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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9. Wear & Tear

“What am I looking at?” Wandering asked.

On the screen before him was a simple equation: C²M=E.

Starry Path and Cosmic Dawn looked at each other and grinned. “An answer to a lot of your questions,” Dawn replied.

“I didn’t realize that my questions involved obscure letters,” the alicorn stallion complained.

Starry patted Wandering on the withers. “Don’t stress too much about it – we plan to give you just the basics.”

“And besides, it’s only one of the many strange and wonderful things that we have uncovered,” Dawn added.

“Mostly Dawn, though,” Starry said with a nod toward her colleague. “She’s a lot stronger with theory than I am.”

“But it was your experimental observations that helped make the breakthrough,” Dawn insisted.

Wandering cleared his throat to gain the two mares’ attention. “Would you mind stopping the mutual admiration fest and get on with the explanation? What has your months of research and brainstorming revealed, and how does it relate to the mission?”

Dawn said, “Well, it all started when you made me realize that this was a pure physics problem and including thaumaturgy only distorted the facts.”

“What facts are these?”

“There are two basic postulates. First – the laws of physics are the same for all observers in uniform motion relative to one another. The second is that the speed of light in a vacuum is the same for all observers, regardless of their relative motion or of the motion of the light source.”

“Still not seeing how those letters relate,” Wandering complained.

Starry rolled her eyes with exasperation. “How about giving Dawn a chance to explain?”

The stallion chuckled at himself and smiled. “I’ll shut up now.”

Dawn giggled and continued. “We set up some experiments to test my theories and came up with some surprising and counter-intuitive consequences. Some of these we have already observed, the most obvious of which is time dilation. A clock moving relative to the observer’s stationary clock will always tick slower. For the most part, we never notice this because the difference is tiny until you reach very high speeds.”

“Such as getting close to the speed of light?” Wandering asked.

“Or at least a significant portion thereof. And the progression is exponential, so the closer you get to light-speed, the greater the increase in dilation. At our current speed of 97.4% of the speed of light, that time dilation is only a bit over four times normal time, hence why our journey has apparently diminished from forty-two years to only ten. But that is only for us! To those back on Equus, our trip will still take forty-two years. If we had managed to get up to 99% light-speed, one second would become 7.1 seconds, at 99.5%, ten seconds, and at 99.9%, over twenty-two seconds!”

“So, what happens if you reach one hundred percent?”

“You can’t.”

“Why not?”

“Because of that equation,” Dawn replied as she pointed at the screen.

“Which means…?”

“Mass-energy equivalence. All mass and energy are equivalent and transmutable. That’s why it got harder and harder for Celestia and Luna to push us. The mass-cancelling spell reduces a fixed percentage of the ship's mass. As we gained more kinetic energy with respect to the Equus frame of reference, that increased our mass from their perspective. That's why we seemed to be receiving far less thrust the faster we went! Another consequence of this "relativity" is that from our frame of reference, we are always stationary, so our own perceived mass stays constant!”

“You were right when you said that this is counter-intuitive. So what exactly do those letters mean?”

Starry replied, “M stands for mass and E stands for energy. You multiply mass by the square of the speed of light to get the equivalent amount of energy.”

“That’s an awful large amount of energy, but why do you write C instead of L?”

“Because strictly speaking, it’s the speed of Causality. No event can travel faster than its cause, and seeing as light and other electromagnetic radiation are the fastest things possible in pure physics, the speed of light is a handy reference. But it’s still basically causality.”

“But teleportation and the crystal comms work instantaneously irrespective of distance, thus increasing the speed of causality to either infinite or close to it,” Wandering pointed out.

“But only when thaumaturgy is involved, as is the case with both of those instances. Thaumaturgy has its own inviolable rules, but they can override a purely physical phenomenon. Without magic though, we hit a hard limit. Causality is Queen of Reality.”

“So there’s no way to go faster than light without magic being involved?”

“None that we know of,” Dawn replied. “This universe has a speed limit, although intriguingly my equations have hinted at different limits for other universes.”

“Like Mom has visited?” Wandering asked.

Dawn nodded. “Princess Twilight Sparkle could do science a big favor by doing some measurements for us when she next visits a parallel universe, although it’s possible that nearby universes have the same or very similar limits. But we will never know unless we do the research.”

The alicorn stallion grinned. “Once Mom learns about this, you just know that she’s going to throw herself into that research immediately. Maybe even tear Pif and Hype away from their current work.”

Starry smiled. “Yeah, that would be exactly what Mama Twilight would do.”

Wandering drew in a deep breath and let it out in a huff as he stood up. “Well, I’m happy to see that you two have solved the puzzle and got it all worked out.”

The two mares looked at each other and burst out laughing.

The stallion looked at them with an eyebrow arched in confusion. “What am I missing here?”

Starry choked down her laughter enough to answer. “Oh, Wandering, we have barely scratched the surface of this new science and given you a simplistic explanation. There are probably decades of research and experimentation ahead of us and other physicists. For example, we still don't know how gravity ties in.”

“I see. Well, I know when I am out of my depth. You two can have that kind of fun all to yourselves. I have a ship to run, so I’ll leave you to it.” Wandering beat a hasty retreat. His field of knowledge covered neither theoretical physics nor smug mares. He only hoped that Starry would not bring her work home to bed tonight.

Wandering decided to stop by the mess hall to grab a mug of coffee. There were a fair number of crewmembers there already either having a meal or like him, getting some form of refreshment. After acquiring his favorite brew, he sat at one of the tables and observed the others while sipping the drink. Most were just chatting or discussing some aspect of their work, but he noticed Xanth and ColdFire seated in close proximity together with some of their friends. As he watched, the mare got up from her seat, leaned over the changeling and nibbled his ear. Then with a grin and a wink at the others, she left the room. The changeling blushed as his friends laughed and made some sort of comments which Wandering couldn’t quite make out, but it was clear to him what had happened. ColdFire had publically staked a claim to Xanth and he had to chuckle too. She was such a flirt while Xanth was so much more subdued, and yet it was obvious that they went well together. While changelings had a lot in common with ponies, there were several things that were markedly different. One of these was the lack of jealousy, so when ColdFire flirted with other people, it did not bother him at all. He knew that she was only being playful, and she showed how much she appreciated that freedom by making it clear whom she cared for the most. Changelings, however, were obviously not immune to embarrassment, and he endured his friends’ ribbing as best as he could.

After Wandering lost interest in Xanth, he looked around the room to see Travelling Soul in deep discussion with Epic Prose about something written in the book before them. The unicorn and the pegasus had been collaborating for a while on something that they had refused to discuss with others, although Wandering suspected that it was either a new story or a stage-play. Soul picked up a pen in his magic to write something in the book while Prose adjusted his bifocal glasses and considered it critically.

The alicorn left the two to their Muses and his attention landed on Techbird. The ancient griffoness looked tired and worn even beyond her years. He got up and walked over to her table, sitting down again opposite her.

“Has my Chief Scientist been overdoing things again?” he asked.

Techbird gave him a wan smile. “The work with Cosmic Dawn and Starry Path was both fascinating and rewarding, but it was also exhausting.”

“I just came from a briefing with them. You’ve all done fine work.”

“Thank you. If nothing else, this discovery has justified the effort that has gone into the Cosmic Lotus program, but we still have the ultimate goal to look forward to.”

Wandering allowed his concern to show through. “Tech – I’m worried about you. You’ve been pushing yourself hard for months, but you’re not a young griff anymore. Those prosthetics of yours can’t replace vital rest and relaxation.”

“I know, Captain, but there is so much to be accomplished before we reach the Far Star. I thought that we would have forty-two years, but instead we have only ten. Solving the problems caused by the relativity effects just ate into that time further.”

“Surely you didn’t intend to work the entire forty-two years we originally allowed for?”

“Of course I did. Hibernation is only for those who are neither essential nor have sufficient stimulation to keep themselves from growing bored. None of that applies to me.”

“But overwork most definitely does. Frankly, Tech, you are not going to be of any use to anyone if you have a breakdown. You need to take time off from your work to relax for a while. In other words – you need a vacation.”

Techbird stared at Wandering for a long moment before replying with a touch of humor. “What do you suggest? A trip to the beach? Skiing in the Foal Mountains perhaps?”

“Funny catbird,” the alicorn said with a smile. “No, I’ll start you off easy. I’m commanding you to visit the spa and get the works. Relax and de-stress. That’s a direct order.” Wandering finished off his coffee and stood up. “A good long sleep after that too. Enjoy your vacation, Techbird.”

The griffoness watched the stallion walk away before considering his commands. She had so much work to do, but she could not ignore an order. Besides, he had not ordered her into the stasis pods for mandatory rejuvenation... this time. With a sigh, she lifted her left foreleg and tapped the device strapped upon it.

It was about the middle of Ixia’s shift, and she was enjoying a lull in business. There was no such thing as a typical day, but some were busier than others. This morning she had a group booking and had to call in some assistants to cope, but she also had her regulars. She checked those off her appointment board and then blinked with surprise when she saw a new name pop up requesting a time slot. She tapped Techbird’s name to connect her to the griffoness.

“What can I do for you, Chief Scientist Techbird?” she asked when the comm connected.

I’m told that I need to relax and de-stress, so I was wondering when you would have time available.

“As it happens, now would be a good time. Were you after any particular treatment?”

Our good Captain suggested that I get the works, whatever that is.

Ixia smiled to herself. If Wandering had suggested that, it was a little more than a dip in the hot tub that the griffoness required. Tapping her appointment board, she blocked out a long private session for Techbird. “I can manage that. Please make your way to the spa, and I will have everything ready for you when you arrive.”

Thank you. I will be there soon.” Techbird closed the call.

Given the sedate pace at which the augmented griffoness tended to travel, Ixia had plenty of time to prepare before the door announcer chirped.

“Come in!” she called, automatically activating the sliding door.

Techbird stepped inside, her footballs alternating clicking of natural claws with the clink of her magitek crystal limbs.

“Right on time,” Ixia said with a smile as she set the privacy lock on the door. “This is the first time that you have visited my spa, so what exactly prompted this visit?” she asked, fishing for information to use to treat her client.

Techbird smiled weakly. “Overwork, I suppose. The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak. Frankly, while I have replaced many biological parts that have failed, I cannot do that for everything… yet. I need to stay alive until we get to the Far Star and I can get the answer to my big question, but I still need to continue my work while we are travelling there.”

“Ah, I see. The Captain noticed that you were reaching breaking strain, am I right?”

Techbird nodded with a touch of embarrassment. “The fact that I was too tired to argue with him convinced me that perhaps he was right.”

“Well, I’m not a medical specialist, but I believe that I can do a lot to de-stress and relax you. I find that can be a very effective treatment for a lot of ailments. May I suggest that we start with a full-body massage? I’m sure that your artificial parts must put some unnatural strains upon you.”

“You would be correct. From a mechanical standpoint, everything is within tolerance, and from a medical view, they are working well, but they are not the same as a healthy complete body. It would not hurt to feel better, as it were.” She straightened up and flexed her wings a few times, wincing a little. “Do you have the time for a full treatment? I don’t know when I’ll have the time to stop by again. Most of me is almost always busy with the processing cluster, but right now I am taking an enforced break.”

“We have as much time as you need. The massage room is right through here.” Ixia indicated a doorway and allowed the griffoness to enter first. “Please make yourself comfortable on the massage table, face down. Your beak will fit comfortably through the head support.”

“Will that support my weight? My crystal prosthetics are heavier than they look, and I’m not a small griffon.”

Ixia smiled reassuringly. “The table is built to deal with even the weightiest of the members of the crew. Have no concern over that.”

Techbird eased herself onto the low-slung table and made herself comfortable. “Is this right?” she asked, her voice coming from under the table.

“Perfect!” Ixia replied, pushing the button that raised the table to her normal working height. “Now please spread your wings and allow them to relax to the floor. I need to start working on your back muscles.”

“Are any of my augmentations going to be in the way? I can always disconnect them if you wish, as long as the sight doesn’t disturb you too much.”

Ixia chuckled. “That won’t be necessary. In fact, it will be easier to see how they are putting strain on the rest of your body if you leave them connected. I can already tell that you have a lot of tension in one location in particular. You don’t seem to be able to get your wings comfortable, so let’s start with the wing joints first.” She shape-shifted her hooves to create long, thin digits suitable for pushing through a griffon’s plumage.

When she dug her digits into Techbird’s muscles, she found them so tense that they were just short of locking up completely. She kneaded the knots firmly but skillfully and felt them relax. She worked her way through all the muscles, watching the wings droop more and more as the pent-up tension was finally dissolved. However, she noticed one other thing while she was working. “When was the last time that you had a good preening?”

Techbird had started softly crooning as her muscle knots were loosened, but she paused to answer the masseuse. “A lot of the time I don’t have the opportunity to preen, but other times I don’t have anyone to help me with parts that I can’t reach anymore.” She was about to add more when Ixia hit a particularly tough spot. “Ngh! Ow, ow, ow!”

Ixia tsk-tsked. “As one professional to another, please don’t tell me that you don’t have the time to do something vital. How can you perform at your best if you don’t look after yourself? This spa has been here for the entire journey, but this is the first time that you have stuck a paw inside despite me sending several subtle hints your way.” She finished with the right wing’s muscles and started working on the left. It was trickier because she could feel the artificial tendons obstructing her, but her digits adapted to the need.

Techbird let out a groan of relief as Ixia found and massaged out more knots. “Mmmm! Caawwww…” her eyes fluttered closed as she considered the changeling’s question. “Do you want the truth or a more believable lie, Miss Ixia?”

“I’m a changeling, remember? I can taste deception. But entertain me if you wish.”

Techbird snorted, but her emotions were not of sad sadness or anguish – they were of resignation. “There is a good chance that I am not going to last long enough to reach the Far Star as I am right now, even with the reduced travel time. This is a problem that I need to resolve, and no amount of preening is going to help. I need a more permanent solution. You know that we have regular data transmissions between the ship and Equus, don’t you?”

“I do, but what is the significance of that? If you are so concerned with your survival, shouldn’t you be taking extra care with even your minor needs such as those you have been ignoring? Such minor needs as... say... the health of your body?” She finished with the wing muscles and moved further down the back.

The catbird chuckled and then groaned as Ixia hit a particularly dense patch of knots and began kneading them. “What is survival? The continuation of biological function, or the perseverance of consciousness? All that we are, magic aside, is bio-electrical impulses. Copy those correctly and you copy the person. One would not be able to tell that they are different from the original.” She groaned again and let out a soft caw before asking, “How old do you think I am?”

Ixia knew exactly how old Techbird was, but chose to answer evasively. “Considering that the average griffon lifespan is about 140 years but you have been actively staving off the aging process for some time now, I would have to say considerably older than that.”

Techbird laughed a little. “Lady Roseclaw is currently 135 years old, but her strength and health makes it seem likely that she will last significantly longer than the average. I, however, am considerably less gifted physically, and I am fifteen years her senior. Everyone assumes that I am younger because I’m smaller than her and my feathers haven’t grayed, but it’s hard to turn grey when your feathers are already white.”

“All the more reason to look after yourself better.” Having reached the lower back, Ixia started working her way down one leg.

Techbird’s leg twitched in Ixia’s hands before relaxing. “If you hold onto the idea that all you are is a bag of meat and organs, then yes, you would be right. However, I figured that a changeling like you would be open to the idea that it’s not so much the bag as the consciousness that it contains. After all, isn’t that somewhat like what your hive memory is like? Pif and I were working on a solution well before we left, and have continued to do so while we have been travelling. The greatest challenge has been working on those mental procedures, but if we perfect the process, not only will I be confident of being able to see this project through to its goal, but also provide this ship with vastly more computing power.” She let out a sigh as Ixia finished with that leg and she let it go limp.

Ixia switched to the other leg. “Hmmm... well, while it's the consciousness that makes a person, the way that consciousness is encapsulated affects how it behaves. Would you be the same person if you were in a changeling's body? A zebra's body? How about a diamond dog? But you are not, so you must take the greatest care with what you have. However, I sense that you are either trying to change the subject or being cagey about something, but I'm not through admonishing you for your neglect.”

“It’s been a while since I just talked. More often than not, I’m in the lab working on trying to solve problems. I’m not used to it.” She groaned as Ixia dug into a knot in her calf muscle. “Ixia, I believe that if I took you, all of your mental impulses, your memories, your personality, all of which are basically just bio-electric impulses, and copied them into another body, the you that I created would be indistinguishable from the you working on my legs so wonderfully. That is what Pif and I are working on – a way to modify my stasis pod so that while my body is inert, my mind is awake and able to continue working.”

“Oh, I would say that we're all more than just a matter of electrical impulses, but you may be sensing a truth that changelings have known for a long time – with the right infrastructure, who we are may persist forever. I suspect that Epiphany Path may be extending that knowledge to you in a different way. However, until that time comes, and I will keep emphasizing this, there's no excuse to shun company and neglect yourself.”

“It’s not like I want to shun company!” Techbird protested. “How to explain.... You know, for having been a constant visitor to a changeling network for years, it’s hard to put this into mere words that make sense.” She started to laugh. “I am focusing on the puzzle, Ixia. Combine that with the fact that most are unnerved by me and my prosthetic limbs; I would rather just take myself out of the equation. Surely you must have read the media articles against me from a few years back, when I was getting the original replacements done?”

“Pfft! Mostly traditionalist griffons and anti-science ponies. Who pays attention to those? Not that I thought that this was a great idea, but I was never set against it either. I ignored all the controversy, and frankly I'm surprised that you did not do the same. You never struck me as somegriff who particularly cared too much about the uneducated opinions of others.”

“One or two I don’t care about, but when they gather up in groups to try to take down the facility I’m working at and then petition the king to ‘put me down’, I start to care. A lot.” She frowned, her emotions turning more toward sadness. “I'm an old griff, Ixia. I need to weigh my options with more care than I did in the past. If there is a chance that I can exist long enough to solve the puzzle, I need to do anything I can to make it happen. If it means I have to be alone working on the tech needed to do it, then... I just have to do that.” She sighed. “But I am lonely. When I was working in the Pif core network, I was surrounded by other team-mates constantly. It was... warming.”

Ixia paused in her work to gaze keenly at Techbird. “How much time did you spend in the network? Come to think of it, how much of these prosthetics are based on changeling synthetics? How much of you is more changeling than griffon? You sound like a drone who has become disconnected from the hive. Is all this tension caused by neglect and old age, or is it the stress of being apart from the network?”

The griffoness sighed. “I was connected pretty much constantly from a few weeks after the crystal siege, to shortly before the launch of the first satellite. Then when House Path created the directives, I went back in from just after the successful launch to a few months before the launch of Cosmic Lotus, except some time when we moved the experimental cluster to the far side of the moon. Time works differently in the network, so I can’t tell you how many years it has been.” Her emotions shifted again to longing. “But all of that time was worth it. We accelerated our progress several times over and saved about thirty years by doing it.” She looked back to Ixia. “And to answer your other question, about sixty percent of the implants are based on changeling synthetics, while the rest is Crystal Kingdom-backed magitek.”

Ixia shifted to a position in front of the griffoness and shook her head. “Congratulations, Techbird. I have seen and heard many things in my career, but you are the first example of withdrawal symptoms from being disconnected from a hive network by a non-changeling that I have ever heard of. I could suggest that you join Wandering's network, but I'm not sure that would be doing the right thing. Withdrawal is a craving for something that your body does not naturally have, so you have to get used to it. However, due to your extensive body modifications and age, I don't believe that is an option any longer. You need to find a new balance or you will not live to learn the answer to your big question. Your body is rebelling - I can feel it in every muscle of your being.”

Techbird blinked in surprise. “Rebelling? Do you mean rebelling against me... or rather... the griffon part of me?”

“Rebelling against your attempts to push it beyond its limits. Unless you are an alicorn, you must either learn to live with them, or find a way around them soon, or else you may find that you will break, and no one will be able to fix you anymore.”

The griffon’s emotions shifted again, becoming unstable, as if her mind was racing a mile a minute. She then smiled, but this was not a good smile. It seemed like she was starting to hide a developing desperation and her emotions verified that as she was tensing up again. “Do you happen to have any ideas? I’m all ears! If not, the only thing I can think of would be to fast track the stasis project, get it rolled out within the year...” Her eyes went wide and she let out a squawk before she collapsed with a groan as lethargy overcame her.

Ixia withdrew the digit that she had jabbed into a nerve bundle, causing the griffoness to cry out. “Yes, definitely withdrawal symptoms,” she murmured. She continued her massage, finding the remaining knots in Techbird's neck. Finally she put a digit under the griffon's beak and gently lifted it up so that she could look Techbird in the eye. “Not every problem has a technical solution, my dear. As a princess acquaintance of mine is fond of pointing out: seek out a friend. Share with them your hopes and needs. Work with them to bring peace of mind so that your body may endure until you reach your goal. You have a unique opportunity – please do not sabotage your own efforts.”

Techbird felt like she was on the verge of passing out. “I… I’ll talk to… Galena.”

Ixia smiled. “Excellent. Now, I believe that we're done with the massage. Can I interest you in a long soak in the hot tub? I believe your prosthetics are compatible? I have some Nightlark's Bath Salts which I believe griffons find particularly appealing. I can let you rest there for a while.”

Techbird groaned softly in response before her brain processed that she was being asked a question. “Uh... yes, please... but I can’t move.”

Ixia chuckled. “You're not the first to have that problem.” She pressed a lever with her hind hoof which released the brakes on the table leg castors, and she pushed the whole lot out the door and into the adjacent hot tub room. She pushed it onto a ramp that brought the table level with the rim of the tub, locked the brakes, and then pushed a switch. A whine under the table heralded the tipping of the table top until the griffoness almost slid off, but the changeling's horn lit up to magically ease her into the warm water rather than precipitously splash in. She held Techbird in place until the griffon could find the underwater seat to settle upon, then released her magic. “I'll go get those bath salts now if you are comfy?”

The catbird nodded a few times as she smiled, looking up at Ixia. “Don’t mind me... I’ll be here… floating.”

 

 

Wandering gazed curiously at Galena who was wide-eyed with a thousand-mile-long stare. She was sitting in the mess room, breathing hard like she had just been exercising.

Wandering went over to the changeling. “Anything the matter, Princess?”

Galena jerked, then looked up at the alicorn. “A funny thing happened today...”

Wandering smiled knowingly. “She's already pounding the network.”

“How can one griffon put such a load on a network?” she protested.

“One griffon and a ton of Crystal Kingdom neural enhancements,” Wandering replied. “You didn't think all of her prosthetics were for just walking, did you? This is one third of the team that started the technological boom of the past century. When you get Techbird, Hype and Pif on the same project, the entire Chrome Hive quickly burns through its love reserves due to the effort.” Wandering patted her reassuringly. “You are a young queen who has never hosted direct connections before. I do not envy you. If Techbird was directly connected to me, I would most likely go into a coma; at least you have the capacity to handle it. If you let any of her activities get past you, odds are it would overload every ’ling on the ship. There is a reason why the Chrome Hive think-tanks are hoof-picked. When they were designing the ship, Pif, Hype, and Tech were held up in the lunar research base for two years, and right now I hear she’s still working, trying to crunch some numbers to figure out solutions to some issues we have been dealing with on the ship, like the periodic strikes we have been getting.”

Galena shuddered. “Tell me about it!”

Wandering grinned. “You wanted network responsibility – you got it by the trainload. Happy now?”

“A-heh! I have no idea what she’s doing!” she whimpered a little.

“Tech is modelling a four-dimensional projection of the Lotus to test out optimal shield configurations using the other ’lings as sub-processors just as she does back at the Chrome Hive. This takes a huge amount of strain off of her.”

“And puts it onto me,” Galena moaned.

“Indeed.” Wandering smiled sympathetically. “Be careful what you wish for.”

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