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Date: Sep 7, 2013
Imposters
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Rewrite of an earlier fic that predated my "Rayverse" trilogy.

In a retrofuturistic cyberpunk Equestria, Rainbow Dash and a special team of astronauts are sent to Mars to investigate potential future off-world colonization. But when they prepare to head home, they find that a terrifying alien lifeform has stowed away on their starship. Trust between them dissipates as each of the crew members are assimilated one-by-one by perfect imitations that must be uncovered and destroyed before they reach Earth.

 

In Space, Nopony Can Be Trusted.

 

 

 

 

   The sound of the electronic buzz from the bedside videophone sounded as if a train was plowing through Rainbow Dash's apartment as she awoke from a deep slumber. Though still half-asleep, her instincts kicked in, forcing her hoof nearest the table to reach for the answer button and punch it like an alarm clock.

   "Dash, don't tell me you're still in bed at this hour." A male voice sounding as if it transmitted through a tin can barked at her.

   Now fully awake, Rainbow unlidded her eyes and let out a stretch as she faced the image of an older stallion on the wafer-thin screen. "I'm not here right now, please leave a message after the beep."

   The stallion snorted. "Cute. Do you have any idea what time it is?"

   In order to answer his question, she looked to the other side of her bed where an interface projected from the wall. There a digital clock illuminated the time; "5:46 PM." Wait, that can't be right. She punched the machine, causing the clock to speed towards the correct time; "8:46 AM." Sensing the change of time, lights and other devices optically connected to the interface came to life, including the TV across the room and the overhead lights.

   The time finally registered. "Oh, horseapples! I'm late!" She kicked the blankets away and reached for her goggles on the table, knocking empty cider bottles and take-out containers onto the floor in the whirlwind of panic.

   "Hey, hey! Dash!"

   She stopped and faced the tiny screen. "Yes, sir?"

   "Since it's a technical issue I'll give you a break. Get some breakfast, drink some coffee, and be here in fifteen minutes. Alright?"

   She relaxed a bit. "Thanks."

   The stallion on the screen nodded, then reached for something off-screen, prompting the signal to pop with static, followed by a plain black image with greet text reading "CONNECTION TERMINATED".

   Fifteen minutes was more than enough time for her, given the distance between the office and her apartment building. Not to mention being one of the fastest pegasi in Equestria. It was slack meant for the unicorns and earth ponies in their aerocars, but of course no protest was felt against it. Now she could get her coffee and something to eat without a major rush.

   She now realized the pain that was aching through her head, almost making her nauseous as she sat up in the bed. It was undoubtedly the cider from last night. Rubbing her hooves on the various pressure-points along her skull seemed to momentarily relieve her to a certain degree, but not to a satisfactory effect.

   The automated voice of the videophone machine startled her out of her peace. "If you would like to make a call, please hang up and try again."

   With adrenaline now pumping through her veins, she angrily picked up a cider bottle and threw it at the machine, hitting the "terminate" button to hang up. She went back to massaging her head, then finally stumbled out of her bed, kicking away a blanket caught on one of her hind legs.

   First stop on the way to life outside of the cozy bedroom was, of course, the bathroom. And there upon the throne to relieve herself, she watched a small computer screen facing her from the opposite wall. As soon as the overhead lights detected her presence and flickered on, the screen crackled to life and displayed the following green text:

 

           Scanning...

 

   Done with her duty, the computer beeped, followed by the automatic flush of the toilet. It now read:

 

           pH . . . . . . . . . . . . . 7.0

           Uro-Gen . . . . . . . . . 1.0 Ehr U/dl

           EtG . . . . . . . . . . . . 215 ng/mL

           TeN . . . . . . . . . . . . 2.0

           LLC . . . . . . . . . . . . -40

           AC . . . . . . . . . . . . . 0.0

           T-Tox . . . . . . . . . . . 3.1

           SG . . . . . . . . . . . . . 1.041

 

           Excess sodium and alcohol traces detected. Please adjust diet accordingly.

 

   As usual, the resulting data made no sense to her whatsoever, but the final remark was crystal clear enough for her to snort at with disregard.

   Rainbow reached for a bottle of painkillers on the counter, spilling the small white capsules onto the surface and swiping a couple of them into her mouth. She then filled a nearby glass of water from the automatic faucet, proceeding to wash the drug down her throat. When finally making her way out of the room, the lights dimmed away.

   She expressed no concern about the mess of painkillers she had left on the counter, not with the pain she had at the moment. She would take care of it later when she got back home. By then the drug would have already done its job and she could think with more clarity.

   More automatic lights turned on as the sensors detected her motion towards the kitchen, open and facing the living room. Window panes scrolled upward to reveal a vast metropolis outside of her confinement. Yet despite all, the apartment was still in gloomy darkness due to the old-fashioned bulbs installed in transparent panels above, and the morning sun being blocked by a poisoned atmosphere of smoke and storm clouds.

   The city was a grand work of engineering art, structures tall and bright, filled with life. But they were undertoned in a network of industrial workings serving functions that modern society could not live without. Below the magnificent buildings lay alleyways and street corners of an old Canterlot, neglected and wasting away.

   Above were massive smokestacks entwined with webs of mechanical dismay, coughing and bellowing flames of their foul byproduct. The smoke mingled with shady clouds that rained endlessly upon the artificial nightmare, as if to weep in longing for a land that once was. 

canterlot_city_sketch_by_stingray_24-d6lec30.png 

   Rainbow Dash remembered what it once was. In her younger years she had walked upon the streets of this once perfect city, taking all of its glory for granted. It was peaceful, regal, and so spectacular. Times were simpler then. She had friends she could adventure with every day and a job at a weather factory with decent pay. She even had a house upon the heavens themselves.

   But now she was among the society of an industrial and technological revolution. The factory went defunct and the house was lost to foreclosure when she could no longer afford the payments. 

   She still had her best friends at her side, though they were unfortunately caught in the grasp of the new age as well. Nothing was the same anymore, and she envied those who needed not to endure it. It felt like a drain of her life, but it was all she could aspire to. Or so she told herself now that old dreams once fulfilled had long ago died.

   Rainbow let out a depressed sigh as she poured herself a cup of coffee already prepared by the time-activated machine and pulled two burnt pieces of toast out of a toaster-oven. And so starts another lousy day.

 

 

 

   Eastern and Stratodyne were both branches of the Elytron-Ahmani Corporation, a joint military-funded Changeling and Equestrian research organization with multiple sectors of interest. 

   Eastern was an energy refinement organization that oversaw the production and use of fuel and energy within the major Equestrian cities, including Canterlot. Stratodyne was a supplemental atmospheric-management organization to help purify and regulate the atmosphere from pollution emitted by Eastern's sector.

   Rainbow Dash worked at one of Stratodyne's atmosphere processor plants as a cloud technician. Unlike her previous work at the Cloudsdale weather factory, the majority of her work was in front of a computer screen, monitoring atmospheric activities and acting upon them from there with mechanical influence. Nothing weather-related was managed manually or magically anymore.

   Though the plant's limited capability still left the air as dark and miserable as ever, it at least made it less toxic to breathe in and made thunderstorms less severe.

   Rainbow Dash barged into the main lobby of the facility dripping wet from the outside rainstorm. She shook most of it off like a dog before she stepped further into the building, preparing to make her way to her office down a corridor at the far end.

   "Rainbow Dash," a secretary at the nearby service counter called.

   She remained still. "Yeah?"

   "Lourke wants to see you."

   She huffed with anxiety, as she stared in the direction of her office. All she wanted was to get to work and get the day over with as soon as possible, no delays. But alas, that was not going to happen. Interruptions of trivial measures were inevitable around here.

   She slowly turned and made her way to the left of the great lobby, where Lourke's office was located. Lourke was the plant's primary manager, and therefore was her boss. He was a stern and demanding individual, but had a warmth about him that made working at the facility less of a strenuous nightmare. He cut people breaks when they needed them, without losing efficiency that met the cold agenda of his corporate overlords.

   Rainbow opened the door to his office and closed it behind her, making her way to the front of Lourke's desk.

   "Dash," he greeted, "just the pony I wanted to see. Have a seat."

   She complied at sat in one of his old-fashioned armchairs situated around the huge desk. Everything was old-fashioned in this room, except for the computer system and the various ducts in the ceiling. Lamps, a phonograph, an 8mm projector, wooden cabinets, paintings, and rugs over an already carpeted floor were among the most notable items in the room that predated the cyberindustrial revolution.

   His desk was even made of cedar, though worn down due to the traffic of office work upon it. Paperwork and various other items piled and scattered among the surface as if a filing cabinet exploded. The shelves behind him were also a mess with books and papers with organization that resided only in the mind of Lourke himself.

   He pulled out a newspaper from underneath an "In" tray to the right of his desk. "Did you hear about Elytron-Ahmani's Mars program?" He spoke with a lazy tone that made him sound as if he had not slept in years. This implication could easily be reinforced due to the bags under his eyes from old age.

   Rainbow shifted her eyes around the room with obvious impatience. The conversation-starter neither bore significance to her, nor did it interest her at all.

   He casually looked over the related article and continued. "Some bright idea for off-world colonization. They want to survey and study the planet to determine if its safe to put a starter colony up there. They already got a ship in an orbiter up there they've been building for a couple of years in preparation. Just needs a ninth crew member and they're set. Good goddess, no wonder where all the money's going." He crumbled the paper up and threw it in a waste basket across the room.

   "So, you wanted to see me about something?"

   "Yeah." He awkwardly trailed off and grabbed a bottle of Scotch from the shelf behind him, along with a couple of glasses, then filled them both up. Rainbow grabbed the one nearest to her while Lourke took the other and continued. "Stratodyne got a hold of our health scans. Yours a few minutes ago and mine a little earlier this morning. We're being let go."

   Her heart sank and her vision narrowed. "What? How?"

   "Apparently they have a new policy to read our bathroom scans as they're generated as a type of sobriety test. Since our secret pleasures, as they were, are against company policy, they've come to the conclusion we're no longer fit to work at this facility. We're to clear out our stuff within a few hours to make way for our replacements."

   Rainbow sat and stared at one of Lourke's paintings with a complete loss of words.

   "I tried reasoning with the head of our division, but thanks to our screw-up we're the perfect trials candidate for E-A's new line of simuloids. I'm sorry, Dash."

   "Why didn't you tell me before I..."

   He waved his hoof to interrupt. "It wouldn't have mattered. They have access to archived reports now."

   Anger boiled within Rainbow as her face and eyes reddened. Her hooves pressed hard in the arms of the chair, leaving deep indentations.

   Lourke reclined in his seat with a look of helplessness. "What a world. You try to be a sensible pony who looks out for the best interests of your employees. But in the end, you're just an anomaly. A glitch in a grand computer system so cold and logical." He looked at Rainbow straight in the eyes, now sitting forward. "Efficiency over equinity's trademark touch. Unless we're a mindless consumer, we're a thing of the past." He held his drink in the air. "Welcome to obsoletion, kid."

   Rainbow lost hold of her anger and bolted from her seat, storming out off the office in a blur.

 

 

 

   There were barely any aerocars in the sky at all compared to the ground traffic, thanks to the storm. Rainbow was cautious to walk closer to the buildings by the sidewalk to avoid being splashed by speeding vehicles. The pouring acid rain was enough for her in her depression. The last thing she needed was muddy and trashy sludge from the side of the streets to drive her off the edge of her sanity.

   She knew the reason Lourke had called her all the way down to the office to let her know of the situation instead of on the videophone was to give her a chance to sympathize with her in person, not just for her to clear out. But she had no social ties with him. Not to mention that her stuff mostly consisted of office supplies and photographs she already had digital copies of at home. She could care less what came of everything. Her job at Stratodyne was dead. Over. Just pick up and move on from there without looking back.

   As far as a paycheck, of course it was a setback. But due to its minority, it was not her largest concern. Her employment with the Wonderbolts during weekends was enough to live on. But there was something missing. There was no edge to them anymore. She needed something of an adventure in her life. She was born for this sole desire, but her search for it was becoming impossible as the days went by.

   Thick steam from the grates in the ground dissipated for a brief moment and revealed a food stand in the middle of a plaza situated where the sidewalk became wider. Suddenly food was the only thing that came to mind that would distract her from her thoughts. The hottest, saltiest, greasiest fries in Equestria, here I come.

   Rainbow sat at a long bench they had situated at the front of the stand, like an outdoor bar. She was relieved to finally be out of the rain and under an awning that covered the length of the entire stand. It was made of a tough plastic, which caused the colliding raindrops to amplify on the surface, making it difficult to hear conversations from surrounding ponies.

   "What'll it be?" The vendor shouted to her.

   "Fries."

   He put a hoof up to his ear. "What was that?"

   "Fries! Big ones."

   "We're out of fries, sorry."

   She she put her forearm on the table and rested her face on her hoof. "Alright, I'll have a daisy sandwich. Don't be shy on the mustard. I like mine spicy."

   He nodded and put gloves on. "Sure thing." He turned around and began preparing the contents of her meal from small compartments along the table in the kitchen side of the stand.

   Rainbow loved the smell of these outdoor food stands. It was a kind of smell that was so warm and inviting, no doubt the perfect lure into ingesting probably the worst ingredients to one's health. 

   Her gaze wandered about the table at other ponies' meals. Eventually she came across a newspaper tucked underneath a food tray belonging to a pony next to her. It had the same article Lourke was referring to earlier, the one about E-A's Mars program and their need for a ninth crew member.

   She patted the pony on the shoulder. "Hey, can I borrow this?"

   The pony nodded thoughtlessly as he was engaged in a conversation with another.

   Rainbow slid the paper out from underneath the tray and began reading the article more closely. According to the text, launch was supposed to be scheduled for tomorrow night, that is if they were to acquire their ninth crew member, an Assistant Navigator. It mentioned that a recruitment ad had been out for weeks with no one able to fill the position's requirements.

   "Pegasus with 15 Wing-Power, eight-second Dizzitron recovery at one-hundred fifty RPM..." She muttered as she read some of the requirements. A feeling of confidence uplifted her in realization that she had beaten these records many years ago. It was no wonder that not one pegasus was meeting these outrageous requirements. She was the only one in this city that had reached such extremities and beyond.

   Others included Wonderbolt service history and experience with weather-related duties, which were standards for navigation roles on board A-E transatmospheric craft. All of which fit Rainbow's capability to perfection.

   This was it. This was the adventure she'd sought so tirelessly after all of these years. Suddenly Mars in its mighty red glory was all that she could think about.

   She stood from her seat and edged back out into the rain, looking up in wonder at the stormy sky. She imagined the vast field of stars twinkling invitingly amongst the heavens, so mysterious and mystical. The wonders of what was out there, the possibilities that lay beyond bounds of our planet, and what would come of us should we reach these outer worlds.

   Nothing was for sure, except for one thing: it all started with a journey to a cold, desolate, red planet known as Mars.



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Date: Sep 11, 2013
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   It was no surprise that Rainbow Dash had been accepted in her application for the Assistant Navigator position, and in such a short time no less. After all, launch was the next day. The physical went by as quickly as a normal clinical check-up and the data on her Wonderbolt records passed the necessary requirements.

   The alcohol still in her system was the only setback, but was dismissed due to the minuscule amount that remained and her miraculous success over the requirements. Not to mention they had the same testing system on board the starship, so she was told. The company would definitely know if she kept up with her old habits.

   By the next morning she was ordered to board the orbiter shuttle with whatever personal items she requested to bring along.

   The day of the launch was just as gloomy as the day before it. But this time, it held overture to something wonderful. Something worth the excitement that Rainbow struggled to suppress as she walked in a trance down the docking sleeve that connected to the shuttle. She could not help but to sneak peaks at the large space vehicle through the sleeve's glass window panes.

   It was an impressive work of engineering with a worn and rustic hull that gave away its years of ferrying use. It had been a symbol for the city as the primary transport vehicle to reach the Gateway orbiter. A step closer to reaching the stars, towards another step that Rainbow awaited anxiously to embark.

   Tourists flooded the shuttle with her, making it difficult to find a seat with a window. She was pleased to finally find one, but other ponies still crammed next to her to get a good view from it. She barely had room to put her duffel bag.

   After fifteen minutes had passed, the shuttle was full and the passengers were ready for take-off. Rainbow watched the docking sleeve outside retract and swing into the gritty industrial structure nearby, one of three major towers holding the shuttle's landing pad in place.

   "Attention, everypony." Called a voice on the shuttle's intercom system. "This is your captain speaking. Welcome to Gateway flight two-eight-seven. On behalf of the Elytron-Ahmani Corporation, we hope you enjoy the trip to the international Gateway orbiter and we hope you're all excited to witness the pioneering Dreadnaught launch this evening. Please follow the safety procedures on the forms in front of you and we'll all have a safe and enjoyable trip. Thank you."

   The word "pioneering" in that sentence gave her chills upon hearing it, for she was a part of this pioneering event. It was an honor and a privilege that came rarely in a lifetime, and she was proud to have grasped the opportunity before it had a chance to slip by.

   A rumble shook through the ship as a loud mechanical whine echoed throughout the launch area. Seats trembled as the vertical engines blasted clouds of jet emission upon the launch pad, swelling throughout the area causing view of surrounding structures to become obscured.

   25234514.png

   Rainbow's heart leapt as the force of the rising ship swayed on its vertical journey. It grew the faster the spacecraft traveled, enough to make some of the tourists beside her motion sick. She snickered at them with criticism and eventually adverted her attention back to the world outside.

   When the city finally became fully obscured by the storm clouds, the ship began moving forward. Vertical engines faded away and the main boosters thrusted the craft in an upward horizontal climb through the atmosphere.

   The view of the Earth from space was an unforgettable moment for Rainbow. She could see the curvature of the spherical world and the vast oceans that covered it. The contrast of the illuminated celestial body against the black gulf of space, the sun of which appeared to splash an aura of shimmering blue as it penetrated the atmospheric barrier.

   Her stomach suddenly lurched for a moment, feeling an odd change in the shuttle she could not explain.

   "No worries, guys." Came the captain's voice on the intercom again. "That was the artificial gravity kicking in. Welcome to outer space. We'll be arriving at Gateway station in just a moment."

   Five minutes had gone by as they orbited the planet. An odd metallic spire came into view, catching Rainbow by surprise. It grew wider and more mechanically complex the further it drifted by the window. Anti-collision lights and windows followed by, as if it were some kind of spacecraft. Then solar paneling along the hull appeared, revealing the object's true origin.

   The shuttle slowed and trembled as it supposedly docked with the orbiter. A chime sounded on the intercom system, followed by the captain's final message to the passengers.

   "Welcome to Gateway, everypony." He greeted. "Please follow disembarking procedures as instructed by the attendants and enjoy your stay. Thank you for flying E-A Gateway flight two-eight-seven."

 

 

 

   The main lobby ahead of the docking terminals was like being in an ordinary airport or spaceport, with the obvious exception of a pressurized hull indicating its location within the vacuum. There were many tourist traps and gift shops spread about the area already swarming with customers.

   Rainbow Dash's excitement escalated when she came across advertisements about A-E's Mars program along the way to various displays for previous other space programs. She casually browsed the other displays, feeling a sense of inspiration as she read through some of the captions.

   As it turned out, the Mars program dated just at the peak of the cyberindustrial revolution. For years they had sent satellites and probes to study the surface, bringing back data that eventually paved the way for how ponies could approach a manned mission. 

   The collaborations in the program were also notable. Since no political conflict ever interfered with the scientific endeavors of Equestria and beyond, the Griffon Republic and Changeling Empire were just a few that cooperated in the funding, research, and development of equipment for the program and others like it. They helped with the development of the Gateway orbiter station, and even the starship that Rainbow was now a crew member of.

   She wandered away from the exhibits at a loss as to what she was supposed to do now that she was here at Gateway. The only thing that came to mind was to locate the starship that she was to board by the end of the day. That ship with the weird name.

   She found a curve in the layout of the lobby, where a giant window array aligned along the wall. The majority of the tourists seemed to flock around that particular area, snapping pictures and recording videos. Rainbow drifted into that direction out of curiosity as to what was on the other side of the glass.

   And there is was. There was not a question in her mind. Before her eyes, in a magnificent spectacle, was the mighty IES "Dreadnaught." The first interplanetary starship ever built, in person. The total size of it was astonishing, boasting a horizontal scale equivalent to the skyscraper that Rainbow's apartment was located in, if not slightly larger than that. Even the drydock that held it was of impressive scale, appearing to hold a capacity of three other such ships additionally.

   Of all things she remembered having ever experienced in her lifetime, the realization of this moment was the first to ever render her dizzier than if she had just been launched from a Dizzitron. She lost all ability to shut her gaping mouth.

   "Impressive, isn't she?" A voice shouted in her ears over the loud commotion coming from the crowd of tourists. She turned to face the source and found a robust young stallion in some kind of full-body space uniform.

   "Who are you?"

   "My name's Lynx. Executive Officer of the IES Dreadnaught."

   The excitement of meeting one of the crew members brought back memories of meeting the Wonderbolts in her youth.

   Lynx looked over her appearance with amusement. "I'm going to take a wild guess that you're Rainbow Dash."

   She made a co.cky gesture. "The one and only."

   "Want a closer look at the ship?"

   "You bet I do!"

   He made a huge grin. "Follow me."

 

 

 

   "So what kind of name is 'Dreadnaught' anyway?" Rainbow Dash could not hold back the millions of questions that raced through her mind as she and Lynx walked down one of the docking sleeves attached to the ship.

   "Well, it's Old Equestrian. 'Dread' means 'fear,' and 'naught' simply means 'not,' therefore it literally translates to 'without fear.' The significance of it implies our bold and fearless journey into the unknown." 

   Rainbow nodded with comprehension. "Hmm."

   "Though if you read in some modern history books they'll often misdefine it as simply 'large' or 'large ship' because a class of old steam ships were often given the name. Little do they know that the reasoning behind it bore the same significance. It's a classic mistake, like how ancient texts have been mistranslated since their inception to suggest that winged unicorns are called 'Alicorns' instead of the more correct 'Cerapter'."

   The intellect of this handsome stallion was utterly impressive to her. She had to know more of what he held in the abyss of his brilliant mind. "How long will it take to get to Mars?"

   "If orbital calculations are correct, we should be there in about seven months. But we won't be awake the entire journey."

   "What do you mean?"

   "We'll be in cryogenic hypersleep until we reach orbital contact with Mars. All seven months, but to you it'll feel like a normal night's sleep. Except colder. Much colder."

   "Like how much?"

   He tilted his head in search for the right description. "You'll feel like a meat popsicle for a few minutes after awakening, let's just put it that way. You'll then be injected with a neural serum that restores your natural functionality and everything'll be back to normal. It's a little weird for your first time, but you'll get used to it. And then it'll be rinse-and-repeat when we head back home. Another seven months."

   They finally reached the airlock leading to the uppermost level of the ship. Lynx pressed a button on a small control panel next to the door, prompting it to slide open with a hiss of depressurization.

   "How long will we be on Mars?"

   He shrugged. "I dunno. That usually depends on what we find. We could be there for a day or a whole week. But I'll tell you what, it won't be longer than a month or two. Our life support and reserves are strictly limited within that timeframe."

   They proceeded through the airlock, with Lynx closing the outer door behind him.

   "But what about-..."

   He turned to face her with that delightful grin again. "Dash, take it easy with all the questions. I'm excited too, but let's try waiting for the mission texts. You can read everything to your heart's content in your on-board quarters before we launch. For now let's meet the rest of the crew, alright?"

   She nodded with a mutual grin and followed him through the next pressurized airlock door leading into the ship. 

   The first section they traveled through was a octagonal chamber about the size of a car garage, with a small archway ahead leading to a short corridor, and two other doors at each side of the room. The door to the left apparently being a supply room according to the bold-printed text above its respected archway.

   The corridor was like a narrow tunnel through industrial workings, jammed with ducts and electronics leaving no bare spaces. The lights that aligned the upper sections of the corridor seemed to be standard neon tubes, while the deactivated warning lights on the ceiling were an old fashioned revolving type with yellow covers, as more commonly seen on construction vehicles.

   As they approached a bend in the corridor, they followed it towards a slightly wider one that forked off to several others. It had a much cleaner appearance, with less machinery and more padding of some kind aligning the hexagonal walls. Everything was painted a bright white like a sterile medical facility, except for the grilled paneling on the floor of the walkways.

   It was a maze of winding corridors that confused Rainbow as she followed Lynx by his side, especially since many sections bore no labeling to indicate what they were or where they led to. Surely she would have to acquire a map to better acquaint herself with the ship's layout.

   Finally they reached a doorway apparently leading to the galley, according to the label on the padded arch, in which Lynx opened the upward-sliding pressure door to enter. They traveled through the kitchen nook, ending their journey in a large nonagonal room with a table at the center.

   And there the eyes of the rest of the ship's crew met Rainbow's with curiosity and welcoming demeanor as they looked up from their work-related activities spread about the table.

   "Rainbow Dash?" an older unicorn stallion with a bushy black beard called out as he enthusiastically stood from his seat and made his way to Rainbow. "Welcome aboard the IES Dreadnaught. I'm Captain Avro." He shook her hoof with a nod, then turned to face the crew. "I see you've already met Lynx, my XO and mission astrophysicist."

   "Yep." was her simple response as she glanced over to him as he now sat at the table with the rest of the crew.

   "Well, allow me to introduce you to the rest. Next to him is Silverleaf, Warrant Officer. Silver for short."

   A medium young pegasus nodded to her. He had a very stiff appearance, overly professional and obviously the most by-the-book individual in the group. The largest pile of paperwork in front of him only reinforced this predicated disposition.

   Avro proceeded his introductions around the table. "Over there is Harpa, our pilot and field geologist."

   Though he smiled with a casual, non-threatening manner, his presence among the crew still gave Rainbow a sense of discomfort, for he was a Changeling in unshifted form. She struggled to remind herself that he was a part of the equinitarian scientific community, unaffiliated with the political friction. 

   "That's Scarlet, navigator and co-pilot. You'll be working by her side."

   He was referring to the female earth pony at the far end. Her age was hard to predict, but her form was rather small and timid, almost fragile in appearance compared to Rainbow's build.

   "Following is Strider and Greaves, engineers. Greaves works under Strider as an engineering technician. Alternatively mission payload specialist and probably the best computational theorist in Equestria."

   Strider was a buff Griffon with the stereotypical appearance of an oil rig worker. Most likely only attached to the project for the pay.

   Greaves, however, retained an appearance that nowhere indicated the description from Avro. He was a small, middle-aged earth pony with a long sandy mane and beard, and a tie-dye shirt under his uniform. More like a hippy burnout than anything remotely scientific. Rainbow was unsure if Avro had introduced the right crew member.

   "And finally Horton, our medical and scientific officer. A pony of many talents and fields of expertise. Biology, biochemistry, pharmacology, psychology, you name it. Quite a brilliant package, if you ask me."

   A subtle earth pony in laboratory wear nodded to her with a half-smile.

   "Anyways, have a seat. Want something to drink?"

   "No thanks."

   Scarlet pulled out an empty chair next to her. "Here, come sit with me."

   Rainbow had actually wanted to sit next to Lynx having taken a shine to his warm intelligence, but she could not pass up the friendly gesture. 

   "Also," Avro continued, "there's an on-board supercomputer courtesy of EMDETech. We call him Overscan. Have any questions, don't hesitate to come to me first, but feel free to take advantage of his expertise as well. The commercial access code is on the sticky-notes found on all the associated mainframes throughout the ship. He responds to voice, so you don't necessarily have to type out any querries to interact with him. Okay?"

   She nodded in understanding as she set the bag of her belongings on the floor next to her. "Okay."

   "Alright, now where were we?" He and the other crew members engaged in a conversation that went beyond her jurisdiction.

   She turned to Scarlet and spoke in a soft tone as not to disturb them. "So what exactly do I do here? Just help you navigate the ship, like figure out where we are in space or something?"

   Scarlet turned to her and spoke in a tone equal to her's. "Oh, no, that's actually my job. I'm an astro-navigator, which means I help Overscan plot the courses between locations in space. Plus or minus other minor details. Yours is to help us navigate the Martian surface. With your weather-related experience you help us determine atmospheric integrity and how it affects our travel. Plus there's some geography involved."

   "Well, my geography is a little rusty, but I'll see what I can do. Also I've gotta warn you, my math is horrible. Back at Stratodyne I always had the computer figure that technical stuff out."

   She grinned with a shrug. "There's always Overscan to handle the calculations. Don't worry about it."

   Rainbow was already feeling quite comfortable with her role on board this vessel. There was still a lingering sense of insecurity that shadowed her excitement, but she knew that it would not be long before it dissolved under the thrill of the voyage.

   Scarlet's eyes joyously widened. "Hey, you should go put on your uniform. It's in your quarters, first door to the right over in that corridor." She nodded towards a narrow hall behind her that ended with yet another pressure door, aligned with doorways with regular swing-open hatches like in a submarine. "You can go put your stuff in there too."

   Rainbow grabbed her bag and headed in that direction, going straight for the room that Scarlet had indicated. Upon entering she had come to the conclusion it was a shared quarters, as there was already a messy bed to the left with belongings on the shelves and pictures and other decorations on the walls.

   Her bed section to the right was bare and neatly-made as if it was just recently prepared for her. She threw her bag onto the bed and explored the compartments that followed the shelves. She opened up a small closet and found her dark-blue uniform conveniently hanging on a rack, plus other plain clothing in the compartment above it.

   The uniform was the same full-body type as the rest of the crew had. On the left shoulder it bore a crew patch representing service on this ship, which looked like a rainbow arching over skewed text reading "IES DREADNAUGHT", followed by the image of a vectored planet at the center and the ship's registration number at the bottom. "817636."

   A patch on the right shoulder bore the Equestrian flag. This was a practice she had noticed upon looking at the rest of the crew's uniforms earlier, as it specifically indicated their origin of service. Harpa had the Changeling Empire flag and Strider had the Griffon Republic flag while everypony else had an Equestrian flag like her's.

   To the bottom right of the collar was the Elytron-Ahmani company logo, a black horizontal rectangle with bold yellow and white lettering that read "E-A Corporation", and to the left was a name tag that simply said "Dash."

   Interestingly, her cutie mark was stitched into the hind quarters of the uniform as not to obscure this supplemental form of identity. The full-body nature of the uniform was a curious matter to her, but seeing as optic fibering intertwined with the seams she assumed it served an important purpose. Something she would remember to ask at the right moment.

   She quickly pulled the uniform from its rack and put it on, looking into the mirror on the other side of the closet door as she zipped it up. She admired how official she looked in it, almost like wearing the Wonderbolt uniform.

   She ecstatically trotted out of the room, making her way back to the galley. Many casual glances met her's with approval of her look. Lynx especially lit up when seeing her in the service attire.

   "How do I look?"

   Lynx was first to speak from a now silent room. "Like an intrepid pioneer, my friend."

   Rainbow blushed and sat back down next to Scarlet. For the first time in years, she felt like a young Wonderbolt again.



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