Like many other ponies, Zvezda could not sleep that night. On a conscious level, she was quite aware of just how much she'd regret it later; this final week before the countdown had been an incredible roller-coaster of a crunch time to end all crunch times, and she was balancing on the edge of a crash as it was. She needed these pitiful few hours, otherwise she'd just fall asleep at the launch floor, and lay all her work over this past year to waste.
But, as always, this constant intellectual insistence of just how much she really, really, really had to fall asleep simply made her insomnia all the worse. Eventually, after hours of trying, she found herself in that strange twilight state, staring up at a moonlit ceiling, wishing she could just fall asleep, but being too tired for it. She glanced at the nearby clock: Three in the morning.
It's not even worth it, she realized. The roll-call would wake the launch crews up in two hours' time anyway, and after that they'd keep going at full steam until the rocket was well on its way to the heavens. Might as well get up early, and get a little head-start.
Carefully climbing out of her bed, she quietly slipped into her dusty cotton robe, then very slowly left the room, taking great pains not to wake Sara, who was still sleeping peacefully on her upper bunk. That accomplished, she quickly trotted up the corridor and out of the gloomy, silent bunker, lit only by emergency lights and the occasional rays of moonlight streaming from the tiny squares of bomb-proof windows.
The desert outside was dark and cold, with gusts of icy wind scattering her bedraggled blonde mane into long untidy streams, as well as kicking up clouds of especially-coarse sand that brushed unpleasantly against her grey skin. The overall effect wasn't particularly inviting, and Zvezda briefly reconsidered whether this was all such a good idea.
The sight of the rocket looming off in the distance, however, made her think of poor Cherry. Stopping to pull her itchy robe closer in, she thought of that smiling orange mare, her carefree ways, her infectious laughter and absolutely terrible jokes. In only a few hours, her friend's life would be utterly and completely in her hooves.
Rounding the corner, she finally saw the Rocket tower in the faraway distance, for the first time standing proud and tall in all its fifty-meter glory. Despite the sheer distance, it still looked enormous, and the surrounding lighting from multiple powerful reflectors only added to the effect.
Taking a few seconds for the sight to fully sink in, Zvezda just shuddered to herself. Seeing it complete like this, her engineer's mind could already pick out a billion problems with it, even this far away; it was too tall and spindly, obviously too unstable for atmospheric flight. The first stage was absolutely ridiculous, too: Nine separate solid boosters, mounted together in a scary assembly that would obviously just fly apart at the first chance, just like in the infamous Accident. Solids were temperamental things, nothing but giant fireworks that couldn't be turned off until fully exhausted; mounting a pony atop of one would be utter madness.
There were nine here. Zvezda almost wanted to cry at the stupidity. This entire thing was ridiculous, ill-thought-out, and rushed on a shoestring budget; pony engineering was rickety at best, and this thing just broke every principle and rule-of-thumb there was.
„Buck it,“ she muttered to herself, shaking her head as she set out down the gravel path. What was done was done, and there was no way around it; Cherry's only hope was that the capsule would work right, and that the escape systems would fire correctly and in time.
Trotting along the tracks that led from the assembly hall of Stable VII towards the pad, and passing a quintet of powerful locomotives on the way – all of the same model Ray drove, her mind noted, each now resting after having been used for rolling out the vehicle – Zvezda's mind slowly woke from its previous drowsy haziness. As she ascended the concrete steps of the launch platform and quickly covered the distance to the rickety, wooden service tower that stood at the rocket's side, wobbling uncertainly in the wind, her mind became clearer than ever.
We've tested engine ignition fifteen times, her memory reminded her, Ejection circuits, ten times. Manual abort override, seven times. LV databus, three times.
Boarding the flimsy lift platform and flicking a switch that began her slow climb upwards, she nodded to herself. Obviously, that's the place to start.
Gradually ascending past the unbroken thick plates of the rocket boosters, and the segmented plating of the engine sheaths, she waited until she was halfway up the hydrazine tank, then quickly stopped the lift right next to a waiting service hatch. Slowly opening her toolbox and grasping the end of an electric screwdriver with her teeth, she shuddered again. The wind up here was annoying at its least, and outright dangerous at its most; and though her itchy robe was doing its job, her uncovered hooves and mouth were still freezing cold.
Turning towards the rocket, she paused for a second, just admiring the view from here. She wasn't very high up, true, only about thirty meters; but here in the flatness of the desert, that was a lot, and the Cosmodrome was oddly beautiful. Not the drab concrete bunkers, of course, those were as boring as ever. But, besides the standing rocket, one more change had occurred over the past week: A large, varied growth had spurted out the side of the train station, an enormous, colourful mess of scattered tents whose vibrant colours brought a pleasant contrast to the grey concrete that pervaded the rest of the facility. It was a chaotic sea of temporary dwellings, all organized and built by eager rocket-watchers who didn't want to miss the launch. 'Cape Town', they called it.
Freezing atop the perilously-wobbling wooden platform, Zvezda ignored the screwdriver in her teeth and stared at the curious conglomeration for a while longer. The music playing in the faraway distance, accompanied by the rhythmic stomping of hooves and happy singing, was like honey for her ears.
She glanced at the tall pillar of the rocket again. Standing this close, the metal just radiated cold, one even worse than the icy wind. While she was freezing her flank off here, doing useless tests that would, at best, verify five systems – out of the five thousand that made up the rocket – the ponies out there were dancing and drinking. Rejoicing in their friendship, celebrating life. Having fun.
And those flickery bonfires that potted Cape Town looked particularly inviting. And what's that thing over there… is it… a projection screen?
Wow, they really have everything. And that movie even looks kinda cool…
Zvezda considered it. There was nothing stopping her from just going out there, and having fun. This stupid excursion of hers wasn't even on the schedule.
„And even if it was scheduled, who cares?“ Sara's voice resounded through her head. „It's not like you're getting paid for any of this!“
„I know, I know,“ she spoke into the lonely night, smiling sadly to herself. She knew perfectly well. Still staring towards the bonfires, she closed her eyes, imagining their fiery warmth, the smiling, welcoming faces of the ponies that made up the little town; she was sure they'd welcome her with open hooves.
Keeping that dreamy image in her head, she then turned back to the rocket, and pressed the tip of the screwdriver against the first access panel. This close to its metal hull, she could clearly see the thin layer of frost that had formed over its surface; as if those shining white crystals in her mane didn't make that clear enough.
„You know, Will,“ she gritted through her teeth, in-between furious attempts to get the cold-stricken screwdriver to start, „Once we're through with this, I'm gonna strangle you for every last second of overtime.“
The stupid machine finally started up, and she promptly removed the first of the four screws. As she turned for the second one, however, she noticed it was broken, its head split in two by some careless – or, far more likely, over-strained, under-paid, and over-rushed – tech-pony. She sighed.
„I really am.“
She hit the panel in a vain attempt to free the offending component, and her hoof stuck to the freezing metal.
„Teeeeen-hut!“ Rainbow commanded as she marched in through the door. Seeing the row of eleven stately pegasi – each wearing the gold-and-blue pattern of the Wonderbolts – immediately snap to a salute at her command, she grinned widely to herself. This was going to be the best day ever.
„Attention!“ she yelled again, and rejoiced as the pegasi stood even more impossibly straight up. She considered saying it one more time, but the reproachful look coming over from Spitfire reminded her this wasn't just for fun.
Shaking her head, she importantly marched over to the large briefing table in the middle of the room, adjusting her general's hat as she advanced. She was very proud of that hat; out here in the desert, it was hard to get anything, nevermind such an awesome piece of attire. It was a beautiful peaked cap, even better than the Commissar's; perfect black, lined with a golden band, silver piping, and finished off with an awesome-looking metal badge on the crown. Rainbow had no idea what organization the badge actually belonged to, but it was a lightning bolt lined by two wings, so she didn't care. It looked cool enough.
„Alright, squad! First things first,“ she began, unrolling a map of the Cosmodrome across the briefing table. „Chain of command! I'm Supreme Air-Marshal Generalissimo-in-Chief Rainbow 'Awesome' Dash. However, you may call me 'General' for short. Got it?“
Seeing one of the pegasi – whom she immediately recognized as Rapidfire – hesitantly raise his hoof, she just smiled to herself, then smoothly carried on, ignoring him completely:
„Good! That agreed, we'll move on to our order-of-battle. Commanding the first wing, I'll be flying with Soarin' and-“
Rapidfire suddenly coughed, in a desperate attempt to bring attention to himself. Rainbow couldn't believe it; she wasn't even halfway through her magnificent inspiring speech, and he coughed! She pierced through him with an unrelenting, inquisitive gaze. Under such massive, sustained firepower, the pony wavered slightly, but nevertheless remained with his hoof up. Sighing loudly, Rainbow nodded over to him:
„What's the matter, officer?“
„Excuse me if I'm being impertinent here, miss Dash-“
„General!“ Rainbow hit her hoof against the table, loud enough to make all the other ponies jump.
„…General,“ Rapidfire eventually sighed, then continued, „But I was told you'd be operating in a strictly supervisory capacity here. We've already got our orders from the Minister of Defence herself, and since – as far as I know – you are not an actual general, I think-“
Leaving the map behind on the table, Rainbow approached the pegasus:
„I am hearing insubordination, officer?“ she slowly asked, towering over him. To add weight to her words, she slowly adjusted the tall, heavy general's cap that balanced on her head. There was fire in her eyes, an icy dagger in her voice. At least, that's how'd I describe it. „Enticing insurgency? Slander, of the Generalissimo-in-Chief herself?“
„Of course not, ma'am!“ the pegasus immediately snapped back, obviously too-well drilled by years of military instinct to say anything but. However, an expression of intense embarrassment flashed across his face just moments later, as if his brain had only then caught up with reflexes. Blushing, he fell silent, and it was up to Spitfire to pick up the torch:
„What's Rapid tryin' to say here, Rainbow-“
„-Is that we're not just some fancy air circus. We're an elite squadron that is sent on the most difficult of missions, and we've already been given our orders. We don't-“
„Well, Celestia herself put me in charge here!“ Rainbow stood her ground, „Doesn't that overrule some paper-shuffling ministry bureaucrat in Canterlot? I'm commanding from the front lines here, soldier!“
Spitfire's eyes shifted from side to side, obviously hesitant to challenge authority. Nevertheless, she tried. „Look, all we need is for you to give us the maps. Just because you're wearing a silly hat doesn't make you-“
„Stop right there, lieutenant!“ Rainbow commanded. Seeing the mare fall silent, she slowly proceeded to lower the hat from her head, then slowly looked it over. „You didn't just insult Mr. Lightning Hat now, did you?“
Spitfire blinked. Twice. Along with the rest of her squadron, she stared emptily at Rainbow, and the hat she was holding in her hooves. Her expression seemed to say it all; still, she attempted to turn it into words:
„What… why… are you bucking kiddin'-“
„Lieutenant, we do not use that sort of language when speaking to superior officers! Fly out there and give me twenty!“
Noticing the orange-maned mare just frozen in befuddlement, Rainbow quickly replaced her mighty hat with a smile. Meanwhile, it was Soarin' who stepped forward this time. „But-“
„You too, soldier!“ Rainbow commanded, pointing to the door and putting all the weight of the hat into her words, „Along with the rest of your entire undisciplined, insubordinate, joke of a squadron! You dare call yourselves elite? Well, then, prove it! Teeeen-hut, go, go, go! Or straight to the court-martial with you!“
Hearing the last words, the pegasi first glanced between each other, then quickly cleared out of the room, cursing under their breaths the entire time. In rapid pursuit, Rainbow kept up after them, constantly yelling out ever-crazier orders and loudly reprimanding every suggestion of disobedience, just like a true drill sergeant.
And, all this time, there was a wide smile across her face. Wonderbolts would always be Wonderbolts; nothing less, and nothing more. But she was an equenaut now. The next rocket that'd be built, she'd fly straight into deep space and back.
Look at them fidgeting 'bout like that, she wondered to herself, seeing them trace out elaborate patterns around the launch pad, Scrambling over themselves for anypony with a shiny hat.
Why did I want to be like them again?
Standing motionlessly with her back arched, Cherry tried in vain to avoid her professor's hounding sight. The crotchety stallion's eyes were staring at her evilly, alternating between the large clock hanging above the door and her own drowsy self. No matter where she turned her head, trying to distract herself by inspecting the variety of interesting machinery in this underground laboratory, he always followed her eyes, walking over to their new focus and then proceeding to glare from there. Always watchful for any deviation from the checklist whatsoever; any sign of imperfection.
Not that she could move her head much, of course. Whenever she performed a sudden movement, it was met with a quick push of the hooves to snap her back to her original position, and followed by a calm, yet heavily-disdainful hush; all by the white unicorn with styled violet hair and designer glasses that was jumping all around Cherry, tightening straps and attaching biometric sensors to her skin.
Slightly tired of being treated like a mannequin for what had already been an unbroken fifteen minutes, Cherry began contemplating the white mare. She had never seen her before, but, judging by the treatment she had received from Red, she was probably one of the Programme's countless contractors. The mare didn't really look the part, though; for some reason, her perfectionist adjustment of every single strap and belt reminded Cherry more of some eccentric fashion designer than a rocket engineer. Then again, this was a space suit, and who knew what insane combination of professions was required to make that.
Noticing her lengthy stare, the mare quickly paused in her endeavours, then took a few steps back and looked at her questioningly:
„Everything all right, darling?“
„Of course, miss Rarity!“ Cherry quickly chirped back, „Just a bit bored, that's all.“
„Well, I am quite sure this day will get exciting yet,“ the mare smiled, then fell silent again as she resumed her labours, covering Cherry in an ever growing web of incredibly-thin wires and impossibly-prickly thermistors. This process continued on for so long, that by its end she was feeling far more like a pin cushion than the world's premier equenaut.
Eventually, however, Rarity stopped adding and adjusting pieces, and took a few steps back to admire her work, drilling through Cherry with a critical gaze that rivalled even Red's. Finally giving a single contented nod, she looked back at her entourage – a colourful group of stately stallions, all clad in stylish uniforms and carrying heavy crates of equipment – and gave them a cryptic smile. Seeing signs of progress, Red took a moment's pause from his glare:
„So, biometric system finished? We can move to pressure-suit now?“
Briefly glancing at him, the mare smiled warmly. „Oh, that's just the first layer! We still have seventeen more to go. Clover, pass me the MRS, will you?“
As one of the work-stallions snapped to action, briefly saluting before beginning to open a set of crates with clockwork precision, Red stared at the time, obviously quite shaken. Eventually, he regained enough composure to speak again:
„Seventeen?“ he repeated, despair in his voice, „Seventeen? You said you only needed two hours for preparation! We are on very strict schedule here! The slightest deviation-“
„Don't you worry, darling,“ the mare glowed, eyes shining as her stallion finally uncovered a set of soft padding strips from the bottom layer of the crate, along with a couple of leather braces. „We've practised this procedure a hundred times,“ she reassured, levitating up the first few bits out of the box and positioning them in the air around Cherry, „Hour and a half, no more, and no less. You have my word.“
„But- it took you half hour just for first-“
„It will be fine, professor,“ the mare insisted, turning away from her craft for just a moment, „Now, hush. You can't rush perfection.“
Cherry had little time to roll her eyes at the pompous comment, however, as the procedure began immediately. The dull sapphire glow of Rarity's horn intensified, and even more small strips of padding began leaving the opened storage box. Meanwhile, the ones already in the air began circling the lab in elaborate patterns, rotating and unfurling themselves like the individual petals of a blooming flower. Cherry was so entranced by this mesmerising sight, she yelped in surprise as the first strips suddenly touched down, beginning to wrap themselves around her skin.
„Imported Zebrican silks. Far superior to the early prototypes, wouldn't you say?“ Rarity beamed widely. Despite her initial surprise, Cherry had to agree; it just felt right. Suddenly, the prospect of spending over eight hours dressed in this suit was looking a lot less scary.
Meanwhile, the mare simply took the compliment in stride as she continued wrapping ever more white strips around Cherry, and gently fastening those already in place, working away with steady diligence. On the other hoof, Cherry herself just stood back, occasionally readjusting her posture so it remained sufficiently arched and upright, but otherwise enjoying the pleasant warmth the fabric emanated as it gradually enveloped her entire body. It was only upon noticing a particularly odd-shaped piece of garment be levitated out of the crate that she spoke up again:
„And what's that supposed to be?“ she inquired, trying to imagine all the different functions the piece might possibly be serve, apart from the blindingly obvious.
„Exactly what it looks like, darling.“
Cherry looked it over again. She tried and tried to figure out what it was, but only the one association ever came into her head. „It looks like a diaper,“ she eventually commented.
Rarity rolled her eyes. „Out of all the methods, it seemed like the most comfortable. Not to mention, practical. Unless you have a better idea?“
„Well, it's better than nothing, I guess,“ Cherry shrugged, and let the mare proceed. Still, amidst all this incredibly advanced science and technology, such a crude solution seemed ever so slightly silly.
„Next up is the wet-suit, of course,“ Rarity quickly moved on, ordering the opening of a new crate, then levitating up a strange, semi-transparent garment. Cherry gave it an intrigued look; unlike the silky inner layer, this one looked to be made of much coarser materials, large criss-crossing fibres that almost looked like one giant stocking, complete with openings for the feet and neck. However, its main feature was the series of black, plastic tubes embedded inside, reaching to every extremity of the suit and bundling up at two nexus connections near the back.
Ignoring her protests, Rarity stretched the form-fitting garment over Cherry's head and slid it onto the rest of her body. It wasn't particularly pleasant, with the plastic tubes chafing as they pushed themselves into her skin, but the inner layer proved its worth here, softening their impact.
„Comfortable?“ Rarity quickly asked, obviously slightly worried about her work. However, seeing Cherry nod in satisfaction, a confident smile enveloped her face once more, and she promptly returned to fidgeting with the wet-suit, making sure none of the tubes snagged anywhere.
All the while, Red looked on, great scepticism still in his eyes:
„Doesn't look very resilient,“ he commented, momentarily adjusting his spectacles, „One leak, and there is giant mess anywhere.“
„Three redundant systems, all with individual cut-off valves,“ the mare happily snapped back, plenty of pride in her voice. „Plus, it is quite necessary for structural reinforcement. Without it, the suit would balloon up and become useless in a vacuum.“
The professor actually did a double take this time around. „Wait,“ he re-iterated, shaking his head, „You mean-“
„Oh yes! Full vacuum capability!“ she smiled, taking a momentary break from adjusting a strap around one of Cherry's hind legs to glance upwards at the professor.
„But that was just-“
„I know, I know. 'Secondary capability', not strictly necessary for legal fulfilment of contract, all that jazz,“ the mare waved her hoof, then a concerned expression took over her face, „But you wouldn't just expect me to leave something so hideously imperfect, would you now?“
„But- I thought we said it was sufficient to-“
„Professor!“ the mare suddenly tore herself away from her painstaking work to glare up at the professor, shutting him up, all to Cherry's great relish; Finally, he was getting some of his own medicine! „When it comes to a delivery, 'sufficient' is an insult! I even added a few extra features of my own!“ she pridefully announced, levitating a small box out of one of her many waiting crates. „A miniature lithium hydroxide unit – perfect for when the ship's life support fails! Should give about four hours of breathing air, more than enough to return back to the ground. Or, my patented, reusable wing-cover straps! The wearer can just gently pull at this strap here, and they unfurl, allowing full use of the wings! A brilliant idea, is it not?“
There was a bit of stunned silence after that, with even the professor unsure of what to say next. Eventually, he just looked at the designer:
„And… you're not asking anything extra? Additional funding, re-negotiation of contract, anything?“
„Of course not!“ the mare whipped back her head, „Who do you take me for?“
Again, a bit more silence followed, this one of deep deliberation on the professor's part as he stared into the floor. Finally, after a good ten seconds of intense thought, he slowly looked up at Rarity, eyes filled with hope:
„Do you make rocket engines?“
Quickly getting used to the heavy helmet, Cherry looked around in confusion. Even though the visor wasn't down yet, the bulk of the metal bowl obstructed her vision significantly – namely, the upper and lower quadrants, leaving her with a wide strip to peek through – and also silenced most external sounds to an undecipherable mumble. It was comfortable alright, no question about that; the inner orange padding was thick and fluffy, and its considerable weight was distributed properly, making head movements possible, if hard. Even her long mane managed to squish into the back of the helmet well enough.
Still, she thought, looking on as Rarity's lips moved wordlessly in front of her, It'd be nice to hear a damn thing.
The contractor obviously figured it out by herself, because she suddenly left Cherry's side to consult her sizeable retinue. One of the stallions promptly saluted, and offered up a peculiar construction; a set of twin, boxy saddlebags, roughly cobbled together from sheet metal and lined with protrusions and control valves. Quite unlike the rest of the suit, this unit was strictly functional, with no fancy cloth covers to hide the exposed circuitry and wiring.
Returning to her side, Rarity quickly levitated the article over and gently lowered it onto Cherry's back, then brought up a thick cable and connected that too. As soon as the circuit was completed, a loud burst of static shot through both of Cherry's ears. Startled, she almost jumped in place from the shock.
„…what about now, darling?“ the mare smiled nervously, evidently somewhat embarrassed for the slip-up, „Can you hear me?“
„Crystal-clear, ma'am!“ Cherry saluted. Her loud exclamation resulted in a bit of feedback through the helmet's headphones, but asides from that, the sound quality was surprisingly good.
However, nothing could wipe that worried expression from the designer's face. Turning around to Red, she smiled apologetically:
„Please forgive the inferior construction of the service unit. I assure you, by the time the second suit arrives, it will be-“
„Looks good to me,“ Red shrugged uncertainly, then nodded across to Cherry. „Is it killing you horribly?“
„There you go! What more could you want?“ he exclaimed, then glanced at the large clock hanging from the ceiling. „Anyway, thank you most profusely for your services, miss Rarity. I am very pleased with your performance. You will most definitely be consulted for whatever further services our Cosmodrome will require.“
Despite her still-worried expression, Rarity nevertheless beamed back, and bowed courteously. Nodding to himself, Red quickly turned to Cherry, and the smile quickly disappeared from his face:
„And what are you standing around for, Cadet? Get your flank in gear! Now!“
Cherry only picked up on one aspect of that sentence. As she let herself be prodded out of the bright laboratory and down the endless corridors, only one word ran through her word:
Cadet? she repeated to herself, absolutely furious. Cadet?
„I am not a-“
„You will always be trainee in my eyes!“ the professor snapped back, prodding her harshly again, „Less talking, and more marching, cadet!“
Though movement in the pressurized suit was somewhat difficult – fighting every bending motion she made with great force – the persuasive yelling of the professor was far more powerful, and soon she was making reasonable speed. Advancing up the corridor, she was whisked through the vacated and sterile corridors of the laboratories, through a concrete tunnel, and up the stairs into the mission control room of Stable X.
As the heavy blastdoor rolled open, she fortunately wasn't greeted with the barrage of photography flashes and journalist requests she was half-expecting; instead, the small round room held an atmosphere of intense concentration and important, hushed discussions. Setting out to the central planning table, she kept glancing at the rows of tech-ponies that stood to either side of the walkway; all standing attentively at their desks, busily flipping through checklists and talking into headsets, creating a steady buzz of background conversation:
„EKO, please confirm the pressure relief valve is secure.“
„-I repeat, suit telemetry is online. Crew planning, entering stage G. Boarding team, boarding team, make sure you are ready for final check-out. Ingress teams, prepare for-“
„…green light here for pipeline two. Yeah, both channels. You're go for fuelling pump rev-up, over.“
The central planning table was impressive indeed, full of cartographic aids, star charts, and scrolls full of arithmetic. Asides from Red, who was still pushing Cherry onwards, and Sequine, who was working away at the enormous bank of computers in the background, the rest of the Chief Designers were all standing around it, busy with final calculations and checklists. She was a bit dismayed to see her dad wasn't present, but not too surprised, either; he was probably waiting outside, rounding up investors and political support. She knew him: He'd be late, but he wouldn't miss it. Not for the world.
He'd better not, or I'll have his flank!
„Equenaut Cherry Skies, Star Walker prime crew, reporting for duty!“ she saluted, arriving at the edge of the desk. As Red quickly left her and rounded the table to take their side, the other designers briefly glanced at each other, before nodding solemnly. Before any of them could speak, however, a strangely tall technician mare behind the table suddenly turned away from her computeronic machine, and gazed at her importantly. Elated as she was, it took Cherry's brain a good few seconds to connect the horn on her head with the glowing mane and the pair of wings on her sides, and realize just who this was.
„Miss Skies, I'm so delighted to finally meet you!“ the princess enthusiastically beamed, nodding happily as she approached. On any other day, this would have drawn a surprised gasp from Cherry, a raised eyebrow at the very least. This being today, however, she just shrugged to herself. Luna the computer programmer. Why the hay not.
„Your highness, it is truly an honour,“ Cherry mumbled back the first respectful phrase that came to her head, „Excuse me if I do not bow, but this suit isn't exactly flexible.“
„Even if you could, I wouldn't let you,“ Luna beamed, then gave her a salute of her own. „Today, you bow to nopony! Today, Cherry, you are the princess of the night!“
A confusing series of conflicting emotions running through her mind, Cherry briefly wandered how to reply, before realizing anything she'd say could only spoil the moment. Thus decided, she just smiled dumbly at the princess. The goddess smiled back, and that was it.
Wilhelmina seemed to have a lower tolerance for their antics, however, as she suddenly looked up from her checklists, annoyance in her voice:
„I do apologize, princess, but we are on a schedule here. If you want your idea to be integrated into the flight program, we must begin immediately!“
„Now, if you'll excuse me, commander,“ the princess quickly winked, then turned back to her row of computers, a focused expression taking over her face as she stood on Sequine's side, flipping switches and plugging in cables.
„The Princess believes she has worked out a superior orbit,“ Wilhelmina explained upon seeing Cherry's confused look, „We're just deciding how to modify the flight control parameters.“
It was Red who spoke up this time, adjusting his spectacles again as he stared at the calculations lying on the table. Looking at them herself, Cherry was proud to admit she didn't understand anything.
Except the minus signs. Those were alright.
„With the help of Sequine here, I had managed to run some calculations of my own on the computer you provided,“ Luna meanwhile interjected, still staring at her rows of tall cupboards filled with electronics. Sometimes, she'd adjust a dial or flick a switch, but otherwise she simply stood back, letting the tape reels whirr and the lights flash by themselves. Cherry had no idea if they actually served any practical purpose, or whether the whole thing just ran on magic with the occasional techy decoration; and frankly, at this point, she no longer cared. She just wanted to get to space already.
„The basic idea is quite simple: By adjusting the flightpath slightly, we reach an orbit with a far lower periapsis,“ Wilhelmina continued, looking over her rocket blueprints again, „Low enough to slightly intersect with the upper atmosphere.“
„But I thought we wanted to go to space!“ Cherry cut in, slightly irritated by all this last-minute changes in plan, „Not fall back down!“
„Yes, of course. It is only a mere few kilometres.“
„But what's the point, then? And isn't it a little late for-“
„Your safety, of course!“ Luna suddenly turned back, briefly glancing at Cherry before resuming her calculations, „With this new trajectory, even if the return engines fail entirely, the orbit will still decay naturally, as it brushes against the upper atmosphere! Therefore, even on a complete power failure, you'll be safe. It'll take a full week, of course, but it will definitely be survivable.“
Perhaps surprisingly, this only made Cherry more angry. Not at the princess, though:
„And you haven't thought of this before, because…?“ she icily suggested towards the row of chief designers, focusing her eyes.
„Look, we were a little busy making the most complicated machine in the history of Equestria, alright?“ Lyuka flared up defensively, „A few things might've slipped, so what?“
„Plus, we did catch it. And with the Princess' help, we'll have the new parameters downlinked to the rocket soon enough.“
To Cherry's annoyance, Luna herself joined in too:
„I wouldn't put too much blame on the Designers, commander. Ever since I first posed the idea, they've been nothing but co-operative. And Seq, can you run Verb fifteen on blocks twenty through forty? That way, we can busy both the integer and decimal processors at the same time, doubling the program efficiency!“
„Parallelism,“ the white bespectacled unicorn nodded in response as she turned her attention to another part of the massive machine, obviously feeling surprisingly talkative today, „Yes.“
„Anything else you might've forgotten?“ Cherry glared at the designers. „'Cause that kinda seems to be a running theme in this thing. I don't mind blowing up, but I'd prefer if it wasn't from a stupid wrench that somepony forgot in the engine.“
Startled by the bold statement, Wilhelmina looked up from the blueprints and straight into Cherry's eyes, resolution in her eyes. „You are not going to blow up, commander. That ejection system we've built, it works. You feel a thing wrong – anything, you understand, the slightest tremble – you will punch that button. I want no heroics today; buck the mission if you have to, just come back safe. Got it?“
Cherry stared back into the Director's eyes. Although her words said one thing, the conflict in the mare's eyes and voice spoke quite differently altogether; she had spent her entire life preparing for this moment. Now, she was getting one chance, and she'd be damned if some panicky equenaut ruined it with an early abort.
Well, I'm gonna give her what she wants, Cherry decided firmly. And if that means a burnt-to-crisp pegasus, so be it.
„Yes, ma'am,“ she saluted coldly.
An uncomfortable silence descended over the table, lasting an especially long time and beset only by the constant sound of telecommunications coming over from all corners of the command centre. Cherry didn't mind, though. Instead, she drew a twisted sense of enjoyment from watching the expressions on the chief designers' faces: Sunny and Lyuka, glancing around skittishly in worry. Wilhelmina, staring at her in absolute resolution. Redstone, studying his calculations really really intently, obviously not wanting to look at the pony he might just be committing to fiery death. Sequine, of course, was utterly aloof about the current situation; in fact, looking at her dumb smile as she idly stared at the flashing lights of her computer, Cherry wondered if the unicorn had listened to a word. Or even knew the launch was happening today.
But, amongst all of those, the most interesting to look at was Luna herself. Although, at first glance, her attention was focused entirely on the bank of working computeronic machines before her, a further examination revealed an almost-conflicted expression on her face; as if she wanted to contribute something to the conversation, but wasn't going to, as if lost for words… needless to say, it was the kind of expression her older sister would never posses.
Interesting, to say the least.
„Well, Director?“ Cherry posed, turning to look at Wilhelmina. The old mare just stared back with the weight of steel.
„Friendship One is go,“ she nodded, then quickly pointed towards the exit hatch, „Good luck, commander.“
„Thank you, Director,“ Cherry snapped, then left the table without sparing a second glance at any of the designers. As she marched towards the exit, she could hear them first remain silent for a while longer, then gradually ease out of their collective stupor:
„Princess, be advised that we will need those first-quadrant vectors soon. The memory cores will take at least an hour to burn-in and replace, so we'd better get started-“
„…Sun, don't you think we should start priming the experiments package already? Those valves're gonna take an awful long time to warm up, and I still want to run some more diagnostics.“
„We're sure the weather's under control, right? Right? Tell you what, let's send up another squadron, just to make sure…“
Cherry smiled to herself; ignoring everything else, burying themselves in work. It was what got them here, so it's gotta work for the final stretch, right?
She rolled her eyes.
As she slowly covered the distance across to the exit hatch, she could clearly feel the tracking gazes of dozens of ponies, looking away from their consoles and at the advancing, suited-up equenaut they all knew so well. Meanwhile, the PA system slowly cracked to life, making ready to transmit a brief announcement across the entire Cosmodrome. „The pre-flight briefing is now over,“ Wilhelmina's voice resonated through the speakers, „Countdown clock has been set to T minus five hours. Ground crews, be advised, the equenaut will now be boarding the launch vehicle.“
She approached the heavy metal hatch, and the stallion standing at its side first saluted, then promptly opened it without a further word. Still, he stole a brief glance at Cherry as she passed through the doorway, and she reciprocated it; and, seeing the sheer, unbridled optimism in his eyes, she let a smile creep up across her own face, too.
Stepping out onto the sand outside and temporarily blinded by the brightness of the outside light, she let the fresh air and warm sun wash the annoyance straight off her skin. This was her day, dammit! It was too good to let it get ruined by pesky office politics.
Because of her slowly adjusting pupils, she could hear the crowds outside before she could see them; a furious, mounting applause, hundreds of hooves hitting the ground in unison, punctuated by the unceasing clicking and snapping of photographic equipment. The ponies were cheering, hollering, yelling, and all just for her; what could be cooler?
„And here comes the hero you have all been waiting for!“ a gigantic speaker positioned nearby suddenly blared, „The hero of all of Equestria, the pioneer of the last frontier, the one pony our collective dreams now rest upon! Fillies and gentlecolts, I give you, the planet's first equenaut, flight commander of Friendship One… the one and only, Cherry! Skies!“
Despite the grandioseness, she couldn't help but giggle; her dad sounded just like one of those cheesy sport commentators. Her vision quickly returning, she was glad to see him standing just a few hooves away, eyes shining like diamonds as he spoke into his headset. Meanwhile, to her left and right, enormous crowds of excited ponies loomed, pushing and swelling up against the wooden railings the Commissar's bulky stallions held. Through unceasing effort, they had managed to keep the herds back, and demarcated a wide, open corridor straight through the middle of the commotion.
Cherry's heart skipped a beat as she beheld the path. Situated between the swirling, colourful crowds, it was a cleared and static strip of sand, stretching out from the entry hatch of Stable X and running all the way through the desert, perfectly straight with no turns, ending precisely at the base of the concrete launch pad. There, the rocket itself stood, a shining spire of metal poised directly at the heavens; like a raised hoof, ready to punch the cold, uncaring universe straight in its face.
She nodded to herself, repeatedly. Words pretty much failed her. Well, expletives aside, of course.
To be absolutely fair, the crowds weren't spread all along the path; mostly, they just congregated in two giant blobs on either side of the bunker, with only a few stragglers waiting along the remaining long stretch. But still, Cherry thought to herself, That's a lotta ponies.
Not sure of what to do, she simply raised one of her hooves off the ground – no easy feat in the bulky suit – then waved slowly at the crowds, smiling as she did. It was a bit plain, but the gesture had the intended effect; Cherry was delighted to hear the volume of the applause and the frequency of the cheering to at least double.
„Commander Skies,“ dad meanwhile continued, covering the last few steps to her and offering up a spare microphone, „Any last words before you set out on your great journey? Any sage advice to us mere mortals, before you strike at the heavens themselves?“
„Of course!“ she chirped, and to her satisfaction the cheering intensified yet again. Encouraged, she happily continued: „There's no trick to being an equenaut like me! All you need is a smiling attitude – and an awesome and supporting dad, just like mine!“
The crowds cheered once again, and, even through the obstruction of her helmet, Cherry could see tears appear in the corners of her daddy's eyes. Mouthing a last, heartfelt 'Thank you', he gave her a quick kiss on the visor, then rapidly withdrew, turning back to the audience:
„Cherry Skies, everypony! Give her a good send-off!“
From behind the command bunker, a battery of cannon suddenly opened fire, sending streamers, ticker-tapes, and balloons shooting through the sky. But even as they began reloading for a second salvo, five blue blurs suddenly lifted to the air and formed up into a spearhead. From there, they quickly dropped low to the ground and proceeded to cover the entire length of the Cosmodrome in mere seconds, spinning in the air and trailing colourful smoke as they went. Despite their sheer speed, however, Cherry still managed to catch the brief glance of a rainbow among them; and her smile widened even further.
The spectacle could only be topped off in one way; the crowds on the left of the path suddenly opened, and Celestia herself walked out through the gap, stopping just at the edge of the wooden railings, right next to where all of Rainbow's friends were waving from. Looking at Cherry, the goddess first gave her an encouraging smile, then nodded towards the rocket. Only one way to go from here, little Cherry. Only one way to go.
Still, that rocket was an awful long way away, and her road was awfully empty. It'd be better to have a friend along…
Suddenly, somepony hit her across the back of her head. Even through the helmet, it hurt.
„How's this for a 'test pilot', huh?“ Zvezda entered her restricted field of vision, beaming widely. Poking back at the silly earth mare, Cherry burst out laughing.
„Good to have you here,“ she whispered to her friend.
„I know, you too,“ the pony poked back again, then nodded towards the princess, who was still watching from the side. „Better not keep the Goddess waiting, though. We'll have plenty of time for silly talk later, eh?“
„Good point,“ Cherry nodded one last time, then faced the faraway rocket again.
She took her first step, and the cannons fired out again, shrouding the skies in a barrage of streamers and party assortments.
The two mares kept walking along the demarcated path. Not even the most enthusiastic of spectators were following them now, having been stopped by the Commissar's security stallions a few hundred paces ago. Despite vocal protests, they had obeyed; after the colossal, breath-taking, impossible failure that had been the last public launch attempt, 'safety protocols' was a phrase nopony took lightly.
Glancing sideways to look at Cherry, Zvezda couldn't help herself but smile; again. There was just something comical about that heavy, bulky, fully-pressurized, shiny space suit, with those ridiculous boxy saddlebags on either side, and the way Cherry's head poked out from underneath the visor, her orange cheeks squished like a little foal's by all the insulation and padding. The outer silvery, heat-reflective layer wasn't helping either, of course: It made her look like she was wrapped in tinfoil.
Which, come to think of it, was exactly what it was.
„What's with that dumb smile?“ her friend pouted, glaring at Zvezda from underneath her helmet.
„Nothing,“ she quickly smiled back, then looked back to the rocket. They were almost at the concrete base of the launch pad. „Come on, just a bit more. We're almost there!“
„Seriously, you'd think that after suiting me up like that, they wouldn't have me walk halfway across the planet just to get to the stupid rocket,“ Cherry groaned, pausing for a second to catch her breath.
Seeing her friend stop, Zvezda did likewise, then reversed a few steps to return back to her side. „You know, that's actually a good point. I'll tell them to get a carriage or something for the second flight.“
„I bet they didn't even think of something like that,“ Cherry snapped, taking a brief sip from the straw inside her collar before resuming her walk, „They didn't think of a lot of things, did they?“
„That's a bit unfair, isn't it?“ Zvezda hazily suppressed a yawn as she looked up at the massive rocket approaching them. „They managed all that.“
„Yeah, but how long did you have to spend fixing that design? How many revisions? Last-minute upgrades, all just to stop it from exploding on the pad?“
Zvezda nodded uncertainly. It was a lot, sure. More than any other project she had ever worked on. Then again, this wasn't just another project.
„Still. They caught them all in the end, hadn't they?“ she smiled at Cherry as they both walked up the concrete stairway and towards the service tower.
„That's exactly what I'm worried about,“ she confided to Zvezda, before briefly saluting to Ironhoof, who was standing guard at the elevator. „Good day, Commissar.“
„Commander,“ he nodded, speaking in his gruff Stalliongrad accent. Spotting Zvezda, however, the expression on his face became utterly steely. Slowly, he gestured towards the side of the pad:
„Moment please, worker? Private talk.“
„Come on!“ Zvezda groaned, alternating between her friend, him, and the rickety elevator. „Cherry and I've known each other since this stupid program started, and I just spent the last ten minutes talking to her! Do you really think she couldn't tell me from an impostor?“
To her surprise, Ironhoof quickly fell silent again, before intermittently resuming. „Errr… is not about that. Different matter, yes? Concerning Cosmodrome.“
It was the first time Zvezda had seen him so fidgety. Pre-launch got you too, huh?
„Well, if it's not 'bout the mission, then it can wait. We're on a clock here, officer.“
The stallion fell silent again, and, taking a few steps back, let them board the elevator. However, the always-calm expression on his face remained the slightest bit panicky.
As the electric motors above sprung to life and the rickety platform began slowly rising with an initial jolt, the two mares first looked at each other strangely, then burst out laughing.
„That stallion's always strange, isn't he?“
As the laughter faded, Cherry took to examining the metal hull of the rocket slowly slide past them, and Zvezda followed. The equenaut first reached out with one hoof, as if wanting to touch the rocket, then quickly backed off.
„Funny, isn't it?“ Zvezda commented, watching her friend in slight bemusement. „Feels like it's not actually real. Like it doesn't belong in our world.“
Turning away from the massive vehicle, the pegasus looked Zvezda directly in the eyes. „Well, now it does. You made it belong.“
Zvezda let the sentence hang in the air for a few seconds, before Cherry suddenly resumed:
„And that's what makes me so angry!“
Jolting back in shock, Zvezda shook her head in disbelief at her friend's reaction. „Cher? What's-“
„Those numbskull designers, that's what!“ she continued in anger, stomping her hoof at the lift platform and making it wobble precariously.
„Cherry!“ Zvezda shrieked back in a mixture of concern and panic, suddenly forced to balance lest she might fall off.
„Whoa, whoa, whoa!“ she pipped, quickly realizing just how much her sudden gesture had wrought. Quickly freezing in place, she let the platform slowly settle itself down. Only once everything was stable again – and Zvezda had a good hoofhold – did she resume:
„Sorry 'bout that,“ she smiled apologetically, then looked away, into the desert. Tracing her sight, Zvezda realized she was staring at the mission control bunker, all the way across the Cape. The place where all the chief designers were co-ordinating this entire operation from.
„I've seen you work, you know,“ she quietly continued, almost inaudible over the sound of the platform motor, „All this time. Week after week, month after month. You never stopped, did you? Not once did you stop giving this stupid rocket everything you got. No matter how bad they paid you, how bad they shunted you on medical leave. You just kept going.“
Still looking at the bunker, Zvezda smiled to herself. She wasn't even going to give this one false modesty; after all that time, it was nice somepony recognized it.
Just the one. That was enough.
The platform suddenly ceased its ascent, and Zvezda snapped out of her dreamy state to realize that they were here. At the very top. The round access hatch was hanging open in front of them, and beyond it, the dark, spherical interior of the Star Walker waited for its lone occupant. Cherry took a deep breath, then looked back at her friend:
„Look, if anything happens-“
„You're gonna be fine,“ Zvezda quickly interrupted, flashing a tired smile of encouragement as she unplugged and removed her boxy saddlebags, then eased her into the central seat. The ingress procedure was very simple – just lying down on the seat and securing a few cables and restraints to the suit – but balancing on the rickety platform was a slight bit finicky, and they were going slow just to avoid any needless accidents. While she pulled at each of the safety belts and strapped Cherry into her acceleration couch, she glanced around the cramped interior. Every last panel, every last screw, every last weld-line was precisely where she had put it. Not even her harsh, critical eye could find a single deviation from the blueprints; it was perfect.
She felt proud.
Pulling back at the last safety strap and completing the entire procedure, she first made sure the communications cable was connected properly, then quickly smiled at her friend: „The escape system, the ejection, it all works. I got it covered.“
„Oh, 'Vez, you…“ Cherry looked up, otherwise unable to move much underneath all the safety belts and layers of space-suit, „Don't you realize I don't care 'bout that? I signed up for this, dammit – blowing up horribly is part of the job!“
Cherry laughed abruptly, as if only to silence Zvezda, then gazed back sternly. „I just want you to promise me one thing, 'Vez.“
„Shut up, and promise me: If anything happens, no matter what, it wasn't your fault. Alright? It wasn't your fault.“
Zvezda glanced desperately from side to side. This was getting a lot more-
Seeing her think, Cherry shook her head again. „Just promise.“
But how? She stared at her friend, helpless and immobile in the middle of all that machinery. If anything went wrong, Zvezda's creation would literally be her only hope.
„It wasn't you, it wasn't your crew, it wasn't any single one of all those incredible tech-ponies who had worked so bloody hard on making this happen,“ Cherry asserted unflinchingly, sending a shiver running down Zvezda's spine, „It was those stupid chief designers. It was Wilhelmina, and her crazy insistence to go through with this, no matter how much we had to cut. Any mistake you made, wasn't yours – it was hers, because she rushed you too much.“
„Okay?“ she tacked on after a moment of silence.
Zvezda stared back, emptily. Her mind was completely blank by this point, dulled by weeks of insufficient sleep, and it was hard enough to just stand up straight and not keel over the ground; it certainly was no time to be asking these sort of questions!
But, still, seeing the pleading look on her friend's face as she lay inside that cold metal capsule, she couldn't just refuse. Reaching around for the access hatch, she swung it halfway around, then took one last look at her dear friend of the past year:
„Okay,“ she whispered, only pausing long enough to catch Cherry smile in response, before swinging the hatch the rest of the way and sealing it shut.
One lie can't hurt, right? she tried repeatedly to convince herself as she steadily worked down the line of safety bolts that ringed the hatch, securing each one firmly in the metal hull and making sure it wasn't loose. Every single one felt like another nail in her friend's coffin.
That gruesome task finally over, she sat back, taking a few moments just to contemplate the sight. That was it, then; her final task in this stupid mission.
Whoever thought it was a good idea to send ponies to space anyway?
„All done, boss?“ one of the prep-crew suddenly broke her morose thoughts, speaking from a few hooves below the access hatch, where she hovered near one of the Comrade Module's many access panels.
„Yeah, all done,“ she sighed lengthily, then looked over to the pegasus, who was wearing an orange hard hat and a thick pair of glasses. „How 'bout you?“
„Yup, I think that's that. Let's send this pony to space!“ she victoriously announced, getting ready to slam down the access panel. Before she could do so, however, Zvezda suddenly stopped her with a wave of the hoof. „What?“
„That access panel,“ Zvezda nodded over to the short row of dials and valves positioned there, „That isn't working right, is it?“
„Huh?“ she turned around in confusion, then shrugged, „Why you say that? Looks good to me.“
„Just look at that pressure gauge!“ Zvezda insisted, pointing towards the dial in question.
„What?“ the pegasus did one last puzzled turn, „It's right! One third capacity, just like the checklist says.“
„One third,“ Zvezda coldly repeated. „And why is that?“ she asked, the suppressed anger in her voice strong enough to make the mare jump back a few metres in the air:
„Well, I dunno – it's only a three-hour flight, isn't it? No need to over-stress the tanks! Plus, it's what the checklist says, so-“
„Buck the checklists,“ Zvezda uttered, „I'm the capsule chief. And I didn't spend three solid weeks mounting a ten-day oxygen tank only for it to be filled to a third. You're gonna bring that pump out again and fill it to the brim, you hear me?“
„But- the procedures-“
„I'm the crew supervisor here. My word goes. Now scram, and fast, or I'll get somepony else to do this.“
„Alright, alright! Sheesh!“ the pegasus quickly began backing off, reversing in the direction of the equipment shed. „You'd think I was getting paid for this…“
Under the watchful eye of Zvezda, the mare slowly brought out the oxygen hose. Fitting it over one of the access nozzles of the Comrade Module, she promptly began the lengthy re-supplying procedure; all the while sending constant resentful glances in Zvezda's direction.
She didn't mind. She didn't feel any pangs of resentment, either; silly promises were one thing, but she realized full well that there were things she could change, and things she couldn't.
And a half-filled oxygen tank was one of the former; checklists, regulations, and the Director herself be damned.
„…and load four, and 'plex, verb twenty four on noun seventeen… store, lock, and branch to F! There, done!“
There was a look of great accomplishment on Luna's face as she read the last few lines off her scroll, then paused to watch the tech-ponies scramble all around her, turning dials and switching cables in desperate attempts to keep up with her rapid pace.
Meanwhile, from across the command centre, Wilhelmina also watched the princess work this new wizardry, likewise with great interest. So great, in fact, it took her a few seconds to notice Lyuka had come in through the door and started importantly announcing something.
„Huh? You were saying?“ she quickly shook her head, then began paying attention. Stopping mid-sentence, the green-skinned pegasus groaned, but nevertheless began again:
„Capsule chief reporting. Crew ingress now complete.“
„Took 'em a while,“ Will commented, glancing away at the clock and wondering how could such a simple operation be so delayed. „Still, at least it's done. Pad power checks out?“
Wilhelmina took a deep breath, then, nodding at Lyuka, levitated over the large red phone that had been standing on her desk. „Friendship One, Friendship One, this is Cape Command. Do you copy?“
„Friendship One, copy,“ the phone soon crackled back, much to Wilhelmina's relief. Wired communications weren't as important as the magic-powered wireless, obviously, but it was nice to see at least one system work properly.
„Roger that. No problems so far?“
„Excellent. You'll be pleased to hear the princess has now completed her new launch program.“
„That's great, Command,“ the equenaut promptly sounded back, without much enthusiasm. Wilhelmina stopped for a second, just calming herself down. Shut up. This is going to be a great day. I'm not gonna let you ruin it.
„Be advised, Friendship One, I'm handing you over to Launch Prep. Please turn to page two on the start-up checklist, and report as you go. Cape Command out.“
Happy she was able to get through that in a strictly professional tone of voice, Wilhelmina quickly levitated the phone over to Lyuka, who grasped it in her fore hooves as she took to the air and hovered across to her own desk. „Friendship One, this is Launch Prep. Please stand by for fuelling operations, over…“
Meanwhile, Wilhelmina turned to the main planning table nearby. Though it had now been almost entirely taken over by Luna's many scribblings and calculations, there was still a bit of space left for the rocket blueprints and opened checklists. Staring at the schematic of the Star Walker's crew section, she inhaled deeply. We're doing our damned best here, you know, she aimed at that incredibly annoying pegasus currently sitting atop her beautiful rocket, You try launching a space-ship perfectly the first time around! I swear, once all this is over, you're never going to fly-
„Madam Director?“ the eternally-warm voice of Celestia suddenly tore her away from her thoughts. Glancing up in surprise, she saw the goddess standing in the doorway of the command bunker, letting the sun into her dark and cosy room.
„What brings your highness to our control stable?“ she began uncertainly, blinking in the light. Suddenly realizing the princess was craning her neck just to fit into the bunker, she went red and quickly continued: „I apologize in advance for the-“
„Oh, worry not, Director. You had to cut costs somewhere, after all,“ Celestia grinned warmly, taking a large weight off Wilhelmina's chest. However, the smile disappeared altogether as she resumed: „I will be out of here in no time at all. Once I talk to one very disobedient little sister. Isn't that right, Luna?“
„Oh, hey Tia!“ the other princess quickly waved back, not even turning away from her machines. „You won't believe what I just-“
„What I can't believe is just how much time you are spending at that thing,“ Celestia quickly cut her off, staring at the bank of computeronic engines with great disdain. „I swear, it is such a beautiful day outside, and yet here you are, wasting it by constantly staring into those flashing lights!“
„But Tia, I'm helping here! I have-“
„A most helpful tech-pony just informed me you are done.“
„Come on, Tia, I still haven't even optimized the escape routines! Just one more function, and I'll take a break, I swear!“
Seeing Luna remain fixed to her whirring machine, Celestia simply shook her head in frustration, then glanced sideways at Will:
„Next time you sell something so addicting to my sister, Director, please inform me first,“ she chided, then set out in the direction of Luna, voice gradually rising as she switched to a much more commanding – and far less royal – tone of voice:
„Do I have to drag you from there myself, young princess? Mind, this would be the fourth time I had to do just that! I swear, without me, you'd never even see the outside world anymore!“
Wilhelmina, meanwhile, just kept staring at the whole scene in rising disbelief, along with most of the ponies inside the command bunker. Was this the almighty, all-powerful ruler she had spent so long fearing?
One of the nearby tech-ponies managed to break away from the puzzling scene for long enough to tap her on the shoulder and deliver a message. „Mr. Skies requests your presence, madam-“
She was out of the doorway before the mare could even finish her sentence. For the sake of her sanity, she had to get out, before things got even sillier. Which, by the look of things, was going to happen very soon.
Looking straight ahead and leaving the sounds of rising, farcical commotion far behind, she emerged into the blaring desert sun. It was a busy scene outside the bunker; knowing this was the nerve centre of the entire operation, many journalists had set up here, and were already busily hassling the few unfortunate ponies who had drawn short straws at the 'press duty' lottery yesterday. A lot of bystanders were here, too, either listening with interest to the long-winded explanations being given to the journalists, or just eager to appear in front of the many rolling cameras. Because of the sheer number of ponies, a fair number of street vendors also set up shop here, giving the sight an even livelier feel.
Because of this town market atmosphere, it took Wilhelmina a fair while to notice Mr. Skies, who was waving at her from a small outdoors restaurant set up nearby. Standing at a small wooden table covered by a parasol, he was enjoying a simple meal along with a few other ponies. Recognizing that wannabe-industrialist mare Rarity among them, she almost decided the command bunker might be healthier for her sanity. However, one sight at the ice cubes floating in his drink sealed the deal: On such a hot day, even boring business deals with annoying ponies were nothing compared to the pure bliss of a refreshing, icy drink.
„Good to see you here, Wilhelmina!“ he greeted her enthusiastically, even running over to guide her along the last few strides. „I was just chatting with some of our contractors here, and thought you might want to hear this. Didn't expect you'd come, really.“
„To be honest, I just needed an excuse to get out,“ Will smiled nervously, then nodded to each of the other ponies at the table, taking great care to skip Rarity. „But that doesn't mean this isn't a pleasure.“
„How's my little Cherry doing, by the way?“ Mr. Skies asked between sips of his drink, „I trust she's comfortable in that capsule of hers?“
Wincing slightly at his question, Wilhelmina nevertheless proceeded to fake a quick smile „Quite alright. There was only so much we could do with the mass and space restrictions, of course, but she's doing fine.“
„There are no complaints about the suit, I presume?“ Rarity quickly interjected. Wilhelmina considered a scathing reply, but she had to give it to the mare:
„For the price you asked, it was virtually a steal!“ she grinned – honestly, this time – then continued, „I wouldn't worry about receiving another contract if I were you.“
„Indeed, it is precisely that we were discussing!“ Mr. Skies joined in, „Miss Rarity here made an interesting proposal, and I was hoping you could share some of your technical expertise with us. What do you think about an inflatable airlock?“
„A simple construct primarily made out of cloth,“ Rarity clarified, „Along with a small pump to pressurize it, just like the crew suit. Since it would be incredibly compact in its deflated form, not to mention lightweight, it could easily attach to the side of the capsule without any redesign! You have to admit, allowing extra-vehicular activity would make your spaceship far more useful.“
„That's…“ Wilhelmina slowly began, surprised to say the least, „That's… incredibly clever, actually.“ She looked back at Mr Skies. „Why didn't we think of that?“
„It was actually my idea, but Rarity worked out the fabric stuff,“ a purple unicorn mare – whom Will vaguely remembered from previous visits – suddenly beamed, looking up from her salad, „Really, once you get over the fact that the 'space' part of a spaceship doesn't actually have to be from super thick metal and survive re-entry, it's really obvious. If you're interested, I also got plans for an inflatable hab module, an inflatable space station, and even-“
„There, there, Twilight!“ Rarity softly interrupted the rapidly accelerating unicorn, „Don't want to scare the designers off with your crazy plans, do we now?“
„Is it true you're already planning a moon landing, though?“ the purple mare's enthusiasm couldn't be extinguished. „Because if that's the case, an inflatable-“
Momentarily glancing up towards the rocket towering in the distance, Wilhelmina smiled at her. „One step at a time, miss.“
„Of course! I can't even realize how hard such a huge project must be. Why, just getting a stable enough combustion going-“
Out of all the things to suddenly interrupt the sweet, but ever-so-slightly annoying mare's intense twittering, an unearthly, blood-curdling roar that rang across the sky and sent ponies galloping around the stalls in fear was one of the less expected. Amidst the surprised shrieks of terror and panic coming from the surrounding visitors, however, Wilhelmina's only reaction was a mild yawn; this establishment sure had an awful slow waiter.
„What in Celestia's name was that?“ Rarity exclaimed, almost dropping her cup from the shock.
„Just Cawthorne,“ Will absent-mindedly explained, glancing over to the restaurant's counter. She waved her hoof angrily, „Hey! Can a pony get a drink around here?“
Sadly, the barpony did not notice her, too busy scampering around in deathly fear. Instead, all she got was more of Rarity's yammering: „Cawthorne? Who in Equestria is-“
Another mighty roar cut her off, this one even louder than before. Noticing all the other ponies at the table were turning their heads somewhere behind her, Will turned around too; over the dune, just by the railway gates of Stable VII, a massive emerald dragon was thrashing about with his tail, teeth exposed and making threatening gestures at the circle of tech-ponies standing about him. She noted Redstone at their lead, and the many film cameras and photographic arrays affixed to long leather straps that they carried.
„I guess the old guy just doesn't like cameras,“ Wilhelmina smiled, noticing the black smoke rising from his nostrils. Oh, well; after a discussion with Redstone, he'd surely come around.
„You… you have a dragon here?“ Twilight uttered in disbelief, still staring as the tech-ponies ran circles around the huge creature, scurrying to save not just the expensive equipment, but also their own hides. „How- Why-“
„We got the idea he could take pictures while following the rocket along,“ Wilhelmina explained, watching from afar as the good professor presented some deep argument to the ancient creature, „Adult dragons have a much higher flight ceiling than pegasi, so he could provide stratospheric data, and carry heavier cameras along. Far more efficient than conventional methods, you must admit.“
„I suppose so,“ Twilight sounded back, still obviously quite surprised. Rarity, meanwhile, had since recovered from the initial shock, and smoothly carried on with their conversation. Next to an orbital rocket, a full-grown dragon wasn't such a weird thing, after all:
„I'm still surprised you were able to pay for a dragon. Wasn't your programme utterly bankrupt?“
„You know, that's actually a good question!“ Mr. Skies exclaimed, turning to Wilhelmina. „How did we do that? I don't remember seeing a 'giant ancient dragon' item on the budget.“
„Oh, he came free with the facility. Technically, he's under Ironhoof's command, but he has no need for a dragon, so we just let him lie in his cave most of the time.“
„What kind of facility needs a huge dragon for security?“ Twilight wandered aloud.
„Eh,“ Wilhelmina waved her hoof, looking at the drinks menu for the hundredth time now, „The Princess claimed these were old royal grounds or something. Most the security's just ancient relics, and dragons don't like moving much, so…“
Mr. Skies listened in with great interest: „Oh! So that's why we have a cave full of gunpowder under the canteen! It always seemed like such a strange architectural decision to me, that.“
„Yeah, ancient relics. Don't forget that bunker full of rusting cannons.“
„Those that Ironhoof dragged out of nowhere during the accident? I've had one pointed directly at me. Great fun.“
„Well, it's not like they work or anything. Plus, nopony can understand the manuals anyway, so…“
Twilight suddenly interrupted the smiling pair, staring at them in mounting disbelief:
„Isn't anypony just a little concerned by all this? I mean, cannons, and, and dragons? What in Equestria would anypony ever need those for?“
„It was free, and there's no rent,“ Wilhelmina shrugged, „It'd be impolite to complain. Listen, just what kind of arcane ritual did you have to cast to get that waiter to show up? I'm dying here!“
„Actually, I think she ran off,“ Mr. Skies commented, looking all around, „Probably doesn't like dragons much. Which brings us to another intriguing mystery: How exactly will we pay the tab?“
While Twilight still stared at them wordlessly, Wilhelmina just sighed. „Great. Just great. What else could possibly go wrong today?“
If, a full year ago, Cherry had been asked what the defining emotion of becoming a true equenaut would be, she would have said a great many things: defining determination to soldier on, perhaps? Awe, in face of the great unknown? Just a little bit of fear?
Of course, she never would have guessed the real answer: Boredom. Lying in the soft acceleration couch of her little capsule, listening to the constant voice traffic over her helmet phone, she had very little to do. Asides from watching the occasional dial flicker, and reporting the event back to Cape Command, or maybe confirming that a small light on control panel number ten bazillion had lit up, there was nothing. To make matters worse, the small round window in the side of the capsule was covered up by the rocket fairing, so she couldn't just entertain herself by emptily staring at the clouds outside. Finally, as the last straw, she couldn't even fidget around much, because the safety straps severely limited her movements, and the bulky suit made movement excessively difficult anyway. She had wished she had smuggled in a comic book, or a magazine; even in the dim light of the capsule's only light bulb, it would still have been readable.
„Friendship One, Friendship One, Launch Prep,“ an announcement suddenly broke her lazy thoughts, „Can you confirm cabin purge has been successful?“
It only took a meagre few seconds to check the appropriate dial. „Launch Prep, confirm. Vehicle atmosphere is now sourced from internal only, and holding stable at twelve psi. Zero cross-feed with external air, over.“
„Roger that. Be advised, the pumps have started and fuelling procedures are now underway. I repeat, volatiles are entering the upper stage. Please switch abort mode to Pad-Eject.“
„Copy,“ Cherry complied, reaching forward with her hoof and flicking one of the few switches that were accessible from her current position. Above her, the long red cord of the abort system dangled forebodingly.
The control panel emitted a series of high-pitched digital beeps, and soon thereafter a confirmation came back. „Flight computeronics signal the ejection rockets are armed. Take care, Friendship One.“
Her headphones crackled silent again, and Cherry sighed, already dreading the next twenty three minutes of intense, checklist-mandated boredom, while the liquid fuel tanks slowly filled.
Seriously, they could at least play some music through these things. What good is a hundred-thousand-bit audio system if you can't listen to some good vinyl on it?
Thinking about her favourite songs occupied her for a good few minutes longer; four minutes and thirty seven seconds, to be precise, judging by the small clock in the capsule.
Whoa, she suddenly realized, I'm actually bored enough to count the individual seconds.
That's pretty sad.
She spent some more time trying to think of all the different ways this could be improved. A smuggled gramophone, a little prism that would reflect a film from an outside film projector onto the main dashboard, even just an uncovered window would be enough… she firmly decided that, for the sanity of future equenauts, this was going to be the number one item on her post-flight debriefing.
Glancing at the clock again, and realizing that a mere twenty three seconds had passed since her last look, she groaned heavily. Right now, even a sudden explosion on the pad would at least make things a little exciting.
In utter disregard of every protocol, she hit the comms dial several times as she scanned through the available lines, and tried to listen to the padside control chatter:
„…XT-RT, go for A. Copy. Copy. XT-RV, go for B. Copy, copy…“
„FSTAT, make ready for STP…“
„…L-GC, T-GC, E-GC, check. X-GC, check. Seven-Four. Lock MSEC.“
Resisting the urge to smash her head against the control panel, she very quickly returned the line selector to its original position, vowing to never touch that dial again. Afterwards, she briefly tried whistling a tune under her breath, only to be immediately silenced by Lyuka a few seconds later, on the grounds of giving everypony in the command bunker an ear-splitting headache.
Thus, left alone, in silence, with nothing but her brain to keep her company, Cherry eventually began to think. It got off to a swimming start, just idly wondering how Zvezda could be doing, and whether Geist was finally enjoying some of his much-earned sleep; but even that thread of thought soon ran out, leaving her with absolutely nothing.
The stupid safety belts were the worst, though. It was of no use trying to loosen them, either, because any strong pull at the straps made red lights flash across the control panel. And red lights were bad.
Suddenly, the headphones crackled once more, jarring her to life. Hearing the voice of her most hated professor, however, her heart sunk back again:
„Friendship One, this is Crew Chief. Are you alright?“
„Huh?“ she mumbled back in confusion; Red wasn't usually the one to care about her well-being.
„Your biometrics look slightly abnormal,“ he explained further, pausing a second to emit a noise strangely similar to a laugh, „I simply wonder.“
Of course, that mysterious comment only made Cherry more suspicious. So much so, she glanced up at the abort cord again. „Professor, has anything happened? Any horrible news you are trying to hide from me?“
„Just making conversation! Can't I be nice every once in a while?“
The intensity of her glare was audible even over the phone line.
„Fine,“ he eventually sighed, sending a burst of static through her headphones, „There is, in-fact, one piece of slightly bad news.“
„Ah-hah!“ she exclaimed. Despite the professor's words, she felt cheerful at successfully figuring him out.
„Yes, yes, cadet, save it for later. Diagnostics report faulty inverter in booster flight computer. Replacing it will require at least thirty minutes.“
The prospect of sitting in this tiny capsule even longer than planned took the smile right off her face. „Roger that, Crew Chief,“ she groaned into the microphone.
She was expecting Redstone to sign off and leave her alone there. However, the stallion left the line open, and she could hear his slow breathing sending waves of static through her headphones. Eventually, the faint sound got on her nerves enough that she spoke up again:
„Did you forget to turn off your mike, Crew Chief?“
„Oh! Uh… actually, no. There will one more deviation from checklist, Friendship One.“
She rolled her eyes. „Should I just wrap this up and go home, then?“
„No, no, no! Not at all. Simple crew re-assignment. Instead of Wilhelmina, your father will take on role of capsule comms during flight. Keep in mind, cadet, I have made this decision from purely efficiency standpoint. It has absolutely nothing to do with-“
„Sure, whatever you say,“ Cherry giggled, her heart pounding with joy too much to do anything else.
„Well, thanks anyway, Prof,“ she smiled back, then took a deep breath, not believing she was about to voice the words she was about to say, „You're the best.“
The speakers cut off abruptly, as the stallion doubtlessly slammed the phone down. But Cherry didn't care; for the entirety of the lengthy hold sequence, a wide dumb smile remained spread across her face.
Idly marching through the streets of 'Cape Town', Ray at her side, Zvezda felt a weird sensation permeating her body. At every corner they turned, there were more colourful tents and more happy ponies, opportunistic traders showing off their plushy equenauts and model kits of rockets, along with various types of pleasant-smelling 'space food'; ponies lying under parasols with binoculars hanging from their necks, or just sitting inside tents with cool buckets of water at the ready.
„Feels funny, doesn't it?“ she noted, looking on a pair of particularly energetic fillies chase each other down the 'city' streets.
„Does it?“ Ray looked at her strangely, „What does?“
„This… this whole thing. I mean, we're just walking here. There's no deadlines, no clock ticking out our free time, no endless checklists to keep reading. Just us two, alone, walking. No angry ponies with twenty doctorates screaming into our ears.“
Ray stared at her for a few moments, completely silent. „You really need to find a new job,“ he eventually produced.
„Oh, I dunno,“ Zvezda giggled, stepping to the side to avoid a merchant dragging her wagon the opposite direction, and letting her pass before resuming again, „I kinda like it.“
„Really, now? You've been one horror story after another. Frankly, that 'Director' of yours' got a slave camp here. If a pony – especially the boss – insists on being called by her title like that, you know that's a bad sign right away.“
„Still, the job itself's pretty cool. And she doesn't mind if we call her 'Will' any more,“ she tried poorly to retort, only to almost walk into another couple, veer to avoid them, and end up tripping and propelling herself towards the ground. Quickly trotting over to check she was alright, Ray first helped her up, then dusted her off:
„By Celestia's mane, girl! Did you even sleep the last week?“
„Once, I think,“ Zvezda smiled back softly, stars still flashing before her eyes.
„See, that's exactly what I'm talking 'bout here!“ Ray carried on, as he helped her get back up and take uncertain steps forward, „If you're really have to stay, then you ponies should at least form a union or something! Or just sue the state for gross mistreatment.“
Continuing to slowly wobble forward, she tried to focus on the words. „I think it's private now. After Skies did the thing with the things. But Canterlot still owns the land or something, so… bah, I don't even know! I just do the simple stuff.“
„The rocket science.“
„Yeah. Simple,“ Zvezda nodded back, then suddenly stopped as her head began to spin. After regaining her composure again, she glanced up at Ray. „Listen, can we go in the shade somewhere? I don't feel too great.“
Seeing him nod, she first smiled in appreciation, then just kept back and let him lead the way. Maybe it was just the sun frying her head, but his chestnut skin and brilliant emerald eyes seemed to look especially fetching today. They soon sat down under a parasol of some open-air restaurant, and he quickly ordered some water, sparing no expense for an enchanted, self-cooling jug. Slowly sipping at the icy liquid, the two spent the next few minutes in pleasant silence, just looking around and taking in the atmosphere.
For Zvezda, especially, it all looked almost alien; the stores, the haggling, dozens of ponies she never saw before, all thoroughly breaking up the monotony of a casual day at the Cosmodrome. To be honest, she felt a little bit scared; even if the launch worked, she'd still have at least a month of vacation ahead of her. What would she do with all that spare time? Just lie around all day, doing nothing?
Actually, that doesn't sound too bad.
She looked at Ray again, and smiled meekly. She really wanted to thank him for all his friendship and good company, to talk with him pleasantly, but didn't feel quite up to the task yet. Instead, she zoned out again, scanning the surroundings. Eventually, her eyes settled on a pegasus mare and her little filly standing just a table away; though she still looked pretty different, the mare's grey skin and flowing blond hair pleasantly reminded Zvezda of herself.
As the filly – presumably the daughter – played with her plushie of Rainbow Dash, the mare uncertainly sorted through her saddlebags. As she wasn't feeling up for much else, and was still idly fascinated by the resemblance, Zvezda listened in on their conversation:
„That centrifuge sure was fun, wasn't it?“ the little filly happily beamed as she made the plushie Rainbow hop across the desert sand. „Mission Control, Mission Control! Commander Dash has landed! She's hopping on the moon!“
„It sure was, sweetie,“ the mare absent-mindedly smiled back, still fumbling with something in her saddlebags; through the background chatter, Zvezda could still hear the metallic clanging of coins. „But why do they have to make everything so expensive? You'd think they get enough money from the rockets… and I get water in the desert isn't cheap, but ten bits for a glass? Really?“
„It's alright if we don't visit everything, mum,“ the little filly suddenly looked up from her toy, her expression becoming more serious. „You already bought the tickets and the train! You don't have to pay for all the other rides and toys and stuff! Really!“
The mother just smiled back. „Don't worry, it's fine. I don't care how much it costs, if it makes my little Dinky happy!“
Nevertheless, the filly stood her ground. „But that's what I mean! You've already done everything! All this stuff's just extra. If it's really too expensive-“
A general announcement from a nearby speaker pole suddenly drowned out the family's conversation:
„Attention, fillies and gentlecolts, this is launch director Wilhelmina Brown speaking. Our pre-launch systems checks have discovered a faulty inverter in the booster computeronics assembly. Rest assured the mission is unharmed, and that the equenaut is doing fine: However, I am afraid this will mean a forty minute hold in the countdown, as the malfunctioning components are replaced and re-tested. New launch time is three fifty-two in the afternoon. Thank you for your understanding.“
The announcement understandably generated a buzz from the nearby ponies, and the grey mare was no exception. „Another delay?“ she sighed loudly, „I really wonder if they'll launch at all!“
„But of course they will, mum! They're smart ponies!“
„Such a lovely couple, aren't they?“ Ray commented, and Zvezda couldn't help but nod. That little filly was especially adorable.
He let the silence hang for a while longer, then, with a conspiratorial smile on his face, broke it again: „You know, that mare looks just like you, 'Vez. And the way she gets along with that filly of hers…“
Zvezda giggled. „You're not suggesting anything now, are you now?“
„Oh, I dunno,“ he continued smiling, „Maybe I am.“
Zvezda laughed it off as she took another sip of the refreshing water. However, seeing the smile persist, she giggled again:
„You can't be serious!“
„No! This isn't how these things work, Ray!“ Zvezda shook her head in disbelief, „I mean, I like you and everything, but we've barely been together a few months!“
„How 'bout purely hypothetically, then?“ he suggested, not breaking sight once as he kept his wide smile up, „You ponies are good at thought experiments, aren't you?“
„Even hypothetically, you've seen how busy this job can get! With you always on the railways, and me with the rockets, I just don't see how it could work. Little foals need time, you know.“
„Well, it's not always gonna be like this,“ he retorted with not a moment's pause, causing her to wonder at just how much he had prepared in advance, „The teams're gonna get bigger, and you'll have to do less overtime. More money too, probs.“
„Ray, you know it's not about the money! Seriously, with the amount of back-pay they owe me, I could probably start my own kingdom or two. The point is, a foal can't grow up in a nursery. It needs constant attention, and loving parents.“
Despite her constant insistence, the stallion stubbornly kept his smile up. „That could happen. Now, I realize how much you love your job… but maybe a life on the rails just isn't for me, you know? I could stay at home. Give her all the attention she needs.“
„You've really thought this out, haven't you?“ Zvezda tried to dodge the unspoken question. Of course, with little success:
„Well? What do you think?“
Laughing again, she took another lengthy gulp, just to calm her head. This was a big question to ask so suddenly, and her head was a complete mess already. Then again, she thought as she stared Ray into his eyes, You could do a lot worse. You won't be young forever, you know?
„Now, like I said, there's absolutely no way I can say yes to this,“ she began cautiously, finishing her glass, „But I'm not gonna say no, either.“
„You won't?“ Ray's eyes widened. She nodded softly, and he leant in to give her a big kiss.
Finally, all the pent-up stress from the ceaseless weeks of crunch time began washing off her. The background chatter vanished, and, for the first time in Celestia knew how long, she felt genuinely happy; and not that nervous-relief kind of way, either, no. This was a pure and unbridled state of mind, free of concern, of worrying about meeting the next milestone. She had spent so much time running at one hundred percent, she completely forgot just how nice it felt to forget everything and just not think for a while.
„You know,“ she quietly began as the two nuzzled over the table, „Everypony's gonna be getting some serious holiday time after this. Any way you could get your hooves on some discounted tickets from your job?“
She looked around. Seeing nothing but rolling dunes for miles around, sitting squat underneath a perfect blue sky, she shuddered. „Someplace cold. Like, really, really cold. Not as flat as hay, either.“
One final glance at the sickeningly-pure, cloudless sky up above made her shudder again. „And the more ugly greyish clouds, the better.“
„I'll try my best,“ he whispered, and leant in for another kiss.
„Cape Command, this is crew leader Ivy. We are now seven-four on the two-hundred inverter. Half cycle checks complete, and segment fifteen is green lights as far as we can see. Requesting permission to withdraw off the pad.“
„Roger that, crew leader. Permission granted,“ Wilhelmina commanded back, the faintest hint of a smile flashing across her face. Turning to the main command desk again, she nodded firmly:
„Sun, prime the clock for T minus three minutes. Seq, get those computeronics initializing. Once they're back, we resume the count.“
Sequine did not even bother acknowledging the order, instead leaving for her row of metal cupboards straight away. And even though Sunny responded with a brief salute, she betrayed no traces of her usually-expressive personality.
Smiling nervously to calm her nerves, Wilhelmina looked at the other chief designers: Redstone was furiously flipping through some manual and muttering under his breath, while Lyuka was looking through the blueprints of the rocket for the millionth time. Even Mr. Skies, normally the first one to talk loudly or enthusiastically exclaim something, was standing off in the corner, wordlessly watching the dark lights of the deactivated computers.
There definitely wasn't silence, for the other ponies of the command centre kept their continuous chatter as busy as ever, co-ordinating equipment transfers and systems checks with ground teams all around the Cosmodrome; but that was far away on the other side of the room. Around the chief designers' table, the air was so heavy it choked. Furthermore, the tall figures of the two princess, standing directly beside the mission control table, and watching their every movement with deep interest, certainly did not make things any better.
„I take it the problem has been resolved, then?“ Celestia suddenly spoke up. She was smiling, obviously trying to be reassuring; instead, the gesture made Wilhelmina all the more nervous for it.
„Indeed, your highness. Technically, the backup systems could have compensated for that particular failure, but for this first launch, we want to be thorough.“
„Nevertheless, I can assure you that there should be no further delays.“
For some reason, that made the princess laugh loudly. „My dear Director, you worry about such silly things. For something like this, I could wait a hundred years!“
Well, Princess, some of us can't, Wilhelmina had to fight not to say these words aloud, and instead keep up her smile as she nodded courteously. Some of us only have a few odd years to leave our mark on the world. And what little time we do have, is spent navigating through stupid politics. Going in endless circles, just to get one chance to prove ourselves.
Just one chance, Princess, the thoughts circled around her head in rising anger as she stared the goddess into the eyes, How many have you had?
A series of harsh, digital beeps suddenly tore her away. It came from Sequine's stack of computeronics, of course; one by one, the arcane altars began to flash and whirr, tape reels slowly beginning to spin up, and lights blinking bright as the banks of relays and capacitors inside them warmed to function.
„Online,“ the electromechanics pony reported, and the most massive of the machines suddenly sprang to life: A huge, solid wall of metal that covered one entire side of the command bunker, and was broken only by a series of comically-sized dials and other indicators, each large enough to be easily read from any point in the bunker. Right now, they were all reading zero; but, of course, that was about to change.
„Establishing telemetry uplink!“
The massive board suddenly glowed dark purple, as the vast battery of enchantments inside the panel sought out and melded with the appropriate counter-enchantments inside the rocket's control circuitry. Backlit by the shine of magic, the indicators began to synchronize at a glacial pace. The clocks were the first to reach the correct values; then the altimeter, and then the azimuth indicator. One by one, the entire panel gradually began coming alive.
„I thought the entire point was to do it without magic, Director,“ Celestia commented, also looking at the impressive machine as it initialized. Wilhelmina first shot her another evil glance, and only then noticed her subtle, bemused smile. Even so, she still couldn't resist a comeback:
„Well, you see, there was this one pony, who, for some reason, decided to cut our budget…“
The goddess took the jibe in stride, nodding in response as she turned back to watch the massive panel work. And work.
What the hay is it doing? Wilhelmina wondered as she stared at the dials glacially switch away from zeroes, It can do calculations ten times as fast as the fastest pony! What's the bucking hold-up?
Whatever it was, it was evidently pretty major, as the giant control panel just stood there, ticking over. Blushing from the poor performance of her machine, she glanced sideways at Celestia. The great princess was obviously patient, but even her eyes were beginning to wander around the bunker, stopping at interesting little tidbits of machinery. The rest of the ponies were showing lesser restraint, however, visibly tapping their hooves and yawning. A few even began to whistle.
Stupid Sequine, Wilhelmina cursed to herself, I told her! I told her, a couple of lightweight enchantments is all we need. But no! She just had to go ahead and link it up with her dumb, over-complicated computeronics, didn't she! Computers, bah! What are they good for?
However, right then, the numerical engine finally beeped; and that was it. Everything was ready. It even took Sequine a few moments to react. Few ponies could scarce believe this moment had actually arrived.
„Done,“ she emptily announced, staring at Wilhelmina. Everypony else was staring, too; including Mr. Skies, including the two princess, and naturally including every single last tech-pony inside the command bunker.
„Well, then,“ she smiled, not even feeling her hooves. It was like she was watching the whole scene from a distance, as if walking through a dream, not even controlling her own actions, „It's been a long road, everypony.
No sense in stalling.“
For the first time since she had sat down into this tiny capsule, Cherry was busy. Flipping switches, checking lights, reading off checklists; this was the real deal!
„Friendship One, this is Launch Prep. Standby for switch to wireless, over.“
„Roger that, Launch Prep. See ya on the other side,“ Cherry smiled, only pausing for the slightest moment before turning the appropriate dial. The headphones crackled, the controls panel glowed momentarily, and before she knew it, the sound kicked back in, this time synthesized by a delicate network of counterbalancing enchantments instead of electricity:
„Friendship One, this is CAPCOM, do you read?“
„Loud and clear, dad!“ she cheered back, fighting the urge to giggle. A year ago, the thought of talking to her dad ever again would have seemed strange. And yet, here she was, talking to him through a strange magical device, sitting atop a mechanical contraption ready to send her across all the heavens.
Sometimes, life was pretty weird.
„Glad to hear you too, Cherry,“ he laughed back, before switching over to a more official tone of voice, „Okay, the clock's ticking, so we're gonna do this by the book.“
She giggled again, „Sure thing, pops.“
„Alrighty, then. Friendship One, prepare to go full internal, over.“
„Roger that, CAPCOM. Commence pressure readout. Cabin, still holding stable at twelve psi. First RCS, three thousand. Second RCS, three thousand. Oxygen, thirty five hundred. Nitrogen-“
„Uh… can you repeat that oxygen, Friendship One? Should be fifteen hundred.“
Cherry looked at the tiny dial again. „Negative on fifteen hundred, CAPCOM.“
In the uncertain silence that followed, she unconsciously glanced up at the abort cord hanging from the capsule ceiling; seeing it still there, reassuringly dangling down in its bright red and yellow stripes, put a smile on her face. One pull, and she'd be safe.
Meanwhile, the headphones came to life again:
„Alright, Friendship One, listen up: Cape Command thinks it's probably a faulty sensor inside the tank. Since it would take too long to replace, and it's a three-hour flight anyway, we're just gonna go on and continue the count. Make sure you watch your cabin O2, and seal your suit if it falls too low, alright? We'll be watching your biometrics from here, so don't you worry about a thing, sweetie. You'll be fine“
„The callsign's Friendship One, CAPCOM,“ she chided, still staring at the faulty gauge.
„Uh, roger that, Friendship One. My apologies,“ her dad stuttered briefly. Suddenly realizing he couldn't see the smile on her face, Cherry felt guilty for teasing him. Standing in that bunker, all he had of his daughter now was a distorted voice coming from an enchanted piece of plastic. He seemed to take it in his stride, however. „Proceed with capsule isolation. We are now on page four of the checklist. Electrics systems?“
„Bus A, one fifty volts. Bus B, one forty eight. Bus E, one fifty. X-feed is off, and all systems are running on battery,“ she promptly read off a small set of dials to her left. Imagining her dad speaking in that bunker again, however, she added, „Sweetie One, ready to cut external, over.“
Sitting alone in that tiny metal can, atop hundreds of tonnes of high explosives that were about to go off, the sound of his laugh was the most reassuring thing yet. Even once it ended, it seemed to remain with her, bouncing around in her head as she listened to the sounds of slowly building pressure coming from underneath. Water pumps, guidance vanes, electric relays, hundreds of systems from all around the rocket were beginning to wake up and run final system checks, diligently commanded and supervised every step of the way; not by ponies, but by unseen electric intelligences that few understood, yet on which her life now depended.
To Cherry, who was listening to all this happen without any control input whatsoever, the rocket felt alive, like an arcane beast that could think and act of its own accord. Not even the abort cord looked reassuring any more, for that was too a part of the beast.
But as soon as the headphones crackled again, her panic faded away. For all the anger she felt towards the Chief Designers, she had to admit one thing: Assigning her dad to CAPCOM was the best damn decision they had ever made:
„It's looking good, sweetie! We're now on T minus eighty seconds, and all booster systems are reporting green. Standby for external power disconnect, and keep your eyes peeled for any fluctuations in voltage, over…“
„T minus sixty seconds, and we've now entered the final hold.“
Lying on a plaid picnic sheet under the pleasant shade of a parasol, Zvezda lay her head against Ray's as she watched the rocket, standing proud on a dune far away in the distance. The stallion was peering at the launch pad through a set of small binoculars, and jokingly swatted her away as her attempts to lean in spoilt his established set-up. Laughing, Zvezda hit him back, and he pushed back in response. Suddenly realizing his motion had almost spilled their jug of icy water that lay a hoof away, however, he quickly stopped, blushing. Laughing again, Zvezda gave him a quick kiss, then leant away to move the jug further out. Just in case.
„Pre-launch checks complete,“ the announcer's voice finally proclaimed from a nearby loudspeaker pole, „The chief designers will now hold their final poll.“
As she listened to the incoming announcements, Zvezda quickly turned back to the launch pad. Tiny yellow specks – probably tech-ponies, wearing chemical suits in the case of a fuel spill – scurried about its surface, running down the stairways and rapidly leaving for armoured carriages standing nearby.
Hang on. Are you bucking kidding me?
„That's not fair!“ she claimed loudly, poking at Ray to look at the carriages, „I had to walk all the way there, and back! Twice! And they get carriages?“
A nearby couple quickly hushed her, and she suddenly remembered they weren't alone here. Indeed, most of the sand around them was dotted with small tents and parasols, all full of ponies. Every one of them silent. Waiting.
„Launch Prep,“ the loudspeaker rang across the dunes and tents, „Pad evacuation underway. We are go on our end.“
„Crew biometrics are stable. Medical is go.“
„Booster diagnostics, all-green.“
„CAPCOM is go!“
„Range, clear! Dragon squad, standing by!“ Rainbow's voice, though heavily distorted by the magic wireless, still boomed confidently through the loudspeakers. Glancing upwards, Zvezda could spot twelve dark specks circling high above the Cosmodrome; accompanied by the small, yet still-recognizable silhouette of a great dragon, its wings outreached as it idly soared through the sky, waiting for its command to surge forward.
„Ignition diagnostics completed. Pad is go.“
„RETRO, status green.“
„Roger that. Cape Coltaveral now reports ready for action. External stations, come in!“
Much like Rainbow's report, the next few confirmations came in full of hiss, the incremental result of a hundred separate re-transmitter stations that brought the Equestrian communications network to its limits:
„Canterlot Royal Observatory, reporting.“
„Cloudsdale relay, we are online.“
„Haliflanks abort is ready.“
„Sankt-Lunburg here! Tracking station is fully operational!“
There was another lengthy pause, this time accompanied by a background clicking noise. As it went on, Zvezda could only imagine what kind of technical wizardry was happening behind the scenes right now, all around the nation and beyond. Every telescope on the planet must have been turning upwards on pre-calculated bearings, already anticipating the path the capsule would take. In half a dozen outposts around the globe, specially-trained teams of elite pegasi were setting out, ready in case of any emergency:
„Bridle Shores abort site, we're go!“
„Neighpon sector, standing by.“
„St. Opal's Atoll, we have wings in the air.“
One final click, and the announcer's voice returned, full of excitement:
„Pre-launch poll now complete. Launch Director, final decision?“
The word came down immediately, spoken without a second of thought or hesitation. „Go.“
Zvezda's grasp on Ray tightened. In the distance, the rocket glistened in the sun. Far above them, the Wonderbolts circled, ready for anything.
„Friendship One has been cleared for launch! Automatic sequence start. We are now at T minus sixty seconds, and… counting!“
A memory flashed through her mind.
No. No way. There's no way I forgot.
But the memory rang true. Gasping, she suddenly let go of Ray, as the world around faded further and further away into the distance. While the ponies all around them joined into the announcer's chorus, shouting out the seconds that remained, the sounds in her head become quieter, lights dimmer.
„Zvez!“ Ray suddenly shook her, snapping her back to reality „Zvez! What's wrong, Zvez?“
Looking him in the eyes, a tear slid down her cheek:
„I never said goodbye…“
In the bowels of the command bunker, the air had long gone beyond unbreathable and directly into infernal. Although everypony else, the princesses included, had since left for a better viewing spot, the atmosphere of the vacated bunker was still incredibly dense: Redstone was biting at the end of one of his checklists; Sequine was wobbling back and forth, eyes closed, murmuring something to herself. Sunny was pacing around in a tight circle, staring directly at the floor. Lyuka, meanwhile, stared directly ahead, motionless. And Mr. Skies? He just fluttered a short distance above them all, clutching the small enchanted piece of plastic around his ear like it was the greatest treasure in the world.
„T minus forty five seconds! All diagnostic lines confirm switch-over to wireless.“
Listening to the launch announcer, Mr. Skies began clicking his hooves together in nervous anticipation. Wilhelmina herself, however, just stood back, watching everything confidently. She watched the giant control board, calmly listened to its sterile, mechanical clicking as the seconds marched on. It was almost funny, in a way; the six of them had created everything, and yet they'd be the only ones on this entire Cosmodrome to never see their creation fly into the sky with their own two eyes. Instead, they'd stand here, underground; watching the dozens of continually-clicking telemetry tickers update at a rate of two per second.
„T minus thirty seconds! All ignition systems armed.“
Even as Mr. Skies began tracing out a small circle in the air, she smiled to herself; this is the way it should be, after all. They were responsible for every single screw in this entire building, this entire Cosmodrome. They, and only them, had invented the equations, tested them, figured out the fuel mixes, the command pathways. Even as the countdown clock lurched closer and closer towards the single digits, Wilhelmina's belief in her creation, and in that massive board of numbers that documented everything, remained as firm as her faith in science.
„T minus fifteen seconds! Guidance is internal!“
„T minus ten! Nine! Eight!“
As she watched the bank of electric machinery iterate through the last few seconds, her eyes unconsciously turned back to Mr. Skies, who was still clutching at his headset. As the clock hit five, he suddenly screamed in frustration, then fell back to the ground and galloped out of the bunker, shouting the name of his daughter as he went.
Deactivating the PA speaker with a single flick of her magic, Wilhelmina just smiled to herself. Finally, there were no more distractions inside the bunker. Just the numbers in front of her, her heartbeat, and the sixteen massive hulks of computeronic engines, all clicking away through the last few moments of the countdown.
Click. Thump. Click. Thump. Click. Thump.
Be it through mere luck or autonomous action, even those two sounds suddenly locked step in synchronization, and the universe resolved itself with brilliant simplicity. Everything was ready, everything worked.
It was perfect.
Click. The clock hit zero.
A quiet roar built up in the far distance, the ground subtly shook, and the numbers jumped upwards.
Her hoof a safe distance away from the large, round abort button in the centre of her console, she watched the main control board in almost a meditative trance. The numbers began surging, sometimes dancing as they rose and fell in momentary uncertainty, but all generally trending upwards.
Her dream, made reality.
The buzz from the surrounding ponies, which had been slowly building up with every passing second, suddenly exploded into a deafening cloud of frenzied cheering and furious applause. Even Zvezda could not resist; fear strangling her heart as she hugged Ray with all her might, she shrieked out Cherry's name loud and strong above the momentary flash of the ignition charges.
But not even her best, most desperate attempt was good enough. For the Rocket spoke with the voice of heavens, and its very first thunder stole the impassioned plea right from her lips. Nine separate solid boosters, each a tower of thick reinforced steel holding dozens of tonnes of high explosive, flared up at once, kicking up untold tonnes of sand and dust.
Their impact was immediate, visceral, unreal. Ignoring the veritable earthquake that erupted beneath her hooves, she watched in awed silence as the rocket peeled off the ground, ascending upon a single, giant column of heat and power. It was not a vehicle, it was a building; a giant skyscraper of shining steel, escaping its earthly foundations and setting out for the skies. Almost instantaneously, black acrid fumes covered her sight of the pad, along with the entirety of the rocket; with the corner of her eye, Zvezda barely caught the sad remains of the service tower, now reduced to a thousand tiny splinters, shooting out of the corner of the cloud.
The sixty metres of solid metal, the millions of pony-hours of work, the single biggest machine in the history of engineering, slowly emerged from underneath its shroud, rising upwards. Screaming in the combined faces of gravity, common sense, and every ancient philosopher, the rocket slowly climbed further and further upwards. Almost leisurely, it ascended above the high, feeling fingers of the blackly fumes, smashing them back into the ground, then proceeding to soar unhindered.
A gleam of sunlight reflected off its shining hull as it continued rising, and Zvezda suddenly realized she was screaming. Tears were flowing from her face, a combination of pure emotion and the sand in her eyes, and she was shouting at the top of her lungs, both terrified and exhilarated at the same time. She rejoiced in the moment, feeling every speck of sand that impacted her skin, every drop that left her cheeks and splashed upon the plaid cloth below. Taking a second just to draw breath again, she then immediately kissed Ray, catching him in surprise and throwing off his aim with the binoculars.
Suddenly, another voice joined into the chorus of cheers and applause, its raw energy overpowering the rest, along with the rapidly fading roar of the engines. Spinning her head around, Zvezda saw the fiery red pegasus, making victorious gestures at the skies as he hovered in the air:
„That's my daughter!“ he yelled, looking all around as he pointed, „That's her! Cherry! Cherry! You go, girl! Show that damned princess who you really are!“
By the time Zvezda had glanced back, the rocket was already just a tiny spot in the sky, rapidly rising as it rode an expanding plume of dark smoke into the heavens. Focusing her eyes, she noticed another blur. It was the almighty dragon, its brilliant emerald scales flashing through the exhaust fumes of the rocket as his great wings worked furiously in attempts to follow it. Alas, the great creature was too massive, its magical wings too feeble when compared to the chemical megatonnage streaming forth from the rocket, and soon the elder beast gave up altogether, stopping in the air to recover at least some of its wasted strength.
But she noticed one last speck in the sky, almost insignificant in comparison: the faint, glistening trail of a rapidly advancing rainbow arcing through the sky. Where even the dragon failed, the rainbow succeeded, obviously none too concerned with the laws of energy density, or even gravity. Against all odds, it managed to keep pace with the rocket, now flying at almost three times the speed of sound.
However, if there was one thing the cold machine possessed, it was unearthly endurance. The nine great motors just kept burning, accelerating ever faster as their load gradually lightened with every pound of expended fuel. Soon leaving its trailing rainbow far behind, they just kept going, getting more and more distant with every single second.
The enthusiasm slowly dropped away, and so did the jubilant cheers and applause. Everypony fell silent; staring at the tiny speck as it dimmed, listening to its roar fade well into nothing.
Watching her friend recede further and further into the deep nothingness, Zvezda's heart filled with regret again. Soon, she became unable to bear the sight, and simply turned her head downwards in shame.
It was just one word! How could you forget? the thought sliced through her like a dagger.
No training program could have prepared her for this. Everything around was shaking. Every single panel seemed to have a mind of its own, and was violently shaking in every direction as it tried to break free from the rest of the rocket. Gritting her teeth and eternally thankful for the partial sound insulation of her suit, Cherry just sat back and tried to avoid throwing up as she wobbled up and down in her acceleration couch, held in place by nothing but a few paltry strings.
Unconsciously, she glanced sideways at the window, trying to wrangle some sense of reassurance from it; but even that was dark, still covered by the thick metal fairing of the vehicle's top stage. Her only source of light was a weak, lonely bulb in the top of the capsule; which, in turn, seemed to have its own idea of reliability, intermittently flashing brighter and darker as the rocket around her tried to shake itself to pieces.
But, for all its power, it was still nothing compared to the barely-controlled inferno going off underneath her hooves. She didn't even dare glance downwards, in fear her very gaze could puncture the pitifully thin wall of her capsule and expose her to the elemental storm below. Despite the streams of sweat running down her forehead, its scream was enough to make her blood freeze: an incredibly loud, unceasing barrage of sustained white noise. Staring down a fuming dragon could never hope to match it, because even such an incredible creature would eventually grow tired and relinquish its assault on the senses. Not so for the mechanical edifice below her; in plain violation of anything natural, the abomination kept going, constant and unchanging in its absolute, terrible uniformity.
There was a sudden ringing in her ears, and more noises crept inside: noises of a microphone being picked up from the floor, then falling again. Of desperate fumbling.
In the chaos of the ascent, it took her a few seconds to recognize her father's voice.
„Cherry!“ he continued, shouting even more urgently than before.
„Dad!“ she yelled back, trying desperately to be heard above the roar of the nine solid boosters.
„Cherry! Are you alright? Your 'metrics are all over the damn place!“
„Say something, dammit!“
Panic flashed through her mind as she screamed into the microphone again, still at no avail. The flashing instrument lights of her controls panel seemed to taunt back with their apparent innocence. It was as if the giant creature all around her had a mind of its own, and was pointing at her, laughing: I'm not going to let you talk! Oh no!
She hit the metal of the stupid machine in frustration. Already, it was rebelling! Fighting her simplest wishes! What was even the point? She glanced upwards at the cord of the abort system, swishing all across the cabin.
„Cadet!“ another voice suddenly cut into her headset, breaking up and hissing, but still somehow audible, „Switch to communications mode R! That is order!“
With a wave of her hoof, she complied before her brain had even finished processing the words. All those hours of repetitive, boring exercises, of Redstone's never-ending torrents of abuse… only now, teetering at the edge of sanity, could she finally grasp their point.
Her headphones went dead momentarily, and a dreadful clicking noise began in the background as electronic relays reconfigured into new positions. It sounded like a swarm of insects trying to claw their way into the capsule, to tear it open and expose the little pony inside to the elements. Suddenly, there came a digital beep, and she could hear again:
„-Cherry! Say something!“
„Oh, thank the heavens!“ her father's voice immediately came back, breaking up and stuttering slightly. It could've been the transmission, but it was probably him. „We lost all biometric data! For a second there-“
„I'm alright, dad!“ she hollered back, trying to put all her cheer into the yell.
To her annoyance, the headphones crackled again, evidently the sounds of the headset being forced away from her dad. Her guess was proved right as the Director's voice suddenly sounded through her ears, utterly monotone. „Friendship One, all our telemetry is going dark, even over the relay. Please report your flight status, over.“
„Uh…“ she uncertainly began, trying to read off at least one of the dials mounted before her, but finding it impossible. To compensate for the vibration, her acceleration couch was built like a trampoline, suspended from the bulk of the capsule by eight powerful springs; and while that did make the ride slightly less impossibly stomach-turning, it also made any instruments impossible to read. „I can't see anything, Cape Command!“
„Try! We need that data!“
Rolling her eyes in frustration, she peered at the controls panel again, trying to read off at least one instrument. The rows of voltage indicators and barometers, tiny little circles with indiscernible needles, were a completely lost cause, but the bigger dials seemed to offer more hope.
Lengthily staring at the biggest one – the airspeed indicator – she tried to catch a glance of the red pointer, enough to give at least an approximate reading. To her surprise, she found it all the way in the bottom left corner of the dial, uselessly flapping around the zero mark. A quick re-check confirmed this was likewise the case for the rest of her instruments; every indicator she could see was poised firmly at zero, or just spinning about uselessly.
„The cabin's dead, Command!“ she reported anxiously, glancing upwards at the abort cord again, „I repeat, I've got no readings! The instruments are dead!“
It took a while for the reply to come back; and when it did, it was short, and utterly monotone:
„Roger. Continue ascent.“
„What do you mean, continue ascent?“
The stallion's eyes were twin specks of rage, a sudden torrential outpouring of paternal instincts and base emotions, „You've heard her, the telemetry's dead! The computer's gone! We have to abort!“
Calmly flicking a switch to disable the headset, Wilhelmina turned back to the massive control board, now reading full-zero everywhere. „It could be just an interlink error,“ she commented, levitating up a blueprint of the rocket's midsection and pointing her hoof at a small electrical assembly inside the staging ring, „Perhaps caused by the excessive vibration. Either way, the rocket's still ascending. The computer's fine.“
„But how can you just say that? You don't have a clue!“ he shrieked back, trying to scramble for the headset around her head. Swatting him off until he stopped, she waited for him to first catch his breath and calm down a little, before speaking again:
„If the computer had failed, the rocket would be in an irreversible tumble right about now,“ she calmly explained, letting him fume in place, „And a tumble this low in the atmosphere, at such a high speed, would mean an instantaneous structural failure.“
Powerfully stamping her hoof down on the floor, she cut him off before he could begin. Looking him directly in the eyes, she spoke slowly and clearly, mind focused and unbridled by emotion:
„It is a risk assessment situation, nothing more,“ she announced, gesturing towards the array of dials covering the main board, „Consider how high all those numbers were. Every single one of them. An abort is no safe option, Skies: With the solid motors already burning at their maximum capacity, that possibility had long since passed us. At these energies, there is no safe option – everything is a risk. And by Celestia, we've tested that computer a thousand times. It is infinitely more reliable than a set of temperamental ejection explosives.“
Even once she had finished, he continued wordlessly staring at her. After a while, he suddenly spun around, and exclaimed into the air, gesticulating wildly:
„Look at you! Just standing there, all, all calm and composed… while Cherry, my daughter, is dying up there! You could at least look concerned, dammit!“
„I know I sound cold here, but that is the deal,“ Wilhelmina sighed, glancing back at the board again, „Our universe runs on equations, and they won't miss one dead pony. She will either make it, or she won't; and you won't change her chances by crying. A logical decision, however – a decision to continue – may go a long way.“
A silence fell all around the table. Suddenly, Wilhelmina realized that even the other chief designers, her oldest friends, were refusing to meet her sight as she glanced around. She knew that, deep down, they all thought alike; but admitting it before a desperate father, crying for his daughter's safety, was a tough thing to do. She did not especially like the role either, but somepony had to do it. And, right now, there was nopony strong enough but her.
„I'm getting message from Canterlot!“ Redstone suddenly announced, hoof pressed against the headset on his head as he glanced upwards, „Yes… yes… is royal observatory! They've got rocket in sight! Seems to be coming in high, but otherwise on-course.“
„See?“ Wilhelmina smiled at the tearful stallion, „All the calculations we did, all the tests; those numbers worked. And so does the rocket. Show a little faith, huh?“
He looked up from his tired stupor. „Faith?“
With every second, the shaking continued getting worse and worse. Quite distressingly, whatever had infected her flight instruments seemed to have spilled across to the capsule's single lightbulb now, making it flicker on and off rapidly at a speed she hadn't thought possible.
Of course, she could just close her eyes and avoid all that. Even the sickening vibration that turned her thankfully empty stomach inside-out could easily be wished away and defeated; maybe she was still safe and sound on the ground, sitting inside one of Redstone's nefarious testing rigs.
But there was no ignoring the terrible barrage of sound. The nine solid boosters, blasting away at full power, were only the start: The truly mind-breaking were the other noises. The metal structure creaked and groaned all around her, as if coming apart at its very seams, ready to snap at any instant. Nearer in, coolant liquids sloshed through pipes. And, atop all that, ran the furious clicker-clatter of control relays; a constant reminder of the strange electrical intelligence that was fully in control here, literally the only thing keeping her alive through this maelstrom of colossal energies.
Such was its sustained constancy, she could barely remember a time before it had started. Not even her dad was talking to her now; only a faint hiss sounded from her headphones, probably the result of another failed system.
Sitting atop this gigantic, continually-disintegrating stack of explosives, eyes tightly sealed and limbs retracted as far into the foetal position as they would go, she tearfully whispered her last farewells into the microphone, not even knowing if her messages were getting through. She was not ashamed of being afraid; confronted with something so impossible, unleashing such terrible energies, yet fully aware of its budget-constrained construction, curling up into a tiny ball was the only sane thing to do.
And then, quite suddenly, the sound disappeared. Gone was the roar of the engines, the sloshing of the pumps. Even the computeronics faded away, reducing themselves to a meagre trickle of occasional clicks.
Her eyes widened in fear. Though the deep roar was beyond terrifying, it was at least understandable. A titanic barrage of fire, a powerful force of nature. Compared to the byzantine electrical intelligence that micro-managed every aspect of her mission, it was simplicity itself.
She cursed whatever pony had came up with the idea of a mysterious, fully-automated system that she couldn't comprehend. A panic slowly clutching her heart, she strained her ears and listened intently to the subdued clicking of the control system, trying to decipher its alien, insectoid language.
Naturally, it was of no use. The digital code remained as fully beyond her understanding as it ever has. What's happening? she pleaded to the central computer, What are you doing, dammit?
There was a sudden outburst of clicks, and her seat rocked as a dulled detonation far beneath threw her forward. Then, another dull thud, and another; and finally, silence again.
But, this one persisted for far longer.
So long, in fact, that she eventually managed to recover enough confidence – and just enough curiosity – to slowly lift open one eyelid. What she saw, however, made her blink repeatedly and unfurl her limbs in shock.
The small, round window of the capsule was uncovered. In the distance, she could still glimpse the metallic reflection of the metal fairing as it spun off into the distance, surrounded by a beautiful sparkling halo of tiny shrapnel, a thousand glittering metal dusts dancing majestically through space.
But that was nothing compared to the scene beyond. Half of it was covered by a tantalizing black streak, but it was the brilliant, shining surface of her planet – her home – spinning far below that she focused on. What hit her first was just how clear everything looked: The fluffy clouds, and the magnificent shadows they painted upon the rolling landscape. The organic blobs of forests, the pencil-thin lines of roads, the artificial rectangles of fields; all this time, she had been expecting everything to decay into unrecognisable tiny blurs. But this was just like a normal high-altitude flight, with all the incredible detail that entailed.
Except, there was more of it. So much more. It boggled the mind to just realize how much she was seeing, all at once. So beholden by the sight, it took her a decent while to realize the massive mountain range passing underneath her, and the white speck shining in its midst, was actually Canterlot; a train journey from the Cosmodrome there usually took a full two days, and she had just covered that distance in a scant few minutes.
Another dull thud resounded, and she suddenly felt herself being pushed into her seat again. But unlike the brute force of the solid boosters, this was a far more gentle, almost delicate, gesture, a soft touch that gradually built up over time and was easily compensated for by her acceleration couch. The control panels around her began subtly vibrating, but again; compared to the earlier onslaught of near-disintegration, it was nothing.
„Staging complete, Cape Command,“ she absent-mindedly remembered to announce, still staring out of the window.
Though the atmosphere around her was already jet black, she knew from her training just how much there was still left. An orbital flight was never about the height; it was about the speed, and even though she could already see the ground beneath her moving at an alarming pace, there was still a long way to go.
Drilled by countless hours in the simulator, she briefly glanced at her controls board; which, to her surprise, was fully functioning again. She briefly scanned her instruments, referencing their readings with the estimated values at staging time, which she knew off by heart: They all seemed to be in general agreement, as if nothing had ever happened.
„Hey, it's working again,“ she chirped, already looking up the most important information, „Cape Command, stand by for flight data. Elapsed time, two-eighty seconds. Inertial is as follows: Sea-level altitude ninety seven kilo. Downrange, approaching five hundred kilo. Air velocity, thirty two hundred mps.“
„We read you, Friendship One. Our telemetry's back online, too.“
For some reason, it was again the cold, monotone voice of Wilhelmina speaking to her. However, the brief disappointment was immediately washed away by another glance at the window.
„Gimme a go/no-go on liquid stage, over,“ she continued by the checklist, tearing herself from the breathtaking sight for a second to glance at the abort cord above. For the first time since her ingress, she was careful not to stare at it for too long, in case she accidentally trigger the escape procedure. She really did not want to leave now. That view outside was just so pretty.
„Booster checks out,“ came the delayed report, to her great relief, „Fuel consumption, nominal. Chamber pressure, nominal. Nozzle temperature, nominal. You are go for ascent, over.“
She did not even acknowledge the message. Instead, she spent the remaining ten minutes in utter silence, just watching as the distant surface advanced underneath her. Indeed, it came as something of a minor shock when the quiet tremble suddenly stopped, and she was left in complete silence.
The view didn't even change much: The planet was a little bit further down, true enough, and she was pretty sure the ground was moving sideways a lot faster than it had at the beginning, but there wasn't all that much difference. According to the design specifications, she should have gained untold megajoules of kinetic energy, along with at least five extra kilometres per second during the liquid boost phase; but the view outside remained almost identical, and despite what her instruments claimed, she refused to believe the engine had actually ran for a solid ten minutes. Thirty seconds, maybe.
„Well?“ she hesitantly asked the ground controllers below, honestly unsure of the answer, „Did it work?“
The command bunker was now a bubbling ocean of barely-controlled chaos. Every table was occupied again, the smell of coffee hung strong in the air, and loose sheets of paper flew all around as the facility's entire corps of scientists and mathematicians worked away at full steam. The constant clicking of computers, the quick, scattered conversations of a dozen physicists and astronomers, and the buzz of remote communications provided an atmosphere of steady concentration.
And, standing at the eye of the storm, Wilhelmina just waited, anxiously glancing all around. There was nothing left to manage, nothing to supervise: Every observatory had already come in with vector data, and every Cape pony already knew what to do. Even the anxious journalists were now all safely locked outside, where they could do no harm. There was literally nothing left.
All she could do was wait; wait, and hope the systems of the massive rocket had all performed exactly as planned. Despite their high precision and many decimal places, the readings coming from the massive board of instruments could not reassure her. They all reported technical minutiae: Fuel pressures, external temperatures, crew heartbeat and respiration. However, an orbit was a delicate thing, a precise waltz of radial fields and motion vectors, far beyond the broad indiscriminate swathes of their mechanical sensors. There was a pattern to its workings, but it was difficult to determine; and even what they were computing here, with all their might and equipment, would only be a mere approximation of the real thing.
Feeling ever more restless on her hooves, she turned towards the bank of busy computeronic machines that occupied almost half of the bunker. There, Luna was submerged in a dance of her own; constantly moving between the various machines, keeping each running at peak efficiency. With her elder sister now gone – away to Canterlot, to receive a hundred foreign dignitaries and journalists – she was free to pursue her newfound hobby without fear of being dragged away from the screens. And she certainly was making full use of the opportunity: Quickly glancing at every little bulb and voltage dial she passed, she'd continue marching between the machines, occasionally stopping to bark yet more orders at the little army of tech-ponies running her enormous system:
„Geist, indexer four runs empty! Shift task thirteen there! Seq, the DPROC should be ready for data by now! You call that precise sorting, Sun?“
To their credit, the troops did follow her every command, watching dials and adjusting switches as fast as their commander could give out orders. Wilhelmina could scarce make sense of this process: She barely understood the rocket's flight computer, and that was just an elementary negative feedback device, meant to aim the rocket in a pre-programmed direction and stop it from tumbling. However, what Luna had here, it boggled the mind: At least twenty general-purpose computing engines, each capable of running a completely custom program on several independent sets of data, and all interconnected together into a ridiculous network of untold complexity.
Might as well have been magic. At least that would make sense.
„Standby for downlink of fourth triangulation,“ Luna announced, abruptly stopping in her relentless march. She stared at a row of flashing lights on one of the central machines, unremarkable and unreadable to few ponies save her, „Processors three through five, make ready to accept data! We're almost there!“
Though Wilhelmina otherwise had no idea what was going on here, she still understood that last bit. Her breathing quickened, her thoughts began to race; the entirety of her adult life would now depend on the next announcement to leave the princess' lips.
One of the massive machines clicked loudly, then suddenly stopped, its batteries of flashing bulbs and glowing valves all fading dark. The symptom then jumped to another machine, and then to another; one by one, all the computers began shutting down, tapes stopping and relays switching as their programs terminated. It spread like a shockwave through the rows, starting at the outermost edges of the cluster and quickly advancing inwards, until only one machine was running.
All eyes in the bunker turned to watch that final computeronic engine. It was a little taller than the others, and apart from sharing the same arrays of flashing valves and spinning tapes with its neighbours, its front panel also had a single distinguishing feature: A long row of ten numeric dials, each able to report a number to as many decimal digits as one's eyesight allowed. Those dials spun around wildly for a final few seconds; but soon, even they stopped, and the machine emanated one last quiet ping as it shut down.
Seeing Luna lean in towards the panel, Wilhelmina's heart stopped. The mission plan called for two orbits, but she'd be happy enough with just one. Come on, come on! She urged towards the princess, as if she had any way of altering the result, Give me this, at least! Please!
The princess kept staring at the final output for so long, Wilhelmina wasn't sure if she'd keel over unconscious.
Eventually, however, she leant away, and faced the watching ponies:
„Go for at least three orbits,“ she beamed.
And the bunker exploded.
Though the order had not yet been given, Cherry nevertheless quickly undid her restrainer straps and let the pleasant feeling of weightlessness envelop her. It was kinda fun.
Unfortunately, it wasn't nearly as much fun as she had imagined; the cramped confines of her capsule, coupled with the difficulty of movement inside her suit, did not allow for very much freedom. The best she could manage was floating slightly above her couch, hovering mere inches away from the nearest fixed surface.
Thankfully, the view outside more than made up for that little annoyance. Reaching across to the window, she grabbed its edges and reeled herself in, such that her face was almost touching the thick glass plate. Her vehicle had rolled quite a bit since her orbital insertion, so the planet now only covered a small bit of her porthole, but it was still enough.
Travelling at over seven kilometres per second, she was now approaching the night side of the world below, and she watched in silenced awe as a massive range of snow-capped mountains slowly drifted by underneath, majestically lit from their side and casting massive black shadows upon each other. Her breath was taken away by the thin sliver of atmosphere that crowned the image; a tiny, insignificant blue streak, which was all that stood between the lush, rolling warmth of her home, and the uncaring black void beyond.
Although over twenty minutes had already passed since she begun watching, she still couldn't believe the sheer detail of her view. Two hundred kilometres sounded like a lot at first, but actually being up here, floating and looking down, she could make out the tiny lines of individual roads that criss-crossed the sides of the lower mountains, and even the tiny dots of trees that lined the path. The horizon wasn't quite as round as she had been expecting, either; though it was clearly curved, identifying it as a sphere still took a bit of imagination.
It simply boggled the mind. Such a massive rocket, such a terrifying ascent… and still her orbit was just the bare minimum, almost a rounding error when compared with the scale of the planet below. Suddenly, the chief designers' talk of a moon rocket seemed that much more insane.
„Friendship One, Friendship One, this is CAPCOM, over.“
There was obviously a fair deal of politicking going on at the Cape, because it was now her dad speaking to her again, instead of Wilhelmina. Cherry had no idea what the deal was down there, and frankly, she didn't care; she simply rejoiced at hearing her father's voice again.
„Go on, CAPCOM.“
„We've now resolved that little problem with the Neighpon observatory, and re-ran the calculations. I'm staring at the accurate numbers right now.“
„Just tell me!“ Cherry almost shouted. But, even though she was incredibly annoyed, she held back. Her father's voice was the one reassuring beacon of light in this dark void.
„Okay, okay! The rocket actually performed a lot better than we could have ever hoped for. So well, in fact, your predicted apoapsis is a full fifty-three kilometres above planned. You're go for at least one hundred orbits, over.“
To any other pony, that would have sounded like great news. However, her spacemare's instincts, honed by hundreds of hours of simulation and sleepless theory revision, processed the announcement with quite a bit of concern. When floating all alone in a tiny metal can high above the atmosphere, after all, even the tiniest bit of deviation was a source of unease:
„Uh, you said 'better than expected'. Should I be worried about de-orbit?“
To her relief, the headphones hissed with the sound of a brief chuckle. „Negative, Sweetie One, you still got at least five percent reserve for retro. I wouldn't worry.“
Cherry smiled nervously. Thinking about it now, she felt a little silly for even thinking about that in the first place. Of course the chief designers had already thought all that out, probably years before the actual mission.
Still, months of arduous training were hard to defeat.
„Thanks, dad. Anything else?“
„Actually, there's one more thing. The chief designers – Lyuka, especially – are still a bit freaked about that telemetry failure.“
„They are freaked?“ she snorted indignantly in response, „I was sitting right on top of the dumb thing! Anyway, do they have anything yet?“
„Negative, Friendship One. That's, hmm, that's actually the thing. Since your orbit is just so damn perfect, Cape Command feels it'd be a shame to waste it on a mere two orbits. I know this is horribly off-protocol, but theoretically, your capsule has enough water and air for eighty. So, we were thinking-“
„No problem!“ she chirped immediately, glancing at the beautiful view outside.
„I haven't even told you how much we want! It's five extra orbits, by the way.“
„Gimme fifty if you need! I don't care!“
„Err, roger that… I'll inform Will right away,“ he uncertainly announced back, obviously a bit taken aback by her sudden enthusiasm as he turned off the microphone. However, when his voice soon returned again, it seemed back to composed and cheerful. „Now, start talking already! What's it look like? What do you see?“
She smiled, still staring though the window at the planet below. The clouds, the seas, the sun… words failed. „Oh, it's beautiful, dad. Just… beautiful. Wish you were here.“
„Dammit, I sent you to a world-ranking university!“ he chided back, more amused than angry, „Didn't they have a thesaurus there?“
Cherry giggled. „Not in the banking section, dad.“
„Come on! Didn't you learn anything?“
„Sorry, dad,“ she giggled again „Guess you should've let me study poetry like I wanted.“
„Oi! Listen here, little missy! Do you really think you'd have gotten here with a degree in modern-“
The headphones suddenly crackled, and her father's voice disappeared amidst the static. Immediately springing to action, Cherry quickly scanned the list of alarm lights as a the pages of checklists flipped through her head. Short-circuit? Computeronics failure? Enchantment instability?
Before she could do anything serious, however, the static slightly faded, and her father's voice became audible again. This time, however, the quality was absolutely atrocious, and she was struggling to make out the individual words. „…passing over horizon… not much time… procedure four…“
As the transmission dragged on, she felt the urge to scream his name, to shout at the heavens and convince them to let him stay; but her professional side forced her to remain silent, listening to every word of his hasty transmission:
„…repeat, run decoupling procedure four. I love-“
There was a final hiss, and the voice disappeared completely, leaving Cherry all alone in space. As she quietly flipped the appropriate switches and prepared to decouple her capsule from the rocket's upper stage, she held that image of him, giving her a great send-off back at the Cape, dearly in her head. It would be just an hour before her orbit brought her back into communications range; but it would be the longest hour of her life.
She braced for the impact as she briefly hovered her hoof above the final switch, then toggled it. There was a dull thud and a momentary jolt, and suddenly she was soaring free through the cosmos, unburdened by the now-empty upper stage of her rocket. The impact sent the capsule tumbling slightly, so she quickly removed the camera from its storage compartment and poised herself at the window, ready to take pictures of the stage as it came into view.
Seeing the elongated metal cylinder slowly float away, however, and poised against the black deepness of the void, filled her with a sense of dread. She knew it was completely irrational, but at the same time, she couldn't resist it. As she took picture after picture, she distinctly remembered just how ridiculously massive the upper stage was, and just how bloody long it took for the service elevator to climb by its great bulk.
And yet, here it was, gradually drawing further and further away, as if it being gobbled up by the infinite emptiness. A huge tower of metal, one which took five hundred engineers half a year to build; and it was readily disappearing into the darkness, never to be seen again. The thought occurred of that happening to her own capsule, and a shiver ran down her spine.
As per the second law of mechanics, once initially set in motion, her little spaceship kept spinning, and it was not long before the stage drifted out of view again, to be replaced by the planet. There was an ocean down there now, a brilliant expanse of blue that stretched out as far as the eye could see, broken only by the white masses of fluffy clouds, and the shadows those cast on its surface. For Cherry, it was a soothing sight, and she completely forgot about the camera in her hooves as she watched the surface slowly float by. It was hard to believe that such a serene vista was the result of a tiny metal can propelled by deadly chemicals, screaming past at almost thirty thousand miles per hour…
The planet drifted out of sight again, replaced by a starless void. Cherry tried hard to catch sight of the spent stage again, but no matter how hard she looked, she found no trace of it, as if the tonnes of metal had just been erased from existence by a cold, uncaring universe.
Listening to the subdued static that still streamed from her headphones, she watched the darkness in absolute silence.
Quite all of a sudden, her capsule went completely and utterly black, making her jump and re-check every single instrument and voltage reading again, working by the dim light of the torch in her helmet. It was only upon seeing the capsule light switch, and remembering that she had previously turned it off in a paranoid attempt to save electricity, that she put two and two together and realized what must have happened; her rapidly advancing orbit probably brought her into the planet's shade.
Regretting that Cape Command still hadn't authorized the use of RCS – meaning she couldn't rotate the capsule, and actually see the sunset for herself – she decided that'd be the first thing to bring up when she came back into communications range. She briefly considered going against orders and igniting the thrusters anyway, but then decided to wait; not even Celestia could imagine all the different ways this mission could possibly go wrong, and there was no sense in rushing things. Hopefully, the capsule's random tumble would line up with the sunrise, at the very least.
She was about to reach over to her panel and turn the lights back on, when something peculiar flashed in the corner of her eye. Quickly rushing back to the window, she tried to spot it again, but saw nothing but empty black.
No, wait… there! There! What the hay is that?
Something was moving out there. Not just in a straight line, either, but flying back and forth in erratic trajectories, like it was alive.
Aliens? Space ponies from Planet X? Her mind was a crazy roller-coaster of theories and wild ideas as she quickly turned off even the torch in her helmet, then waited with baited breath for her eyes to adjust to the new darkness.
Slowly, ever so slowly, she managed to resolve more and more of the blackness outside, and what could have been just imaginary specks before, now became definite points of light, zipping past her window; extremely dark and barely visible, but definitely there.
The planet passed by again, showing off in a decadent display of wondrous city lights, but Cherry ignored it, too fascinated with her new discovery. The tiny things kind of looked like stars, but even a glance revealed they were moving about in all sorts of wrong directions, independent from both each other and the craft's rotation. Her ship seemed utterly surrounded by them, too; no matter how far she tumbled, she could always see more behind the window.
Taking one photograph after another, she realized that as her eyes adapted, more and more of them were still coming into sight. A lot were grey-ish, but a few seemed to be painted in far livelier colours, like yellow, or red. Cherry still wasn't quite sure if they were actually moving on their own, or just continuously bouncing off each other and the capsule's hull; but in her enthusiasm, she decided for the former. That boring Redstone might disagree, but to her, they looked quite alive.
„Hello there, pretty fireflies!“ she cheered, talking to her strange new companions through the thickness of the window, „Or should I call you spaceflies? We're gonna be the best of friends!“
The fireflies remained by her side for a long time. Cherry had no idea just how long she had spent watching them, staring through the thick glass of her window and watching their every move. They were just so pretty; glistening little things, hundreds of them, playing with a spectrum of soft colours as they scurried all around in attempts to investigate her peculiar vehicle. They looked more curious than afraid in their manoeuvres, and Cherry felt a strange connection with them. Watching that orange pony sit in her metal box and stare at them, taking photographs, they probably felt much the same as she did.
A sudden burst of sunlight sent them scampering away in fear, however, and her heart leaped with sadness to see them go. Hopefully, they'd re-appear again on her next orbit.
She was quite annoyed she had missed both the sunset and the sunrise because of her capsule's slow tumble, and proceeded to make that very clear to the ground controllers once her wireless had returned into range. Though they were quite hesitant – her father especially, as they still hadn't figured out what exactly caused the telemetry to malfunction – after a solid quarter hour of nagging, they begrudgingly authorized the use of the eight control thrusters that ringed the perimeter of the Comrade Module. She first took a few minutes to familiarize herself with the controls again; sliding her fore hooves into the two pressure-sensitive gloves mounted on either side of her couch, she then triggered the release of cold nitrogen gas by pushing in any of the four cardinal directions. Together, the eight jets allowed her to rotate in any direction she wanted, as well as accelerate directly forward and backward, but little else in the way of translation.
Still, for their very first spaceship, it was good enough. After testing each of the thrusters in sequence and making sure they all worked, she then proceeded to stop her tumbling, and orient the window such that it faced directly in her direction of travel. This done, she re-checked the gas pressures, then swapped a new roll of film into her camera, and posed herself against the window, ready for anything.
Even after staring at the outside view for so long, her initial excitement had not yet even begun to wear off. With every second, a new and previously-unseen sight appeared below; and they never stopped coming. Incredibly thankful for the designers' decision to extend her flight, she craned her neck, and watched:
She drifted over massive jungles that stretched out as far as the eye could see, canopies crowned by incredible giant trees that must have been at least a hundred metres high. Through breaks in the overgrowth, she could glimpse a glowing purple snake that seemed to coil on for kilometres, pulsating and twirling in its slow advance. Cherry could only imagine the sight up close; a thousand glowing creatures of all shapes and sizes, ones pony eyes have scarcely glimpsed before, steadily marching through the ancient forest as they migrated to better grounds. The most amazing one of them all stood at the head of the herd, triumphantly leading the charge: An enormous glowing behemoth that towered above all the trees, knocking down foliage and clearing the way for the lesser creatures that followed in its wake. Doubtlessly an ursa major.
Leaving land behind and returning to the unbroken ocean, she suddenly saw a circle of perhaps a dozen purple dots standing in the middle of nothing. Taking one photograph after another, she wandered a while about their strange nature, their minor yet rapid movements. Suddenly, she realized; it must have been a gathering of sea serpents! Possibly an official meeting, or perhaps just a few friends, getting together in a secluded corner of the sea for a private chat, quite unaware of the space-borne pony watching from above.
Her orbit took her over a loose scattering of tiny islands in the middle of nowhere. She recognized their shape instantly, burnt into her memory by the repeated brief flashes of Redstone's index cards during training. The biggest among them was St. Opal's Atoll, one of the many abort locations prepared ahead of time, in case her rocket couldn't quite reach orbit. She saw a clump of round wooden huts – probably belonging to the natives – standing right next to the elongated, colourful blimp of a huge landed airship. She was still amazed at the fact her pegasus eyesight actually allowed her to see individual buildings from up here; even though they were little more than coloured dots, it was still impressive enough.
Precessing at eight kilometres per second, she soon left the tiny island behind. The oceans continued for a while longer, but soon became replaced by land. And not just any land; the characteristic shape of the western coastline clearly revealed this to be Equestria.
While she drifted over its warm green hills, she was temporarily forced to abandon her window for a few mundane technical tasks: Toggling on the voice recorder, she quickly logged the nitrogen tank pressures, her rate of oxygen consumption, external temperatures, voltage readings, and a few more values. Thankful they were all inside safe bounds, she ended the procedure by swapping in yet another roll of film, then safely securing the old one in a pocket of her suit, and immediately turning back outside.
Now, there was a great town there, passing by right underneath her. She wasn't quite sure which one, but according to her orbital path, it must have been either Hoofington, or Fillydelphia. Again, she took photograph after photograph of the marvelling sight – she felt like such a tourist! – as the clearly-recognizable streets and boulevards drifted past.
A familiar marble structure suddenly passed into view, and she cheered: Fillydelphia University Campus! She still remembered her time there from the exchange program. Noticing the flash of a telescope lens from the highest tower of the building, and realizing it was probably pointed directly at her, Cherry grinned as she waved back enthusiastically. She wondered if there was somepony she knew on the other side, perhaps one of those cranky professors that always chided her for flying through the halls.
But her orbit was unyielding, and even that brief flash of familiarity soon disappeared. Floating alone in her tiny metal box, she sipped orange juice from the straw inside her helmet, camera in her hooves, pondering what might come next.
The sun had since gone down, but that did not slow the ponies of Cape Town one bit. If anything, it made them even more wild; the dances became faster, the music louder, the bottles lighter. Electric lanterns and bonfires furnished them with heat and light, the long wooden tables creaked under the weight of food, and there was plenty of fun company around.
„Cheer up!“ Ray enthused, one hoof wrapped around Zvezda, the other around a jug of beer. „Tonight, is your night!“
Zvezda faked a brief smile, but otherwise remained still, staring at the first few stars of the night. She wished she could just unwind, but her head was too heavy with wiring diagrams, with failure prediction simulations and worst-case tolerance ratings.
Noting her lack of enthusiasm, Ray shook her again. „Come on, use that big head of yours! Everything's worked brilliantly so far!“
„Why did they extend the orbital stay, then?“ she looked back at him, his comment unleashing a torrent of worries inside her head, „Is there a problem with the retro-rockets? Is she stuck in orbit? Why haven't they consulted me yet? I'm the capsule chief, I should be-“
„Perhaps it's their way of saying you shouldn't be worried, eh?“ Ray winked, a huge grin on his face. Seeing her still unconvinced, he gestured towards one of the sand dunes, off in the distance:
„See? Even that damned boss of yours is up there, watching! Do you really think she'd be doing that if there was a problem?“
Zvezda didn't answer. There could still be something. Perhaps there already was an accident, and Wilhelmina was just thinking of how to break it to the public. Perhaps-
„You know her, 'Vez,“ Ray smiled at her again, „Would she really do that? Huh?“
She sighed. „No. No, she wouldn't.“
„Now that's what I'm talking about! Be right back,“ Ray patted her across the back, then left to get another jug.
Even so, Zvezda didn't really have the energy to do anything more than just stand around; be it joining the massive circle-dance going on around the central bonfire, or just going around the rest of the long dinner table and chatting up her friends. That might have been more of a physical symptom than a mental one, however; she had been running on adrenaline for the past week, and the rush was finally beginning to wear off.
Still, Ray was right; this was her night. She should have some fun. Now, if only there was a way of accomplishing that without running into an overly obnoxious pony… her eye stopped on a particular mare standing at the end of the massive dinner table. She wasn't from the Cosmodrome, but certainly looked the part: Young purple unicorn, distance in her eyes, nursing a small cup of hot chocolate as she worked on some arithmetic off in the corner.
Wandering over to her, Zvezda nodded across to the sheet:
„Strange time to be doing maths, isn't it?“
„Oh, it's never a strange time,“ the mare smiled, glancing up from her calculations to take a long look at Zvezda as she sipped from her small mug. Scanning her, the mare's eyes suddenly focused: „Hey, don't I recognize you from somewhere?“
„Zvezda. Star Walker assembly team,“ she grinned in response, wandering up to the mare and taking a look at her calculations. What little she recognized was orbital maths, with the precise parameters of Cherry's orbit noted down to many decimal places. Meanwhile, upon the mention of her job, the unicorn's eyes widened:
„Really? The Star Walker that's up there right now?“ she began quickly rattling off, not even waiting for an answer, „I'm Twilight! Nevermind those calculations, heh, they're just rough estimates. I'm sure you've got a far more accurate prediction already worked out!“
Zvezda looked aside nervously, ashamed to have set the mare's expectations so high. „Not really. I'm just a tech-pony, not a fancy chief designer or anything. They give me a blueprint, I build it. Nothing more.“
„Oh.“ Though she tried to hide it, there was clear disappointment in her eyes. Even then, it did not show for long, and a smile soon replaced it. „Still, it must be so exciting to work on these things! Like, knowing where every little screw is, every single wire… then seeing it shoot off into space and knowing, like, you made that. All these other ponies might have planned it, true, but it was you who actually took up the tools. Made that dream come true, for them, with your own hooves. I bet you feel at the top of the world right now!“
Zvezda smiled weakly, but didn't say a word back. Briefly, the conversation was at the risk of falling into an embarrassed silence; but before that could happen, a tiny new star suddenly appeared in the sky, right above the roof of Stable VII.
„Yes!“ Twilight almost jumped in excitement as she gestured towards the star, „Exactly where I predicted! Isn't this exciting?“
It took the exhausted and slow-thinking Zvezda a few more seconds to realize the significance of that unassuming speck of light. It looked just like any other of the thousands of faraway suns; faint, white, slightly shimmering. Utterly unremarkable. However, upon noticing just how fast the tiny star was moving, and in which direction it was progressing, the pieces immediately clicked together.
It was Cherry. Soaring through the skies.
As the two mares stared at the bright speck in amazed silence, they barely noticed the yelps of excitement coming from the ponies all around. One by one, the others slowly stopped in their dances, their happy little chats, and suddenly fell utterly still and silent. Somepony even threw water onto the big bonfire, just to see better.
That slow feeling of shared, collective realization of what was going on, of just what that tiny speck in the sky truly meant, was something that Zvezda would never forget, not for the rest of her life. It seemed to spread outwards in a circle, each successive line of ponies suddenly glancing up at the sky, and seeing.
That, right there, is a pony, Zvezda thought to herself, feeling her thoughts echo those of all around her, A pony.
These stars have shined for billions of years. Every one of them, an impossible distance away, eternally old, infinitely bright at its centre. They belong to the goddesses.
But now, suddenly, there's a pony up there, too. She's not special, she's not Chosen; she's an ordinary mare, just like me. But she's walking through the skies, like it was nothing.
Slowly, she looked down, around at the others standing all around her; and realized many of them were doing the exact same thing too. The thoughts seemed to be almost communal. It wasn't magic, it wasn't divine intervention. It was us. One day, we decided we were going to the stars.
And then, we simply went ahead and did it.
Just us. Ordinary ponies.
Twilight was right. Right now, she really did feel at the top of the world.
Wilhelmina too, was looking up at the new star in the sky. The special edition of a newspaper fluttered in the wind underneath her hooves, but she paid little attention to either the article, or its amazing photograph of their launching rocket. The bottle of fine wine lying nearby was likewise untouched; unlike most of the other ponies, the chief designers were quite decidedly waiting for re-entry before celebrating.
But, right now, all that was off her mind. She was looking at Cherry Skies; a pegasus pony, flying through the cosmos.
She gazed at the new star lengthily, trying to come up with something poetic to say, to immerse herself in the moment. Yet, try as she might, she simply could not do it. However hard she looked at that tiny, bright speck, it was just a dot. The feeling of a job well done, perhaps; but nothing beyond that. Maybe, more would arrive later: After pining after a single goal for so many years, it was hard to believe it was actually here.
Bemused by such thoughts, she then shifted her sights off the heavens, and sideways, insolently inspecting the goddess of the night, who was watching by her side. Seeing the deeply fascinated look on her face, Wilhelmina smiled; at least one pony here was still capable of emotion.
„Breathtaking, isn't it?“ she idly commented, looking back up at the sky. „Through the awesome power of science, we have changed even the heavens themselves.“
The words rang empty to her, but she was hoping they'd evoke at least some sort of reaction from the princess. And indeed, they did; but much to her surprise, it was exactly the opposite of what she had expected. Instead of an awed acknowledgement, or even an enthused nod, all she got was a quiet, depressed silence.
Depressed? Another glance at the princess confirmed it: Her face was most decidedly shaken, almost lost. Not quite teary, but perhaps close to it.
„My princess?“ she asked awkwardly, not quite sure how to react. „Is- is something wrong? Have we-“
„Oh, it's nothing important, Director,“ Luna quickly smiled back, cutting her off mid-sentence. She gazed into the sky a minute longer, then continued, speaking slowly and quietly, „You have done a great thing here today. Generations of ponies will be grateful for it. Worry not about an old princess like me.“
Wilhelmina tried to take these words to heart; and yet, looking at the young goddess standing there like that, the once-jovial mathematician now reduced to staring emptily into the heavens, she couldn't help but feel distinctly guilty.
Eventually, the pressure on her tongue became too great. „Please, princess. Tell me.“
„Immortality is a strange thing, Director,“ Luna eventually began, taking her eyes off the new star and spinning around, taking in the entirety of the skies, „Every day is different. Great ponies come and go, never to return. Same with the borders, kingdoms, cities. But the stars… even when my own sister turned me away, they were always there for me. Always encouraging; always the same. In a away, they're the only thing that really connects all those memories together. Helps me make sure I'm still the same pony.“
She turned back to the tiny space capsule, continuing along its heavenly trajectory. Even from there, however, Wilhelmina could still see a sad smile on her face, as she continued:
„I suppose that, in my arrogance, I claimed the skies as my own. When, in reality, they belonged to you ponies all along.“
„Princess,“ Wilhelmina quickly interrupted, with no idea of what to say. Still, she had to say something, at the very least; the guilt was over-arching. „Please. Don't-“
Luna, however, cut her off with a simple smile. „Like I said, Director, it's nothing. Just a shift of perspectives. Now, let's go back to Stable X already: I'd bet all of Canterlot that the ionosphere readings are now finished!“
„I'm telling you, they are alive!“ Cherry insisted, taking another picture of the sparkling fireflies as they circled outside. It was night again, and they were back with her, following her spacecraft on its long journey.
„How many times must I tell you, cadet?“ her professor's voice resounded strongly through the wireless, speaking quickly and confidently, „Is just shrapnel from capsule separation! There is no way those things are anything but dust.“
„How do you explain all the different colours, then? Did the decoupling explosives include ten pounds of glitter?“
„Simple reflection,“ his voice was becoming exasperated, „Now, please stop with this tomfoolery, cadet! You are supposed to be serious scientist on mission of exploration! Not some uneducated yokel!“
That last comment nearly made Cherry snap back with yet more talk of the fireflies, but she just about managed to stop herself. She knew the professor meant no harm; after all, seeing her become the commander of a mission he had spent his entire life dreaming of must have been quite the shock. She was willing to cut him some slack.
Suddenly, a flash of movement made her focus at the window again. Unlike the shroud of fireflies, which only buzzed around the nearest vicinity of her window, this one had come from much further away, somewhere in the deep void. Cherry quickly prepared her camera. If she could get a single good picture of one of the fireflies, at such a distance from the capsule – sufficiently far to discount the 'shrapnel' theory – she could lord it over Redstone until the end of days. Straining her eyes, she pulled her nose up against the window, and watched patiently.
The distant speck refused to appear again. She waited in that single position for a good five minutes, unflinchingly watching, but asides from the flickering of her familiar friends against the capsule window, there was nothing. She was about to give it up and go back to her checklists, when something happened.
At first, it looked simply like a bright cloud of sparkles, slowly drifting into view. A slightly diffused, elongated blob of light, through which the dark outlines of geometric patterns flowed. Its dim glow looked warm when compared to the black void it was set against, and it subtly ebbed, pulsing in shape and brightness as it coasted along. Snapping shots as fast as the camera would allow, Cherry pondered its peculiar nature; perhaps an unfocused cloud of wild magic, which had leaked out of some mighty spell and was now adrift in low orbit.
As she watched and studied the cloud, however, she suddenly realized it was watching her, too. At least, that's what it looked like: Staring at the small blob at its front that uncomfortably resembled an eye, she first shook her head, then cracked a nervous smile. No need to be superstitious, now, she reassured herself, still staring at the dark tiny circle, It's just like seeing a pony's face in a cloud. Bad pattern recognition. What did Red call it again?
None of that convinced her, however, and she just kept staring into the magical cloud, quite terrified for her life. Gradually, she realized something else; though it had previously been drifting past her window, it was now utterly immobile, moving through its orbit at precisely the same speed and heading to hers. She looked at it again, studying the strange dark geometric lines running along its length.
It was just like one of those magic eye pictures; once she saw it, she couldn't unsee it. The dark lines met up, then split and branched only to reform again, and together, they formed the mighty outline of a giant, slender, ethereal space-dragon, floating immobile in its glowing cloud of magic, wings folded up as it coldly stared at her through one of his giant eyes. She scrambled, desperately, to try and come up with an alternate description of the sight; but she found none. It was definitely a dragon, just like the one back at the Cosmodrome. And it was definitely watching her.
Realizing she was still holding a camera in her hooves, she began taking pictures again, this time with a ferocity she had never felt before. She run out of film; fumbling all around, she clumsily closed up the old roll, then put in a new one, and resumed, taking shot after shot of the beautiful creature, as it slowly angled its colossal neck in attempts to get a better look at the curious metal contraption that was now its new companion.
The sight made her mind race with a billion unanswered questions: Does it have friends? Is it intelligent? Can it speak? What does it eat out here? Does it sometimes return to the planet? Can it-
The arcane beast obviously had other things running through its own head, however, as it first slowly blinked, then looked away from her tiny capsule. It then proceeded to slowly outstretch its enormous wings, monumental and awe-inspiring in its every glacial movement.
For a single, eternal moment, it remained motionless in its mighty pose, as if to bid its mechanical companion one last farewell. And then, with a single thunderous sweep that made Cherry jump, it suddenly propelled itself forward, accelerated through some incomprehensible thaumic force the likes of which ponykind could barely dream of. And that was it, simple as that.
Watching the mighty creature majestically recede into the distance, Cherry felt an incredible sadness grasp her heart. She was quite sure she'd never see something so beautiful ever again, not for the rest of her entire natural life; and that made her depressed in a way she had never been before.
However, she promptly realized something else, something which put the smile on her face right back. Flicking on the wireless again, and making sure it was Redstone on the other end, she quickly reported:
„Cape Command, be advised. A giant glowing space dragon just floated by my window. I got lots of pictures, over.“
To her pleasure, her report had left just as much of an impression on the poor professor as she had hoped. „I…“ he stuttered, „I… What?“
„Space dragon, Cape Command. Made of light. Absolutely huge, and it had wings. No other way to describe it.“
The professor remained understandably flabbergasted. „I… I will have to review those pictures once you get back, cadet. Cape Command, out.“
However, he did not even leave her with so much as a minute of smug celebration before he was back again, bearing yet more news:
„Friendship One, Lyuka believes she has discovered cause of our earlier telemetry failure.“
„Go ahead, Cape Command,“ she immediately replied, spinning herself away from the window and towards the controls panel. This could be important, especially if it happened again.
„Much as we thought, problem is related to excessive vibration experienced during launch,“ he slowly continued, obviously reporting as it was explained to him, „Coupled with uneven distribution of electrical components. Because booster is made of nine independent engines, much of it ends up vibrating in different directions to rest. Now, just add in complex network of high-power communications spells… and I hope I do not have to remind you of what happens when conductor moves through charged enchantment field, cadet.“
„Uh, mutual self-induction?“ she half-guessed, already wincing at the unavoidable tirade once she was proven wrong.
„Exactly right!“ came the reply, much to her surprise, and she performed a brief mental dance of joy.
„Just don't ask me to work out the direction of the current,“ she quickly added, remembering all the zeroes she got whenever that question had appeared on the test.
Fortunately, he didn't; in fact, he even laughed at her little comment. This sure has been one heck of a day.
„Anyway, we think we have come up with solution,“ he continued, and Cherry could hear the sounds of paper being shuffled in the background, „Should not be big problem, but during re-entry, we want everything to work as it should. Plus, it only involves minor reconfiguration of your capsule electrics.“
„Sounds great!“ Cherry chirped, positioning herself back into the acceleration couch and flipping on the capsule light. „Let's get to it!“
„Right. First, you want to enable bus crossfeed, mode beta.“
„X-feed on,“ she reported, dutifully flipping the appropriate switch.
„Next, engage secondary inverter.“
„Uh,“ she groaned after a few seconds, scanning her controls board in vain. This procedure definitely wasn't on the checklist, and after all the excitement today, her memory was starting to go.
„Block H, cadet,“ Redstone helpfully provided.
Cherry rolled her eyes, not believing the words 'Redstone' and 'helpful' had just appeared in the same sentence. Heck of a day, she thought again, as she reached across the panel and flipped the large switch positioned there.
There was a flash of blue light that hurt the eyes, and her capsule suddenly fell entirely dark.
She tried flipping the switch back and forth. No response; the lightbulb obstinately remained off. Thinking – hoping – it was just a bad contact, she quickly enabled the small torch mounted in her helmet, then stared at her controls board.
The speed indicator, the artificial horizon, the altimeter, every voltage reading, every single dial; they were all reading zero. In gradually rising desperation, she tried one of her manoeuvring jets, in the vain hope that whatever had just happened only afflicted her instruments, much like the telemetry bug earlier.
However, there was no response. The starry void outside refused to budge; no matter how hard she hit the buttons, not a single system decided to trigger. Without any propulsion or power, what she had before affectionately called a 'tiny metal can' had just become precisely that.
And she was in it. Stranded.
„Uh-oh,“ she finally announced, somewhat redundantly.