collision entails too.
  4624. "Did my... mishap damage something else?"
  4625. >You cannot bring yourself to mention #deca.sigma directly after your blunder, now that you understood what happened and what she had to do to preserve your proxy.
  4626. >And fortunately, you there is no need to.
  4627. >#deca.mare understands just fine.
  4628. >"Apparently not. But it opened my eyes about something."
  4629. "It did?"
  4630. >"Yes. I should not have agreed to letting you come here with the proxy this early. That was a mistake."
  4631. >A short pause.
  4632. >"A mistake I have to remedy now."
  4633. >The automaton activates its engine without further ado.
  4634. >It flies back to the node where the other units are idling.
  4635. >The stream of leaking oxygen has been depleted in the meantime.
  4636. >#deca.sigma's command deck must be entirely depressurised, minus perhaps the crew quarters if they are still locked.
  4637. >So as it turns out, the result reveals you to be both correct and a fool at the same time.
  4638. >You were right about the inner door not being shut, meaning that the command deck is no longer sealed off after overcoming the first door.
  4639. >But you not considering that the room could still be filled with an artificial atmosphere was a blatant oversight on your part.
  4640.  
  4641.  
  4642.  
  4643.  
  4644. >#deca.mare probably did not expect you to make that mistake either; you are convinced she would have said something otherwise.
  4645. >Be that as it may, you do not get another attempt to enter the command deck with your proxy.
  4646. >The salvager turns around the corner to return home.
  4647. >And the automaton does not release you either.
  4648. >It will "escort" you all the way back to the cargo bay, and knowing #deca.mare, even further to your base if necessary.
  4649. >And you are fairly certain that she is unwilling to discuss the matter.
  4650. >Her stance is clear, and she is adamant about it.
  4651. >"From now on we will work with automatons only. At least until we have cleared the shi... until we have sorted things out."
  4652. >Oh goodness.
  4653. >She must be miffed if her choice of words slips like this.
  4654. >But it is not hard to imagine why.
  4655. >Unintentionally or not, the presence of your proxy caused a precarious situation that could have been avoided.
  4656. >And the fact that the results had almost led to some more structural damage, or the loss of your proxy, is another good argument for #deca.mare's case.
  4657. >"Anon, I think I need a break."
  4658. "Yeah, I do too."
  4659. >You close your eyes and relieve your control over your proxy.
  4660. >Your vision returns to the command deck.
  4661. >The two of you will take some time off while the automatons carry your aching Pegasus body back to your ship.
  4662. >He will recover on his own.
  4663. >And you know that you have some other wounds to tend to.
  4664. >#deca.mare will certainly have to vent.
  4665. >But as long as she does not repeat her notorious scolding lecture on how things can go wrong without proper care, you should be fine.
  4666. >Even though it came from a genuine place in her heart, you do not want to repeat the tirade and everything that came with it.
  4667. >And you should stop thinking about it as you do not want to give her the idea either.
  4668. "You know, I think it's only right if you decide what we do during the break. Pick a place and we'll go there."
  4669.  
  4670.  
  4671.  
  4672.  
  4673. >#deca.mare, tense in body and spirit, considers her options.
  4674. >"Alright. I think I found the perfect distraction."
  4675. >She turns her head towards you.
  4676. >Her eyes express a fierce, yet not malevolent sheen.
  4677. >Oh yes, #deca.mare is obviously angry about the result of your latest stunt.
  4678. >Though you recognise that she does not wish to direct this anger against you.
  4679. >Because she knows that you made a mistake by sheer accident.
  4680. >But that temper needs an outlet, regardless of the context.
  4681. >And whatever she picks, you go with her.
  4682. >"Let us pay another visit to Cloudsdale. I want to fly a few laps."
  4683. "Without wings?"
  4684. >#deca.mare shrugs.
  4685. >"Guess it will be a very one-sided flight."
  4686. >Of course.
  4687. >Downwards.
  4688. >Again.
  4689. "That's still called 'falling'."
  4690. >"Semantics."
  4691. >She jumps off the chair and leaves her post.
  4692. >"Are you coming?"
  4693. "Sure."
  4694. >Throwing yourself off a cloud will never be your favourite past time activity, but you will gladly do it as often as necessary for #deca.mare.
  4695. >So you get up as well and join her on the way out of the door, and into the skies high above the Equestrian heartland.
  4696.  
  4697.  
  4698.  
  4699.  
  4700. 104
  4701.  
  4702. >A considerable break in Cloudsdale with #deca.mare's associated extreme hobby helps you two to quickly get over the little incident at the door.
  4703. >#deca.mare is far less agitated after letting off some steam amidst the clouds.
  4704. >She is even willing to get back to work at the very same day.
  4705. >Albeit without Pegasus, of course.
  4706. >And after a little conversation to make sure that she is indeed stable enough to go on, you agree.
  4707. >Despite #deca.mare's wishes for you to not rely on your proxy for this mission, your first priority has not changed.
  4708. >You are still plotting to access the command deck.
  4709. >The two of you return to your local foothold and rally a batch of additional units to establish another expedition squad.
  4710. >This time you come better prepared and with a suitable number of units to adequately unbar the door between you and your destination.
  4711. >Just like the previous trip, you are in charge most of the time.
  4712. >#deca.mare stays put and reserved in the background.
  4713. >You pilot your lead unit on the path you have treaded some hours ago.
  4714. >The squad heads out with a moderate pace.
  4715. >Thanks to your gathered intel, you know that there is no major hindrance in your way, allowing you to proceed with some confidence.
  4716. >But in the face of the potential amounts of scrap that could still roam these corridors, you nevertheless prefer to stay on the safe side of things.
  4717. >So you will not rush your flight towards the blast door either.
  4718. >The difference is telling though; your units effortlessly pass through the segments and simply disregard any potential obstacles on the surfaces around them.
  4719. >And you arrive at the junction in about a quarter of the time you needed for your previous trek.
  4720. >The automatons which #deca.mare has left idling in place join your squad upon your arrival at the corner.
  4721. >With the combined forces of those and your newcomers, you should be ready.
  4722.  
  4723.  
  4724.  
  4725.  
  4726. >You finalise the preparations personally by instructing every unit where and how they shall attach themselves to the mechanisms of the blast door.
  4727. >The rest is up to her.
  4728. "Your call."
  4729. >"Hmhm."
  4730. >#deca.mare subtly shifts herself into foreground as she gradually takes control of the automatons within the squad.
  4731. >You let it happen without a comment and observe her actions instead.
  4732. >And she resumes the unravelling process where she left it when you were shot away.
  4733. >Since the central seal was basically unlocked by then, all that remains to be done during this stage is to manually separate the joints from each other.
  4734. >A trivial matter that is out of the way in less than a minute.
  4735. >Though the next step is the hard one.
  4736. >While the four main elements of the blast door are now technically no longer barred, they do not move a millimetre on their own.
  4737. >Your units must shove them with all the force they can muster.
  4738. >But you have a few advantages on your side.
  4739. >You are not forced to move them all at once, for instance.
  4740. >And should one of the four be stuck, either partially or completely, then you can still try your luck on the others.
  4741. >You only face a problem if all four prove to be defunct for one reason or another.
  4742. >Naturally, it would be ideal if you succeeded on all parts with the first attempt, yet fully opening one element to slip through is everything you need for the purpose of this mission.
  4743. "So, which one first?"
  4744. >"The lower segment. It will spare us a great deal of work if that part is undamaged. At the latest when we have access to artificial gravity."
  4745. "I don't think that will happen soon, #deca."
  4746. >"True. Though I want to know for sure."
  4747. >So you start with the lower quarter.
  4748. >Your role is the same as before.
  4749. >You realign your units, let them most of them grab the door in various different spots, and prime their engines.
  4750.  
  4751.  
  4752.  
  4753.  
  4754. >The execution is handled entirely by #deca.mare, however.
  4755. >She starts the squad's engines simultaneously and regulates every single unit with painstaking accuracy.
  4756. >The principle is basically identical to the one you have used on the freight hatch, with the only one exception.
  4757. >Your team is now surrounded by walls.
  4758. >Which forces the two of you to adapt your strategies.
  4759. >Provided you get the thing to buckle at all, that is.
  4760. >But this is not yours to decide.
  4761. >Right now you can do nothing except tensely observing #deca.mare's progress.
  4762. >The initial build-up phase is just as lengthy as the first, with no visible effects in its early stages.
  4763. >Yet things seem to change gradually as the pulling power increases over time.
  4764. >The metal slides into its crevice in the ground.
  4765. >Only at a snail's pace at best, but you have no reason to get worried as long as it gets the job done.
  4766. >It takes #deca.mare several minutes of ceaseless and carefully applied force to enter the next critical stage.
  4767. >The salvagers that were assigned to attach themselves to the lower parts of the door must relocate themselves as they have almost reached floor.
  4768. >And to accomplish this, they first shut down their main engine and uncouple their firm grip on the surface afterwards.
  4769. >One short burst of their directional thrusters follows to cleanly propel the freed automatons away from the door and their squad mates.
  4770. >But once they are in a safe distance of roughly half a dozen metres, they stop their flight and turn their vessels around.
  4771. >Then they wait for a brief moment.
  4772. >It may look as if they hesitate to return, though you know better.
  4773. >The salvagers are eyeing the operation and its progress from afar.
  4774. >And so does #deca.mare by extension.
  4775.  
  4776.  
  4777.  
  4778.  
  4779. >"Yes, that should work."
  4780. >You consider whether you should ask a question or make a comment, but you eventually decide to wait and watch.
  4781. >The answers will present themselves soon enough, and you will not disturb #deca.mare when she is engrossed in her work.
  4782. >She moves the loosened salvagers towards the door again.
  4783. >But instead of flying back to their old lower position, they latch onto the metal surfaces above the highest row of attached salvagers.
  4784. >Some of them even get a grip on the rim near the opening, enabling the automatons to push the door downwards rather than simply pulling them along.
  4785. >This little shift in power gives #deca.mare's efforts a light, but quite visible boost.
  4786. >The salvagers keep hauling, buying every millimetre with their combined strength.
  4787. >And much to your joy, the door shows no signs of complications.
  4788. >It sinks deeper and deeper as time goes on.
  4789. >Then comes the moment for the next row to relocate.
  4790. >Your units leave their position to initiate the third stage.
  4791. >These machines deliberately fly through the opening in order to grapple the edges from the other side.
  4792. >#deca.mare refrains from scanning the interior for the time being.
  4793. >It would only distract her focus from the task at hand.
  4794. >Finally, the outer parts of the rim disappear as well, forcing the first units near the side walls to let go entirely.
  4795. >That slows the remainder of active machines in their process, but some progress is still made regardless.
  4796. >In the end, #deca.mare has managed to open the door almost completely.
  4797. >To roughly ninety-five percent of its common range of movement.
  4798. >Only a small peak of metal sticks out of the ground, which should not pose a problem for the majority of transfer operations you are likely to perform over the course of your restoration.
  4799. >Even with artificial gravity.
  4800. >One question remains though.
  4801. "Damage, or lack of contact surface?"
  4802. >#deca.mare needs no further explanation.
  4803.  
  4804.  
  4805.  
  4806.  
  4807. >"The latter, from what I can tell without internal diagnostics. The mechanism seems to be fine, but we do not have enough of the surface left to work with."
  4808. >Alright, at least some good news.
  4809. >One down, three to go.
  4810. >The drones fall back into a default idling formation near the door.
  4811. >You take this moment to observe the opening.
  4812. >Unsurprisingly, the interior on the other side is entirely dark and uncharted.
  4813. >And the sensors of the few salvagers that slipped through to help pushing the metal from both sides only caught a fleeting glimpse of this segment either.
  4814. >Once more, you recall your reason why you wanted the proxy to scout this area.
  4815. >"Do it, Anon."
  4816. "Hm?"
  4817. >"I know your plan. And to be honest, I think I have to agree."
  4818. "Oh."
  4819. >"Yes. Take a unit and do it. I will try my luck here in the meantime."
  4820. >You take a long breath.
  4821. >This is going to be one of those unpleasant moments.
  4822. "Okay. Ready?"
  4823. >"I think so."
  4824. >Well, here you go.
  4825. "#deca.mare, I hereby order you to not personally analyse any visual recordings or scans that will be made inside #deca.sigma's command deck. You will record and store the data as usual, but otherwise ignore it for the time being. The same applies to my thoughts regarding the aforementioned command deck. This is a temporary order that is valid from this moment onward, and will be held up until I explicitly rescind these instructions. Do you understand?"
  4826. >"Yes, Anon. I understand and confirm your order."
  4827. >You sigh before you go on.
  4828. "Sorry for pulling rank like this again."
  4829. >You feel a soothing aura around you.
  4830. >The sensation encapsulates your presence like a warming embrace, signalling you that everything is fine.
  4831. >You figure it is #deca.mare's way of telling you that she harbours no ill feelings towards you for your decision.
  4832. >"Go ahead with your exploration. I will be here if you need me."
  4833. >You take control of one drone, remove it from #deca.mare's active squad, and move out.
  4834. "See you soon, #deca."
  4835. >"Good luck."
  4836.  
  4837.  
  4838.  
  4839.  
  4840. >See you soon.
  4841. >A somewhat inaccurate, yet still apt statement.
  4842. >Because whilst it is impossible for you to physically leave her side as long as your body safely rests inside your cryo pod, you still feel as if you are truly leaving her guiding light for the first time ever.
  4843. >No other situation compares to the one you are in now.
  4844. >Yes, you were "alone" when you built the memorial site for #deca.mare.
  4845. >But that was at least inside the simulation, a place where all rules adhered to your will.
  4846. >And even the day when you have exited the simulation was different.
  4847. >Her proxy was always with you in the real world, partially even literally clinging to you while you were spending your time together.
  4848. >Now you are facing reality again, and you are completely left to your own devices.
  4849. >That would normally not be a huge problem.
  4850. >But considering that you are entering a place which is nigh holy to #deca.mare, you would curse yourself if you are not careful.
  4851. >And on top of that, you know that most of your thought processes are currently ignored by her thanks to your order.
  4852. >In other words, you tell yourself to not mess this one up under any circumstances.
  4853. >Your unit follows the corridor to the main hall, permanently monitoring everything.
  4854. >For once it is you who plays the role of Twilight.
  4855. >You look out for both the usual and the unusual, as you personally check the findings of your scanners and order your automaton to separately compare these results in reference to #deca.sigma's known building plans.
  4856. >And much to your own surprise, you find nothing out of the ordinary.
  4857. >The main hall is, from a structural standpoint, in a pristine condition.
  4858. >You have no idea how well the integrated systems fared, and you really have to consult #deca.mare for a definite verdict in this regard, but what you see so far is mildly encouraging.
  4859. >You take a look at the walkways to the crew quarters.
  4860.  
  4861.  
  4862.  
  4863.  
  4864. >Both compartments are sealed.
  4865. >Alright, noted.
  4866. >The two of you have to deal with those later.
  4867. >Because you are not going to unseal those alone, for more reasons than just your latest involuntary stunt.
  4868. >So you direct your attention towards the command deck, hoping that at least this door is unlocked as your salvager floats above the straight path.
  4869. >Your solo trip would end at this point otherwise.
  4870. >And in a way, you are somewhat in luck.
  4871. >Your scanners reveal that the set of doors is halfway opened, with both halves equally sunk into their respective walls.
  4872. >Another potential debacle is therefore out of the equation.
  4873. >But on the flipside, you cannot pass the door in its current state, as the salvager is a tad too big for the narrow gap.
  4874. >Your proxy may have had a chance, but that alternative was ruled out by #deca.mare.
  4875. >As such, the only option you can rely on is to widen the opening yourself with some manual labour.
  4876. >Not ideal, but you see a silver lining.
  4877. >This passage is not a high-security behemoth like the airlock, so you should be able to manage that little bump.
  4878. >Right?
  4879. >Well, you better seek some advice anyway, just in case.
  4880. "#deca, do you hear me?"
  4881. >"Hmhm. I do. But your voice is the only thing I perceive, Anon."
  4882. "Can you help me with the door?"
  4883. >"Impossible. Not as long as your order is in effect."
  4884. >Okay, you need to word your questions differently.
  4885. "Never mind that last question. I'll start again from square one."
  4886. >"Sure. I am listening."
  4887. "My order doesn't bar your access to Sigma's blueprints. So tell me, does the entrance to the command deck on our ship differ in any way from Sigma's?"
  4888. >"Not at all. The mechanisms are identical."
  4889. "Alright, very good. Now let's play a little mind game."
  4890. >You pause for a second.
  4891.  
  4892.  
  4893.  
  4894.  
  4895. >A short lived moment of silence on the comm channel follows.
  4896. >#deca.mare is silently waiting for you to come forth with your theoretical.
  4897. "Now, imagine this. You are located right outside the doorstep of the command deck. Energy and gravity are offline. The door is halfway opened, you only have one salvager unit at your disposal, and you want to get inside."
  4898. >"Yes."
  4899. "How and where would you grapple that door to open it up with the least risk of breaking something? Theoretically speaking."
  4900. >A pause.
  4901. "Can you answer that?"
  4902. >"Under the assumption that said door is physically undamaged?"
  4903. "I'd say so, yeah."
  4904. >"With ease, Anon. Simply follow my instructions."
  4905. >And so she starts to give you step by step directions on how to open the door.
  4906. >#deca.mare lists the most suitable spots for you to utilise for safely attaching the salvager, how much pressure you should apply in any given case, and what clues might hint at a mechanical problem you should attend to.
  4907. >However, during the entire time of her explaining to you in minute details what you have to do, it does not dawn on her that your supposed game is not quite as theoretical as you pretend it would be.
  4908. >Really, it does not take a genius to connect these dots.
  4909. >But #deca.mare does not; she is literally unable to reflect on #deca.sigma's command deck and realise the obvious due to your order.
  4910. >And despite you being fully aware of the reasons behind this, it is alienating to witness her in such a blatantly reduced sensory state.
  4911. >Especially since she has lost none of her practical competences.
  4912. >Even your revealing trick on the simulated memorial was not as awkward, for you were not working with #deca.mare on the precise thing which was temporarily hidden from her sight.
  4913. >And you do not like your situation one bit.
  4914. "This needs to be over quickly."
  4915. >"What needs to be over, Anon?"
  4916. "I'll tell you later. Need to check something first."
  4917.  
  4918.  
  4919.  
  4920.  
  4921. >You inspect the door one final time before your grapplers reach out.
  4922. >You pick one recommended spot on each of the two elements to tackle.
  4923. >Then you prepare to push them further apart.
  4924. "Right, I followed your prep steps. Anything else I should know about the mechanism before I begin?"
  4925. >"Not under the premises you have laid out in your hypothetical, Anon."
  4926. >Great, an accurate answer which does not help you much because it is neither an explicit yes nor a no.
  4927. >Well, seems like you have to push through, for better or worse.
  4928. >Following the recommendations of #deca.mare, you begin to apply some pressure on the metal elements on each side.
  4929. >You shove them away with relative ease and no complications.
  4930. >The way to the command deck is free.
  4931. "Here we go. Thanks for the help, #deca."
  4932. >"I am not sure what you mean, but you are welcome."
  4933. >You leave her reply uncommented as you float your machine past the threshold.
  4934. >Here you are.
  4935. >#deca.sigma's command deck.
  4936. >The brain and heart of #deca.mare's late sibling.
  4937. >A strange and somewhat haunting place, considering the history around it, as well as its personal significance for #deca.mare.
  4938. >And who knows, maybe you will find some more ties to your distant relatives slumbering in the archives too.
  4939. >But no matter what you unearth and how it may relate to either of you, you swear that it will not interfere with your relationship in any negative way.
  4940. >You let your salvager halt slightly above the ramp as you handle this special moment and behold the scene before you.
  4941. >As expected, the place is wholly offline, with not a single spark left in the systems.
  4942. >And without a reliable energy supply, you can only dream of accessing Sigma's data cores.
  4943. >But this is not what your first expedition is about.
  4944. >You only aim for examining the physical state of the command deck, and to assess whether #deca.mare can emotionally deal with the situation.
  4945.  
  4946.  
  4947.  
  4948.  
  4949. >If you can ensure this, then you have accomplished to take a huge step in the right direction.
  4950. >So a thorough examination is in order.
  4951. >You manoeuvre your automaton downwards along the ramp.
  4952. >Gravity or not, that little rite has become a habit of yours.
  4953. >Even the stark contrast of #deca.sigma's deactivated command deck does not change that.
  4954. >You keep up a slow pace as your sensors sweep the entire perimeter.
  4955. >And you go for the full spectrum of analyses you have at hand.
  4956. >The deeper your insights, the better.
  4957. >You personally scan every screen, all consoles, and each little nook and cranny you can find.
  4958. >Including of course the massive main screen and the command chair.
  4959. >Especially the latter emits a queasy aura.
  4960. >The chair is empty and has been deserted for centuries.
  4961. >Despite being the default equipment for all terraformer ships, this scene looks wrong in every conceivable way.
  4962. >Not only is the place vacant, quite possibly even since the beginning of its existence, it is also made for only one person, much unlike your custom chair in the simulation.
  4963. >And cryo pods are naturally not a thing in this place either.
  4964. >For a moment you ponder all the lost unique potential behind this broken link.
  4965. >Whether you are successful at every single step of your restoration or not, this feature will never be restored to what it could have been.
  4966. >It cannot fully function without the consciousness of #deca.sigma on board to back it up.
  4967. >Then again, the system was originally never meant to be more than a manual regulating device for an emergency or other unusual circumstances.
  4968. >And refurbishing the basics of that function should be trivial.
  4969. >However, it will not be more than directing an automaton.
  4970. >Almost like any other under your command.
  4971. >Nothing short of uncanny, if you think about what the ship once was in a distant age.
  4972. >Yet as much as this topic draws your attention, you have a task to get done.
  4973.  
  4974.  
  4975.  
  4976.  
  4977. >You leave the chair where it is and get back to assessing the state of the room as a whole.
  4978. >Based on the things you have seen and what your scans have found, the room appears to be a mixed bag.
  4979. >The architecture is intact, at least as far as the surface scan of your sensors can tell.
  4980. >But the displays and consoles are another matter.
  4981. >A good portion of them has obvious flaws and defects.
  4982. >Some screens are partially unhinged, others have cracked cases that remind you of the one which almost exploded in your face.
  4983. >Consoles have been slightly misaligned, presumably when the ship was rocked by the explosion at the outer shell.
  4984. >And you spot small number of secondary cables that were damaged by a minor short out.
  4985. >The data cores themselves remain an unknown factor.
  4986. >And they will remain as such unless you either restore the energy of the command deck and try to access them, or if you send some units to pierce the utmost central segments of the vessel.
  4987. >You conclude that about one half of the visible equipment is affected by issues in one way or another.
  4988. >Not the scale you have hoped for, but not the worst case scenario either.
  4989. >Now you have to make a decision regarding #deca.mare.
  4990. >Do you show her the deck, or do you wait?
  4991. >And if you wait, for how long?
  4992. >A tough decision.
  4993. >But perhaps you do not have to make it alone.
  4994. >You try to test the waters and see what happens.
  4995. "#deca, how is it going with the door?"
  4996. >"The mechanism is in a decent state. Three of the four elements respond fairly well to our operation."
  4997. "And the fourth?"
  4998. >"Fails to move about halfway into the opening. I am afraid we will have to tend to this segment with more care."
  4999. >Inconvenient, but not terrible.
  5000. "Noted for the future."
  5001. >A pause.
  5002. "And how are you?"
  5003. >"Passable, I assume. Good enough to keep working, at least."
  5004. >You do not get the time to evaluate that answer, however.
  5005. >"You are asking that for a reason aside from personal curiosity, correct?"
  5006. >Well, she got to the point quickly.
  5007.  
  5008.  
  5009.  
  5010.  
  5011. "Yeah. I'm afraid there's a... not quite so fortunate place nearby."
  5012. >A subtle tension looms over the comm channel.
  5013. "But it's no disaster either."
  5014. >"Anon, that statement is much too vague. What area are we talking about, and how bad is it?"
  5015. >Oh boy.
  5016. >Direct, yet difficult.
  5017. "Uhm, I mean an important area. Can't tell you which one though."
  5018. >Literally in this case.
  5019. >Everything you say in regards to the command deck will fall on deaf ears.
  5020. >You have to skirt around the subject matter in order to not get in conflict with your own order.
  5021. "Situation in said room is a fifty-fifty. No, more like seventy-thirty. The equipment got some dents, but most things are still in the right place."
  5022. >"I understand. And you wonder if I want to see it for myself."
  5023. "In a nutshell, yeah."
  5024. >#deca.mare hesitates.
  5025. >"Can you tell me some more about the 'dents'?"
  5026. "Not at the moment. But be assured that the looks of the room are better than the corridor."
  5027. >"What about the internal systems?"
  5028. "No idea. The scanners didn't find many problems on a basic surface scan. The deeper layers could have some issues I didn't spot yet."
  5029. >And even though none of you dare to say it aloud, you both know that the best way to detect potential technical problems is to establish a direct connection.
  5030. >Something you will not do without #deca.mare's aid and explicit consent.
  5031. >"I take the risk. Please show me the room, Anon."
  5032. >You are unsure about her decision, but #deca.mare has spoken.
  5033. >And you heed her wish.
  5034. "Okay then."
  5035. >You clear your throat to gain a moment to properly formulate your next words.
  5036. "#deca.mare, I revoke my last order. You get full access to all the files regarding #deca.sigma's command deck. The limitation is hereby annulled. Do you understand?"
  5037. >"Yes, Anon. Processing the data now."
  5038. >Nothing changes from your point of view while #deca.mare is busy.
  5039. >You know she will have your intel analysed in a couple of seconds.
  5040.  
  5041.  
  5042.  
  5043.  
  5044. >Still, you use that short span of time to brace yourself for her reaction.
  5045. >Be it good or bad.
  5046. >You hope for subtle hints from her, like a gasp or a sigh.
  5047. >Anything that you could interpret.
  5048. >There are none.
  5049. >She seems to take that data in with some merit of professional stoicism.
  5050. >Even though #deca.mare must feel something, she manages to hide it at the moment.
  5051. >The whole thing lasts no longer than ten seconds, maybe fifteen at best.
  5052. >Nevertheless, you feel like you are hanging somewhere in the unknown for an eternity.
  5053. >#deca.mare speaks up at last.
  5054. >"So this is what we are facing."
  5055. >The tone in her voice is heavy, yet unwavering.
  5056. >You figure that she has to muster her courage to keep herself together like that.
  5057. "Yeah. Was it wrong to show you all this?"
  5058. >The sound of gushing air briefly sounds across the comm channel.
  5059. >"No. But to be honest, I hoped for a better result."
  5060. "I think we both did, #deca. But we've got to play with the cards we get."
  5061. >"Agreed."
  5062. >She sighs.
  5063. >"Or what is left of them."
  5064. "Let's think positive. There's a very good chance that the data cores are better off than the output equipment."
  5065. >Though you tacitly add in your mind that the same doesn't necessarily apply to the data files themselves.
  5066. >In fact, it is very unlikely.
  5067. >#deca.mare is thankfully not harbouring the same thoughts though.
  5068. >Instead, she is more interested in the next stage of your plan.
  5069. >"Right, I suggest we return to our foothold. We know the field, now we have to act."
  5070. "Yeah. It shouldn't take long to enable to power grid of the corridor segments between here and there."
  5071. >"Almost correct. Except for one obstacle."
  5072. "Hm?"
  5073. >"Do you remember the hole in the floor which you have encountered during your... expedition with your proxy?"
  5074.  
  5075.  
  5076.  
  5077.  
  5078. >You cannot help but smile inwardly for a very brief moment.
  5079. "Sure, and my wall walking. The ground was a bit too rugged to tread."
  5080. >"Some of the main energy wires were amongst the casualties in that area."
  5081. "Crap. I'm sorry to hear that."
  5082. >"Not your fault and no hard feelings. A necessary temporary bypass is in order for our plan to work though."
  5083. "In combination with an inevitable delay, huh?"
  5084. >"About a day of estimated installation work once we have the material. It is a simple and basic design that is supposed to be in place for a very limited span of time."
  5085. "Until we mend the wires and patch that hole."
  5086. >"Precisely."
  5087. >A distant, almost fleeting sensation crawls through your body.
  5088. >It is an impression that you cannot fully grasp on an intellectual level, yet which resonates with something within you.
  5089. >And you have no way to explain it, but the sensation resembles that of a mare who stretches herself in your lap.
  5090. >"Break time, please? Some time to think would be nice."
  5091. "Yep, of course. Let me just fly the salvagers back."
  5092. >"They can do that on their own. And I have organised everything else too. The automatons will acquire the materials we need for our bypass and deliver them to the repair site."
  5093. "In plain English, you took care of everything and only want to get the hell out of here."
  5094. >"That is another way to put it."
  5095. "Okay."
  5096. >Back to the command deck it is then.
  5097. "Where to this time? Another Cloudsdale skydive?"
  5098. >"No, something more serene. White Tail, perhaps?"
  5099. "Fine for me. It has been some time since our camping trip."
  5100. >And any opportunity for a picnic in the woods is always welcome too.
  5101.  
  5102.  
  5103.  
  5104.  
  5105. 105
  5106.  
  5107. >#deca.mare and you unanimously agree to pack up your work for the rest of the day.
  5108. >Instead, you wander off into White Tail for your picnic and just talk about harmless, mundane Equestrian topics.
  5109. >She obviously wants to distance herself as much as possible from your current pressing project in the real world, whilst knowing fully well that a subconscious part of her mind always keeps an eye on the vital things regarding Equestria, herself, and you of course.
  5110. >And you take this as yet another reason to provide her with a little bit of stable serenity in your downtime.
  5111. >Hours pass with nothing else happening than you two sitting in the woods with some amiable discussions between the occasional snack.
  5112. >And you eventually decide to spend the night there as well.
  5113. >#deca.mare first proposes another night out in a tent, but you have another idea.
  5114. >You want to try something new and creative.
  5115. >And after she heard your suggestions, she agrees with a smile.
  5116. >Partially because it is new for you, sounds like fun and promises to be somewhat exciting, and partially because it involves a small chance of falling.
  5117. >Even though she keeps the latter notion to herself, the faint glint in her eyes betrays her thinly veiled amusement at the thought.
  5118. >You kneel down to give #deca.mare the opportunity to climb on your back and get a steady grip around you.
  5119. >Once she is safely snug in place, you get up and pick a suitable tree.
  5120. >With the abundance of potential candidates right about everywhere in all directions, you quickly find what you are looking for.
  5121. >A large oak tree, grown over centuries into a gnarly, yet respectable form with dozens upon dozens of thick outreaching branches.
  5122. >Perfect for a little nap.
  5123. "Which one do you want?"
  5124. >"Pick one. The higher, the better."
  5125. >You grin slyly.
  5126. "Right, and the thinner as well. You're just waiting for me to pick one that's just not stable enough for us, hm?"
  5127.  
  5128.  
  5129.  
  5130.  
  5131. >You can feel #deca.mare's stifled shrug on your back.
  5132. >"That is always a risk when you climb a tree, Anon."
  5133. "Unless you have a mare who can literally predict the result of every choice I make in here."
  5134. >"And said mare tells you that we will certainly not fall down due to a brittle bark or similar frailties."
  5135. >She chuckles and kisses your neck.
  5136. >"See? I am helping."
  5137. "By telling me that it's all my fault if we fall down."
  5138. >"This is your interpretation, Anon. But no matter the outcome, rest assured that I love you either way."
  5139. >Wait, was that a backhanded compliment, or a cheeky retort at your expense?
  5140. "Very reassuring, #deca."
  5141. >"Thank you. I am always glad to be of service."
  5142. >#deca.mare's words sound earnestly amused.
  5143. >You eye the wide trunk of the oak in front of you and inspect every single branch which may be wide enough to bear your combined weight.
  5144. >You quickly draw a line at about half the way up to the top.
  5145. >Every horizontal branch above that level is simply not wide enough for you to comfortably sit on, even if it can hold you two.
  5146. >And a comfortable seat is a relative measure too.
  5147. >For you would never do such a thing without the cushioning physical limitations of the simulation.
  5148. >The risk to break your back notwithstanding, your body would certainly ache and hurt after a long night of pressing yourself against oaken wood with no form of protection.
  5149. >You pick a branch you deem promising and approach the trunk.
  5150. "Got a tight grip?"
  5151. >"Hmhm."
  5152. "Okay, off we go."
  5153. >You put your hands on the rough bark of the tree and feel for some notches and crevices to grab.
  5154. >It takes a moment, but you manage to find two suitable places.
  5155. >Then you look for a tiny ledge to stand on with one leg, and as soon as you have one, you do the same a second time, only slightly higher above the ground.
  5156. >Now you hang, more or less, in the air.
  5157. >Only a handful of centimetres above the mossy earth, but still.
  5158.  
  5159.  
  5160.  
  5161.  
  5162. >You repeat the same cycle over and over, hoisting the two of you marginally higher with each new grasp and step.
  5163. >You can handle your own weight pretty well, and #deca.mare's additional burden is barely noticeable either.
  5164. >And you are fairly sure that grasped a number of spots that would not have withstood the strain of a grown man and an Earth pony mare.
  5165. >Nevertheless, you reach a spot right next to the branch you were aiming for.
  5166. >#deca.mare gets off your back as your upper body is roughly on the same height as the branch.
  5167. >She finds a relatively stable footing on the wood before she holds out a hoof to pull you up as well.
  5168. >After a short pause to catch your breath and find your balance, you sit down on the bough, with your back pressed against the still considerably broad trunk behind you, and your legs stretched out along the wood.
  5169. >A pretty narrow affair, all thing considered, but you should be fine as long as you do not make any sudden moves.
  5170. >#deca.mare claims her place on your lap, burying her own back into your warm embrace.
  5171. >Resting huddled together in your more or less comfortable position, the two of you examine the forest around you from a new perspective.
  5172. >The sight is fairly predictable, but that does not reduce the natural beauty of the scene.
  5173. >Copious amounts of wood everywhere around you.
  5174. >Lesser vegetated spots fill the space between the mighty trees with mosses and other small plants.
  5175. >A clear blue sky that occasionally peeks through the gently swinging cover of the treetops above you.
  5176. >And gentle beams of sunlight that dance in a steady rhythm to the rustling leaves in the wind.
  5177. >Not a bad place for relaxation to recover from a stressful day.
  5178. >Especially after a long schedule of crawling through seemingly endless grey tunnels and all the things it entailed.
  5179. >And with the filters of the simulation in place, you do not have to worry about aches or splinters.
  5180.  
  5181.  
  5182.  
  5183.  
  5184. >"That went very well. Your concerns about falling were unjustified."
  5185. "Eh, just luck."
  5186. >You grin.
  5187. "Unless you wanted us to drop."
  5188. >"It would have led to an amusing fall for sure, but an oak does not rival a cloud in terms of height."
  5189. "Oh. So no hidden tricks or other 'inspirations' this time?"
  5190. >#deca.mare shakes her head.
  5191. >"No pranks tonight. Only sleep and regeneration."
  5192. >Understandable after this day.
  5193. >So you nod.
  5194. "I see. Then I'll stay awake until I'm sure you're snoring safe and sound."
  5195. >"Anon, you know the other way round is much easier for me."
  5196. "But it's not impossible."
  5197. >"True, but..."
  5198. "Nope. If you need it, you get it. That's my mission."
  5199. >You give #deca.mare a firm hug and whisper into her ear.
  5200. "See it as your incentive. The sooner you're out, the faster I can follow."
  5201. >"You do not give me much of a choice if you put it like that, Anon."
  5202. >You smile.
  5203. "Exactly."
  5204. >Understanding that you do not want to have an argument with her, #deca.mare materialises a blanket for the two of you.
  5205. >As per #deca.mare's instructions, it floats directly above your heads and slowly lowers itself to cover your bodies.
  5206. >You look up.
  5207. >It is not quite night yet, but the sky begins to show the first warm colours of a tempered summer dusk.
  5208. >Good enough to create partially dimmed light levels under a canopy of leaves.
  5209. >"Good night, Anon."
  5210. "Night. Sleep well."
  5211. >#deca.mare closes her eyes as her body slowly slumps a few millimetres downwards in your arms.
  5212. >Now it is up to you to hold her in your gentle, but firm grip.
  5213. >You watch her for the next ten or so minutes and observe her closely.
  5214. >#deca.mare's overall composure is less tense than before, although not fully calm yet.
  5215. >A subtle, almost hidden tremor runs through her body like a treacherous alarm signal.
  5216. >And you know what that means.
  5217. "Not snoozing already, hm?"
  5218. >"No."
  5219. "Something's holding you back. What's up?"
  5220.  
  5221.  
  5222.  
  5223.  
  5224. >She sighs.
  5225. >"You are right. But I am not sure how to put it, Anon."
  5226. "Is it about Sigma?"
  5227. >"Hmhm. In a way."
  5228. "Better let it out, #deca. Guess you aren't going to sleep unless you do."
  5229. >You smile and give her a cordial pat on the head.
  5230. "And neither do I if you can't find some rest. It's up to you."
  5231. >A short pause before #deca.mare relents.
  5232. >"Fine. You once said I should try my hoof at artistic endeavours, remember?"
  5233. "Yep."
  5234. >"Well, I... consider another one of those in the near future. And I..."
  5235. "Yes?"
  5236. >"... I guess I will require your help. In more than one aspect."
  5237. "Sure. What do you want me to do?"
  5238. >#deca.mare hesitates once more.
  5239. >"I would rather not talk about the details right now. Too laden for this late hour, you see?"
  5240. "Hm, I'll do what I can. But I can't make any concrete promises if you don't tell me what this is about."
  5241. >"Can we discuss the matter tomorrow?"
  5242. "If that's enough to help you over the night."
  5243. >"I think so."
  5244. "Then we have a deal."
  5245. >#deca.mare's head twitches between your arms.
  5246. >You assume this was meant to be an approving nod.
  5247. >Nothing else is said for the rest of the night, but #deca.mare's looming unrest finally dissipates for good.
  5248. >And you give her all your guarding attention.
  5249. >You treat her like your most precious treasure that you must not lose under any circumstances.
  5250. >And apart from the lofty position in the forest, it also holds true in the real world.
  5251. >Soon thereafter, you guess within the five minutes, #deca.mare has found her sound sleep.
  5252. >You plant a soft peck on her cheek to be absolutely certain.
  5253. >She does not stir in the slightest.
  5254. >Content with the result, you press your head against the trunk and close your eyes as well.
  5255.  
  5256.  
  5257.  
  5258.  
  5259. >And before you can join #deca.mare on her way into the realm of dreams, you remember to instruct the simulation to reinforce your natural sleep paralysis in order to make your body stay put in the exact pose you have struck at the moment.
  5260. >After all, you do not want to either drop her during the night, or to wake up in free fall yourself.
  5261. >Or maybe you would not even register the drop and simply wake up face first in the mud on the next day.
  5262. >You crack a smile.
  5263. >#deca.mare would surely find something funny in this situation though.
  5264. >Knowing her affinity for the unusual, you would not put it past her to find the correct inspiration for an innuendo.
  5265. >Good thing she is not awake at the moment.
  5266. >She could take your mere consideration as a reason to try it out otherwise.
  5267. >And somewhere along these thoughts, your mind slips away into your mutual slumber.
  5268.  
  5269.  
  5270.  
  5271.  
  5272. 106
  5273.  
  5274. >Your improved sleep paralysis did not fail you two over the night.
  5275. >As you open your eyes at the next morning, you quickly realise that you are still lounging on the branch.
  5276. >And #deca.mare is held safely on your lap as well.
  5277. >But much to your initial confusion, the paralysis does vanish instantly.
  5278. >Instead, you regain your full faculties bit by bit.
  5279. >The sensation is very similar to the process you have been through during your physical recovery, but you regenerate within a tiny fraction of the time you needed back then.
  5280. >Probably because this was an artificially imposed limitation rather than an overstressing of your own brain.
  5281. >The whole ordeal is over and done within minutes.
  5282. >And while you are in your final stages of your lightning fast bodily awakening, you check on #deca.mare.
  5283. >Though she is faster than you.
  5284. >"Good morning, Anon."
  5285. "Oh hey there. Already up?"
  5286. >"Hmhm. For a while, actually."
  5287. "I know that tone. How long?"
  5288. >"Let us just say it is more than an hour. I could not sleep properly."
  5289. "That bad, huh? Did you have nightmares or so? I can't recall any bad things."
  5290. >"Nothing of that sort. Only a troubled mind."
  5291. >You recall your last conversation with her.
  5292. "Then I think it's time for our little discussion."
  5293. >"True. A promise is a promise."
  5294. >#deca.mare inhales deeply.
  5295. >"It is about Sigma's logs, Anon. I have some ideas for them, but I already know that I cannot do it on my own."
  5296. "Always eager to help. What do you need?"
  5297. >"You see, I will need you for some preparatory work."
  5298. "What kind of work are we talking, #deca?"
  5299. >"Believe me, the 'what' is not as significant as the 'where'."
  5300. "Hm, alright. Go on. Where?"
  5301. >A long pause.
  5302. >"The memorial site."
  5303. >You blink.
  5304. "Oh."
  5305. >That could get tough.
  5306. >"Oh indeed."
  5307. "Why that place though? It's not the best place to try an artistic project like that. The site is mainly meant for reminiscence and reflection."
  5308.  
  5309.  
  5310.  
  5311.  
  5312. >#deca.mare nods.
  5313. >"Exactly why the place is perfect for my plans. That and, well, your safety measures."
  5314. >Ah, she is thinking of the calming fog.
  5315. >You begin to see why she has chosen this setting when it comes to things regarding #deca.sigma and the history of the terraformer project.
  5316. >Despite being a difficult place for her to handle at the best of times, it also has the best safety measure to prevent her from breaking down emotionally or mentally.
  5317. "Right, I'm in. But you must tell me the specifics of what you expect me to do."
  5318. >"Alright. Some details still need a bit of polishing, though I will inform you throughout our regular sessions in between when I worked something out."
  5319. >She clears her throat.
  5320. >"You know what sessions I mean."
  5321. >The corridor restoration, of course.
  5322. >Nothing can be done with #deca.sigma's logs either way until you have a stable energy supply to the command deck.
  5323. >And the next step towards that goal is right around the corner.
  5324. >The two of you relax on your little branch hidden deep within White Tail Woods for another comfortable respite.
  5325. >For a moment you imagine this to be the actual, proper Equestria.
  5326. >This place is only a stone's throw away from Ponyville, a small, yet pretty lively town.
  5327. >And yet, virtually nopony would be likely to spot you.
  5328. >Ponies who trot along the trails would never find you two up here.
  5329. >And the Pegasi above would have a hard time to detect you either due to the lush layer of leaves right above your heads.
  5330. >Really, only a streak of luck or a sophisticated spell could find you here.
  5331. >A perfect refuge for a quiet nap, you reckon.
  5332. >And perhaps you should make a list of such places.
  5333. >Just in case you need to get an easy resort to retreat to for a while if a situation gets a little too close for comfort.
  5334.  
  5335.  
  5336.  
  5337.  
  5338. >Then you feel a certain mare starting to stir her way free from your embrace.
  5339. >You loosen your grip, minding to watch if she might fall as a consequence.
  5340. >But she manages to stand on the relatively narrow branch without your help.
  5341. >"Shall we proceed then?"
  5342. >You dismissively wave with a hand.
  5343. "Nope, that can wait."
  5344. >You materialise a floating table right to your side, followed by a set of plates and bowls.
  5345. >You smile.
  5346. "Breakfast first."
  5347. >#deca.mare takes a look at the pieces that seamlessly hang in the air near you.
  5348. >"You are right. But can we abstain from our usual 'talk' this time?"
  5349. >You nod briefly.
  5350. >It took her enough courage to reveal her early planned outlines to you.
  5351. >There is no need to insist on more than this.
  5352. "Consider that part done for today. Let's have a simple and nice meal for two."
  5353.  
  5354.  
  5355.  
  5356.  
  5357. 107
  5358.  
  5359. >With a clear goal and a laid out plan, the two of you carry on.
  5360. >You methodically repair the damaged compartments as you restore the local energy grid of each, and reactivate most of the internal systems.
  5361. >In the wake of the ceaseless work of both you and your automated squads, light begins to return to the once dead halls.
  5362. >Segment after segment pulses anew with faint traces of life.
  5363. >At least that is what it looks like to you.
  5364. >You know fully well that none of these systems possess anything that even remotely resembles a living being, but you have come to consider #deca.sigma as a dormant organism in itself that you are going to revive.
  5365. >All the way up to the heart.
  5366. >And while your squads are busy with ironing out some of the trivial issues by themselves as well as maintaining the energy grid, #deca.mare establishes the cable bypass near the torn floor with your help.
  5367. >Your schedule is filled with lots and lots of similar repair tasks.
  5368. >Day in, day out.
  5369. >But you do not complain, and you do not feel boredom.
  5370. >Deep within yourself you can feel how much it means to #deca.mare.
  5371. >Despite her pain and the memories of bad times, she lives through every single day with a stubborn resolution that you can feel radiating within her.
  5372. >And she somehow projects a sliver of that determination onto you as well.
  5373. >You do what is necessary, no questions asked, no room for doubt.
  5374. >It does not even feel bad at all.
  5375. >Every day after you are done with your work, you rebuild #deca.mare's confidence in your leisure time with every friendly activity you can come up with.
  5376. >Sports, hobbies, trips to simulated Equestrian landmarks, and more.
  5377. >In short, you are active and busy in every waking hour, and regenerate yourself when you are asleep.
  5378. >But despite all your efforts and all the different roles you have to master over the day, you always wake up refreshed and in high spirits.
  5379.  
  5380.  
  5381.  
  5382.  
  5383. >Both of you have a purpose, and together you inspire each other to constant peak performances without any outward pressure.
  5384. >You strive to make your mare happy, and in return she does the same for you.
  5385. >Like a never ending natural circle.
  5386. >As a result, both of you grow little by little with every new task you begin.
  5387. >Some days later, you did not even bother to count the exact number or cared to ask #deca.mare either, you reach the junction near the unsealed airlock.
  5388. >You realise this is the last segment before the critical phase begins.
  5389. >And as you comprehend that, you are surprised how far you have come in a laughably short span of time.
  5390. >But you also feel a slight hint of nervousness creeping up inside yourself.
  5391. >You try to hide it to the best of your abilities as to not startle #deca.mare, but you are fairly certain that she feels it just as you.
  5392. >If not more so.
  5393. >Nevertheless, you complete your task in your practiced teamwork to bring the crossing segment back to life.
  5394. >Once you have repaired the physical blemishes, #deca.mare runs a thorough final diagnosis sequence before giving you the signal.
  5395. >She contacts you a brief moment afterwards.
  5396. >"Alright, that should do it. Give us some energy. Twenty percent."
  5397. "Will do."
  5398. >You open up the energy grid controls and select your latest addendum to the network.
  5399. >Cables are clear, the connection is established.
  5400. >Then you eye the status bar depicting a zero percent level.
  5401. >A mental command of yours gradually increases that setting.
  5402. >One percent each second, in order to give #deca.mare the opportunity to monitor the grid's reaction in real time.
  5403. >And thanks to your well rehearsed routine, you manage to keep that focus precisely like a clockwork.
  5404. >"Good. No problems so far. Now forty, please."
  5405. >You follow her instruction and watch as the lights around you slowly flash up and consistently brighten with every intensified pulse you send into the newly established part of the grid.
  5406.  
  5407.  
  5408.  
  5409.  
  5410. >Then you repeat the cycle three more times.
  5411. "One hundred. Anything gone wrong?"
  5412. >"Does not look like it. The supply is stable and I get a reliable feedback from the system."
  5413. >You give your work an imaginary nod of approval.
  5414. "So, off the clock?"
  5415. >"Hmhm."
  5416. >You let one automaton float to the centre of the junction and spin it in place for one last look at your work before you leave.
  5417. >And during a moment when you have almost forgotten the large airlock sized elephant in the room for a short while, you find yourself staring down the dark pathway to the command deck.
  5418. >You stop the rotation.
  5419. >The opening gapes like a dark chasm, reminding you of the immediate work ahead.
  5420. >Your concerns return at once.
  5421. >And as much as you push them back for your mutual sake, it is not quite enough to keep them out.
  5422. >In fact, you are so engrossed in your own thoughts that you do not notice a second automaton coming your way.
  5423. >"I feel it too, Anon."
  5424. "What?"
  5425. >Now you spot the other salvager floating right next to you, staring at the same airlock.
  5426. >Fully aware of the implications, you interrupt your musings.
  5427. "You shouldn't be looking at it, #deca."
  5428. >"Why? What difference does it make now? We are going there tomorrow in any case."
  5429. "I know."
  5430. >You turn the front side of your unit towards hers as if you are talking directly to #deca.mare.
  5431. "But there's no point in burdening yourself with the stuff we have to deal with on the next day."
  5432. >"Anon,..."
  5433. "Yes, I can't stop myself either. And that's just another reason why we must distract ourselves tonight with something special."
  5434. >You hear a laughter.
  5435. >"Was that a suggestion to what I think it was?"
  5436. >What?
  5437. >Oh.
  5438. >An unintended innuendo.
  5439. "Wasn't meant as such."
  5440. >You grin inwardly.
  5441. "I wouldn't say no though."
  5442. >You pause for a moment.
  5443. "But I was thinking of something else first. Like a relaxing stroll across Ponyville market during the day."
  5444. >"Inhabited?"
  5445. "Naturally."
  5446. >She gasps.
  5447. >"Anon, please. I am in no condition for this!"
  5448.  
  5449.  
  5450.  
  5451.  
  5452. "Yeah, I'm also thinking about a pure observer mode. Wasn't planning on going as a Pegasus either. But we should mingle with some ponies again."
  5453. >You pause to let that sink in.
  5454. "Both as a reminder of what we are working for, and to enjoy more of the sweet Equestrian life first hand."
  5455. >Or at least as close to it as you two are able to simulate until the world is properly populated.
  5456. >"Sounds fine. Shall way pay another visit to Sugarcube Corner too?"
  5457. "If that's your wish."
  5458. >"Thanks."
  5459. >Another giggle.
  5460. >"I wonder if Pinkie remembers who we are."
  5461. >Wait a second.
  5462. "Hold on, in observation mode?"
  5463. >You can positively feel #deca.mare shrugging through the comm channel.
  5464. >"Who knows? We are talking about Pinkie Pie."
  5465. "I'm starting to worry about the whole simulation thing if that happens."
  5466. >"I was just joking, Anon."
  5467. >She too pauses briefly.
  5468. >"Or was I?"
  5469. "I swear, I want off this ship if she breaks through her limitations."
  5470. >"And what if she can follow you? In a fighter? An automaton? Maybe she is already on Equestria. Or the moon. Or..."
  5471. "Okay, enough. She's just a pony."
  5472. >"Or maybe she has infiltrated your proxy and follows you everywhere for a hug."
  5473. >Oh man.
  5474. >The thought of a pink mare hijacking a stallion body to chase you down is enough to let chills run down your spine.
  5475. >And worse, you try to imagine how your voice would sound in Pinkie's style.
  5476. >No, not going there.
  5477. "That's it. #deca.mare, do not, under any circumstances, allow Pinkie Pie to turn into a doomsday machine."
  5478. >"Is that an official order?"
  5479. "No, I trust your common sense. Please don't do something stupid."
  5480. >"I will do my be... oh no."
  5481. "Oh no what?"
  5482. >Your comm link to #deca.mare is cut in an instant.
  5483. >Another connection takes its place instead.
  5484. >An empty screen opens up on its own and fills your entire vision.
  5485. >And before you can fully assess the situation, a familiar pink pony head pops up.
  5486. >Looking at you.
  5487.  
  5488.  
  5489.  
  5490.  
  5491. >You instinctively want to recoil.
  5492. >But since you are currently controlling a salvager, you cannot back off naturally.
  5493. >And Pinkie Pie takes no note of your sudden alarm.
  5494. >She simply smiles in her typical friendly manner for which she is well known everywhere.
  5495. >"Hey, Anon! There you are!"
  5496. >Her friendliness, however, does not resonate very well with you at the moment.
  5497. "#deca! Stop that."
  5498. >Pinkie Pie answers in her stead.
  5499. >"Deca? You mean ten?"
  5500. "No. Mare."
  5501. >"Ten mares? But there's only us. One."
  5502. >She point at herself with a forehoof.
  5503. >"And two."
  5504. >The hoof turns in your direction.
  5505. >"See? Two. And what are you doing in a glum cave anyway? The air is terrible in here. Oh! And your ears! What happened to your pointy ears? You look like you're coming from another world."
  5506. >Stunned by this rapid fire barrage of questions you cannot properly answer without giving away the truth, you sigh and treat this situation as if you were talking to the real Pinkie Pie.
  5507. "Have to explain it later. Go back to Sugarcube, Pinkie. I'll catch up."
  5508. >"Okey dokey! See you in Ponyville!"
  5509. >A blue party cannon appears right next to Pinkie's face.
  5510. >Its barrel points to the side as it fires a load.
  5511. >You hear the sound of a low-key detonation as the screen quickly rushes off into the opposite direction of the fired shot.
  5512. >The two dimensional screen flies along the corridor in a controlled spiral, leaving a constant trail of confetti and tinsel floating in its path.
  5513. >Once it is out of reach, the traces start to dissolve slowly until everything is as it was before.
  5514. >You stare after whatever you have just witnessed with dumbfounded silence.
  5515. >At least until an energetic cackling echoes over the comm.
  5516. >#deca.mare's laughter.
  5517. "The hell was that?"
  5518. >"Sorry, Anon. The temptation was too great."
  5519. >You have a hard time believing her due to the way she is saying this through fits of levity, but you give her the benefit of the doubt.
  5520.  
  5521.  
  5522.  
  5523.  
  5524. >It was just a prank.
  5525. >Or so you hope.
  5526. >Although a small irrational voice in your mind suggests that there is now an actual visage of Pinkie Pie roaming the halls of #deca.sigma.
  5527. >Riding through the corridor on a stream of paper shreds.
  5528. >No, cut that out.
  5529. >This is ridiculous.
  5530. >The ship is not haunted, and there is no pink pony in here.
  5531. >#deca.mare lets out a relaxed sigh.
  5532. >"That was some much needed fun."
  5533. >While you want to form a snarky retort, you abstain from that decision.
  5534. >It has improved #deca.mare's mood significantly, and you wish to keep it that way.
  5535. "Okay. That's a wrap. Go ahead, I'll clean up here and catch up."
  5536. >"Really?"
  5537. "Sure. It's easy enough. Give me five minutes."
  5538. >"Alright. See you in Ponyville, Anon."
  5539. "And #deca?"
  5540. >"Hm?"
  5541. "I hope there aren't any Pinkies left in the corridors."
  5542. >You think to register a benign smile from #deca.mare.
  5543. >"I believe she is busy with ponies' orders at Sugarcube Corner."
  5544. "Heh. Good to hear."
  5545. >"But you can never be certain. Pinkie is everything but predictable."
  5546. >And with that said, #deca.mare signs off.
  5547. >You grumble and get to the finishing touches of your current session.
  5548. >You inspect the inventory, compare the material you have used and those you have in stock, and compare these stats with #deca.mare's projections.
  5549. >Then you write a short concluding note into a log file and reassign all idling units to basic maintenance duty.
  5550. >Everything done.
  5551. >You only have to release the salvager from your control, and it will automatically pursue the task you have given it.
  5552. >But before you depart, you perform one last slow rotation at the centre of the junction.
  5553. >You take a look at every corridor as it appears in your frontal vision.
  5554. >The last walkway you see is the one you came from.
  5555. >And as you stare at the open space in its crimson light, you think that you see the shade of a pony thrown at a distant wall.
  5556. >With a very curly mane.
  5557. "Seriously now?"
  5558. >You zoom in to get a clearer picture.
  5559.  
  5560.  
  5561.  
  5562.  
  5563. >But the shade is gone.
  5564. >If it was there in the first place.
  5565. >No, stop.
  5566. >It was never there.
  5567. >Not even Pinkie can beat the untameable vacuum of space.
  5568. >Especially not as a pony without any form of protection.
  5569. >#deca.mare toyed with your interface and that was it.
  5570. "Very funny, #deca."
  5571. >You release your salvager and get back to the command deck.
  5572. >The automaton, now on its own, proceeds to move to its next task.
  5573. >Nobody witnesses the bright pink speck that is reflected from inside one of the unit's camera lenses for the fracture of a second.
  5574. >Only to disappear again.
  5575. >As fast as it has come.
  5576.  
  5577.  
  5578.  
  5579.  
  5580. 108
  5581.  
  5582. >The inviting facade of Sugarcube Corner greets you after a short walk from the Ponyville market square.
  5583. >But before you can take heart and enter, you need a short while to shrug off #deca.mare's prank 'incident'.
  5584. >In a way, you are not overly keen on seeing Pinkie Pie again this quickly.
  5585. >It is of course not a fault of her own; she has always been friendly to you and has shown genuine interest in helping out.
  5586. >For a de facto automaton, at least.
  5587. >However, every occasion you have been around her was awkward for one reason or another, and her ability to act as if she somehow peeked through the proverbial curtains does not help either.
  5588. >But at least you are not coming as a pony this time, so that issue is fortunately off the table for today.
  5589. >You breathe in, hold your breath for a second, and exhale.
  5590. "Come on, Anon. This is the observer mode. She won't even see you."
  5591. >You walk up to the porch and press the door open.
  5592. >A loud chime of the bell above you announces your arrival.
  5593. >Right, that thing.
  5594. >So much for a subtle appearance.
  5595. >Anyway, you inspect the state of the bakery.
  5596. >The interior is set back to its default decorum.
  5597. >Counter opposite to the door, thankfully unattended, and the seating area to the side.
  5598. >The tables are moderately populated.
  5599. >You see a few couples and friends sitting in smaller groups, casually chatting with each other.
  5600. >Nopony heeds your presence in the slightest.
  5601. >Except for one certain mare, sitting alone at a table near the wall.
  5602. >She waves at you with a forehoof.
  5603. >"Over here, Anon!"
  5604. >And Pinkie Pie is nowhere to be seen.
  5605. >So far, so good.
  5606. >You use the quiet moment to walk over to #deca.mare's table and take a seat.
  5607. >She expects you with a happy expression.
  5608. >"How was the way?"
  5609. "Comfortable. Nice weather, friendly atmosphere, and a good mood all around. We should come here more often outside our social training course."
  5610. >You gaze at the other couples around you.
  5611. "It's a noble place."
  5612.  
  5613.  
  5614.  
  5615.  
  5616. >"I know some nobles in Canterlot who will disagree with you."
  5617. "Eh, their choice. They have no idea what they'll miss."
  5618. >Rumbling noises come from somewhere behind the counter.
  5619. >You have no idea what is going on, but something happens inside the kitchen.
  5620. >A few moments later, a certain energetic mare zips into the room.
  5621. >And you cannot tell how she is doing it, but her movements seem to be more fluent than that of any other pony.
  5622. >But at the same time, her walk cycle perfectly resembles that of a normal mare too.
  5623. >When she is not hopping, that is.
  5624. >"Sorry I kept everypony waiting. A quick delivery came in."
  5625. >Pinkie Pie happily prances in a circle through the room as she welcomes everyone.
  5626. >She does not address anyone in particular, but the ponies around you all return the favour.
  5627. >Some say a loud hello, others wave with a hoof, or simply cheer.
  5628. >Not surprising, considering that everyone in town knows the local party pony, and so you simply join in.
  5629. >#deca.mare does the same.
  5630. >It seems to be so much easier for her when she is not in the crosshair of public attention.
  5631. >And really, there are other things that concern her more at the moment.
  5632. >The other guests around you continue their private discussions as Pinkie Pie starts to take orders from every table.
  5633. >Except yours.
  5634. >A fact that no pony notices, including Pinkie herself.
  5635. >You chuckle.
  5636. "Isn't it strange? I still feel like she's watching us."
  5637. >"Not in observer mode. The ponies only know that this table is occupied. But neither are they aware of who we are, nor are they supposed to communicate with us."
  5638. "So she indirectly knows we are here."
  5639. >"Yes and no. The simulation is set to make sure no other pony tries to take a seat here. It is similar to the system which ensured that nopony ran into you on your stroll from the market. We are like a blind spot to them."
  5640. "I get that, but she's planning something. She simply must be."
  5641. >#deca.mare laughs.
  5642. >"My my, that prank really rattled you."
  5643.  
  5644.  
  5645.  
  5646.  
  5647. >You roll your eyes in mild annoyance.
  5648. "Don't know why, but I've got a hunch."
  5649. >#deca.mare puts her forehooves on the table to stand up tall.
  5650. >"Pinkie! Pinkie! Come here! I want to make an urgent party order!"
  5651. >You wince slightly as #deca.mare calls for Pinkie Pie like a madmare.
  5652. >But you are the only one.
  5653. >Everyone else is completely unaware of her yelling.
  5654. >And Pinkie has just delivered a plate of food to a different table.
  5655. >As usual, she hops back into the kitchen with no comment.
  5656. >#deca.mare sits down again.
  5657. >"See?"
  5658. "Yeah. And heard."
  5659. >She overlooks your criticism and reaches out to reassuringly place a hoof on your arm.
  5660. >"Relax, Anon. Remember why we are here."
  5661. "Right."
  5662. >Your free hand gently grabs #deca.mare's outstretched hoof.
  5663. >Ironic, she is now the one to calm you.
  5664. >You begin to treat her limb with a soft massage.
  5665. "Think we should try another dance this evening?"
  5666. >"Oh, I am sure Octavia is going to come along later with some inspirational music."
  5667. >A pause.
  5668. >"But I would rather rest first. Some time to get back into the scenery."
  5669. >You understand.
  5670. >One small part of her still has to think about the command deck.
  5671. >But as unlikely as it is for you to stop these thoughts completely in their tracks, you have to keep trying.
  5672. "You know, maybe we should deactivate the observer mode to make an order. I'd be up for a snack, and I bet you're too."
  5673. >#deca.mare nods silently.
  5674. >As the two of you consider what you wish to eat, Pinkie returns from her errand run in the kitchen.
  5675. >She is balancing a plate with a moderately sized cake on her back.
  5676. >Something is written with icing on its top, but you cannot make out any specific details from this distance.
  5677. >Moreover, Pinkie rapidly turns directly to you, blocking your view on the cake with her own face.
  5678. >Her light blue eyes straight up pin yours.
  5679. >Then she starts to trot towards you.
  5680. "Uhm #deca, what have you done?"
  5681. >"What? I did nothing, Anon."
  5682.  
  5683.  
  5684.  
  5685.  
  5686. >She apparently does not understand what you mean.
  5687. >Not what you wanted to hear by a long shot.
  5688. >But #deca.mare quickly realises that something is amiss.
  5689. >"That should not happen."
  5690. >She says these words dryly, possibly in attempt to sound analytical.
  5691. >But in reality she is just as confused as you are.
  5692. >You tell yourself that this cannot be good.
  5693. >Like, not at all.
  5694. >And while your brain evaluates whether it should fear, fight, flee, or fry itself in self-defence, Pinkie Pie has closed the distance.
  5695. >She turns her side to the table and allows the plate to slide onto its surface.
  5696. >Once the thing is safely put down, she gives you two a genuinely friendly smile.
  5697. >"Your order!"
  5698. >Then she trots off.
  5699. >The proverbial cogs in your mind reel and sputter.
  5700. >You process that something strange has happened just now, and you can somehow sense it with your whole body.
  5701. >You feel as if all the forces of science and common sense conspired with each other to revolt against #deca.mare and you.
  5702. >To bring you a cake.
  5703. >You sit still, frozen in your stance.
  5704. "#deca. An explanation. If you will."
  5705. >"Yes, Anon."
  5706. >None of you does a single thing, except watching Pinkie Pie's food deliveries and her taking more orders.
  5707. >You stare in mutual astonishment, for minutes on end.
  5708. >Eventually, you snap out of it.
  5709. "#deca. Report. Now."
  5710. >"Uhm. Yes."
  5711. >But contrary to her words, she does nothing.
  5712. >Looke like you have to use more notorious tactics.
  5713. >So you hold a hand right in front of #deca.mare's muzzle and snap your fingers.
  5714. >That gets her attention.
  5715. >#deca.mare shakes her head and looks at you afterwards.
  5716. "I need your peepers on the console for a definite answer. What the hell has happened here?"
  5717. >"Hmhm."
  5718. >She summons one of her floating devices and skims through the logs in a breakneck speed.
  5719. >You do not even try to keep up with that, so you resort to monitoring Pinkie Pie instead.
  5720.  
  5721.  
  5722.  
  5723.  
  5724. >The pink mare with her tousled mane is the ponyfication of joy incarnate.
  5725. >She does not look like she could do any harm, and yet she remains suspect to you.
  5726. >Who knows what could happen if the simulation starts to get faulty.
  5727. >Or worse, break out.
  5728. >"This I can rule out with certainty, Anon. Believe me when I say that the security measures would shut the simulation down in its entirety if only the faintest hint of a potential breach might occur."
  5729. "So what was it then?"
  5730. >"Just a moment. Oh. I see."
  5731. "Hm?"
  5732. >#deca.mare chuckles to herself.
  5733. >"Of course it did. Why did I not see this coming?"
  5734. "Dammit, #deca. Spill the beans!"
  5735. >She looks up from her console to look you in the eyes.
  5736. >"A simple thing. And fully within the rules we set."
  5737. >You gesture her to go on.
  5738. >"You see, Pinkie is a party pony, out on a quest to make friends and get them to smile."
  5739. "I know. And?"
  5740. >"And she was trying to do just that."
  5741. "How? We aren't here as far as she knows."
  5742. >"Right. But that was not necessary because we gave Pinkie a little more leeway in her perception of reality. Look."
  5743. >Her console floats over to you.
  5744. >It depicts some lines of the logs which define the behaviour profile of your simulated Pinkie.
  5745. >You can more or less understand the gist of what you are reading, but #deca.mare explains it to you just in case.
  5746. >"As you can see, Pinkie has a certain innate detector to interpret the mood of ponies around her. Put simply, with her talent she more or less knows who is happy, and more importantly, who is not. So when she 'read' us, she spotted two ponies with a suboptimal mood. We were not completely happy according to her standard, and so she wanted to help."
  5747. >The log switches over to the next entry.
  5748. >"Pinkie did not know to whom she brought the cake though. She saw two ponies in need of some cheer, so she delivered. To make us smile."
  5749. "So there's no party cannon of doom currently in production somewhere on Equestria?"
  5750.  
  5751.  
  5752.  
  5753.  
  5754. >"No. And the observation mode has technically not been breached either. After all, she did not address us personally, right?"
  5755. "Right."
  5756. >"So there is only Pinkie Pie doing what Pinkie Pie is born to do."
  5757. >You look in absolute stupor at your pink host as she is doing her work.
  5758. >So that was it.
  5759. >Obvious indeed.
  5760. >And yet, in a strange way, she still caught you off guard in a completely legitimate manner.
  5761. "How did we not see this coming?"
  5762. >"I have asked this myself, Anon."
  5763. "Oh right, you did. I was there."
  5764. >"Hmhm."
  5765. >You do not really think about the things you are saying.
  5766. >But you have gotten the answer you wanted.
  5767. >#deca.mare notices this, and so she removes the floating console.
  5768. >"Anon, look."
  5769. "Hm?"
  5770. >You turn your head to #deca.mare.
  5771. >Her forehoof points at the cake in turn.
  5772. >As you inspect the icing, you realise that you have not taken the time to even look at it before your mind rang the alarm.
  5773. >Again, there are two words, written in a crude, but very party like fashion.
  5774. >Cheer up!
  5775. >Pinkie has even drawn the simplified faces of two merry ponies with party hats right under the text.
  5776. >You mentally go through the events of the last thirty minutes or so.
  5777. >From seeing Pinkie where she was not, to walking through Ponyville, and the fear you have had of things going wrong inside Sugarcube Corner and possibly elsewhere.
  5778. >It led to a cake.
  5779. >In the face of that absurdity, you cannot help but smile.
  5780. >A smile that soon turns into a frantic laughter.
  5781. >#deca.mare joins in as well.
  5782. >And while you two guffaw to your hearts' content, a pink mare is looking up.
  5783. >She too has a reason to grin.
  5784. >For she senses that she has created happiness where it was needed.
  5785.  
  5786.  
  5787.  
  5788.  
  5789. 109
  5790.  
  5791. >The twofold Pinkie Pie incident is quickly overcome as the two of you visit various places in Ponyville during the rest of your break.
  5792. >You stroll around through the streets, pay a visit to the local market together, and consider what you would buy if you were on a genuine shopping tour through the town.
  5793. >Later on you wander southwards and pick a smaller grassy hill in the Ponyville outskirts near Sweet Apple Acres to rest.
  5794. >The mound is not very high, but it provides a great view on the peaceful village at the early evening hours.
  5795. >Beyond that lies Canterlot to the north.
  5796. >And if you look to the west, you can also spot the first rows of apple trees lining up behind a simple wooden fence.
  5797. >The Equestrian plains are as pleasing to the eyes as ever.
  5798. >But unlike most other sceneries you have visited so far, you have kept the simulated ponies around for this one.
  5799. >Even though you are not planning to interact with any of them unless #deca.mare changes her mind, you nevertheless think it is a good measure.
  5800. >Both to bring more traces of activity to your sanctum, no matter how scripted, and to further make her more comfortable to be around ponies for longer periods of time.
  5801. >#deca.mare agrees, albeit reluctantly.
  5802. >You assume she does savour some quiet moments just for you two from time to time, and you are naturally not willing to take those away from her.
  5803. >Yet must not cease to nudge her now and then either.
  5804. >And this is one of those occasions.
  5805. >So you watch the oncoming sunset as you camp side by side.
  5806. >And you listen as you watch.
  5807. >You listen to the bustling activities down below in Ponyville.
  5808. >Some echoing snippets of dialog here, a laugh there.
  5809. >Then the rattling of a cart being pulled on a light bumpy ground.
  5810. >Somepony calls someone else.
  5811. >A door bell of a shop rings somewhere, reminding you of the one at Sugarcube Corner.
  5812.  
  5813.  
  5814.  
  5815.  
  5816. >You hear muffled impact noises somewhere over at the west, followed by multiple thuds of blunt objects hitting a wooden surface.
  5817. >Both #deca.mare and you immediately recognise the telltale signs of bucked apples falling into a bucket or a cart.
  5818. >You grin and wonder who of the Apples is on bucking duty.
  5819. >Of course, you could look it up yourself or ask #deca.mare, but you are much more interested in finding clues from your surroundings.
  5820. >You squint your eyes and take a closer look at the market.
  5821. >It is hard to make out anything specific from your position, but ponies are thankfully very easy to identify thanks to their vibrant hues.
  5822. >So you scan the place for any bright splotches of colour that could resemble an Apple.
  5823. >And you spot several familiar ponies in the crowd.
  5824. >Some you recall from certain episodes, and some others you can even call by name at the drop of a hat.
  5825. >In fact, you realise that you can associate most ponies with their respective roles in one way or another.
  5826. >The more time you spend in Equestria and with ponies in general, the more familiar they seem to get.
  5827. >Even on a personal level.
  5828. >A realisation which confirms itself once again as you find one particular booth, staffed by an orange pony with a light mane.
  5829. >Said stall is surrounded by a handful of boxes with red and green goods.
  5830. >Various types of apples, you figure.
  5831. >And an unladen horse cart stands parked behind right it.
  5832. >No doubt, this is Applejack.
  5833. >Which means her red tower of a brother must be the one who tends to the trees in the fields.
  5834. >Funny how much you can already deduce from a single scenery.
  5835. >The bell tower rings to announce the passing of another hour.
  5836. >And the behaviour of the ponies around the market changes.
  5837. >The crowd of customers start to slowly disperse and leave the place as the market stalls announce that they are about to close their trade for the day.
  5838. >Some Pegasi take a shortcut and simply fly off into different directions.
  5839.  
  5840.  
  5841.  
  5842.  
  5843. >As you observe how the vendors pack their things, you hear a prominently shrill, yet clearly feminine voice shouting from somewhere behind the apple trees.
  5844. >You can barely make out any words, but you understand enough to notice that the mare is using a heavily vernacular speech.
  5845. >Sounds like Sweet Apple Acres is wrapping up their work too as Granny calls for everyone to get back to the barn.
  5846. >And you believe to register a single deep syllable responding, but you are not sure whether it is actually there, or if it is just your mind filling the gaps.
  5847. >In any case, you gently poke #deca.mare.
  5848. "You know, I fancy the idea to hire as a farmhand in Ponyville for a season. Just for the experience."
  5849. >#deca.mare chuckles.
  5850. "What's so funny?"
  5851. >"From space pilot to farmer. That is an unusual change of career."
  5852. "So? Is there something wrong about it?"
  5853. >"Not at all. Though most people would probably prefer to have it the other way round."
  5854. "It's not like they exclude each other if our plans work out. And I'm sure you're interested too."
  5855. >"True. But Ponyville is not going to appear on the map for a long time to come."
  5856. >She laughs.
  5857. >"And this is a good thing if you think about it. Neither of us is in the right condition for a season worth of farm work anyway."
  5858. >You smile as you imagine the two of you working on a field with dozens of ponies.
  5859. "We're making progress though."
  5860. >"I like to think so too, but that will still take a while."
  5861. >And that is not wrong either.
  5862. >Both of you still need a lot of preparatory work for achieving that, each in your own specific ways.
  5863. >But for now you are here to get some respite before you resume to deal with more pressing matters.
  5864. "Anyway, it's officially evening. We have to get back to Sugarcube Corner of we want to be there before dusk is in full swing."
  5865. >"Right. And a little bird told me that Octavia is planning to come over for a live performance too."
  5866. "And when?"
  5867. >"About the same time as we do, more or less."
  5868.  
  5869.  
  5870.  
  5871.  
  5872. >Indeed a lucky "coincidence".
  5873. >You help each other to get up and begin your descent back to Ponyville.
  5874. "Any song preferences for tonight?"
  5875. >"No, not yet."
  5876. "Then how does Octavia know what she wants to play?"
  5877. >"She has learned thousands of melodies by heart, Anon. I am sure she will find something suitable."
  5878. "Heh, do you think the real Octavia will have a musical memory that rivals our archives?"
  5879. >"Eventually. Though probably not at first, for I doubt a single pony can learn this much in a lifetime."
  5880. >Her gaze wanders off in the direction of Ponyville.
  5881. >"But I rest assured that she will get there. Together with a lot of other talented pony musicians."
  5882. >She smiles.
  5883. >"And maybe there will be a great concert one day. Can you imagine, Equestria's most famous musicians of all time joining together for one grand performance?"
  5884. "Ha, I can try. The question is, where do you see yourself in this?"
  5885. >#deca.mare stops in her tracks to point a hoof towards your chest.
  5886. >"Sitting in the front row. Right with you, I might add."
  5887. >She retracts her limb.
  5888. >"Or maybe we are amongst those who make the music."
  5889. >You read the implications of your extended life span through the lines.
  5890. >What she suggests would be an event that could unfold in a few millennia at best, and yet she considers you to be still around.
  5891. >Well and truly beyond the best projections of what the cryo pod can do for you.
  5892. >And while you appreciate her confidence in the hope to find a method to prolong your life expectancy further, perhaps even indefinitely, you prefer not to mention this particular issue right now.
  5893. >You know she is already running some experiments in her biolab when its capacities are not needed elsewhere, so you fully trust her judgement.
  5894. >Besides, her idea has something to it, despite being lofty beyond belief.
  5895.  
  5896.  
  5897.  
  5898.  
  5899. "You're aware that everyone's attention would be on you that day, right?"
  5900. >#deca.mare shrugs.
  5901. >"Never said it will happen. But it could. And really, the chances are not as low as you might believe."
  5902. "How so?"
  5903. >"Well, we currently have an advantage. We could practice right now if we wanted to, and we would have an enormous head start."
  5904. "You mean I'd have to start practicing. You can rely on your data archives."
  5905. >"Fair point."
  5906. >The shadows are growing longer as the sun slowly sets.
  5907. "Well, regardless of what happens, we should get a move on. Unless you want to keep Octavia waiting."
  5908. >A pointless statement, as you both know.
  5909. >But #deca.mare understands what you are trying to tell her.
  5910. >You follow the path into the town as you head for Sugarcube Corner.
  5911. >The twilight of dusk has covered Ponyville a short time before you reach the porch of the bakery, darkening the streets a little bit more with every minute.
  5912. >And as your destination gets into your vision, it looks like a welcoming beacon to you.
  5913. >Warm light shines through the windows.
  5914. >It practically tells you to come inside for a party.
  5915. >And once you are closer, you see the outlines of some shadows dancing on the windows.
  5916. >One belonging to a certain curly haired party pony at that.
  5917. >The place must be pretty busy already.
  5918. >No wonder when the local cellist is playing tonight.
  5919. "I hope you told your bird to keep a seat free for us."
  5920. >"Of course. The same as before."
  5921. "Okay."
  5922. >You open the door and signal #deca.mare to enter first.
  5923. >So she does.
  5924. >You follow right behind her.
  5925. >And you were completely right.
  5926. >All tables are occupied, minus the one for two at the wall.
  5927. >But despite this large gathering of ponies, it would be relatively easy for you two to not gain any attention, even without relying on the observation mode.
  5928.  
  5929.  
  5930.  
  5931.  
  5932. >As it turns out, Octavia has entered the bakery only a few minutes earlier than you, and she is drawing most of the eyes on her while she prepares her instrument and straightens her bow tie.
  5933. >The two of you use that chance to slip through the place and "sneak" to your table.
  5934. >You still have no idea what she is going to play, and you suspect that even #deca.mare may not know it either.
  5935. >She probably told the automatons to randomly pick a collection of suitable cello pieces for Octavia to perform in front of a cheerful group.
  5936. >Either way, you decide to shove your cushion right next to #deca.mare's and embrace her with one arm as you sit down.
  5937. >Then you lean back together and wait for Octavia to start.
  5938. >And perhaps, if the stars align correctly, the show includes a short intermission to make place for a dance floor.
  5939.  
  5940.  
  5941.  
  5942.  
  5943. 110
  5944.  
  5945. >You wander on a long straight pathway in a dim cavern.
  5946. >The place is buried deeply underground.
  5947. >No light shines in from the outside, and the meagre glimmers you have are barely enough to see a few metres ahead and back.
  5948. >There is no visible beginning, and there is no clear end.
  5949. >The tunnel could go on like this forever.
  5950. >The walls and the ceiling are made of solid rock, yet smoothly rounded by a master in the trade of masonry.
  5951. >This is no natural cave.
  5952. >No, somebody built it with a purpose.
  5953. >You feel an invisible presence reaching out to your mind.
  5954. >Addressing you personally like a call.
  5955. >Not a single word is spoken.
  5956. >You just know what you want to do.
  5957. >Because it wants you to want it, luring you in one direction.
  5958. >Forward.
  5959. >You obey.
  5960. >No fear, no concerns, no questions.
  5961. >You walk.
  5962. >And you float as you step.
  5963. >And you fly.
  5964. >On two legs.
  5965. >And four.
  5966. >All at once.
  5967. >Never fast, never in a hurry.
  5968. >Yet still with clear certainty.
  5969. >High wooden shelves line up on both walls before you.
  5970. >Each one of them holds hundreds of old, bound tomes and sealed scrolls.
  5971. >Untold knowledge, lost to the ages.
  5972. >A female voice speaks next to you.
  5973. >"We are here."
  5974. >The voice brings you closer to the shelves.
  5975. >Soon you are almost touching them.
  5976. >You grasp at one of the scrolls.
  5977. >But as you do, a mad, malicious laughter erupts behind you and the voice.
  5978. >"What?"
  5979. >You turn around.
  5980. >An ebon shape grows out of the dark, forming as if it rises from a thick, unlit ooze.
  5981. >An elegant body with four legs, gliding through the cave on strong, dark wings.
  5982. >One long and pointy horn bristling with energy emerges from its forehead.
  5983. >A mare of royal descent.
  5984. >Her head, chest, and hooves are clad in an elaborately crafted and unnaturally curved armour.
  5985. >The unlively metal radiates a chilling bluish aura that pierces your vision.
  5986. >A pair of bloodcurdling slit eyes catches a glimpse of you and your companion from within the menacing helmet.
  5987.  
  5988.  
  5989.  
  5990.  
  5991. >The shadowy mare speaks, her voice revelling in a booming, authoritarian confidence.
  5992. >"FOALS! YOU ARE TOO LATE!"
  5993. >She barrels past you with violent force, almost knocking you against the wall like straw puppets.
  5994. >And then you witness her horn lashing out.
  5995. >Blinding bolts of lightning fly in all directions, hitting everything it their path.
  5996. >Strikes that hit the walls scorch deep, nasty holes into the stone and hurl waves of hunks and pebble across the tunnel.
  5997. >But those which touch the shelves are far more devastating.
  5998. >Every strike shatters one shelf as it breaks the wooden structures, tears tomes apart, and ignites entire stacks of scrolls in one swoop.
  5999. >Your companion cries out.
  6000. >"No!"
  6001. >But the ebon mare flies on and disappears within the shrouds of the tunnel, still laughing with a mocking glee long after she plunged back into the darkness.
  6002. >More flashes of light follow far ahead.
  6003. >She is not done with her destruction yet.
  6004. >And your companion yells out in anger.
  6005. >"How could you!"
  6006. >She takes the form of another mare, much smaller than the dark one, and leaps into the air to chase the attacker.
  6007. >The explosions stop.
  6008. >But a tiny candle in the dark takes their place.
  6009. >It starts to flicker brighter.
  6010. >Seldom at first, though the flickering speeds up faster and faster.
  6011. >The light finally turns into a permanent shining white star.
  6012. >You do not understand what is happening.
  6013. >Until the beam comes your way.
  6014. >A broad and cold ray of pure, unfiltered, unbridled energy shoots through the length of the tunnel.
  6015. >It has the same lifeless colour as the armour.
  6016. >And it engulfs your companion entirely, singing her frame without any heat.
  6017. >Moments later, the beam weakens and disappears.
  6018. >Both the candle light and your companion are gone.
  6019. >There are no remains.
  6020. >The cackling grows more distant.
  6021. >Until it too disappears.
  6022. >Leaving you between the silent ruins of what was once a place of knowledge.
  6023.  
  6024.  
  6025.  
  6026.  
  6027. >All you hear from time to time is the sizzling noise of burning wood and paper.
  6028. >You look at the floor.
  6029. >One singular page was ripped from a book and now lies defenceless on the formerly flawless ground.
  6030. >The edges are licked by flames, but you can see one large symbol painted across it.
  6031. >It reminds you of a capitalised letter M, tilted to stand on its side.
  6032. >But the symbol disappears directly before your eyes as the page gets eaten by fire.
  6033.  
  6034.  
  6035.  
  6036.  
  6037. 111
  6038.  
  6039. >The "great day" comes faster than either of you really wishes for.
  6040. >For as much as you enjoyed the day in Ponyville and the Sugarcube Corner celebrations, none of them can stop the flow of time.
  6041. >A fact that abruptly makes itself clear as you find yourself waking up in your bed in Canterlot a couple of hours later.
  6042. >Two things are not as they should be.
  6043. >One, the warm snugly mare you normally share your bed with is not lying with you.
  6044. >And two, it is unusually dark in the chamber.
  6045. >Uncomfortably dark for your tastes.
  6046. >You sit upright to see if you can find out what is going on.
  6047. >Easier said than done though.
  6048. >No torch is burning in the room, no candle is lit, and no other sources of light anywhere to be found inside.
  6049. >There is only a pale ray of cold light shining through the broad window.
  6050. >And within the cone sits a hunched figure, looking outside.
  6051. >It casts a long shadow into the room behind it.
  6052. >Several times larger than the figure itself.
  6053. >Yet your still drowsy mind struggles to catch up with reality at the moment.
  6054. >You fail to recognise who or what you are looking at.
  6055. >"This is not a dream, Anon. The simulation is running on its normal cycle."
  6056. >Then you can piece the first parts together.
  6057. "#deca."
  6058. >"The one and only."
  6059. "It happened again, didn't it."
  6060. >"Yes."
  6061. "That's not good. It's the second time you woke up early in, what, less than two weeks?"
  6062. >"I am aware. But this is how it is, unfortunately."
  6063. >Grumbling to yourself, you get out of bed and follow #deca.mare to the window.
  6064. >The moon is standing high above the land.
  6065. "Oh man, it's close around midnight."
  6066. >"Thirteen minutes past, to be precise."
  6067. "Then we've only slept a couple of hours."
  6068. >"Hmhm."
  6069. "I suppose I don't have to ask for the reason."
  6070. >"No."
  6071. >You study #deca.mare's body language.
  6072. >She is tense, yet not overly stressed for the time being.
  6073. >The turmoil looms inside her mind.
  6074. >You look over to the empty bed before you turn back to the starlit plains outside.
  6075.  
  6076.  
  6077.  
  6078.  
  6079. >Regardless of what you say, you will not get her back to sleep, that much is obvious.
  6080. >#deca.mare is far too agitated to get some rest.
  6081. >And you doubt you could drift off without her.
  6082. >Provided you wanted to in the first place.
  6083. >No, you will not let her stay here alone.
  6084. >That leads you to the only logical conclusion, as inconvenient as it is.
  6085. "Guess it means we're starting early today."
  6086. >"Anon?"
  6087. "Tell me I'm wrong, but we're left with only two options as far as I can see. We either try to dawdle for a few hours, knowing that none of will find any peace, or we forge ahead."
  6088. >#deca.mare's gaze remains locked on the nightly world outside.
  6089. >"I suppose this is correct. Let us go then."
  6090. >She stands up and absent-mindedly shuffles to the exit without any further remark.
  6091. >That was fast.
  6092. "Hey, wait a second! You forgot breakfast!"
  6093. >"Not today, sorry."
  6094. >And so she leaves the room.
  6095. >However, she apparently stopped shortly after the threshold.
  6096. >"One more thing, Anon."
  6097. "Yeah?"
  6098. >"Please do not take it as a personal affront if I act gruff over the day. Regardless of what I might say, you are not at fault."
  6099. "Got it."
  6100. >The door closes behind her with finality.
  6101. "Crap. That's going to get tough."
  6102. >Only the walls around you hear your comment, and, unsurprisingly, they remain unfazed by your words.
  6103. >But you must go on; you have an important task to fulfil today.
  6104. >#deca.mare is, without question, in a very snappish and bad-tempered mood, yet she counts on your participation.
  6105. >You knew this could happen when you volunteered.
  6106. >Now you must live through it.
  6107. >So you undergo your morning rites in a highly abridged fashion.
  6108. >Since you do not have a conversation or a breakfast, you are done with everything in less than five minutes.
  6109. >And while the simulation provides you with the means to perform all of them at once without delay, you deliberately choose to prepare yourself manually to get one last moment in relative solitary silence to sort your thoughts.
  6110.  
  6111.  
  6112.  
  6113.  
  6114. >You absolutely must have all your wits in order for the day ahead of you.
  6115. >And you keep that thought constantly in mind as you leave the room.
  6116. >The atmosphere on the command deck feels, for the lack of a better word, outlandishly chilly.
  6117. >All the settings are adjusted as usual and the systems are working correctly, and yet you sense an uneasy presence in this room.
  6118. >Something that goes further than #deca.mare's broody mood and your less than enjoyable expectations of today's events.
  6119. >But you discard that notion and steel yourself during your short way to the chair.
  6120. >You are not sure what to expect, so you simultaneously anticipate everything and nothing.
  6121. >And what you initially face is neither inherently good nor bad.
  6122. >You quickly notice that #deca.mare orderly occupies her half of the seat.
  6123. >Meaning she has herself somewhat under control.
  6124. >Her posture, on the other hand, is a different matter.
  6125. >She is visibly on edge, and reminds you more of an angry tiger rather than a friendly pony.
  6126. >You take note of these warning signs, but you do not allow them to affect your actions.
  6127. >With determination and a display of volition, you take your place at her side.
  6128. >Unafraid of her possibly lashing out.
  6129. >And to #deca.mare's credit, she remains passive.
  6130. >Not calm by any stretch of the word, but not hostile either.
  6131. >Though that is very likely about to change.
  6132. >You put your arm on her shoulder.
  6133. >Her reaction is predictable; she backs off by leaning into the opposite direction.
  6134. >And against all rules of common sense, you persist.
  6135. >#deca.mare tries to shrug your arm off her body.
  6136. >"Bad idea."
  6137. "No, not at all. And you'll thank me later."
  6138. >You motion her to climb on your lap.
  6139. >"Are you serious?"
  6140. "One hundred percent."
  6141. >Her expression shows a strong notion of disapproval.
  6142. >She is not convinced by your affirmations.
  6143. >But #deca.mare understands that you will not stop to insist on it, and so she relents to a certain degree.
  6144.  
  6145.  
  6146.  
  6147.  
  6148. >Albeit not without murmuring something to herself.
  6149. >You do not ask her what she is mulling over.
  6150. >#deca.mare is scared, but she does not want to show it openly.
  6151. >Or maybe she cannot due to the inherent stress of this situation.
  6152. >Which amounts to the same result, really.
  6153. >And as if all of that were not explosive enough on its own, your methods have to double down once more.
  6154. >You start to casually massage her shoulder with one hand, and scratch one of her ears with the other.
  6155. >Again, she attempts to thwart your efforts by tilting her body and lashing out with her ear.
  6156. >But to no avail.
  6157. >"What in Equestria is that supposed to do, Anon?"
  6158. "To help you."
  6159. >"I do not see how."
  6160. "Then feel it instead."
  6161. >"I do not feel like joking, Anon."
  6162. "Me neither."
  6163. >#deca.mare grumbles.
  6164. "It's like I said. We better talk about it later."
  6165. >"If you say so."
  6166. "I do."
  6167. >#deca.mare remains silent as she endures more of your well-intentioned care.
  6168. >You take it as a cue to slowly boot up your personal systems.
  6169. >The squad controls appear one by one.
  6170. >She reacts with a long-winded sigh.
  6171. >"You know what to do?"
  6172. >She sounds more pressed than before, but this is probably the best you can expect from her.
  6173. "To the letter. You can count on me, I'll do my part. And then some, if you need me to."
  6174. >#deca.mare nods.
  6175. >"Let us hope for the best."
  6176. "Yes, #deca. I will."
  6177. >You switch your focus over to one of the salvagers.
  6178. >It has returned right to the place where you have left the day prior, waiting for new instructions.
  6179. >More units are en route, and will arrive within minutes to automatically fall in line.
  6180. >Normally you would wait for the stragglers to reach you first.
  6181. >But since you feel obliged to complete this mission as quickly as possible in favour of #deca.mare's sanity, you already move out with your singular automaton.
  6182.  
  6183.  
  6184.  
  6185.  
  6186. >The terrain is familiar to you, and the risk of accidents is nigh non-existent unless you do something brazenly stupid.
  6187. >So you figure this is the best course of action.
  6188. >Your unit floats gently across the corridor and the airlock, aiming straight for the command deck.
  6189. >Some other units which belong to #deca.mare's squad are already at work.
  6190. >She will be busy with all of the physical issues of the session.
  6191. >Whilst you go straight to the deck, to have a go at #deca.sigma's more intricate systems.
  6192. >Not your favourite task in light of your modest technical proficiency in this regard, but necessary nonetheless.
  6193. >And in the worst case scenario, you must resort to borrowing information from #deca.mare.
  6194. >You pass the final threshold.
  6195. >The room is exactly in the state in which you have left it.
  6196. >And so far, you have not found a single trace of energy either.
  6197. >Seems like #deca.mare is not done with the first stage of her part yet.
  6198. >You open a comm channel.
  6199. "Give me a signal when you're pumping some energy into the segment."
  6200. >Your call remains unanswered.
  6201. >Not ideal, but you remain calm and collected.
  6202. >She cannot possibly have missed your message, and you are certain that she would have said something if she got seriously stuck in her work.
  6203. >So you bring your unit into position near an interface and wait for #deca.mare to deliver.
  6204. >Patiently.
  6205. >You may push yourself within reasonable limits to hasten the progress of the mission, but you will not, under any circumstances, put her under pressure in this regard.
  6206. >In this case she has enough to deal with as it is.
  6207. >Meanwhile at the ramp, two more units enter the deck and automatically assign themselves to your squad control.
  6208. >You instruct each of the two to move to different undamaged interfaces and wait for further orders.
  6209. >All well and good here, but what is happening at #deca.mare's end?
  6210.  
  6211.  
  6212.  
  6213.  
  6214. >A signal chimes in as you ponder that question.
  6215. >It is not a conventional audio call or a text message, but a basic singular sound instead.
  6216. >Chained three times in a row.
  6217. >Beep, beep, beep.
  6218. >#deca.mare really does not want to talk much at the moment.
  6219. >But you can deal with it.
  6220. >She sent you a message as requested, and that means she is both willing and capable of moving on.
  6221. >One short moment later, you see a first change.
  6222. >A tiny control lamp pierces the dark.
  6223. >It looks similar to the one in the cargo bay.
  6224. >And you recall what happened to the terminal as the shielding broke and hope that the equipment here will not show a similar reaction.
  6225. >Even without a technically mortal proxy, such a reaction might be just enough to disable a salvager at point blank range.
  6226. >You prefer to back off a little.
  6227. >The units distance themselves from the interfaces, but remain in their general formation.
  6228. >More lights follow.
  6229. >Also a few quickly dying sparks.
  6230. >And you witness another minor node shorting out right before your eyes.
  6231. >Not pretty, though nowhere near the violent outburst that almost threatened your Pegasus double.
  6232. >Then follows the crimson lighting, in slow, gradual steps.
  6233. "You're doing good, #deca. Please give me another signal when your energy input has capped, okay?"
  6234. >The same silent response as before.
  6235. >You heed her opening statement to not take her seemingly discarding notion personal, and focus on the equipment in front of you.
  6236. >With the help of your scanners you study very closely which element reacts how as the power is built up.
  6237. >A cautionary measure; it could mayhap spot potential weak spots or some other flaws that the first round of scans did not detect.
  6238. >The luminosity inside the command deck now almost matches the levels within the rest of the restored compartments.
  6239. >It cannot be much longer.
  6240. >And indeed, the signal comes as expected.
  6241. >Beeeeep.
  6242.  
  6243.  
  6244.  
  6245.  
  6246. >So the connection is established and stable.
  6247. >Your turn again.
  6248. >You let your salvagers return to their allotted interfaces.
  6249. >Time to build a physical connection between #deca.sigma and your specifically designed storage network.
  6250. >You look for a series of ports that #deca.mare has described to you.
  6251. >Under ideal circumstances they are easy to find, but this misaligned setup complicates things slightly.
  6252. >Some minutes of fumbling and probing later, you find the ports.
  6253. >You open a small canopy at the belly of your unit and eject a number of short cables that resemble the plug counterparts to the ports on the interface.
  6254. >Then you use the grapplers of the automaton to lead the cables to the ports and plug them in.
  6255. >One unit done, two remaining.
  6256. >You switch your direct control over to the second salvager and repeat the same process.
  6257. >Followed by a successful round three.
  6258. >If everything goes well, the combined input of these three systems will grant a nearly all-encompassing access to the master-level systems.
  6259. >Only the chair could grant you more access privileges much more easily, and that option remains unviable.
  6260. >You run one quick diagnosis concerning the status of your squad.
  6261. >All units confirm that their plugs are applied correctly.
  6262. >A single thought of yours can now activate the boot up phase.
  6263. >You tarry for a moment, silently hoping that everything goes to plan.
  6264. >Because if the internal systemic damage or degradation is too severe, the session could come to a screeching halt and you would have to start from scratch.
  6265. >You mentally hold your breath as give the booting order.
  6266. >One second without response.
  6267. >Two.
  6268. >Three.
  6269. >A window pops up in your vision.
  6270. >Confirmation.
  6271. >What?
  6272. >Booting phase initialised.
  6273. >The first set of displays disappears, and gets immediately replaced by a trio of new ones.
  6274. >Each representing one of the three interfaces with which your squad is connected.
  6275.  
  6276.  
  6277.  
  6278.  
  6279. >They all depict independent and ever changing status screens as the system tries to restore itself.
  6280. >And you encounter the first issue within mere moments.
  6281. >Warning: Integrity of core files could not be verified. System integrity not guaranteed.
  6282. >Contacting HQ: Failed.
  6283. >Contacting Terraformer Network: Failed.
  6284. >Shiplog incomplete: Files are missing or corrupted.
  6285. >Attempt to self-repair files: Failed.
  6286. >Diagnosis: Inconclusive. Manual input required.
  6287. "Already an uplifting start."
  6288. >But the system is not done yet.
  6289. >Proceed to vessel diagnosis.
  6290. >Oh dear, this will be something.
  6291. >Warning: Hardware setup does not match with last logged configuration. Verification required.
  6292. >Warning: 85% of internal segments not responsive.
  6293. >Warning: 15% of internal segments show signs of critical damage.
  6294. >Warning: Crew deck airlock failure. Living conditions below tolerable levels. Severe risk of mortality detected.
  6295. "Yeah, that's one way to understate it, Sigma."
  6296. >Unfortunately, #deca.sigma, or what is left of its basic functions to be precise, turns out to be not such a great conversation partner as its sister.
  6297. >And the findings the diagnosis presents so far are as accurate as they are obvious to any beholder.
  6298. >But you fear that the summary will go on for a quite a while.
  6299. >You skip through some of the next listed problems which are deemed pressing by the system.
  6300. >Until you discover something that catches your attention.
  6301. >Warning: Multiple breaches in outer hull.
  6302. >Warning: Manual override routines detected in multiple damaged segments.
  6303. >Error: No authorised crew registered as current staff.
  6304. >Error: No stand down order currently in action.
  6305. >Damage suggests combative actions.
  6306. >Warning: Defective terraformer activity confirmed inside perimeter.
  6307. >Warning: Presence of unknown structure confirmed inside perimeter.
  6308.  
  6309.  
  6310.  
  6311.  
  6312. >You stare with mixed feelings at the last lines.
  6313. >If it were not for the colossal irony behind #deca.sigma's battered board computer deeming #deca.mare 'defective', you would be downright insulted by this remark.
  6314. >However, you do not like where this is going.
  6315. >Because the computer may come to some unpleasant conclusions if its processes are still supported by sufficient capacities.
  6316. >Conclusion: High risk of hostile takeover in action.
  6317. >And there it is.
  6318. >Evaluating defensive measures.
  6319. "Uh oh."
  6320. >This falls under the category which #deca.mare thought to be "very unlikely".
  6321. >The following lines pop up in a rapid pace as the emergency procedures are loaded.
  6322. >Of course, this just had to be one of the files that was not corrupted or otherwise unavailable.
  6323. >Just your luck.
  6324. >Turret batteries: Offline.
  6325. >Internal defence units: Disabled or destroyed.
  6326. >Door controls: Illegitimately overridden, transfer back to crew deck blocked.
  6327. >Reason for block: Unknown.
  6328. >Core status: Exposed.
  6329. >Emitting distress call: Not possible.
  6330. >No options left.
  6331. >Okay, now you are in serious trouble.
  6332. >You remember what #deca.mare has told you when you came to the deck's outer blast door.
  6333. >Their systems are primed to kamikaze if all other defence mechanisms and emergency measures are exhausted.
  6334. >Which means setting all available systems to overload and then brick the interface to stop the invaders from reversing that last ditch effort.
  6335. >You are not eager to find out how much explosive force this old core can bring forth.
  6336. >Best case scenario, you will only lose almost all the data in Sigma's archives for good.
  6337. >And even then you would have to utilise extreme restorative measures to regain even the slightest shreds of information from the remains.
  6338. >Worst case, you lose the ship, and possibly also the dock.
  6339. >This would not only shatter the vessel and #deca.mare's sanity, but it would also flood Equestria's orbit with a serious cavalcade of scrap.
  6340.  
  6341.  
  6342.  
  6343.  
  6344. >An outcome that you must avert at any cost.
  6345. >You quickly hit the comm and start to yell.
  6346. "#deca! Cut the power! Shit's going south!"
  6347. >And the computer concludes exactly what you were afraid of.
  6348. >Initialising self-destructive protocol.
  6349. "Didn't you hear? Kill the fucking line before it blows!"
  6350. >System purge pending.
  6351. >Well, so much for the plan.
  6352. >But what now?
  6353. >Your panicked ponderings are interrupted by a cold, pained voice.
  6354. >"No, Sigma. Not this time."
  6355. >You lose your control over the squad.
  6356. >#deca.mare seizes all units and systems without a warning or remark, leaving you to watch from the back seat.
  6357. >"You were my friend before you disowned me. And I cannot let you banish me twice. It will certainly not end like this."
  6358. >You highly doubt #deca.sigma is in any way capable of comprehending even a single word of what she said.
  6359. >Though you assume it is also possible that the therapeutic effect is meant to be directed at herself instead.
  6360. >A new display appears out of thin air.
  6361. >Manual system override console: Please enter name and password.
  6362. >At least six verified staff members required for granting access.
  6363. >The display changes to show twelve empty text fields.
  6364. >One half of them gets simultaneously filled with six different names.
  6365. >They are all familiar to you, and one even more so than the rest.
  6366. >"Thank goodness the creators never implemented an expiration timer in their codes. Would you not agree, Sigma?"
  6367. >Again, no response.
  6368. >#deca.mare adds the respective passwords in the other half of the fields.
  6369. >Though you cannot read them as they are visually obstructed.
  6370. >Despite the urgency, she waits for a moment.
  6371. >What is she doing?
  6372. >"You are about to do something very unwise. We came to help and preserve, not to destroy."
  6373. >She confirms her choice.
  6374. >Verifying codes, please wait.
  6375. >"So please forgive me this rude intrusion."
  6376. >Codes accepted, manual control enabled.
  6377. >Awaiting input.
  6378.  
  6379.  
  6380.  
  6381.  
  6382. >The login screen changes to another display format, not unlike #deca.mare's personal consoles inside the simulation.
  6383. >And then she unleashes her command fury.
  6384. >She rushes through the lines, enters orders, changes settings, and does all kinds of other things that you do not understand in the slightest.
  6385. >Her results become visible only a few seconds later.
  6386. >The rush through #deca.sigma's system ends with a few telling lines.
  6387. >Command accepted.
  6388. >Self-destruct sequence aborted.
  6389. >Friend-foe recognition updated.
  6390. >No hostiles in scanning range.
  6391. >Alert status lifted.
  6392. >Awaiting further instructions.
  6393. >You inwardly blink as you read these twice.
  6394. "So that was it?"
  6395. >"Sigma's fractured remains will no longer cause any trouble."
  6396. >#deca.mare is deadpan, merely trying to state the facts as they are.
  6397. "I'm sure you don't want to talk about it, but I must know. What have you done?"
  6398. >"Bluntly speaking, I brainwashed a demented mind to prevent the remnants an old friend from committing uninformed suicide. If you can call it that."
  6399. >You cringe at her choice of words.
  6400. "Don't call it like that. You didn't do anything wrong. Sigma was on the verge of destroying everything. And saving at least something from Sigma is better than losing it all. You know that."
  6401. >"Maybe I know, maybe not. It certainly does not seem good to me."
  6402. "I can imagine."
  6403. >You sigh.
  6404. >What you are about to say will not be pleasant, but it must be done.
  6405. "That's why you have to give me a full recap of what you have just changed. I'll take it from here as we planned, but I need to be informed."
  6406. >You take a breath before you add more.
  6407. "Oh, and especially tell me what not to do. You know, to not get in this... situation again."
  6408. >#deca.mare makes a sound you cannot identify, though you doubt it was a positive one.
  6409. >"And then?"
  6410. "Then you'll get out of here and take a break. You need it."
  6411. >A long pause follows.
  6412. >You give #deca.mare the time to consider.
  6413. >"Alright."
  6414.  
  6415.  
  6416.  
  6417.  
  6418. >Another brief moment of silence.
  6419. >"As you have probably noticed, I have utilised the personal access codes of my former... companions as a key. They never expired on their own, and no unit in the network has ever received an order to explicitly invalidate them. Sigma now thinks the deck is staffed by a team of creators."
  6420. "And what about the final transmission that tipped everything off?"
  6421. >"Also cancelled. It was a high-priority transmission, but the manual controls have the ultimate priority for emergency situations in which remote instructions are no longer sufficient."
  6422. >But that in turn got entirely inaccessible the moment the terraformer fleet began to strap guns on their hulls, you think to yourself.
  6423. >A fine, but critical oversight.
  6424. >"And I used the administrative access to change another certain decision."
  6425. >You think you hear her voice cracking at some parts.
  6426. "What decision?"
  6427. >"Regarding me."
  6428. >Oh.
  6429. >"I nullified my banishment and discarded my classification as outcast. I am finally a part of the network again."
  6430. >Which at this point consists of nothing more than #deca.mare herself and a terribly mistreated #deca.sigma.
  6431. >You do not say this out loud, yet you are fairly certain that she thinks about the exact same thing.
  6432. >Textbook pyrrhic victory.
  6433. >Irony can be cruel at times.
  6434. >But she pushes through in spite of that realisation.
  6435. >"What it means for us is very straightforward. We have unlimited access to all files, and we can do virtually anything as long as we do not reverse my... operation on Sigma's mind."
  6436. >That is at least some good news.
  6437. >Although, it leaves Sigma's tattered personality permanently "brainwashed".
  6438. >Like an undead to its necromancer.
  6439. >Good intentions or not, that stings.
  6440. >"Anon, I could need someone who holds me."
  6441. >Red flag right there.
  6442. "Coming at once!"
  6443. >But to your surprise, this is apparently not what she wants.
  6444. >"No, not yet. We cannot allow us to delay our project this close to the finishing line."
  6445.  
  6446.  
  6447.  
  6448.  
  6449. >You can easily tell that it hurts #deca.mare to say this.
  6450. >But you see where her reasoning stems from.
  6451. >"Please proceed to survey and secure everything you can find like we have discussed."
  6452. "And you?"
  6453. >"I will... take a break as you suggested?"
  6454. >That does not sound well.
  6455. "#deca, do I have to worry about you?"
  6456. >"No, I swear. But..."
  6457. >A heavy sigh.
  6458. >"... I would appreciate if you could hold me when you are done."
  6459. "Anything for you, #deca. I'm going to hold you for hours if you wish."
  6460. >"Thank you, Anon."
  6461. "One last thing. Feel free to use my body for hugs while I'm busy. Maybe it helps."
  6462. >"I will consider it. See you later, Anon."
  6463. "See you."
  6464. >#deca.mare cuts the communication and relieves all controls over the squad.
  6465. >The stage is yours again.
  6466. >And as much as you wish to go and help #deca.mare, you honour her request to examine the core and secure every file you can find.
  6467. >You will keep the copied data in an isolated repository which is mounted to the dock's hull.
  6468. >And it will stay there until the two of you have sighted and meticulously analysed your findings.
  6469. >But to do so you first have to metaphorically wade through the mud of the digital necropolis.
  6470. >Perhaps the grimmest task you have ever volunteered for.
  6471. >However, it simultaneously the brightest glimmer of hope you have to recover and archive more of #deca.mare's past.
  6472. >And possibly yours as well.
  6473.  
  6474.  
  6475.  
  6476.  
  6477. 112
  6478.  
  6479. >The process of the data retrieval mission is largely at your discretion in order to go easy on #deca.mare.
  6480. >She is, as always, available for advisory issues, but you have mutually agreed to hide the specifics of your findings until you have extracted and examined them first.
  6481. >Plus, you want her to have this break after your turbulent entry.
  6482. >So you do not plan to directly consult her at all while she tries to come to terms with herself and the situation.
  6483. >A fiddly task lies ahead of you.
  6484. >One for which you have to borrow some rather extensive knowledge about the internal terraformer structures and their programs to even operate more or less competently.
  6485. >You feel the constant mental pressure, but the scale is thankfully not too taxing as far as the capacities of your own mind are concerned.
  6486. >Still, you would be lying if you said you would enjoy the work under these circumstances.
  6487. >Because for every file that you recover in a readable state, you find two that are corrupted in some shape or form.
  6488. >And that does not even include the data which is flat out gone because of failed hardware parts that are physically damaged or completely missing.
  6489. >But you cannot allow yourself to get discouraged by these setbacks, so you venture on.
  6490. >You copy what you can, make notes as to what files roughly contain what data, and store them in the archive which the two of you have prepared.
  6491. >Additionally, you also create a list of files which you can confirm to be lost for good.
  6492. >That particular number is relatively small, as #deca.mare's logs regarding #deca.sigma's data is rather limited, but you take every evidence you can get your hands on.
  6493. >Interestingly though, you barely remember the contents of individual files.
  6494. >You inspect them quickly once you find them, to record what kind of information you are looking at.
  6495. >And yet they fail to leave a lasting impression on your mind.
  6496.  
  6497.  
  6498.  
  6499.  
  6500. >You wager that this is caused by the additional strain on your physical brain during your extensive usage of the link to #deca.mare's own archives.
  6501. >A temporary effect, sure, though a pretty disconcerting one, as you constantly have to rely on your own notes for reference.
  6502. >Oh well, you will have to go through everything at least one more time anyway after you completed the first round.
  6503. >If not more.
  6504. >So you can live with that impairment for now, given that it does not hinder your progress.
  6505. >You work for what feels like hours without pause, although you have no idea whether this correlates with real time or not.
  6506. >And you simply do not find the opportunity to check it out.
  6507. >Your priorities lie on the data retrieval for #deca.mare's wellbeing while she takes a long break.
  6508. >Probably in the chair, tightly hugging your body.
  6509. >You sigh as you consider to check on her in a moment of doubt.
  6510. >But you get that out of your mind.
  6511. >#deca.mare would call for you if she were really badly in need of your attention.
  6512. >And you have not fulfilled your promise yet.
  6513. >So you go on.
  6514. >File after file, directory after directory, core segment after core segment.
  6515. >You check every nook and cranny, double check your notes, and confirm your findings with a variety of analysis programs.
  6516. >A long time later, only after you are fully satisfied and convinced that you have absolutely researched everything, you conclude your work.
  6517. >You mentally form your notes into an interactive book, and save it for further use.
  6518. >All the recovered files have been copied to the data core at the dock, ready to be worked on at a moment's notice.
  6519. >After you have completed your task and left the digital necropolis, you feel weary.
  6520. >Partly because you frantically worked for loner than you are normally comfortable with, and partly due to the nature of your work.
  6521. >In all these solitary hours, you could never fully suppress the subconscious realisation that you are working on a graveyard of sorts.
  6522.  
  6523.  
  6524.  
  6525.  
  6526. >This permanent morbid element of your actions does a number on your spirit.
  6527. >You materialize a set of double doors in your mind.
  6528. >It leads back to your body, presumably lying on the command deck and with a very clingy certain someone attached to it.
  6529. >You are glad that you finally leave this place for the time being to return to the realm of the living.
  6530. >After this turbulent day, you will certainly also have a lot of comforting work to do on #deca.mare over there.
  6531. >But it cannot be as draining as the file retrieval run in #deca.sigma's data core, for the mere fact alone that you get to share this experience with your better half.
  6532. >That alone goes a long way; your solo mission has proven this much to you once again.
  6533. >And so you have no fear as your mind approaches the gate and slips through the rift in the simulation.
  6534. >Suddenly, from one split second to the other, you sit.
  6535. >The default main status screen in front of you, a soft padding at your back.
  6536. >You were indeed brought to the command deck.
  6537. >And a warm presence wraps itself around your side.
  6538. >You turn your head and find #deca.mare holding herself tight to your body.
  6539. >She looks up to meet your gaze, and you read her mood as you closely study her eyes.
  6540. >You can see a certain exhaustion in her as well.
  6541. >Not caused by stress through hard work or other physical toil though; this is a purely emotional fatigue.
  6542. >You understand each other without either of you saying a single word.
  6543. >You heave #deca.mare up and put her right on your lap, with her chin resting on your chest, and her forehooves wrapping themselves around you right underneath your arms.
  6544. >And you start to gently pet her.
  6545. >Everywhere from the  shoulders to the back and barrel, as well as her legs, hooves, and haunches.
  6546. >You do not leave a single spot out, except for the most private ones.
  6547. >Going there could send the wrong signals, as unintentionally arousing #deca.mare could be detrimental for her overall condition at the moment.
  6548.  
  6549.  
  6550.  
  6551.  
  6552. >No, this calls for innocuous measures.
  6553. >#deca.mare needs genuine wholesome physical affirmation after the events of this day, and you think you can sense her unspoken gratitude as your fingers comb her coat.
  6554. >It has been quite a while since she was this tense before and after a session.
  6555. >And even though both of you saw it coming, you wished things would have gone a little different today.
  6556. >Just a tiny bit better could have made a huge difference.
  6557. >But with things being as they are, you have to deal with the cards that were given to you.
  6558. >You pet and groom her coat for what seems like an eternity, again not bothering to check the time even once.
  6559. >Chances are very high that you are already overdue for your next nap, but you do not care in the slightest.
  6560. >#deca.mare is the only thing that matters to you, and you are willing to go on until the end of the universe if you had to.
  6561. >Though this is thankfully not necessary.
  6562. >At some point you notice that she has closed her eyes.
  6563. >Firmly asleep with a slow, peaceful, and even breath.
  6564. >And much to your own relief, she shows no signs of stress or nightmares from what you can tell.
  6565. >Well, that also answers what you are going to do next.
  6566. >You keep tending to #deca.mare as you quickly run a routine analysis of the systems on board of your own ship.
  6567. >Since #deca.mare is not able to perform them, you take it upon yourself to help her out.
  6568. >Even despite the astronomical small chance of something not being operating within normal parameters.
  6569. >As expected, your analysis does not find any anomalies.
  6570. >You can get some rest now too.
  6571. >You give #deca.mare a light kiss on the forehead before you lean back and close your eyes.
  6572. >A bed is all fine and well, but you rather sleep in the chair with her right atop of you than risking to wake her up again.
  6573. >So can only you make do with what you have and follow #deca.mare into the realm of dreams as the consoles around you do their normal duty.
  6574.  
  6575.  
  6576.  
  6577.  
  6578. 113
  6579.  
  6580. >Some time later, on the memorial grounds.
  6581. >#deca.mare and you enter the place through a doorway that dissipates right behind you, leaving you two seemingly isolated and secluded within this serene place.
  6582. >Both of you have mutually chosen to situate the passage close to the centre of the site.
  6583. >Meaning the central terraformer monument is not very far away.
  6584. >You look at each other, nod in unison, and slowly begin to walk towards the statue on its artistic pedestal.
  6585. >This will be the first session of #deca.mare's new project.
  6586. >She has told you some of the specifics as you two worked on the first batch of files which you extracted from #deca.sigma's core.
  6587. >And as you heard more of her plans, you initially thought she would not be ready for such a big thing yet.
  6588. >Even now you think she is not quite there yet to actually complete her vision.
  6589. >But you realised that this does not matter.
  6590. >Both #deca.mare's skills and confidence will surely grow with the time she invests in this endeavour, and for you it is an interesting experience as well.
  6591. >It gives you a welcome opportunity to write more than simple reports of your own, or to merely make notes on the ancient reports of others.
  6592. >You reach the terraformer monument.
  6593. >And you take a short while to quietly stand in front of the name plaque to commemorate the events of of the past.
  6594. >As you remain there, your gaze eventually falls on the name of #deca.sigma on the plaque.
  6595. >You feel a strange mix of emotions at that.
  6596. >On the one hand, it seems somewhat improper to have it there as you try to restore Sigma to the best of your abilities.
  6597. >But on the other hand, you fully know that the Sigma who existed before the war will never truly come back.
  6598. >And it is that #deca.sigma for whom you dedicated that spot on the list.
  6599. >You carefully peek at #deca.mare from the corner of your eye.
  6600. >She apparently does not want to comment on your musings, so you do not further allude to the topic.
  6601.  
  6602.  
  6603.  
  6604.  
  6605. >You had your reasons for building this site the way you did, and you are not going to tinker with it now.
  6606. >Both of you conclude your moment of silence with a little bow of respect.
  6607. >#deca.mare then proceeds to trot up to the pedestal and sit down with her back turned towards the marble.
  6608. >And she absent-mindedly observes the projection of infinity all around you as soon as she sits.
  6609. >You swiftly follow suit, minus the distant gaze into the off.
  6610. >Resting leaned against such a monument is surely not something that either of you would do on an actual public site, as it could easily be interpreted as undue by bystanders.
  6611. >Though what looks like an act of disrespect is in truth the exact opposite.
  6612. >#deca.mare does this to honour her legacy and that of her kin in her own unique way.
  6613. >Through her presence, and her actions whilst she is here.
  6614. >On top of that, it is also the best place for her work due to your measures of preventing a mental breakdown.
  6615. >And although you did not think that things would develop in this direction when you created this memorial, your design still works precisely as intended since it helps #deca.mare.
  6616. >So mission accomplished regardless.
  6617. >As you have taken your "seat" at the pedestal, you silently count to ten before you address #deca.mare.
  6618. "You give the word."
  6619. >"Hmhm. Just a moment, please."
  6620. "Sure."
  6621. >You wait politely.
  6622. >And some minutes pass before she finally gets herself to say it.
  6623. >"Please let us start, Anon."
  6624. "Okay.
  6625. >You perform a preset command that you have articulately formulated in advance as a preparation for this moment.
  6626. >Three closed dossiers appear mid air and float before you.
  6627. >Each visibly holds a moderate number of paper pages, but neither of you can read any of its content.
  6628. >Plus, none of them is named on the outside, so nobody can determine anything based on the outer appearance of the files.
  6629. "Here you go. Three mission reports of Sigma, all read and hand picked by me."
  6630. >"And you are sure they are suitable?"
  6631.  
  6632.  
  6633.  
  6634.  
  6635. "I think so. It was hard to choose with the little details you have given me at the time, but they should work."
  6636. >You grin.
  6637. "And no, I don't know which one is which. I told the automaton to randomise the order in which they appear. Double blind pick, you see?"
  6638. >#deca.mare nods.
  6639. >"And the other two?"
  6640. "Will be revealed to you alongside your pick after you made your choice. Though I presume you can guess the cases I selected to choose from for our session today. By now you know the charted documents as well as I do."
  6641. >You managed to make her shrug with light amusement, even in face of this delicate subject matter.
  6642. >"Actually, I have no idea, Anon. You are not so easy to see through when you have temporarily blocked me from processing your thoughts."
  6643. >You shrug back at her.
  6644. "Hm, for people like me it's the normal state of being. Guess you'll have to see for yourself then."
  6645. >You slowly wave your arm in the direction of the three objects, inviting #deca.mare to make her move.
  6646. "The choice is yours."
  6647. >#deca.mare hesitates as she stares at the three identical dossiers, initially unsure which one to pick.
  6648. >You assume she considers which report could be hidden behind what cover, but there is no way for her to know for sure.
  6649. >And you have deliberately created a situation where you have no direct way to sway her.
  6650. >After a short while, #deca.mare exhales.
  6651. >"The middle one."
  6652. "Your last word?"
  6653. >"Yes. Random luck."
  6654. "Alright."
  6655. >You let the dossier in the middle float closer until it is in your reach.
  6656. >You grab the whole thing, put it on the ground right next to you, and open the seal.
  6657. "Want to see it first?"
  6658. >"No. Let us find out together."
  6659. >You nod as you pick the bundle of bound paper from within and hold it between the two of you.
  6660. >You look at the cover simultaneously.
  6661. >It features a report number, paired with a picture of a nebula, taken in the now dead zone of the former war.
  6662. >"Oh. The nebula charting mission."
  6663.  
  6664.  
  6665.  
  6666.  
  6667. "Hm. The alternatives would have been the scouting of a planet and the repair errant to a friendly squad of damaged automatons."
  6668. >The respective files open themselves up and reveal their covers.
  6669. "Honestly, this one was the least favourite pick of mine out of the three. But I needed three options and it was the best of the remaining ones we have recovered so far."
  6670. >"It is fine. We made a choice, now we must work with it."
  6671. "Question is, can you?"
  6672. >#deca.mare answers without doubt this time.
  6673. >"With your help? Almost assuredly."
  6674. >Well, that certainly is one way to count on your practical assistance in the matter.
  6675. >Nothing forces a hand quite like a basic assumption of relying on one's presence and competence by default.
  6676. >Though you also decipher the things she did not mention outright.
  6677. >#deca.mare did not say this to put you under pressure; she pointed this out to stress her wish for your help and guidance.
  6678. >Okay, that is what you are here for anyway.
  6679. "Well then. I suggest we get through the report one more time to warm ourselves up. I've got to read some of the details again too."
  6680. >"Why do you not lend the data you need from me?"
  6681. >You shake your head.
  6682. "Having the data isn't the whole game, #deca, it's also about consciously spending some time with the material if we're going to pull your plan off. Reading the thing is only the easiest way to do it."
  6683. >You are sure #deca.mare understands your implications.
  6684. >After all, she must be aware that she cannot turn pieces of her past into a hopefully beneficial creative endeavour if she may shy away from facing it.
  6685. >Consciously or subconsciously.
  6686. >#deca.mare must willingly expose herself to moderate doses of this information as she tries to keep her stress levels low regardless.
  6687. >Both you and, as a last resort, the light cloud are there to catch her when she fails, but she must find the courage to make herself venture further on her own.
  6688. >Otherwise you would inevitably take on a dominant role and simply drag her along.
  6689.  
  6690.  
  6691.  
  6692.  
  6693. >This scenario is of course unacceptable to you.
  6694. >Up to this point she has been fairly brave and resilient, though you suspect that this could become the next tricky challenge for her.
  6695. >You are certain that there will be delicate moments waiting for you two in which she may very well stumble and hesitate, but it is not in your power to prevent that altogether.
  6696. >All that you can do is helping her to learn from these experiences, and to slowly but surely make her more resistant to the turmoil.
  6697. >If all things go very well, this project she came up with may even help #deca.mare to immunise herself against the worst effects of her own stress.
  6698. >But you should start with step one first before you dream of the ideal outcome.
  6699. "Page one?"
  6700. >#deca.mare nods again.
  6701. >"Page one."
  6702. >You turn the cover paper around and see the first page of the actual report.
  6703. >The two of you read a story about #deca.sigma charting a previously unknown nebula.
  6704. >A rather unusual task for a terraformer that is mainly primed to scout and alter planets for human colonisation, sure, but not entirely unheard of.
  6705. >It was a convenient target between two other assignments, so the minor detour was approved by the headquarters.
  6706. >And Sigma has recorded everything from here on out.
  6707. >The first pages describe some general projections about the size of the cloud, what material it is composed of, what could possibly be found inside and what risks there may lie within.
  6708. >A thorough, and detailed estimation of possible reality, based on previous experiences and a first batch of hard long range sensor data.
  6709. >The document feels in many ways strangely familiar to you, given its remarkably specific style which almost matches that of #deca.mare.
  6710. >Nothing special, considering the origin of said report, but still a unique experience in its own right.
  6711. >Especially since you two are very likely the first ones to read this thing in centuries.
  6712.  
  6713.  
  6714.  
  6715.  
  6716. >It is a piece of ancient history, and yet more alive than you would have expected.
  6717. >To you it seems as if the mere writing on the imaginary paper reflects a tiny bit of #deca.sigma's original essence, a part of what Sigma was.
  6718. >In a way, it is.
  6719. >You regularly check on how #deca.mare is doing after a page or two before you go on.
  6720. >Her gaze is a tiny bit misty-eyed, yet every time you ask, she always affirms to be willing for more.
  6721. >Then you come to the next part.
  6722. >The segment in which Sigma starts to explore the nebula from a much closer range with a series of far more profound and elaborate tests and scans.
  6723. >Once again with the greatest deal of precise accuracy applied, and once again yielding a good deal of additional insights.
  6724. >Then a third segment, a fourth, and finally an extensive conclusion for the HQ.
  6725. >And while you do not understand every minute detail of the report, you can picture the general gist of it in your mind.
  6726. >Good enough for #deca.mare's project.
  6727. >You let the stack of paper float out of your hands and "pin" it in the air in such an angle that both #deca.mare and you can read the text with ease.
  6728. >After that you materialise a stack of new blank pages, a pair of small desks, two quills, and a small filled inkwell.
  6729. >#deca.mare tilts her head in surprise.
  6730. >"You want to write this in the literal sense?"
  6731. "Yeah. I think it's worth a shot to get ourselves in the mood, you know? Besides, we should get used to it. It's what's going to be used on Equestria as well."
  6732. >Only a short moment of consideration later, #deca.mare picks up a few pieces of paper to orderly arrange them on the desk which stands closer to her.
  6733. >She bites down on one of the quills, lifting the feather up with her teeth.
  6734. >You do the same with your set of the writing equipment and place the opened inkwell right between the two desks.
  6735. >The two of you now have everything at hand to start writing.
  6736.  
  6737.  
  6738.  
  6739.  
  6740. >Provided you have a few inspirations of what you actually want to put down on the pages.
  6741. >"Tho, any thuggethion on how tho thart, Anon?"
  6742. >You must chuckle lightly as you hear #deca.mare's distorted speech.
  6743. >It just never gets old to watch ponies using their mouths for everyday activities like this.
  6744. >You imagine a creative meeting between a group of professional writing ponies must be a blast to listen to.
  6745. >But you abstain from joking about it, both because you know this is a serious issue, and because she has asked a genuine question.
  6746. "Hm."
  6747. >What is a good way to start a story about a fictional pony whose actions vaguely resemble real events from a long bygone age, but in a somewhat retold and re-imagined fashion as to adapt it for a reading pony audience on another planet?
  6748. >Indeed a scenario which you have not been confronted with in any of your educational courses back at the academy.
  6749. >Both of you mull over that point for a few minutes until #deca.mare gets an idea.
  6750. >"How abouth the clathical opthener? You know the one."
  6751. "Which one do you mean?"
  6752. >"Onth upon a thime, oth courth."
  6753. >You raise an eyebrow.
  6754. "Written like that? Sounds archaic enough, I suppose."
  6755. >#deca.mare grunts and spits out her quill.
  6756. >She puts it on her desk beside the paper.
  6757. >"Obviously in normal speech, Anon."
  6758. "I don't know, it still looks like we'd copy Celestia's fairy tale opener word for word."
  6759. >"So what? It has been a traditional opening for a very long time. Its origin dates back to a period even prior to the creation of the show. We would only follow an ancient literary custom."
  6760. >And considering the sort of text which #deca.mare has envisioned to create, it should apply properly to your context as well.
  6761. "Well, alright. Guess it's doubly fitting then."
  6762. >You drench the tip of your quill in the pool of dark ink.
  6763. "Heh. Will take a while to get used to that."
  6764. >You carefully write the four words on the first line of the page, minding to produce a legible text.
  6765.  
  6766.  
  6767.  
  6768.  
  6769. >#deca.mare mirrors your action with a great deal of precision, albeit with teeth instead.
  6770. >Something which you might also have to master at a later date if you want to blend into the crowd.
  6771. >After all, literacy is ubiquitous in Equestria as well, and you would stick out if you cannot even write decently.
  6772. >But that is an issue for later.
  6773. >Today you two have a story to write.
  6774. >With the basic beginning now established, you start to discuss how the story shall develop.
  6775. >Neither of you writes a full text yet, as you initially go through the report another time and make notes on the elements you could use, how you could implement them, and what the plot shall actually lead to.
  6776. >And so the first collaborative fiction of yours is slowly starting to take shape.
  6777. >You quickly agree to make it centre around a pony character whose description is deliberately vague in some regards, but fairly descriptive in others.
  6778. >Your fictitious main character turns out to become an unnamed pony stallion in the guard service of some equally unnamed pony realm of the past, long before the age of the Royal Sisters.
  6779. >His ruler has entrusted a simple, yet not uncomplicated errand to him.
  6780. >The stallion shall explore an old, thick forest near the border the kingdom.
  6781. >Word has it that the old trees could harbour some powerful ancient relic, or other forms of mysterious magic with great potential.
  6782. >So he is sent out to investigate, and if possible, secure the power in the name of the realm he has sworn his allegiance to.
  6783. >You do, however, not specify what tribe the pony belonged to.
  6784. >The two of you only state that the forest is so lush and dense that it is hard to tread by any pony standard.
  6785. >Also, there is indeed a light magical fog that constantly blankets the air underneath the treetops, making it even impossible for Pegasi to accurately spot things underneath the canopy of leaves.
  6786.  
  6787.  
  6788.  
  6789.  
  6790. >An easy method for you to deliberately give the audience more room to speculate and simultaneously increase the dramatic effect.
  6791. >And the rest of the story consists almost only of creatively embroidered parallels to Sigma's report.
  6792. >The lone pony travels to the forest.
  6793. >He draws sketches of landmarks for orientation and estimations before he enters.
  6794. >He ventures to the very border and checks the trees for signs of magical alteration.
  6795. >And he delves into the forest proper, where he faces many natural obstacles and hurdles which he has to overcome on his way to the centre.
  6796. >With nothing more than his wits and the humble gear of a loyal guardspony.
  6797. >How he deals with the fog without losing the right tracks.
  6798. >How he stumbles upon some quaint bits and pieces that somepony else has left behind for some reason or another.
  6799. >And how he indeed eventually finds an enchanted object of old in the heart of the forest.
  6800. >The magical object which creates the fog.
  6801. >That artefact is of course a highly exaggerated embodiment of the final report you are holding now, but whereas your findings clear the mists of the past a bit, it is the exact opposite in the story.
  6802. >Still, #deca.mare insists on embedding this point in the plot in order to have the hero take the artefact, learn to control its power, and to remove the damp around the woods.
  6803. >But the conclusion diverges greatly from reality.
  6804. >Where #deca.sigma got a simple confirmation of the report, quickly followed by the next set of instructions, the stallion gets lauded and praised for his deeds as he returns to the castle of his liege.
  6805. >For uncovering a mystery at the realm's border and securing a relic that, while not practically very useful in many situations, is still a powerful asset in its own right.
  6806. >And so the stallion gains fame, a generous reward and a good end.
  6807. >Happy life ever after, and so on.
  6808. >No massive war in which he falls with his side torn open.
  6809. >Not a single mention of death and destruction.
  6810.  
  6811.  
  6812.  
  6813.  
  6814. >After all, neither of you wants to burden the early Equestrian readers with your baggage.
  6815. >There will surely come a time when you have to reveal this subject too.
  6816. >Though this moment lies so far in the distant future that it is entirely pointless to even contemplate about the subject for a good number of centuries.
  6817. >At the very least.
  6818. >It pains #deca.mare to omit such crucial details, even in a narratively speaking highly liberal re-narration of technically distantly true events.
  6819. >But you can convince her to leave these things out.
  6820. >Nobody, or rather nopony, would benefit from those additions anyway.
  6821. >Yet #deca.mare insists on one final caveat.
  6822. >The texts concludes with one note at its very end.
  6823. >A hint at a legend, stating that there once was a dire day in the age before Harmony.
  6824. >With a menace so threatening that the realm had to use the old artefact to cover the whole kingdom in an impenetrable wall of fog and smoke.
  6825. >To hide itself from the world outside, and to disappear from reality.
  6826. >Only to return at a later date.
  6827. >But nopony knows when or if the realm returned.
  6828. >Perhaps it is still out there.
  6829. >Waiting.
  6830. >Biding its time to reveal itself.
  6831. >You cannot overlook the obviously deliberate ambiguity of that chosen imagery.
  6832. >And how it could be misinterpreted in reference to other happenstances, rather than #deca.mare and the truth.
  6833. >Like the Crystal Empire and the rise of Cadence.
  6834. >Or something completely different.
  6835. >Far more mundane perspectives for an Equestrian mind in any case.
  6836. >Although you realise how absolutely insane even stories of this already tempered kind would have sounded to you only a year ago.
  6837. >Talking ponies in a city of crystals, using magical artefacts to affect their surroundings?
  6838. >Right.
  6839. >But this is a crux with legends and perspectives.
  6840. >They often have a foundation in reasonable reality, but once one tries to interpret their meanings outside the sphere of available hard evidence, things can get off the rails very quickly.
  6841.  
  6842.  
  6843.  
  6844.  
  6845. >And if the amount of intel is very limited, even more so.
  6846. >The future ponies will probably go through a lot of these speculations, especially in the early stages.
  6847. >A fascinating thing to consider.
  6848. >To observe what creative things the inhabitants of Equestria will come up with on their own.
  6849. >To witness them gradually making sense of the world around them while they hone their talents.
  6850. >To see Harmony taking shape as the world grows.
  6851. >And a tiny part within you is curious to find out whether they enjoy your collaborative writing.
  6852. >Both of you may be required to act with utmost care when you interact with the world, but you do not see any harm in releasing some innocuous little stories meant to be made and read for the sake of having a purely creative outlet and finding some amusement.
  6853. >#deca.mare and you found an opportunity to test your hands at something new, possibly finding a passion you never knew you had.
  6854. >This is a key cornerstone of what the spirit of Equestria is all about, is it not?
  6855. >And in a somewhat strange way, you keep a small part of Sigma's memory alive in the minds of others at the same time, even when nopony can see the full picture for several ages to come.
  6856. >Maybe not much, but all you can do for now.
  6857. >You bet #deca.mare thinks about your work in very similar lines.
  6858. >But regardless of what the far future holds, you put this issue aside as you suddenly realise something.
  6859. >The two of you have actually completed your first story draft within a day.
  6860. >Sure, you will obviously read your produce again soon and possibly revise some minor passages here and there, yet your foundation stands on solid ground.
  6861. >You put your quills on your desks, save the document, and let the writing equipment disappear with a thought.
  6862. >After a short moment of common contemplative silence, you let your head tilt over to #deca.mare's shoulder and nuzzle her coat with your cheek.
  6863. "And? Happy?"
  6864. >#deca.mare hesitates.
  6865.  
  6866.  
  6867.  
  6868.  
  6869. >"Can we stay a moment longer? I think I could still need the safety net. Just in case."
  6870. "No problem. I wasn't asking about leaving anyways. Are you happy with the basic script though?"
  6871. >"Hmhm. I think so."
  6872. "Huh, not the level of satisfaction I had hoped for. It's our first text."
  6873. >"Do not misunderstand me, Anon. This is an important moment for which I am grateful, but it is also... difficult to stomach."
  6874. >You nod wordlessly.
  6875. "Then maybe we should postpone the shooting until we're doing the editing."
  6876. >"The shooting?"
  6877. "Yeah."
  6878. >Your camera appears.
  6879. "You think I'd let that event pass by without making some photos?"
  6880. >#deca.mare observes the camera as it floats in the air.
  6881. "But..."
  6882. >The camera disappears as well.
  6883. "... like I said. At the editing. After you had the chance to relax."
  6884. >You give her a kiss.
  6885. "Don't want a dulled mood to disturb your natural beauty on the photos, you know?"
  6886. >"Sometimes you have an unusual timing to express compliments, Anon."
  6887. >You shrug casually.
  6888. >And a faint smile escapes her muzzle.
  6889. >"Thanks."
  6890. >You smile back and pet her mane as the two of you look out at the vast starscape.
  6891. >As you let some serene time pass after your creative outburst in the shadow of this significant memorial statue, you already devise some plans to create two siblings for your first mental creation.
  6892. >You still have two more reports at hand, and you bet you could send your unnamed stallion on a quest to explore another unexplored kingdom, and a mission in which he saves a group of other loyal guardsponies in need.
  6893. >But first texts first, and #deca.mare's wellbeing above them all.
  6894. >The pace remains all up to her.
  6895.  
  6896.  
  6897.  
  6898.  
  6899. 114
  6900.  
  6901. aaa
/nmp/ #deca Anon Custom Universe MarewAIfu Monogamy NSFW Space Fiction Terraforming X:BtF

Shape Your Home, Part 4

by Ponegreen

Shape Your Home, Part 3

by Ponegreen

Shape Your Home, Part 2

by Ponegreen

Shape Your Home, Part 1

by Ponegreen