Cosmic Lotus

Advances in science and magic had detected the Anomaly – a star in the heavens that was unlike all the others in the night sky. Intense research had only served to deepen the mystery. Although Equus had a vibrant space program, going forty-two light years to investigate had been considered impossible until now. The Cosmic Lotus program was born, and over a hundred crew-members of multiple species were sent into the void to discover the unknown. This is their story.
The prequel to this story is the "Ad Astra" arc in the story – "Life, Love, and Death in the House of Path".
This will be a crossover story with my "Chakat Universe".

https://www.fimfiction.net/story/375224/cosmic-lotus

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2. Orbital Maneuvers

The departure under thrust might have been uncomfortable, but it massively relieved the tension among the crew. They had done it! They had started the most ambitious project in history. Nothing was going to stop them now. The roaring of the rockets finally stopped after several long minutes, and the ship went into freefall.

Wandering turned to the navigator’s station. “Report, Playbitz.”

The pegasus checked the readings on his console and finally looked up with a smile. “A perfect burn, Captain. Our course is well within accepted parameters.”

Wandering matched the smile with one of his own. Some trivial course corrections might need to be made, but that was not unexpected. “Excellent! Eject rocket boosters.”

“Ejecting rocket boosters, aye,” Playbitz acknowledged.

There was a slight shudder as explosive bolts released the solid fuel boosters. From now until they reached the Dim Star, they would be coasting until it was time to begin orbital maneuvers.

Wandering activated the ship-wide comm again. “All stations report.”

In designated order, everyone reported in and Commander Bluequill said, “All stations report no problems, Captain.”

“That’s reassuring. Gizmo Gears – engage the artificial gravity spell.”

“Aye, Captain,” the orange unicorn responded, lighting up his horn to engage the magitek system.

Weight resumed for everyone, although thankfully not in a one stomach-turning lurch. The artificial acceleration eased up to Equus-normal gravity.

Wandering turned on the comm again. “All crew may now proceed with their post-departure tasks. Please bear in mind that because no one will be going into hibernation until we accelerate out of the Equus system by solar sail, it will be somewhat crowded until then, so watch your tails and wings, and be considerate of your fellow crewmembers’ need for personal space.”

The alicorn switched off the comm, but concentrated on the mental traffic that was going through his head through the changeling network for which he was the hub. Nothing called for his attention though, so he turned to Playbitz again. “Open up a channel back to the auditorium, please.”

Playbitz’s black feather tips danced across some switches on his console. “You’re connected, sir.”

Wandering smiled at the camera for the audience. “This is Cosmic Lotus. We have had a entirely successful departure and are en route to our rendezvous with the Dim Star. All systems are green. Thank you to all those who got us to this point. Your prayers and wishes go with us.”

# # #

There were yells of delight amidst the thunderous applause from the watchers in the auditorium, and not a few from the audiences watching via GemVee all over Equus and the Moon Colony.

The members of House Path hoof-bumped and hugged. Path replied, “Thank you, Captain. We look forward to your progress reports.”

The big screen went blank, and Roseclaw sighed with relief. “Looks like I can finally retire. I’m getting too old for this.”

Path nuzzled his wife as they walked off the stage, leaving an earth pony mare to host the remainder of the program. “I don’t believe either of those things for a second, darling.”

Roseclaw giggled. “Okay, but we’re taking a vacation as of now.”

“I can agree with that. Where do you want to go?”

“Not sure yet, but let’s start with our bedroom.”

Path laughed. “Yes, dear.”

# # #

After all the essential system checks were completed, the crew had very little to do. Some of the scientists set up their equipment for their observations of the Dim Star, but because they would not actually reach it for another four days, they too were soon mostly idle. Of course there was always something that they could find to do – active minds like theirs rarely had the time to get bored.

However, most of the crew were waiting their turn to be interviewed by a newscaster back on Equus. While every crewmember had been introduced at the ceremony, that had only whetted the curiosity of the audience, and so brief question and answer sessions with individual crewmembers had been arranged. A GemVee camera had been set up in the common room and interviews were started with the crewpersons who were already free while many of the rest of the crew crowded in to listen. Although many had trained together, nobody outside of the Command and Medical Staff knew everybody, and there was a great deal of curiosity about the people they would be sharing a vessel with for the best part of half a century.

Emerald Green was currently in the interview chair, and the pegasus host back at the lunar auditorium was asking, “So why do you think a biologist is an essential part of mission to investigate a star?

The mare smiled knowingly. “One of the Anomaly’s most puzzling aspects is the signs of chemicals that we know are associated with life. A primary goal of the Cosmic Lotus is to discover whether there truly is life out there when the only life that we know of is in the Equus system. That would be a magnificent discovery, and if we do indeed find it, the sheer amount of work that it will create will keep me and my fellow biologists busy for a great deal of time.”

What made you, an earth pony, wish to be part of a mission that would take you away from the world that you have such an intimate connection with?

“That’s an excellent question, and believe me, I asked myself the same thing. Nevertheless, I have been somewhat of a pioneer in the field of exobiology, and the lure of some truly exotic knowledge was far too great. Still, I admit that leaving Equus isn’t going to be easy, so I will be spending much of the time that I am not in hibernation working in the gardens that we will be establishing once we have completed our final acceleration phase.”

Gardens? How can you establish gardens on the Cosmic Lotus in spite of its size?

“While you will need to ask someone else the details, I can say that the solid fuel booster rockets were only the first phase of our maneuvers, and the second phase will be accomplished with the main engines which will be fueled by liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen. After this phase is completed, the tanks will be empty and will be repurposed. They will be connected to the living quarters and planter boxes constructed within. A combination of lightweight soil mix and hydroponic techniques will be used to grow seeds and seedlings that we have brought with us. Once they’re fully established, the gardens will be a place of relaxation and tranquility, not to mention a great place for the pegasi and griffons to stretch their wings and fly a little.”

That sounds wonderful for all the crew. Thank you for your time, Emerald.

“You’re welcome,” she replied, slipping out of the chair to allow the next interviewee to take her place.

The host quickly recognized the mare. “Skye Path, I believe?

Skye nodded. “What gave it away?” she asked with a grin.

I admit that I have never seen a zebra with colored stripes before. May I ask how you got yours?

 

 

“There’s a bit of mystery about that, actually. I was found as an orphan and brought back to Equestria by Wandering Path who adopted me into his family, hence the second part of my name. It is thought that my unusual coloration led to me being expelled from one of the more superstitious tribes, but the actual reason for it may never be known.”

Did this cause you any problems growing up?

Skye laughed. “Heavens, no! I was an infant when I was brought to Ponyville, and never knew anything else but the large and loving family that is House Path. I consider myself be both lucky and privileged. I wear my unusual stripes with pride.”

What attracted you to this mission?

“I was pretty much infected with spirit of adventure and discovery for which House Path is famous. My particular skills with hydroponic systems that I developed in conjunction with Fatima Dashar for use in arid lands were well suited to the mission, and several of my family had already signed up as candidates. I wanted to be part of that and share their discoveries.”

You’re also a herbalist, I’m told. How is that significant to your job?

“That’s part of the zebra culture that is my heritage, but combined with a modern scientific understanding of the art. Herbs can be used for many purposes from the basic such as in cooking, to aromatherapy, to sophisticated medicinal applications. There are also magic potions that can be made with the correct blend of ingredients, although admittedly I am severely constrained with those aboard this ship. Nevertheless I expect that my herbs will find a lot use and keep me quite busy looking after them when I’m not working on the hydroponics.”

That sounds very interesting, and I hope that one day you find out more about your past.

“Thank you.” Skye looked around. “Who wants to be next?”

A grey unicorn took Skye’s place.

Purple Point, I presume?” the host asked.

“Gee, how did you figure it out? I’ve been trying to live anonymously. Work needs to be done, and I can’t do it under a spotlight,” he grumbled, but the twinkle in his eyes gave away the fact he was having fun with the interviewer.

“It says in your records that you served for six years in the Equus Merchant Marine service before attending Canterlot University. Did you learn a lot there?

“I most certainly did! Like how to keep equipment going on talent and prayer until we could get into port and get proper parts, or, I should say, reasonably proper parts. I saved my bits during that time so I could go to university and learn how the equipment should work,” Purple Point said seriously. “Lives depend on equipment working properly. It’s hard to call for a factory tech when you are forty light-years away from home. Out there, you really can’t get a plumber to visit on Sundays, or any day for that matter.”

House Path offered you a chance to go through their education program, yet you turned them down. Why is that?

“House Path has an excellent education program, for those who want to be warrior-scholars.” Purple Point paused, then looked directly into the GemVee camera, his eyes a little haunted. “I have no desire to be a warrior, any more so than I am now. I learned a lot at sea, one thing being how to brawl to save my life. I’ve done so too many times. I have no wish to learn how to fight scientifically. Some lessons you can never forget.”

You have been tested as having a completely eidetic memory. A talent like that will be helpful on a mission like this.

“Yes, it will. However, such a talent does have its drawbacks.” The interviewer waited for more elaboration, but sensing no more was forthcoming, she went ahead with the next question.

You seem to take it personally when a piece of equipment needs repair. Why is that?

Purple Point blushed visibly, the inside of his ears going bright red. “Yes, well, if something fails, it could cause harm to the ship or its crew. The faulty equipment must be chastised properly so it can learn the error of its ways. So, my means of chastisement has been learned under very coarse circumstances.”

Meaning you swear like a sailor. Multilingually, fluently, and very descriptively.

Purple Point looked like he was going to melt in his chair. “It’s a habit I haven’t been able to break. I won’t do it in front of anybody, just when I’m alone. I refuse to do it in front of anyone knowingly.”

What attracted you to this mission?

“I have nothing to keep me on Equus. Leaving Equestria and finding out about the Far Star will be useful to science and the population of Equestria. Besides, forty-two light-years should be sufficient to put my past behind me.”

I would ask more, but we are out of time. Best of success to the mission, and yourself.

“Best of success to us all, both here and there,” Purple Point said, getting up from the chair. He looked about. “Next victim!”

Stepping forward, a brown pegasus stallion smiled and gave a gentle nod. “If you don't mind, I'd like to introduce myself.”

Ah yes, Mr. Playblitz was it? Can you tell us a bit about yourself for starters?

“With pleasure. Firstly, it’s just Playbitz. Bitz, not Blitz,” he said with a chuckle. “Call me PB if you like.”

Oh, my apologies.

“You'd be shocked at how many times that happens, so it’s quite alright. I'm from St. Filly originally, but moved many times with my old profession of creating new GemVee games. It’s a profession that encompasses many other bits of odd knowledge.”

Ah, so you were a GV game developer, but how did you manage getting the job of Chief Navigator and Communications?

Playbitz smiled and stretched out his wings. “Well, as a hobby I would fly around Equestria as far as I could, especially when times between game contracts were rather long and boring. Flying around is pretty simple, but when you're flying the long distances that I would catch myself doing, I would end up getting lost repeatedly.”

Oh dear, often finding yourself in some random location I presume?

The stallion chuckled. “Yes, I found it happening more times than I would have cared to admit, and because of that I felt it was best if I get myself some training in navigation. It ended up turning from something to help a hobby to a passion that turned my then job into a hobby. I would often enjoy the feeling of finding a new town or place and the adventure of meeting the inhabitants and being able to add the new details to my map was exciting beyond words!”

I can imagine, though that seems to answer another question we wanted to ask about, that being how you got the job on board the Cosmic Lotus. So let us ask you this, What attracted you to this mission?

“What attracted me to this mission...? To put it simply: the ability to learn. We get to fill in the blanks when we look up at Luna's sky at night. And, to be honest, we get the honor of creating new questions that will hopefully drive us, or another ship even further.” PB looked off camera then quickly refocused back to the host. “I can only imagine what we'll get to see or even who or what we'll get to meet. Words cannot express the amount of excitement and awe of getting to learn more.”

So you're saying what drives you the most is your desire to learn?

“Yes and no. Getting to see and learn something new is something we do every day, but this–” he gestured with an outstretched wing at the starship’s common room. “This is so much more. I've made games about stuff like this, but getting the chance to live like this, to explore... It’s a dream come true.” Playbitz looked around the room, seeing the looks of admiration from a few and a few raised eyebrows from the rest that let him know he was rambling. He gave a soft cough and continued. “But the colt side of things aside, we were given the rare opportunity to pioneer a new path and I felt that I needed to be part of this journey.”

Thank you very much, Mr. Bitz. I certainly hope you get to learn all you can and that you have a safe journey ahead of you.

“The pleasure is all mine.” Playbitz got up, turned around, and spotted a pony. “Kale, you're up!” he said with a broad smile.

“Gee, thanks for nothing, Pitz,” grumbled the earth pony as he reluctantly came forward to take the chair as the grinning pegasus retreated.

The host sensed a degree of reluctance in the new interviewee and started carefully. “Kale Robe, isn’t it? Thank you for talking with us.

“Yeah, that’s me. What do you wanna know?”

When it comes to starship professions, cook is not one that immediately springs to mind.

Kale smirked. “That’s where you’d be making a mistake, lady. Back in the days when ships only sailed on water, even then the officers knew to keep the crew happy with good meals. And when a voyage is going to take over four decades, you better believe that they’ll want a lot of variety in their food. Your typical automat won’t cut it.”

So you have a repertoire that you believe will keep the crew satisfied for all that time?

Kale pulled a long sharp kitchen knife out from… somewhere. He twirled it on the tip of a hoof, saying, “I’m an artist when it comes to food. Some of the plants that they plan to grow on board are as a result of my suggestions. I will have the food and the skills to satisfy everypony!”

Some of the crew are not ponies though. What about the griffons who need to eat meat in their diet?

“If they can tell the difference between the meat-substitute and a real steak after I’ve cooked it, I’ll put away my precious knives and take up crocheting!”

The host laughed. “I bet the rest of the crew hopes that won’t happen. Thank you once again for talking with us, Kale.

Kale got up, looked about the room, and laid his eyes on the Blue Changeling in the crowd. “I choose you!” he declared.

The changeling shrugged, adjusted the blue scarf around his neck, and walked up to take the interview seat.

Welcome, Steam Shift. How do you feel about being the first-ever Blue Changeling aethernaut?

Steam Shift blushed a little. “I was more than thrilled when Her Majesty, Queen Crystal, gave her permission and encouragement for me to pursue my interest in the exploration of space. While the Blue Hive is the newest after being re-established only a few decades ago, we pride ourselves on being progressive, and I was heavily involved in the research that led to the Cosmic Lotus. It was the fulfilment of a dream to be accepted into the crew.”

You’re a mechanical engineer, I believe?

“That is correct. I worked on the special equipment needed for the extended journey, and the challenges that involved. I will now get to maintain that equipment and be in the forefront of discovery at the same time.”

Does it bother you that you’re the sole Blue Changeling on the ship?

“Not really, although I’d like to point out that the Chrome Changelings are considered to be extremely close family. We’re always welcome in their hive, and vice versa.”

That’s a nice scarf that you’re wearing. Does it have some special meaning to you?

Steam Shift grinned. “Yeah – it was a present and I like it a lot. I wear it all the time.” He flipped one end over a shoulder. “Makes me look stylish.”

The host chuckled. “I have to agree. Thank you for talking with us, Steam Shift.

The changeling got up and looked around at those eagerly waiting their turn. He closed his eyes, spun around, and randomly pointed at someone. The griffon that got chosen, grinned and headed for the chair.

Ortzi Goldbeak, I believe?” the host asked, and when he nodded, she continued, “Isn’t geologist an odd profession for a griffon?

“Interestingly enough, my parents were miners in Equestria. High-altitude mining, that is. Since I grew up in the mines, I got to see some of the basics of the workings of the rock. Ultimately, however, it was the cave-in which took my parents’ lives that inflamed my interest. I wanted to understand how something that seemed so inherently stable could just... collapse... like that.”

That must have been tough. I would have thought that you would have wanted nothing to do with mines after that.

“While it was difficult, I was old enough to be not wholly dependent on my parents, and griffons don’t let tragedy cow them. Once I graduated and went into tertiary education, I focused on geology and even parlayed it into a stint in the Equestrian Engineering Corps as an aerial surveyor. It was quite gneiss. Sorry, geologist humor there.”

The host chuckled uncertainly, failing to understand the pun. She soldiered on. “Why this mission? It hardly seems in line with your interests.

“Beyond the obvious – ‘Because I can and it’s not been done before’, I want to see if I can confirm some of the theories we have on planetary development. We’ve really only had Equus and the Moon to study, and we think we know some of how it works. If we have access to other worlds, or even moons and the like, then we can see if our theories hold true. If they do, well....”

So you’ll just look at rocks?

Ortzi laughed. “No. Remember that I mentioned being part of the EEC? I’ll also be working with others to produce maps of any world we come across. In addition, like a pegasus or ’ling, I’ll also be able to work as an aerial scout to look for dangers on the ground for our flight-challenged cohorts.”

I hope you get to test your theories, Ortzi. Thank you for your time.

Ortzi got up and asked, “Who wants to be next?”

A light brown unicorn mare with golden mane and tail and a two-star cutie-mark stepped forward.

“I need to get back to my work soon, so I’d like my turn now.” When no one objected, she took the interview seat.

Ah, Cosmic Dawn, I believe? My notes say that you are the daughter of the Avatar of Honesty, Forest Breeze; how has that affected your career?

“Well, aside from dealing with having a famous father, he has been quite an inspiration to me. He has always been able to perceive the truth behind something, while I go out and discover those truths.”

And what kind of truths are those?

“My goal is to discover the full relationship between thaumaturgy and classic physics.”

That sounds like quite a task that you have set yourself.

Cosmic Dawn blushed. “I admit that it’s quite an ambitious goal, but I feel that if we are to learn the secrets of the universe, we can’t be too timid about it.”

I suppose that’s a reasonable approach to any profession, but it tends to take over your life. My bio on you says that you have never married or even been in a serious relationship – do you think you might finally find the time to do so on this voyage?

The mare giggled. “I must admit that I had not thought about it that way. There’s an awful lot that I have planned to work on during this voyage. Nevertheless I won’t deny the possibility. I haven’t met all the ponies on the crew yet, so I suppose there’s still hope for an old mare like me.”

Finally, what do you expect to find at the Far Star?

“Oh, we have many theories about that. We’re all looking forward to finding out which one of them is right, if any.”

You wouldn’t be disappointed to find out that you’re completely wrong about it?

Cosmic Dawn laughed. “Sweet Celestia, no! It would mean that we would learn something totally new to us, and that’s incredibly exciting too!”

It seems that you’re in a win-win situation then. Thank you for your insight, Cosmic Dawn.

“You’re welcome.” The mare got out of the chair and looked for the next interviewee, and was startled to see Wandering Path standing there.

“Captain? Do you want to go next?”

Wandering nodded. “Like you, I have work to get on with, so best to get this out of the way.” While he personally felt that the GemVee audience had seen enough of him over the past few months, maintaining public interest in the project was part of his job, so he took the opportunity to fulfil that requirement when it was expedient to do so.

Thank you for taking the time out from what must be a very busy schedule, Captain Path,” the host began.

“Just Wandering will do fine,” he replied with a smile.

Wandering Path… we have heard how there was stiff competition for the position of Ship’s Commander, and yet it’s a member of the Path family that won that position. Was there any kind of favoritism involved?

Internally Wandering winced. There had been some gossip about that, however unfounded, so he had to tread carefully. “If you are implying nepotism, I can see how that might be construed. However, House Path has prided itself on being a meritocracy, and no one, not even close family members get any advantage that way. Time and again we have put the best person for the job ahead of a family member. However, I do have to admit that we have some advantages over others. We have the benefit of excellent teachers and supportive parents, and when your mother is Princess Twilight Sparkle, it’s hard not to learn a broad range of subjects that stand one in good stead for a job like this. That is not to say that I was always likely to get the position. Personally I thought that Commander Bluequill had a very strong chance of beating me to it, and neither of us knew who would get it until the choice was made after some grueling final assessments.”

What do you think won you the post eventually?

“Well, I have had decades of experience leading exploration teams, with several cultural exchanges to my credit, including numerous first contact situations. However, I also have some abilities courtesy of my father that Galen could not replicate.”

Those would be your changeling traits, I presume?

“Correct. While outwardly I am like any other alicorn with the exception of my horn, I do possess a couple of changeling abilities also. The most important in this case is that I can act as a hub for a changeling network. It had always been planned to have a large contingent of changelings aboard the Cosmic Lotus for a multitude of reasons, but because members of one hive will not connect to another hive’s network, it was feared that we would be restricted to just one hive, and that would be one that could also spare a princess to act as a hub. That would have been a major blow to us. However, because I am a pony and of House Path, all the hives were comfortable with using me as an intermediary, and thus we have representatives of every hive aboard.”

So, despite being a pony, you are able to cope with what I am told is a constant flow of information going through your head?

“I was born with that ability, and it comes naturally to me. While I don’t suffer the disconnection anxiety that normal changelings do if I lose contact with the network, it feels a bit weird for it to be so quiet in my head at those times. So coping with a changeling network is a non-issue. It’s actually extremely convenient for me to be able to coordinate activities directly through the network, and it keeps the entire changeling contingent working harmoniously.”

I can see how that could be a major advantage. What do you intend to do when you go into hibernation though?

“I won’t be going into the same type of hibernation as the rest of the crew. Part of my mind will always be active.”

Doesn’t that mean that you will be aware for the entire forty-four years though?

“Yes, although not quite in the same sense as being out of hibernation. You must also understand that I am an immortal alicorn – taking the long view of anything is a necessity. I’m already close to a century old and have learned a great deal about patience and how to keep myself from getting jaded with a lengthy task. I’m also used to being connected to a hive network which gives me some psychological support, and of course I do have some family with me to help too. Family unity and love has always been our strength. It certainly is for me.”

It sounds like the ship is in good hands. I’ll let you get back to your work now, Captain. Bon voyage!

“Thank you, Cherry.” Wandering got up and looked at the crew gathered there. “Okay, who wants their five minutes of fame next?”

The alicorn surrendered the chair to a griffoness, and he left the room to continue with his business while the interviews continued. Although each crewmember was only getting a couple of minutes, with so many of them, the interviews would be going on for quite a while yet, and as much as he was interested, he had more important responsibilities at that moment.

# # #

The next few days were almost a letdown after all the intense preparations for the voyage. Once the scientists had set up their equipment for observations of the Dim Star, there was very little to do but wait until they reached their closest approach. Even the crew who handled the day-to-day operation of the ship were quickly bored as automatic equipment worked virtually flawlessly. Devices designed to last at least half a century were very unlikely to break down, although that was no guarantee that they were perfect.

One such problem had become apparent due to the harsh acceleration from the rocket boosters, although it had taken a day for it to be noticed. A leak in a nutrient feed line for the hibernation pods had been found after testing had revealed a systems loss. This was reported to Wandering along with the notification that repairs were already under way. With nothing important to do, he decided to check it out to see for himself if it was as minor as he had been advised. He found a dracopony there, waiting with a wry grin on his face.

“Eon? What’s going on?” Wandering asked before he was interrupted by profuse cursing coming from the open hatch of a service conduit.

At first it was in Equish, but then it shifted to Griffish, saying something so vile that the speaker would have been challenged to an honor duel on the spot. It was followed by Prench obscenities so rancid that the culprit would have been bodily tossed out of Prance so fast, there would have been a sonic boom.

Wandering and Eon looked at each other and said simultaneously, “Purple Point.”

Another burst of expletives followed, this time in Saddle Arabian. Wandering had learned many languages in his travels around Equus, with a fluency that almost matched his herd father’s talent for them. He cringed a little as he recognized the curse.

Eon said, “I was sent to help if needed. I might be wrong, but I think it’s giving him a bit of trouble.”

“Perhaps, but you know Purple Point – once he fixes something, it stays fixed. Be on standby in case he really does need help, but otherwise don’t let him know you’re here. No need to embarrass him about his compulsive profanity.”

An outburst in ancient thestral immediately highlighted Wandering’s words, making him blanch as he recognized the malediction.

“And for Celestia’s sake, keep everyone else out of this room!” the alicorn ordered before he beat a hasty retreat.

# # #

By a stroke of good fortune and a well-planned time of departure, the course of the Cosmic Lotus was due to take it through the tail of a comet that was presently passing through the system. Preparations for this unprecedented opportunity kept part of the crew busy for some time. Then when they intercepted the comet tail, Starry was tasked with forming a special funnel-shaped magic shield that let them scoop up some of it into a container, punching a safe passage through it at the same time.

The event was recorded by the more artistically inclined, concentrating on the beauty of the sight as they approached, passed through, and left behind the wanderer of space. After the sample was retrieved, Destined Path teleported aboard, confirming that the primary mana beacon was functioning correctly. He collected a portion of the comet sample, taking it back to Equus for testing purposes, leaving the rest for the scientists aboard the ship to work upon. Boredom was not going to be an issue for them!

# # #

The Dim Star was well named. On the fourth day of their approach, observations revealed a gas giant that glowed a deep maroon that was still barely distinguishable from the dark purple stellar background. Nevertheless, Starry and her team were busy taking readings and measurements with a degree of accuracy that had heretofore been impossible. The work continued until Wandering’s voice came over the public address system.

All crew – prepare for slingshot maneuver around the Dim Star. Ensure that all articles are securely stowed and instruments locked down. Take your assigned seats for acceleration. Artificial gravity will be discontinued for the duration of the maneuver. You have precisely thirty minutes from now to be ready. Mark!

Starry and her team took their final measurements and either put their equipment on standby or stowed them safely. The one piece of equipment that was not stowed was designed to take a sample of the Dim Star’s emissions in a similar way to how they got the comet material. She then headed up to the bridge where she found her sibling relaxing in his acceleration couch, eyes closed and horn glowing.

“Astronomy section ready, Captain. Want me to take over the shield?”

While the Dim Star gave very little light, at their present proximity, it emitted more than enough heat and radiation to give the Cosmic Lotus problems. The ship had a built-in shield spell, but nothing was ever taken for granted. Wandering was currently monitoring the shield and had a back-up spell ready to take over in an emergency.

Wandering opened his eyes and nodded. “Take your seat and I’ll transfer control.”

Starry took her assigned couch and lit her horn. Wandering let her take over monitoring the shield and then turned his attention to other activities.

“Playbitz – how are we doing?”

“I’ve calculated our final orbital adjustments, Captain. Ready to apply them on your mark,” the pegasus replied.

Wandering hit the PA. button again. “All stations report readiness!”

One by one, the heads of each department reported in, and then there were a few more minutes of waiting.

Playbitz said, “Thirty seconds to orbital maneuvers.”

Wandering announced, “All crew – final warning. Maneuvers begin in twenty seconds. Artificial gravity will now discontinue.” He then turned to Playbitz and said, “You have the con.”

“Aye, Captain.”

Precisely on time, the maneuvering thrusters fired, adjusting their trajectory to the precise alignment needed to fling their spaceship around the Dim Star on the optimal path. The ship shuddered under the thrust for a brief while before shutting down.

“Alignment maneuvers completed successfully,” Playbitz reported. “Countdown to main thrust begun.”

A digital read-out of the time remaining before their main engines would fire appeared on the bridge’s central monitor. This was repeated at various points around the ship, and tension grew as this critical stage drew near. With just four minutes until periapsis with the Dim Star, the countdown reached zero, and the main engines fired. Huge tanks of liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen supplied the rocket engine, and the crew were thrust back into their acceleration couches. This continued until their orbit reached their closest approach to the failed star, and then they started receding from it again as the Oldbird Effect multiplied the acceleration of their rocket’s thrust. Six minutes after it began, the engines shut off as the last of the liquid hydrogen was expended.

There were sighs of relief as the dreadful pressure of high acceleration was relieved and they went back into freefall.

“Report, Playbitz,” Wandering ordered.

“Slingshot went precisely as planned, Captain. We are on course back to the Equus system.”

“Excellent!” He hit the public address again. “All crew – begin post maneuver operations and report. Artificial gravity resumes now.” Wandering then turned his attention to his sibling. “How is the shield, Starry?”

“Holding up well, Captain. That was quite a ride.”

“Aside from some possible course corrections, that should be the last of the hard stuff. You can get back to your department now. I’ll resume monitoring the shield.”

One changeover later, Starry headed back to rejoin her team.

# # #

The trip back to the Equus system was going to take far less time than the journey to the Dim Star, but work began immediately to reconfigure the fuel tanks. The last vestiges of hydrogen were bled off into the vacuum of space and then the pipe was permanently sealed. There was fractionally more oxygen than hydrogen to ensure that all the hydrogen fuel was fully burnt, and the remaining was salvaged for use in the spaceship before that tank was also thoroughly evacuated and its feed pipe sealed. Then a bulkhead was opened into the oxygen tank through an airlock, and crew dressed in pressure suits entered with cutting equipment. A low-strength artificial gravity field was applied to keep everything and everyone from drifting around, and they went to one end of the tank where they proceeded to cut through the end of it, revealing a cylindrical connection to the hydrogen tank. This they cut through also, joining the two tanks into one huge cylindrical empty space. The two tank ends were cut up into manageable pieces and stacked aside to be recycled later, before they opened a port in the joint section and flushed all the fumes out of the whole section. After closing the port, they then gave the word to Engineering that it was ready to fill with air.

Pre-installed ports gushed air from pressure tanks, including the salvaged oxygen. Heaters were turned on to bring the frigid air up to normal ship’s temperature. Within hours, the former fuel tanks had been turned into a livable open air environment, and the crew were able to shed their pressure suits.

Radiant Spark stretched her wings, glad to be free of the confinement of her suit. “I get to try this out first!” she declared, and launched herself into the air. She flew to the end of the open space where she flipped around to thrust off the bulkhead and flew down the entire length of the joined tanks where she repeated her maneuver and flew back to the others. “That felt so good after all this time!”

Steam Shift buzzed his wings and hovered a bit. “I can empathize a little, although changelings don’t feel the need to fly as much as a pegasus would. Let’s give the rest of the winged crew a chance to do what you just did before we begin working on turning this into a linear park.”

For the remainder of the return to the Equus system, all the pegasi and griffons took turns to stretch their wings and indulge in their desire to fly while a small crew worked on installing pipes and other connections through the bulkhead in preparation for the task of making the open area into a place of rest and relaxation for the benefit of the entire crew.

# # #

Shortly before they arrived back at the Equus system, Destined Path teleported aboard, confirming that the secondary mana beacon was also working correctly. He took possession of his allocation of the sample gathered from the Dim Star, and also the preliminary results of the research done on it and the comet in the few days since they had acquired them. He wished the crew luck for the final stage, and then teleported back to Equus for the final time.

As critical as their maneuvers around the Dim Star had been, their alignment for the final acceleration of the Cosmic Lotus was even more crucial. Thrusters were used to minutely alter their trajectory as they approached the sun. While Playbitz was in command of their navigation, he had two others checking and re-checking all parameters. This time they would be using a gravity-assist slingshot around Celestia’s orb to not only give them another boost, but to also put them on the precise trajectory that they needed for their push to near light-speed. Once again, the ship’s shield was up and protecting them from the deadly radiance of the sun. This time though, they did not rely entirely upon just that, and Starry was actively empowering a secondary shield to ensure protection against the sun’s far more powerful output of energy.

Everyone was once again in their acceleration couches as the Cosmic Lotus slipped into the sun’s gravity well. No thrust was applied this time though, letting gravity do all the work. They whipped around the tiny star, heading toward a fly-by of Equus. At a precisely determined moment when the danger from the sun was minimized and the pressure of the solar wind was perfect, the next stage began.

“Deploy solar sail!” Wandering commanded.

Several storage compartments on the outside of the ship snapped open, and the sails started unfurling. Carbon nanotube stays snapped into place, spreading ultra-thin, super-strong graphene sheets with a highly reflective coating. The process continued as the sails resembled unfolding petals of the flower that gave the starship its name. The astounding thinness of the material enabled the sails to keep unfurling kilometer after kilometer, and the intense light pressure started pushing them into their final shape. Despite maximizing the process by their close pass to the sun, the sails only finished filling out to their final overall diameter of nearly fifty kilometers as the Cosmic Lotus slipped past Equus, exposing it to the night side of the planet, the world’s gravity nudging its orbit slightly onto its final course.

# # #

An immense crowd was gathered in the courtyard of Canterlot Castle, consisting almost exclusively of unicorns. The two Royal Sisters stood on the balcony overlooking the vast gathering, but all eyes were on the horizon as a brilliant new star rose into the evening sky. There were oohs and aahs of awe as the shimmering object moved higher and higher above the horizon.

“Mares and Gentlecolts,” Luna began in the Royal Canterlot Voice which reached each and every pony gathered. “The time has come to participate in Equus’ mightiest challenge – a journey to the stars themselves. You are witnessing the solar sail of the Cosmic Lotus as it aligns itself on a course to the Far Star, but to get there, it must first be pushed up to near the speed of light itself. My sister and I will provide the thrust necessary, but the sheer volume of power we must expend for a lengthy duration is beyond our ability to sustain for the necessary period. Therefore we called upon you, the unicorns of Equestria, to help us meet this challenge. Soon, we will begin our effort, and we will ask you to sustain us. Are you ready to make history?”

There was a roar of assent from the crowd of unicorns who had been attracted to the event by nationwide advertising. While the average unicorn had no chance of being part of the Cosmic Lotus project, in this way they could play a small but vital part in its success. Their horns lit up in anticipation.

Luna continued, “When Captain Wandering Path gives us the word, my sister and I will begin transmitting a beam of power tuned to give the maximum thrust to the sails of the Cosmic Lotus. I will be mostly responsible for its guidance, whereas Celestia will primarily handle the flow of power. After we have begun, you may then direct your power to her. Do not overtax yourselves! This process will take hours, and it is most important that the effort be continued at a high and steady level. If you tire, rest yourself as long as needed. You may rejoin the effort at any time. Know this – there is no prize for contributing the most power, and there is no need to try to outlast your neighbor. This is a group effort, not an individual competition. Nonetheless, medics will be standing by in case you overtax yourselves. Let this be a day to remember though, not one to regret.”

There were more cheers from the audience.

“The time is nigh. We await the word from the Cosmic Lotus.”

# # #

“Sails are at maximum; course is locked,” Playbitz announced.

“All systems green,” reported Commander Bluequill.

“Cut artificial gravity,” Wandering ordered.

The spacecraft went into near freefall, the tiny thrust from the solar sails hardly noticeable.

“Stand-by for acceleration to light-speed. Engage the mass-reducing spell.”

Starry had the complex spell already primed in her head. All it took was the magic to empower it. Her horn lit up, and everyone aboard felt a strange sensation as inertia plummeted due to virtually all mass being neutralized by the sophisticated incantation. The starship leaped forward under the thrust of the light of the sun, but it was still nowhere near the acceleration they needed. A critical stability component of the spell left the ship and all inside unable to perceive the acceleration, relying instead upon their instruments measuring the retreat of Equus and Celestia's orb. Wandering reached for the comm switch which connected him to a receiver that was set next to the Royal Sisters in Canterlot.

“This is Cosmic Lotus. We are go for star-thrust.”

Moments later, the sails were filled with a blindingly powerful coherent beam of energy coming from the world below them, and the Cosmic Lotus leapt forward at a mind-numbing rate. Sensors at the edges of the sail set at ninety degrees to the next kept the sails centered on the beam and the angle at the precise orientation required to keep the ship on course for the Far Star. Complex magitek control systems automatically made the adjustments in a fraction of a second, maximizing the amount of thrust.

Even though the mass-reducing spell had done exactly as its name described, it was not perfect. An infinitesimal amount of mass still manifested, and that leftover amount had to be accelerated to a speed that nopony had dreamed of mere decades ago. This would take some time, and Wandering prepared to take over the spell in shifts with his sibling during that period, while the rest of the crew could only wait, watch, and hope.

# # #

The GemVee crew that was recording the event watched the display of power in awe. A nearly blinding beam of energy streamed skyward from the alicorn sisters even as weaker streams of magic flowed from all the gathered unicorns towards Celestia. The reporter spoke in hushed tones as she described the event.

“As the Cosmic Lotus is lit up by the combined magic of the Princesses and Equestria’s unicorn citizens, we watch as it leaves the surly bonds of this world. For the first time, Equians are headed for the stars, and when they finally reach their destination, who knows what wonders they will find there? What a lucky time it is for you young foals, chicks, and nymphs to be living in!”

# # # # # #

Author's Note:

Note: Oldbird Effect = Oberth Effect - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oberth_effect

Props to Airy Words for his help in keeping this scientifically accurate, and his usual feedback.

I have been trying to keep a balance between the characters and the starship, so I hope you've been enjoying it so far.

Art by Foxenawolf

   
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