Twilight restarted her main routines that had been left on standby while her subroutines navigated the tangled web of slipspace. Her processor accelerated, taking in the ship's surroundings as it fell back into real space. She had navigated with the best precision ponykind's understanding of slipspace could muster, right into Equestria's orbit, arriving only around twenty kilometres from the nearest space elevator. Perfect, as always.
She flooded her processes through the ship, testing each system from the auto-cannons that served as point defense, to the toilet facilities in the barracks. Everything was intact, even the ailing fusion reactor had decreased its heat levels by twenty percent during the journey. It would be easy to fix upon docking, a day or two at most; though she was certain the Admiral's flagship would gain priority, even if protocol dictated otherwise.
One of her processes found the cryobay, housing the organic crew of the ship. She pinged each tube to thaw them, and watched as the ponies climbed, stumbled and clambered their way out. Thankfully, she had the time to enact a, "slow defrost," as the crew called it, unfreezing the ponies from their suspended animation too quickly had negative consequences, sometimes, even death. Finally, with most of the crew mobile and systems fully online, she extended a hoofshake message to the space elevator's station AI and guided the ship carefully into position once she received the response.
The umbilical tube clamped onto the main hangar door of the ship and equalised the pressure between both ship and station. A small swarm of work ponies, all earth type with jet-packs and breather-suits, coursed over the ship. She fed them schematics, as well as damage reports, and left them to it. It was odd that ponies be so diversified, yet only the simplest class was often utilised. The lack of air combined with the design of jetpacks actually made pegasi less useful in spacial maneuvers than earth ponies; advances in earth pony electromagical work helmets meant that technology was beginning to better an average unicorn's own magical dexterity. The work of Charles Darwhinny had always favoured the simple design rather than the complex, Twilight found it fascinating to study these scientific theories in action.
* * * * * *
The ice that coated Dash slowly melted away, cracking as twitching muscles broke it away. Signs of life returning to a pony deliberately held in a near-death state; there was nothing sleep-like about cryosleep.
Her consciousness slowly sped up, her heartbeat still a sluggish patter barely keeping pace. Like the way a pony would find their brain slowed on a cold winter's night, Dash found her mind almost completely nulled. She began to take in her surroundings, the ice now melted away and her body starting to warm. The lid of the cryotube hissed open as her brain finally gathered the memories necessary to remember her situation. She flexed muscles that ached and cramped and as she coughed up the mucus lining her throat. She remembered this important process, and she grimaced as she swallowed the mucus whole. Disgusting, and with an unpleasant taste to boot, but it contained the nutrients her body needed after two months in the icebox. Scientists had tried flavouring the substance, but it just ended up tasting like apple-flavoured bodily fluids, which, if anything, was worse.
She rubbed her achy legs with her hooves and slowly stretched them. Satisfied that they would hold her weight, she crawled out of the tube, shakily stepping onto the metal plates that made the cryobay's deck. The normally chilling titanium beneath her hooves actually felt warm, her metabolism fought to restart her body and create some warmth for itself. She shivered, feeling that her wings had squashed themselves up by instinct, holding in as much heat as possible.
A shimmering grey blanket was thrown over her, she saw Sharps at her side, shrouded in his own. He smiled as she constricted herself in the foil, trying to boost her body's warmth. Sharps wasn't shivering though, earth pony muscles were denser than of a normal pegasus, so it made sense he'd heat up quicker.
"I'd say you're just too cool right now, Rook." He shot her a trademark grin.
"C-can it, sh-Sharps, or I'll b-bust your fl-lank over this deck-ck." She pulled the blanket as tight as she could; talking through both her chattering teeth and the blanket was no easy task.
"At the very least, get some clothes on, Rook. We can hardly go on shore leave in our birthday coats! I mean, I need my fatigues at the least to get my hooves on those Equestria girls." He noticed Dash glaring from out of her silvery cowl. "Hey, what do you expect? I'm a Reach pony! Besides, I'm sure you'll get a nice filly too, being a war hero and all."
Dash sputtered, almost losing her grip on the blanket. "What? I'm no f-fillyfooler! Besides...you couldn't get a date with a mule, Sharps."
Sharps raised a hoof to his heart in mock drama. "So cutting, oh why? I have a family back home anyway, I was foaling around. Wife'd bust my rump if she found out! Hopefully we'll get Reach shore leave soon, gotta show you this bar I go to, it's-."
"Excuse me, buddy." An irritated pegasus in fluorescent overalls and a work helmet glared at the two. "Can you have your chat out of the way of the door? Some of us have a reactor to fix."
Sharps backed away, a hoof raised in a surrendering motion. "Ok, brony, geez" He turned to Dash who was laughing as the irritated techpony stomped off to the engineering deck. "Remind me to re-polarise that helmet of his, I'd like to see him levitate his own brain."
Dash got suited and booted, feeling the familiar, light presence of her fatigues around her body. It was vaguely form-fitting, although it offered no protection from attack, Dash still felt a little safer trooping the colours. The pair of ponies made their way to the docking tube, the Sarge staying behind for sleep, claiming "he had no reason to visit that political hayhole." He really was a true-blooded Outer Colonist, a frontier pony on ponykind's new-age frontiers. As a result, he didn't really see eye-to-eye with the metropolitan locals on Equestria, Dash imagined leaving him to sleep on the ship was probably a better option.
The lobby of the space elevator was a large, cylindrical room. The walls were a polished black metal, but it was the glass floor that gave a stunning view of Equestria and the mega-city of Canterlot that sprawled below them. The city that covered most of a continent. They were on the night-side of the planet, the surface was practically lambent with the light of civilisation. No matter how much of Dash's life was spent spacefaring, she still found it as beautiful as the first time she had flown into the stars. Her hooves clacked on the glass as she and Sharps made their way to an available personnel elevator. The car reached the top and they squeezed in amongst a small group of crewponies from another ship, the Undoubtable, that had arrived with the Everfree.
The journey from orbit to the surface was a lot calmer than Dash's ride to Harvest in her drop-pod. It took a minute or two, in total, to reach the surface; the car's windows allowing them a spectacular view as the orbitscrapers towered up from the ground around them, a forest of towers of varying heights reaching out towards the night sky. Each was glimmering with the light of life, a city that never had time to sleep. She could see the commuters as the car drew level with the more averagely-sized skyscrapers, little shuttles zipping through the air, and the monorail system that had no less than three trains roar across it in the short moment she could see it.
As they alighted with street-level, their view was blocked as the car drew to a stop inside the atrium. Both ponies stepped out of the car, suddenly aware of the gravity tugging on their bodies. Gravity neither had experienced for months since Harvest, even then they had been in cryo. A unicorn dressed in pristine fashion greeted them, levitating a pamphlet to each of their mouths for their perusal. Dash happily, and forcefully, let her know they weren't tourists and made her way to the very same monorail she had watched as she was halfway up in the sky. Sharps stopped as he noticed the destination on the entry sign.
"Ponyville? I thought we were getting some planet-capital R 'n' R here."
Dash stopped in her tracks, lightly scuffing the floor with a swinging foreleg. "Umm, just some business I gotta sort out. You go do whatever you want; I just need to...visit some old friends." Her most winning smile didn't exactly throw Sharps off the trail, but, he let her get away with it. She watched as Sharps joined the other crewponies on the train to the nightclub district. She boarded the monorail, getting a free pass since she was a servicepony. At least the driver wasn't another Innie sympathiser, she felt incredibly out of place amongst the civilian populace. Her tightly cut mane and non-existent tail would have been odd, never mind the fatigues that telegraphed her military role, not exactly in a subtle way either.
Still, she stared out of the window with a dull, neutral expression as the capital city of Equestria roared past, the train bee-lining for the smallest cluster of buildings, a place where barely any skyscrapers existed and the rolling red-speckled green of the apple orchards dominated the horizon. Ponyville had been a pretty good place to grow up, what once was its own little town hundreds of years ago had slowly been devoured and assimilated, as the megatropolis that was Canterlot grew outwards. It wasn't the only town to have been claimed, many small towns like Haltergate and Filldelphia were little more than ghetto districts in the Canterlot urban sprawl. Ponyville, however, had evolved into more of a quiet suburb. The apple orchards meant that skyscrapers were prohibited, as the crop would simply die off in the shadow of the glass and steel colossi.
The tram slowly came to a stop, wavering in the air ever-so-slightly in the influence of the magi-lev tracks that allowed it to travel at such speeds. While Canterlot had been approaching night-time, Ponyville was still enjoying a late afternoon sunset. A familiar little bakery greeted her as she stepped out of the modest station Ponyville kept; she couldn't help but smile at the traditional housing style, not after having seen so many modern cities that seemed obsessed with glass, metal and shimmering surfaces. She nudged the door to Sugarcube Corner open with a hoof, smiling as she saw the familiar form of Mrs. Cake - she never did find out her full name - standing behind the counter with a surprised smile on her face.
"Well of all the ponies to walk on in. I barely recognised you there, Rainbow!"
Dash practically winced at her first name, she'd passed as Dash for so long, (it was easier to yell in a firefight), that it felt unfamiliar to her. Still, she returned the smile and leaned up on the counter, forehooves planted on the glass surface.
"I think, first of all, I'll have one of your delicious blueberry muffins, I've been to the Outer Colonies and back but nothing compares."
The muffin Dash indicated with a hoof was gathered, wrapped, and Dash dug the bits out for the cake. A short wave of the hoof let her know this one would go free, so she pocketed her money. She wasn't even sure if she'd had enough anyway.
"It's so nice to see you after all these years. And a marine! I always knew you'd join up, so headstrong. I'm glad to see you're still holding up, I've heard...such stories."
"I...I get by. Thing is, something big's coming. I can't tell you what...sorry. But trust me, we'll be hugging Innies by the time it happens."
"Dear Celestia, no. I hope it doesn't involve any violence!"
Dash's eyes glazed over and she stared past Mrs. Cake at the wall behind her. "It does...it always does. But not with ponies. For the first time ever...but no, sorry. I've already said too much."
"I hope you get through it okay Rainbow. For both your sakes." Mrs. Cake gave an apologetic smile to Dash, who simply began to eat her muffin, unable to answer.
"Is she...is she still here? I...I dunno if it would be good for her to see me here." Dash suddenly realised how foalish her little trot down memory lane was.
"Oh no...she moved out years ago. Your whole little gang has moved away since, I don't think even the little bookish one stayed. I'm sorry, Rainbow."
Dash waved her hoof, an attempt at casually throwing off her thoughts. "It's okay. Was just coming for a chat anyway, no biggy. I got the whole Ponynet to find them with, heck, could always use an ONI satellite, eh?" She laughed, then noticed Mrs Cake's discomfort at the mention of ONI. The shady organisation must have seemed even shadier to civilians who'd never met a spook. Thankfully, Dash knew where at least one of her foalhood friends was working, not that she was hoping for a reunion anytime soon.
She cantered back to the station, her nostalgia trip barely taking ten minutes of her time. Without the ponies she remembered, it all seemed so...empty. Like a house with no furniture. She sat as the monorail bore her back to the Orbital Elevator's station. Sarge had the right idea, she could definitely use some sleep, for the time being.
* * * * * *
Her mane was in place, or as tamed as she could manage. Its liveliness had dulled, over time, but Celestia still failed to keep it under control. Her coat was neatly combed, she ran a brush through last, tiny tufts that defied the grooming and looked, once again, into the mirror. She saw Twilight's form behind her, forelegs crossed and sitting with a huffed expression on her face.
"With respect, Admiral, it's getting late. We need to move now to make it on time."
Celestia finally beat down a particularly rebellious tuft of fur. "Admiral Luna will wait. Besides, we can hardly have the meeting with a bedraggled Admiral presiding."
"You look perfectly fine to me, can we go? I need to deliver my data to ONI."
"I'm not sure if AIs are known for their fashion sense, but I'm happy anyway. Upload yourself to the data drive and I'll take you there. I'm sure you've had plenty of time to mull over the data.
"I have several hypotheses, yes." Twilight eagerly clapped her hooves together before her hologram disappeared from view.
Celestia levitated the chip and placed it in the pocket of the left side of her chest. She steeled herself, walking in amongst a group of generals and telling them that aliens were burning their planets, would be no easy day at the office. She found her way to the Pelican bay and took her allotted dropship. The data drive floated out of her pocket and into the relevant port, leaving Twilight to pilot the dropship to the ONI Hive base while she mentally rehearsed her speech.
The dropship carefully hovered in position as the doors opened below it. Twilight had some difficulty making it through rush-hour traffic in the city, the air was choked with commuting shuttles flying all over the place, yet she'd still managed to arrive at the base punctual and unscathed, as was her habit. The doors were now a wide maw, large enough to allow the Pelican to steadily lower itself in, floodlights powering on as the door closed above them. She found a spare place in the Hive's underground hangar, row upon row of bays for Pelicans, even a few Longsword spaces too, were being filled and vacated as the clockwork of the empire moved around her.
Celestia once more removed Twilight to her drive, and placed it in the pocket. She called an elevator and was soon brought up to the main lobby floor, the familiar pastel shades and creams greeted her as she marched across the room, her position and purposeful stride drawing the gaze of most ponies there. She only focused on one destination, the office of Lady Admiral Luna, whom she needed to discuss the situation with urgently. The storm had to be contained and assessed before they could start releasing it to the ponies around them. She walked down the familiar Admiralty's corridor, her pace slowing as she tracked her gaze across the portraits and pictures collected there.
So many battles. The Uprising of Stalliongrad, Celestia recognised her younger self, leading the counter-charge against the enemy that had laid siege to the city for so long. The fall of Gryphonia, a breakdown of peace talks that ended in an ethnic cleansing and an extinction. She stood atop the Holy Eyrie, mane flowing in the mountain wind as soldiers below celebrated the victory. The Battle of Normanedy, the Colt-Kippur War, every battle ponykind fought was with her in the lead, standing proud and tall.
Her role was always changing depending on what ponykind best needed at the time. For some, it was a religious figure, a god to worship and look up to. After science began to heal the sick and dying in its place, she became a politician, all speech and charisma, a voice for other ponies' ideas and dreams to speak through. A military leader, in times of war. And as ponykind raced across the stars, an Admiral to guide them there.
Celestia had always been the front, the face of her and Luna's leadership. Where Celestia excelled at conventional war, Luna's tactics favoured the more...underhoofed world of wetwork and black operations. She was the shadow to Celestia's tall stature, fixing, cleaning and spying behind the scenes. It was her art, to fade her work into the inky darkness, ignoring the grey-scale morality of it all. An influential enemy was simply a target for a sniper. A terror cell was a location to be infiltrated. Luna knew how to deploy ponies to these purposes well and Celestia had never doubted her after all this time.
She shunted upon the doors with her magic, the guards not even bothering to check her. It was simply unnecessary. The dark, midnight feel of the room enveloped Celestia, reminding her she'd just entered a realm of shady work and subterfuge, a realm Celestia was unfamiliar with.
Her sister rose from the desk, flicking her horn at a security camera to ensure privacy, she almost tackled Celestia to the floor.
"Celly! I was...so worried." She realised her place, and let go of her sister, taking a couple of steps back. "Sorry...I'll try and keep myself in better control."
"Luna, after all these years." Celestia stepped forward, wrapping Luna in a loving embrace. "Why do you decide to start worrying about me now?"
Luna avoided her sister's gaze, not ready to admit her distrust. "There were so many unknowns, too much risk. I sent a Prowler to loiter in the system...it recorded the battle. We lost, terribly Celly."
"So you were worried I didn't make it? What about the data you gathered?"
"Cut and compiled. Section Three are looking through it now. Halsey's lapping it up for the S-IIs, though I feel we might have to rush them out, looking at this. She won't be happy, but to the moon with her wishes."
Celestia smiled. "To the moon, eh? It's a spa resort now; I wouldn't mind a little stay there, away from all this."
Luna chuckled at the old joke. "Anyway. I have the propaganda on standby for the media, we've left the edited recordings in a lobby on a datapad."
"What hotel'd you choose this time?"
"Manehatten Ritz. We estimate they'll have it on-air by the next day, these reporters are like parasites, but that just makes them easier to control."
"You know, it's scary how manipulative you can be."
Luna shrugged. "I do what I do. Besides, I understand the ODSTs took considerable losses, your squads have just finished the ordnance training. Follow me, you're going to love the tech Section Three have accelerated for the field, I daresay our new enemy will think twice before taking on a squad armed with it now!."
"Lead the way, Luna." Celestia smiled as she watched Luna's slightly-smaller, midnight blue form weave through the corridors. Celestia would like to brief her ODSTs personally, they were the very best in the Naval Armed Forces and Celestia felt they deserved as much. She hoped the newer members would integrate well; their experience would be invaluable in the time to come.