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".


7. Power Problems

Wandering Path woke up feeling relaxed and more content than he had for quite a long time. A lot of the reason for that mood currently had her head pillowed on his chest and a foreleg wrapped around him possessively. And although she seemed to be fast asleep still, her face held a soft smile that mirrored his feelings. His horn lit up and his magic pushed stray strands of her mane out of her face as he gazed at her lovingly.

Last night had changed their relationship forever, although he found it hard to define. They were far more than siblings, but not quite romantic lovers. Best friends with benefits was about as close as he could call it. Whatever it could be classed as, he was sure that neither of them wished to go back to the way things had been previously. In spite of being very happily married when he had been a zebra mare, there had always been a disquieting truth behind the relationship – Kamari would have died of old age eventually, but Mwasikwao would not. Or more accurately, the alicorn that he really was would live on to mourn his lost love, irrespective of how long Kamari would have lived. The Alicorn’s Curse was not one that was easily dealt with, and each member of that exclusive group had to find ways to cope. Wandering decided that he and Starry might have finally found theirs, and they had the next ten years together to decide if they wanted to make it a lifelong commitment.

It was not about the sex, although that was a wonderful bonus. They had both proved last night that teenage fantasies did not come close to the marvelous reality of two well-matched lovers. Their closeness as youths had never been given an opportunity to blossom into something more due to their perception as siblings, but their more mature outlook enabled them to look past that artificial limitation and discover more about each other. He looked forward to enjoying furthering those discoveries.

Wandering hoped that he had the discipline to not let their change of status affect the way he commanded the Cosmic Lotus. Even with the unexpected boon due to the unexpected time dilation effect, they still had at least a decade to spend confined to the starship, and as much as possible, the crew had been chosen to be able to get along reasonably harmoniously with each other. Favoring Starry would not be of benefit to the mission, so they had to be a little more circumspect in the future.

As it happened, he had duties to perform, but he was pretty much trapped by Starry. He discovered that his right wing was numb as a consequence of the mare sleeping on top of it. He was going to have one heck of a case of pins and needles when the circulation was properly restored! He was spared having to wake Starry though, and he put off that experience for a while by exercising his other inborn talent – his link to the changeling network. Closing his eyes, he visualized his hub. Just as non-changeling visitors to the Chrome Hive network would enter a virtual room to be guided safely by changeling attendants, Wandering had created a virtual control center to efficiently manage operations throughout the ship. His inner eyes opened to a small circular room lined with video screens. There were no doors or windows as they were unnecessary. The room had but one piece of furniture – a swivel chair upon which he sat and could turn to observe what was happening on the dozens of screens. Each of them showed what one of the changeling crew was seeing, and a status monitor under each screen showed other relevant data. It was all just a way of interpreting the constant flow of information that came his way, for despite his ability to link and be a hub for a changeling hive mind, in the end, he was not a changeling, and did not perceive things as they did. This was a very useful workaround however.

Wandering checked out the bridge first. Although it was unlikely that there would be a need for actual maneuvering for a very long time, the bridge also served to monitor all the ship’s functions, and although it always had a minimum of two crew members there, a changeling was always one of them, enabling the alicorn to check its status at any time. Right now though, the most exciting thing happening was a game of chess between the chrome changeling and Gizmo Gears. Although the crew had to be present in case a problem came up, they did not have to constantly watch the monitoring equipment. Audible alarms would alert them, and in the meantime they found ways of staving off boredom. Wandering smirked a little when he realized that a few of the other changelings were observing the game too, and he wondered if the unicorn knew that he might be up against more than one mind in this contest.

Moving on, Wandering checked out the other screens. Several showed the Mess Room, and breakfast had begun to be served. Waffles were on the menu this morning, and were those eggs? Yes! The chickens that had been brought out of stasis had started laying, and apparently there were enough to serve everyone who might want some. He was sure that Kale Robe would have reserved some for his baking already. That resource was limited, so Wandering made a point to get one or two while they were available.

What was next? He peered at the next screen before hastily averting his eyes. Whoops! That particular changeling was getting his fill of love emotion in the best possible way, and it was none of the alicorn’s business, but what he had seen could not be unseen. Although she was one amazing flirt, he had not realized ColdFire’s inclinations went that far!

He continued to check on the status of other parts of the ship through changeling eyes, and found everything to be nominal and nothing in need of his personal attention. He became aware of a physical sensation outside of his virtual environment, and he banished the room to the back of his mind and opened his eyes once more. He found himself peering directly into Starry’s green orbs.

“Good morning, Wandering. How are you feeling?” Starry asked with a knowing smile.

“Like my whole world got a lot better, Starry, and I suspect yours did too.”

“Mmm, uh-huh. It was worth the wait.”

“I agree. I think we’ll be spending a lot more nights together.”

“You better believe it! After all these years, I’m not letting this go.”

Wandering chuckled. “I won’t argue with that. Are you feeling hungry? Breakfast is being served.”

Starry giggled. “Oh, I’m hungry alright, but not for that.” She licked her lips as she gave him a smoldering look.

“Really? More sex?”

“You tell me, O former zebra mare – did your heat last just one evening?”

“Um, no, of course not.”

“So what’s on the menu?”

Wandering smirked. “Right now, I suspect you are.”

“Got that right, lover!” Starry then began to show Wandering just how hungry she was for him.

Wandering briefly hoped he would not miss out on the eggs before all such thoughts were firmly pushed aside.

Unsurprisingly, Wandering had quite an appetite by the time that they managed to get to the mess room. Whether by luck or the grace of the chef, he got the eggs that he craved – poached upon a steaming-hot waffle and covered in a creamy hollandaise sauce. He was halfway through the delicious meal when he saw ColdFire walk in for her breakfast. Considering what she had been up to earlier, he was impressed that he still had beaten her to the mess hall. Half a minute later, Xanth discreetly arrived also. Wandering let him get his food – just a biscuit with jam and a mug of coffee – before gesturing to the changeling to join him at the table. Through his network link, the alicorn could sense Xanth’s highly energized condition, with a hint of curiosity and concern as to what his captain wanted.

Wandering was hardly surprised at the chrome changeling’s sprightly vigor, considering the real meal that Xanth had gotten earlier. He kind of envied the changeling’s ability to charge up on that type of energy. Still, there were some things that he did not want to share. “Sit down, Xanth,” he said, indicating the chair next to him.

“Is there any problem, sir?” Xanth asked as he put his plate and mug down on the table and sat in the chair.

“Not exactly. You like ColdFire a lot, I take it?”

Xanth was startled for a moment before he gave Wandering a guilty look. “Umm, yeah.”

“Oh, stop looking so concerned!” Wandering said with a cheerful grin. “She seemed to enjoy the company, and that’s all that matters.”

“Oh… you saw…?”

“Yes, I did. Please do me a favor and hang a virtual ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign out when you two are in private. I’m no changeling queen where this kind of thing is normal. What you and she do in private is none of my business, and I prefer to keep it that way.”

“Understood, sir.”

“Considering the way that you two came in separately, I guess you’re keeping your relationship quiet for now too. Since I hadn’t noticed until now, I presume that it’s a recent thing?”

“Not exactly. We started doing things together while still in training. But now that we’re underway, ColdFire does not have as many outlets for her energy, while I am more than happy to provide some, so our relationship has grown a lot recently. She’s still a little uncertain how far she wants to take things, but what she does, she does with her usual wholehearted enthusiasm. I find myself hoping to further the relationship.”

“I’d say that most if not all the changelings aboard this ship are hoping to find compatible partners too, so you’re hardly unique there. Anyway, I don’t want to know their private lives either, so pass the word, and good luck to you both.”

“Yes, sir, and thanks.”

Wandering could have sent that advice over the network, but he felt a bit odd advising the changelings about their sex lives. A more discreet conventional mode was quite adequate. Besides, he really did not want any echoes of his own new relationship to leak out as yet. He and Starry needed a bit of time to find their new dynamic, but at least it promised to be interesting.

Wandering set off on his daily inspection of the ship. Although he visited all sections, he tended to spend extra time in one of them, a different one each day, looking for even trivial problems, relying on the section heads to do their jobs properly for the most part. Today though, it was one of those heads of department who was the potential cause for concern.

The alicorn made his way into the hibernation bay, nodding to the Violet Changelings on duty there. He walked down the rows of pods, each containing a crewmember suspended in the magical gel that kept them in ageless and dreamless stasis indefinitely. They all looked peacefully asleep, and Wandering was reassured that the people for whom he was responsible were in good hooves. While all the hives had their version of the pods, the Violet Hive had the most advanced ones and were the unanimous choice for the extended mission. They were fortunate to get the services of one of the hive’s princesses too, but that had brought with it an unfortunate consequence. Today he hoped to clear that up once and for all.

When Wandering returned to the monitoring station, Princess Galena was waiting there, and although her outer expression was serene, there was an undercurrent of hostility that he could sense through the mini-network.

“Anything wrong, Captain?” Galena inquired.

“Not with the hibernation pods anyway,” Wandering replied.

“Then there is something you wish to discuss?”

“I do. Can we talk about it in private?”

Galena nodded and headed to the door to her office, and the alicorn followed. The changeling sat behind her desk which was partially covered with equipment that monitored everything in her section. Wandering settled down on a mat in front of the desk.

“So – what can I do for you, Captain?”

“What is your problem with me?” Wandering asked bluntly.

“Sir?” Galena replied with a faint look of puzzlement on her face.

Wandering sighed. “Look, I’m not going to dance around this subject, and you know exactly what I mean. You have been cool towards me ever since the final crew selection was made. My family has never had anything but cordial relationships with the Violet Hive and Queen Lamina, so what about me is tweaking your chitin?”

Galena stared silently at Wandering for such a long time that he thought that she was not going to reply, but eventually she said, “You are not a changeling.”

“That is blatantly obvious, but how is that a problem?”

“A hive network should be controlled by a changeling, not a pony.”

“There is nothing sacrosanct about that. My sire is a changeling, and my twisted horn is confirmation of my heritage. That should be good enough for you.”

“You still cannot control a network like I could.”

“Is that what this is all about? You feel that I don’t deserve to be the controller of the Cosmic Lotus network?” He wondered a little how he had never been able to sense that over the link, putting it down to the young queen’s superior abilities.

“I am perfectly capable of managing this network without you.”

“That is not the point, Princess. This is not a hive, and the requirements are different. Besides, you already know why I was chosen to be the command hub. I’m a neutral party for all the hives involved. We needed the talents of all the changelings that succeeded in being selected for the crew, not just the Violets.”

“Yes, we do, and if you weren’t on the crew, then they would have been forced to choose me as the controller. Necessity would have forced the non-Violet Changelings to accept me.”

“Perhaps you’re right, but that would have been an uneasy alliance at best. While I personally feel that there are no logical grounds preventing one hive from linking networks with another, there is a deeply ingrained aversion to doing so. Perhaps sometime in the future, that might change, but right now we need a harmonious network of all changelings, and I was the solution. You cannot deny that it has worked, and I have had no problems with any of those linked to me except you. That makes this a personality problem, not a practical one. So – how are we going to deal with this?”

“You can work on your aversion problem and transition the control to me. I acknowledge that it can’t happen immediately, but we could complete the transfer in much less than ten years. And I could work with the other changelings much more efficiently than you ever could.”

Wandering sighed. “Is it the power you want? You’re already a princess of your hive…”

“The youngest princess! I will never be the queen of my hive!”

“…and you’re already the fallback controller if anything happens to me.”

Galena rolled her eyes. “As if that is likely to happen.”

“I rather hope not. But there’s one other factor that makes your proposal problematic – it would reduce my effectiveness at monitoring everything on the ship. I need to be the hub to work with the changeling crewmembers.”

A touch of uncertainty crossed Galena’s face for the first time. “I’m sure that there is a way that we can work around that.”

Wandering smirked. “You know what – the best minds on Equis had not found a way before we left, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t one. So I’m giving you permission to try.”

Galena looked surprised, and the alicorn felt a let-up of the previously unrelenting undercurrent of hostility. “Are you serious?”

“I am. But… unless and until you have a one hundred percent solution, I expect your complete willing and respectful cooperation. I need a team leader that I can utterly depend upon, one who won’t be trying to undermine my authority. Also, I will not unilaterally impose a change in the leadership of the changeling network upon those within it. You also need to gain the trust and respect of all changelings on board.”

Wandering saw the changeling princess bristle slightly. “That's not how changeling hierarchy works. Drones follow the instructions of their leader.”

He chuckled. “This a ship, not a hive, and we have a unique situation here. You are going to have to be adaptable if you want to achieve your goal. They will need to have confidence in you before you can become their leader. If it helps, try thinking of the changelings outside your hive as ponies as you get to know them. And Princess, there’s one other incentive to bear in mind. Irrespective of whether you succeed in finding a solution on this journey, your experience will be unmatched by any other changeling. The exploration of our universe has only just begun, and the Cosmic Lotus will hardly be the last starship to seek out its mysteries, and those new ships are going to need a queen in charge of its changelings. It might take more than ten years, but I can virtually guarantee that one day you will be the network controller for your own ship. So don’t blow this assignment with impatience or overreaching ambition.”

Galena looked deeply thoughtful for a long moment before she nodded. “We have a deal, Captain.”

This time Wandering felt neither the hostility nor reluctance that the changeling had started the meeting with. It seemed that he had convinced her, and that was a load off his mind. “Excellent! I look forward to a long and harmonious relationship with you, Princess Galena.” He got up to his hooves, a satisfied smile on his face. “Carry on, Section Leader.”

“Aye, Captain,” Galena replied with a faint smile.

Wandering Path left the hibernation bay with a great deal of satisfaction. Averting a possible power tussle was satisfying, but it also did much to reassure himself that he was capable of leading this crew to its goal. While he might be a powerful alicorn, it was words that would be his most potent tool for this task. Even a mere ten years instead of forty-two was a long time to spend with hostile crewmembers, and he had to vindicate the faith that had been put in him as the commanding officer of this ship. He had to keep his eyes and ears open for any sign of friction, and losing the changeling network would have been a major blow. While he wished Galena well, he was glad that it was unlikely that she would solve the problem presented to her. And if she did – well, that was something he would just have to deal with if it happened. Nobody said that this was going to be an easy job, and that was a good thing. Otherwise it would be boring, and where was the fun in that?

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