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Pax Humana

by Starscribe

Chapter 1: Departure


"You know you don't have to do this." The android sounded about as sensitive and friendly as any android could, much better than the emotionless voice she had used a decade ago. "You can turn around. Nopony will judge you if you stay. You could probably convince the others to call it off. Somepony else can go instead."

Sweetie Belle did not look over her shoulder at the Carousel Boutique, where what was left of her going away party was still winding down. She didn't because she knew that if she did she would certainly cry again and might reconsider her decision. Her artificial companion was good for more than just carrying her luggage to the railway station; she probably could convince Scootaloo and Apple Bloom to give this up if she tried.

"I'm done being in Rarity's shadow," she muttered, more to herself than the android. "When does my train get here?" She drew herself up to her full height and started walking briskly down the road, doing her best to ignore the press of ponies and humans thronging the streets all around her. Nevermind that she had a perfectly valid excuse to be emotional right now, nevermind that she had to walk more slowly than usual. She could do this.

Ponyville had grown a great deal in the last decade, enough that its farthest borders now scraped on the outskirts of Canterlot suburb. They called this part of the city the "old town," and superficially it was hard to tell anything had changed. Sweetie could tell, though. The boarding houses and apartments and small homes had all been transformed into little shops and vendors and theaters, often with the addition of several vertical and below-ground stories. The flicker of gaslight was gone at night, along with the candles. It was hard to tell it was night outside, with the brilliance of the streetlights and the glow of shops.

"Three minutes. I'll hold it for you, don't worry. Oh, and I booked the entire first car for you. Thought you two might appreciate some privacy."

Sweetie Belle smiled at her companion, though the expression was weary enough. "You're the best, Gemini." She sighed. "Button's been traveling all day. I bet he's worse off than I am."

The android looked thoughtful at this. Gemini's face was quite expressive, though many of the other parts of her shared only superficial resemblance with ponies. Her whole body was white plastic, in several interlocking sections, and her mane and tail were both plastic. There was nothing even remotely unique about her; at last tally, Equestria had half a million Gemini androids in its cities and towns. Their primary function was to create the Equestrian mesh network, though they did many other things.

The most disconcerting thing about them was that they were all, somehow, the same pony. This unit had arrived only today, yet it remembered everything Sweetie Belle had ever done with one of them, and even tried to pick up on what passed for their friendship. "I doubt it. Button isn't pregnant."

She groaned. "I thought we agreed not to talk about you-know-what."

Gemini shrugged and cut past her, cutting a swathe through the crowd with her plastic shoulders. Ponies and humans both didn't resist her; in the contest of flesh and high-density polymer, the flesh always lost. Sweetie Belle didn't even care about how strange it must look that she was talking to Gemini like she might to any other pony. It probably looked like she was having a conversation with a toaster, or a sewing machine.

She could see the station now, located exactly where the old one had been. The water tower and coal shed were gone now, and the tracks had changed; as in all of Equestria, traditional railway had been entirely replaced with high-voltage maglev track, usually set into a slightly elevated concrete island and almost always with two tracks running parallel for both directions.

The station was the reason there were so many ponies and humans walking around here; ponies had places to go and this was the swiftest way for them to get there. Sweetie was grateful as Gemini led her past the security scanners and the long lines to the executive entrance, with only one pony waiting for her. She wasn't even surprised he was playing video games.

* * *

Sweetie Belle clearly remembered the first time she heard from her dead friend after the end of the war. It wasn't that she had still believed Chance to be dead; Princess Twilight had put an end to that belief much earlier. It was more the method in which the message had been delivered

She had been living in Ponyville again by then. There was little theater work to be done with Equestria still recovering from the war, but there was plenty of work to be done helping her older sister. Sweetie ignored all the offers she got to advise various politicians on human interaction, nevermind how much better they paid. After losing one of her best friends on Earth, Sweetie was ready for a few months of healing with her family, quietly stitching winter clothes and playing video games.

As strange as it was to be working in the old Carousel Boutique, the warmth of the fire and the mindless repetition let her think on simpler times and consider how much better her life would be if she was more like Rarity. Rarity wasn’t torn with grief about the war; she had picked her life up right where she had left it off, doing what she loved. Maybe it would be best for Sweetie to give up on the adventures and focus more on her career as a professional vocalist.

That desire hadn't ever been allowed to mature, because that had been when Chance's first communication had arrived. Her friend couldn't be like anypony else and just send a letter; that would have been far too simple. No, Chance had sent a messenger. Not that there was anything inherently wrong with messengers; but most ponies who wanted to send a message that way didn't make the messenger they were going to use.

"Sweetie dear, there's a pony here to meet you downstairs."

"Scootaloo?" Sweetie Belle let go of the fabric without thought to the consequences, and unfortunately the sewing machine kept going. "She's back from Las Pegasus!"

Rarity shook her head, doing a very poor job concealing her pity. "No dear, I'm afraid not. I... I don't think you ought to keep them waiting." She lowered her voice to a whisper. "I can't say if they're a customer or a mannequin, honestly. Please don't tell her I said that. Or him. Whichever they are." Rarity straightened, and forced her face back into its usual composed self. "Hurry down."

Sweetie Belle couldn't hide how disappointed she was as she passed Rarity and trudged down the stairs. Scootaloo was still perfectly healthy, and yet Sweetie had barely seen her more than Second Chance since their return to Equestria. What was her excuse for running away, huh?

When she stepped down onto the shop floor, she almost missed the newcomer among the many empty mannequins along the wall. Except that one of them wasn't on a stand, and it seemed to have a mane. Sweetie's first thought was a spell, though a quick check with magical senses proved there was no more magic at work in the strange being than in any of the mannequins. "Hello?"

The figure she had suspected for the intruder turned at once when she spoke, moving closer. Sweetie Belle appreciated the chance to get a closer look. At a glance she might've looked like any other earth pony, but even a second of serious scrutiny made that illusion impossible to believe. She had no true coat at all, but her body was smooth white plastic, with joints she could see if she looked closely. Her bright green mane and tail looked real enough, though Sweetie recognized the way light reflected from it as plastic and not real hair.

Her cutie mark was a symbol not unlike the roman numeral two, save that it was slightly curved on the top and bottom, and seemed printed directly into the plastic. Her eyes looked real enough, except that there was clearly no moisture to the gray and they didn't seem to refocus, adjust, or blink even slightly as walked across the room through varying levels of light.

All and all, the android wasn't a very convincing fakery. That meant whoever had built it obviously hadn't been trying to make it seem like a real pony. Such things were possible. Like many ponies, the robot seemed not to be wearing any clothing, though there was a satchel of gray fabric slung over one shoulder. There was no sign this robot's creator had bothered to duplicate actual anatomy for one sex or the other, though its general suggestions were of a mare Sweetie's own age.

"The Steel Tower convinced a pony to go full-cyborg?" Sweetie asked, feigning a polite smile. Had Princess Twilight sent this pony to her? Sweetie had been very clear about her desire not to be involved in official Equestrian matters for awhile. "If you're looking for some new clothes for that new body, you want Rarity, not me."

She started to turn, but didn't get even halfway through the gesture before the android began to speak.

It had Second Chance's voice. Not her intonations, not her speech patterns. Quite the contrary, it had nothing at all of the character of her good friend. But the actual sound had been captured perfectly, as though Chance had recorded a text-to-speech program the day before she left. Imperfect as the recreation might be, it was still more than enough to make Sweetie Belle freeze in her tracks. "This unit did not come for clothing, Unicorn User 4, Designation: Sweetie Belle. My directive is to deliver equipment and information that could not be trusted to the mail system or the mesh network."

She groaned, turning slowly to face the "pony." Matters were even worse than Sweetie Belle had initially suspected. It wasn't just that she was being bothered about humans, but human politics. "I'm on sabbatical." Sweetie walked past the pony and to the door. She didn't actually open it, unwilling to invite the chill of winter inside even to send this important message. "Using my friend's voice won't make me more cooperative. I'm not helping you." She gestured with her hoof as imperiously as she could. "Get out."

"As you request." The android made little whirring noises as it walked, and little plastic clicking noises as its hooves met wood. "However, this unit believes Unicorn Sweetie Belle has come to erroneous conclusions of this unit's intentions." There were no pauses for breath, for indeed this android had no ability nor need to breathe. It stopped just short of the door. "This unit is not a representative of the Federation, nor is this unit a formerly biological native Equestrian. This unit is representing an Equestrian Official, whose hooves this unit is in her absence. This unit was sent by Ambassador Second Chance."

Sweetie was skeptical. Not that the voice wasn't convincing; it was. So far as she knew only Truth had recordings of Chance's pony voice, and Truth was with her. That didn't mean clever fakery was impossible, though. "If Chance had the time to build you, why wouldn't she have sent a letter months ago?"

"Speculation is not one of my directives." She reached her head sideways, opening the flap of her satchel and drawing out what was clearly a tablet computer. Of course, she didn't actually have to move her mouth to speak, and so the fact that she was holding something for Sweetie Belle did not prevent her from finishing her thought. "You may ask her yourself when our conversation is concluded. This unit cannot speak for her response time, however."

Sweetie Belle took the tablet with her magic almost reluctantly, turning it over in the air in front of her. The material was new, a metal with the plasticity of a high-tension polymer. It lacked the usual markings of its designers, the ancient Earth corporations and their patents. As with many of these devices, the entire front panel was a touch-sensitive display, which for ponies meant the use of a stylus.

"I don't think I can." She set the tablet down on the nearest flat surface without turning it on. “Truth is gone too; and Equestria doesn't have a mesh anypony can just use whenever they want."

"Truth retains indirect control of Equestria's satellite network," said the electronic pony. "Any message you send will be transmitted as soon as there is non-priority bandwidth available. We have established a transmission pylon in Normandy near the Rift; your messages will be relayed through when it is next opened."

"She still could've sent it with an ordinary messenger," Sweetie mumbled. There was no conquering her sour mood, at least not so quickly. "Unless you were sent to do more than just pass off a few tablets."

The android nodded. It was hard to tell for sure, but she was sure it looked pleased. Could an AI like this even have emotions? Sweetie Belle knew very little about the gradient that separated the zombies and spiders in her favourite video game from full on General Intelligences like Truth had been. Was it possible for something to have less than pony intelligence and still be a pony? "Delivering the computers is my third directive of sixty-seven. This unit has already delivered earth pony Apple Bloom's package. Does pegaus Scootaloo still reside in Room 13-C of the Ponyville Orphanage?"

Of all the things that could have made Sweetie Belle relax, those words had been about as wrong as words could be. "No," she replied, through gritted teeth. "Scootaloo took a temporary assignment in Cloudsdale teaching flying to once-human pegasi. She's terrible at responding to her mail, so don't even bother sending it."

For as upset as she had sounded, the android made no sign of an emotional response. "This unit cannot fly, and even if this unit could this unit could not traverse that city safely." She reached down into the satchel, drawing out the last of the tablets and setting it on the ground at Sweetie's hooves. "In that case, this unit entrusts you with Scootaloo's computer. My information indicates the strength of your friendship will force Scootaloo to return eventually, at which point you can give her the package and she can be informed of your replacement ship."

She turned to leave, but Sweetie wasn't about to let her just walk away. She wanted to kick the little tablet away, except that she was fairly certain the screen couldn't survive that much pressure from a hoof and no matter how upset she was it was still a gift from a friend for another friend. She did grip the handles of the door securely in her magic, so that when the android pushed they didn't budge. Unable to perceive magic, the poor thing seemed quite confused. She pushed hard on the door, but clearly wasn't a military android, because the metal didn't even squeak. She had not been built for her strength. "The doorway appears to have malfunctioned."

"No, it didn't. I am holding it closed." Sweetie Belle glowered across the room at her. "What replacement ship? What are you talking about?"

The robot pony looked over her shoulder, seeming quite confused. Still, she answered. If she was angry about being trapped inside, she made no sign of it. There seemed to be no weapons concealed in her body. "My creator expressed feelings of guilt about the destruction of the aircraft the four of you collectively owned and constructed. She has already devoted considerable energies to its replacement, though she is unwilling to proceed with further construction until she has obtained more information from the three of you. As the project will likely require years of mining and fabrication, she is eager to begin as soon as possible. Her preliminary designs are on the device for your approval. Her exact words were that this time it would be ‘completely perfect’ and ‘the most amazing most fastest starship anypony or anyone ever had.’ Please, review the files. I have to begin directive five."

"Will you be back?"

The robot nodded. "Or another functionally identical unit, should this unit be destroyed. This unit should see you again during directive sixteen in eight to eleven months."

* * *

"How were your goodbyes?" Sweetie didn't want to break away from him, not even when the doors slid closed and a pleasant voice informed her first in Equestrian and then in English that they should secure their restraints and prepare for acceleration. Ordinarily this would mean she was about to be slammed around a bit, yet somehow she knew this train wasn't about to go anywhere until she was good and ready. Sweetie had never exploited her relationship with the co-founder of Avalon Fabrication, but this time she hadn't been asked. As emotional as she was, as hurt and confused as she felt, she wouldn't fight it this time.

Button shrugged. Though the little earth pony had grown considerably in many ways, Sweetie Belle was quite sure his emotional maturity had never kept pace with his body. "Eh. It was good, I guess." He didn't try to pull away from her until she was good and ready, and he had put the tablet away when she arrived. So maybe he wasn't completely clueless. Eventually she let go of him, and together they climbed into two chairs, which adjusted automatically and restrained them without input on their part. The executive car had its perks. "Hey, so I know tons of humans will be watching, but do you think anypony will be watching?"

Gemini made no effort to get into a chair, bracing one leg against a wall and leaning forward slightly. There was a jolt of acceleration, a sustained force that pressed them into the seats for a good ten seconds, and yet she spoke on without apparently noticing. "My estimates put Equestrian viewership at 80-120 million ponies." She tilted her head back towards the wall to the car behind them. "What do you think all these ponies are going home to see?"

"Yeah! How cool is-" He gasped. "Assistance android, did you say m-million?"

Soon enough they had reached cruising speed, and the restraints released them to move about the car. Sweetie knew there were all sorts of snacks and drinks she could request up here in the executive car, but there was no way she would. In a crowd she might've been able to hide, but she would not risk being identified by a stewardpony.

The android continued. "A better question would be who isn't watching. The first interstellar ship of the alliance has an all-pony crew. I estimate feelings of national pride have doubled over the last year as media coverage for the launch increased. Most businesses that would be open are closed tonight. Two centuries ago, when humans went to their moon for the first time, the whole world watched, and those people told stories about it for the rest of their lives. My preliminary projections indicate Equestrians are behaving exactly the same way. Humans too! Avalon Fab built it, and ponies are going to fly it. Some analysts are already calling this the 'beginning of a new decade of friendship'. And if you think the timing was a-"

Button looked like he was going to be sick.

Sweetie Belle cleared her throat loudly. "We get it. You and the princesses and Second Chance are all very smart." Even though the trip was only a few minutes long, even though she knew she would have to put them back on again soon enough, Sweetie was eager to get the pressure off her belly and be standing again. She rose and walked over to the window, watching the houses go by in a blur. "Some of us don't want to think about being on camera. Scootaloo can do any interviews we have left. I'm done standing behind podiums and sitting on fluffy couches and talking about how awful it would be to maybe never see my family ever again."

She leaned against the padded wall as she watched Equestria go by. She could see the distant brilliance of Canterlot in the night, some of its skyscrapers reaching as high as the mountain that had been its original boundary. The train moved at a slight upward angle, traveling on an increasingly tall support structure above the streets. The angle was gradual, though by the time they reached the city center they would coast to a stop level with the rest of the old city. She saw pegasi passing between the buildings and their many balconies at various heights, and earth ponies and unicorns passed between the structures in tubular bridges.

It was almost impossible to believe this entire city had been built in less time than it had taken her to get her cutie mark, and that a full twenty million ponies lived here, and half that many humans. It was too dark, but she knew if she had looked up there would've been airships and helicopters and cargo craft visible in spectacular numbers. Canterlot was no longer the center of Equestria; now it was the center of the world.

* * *

Sweetie Belle's plans to retire from adventures lasted as long as it took her to check the tablet for the first time and look at the designs Second Chance had proposed for the starship. For indeed, there could be no other word to describe the vessel she had in mind for them. Though it was nothing to the Hypercarrier Aegis she could see in the sky if she knew when to look.

That night she started sending messages back and forth through the Rift to the alien universe on the other side, and to her friend only very recently alive. Despite Truth's absence, their new computers could communicate with each other as well as they ever could. Soon Apple Bloom was weighing in as well, after sundown when her work on the farm was finished. After several months, Scootaloo finally returned to take Rainbow Dash's old spot on the Ponyville weather team, and she became the project's most outspoken proponent.

For the next several years, Sweetie Belle's entire contact with her fallen friend was in text messages sent back and forth whenever somepony opened the Rift. She might ask, "How are you building all this? Your last message said the superstructure was finished, but Twilight said you two were wearing stolen clothes and living in broken-down buildings."

Then, a few hours later, she would get a response like, "That was only long enough to make sure I didn't miss the ponies who came looking for me. We're living with the equestrian immigrants now, in these awesome tents they brought. We got tired of not showering and stealing fried food. Plus, Truth's not even with me half the time anymore. He spends most of his time out at L2 supervising the shipyard. Not that it doesn't make sense; he's always had more of a mind for the hardware than me."

"You have a shipyard?"

"And a foundry, and a factory. Truth worked out all the details; you wouldn't believe how boring it was. Spent my entire savings in the Royal Equestrian Trust, along with all my back-pay with the Federation. Called in some favors, and partnered up with an old friend. You wouldn't believe how excited Avalon is to be around humans all the time. Plus, the low gravity is great for his old bones. Not so great for his muscles, but... I'm not sure he ever intends to go planetside again."

"That makes sense. You did all that just so we could have our ship?"

"Not even! Our ship is the most important, but it's not like I'm going to shut everything down. Earth has lots of cities to rebuild, and human technology takes lots of hard-to-refine elements. We're the first corporation with our hooves in the asteroid mining business, and we'll use all our profit to outfit starships. We wanted to call ourselves the United Federation of Planets, but there's already a federation and it seemed wrong to name a for-profit corporation after a group of betterment-socialists. Not that we're not trying to do the same thing. Also, there's only the one planet. We went with Avalon Fabrication instead."

Not that Sweetie Belle understood the intricacies of what Chance had apparently done founding a space-mining corporation. All she knew was that it was apparently successful, because she saw more and more of those robot-ponies every day. In the third year "Avalon Fabrication" opened an office in Ponyville, selling practical human technologies tailored to Equestrian needs.

A year later, Avalon Fabrication was the largest non-government organization in Equestria. When Sweetie had asked Chance about it, her answer had been confusing at best. "What's the point? We never tried to make such a difference with ponies before."

"Because of Clover's visions," Chance had answered. "Truth and I are saving Equestria from being swallowed culturally by human influences."

Sweetie Belle had no idea what 'Clover's visions' could mean, though she had at least a good idea who Clover might be. She asked the more relevant question. "How does selling human inventions all over Equestria stop pony culture from going away?"

The response came the instant the message had been sent, as though Chance had thought about it so long she didn't have to stress about typing a good answer out, because she already had one. "There's no getting around the technological inferiority of Equestria. Technologies succeed because they work better than what we already have. Imagine telling a pony they have to keep using a typewriter after they've seen a word processor. Or that they have to keep sending letters when they could make phone calls."

"So it's hopeless?"

"No way! We could never stop new technologies, so we didn't try. Avalon Fabrication only employs ponies, and the reason why is because we want ponies not to think of all the new technologies as something inherently human. We custom-design everything for ponies and not for humans, so that nopony in Equestria feels like they're at a disadvantage."

"Besides, this way gives the princesses a great deal more control. Human companies might not listen to them, or they might pretend to listen and really break the rules. But Truth and I will do what Celestia or Luna ask even if we don't agree. Avalon Fabrication might pretend to be a company, but it's really theirs as much as the Solar or Lunar Guard. It's not a perfect solution; Truth and I are smart, but we can't dominate every field. We've just got to keep ponies satisfied long enough for your industry to catch up."

“Can you?”

“We have so far. It might not have worked if Earth wasn't so trashed; but most human innovation these days is about rebuilding the planet, which ponies don't need. It would've been impossible if people weren't more concerned with Earth than with Equus. This way, I think we'll have your industry up-to-par before humans get their foot in the door. Except for construction... rebuilding cities was part of the alliance.”

* * *

Sweetie Belle found that the crowds had already been cleared near the exit, with guards stationed along the cordoned-off walkway at regular intervals. There were far too many ponies to count, even with the assistance of her Neuroboost implants. She couldn't understand a word of what they shouted, it all blurred together into one voice of approbation.

If the crowd expected a pair of energetic celebrity astronauts with waves and smiles, that wasn't what they got. Instead Sweetie and Button found themselves trying to seem as small as possible, walking as fast as possible, watching the ground with every step. The guards prevented anypony from getting close enough to interfere, and for that she was grateful.

At least there weren't any more speeches between the train station and the Canterlot Worldgate. Indeed, nothing at all slowed their progress through the doors of the smooth silver building. Normally the structure was bustling with activity, as members of both races traveled freely between worlds. It seemed the structure had been closed in honor of their departure.

It wasn't empty, though. Between the huge carved doors and the worldgate was a single figure, waiting patient with stars in her mane and moonlight in her eyes. "Sweetie Belle," came the greeting, her voice as polite as it was amused. Probably at their expressions of shock. "Did you think one of our citizens could embark on such a mission and nopony would wish to say farewell?"

Sweetie's great respect for Princess Luna would have prevented her from saying anything even slightly disrespectful, but her emotional exhaustion and her belly together had deadened her sense of propriety somewhat. "Ponies have been saying goodbye all day." She gestured wearily over her shoulder. "Listen to 'em all cheering out there. It's not like we're the Elements of Harmony or anything."

Button remained staunchly quiet beside her, seeming to be suddenly fascinated by the ceramic tiles under their hooves.

"Indeed. I am sorry to trouble you this last time." Luna stepped forward, lowering her head and speaking quietly. "I just thought you ought to know that we know what you're planning." Then she stepped back, her expression returning to its neutral mask.

Button gasped, stammering excuses as fast as his mouth would go, but Sweetie silenced him with a hoof in his mouth. She had made many mistakes in her short life, and one of the most powerful lessons she had learned from them all was that she ought to own up and accept responsibility immediately. Arguing, making excuses, or lying would only make things worse in the end. So she nodded. "Did Chance tell you?"

Luna shook her head. "We did not put her in the awkward position of choosing between her loyalty to us and her loyalty to your friendship. We did not have to, with how often you dreamed of it." Again she leaned closer, and her voice was more kind than stern. "I did not come to reprimand you, or to prevent your departure." She rested a gentle hoof on Sweetie's shoulder. "I just wanted to tell you that Equestria will welcome your return, if and when you choose to come back to us. Even if none in that crowd outside are even still alive to welcome you back, some of us will be." She smiled ruefully. "I do not think you could even imagine the dread I felt during my long absence, and I had done far more than omit the details of my flight plan."

Sweetie Belle was crying. Why was she crying? It wasn't as though she had ever known Luna all that well. No better than anypony else in Equestria knew her, as the one who put an end to her nightmares. Yet to hear her voice, Sweetie Belle could not restrain her emotions. She blamed Button for that, as she blamed him for much of the suffering she felt these days.

Luna might be a stranger, but ponies saw kindness considerably above the importance of personal space. So she reached out and held her. "You are forgiven. Go with no burdens on your spirit."

She did. Eventually Sweetie returned to her hooves and made her way through another set of double doors, into the room where the worldgate waited. Unlike Normandy, the Canterlot gate used living unicorns instead of complex machines. Sweetie Belle led the way onto a ramp of black stone leading to a metal platform. Four unicorns in silvery uniforms stood stoic on the edges of the platform, as though they neither recognized nor cared about who their passengers were. Sweetie Belle traced the thaumaturgical diagrams beneath her hooves as she waited, trying and failing to understand them. Magic churned around them, sparked into furious life, and she stepped through the infinite gulf to Earth.

* * *

“That was probably the worst two days ever.” Scootaloo dragged herself down the gangplank, wings drooping. “Didn’t you say it was gonna be easier the second time?”

The android walked behind them with rhythmic, unfeeling steps. “It seems my assertion was in error; ponies are less able to adapt to magical deprivation than my projections.”

“Robots. Truth was a way better AI than you are.”

“We don’t all think that.” Sweetie Belle might be as tired from their two days in space as Scootaloo, but she tried to keep a positive attitude. It was far easier to get excited about something when they were close to their destination.

Voices clamored all around them in the spaceport, shouts and hooves on concrete and the rumbling of machinery. The musk of living bodies mingled with the choking fumes of petroleum, and harsh fluorescent bathed everything in crisp white.

“Is she in here somewhere?” Apple Bloom stood up as tall as she could, struggling to see over all the human shoulders and into the crowd. “She knew where we were gonna be landin’, right?”

“She might be. Maybe if you wander around long enough you’ll stumble into her by accident.”

They all turned to face the speaker, who emerged from the crowd of gray clothes like an island from the sea, bathed in the light of dawn.

It was her; utterly unchanged from their last meeting. Her mane was styled, and her face glowed with its usual enthusiasm. A tan bag hovered in the air beside her, and the smell of fresh pastries radiated slowly from inside. Without prompting she offered them to her friends, even the shimmer of her magic unchanged by the years.

Her offer was ignored in favor of a group hug that crushed the wind from her and made her drop the pastries onto the concrete. Back then it had seemed as though things were too good to be true. And it had been, but Chance hadn't said so then. She waited to share that news until the day was nearly over, and they had wandered out of the burgeoning city of Alajuela and into the "reclamation area" where old buildings still rotted and none of the tourists wandered. In the wreckage of the old city were thousands of tents, most of which housed ponies that were part of the ever-expanding Earth Ecological Reconstruction Project. As the project would eventually travel over the entire world, permanent structures made little sense, and it did not surprise Sweetie Belle even a little that Chance would want to live near these ponies.

The tent she took them to was modest so far as tents went, and from the look of it had previously served as refugee housing in the Crystal Empire during the war. Like all of them, a little Equestrian flag hung from one of the support poles, and the soft glow of electric lights came from inside. There was no climate control, but here in the tropics it was not needed. If anything, an occasional cool breeze would be a welcome relief.

There was not a pony waiting inside, though, but a tiny human boy wearing gray and apparently with numerous implants. He sat in a little chair, thoroughly engrossed by a tiny electronic video game that even Sweetie Belle thought looked a bit primitive. He looked up as they came in, expression emotionless. "Oh. It's you." He didn't stand up, though he did try at a smile. There was something painfully familiar about that voice, though Sweetie Belle hadn't been able to place it right then. "I suppose she finally thought it was time to introduce you. Nevermind about old friends."

Scootaloo was the first to respond, crowding into the tight space to stand beside one of the bunks. "No way; I've never seen you in my life!"

"I was considerably squarer when we last spoke." He folded the little game closed with one hand and set it in his lap. "Also, less mobile. Humans didn't want us to be able to move around and take over the world. Guess that horse left the gate now, eh?" He seemed to be waiting for a smile, but when none came, he only sighed. "Your whole world is made of horse puns and yet you fail to appreciate it when somepony uses one for your benefit. Maybe more a metaphor than a pun-"

"I think they get it." Chance was last into the tent, zipping it closed behind her. Sweetie turned to ask who she had brought them to spend the night with (and why he had such an awful sense of humor), but the question died half-formed and she only managed a strangled squeak.

Chance wasn't a pony anymore. She had been transformed into the child Twilight Sparkle had described when she had spoke about her, a wiry little wisp with glowing white hair and skin more tanned than pale from all the equatorial sunlight. Her feet were bare, and the dress she wore probably had more holes than the designers had intended. With the hair matted and dirt on her bare feet, she looked more pathetic than anything else.

Humans might have strange, squashed faces, but apparently there was something universally "childlike" that crossed between species. Looking at the girl made Sweetie Belle think of a foal that had just dropped its ice cream, or a kitten struggling to stand on four paws. Her other friends took a little longer to figure out what they were looking at, though even Scootaloo seemed to pick things up within a few seconds. Twilight had told them to expect this, but then that expectation had apparently been wrong and none had bothered to ask.

"This is Truth." The girl sounded much the same, save perhaps she was half an octave higher. If anything, she sounded like she had when they had first met as fillies, if not even younger. "Obviously things are different than they used to be; now he's my brother."

"I believe the consensus was that I'm the older brother," he explained, voice as flat as ever. Now that she knew who she was speaking with, Sweetie Belle recognized the sound of his voice from their many, many conversations. "Since I make wiser decisions and it was my intellect that made Earth's salvation possible. Not to mention all the plans we have for the future. She would be hopelessly lost without me."

"Somepony sure thinks highly of himself." Scootaloo rolled her eyes, though all the hostility was gone. Whatever else might be said, there could be no disputing Truth's identity. His sardonic superiority seemed only increased with his newly acquired body.

"So you ain't really a pony no more?" Apple Bloom asked, her expression serious. "I mean, we'd heard an' all, but..."

Chance shook her head. "You heard right. It was just a spell. An expensive, difficult spell... But that doesn't mean I couldn't keep using it while you're here! If you don't want to be friends with me now that I'm not a pony..." Unlike Truth, the little girl was no less expressive about her emotions than she had ever been as a pony, and Sweetie could already see the beginning of tears.

They answered universally, with another bone-breaking hug. In that moment, Sweetie Belle felt a little better. She might not have the power to put things back to the way they had been, but she could still be a good friend in the present. Maybe that was enough.

* * *

Sweetie and Button slept for most of the ride to L2, which for Sweetie was a welcome relief. Gone were the days where space travel was agony for ponies severed utterly from magic; the shuttle Chance sent had its own magical field. It felt sterile, but that was a massive improvement from her first visit to Earth. There was nopony else on the shuttle with them, except for a different but nearly identical-looking Gemini unit to the one that had escorted her from Ponyville.

Even with some fairly significant innovations in engine technology, the flight took roughly twelve hours, and she relished every blissful second. Unlike every other shuttle she had flown in, this one had artificial gravity along with the magic. She didn't even ask why such luxurious measures had been taken for her ride out; she didn't care. She just slept in the corner between two seats with the warmth of her mate nearby.

The next voice she heard belonged to the android, along with the pressure of a hoof gently shaking her awake. "We're about an hour from Avalon drydock. I thought you might appreciate the time to use the facilities before we arrive."

"F-facilities?" Sweetie Belle groaned and stretched, pulling away from the still-sleeping Button. His hooves reached vainly at the air for a few seconds before returning to peaceful silence. She yawned and took several shaky steps before she finally felt secure on her hooves. "Shuttles don't have facilities. Just a nasty head and a sink that barely trickles freezing water."

They walked away from Button, out of the passenger cabin and into a surprisingly spacious kitchen area of sorts. She must've been exhausted when she arrived, because she didn't remember anything like this. "This isn't an ordinary shuttle." Gemini sounded far more alive than she had in her early days. She seemed as capable of emotion as anypony else. Her pride sounded real enough. "This is part of your ship, the Captain's Yacht."

"She can handle landings in atmosphere quite well, as you saw when we picked you up. She's also built for prolonged missions; up to three months." She gestured to a doorway Sweetie vaguely recognized as an elevator. "Go up one floor, past the bedroom, and the showers are on the right. I have a fresh uniform waiting next to the towels, if you care about looking good for the cameras."

"There's a bedroom, and you let us sleep on benches?"

"I tried to tell you; but you seemed too tired to care. It didn't seem right to risk waking you with as tired as you were."

She was too excited to be upset, so she didn't even bother arguing as she passed Gemini on the way to the elevator. About a half hour later, she woke Button and set about wandering the shuttle. A good shower and crisp gray uniform were enough to feel like a living mare again, and with the rest of her time aboard she set about exploring every room and access-shaft. With as sick as she sometimes felt, she intended to exploit her mobility as long as she had it.

Gemini noticed what she was doing and offered her the tour, but Sweetie refused. Once she had learned she was aboard the Yacht, she didn't need help finding her way around. After all, she had helped design it. Eventually she found her way to the helm, which was protected by a locked door and a security scanner. She presented her hoof, and waited patiently as the scanner examined her implants. There was a chime, and the door slid open.

Another version of Gemini was at the helm, her hooves raised as though she were actually using the holofield controls in front of her. Sweetie thought it more likely that she had heard the beeping sound and had changed the way she sat so that she would look like she was actually doing anything instead of just resting here in case the autopilot failed. "Can we see it yet?"

Every one of these androids had exactly the same voice, and this one was no exception. Not that Sweetie Belle could get past how disconcerting it could be to leave a room and walk into another one with the exact same pony waiting in it, who picked up their conversation as though there had been no delay. "Soon. You could get a better view from the observation deck; there's actual windows up there."

"I know." Sweetie Belle moved closer, reaching up to the controls. She didn't actually switch anything, just move her hoof close enough that they all switched on. She willed the scanners to life, every one she could find. "I didn't want to look at it. I wanted to look at it from all the sensors. I've already seen the designs."

"That may be true, but it's not really fair to compare the designs with the effect of seeing something beautiful in person. At least, that's what I have come to understand about organics. I don't know that I can experience beauty personally. If I was the sort of pony who could appreciate such things, I imagine seeing the ship from outside would be one of them."

There were no windows in the helm, nor was it anywhere even near the front of the yacht. The entire front of the small room was a single curved display. It had been blank as she walked in, but at Gemini's prompting it filled in with the image of a starfield, stretching away in three dimensions. Projected there like a model was the Avalon Spacedock, like the ribcage of a great animal made from metal dragged through space by the combined gravity of the earth and the moon. Hundreds of little lights flickered, ambers and greens and blues from windows all over. A thousand humans and ponies lived on the massive station, which dwarfed even capital-class vessels like the Aegis.

Sweetie Belle moved right up to the back of the chair, squinting down at the little projection as it grew with their approach. She felt no shame in admitting she agreed with Gemini's assessment; it was a beautiful ship.

The basic design was a sloping wedge, with downward curved fins on the "bottom", the whole ship swept back even as it grew thicker at the rear. Set into the dull metal was a transparent dome as large as several Carousel Boutiques. Even from this distance she could see the green of living plants within, and the glow of simulated sunlight. It was like looking at a tiny floating planet within the ship, which was remarkably close to the truth. No doubt Chance had left the metal shielding retracted just to show it off.

As they approached, Sweetie Belle could make out the ship's name, glowing brilliantly on both sides like a rainbow flickering cutie mark. The "Effulgent Crusade" was large enough to be classed as a capital ship, though it had been built to house a crew no larger than twenty for far longer than any capital-class vessel humans had built before.

"Woah." Button's voice came from somewhere behind her, and she turned to see him squeezing into the cramped space, pressing himself as close as he could to the screen. Unlike Sweetie Belle, he knew little of the actual details of what the ship was like and how it worked. Not that he didn't know five times as much about the entertainment systems aboard. "That's humongous! Maybe... the most humongous thing ever!"

She smiled in spite of herself. Truth and Second Chance had done all the hard work to make this dream a reality, in a fraction of the time it might've taken similar purely biological initiatives. Yet Sweetie felt a profound sense of ownership of this vessel. Several aspects of its design were her own invention, or the idea of her other friends. The Crusade was her ship. "2.15 kilometers long, 350,000 tons, with a range of... of..."

"800 light years," Gemini supplied. "But that's just on paper. I wouldn't make a single trip longer than a quarter of that distance if I were you. If you break down, you can forget about a rescue in your lifetimes or the lifetime of your ship. Not that I'm trying to undercut the self-repair systems. I'm told it's rude to criticize family, even if she only has 13% of my present processing capacity. Don't tell her I said that."

Sweetie Belle waited to see if Button was going to figure out the temporal consequences of what Gemini had just told them. She had explained at least a dozen times they probably weren't ever coming back to Equestria, yet he had reacted so casually she still wasn't entirely sure he understood.

Gemini kept right on going no matter how lost in her own thoughts Sweetie Belle was. "Too bad you won't be here when we build the first Colony Ship. 50,000 passengers, all in segments you can break apart and turn into structures when you land. We're already contracted to build eighty of them over the next three centuries."

They were close enough now that the superstructure of the spacedock rose all around them and the ship filled the entire display. Sweetie Belle looked down and away from the opening docking bay, eyes wide with shock. "You're planning for things three hundred years away?"

Gemini laughed. It wasn't something she did often, and when she did, the sound came as something awkward and strange. It was like listening to a recording of someone laughing at something inappropriate, inopportunely timed and going on for far too long. She also stopped abruptly. "My creators have projections that go thousands of years, with daily revisions to keep track of innovation." The ship rumbled and shook as it slid safely into place. Several metallic grinding noises came from all around them, as supports locked them into place. "You'll have to ask Chance about it; projecting the distant future is not part of my function."

It was hard to say if she would; the thought was another of the many painful reminders that the friend she had made and kept for all those years had died on Earth. Another had returned in her place, with all the same memories and personality, but with cognitive abilities too terrible to think about.

At least the rest of her friends were waiting for her.

* * *

Servos hummed quietly as the ramp descended in front of her, and her composite horseshoes clicked faintly with every step. The docking bay was large enough for two vessels the size of the Yacht, but the neighboring spot was occupied only by a tiny shuttle, and it made the room seem strangely empty. With the airlock closed, a set of double doors was already opening on the far side of the room, and several figures emerged, one flying and two walking.

They all wore the gray uniforms of Avalon Fabrication, though two wore the pony-shaped vests and one a full body jumpsuit and a matching cap. The gravity felt ordinary, yet Scootaloo crossed the distance without any sign of a struggle in her flight. Corrective surgery and a glittering silvery implant on both wings had eliminated any weakness in her flying. Apple Bloom rolled her eyes, content to keep pace with the human figure on her right. It was her she was most eager and afraid to see; it had been over a year since the last time they had met in person; she had sat in an interview with Apple Bloom and Scootaloo only three days ago.

"It's about time you got here!" Scootaloo landed with a thud only inches in front of her, flaring her wings into a sudden and impressive braking maneuver. "She wouldn't let us near any of the cool spots until you got here! Do you have any idea how boring it is to run preflight checks over and over for days?"

"Wouldn't like my job then," came Gemini's voice from behind her, flat and unamused. "I couldn't tell you how many times ponies ask me the same questions."

Sweetie Belle ignored that, and slid past Scootaloo down the ramp. "Well at least somepony was being thoughtful. Just because you're the captain doesn't mean I'm any less excited."

She never learned what Scootaloo might've said to that, because that was the point Apple Bloom reached the bottom of the platform. "That's exactly right, and we're just so darn excited to see you made it out here safe! Isn't that right, Chance?"

Beside her stood her friend, once pony, twice human, and once dead. She was taller than Apple Bloom beside her, though the difference was slight. She hadn't changed much in the decade since the end of the war, save that her hair had grown so long that it touched the floor when it wasn't up in one of her intricate braids. In most ways she just looked like an ordinary human child; her skin pale from long hours in space and her eyes as gray as they had ever been as a pony.

Only her hair was overtly synthetic, and even then only some of it, long clear strands that glowed and flickered with internal light. Scootaloo had joked that in the dark all the flickering made her look like her head was on fire. To Sweetie Belle it seemed far more like the inside of a computer than fire, which was far closer to the truth. "If you had put as much time into designing her as Sweetie has, I wouldn't have insisted you wait." Of every aspect of her friend, only her voice sounded the same as it ever had.

"Well, they're here now!" Scootaloo didn't bother climbing past her, instead she glided the distance in one smooth sweep. "Let's visit the bridge first!"

"Only if Sweetie Belle feels up to it. You don't launch for another six hours, so if she would prefer to settle into her quarters for a few hours, we can wait for her."

All eyes turned to her, and even Apple Bloom couldn't hide how eager she was for her to give the right answer. So she yawned as exaggeratedly as she could, swaying with sudden weakness she didn't really feel.

Button ruined it. "We slept the whole way here; you can't be tired already!"

She glared her most skathing glare, then pointedly turned away from him. "I wouldn't mind the tour. Do you mind bringing our stuff to our quarters for us, Gemini?"

"Of course not. Should I not see you again before I depart, it was a pleasure." And then to Button. "And you as well, even if you never made for a particularly challenging opponent in any game."

"Hey!"

Walking aboard the Crusade was nothing like moving about in a shuttle or one of the bunkers of Earth. The halls were built to the proportions of pony structures, wide enough for two to walk abreast and with ceilings low enough not to feel overly large. The ship was five floors in all, with a single central hallway running from stem to stern on each of these levels. Of all the space aboard, Sweetie knew that just under a third was actually meant to be lived and worked in.

The bridge was first on their list of destinations, a large room with screens on every wall with such high resolution it looked like you were looking straight out into space. Naturally the bridge had been outfitted for three, though far from the cramped quarters on the Yacht's helm there was plenty of room for others.

The bridge was also where they met the first of many service androids. Sweetie Belle had worked almost not at all on those aspects of the ship, leaving them to Chance and Apple Bloom, so she was surprised to see a human figure and a pony one polishing one of the consoles with a cloth and a little spray bottle.

The android was perhaps a head taller than Chance, and unlike the Gemini ponies slightly more care seemed to have been taken to make her appear alive. There were still obvious slots and openings at her joints, but her body was made of a fleshy-looking rubber instead of plain plastic. She even wore clothing, a simpler version of the jumpsuit Chance wore with block letters spelling "CUSTODIAL" on both sides.

It wasn't as though she stayed long. No sooner did the door open than she was hurrying from the room using a side-exit, and Sweetie Belle barely got a glance in.

She waited patiently for Chance to explain several of the details they would need to operate the helm, eyes on the sealed doorway the android had taken in her flight. "Why a human android?" she asked, when she could contain her curiosity no longer. Her friend hadn't finished explaining whatever she had been explaining, but Sweetie hadn't been listening anyway. She hadn't heard over the sound of her own curiosity.

To her surprise, Apple Bloom was the one to answer. "If ya'll knew how hard it was to do complex technical things with one tool and yer mouth, you wouldn't ask such a darn silly question."

"But I thought we had gauntlets for that!" Button held up his own right foreleg, the pastern wrapped in the metallic ring of a Precision Thaumaturgical Emitter Apparatus, a single blue LED flickering in its inactive mode.

She turned to him. "You need a spirit for that to work, and a magic field of your own." She returned her attention to Apple Bloom. "You figured field emitters didn't make as much sense as fingers."

"Way too much power for such a small android, and emitters take crystals only Equestria's got."

Chance grinned ruefully. "If it makes you feel better, the service androids designed to interact with you are ponies, though they're a later generation than the ones you're used to in Equestria." She shrugged. "I figured if they were going to be your only company for years at a time they might at least look more like they were alive. And of course, the central computer is still learning your preferences. If you tell her you prefer only to ever interact with pony androids, I'm sure it would be trivial for her to arrange the maintenance schedule accordingly."

Why did Chance suddenly sound so upset? "We should go and see her now, I guess. I hope you like her; she's easily the most advanced component aboard." Chance led the way to the door, which slid open automatically, and down the hall towards the elevator.

"Really?" Scootaloo sounded relieved to be talking about anything other than the shape of the robots, a discussion she had seemed not to listen to for even a few seconds. "Even with the huge engines, or those really awesome weapons you showed us? Or the gravity spells, or the fabricators..."

The elevator doors slid open smoothly, and without apparent input from Chance they shot downward through the ship. "Yes, even with all those things. Your central computer is the first of her kind; a prototype of the next generation of artificial intelligence. Truth and I plan on sending each colony ship with one such intelligence to satisfy the entire planet's computing needs for the first few generations. Those might have more power, and they might be more versatile, but this one will always be special."

Chance didn't explain then what she meant, but Sweetie Belle had no doubt she would learn soon enough.

* * *

The maintenance level was far less attractive than the upper floors, with dull metal instead of shiny plates and rougher edges on everything. There were no windows here either; structural weaknesses had no place in the parts of the ship concerned only with the practical. A dozen stasis pods sat empty along the way, with little blue lights glowing within the gel. One of them was waiting for her, though not nearly as soon as for the rest of her friends. The pregnant could not be frozen anymore than a newborn foal could be.

The central computer was protected by two sets of blast doors, both of which had scanners one of them had to wave a hoof through, with both doors never allowed to be open at the same time and some powerful sensors in the middle section. None gave them any trouble; the doors opened as quickly as any others on the ship.

The central computer core was smaller than Sweetie Belle had expected, and was only about the size of the bridge. The room was round and sloped slightly downward, with a sphere in the very center of the room made of clear composite about three meters in diameter, half full of glowing silver fluid. Only as she drew closer did she realize she was not looking at a liquid at all, but something like sand.

"I don't get it." Scootaloo looked around the room, as though she were expecting something that wasn't there. "Where's the computer?"

The little human girl didn't answer, but the computer did. The sea of silver began to ripple, little tendrils twisting themselves together into a head and shoulders, as though someone were sitting submerged in a sphere of mercury. "Hello Scootaloo!" The synthesized voice sounded like it was actually coming from inside the sphere, muffled by whatever thick material it was made from. "I'm in here!" She reached out, an arm emerging briefly from the silvery solution to tap on the side with simulated fingers.

Chance had been incredibly vague on the details of the computer that would run the ship, with the plans only saying it had "comparable power draw and processing power to an OMICRON Core". Sweetie Belle could see why.

Scootaloo jumped as the medium began to move, though she seemed to relax quick enough, moving closer to the glass to watch. They all did, except for Chance herself, who stood silent near the door. "Are you trying to be creepy? Cuz you're being creepy."

"I'm sorry, I didn't mean to. To be honest, I'm still getting used to the hardware. Maybe it would be easier..." The shape lost cohesion, splashing down into the sparkling metallic sea. A little door opened in the wall, plates sliding back into place almost the instant they had been moved. From within came an android, though like the human service-bots it looked much closer to a living pony than any of Gemini's units. She was green, with a mane of aquamarine and a little ship as her cutie mark. The eyes looked closer to alive too, in a bright blue that matched her mane and tail. "...if I communicate with you this way!" She stopped a pace or so away, grinning. "Familiarity bias." She stood at attention, then gave Scootaloo a salute. "Central computer, reporting for duty!"

Scootaloo could care less about computing technology, but even she seemed to connect the appearance of the android to a similar sort of hive-mind intelligence she had seen in the Gemini units. It was no stretch for all of them to deduce they were currently talking to the being within the glass, which had started controlling an android so as to make them feel more comfortable.

"What... are you?" Apple Bloom asked. She didn't sound quite so repulsed as Scootaloo had seemed, more curious. Apple Bloom knew far less about computing than about more mechanical processes, but that didn't mean she was disinterested in the subject. "And why are you in a glass ball?"

"Both good questions!" She relaxed. "I mean, they sound like good questions. I'd be curious if I didn't already know. I am a third-generation OMICRON neural network processor, the first of my kind and the only to be formed using a human memory template instead of systemic simulation. My processing power is 1.51 yottaflops for deterministic and 1.04 petaflops for nondeterministic problems." She reached out, tapping the glass with a hoof. "The sphere is filled with nonreactive gas, meant to facilitate heat transfer and prolong my lifespan."

"Do you have a name?" Sweetie asked, trying to look as polite as possible. After all, this was the pony that was going to run their ship. Without her, nothing they wanted to do was possible. It wasn't as if four ponies could maintain a capital-class exploration vessel by themselves. Besides, just because the computer had looked a little strange in the sphere didn't mean she wasn't a really nice program.

"I never had one of my own, though the template I was based on had one. As we are going to be together for the operational lifespan of this ship, I was hoping you ponies might be willing to give me one. When I've earned it, I mean. On my own. For now, you can just call me 'central computer,' or even just 'Crusade,' since I'm as much this ship as I am an exotic-matter nanoswarm processor." She giggled, rubbing her belly with one hoof. "If you think about it, you ponies are inside me right now! I'm like a big evil dragon, ate the whole village... though I guess we're gonna go way further than any dragon ever did."

Button, silent until then, grinned and wrapped a hoof briefly around the android's shoulder. "I like you! Do you play video games?"

"If I didn't, neither would you!" She wrapped a mechanical leg around Button briefly, before pushing away from him and looking suddenly uncomfortable. "I mean, if she didn't." She gestured across the room, where the doors were already shutting on Chance's retreating form. "Sorry. It's a little confusing sometimes. Better to have memories that aren't mine than none at all, right? Not that we won't make some. I hope we make some! And maybe some history while we're at it."

Sweetie Belle didn't stay behind to listen to the increasingly-familiar computer as it spoke, because by then she had turned and retreated, following Chance and leaving her friends to the AI.

* * *

By the time Sweetie Belle made it to the hall, Chance had already vanished. It didn't matter, she knew exactly where to find her. She knew which halls to take and which side-elevator which would lead her to where her friend had probably gone. Sweetie Belle left the lower decks and traveled to the main floor, trotting just slowly enough that she was fairly sure she wouldn't catch Chance up.

Besides, it wasn't as though she didn't want to see that part of the ship herself. Glass doors opened into the Gravitational Terrarium, and the sterile smell of recycled air was replaced with fresh grass and flowers. The walkway to the terrarium was transparent metal, and without railing looked a little like a sidewalk made of air that led all the way to a tiny planet floating in the air. The curve was extremely disorienting, the way the grass and flowers were quite clearly responding to a different gravity than her own. The whole sphere was probably about 100 meters in diameter, though Sweetie knew most of it was hollow and filled with the extensive machinery that made this little miracle possible.

Even from the platform she could see a human silhouette sitting beside the pond. With a whir, the projection systems switched on, and the night blackness above them was replaced with the image of a sky. It might've been pretty, except that walking along the walkway made it seem like she was floating sideways above the miniature planet. Biting back the beginnings of nausea, Sweetie Belle made it to the edge of the platform, in the strange gravitational eddie where she drifted without moving "down" towards either the path or the terrarium. She pushed off the platform, drifting several feet before she made it out of the eddie and dropped with a whimper to the ground.

"That's gonna take some getting used to." Sweetie Belle groaned, then struggled to her hooves and looked around. With the platform behind her, it was hard to tell at a glance that she wasn't standing on Equestria. The sky looked real enough, though with concentrated effort she could trace the cracks in the structural panels. Not to mention the curve of the ground. An object this size wouldn't have nearly enough gravity to keep itself together, let alone to stay round.

With the artificial sky came an artificial breeze and the recorded sounds of animals. Taken together, the simulation was almost good enough to make her feel like she was back on Equestria. It wouldn't be so bad to raise foals here. Just because they might grow up to spend their lives in space didn't mean they couldn't know all the joys of a planetbound life.

Chance had her back to her, and either didn't hear or didn't care enough to turn around. But then she surprised Sweetie Belle by speaking quietly, just loud enough for her to hear and before she went about the loud business of sitting down. So maybe she was listening after all. "I wish I could come."

"You could. If it would mean letting you come, we could leave the rift-field-generators off and stick to this universe. Or we could send the Yacht through to explore the planets on that side, while the Crusade stayed here. Scootaloo would agree in a second if you were coming with us."

Chance didn't seem to mind as Sweetie Belle sat down beside her. It was exactly the sort of physical contact that was common for ponies but more unusual for humans. Or was it just males that didn't like physical contact? It was hard to keep all that human stuff straight sometimes.

"She would," Chance agreed. "But that's not why I can't come." She gestured up into the sky, and the projection of a blue sky faded away. Following Chance's hand, Sweetie Bell could see the distant reflection of Earth. Maybe that was why she had picked this spot. "That planet's my responsibility now, Sweetie Belle. If I go, who's gonna stay here to make sure what already happened once doesn't happen again?"

"Truth? He's on earth right now, isn't he? He's just as smart as you are... Can't he handle it?"

Chance didn't answer for a long time. As with many of her answers lately, at first it didn't even seem like she was responding to the question Sweetie Belle had asked. "It's been a decade since the war ended and all the radiation was gone. Based on our heuristics, we think that sixty percent of humans on Earth still live about the same way they have been, underground. The planet's ecology was decimated, and you can't just repair that overnight."

"Our lowest projections for the time it's going to take to get the surface supporting large animals again is at least 400 years. It might be twenty thousand years before we start seeing large coral reefs again, assuming the seeding projects work. Even if everything works, it might be half a million years before we have anything like the biodiversity we used to. We've got a planet covered in the rusting hulks of old cities, and those are gonna have to go."

"You can't do all that!" Sweetie Belle's horn glowed, and with her magic she forced Chance to look down, away from the planet. "You're just one person! It's not like you're a princess; even if you're the smartest ones they have, that doesn't mean they're going to listen to you. Don't humans have presidents and kings already? Let them handle it!"

Again Chance was quiet. "We're working on it. The way Truth has it figured out, we'll be the sole rulers of Earth in... six-hundred and thirty-four years. Don't even ask where the four came from, cuz' I didn't understand either." She sighed. "It's the only way we can be sure there aren't ever any despots or wars ever again, only way we can make sure the planet gets fixed.

Sweetie Belle gasped, her body freezing with sudden fear. "Y-you're gonna try to take over? Like... Like King Sombra? Enslave everypony?"

"No way!" Chance laughed bitterly. "It we wanted to be despots, we could do it way sooner. The Federation relies on OMICRON Cores to support their infrastructure, and who do you think they're gonna side with? Can't shoot us down when we guide the rockets. And the Tower... They're just machines. Hacking one of them is computationally trivial when you're us." She seemed to realize then how frightened Sweetie Belle was, because she sounded much more sensitive from that point on. "We're not going to fight anypony, we're not gonna lie, and we're not going to make any slaves. How are we any better than what's happened so far if we use war to make people stop fighting?"

"So... How?"

"Same way Celestia and Luna did; patiently. It's a time consuming process. Lots of managing public image and big accomplishments and elections and stuff. The only real problem is how to end up in charge of the Federation and the Tower at the same time." She smiled. "There's two of us, though. Truth has already started; he's living with the Tower full time, that's why he couldn't be here."

"Oh." She relaxed. "I guess that makes sense. You can't rule the world if you go with us."

Chance shook her head vigorously, little glowing strands of hair passing through the air in front of Sweetie's eyes. She smelled the same way the ship did, like new plastic and sterile air. "I'd rather be with you. But..." She sniffed. "If I go, I watch you die. If you go without me, you live forever."

She blinked. Of all the reasons she had imagined Chance might have for not coming, that had not been on the list. "W-what?"

"Your first destination is... Gliese 667 Cc. 23.6 light years. In a few hours, this ship starts accelerating. Three weeks from now, you're at your cruising speed. Two weeks pass, and you start to decelerate. Two months in all, and you're orbiting another planet. Almost a quarter century has gone by. Drop a probe, do some surveys, and you're on your way to... HD 40307 g. Another half century goes by. Probably you keep going. But even if you don't, nearly a hundred years go by before you make it back. It's been maybe six months for you. You're still pregnant, and Button still squeaks when he talks."

She turned, putting her hands firmly on Sweetie Belle's shoulders. "You're still you, you see? Even if you crank up those thrusters and fly somewhere beyond distant, so far hundreds of years go by everywhere else, go somewhere so far away my sister's dead along with everypony else who isn't digital or a princess..." She burst into tears, wrapping both arms around Sweetie Belle's neck. She did her best to return the embrace.

She pulled apart, wiping her eyes on the back of her sleeve. "I worked so hard to get this done even though Truth kept saying there were a thousand things more important. I got this done because it's not me coming with you, it's you coming with me. Into the future. Maybe, just maybe, you'll go far enough that we'll have the whole death thing figured out, and you won't have to be a robot to live forever."

"The computer..." She tapped the side of her head. "I made her using my memories, from before the war started. It's easier to be selective when your brain is mostly a machine." She sniffed. "I hope... Since I can't come with you, she'll make for a good replacement."

It was Sweetie's turn to hug her. "Not in a million years." She couldn't help but be careful with the thin human body, still afraid that too much force might hurt her. Stupid things were so thin and fragile-looking! "I'm sure she's great Chance, but we don't want a replacement. Maybe centuries aren't about to go by for us, but we'll miss you too. I don't think it's fair you and Truth think you have to keep the whole planet working... But I'm sure you'll do a great job."

She broke apart, and rose to her hooves. "We'll be back."

Second Chance rose to her feet beside her, brushing off her jumpsuit with a few waves of her hands. "I'll be with you every parsec." She gestured vaguely behind them, towards the platform. "The central computer runs directly to the ship's Ansible." She tapped her chest with two fingers. "Like Truth and I. If you're not moving at relativistic speeds, we're practically the same person. When you're talking to her, you're talking to me... if I'd been an AI from the beginning, and not a lonely green filly."

"That's cheating." Sweetie Belle started walking towards the walkway that led out of the Gravitational Terrarium. Chance followed, walking closer than she had since her transformation. "Being in two places at once. It's not fair."

Chance echoed her smile. "It was Truth's idea, you can tell him that next time you see him. It's a great solution for a computer. If you need to do two things at once, just run two programs. Copy the files and paste..." she trailed off. "Go easy on her, okay? I've never been fully synthetic before until I made her."

"I think we can handle that. We were always nice to Truth."

Her human friend helped her cross the gravitational threshold back onto the walkway, using an amazingly-precise teleport to move them from the grass to the metal without conserving their orientation. "Oh. Wanna know if you're having a colt or a filly?"

Sweetie gasped. "Y-you... You can figure that out already?"

Chance laughed. "You're plugged into the ship's medical scanners. You think the cutting down your morning sickness is the only thing that the Nanophage does?" She was silent all the way to the door, then muttered, "Pip talked about foals. How's he doing? I wasn't too surprised he didn't wanna leave Equestria..."

She didn't want to answer, but Apple Bloom had taught her about the importance of honesty more times than she could count. "I think... I think he would've come if you did."

"Oh." Then a little quieter, "Wish I remembered why stallions used to be so interesting." She ran one hand through Sweetie's mane as they walked, fingers cool and movement gentle. It felt good.

It was good to be back on lighter subjects. "You'll remember eventually. You... are going to get older, right?"

Chance nodded. "Eventually. Part of our projections for being elected was accounting for how long it's going to take not to look pathetic."

The rest of her friends were waiting in the hall. Chance smiled again, and this time Sweetie Belle could tell that it was genuine. Luna had made a good point. Now Sweetie Belle wasn't the only one who wouldn't have to live through the next few centuries crushed by their pain.

* * *

Two planets watched as navigational thrusters maneuvered the Effulgent Crusade free of its moorings and out into inter-system space. There was no sound as brilliant blue began to glow from behind it. Slowly, painfully slowly, the huge ship began to move. At first it looked as though it was barely moving at all, that the main engines were pale and weak compared to the navigational thrusters. Slowly it began to accelerate, growing faster and faster as the seconds passed until it passed the probe-cameras and continued on towards mars.

A few hours later it zoomed past the red planet far too quickly for human eyes to easily see, though the orbital station and plenty of the habitation domes caught blurry photos as it went. There was no temporal distortion, and Second Chance could still freely access any of the ship's systems she wanted. Through the eyes of the bridge camera she watched as her closest friends in two whole worlds sat in their chairs and talked about their plans for the two-month voyage. She listened to their voices, knowing that soon she would have to wait years for minutes of information.

And that was okay. She had succeeded. Not just at sending someone to get the information on where humans and ponies ought to build their colonies in a few generations. Automated probes could've done that, and indeed already were. Accomplishing this mission was the beginning of the prestige she would eventually need to be elected president when she was old enough, but she didn't really care about that either.

Her friends were immortal now.

Author's Notes:

And thus ends the story began in My Little Apprentice, at least so far as an ending resolves the questions brought up in that story. Of course, there are plenty of new questions, which might see future instalments if people ever care enough. Probably one more short story about various events that take place in flight, and then about an eventual return to a far-distant Equestria, should such a return ever actually occur.

A huge thanks to Two_Bit and Zutcha for their help on this one, for slogging through a five-hour editing session with me last night to get this thing ready for posting, and in Zutcha's case, for doing the cover WHILE HELPING EDIT THE STORY! Pretty incredible work, considering what I gave him to work with. I did the actual writing before the holidays, so they were the ones who made the real sacrifice on the day after Christmas. Super props to those guys.

Now for a few weeks off. I'm going to take a well-deserved break, make a few minor corrections to MLA, but otherwise just relax. Then back to writing for MLA: Apogee sometime in January.

To you, fair reader, who has been with me all the way since My Little Apprentice, thank you! It has been quite the adventure. I look forward to sharing more with you in the months to come.

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