Turning to the very last page of her finely-bound album, Cherry suddenly sighed. Almost in a haze, her eyes glazed over the various newspaper clippings detailing both her impossible return from orbit, and the frenetic rescue effort that followed. Though Rainbow had heroically managed to catch up with the plummeting capsule and pull her out in the nick of time, after their reunion the two still found themselves stranded quite in the middle of nowhere, both absolutely exhausted, with the nearest follow-up team at least twelve hours away. Equipped with nothing but the bare minimum of supplies, and more-than-shoddy survival gear built by the absolute lowest bidder, the ensuing wait had been… interesting, to say the least.
Fun times, fun times, she smiled, remembering just how many tries they needed to build that damned emergency tent, fighting harsh winds and badly-machined pegs that would break at the tip of a hat, all the while their hooves and manes gradually froze off. There was even a black-and-white photo in her album here, snapped by one of the incoming rescuers, embarrassingly immortalizing Rainbow's only attempt to cook a warm meal; one which ended with egg splattered absolutely everywhere. Much to her friend's chagrin, that very picture was also the only one ever taken of Friendship One's triumphant return, and had since been re-printed in history books across the entire planet. Cherry made sure she brought a copy every time the two met again.
But after that, there really wasn't all that much left to the thick book. A parade through the streets of Canterlot, a title bestowed upon her by Celestia herself, a couple of navel-gazing articles on what it all meant; and that was it. The excitement of the launch, and its subsequent orbital drama, had taken the entire planet by storm for a brief while, and every second article would provide at least a throwaway reference to things astronomical; but life went on, and soon enough, it had all faded from the public consciousness again. Oh, sure, there were the anniversary specials, the many commemorative interviews, a new 'Space' column on page fifteen. But, asides from those last faint echoes, her story was now over. For all intents and purposes, at least.
The soft chime of an incoming announcement tore her from her memories.
„All citizens be advised, we are now on final approach,“ the paced, professional voice of the Sturmberg mayor broadcast, coming in crisp and loud from a small speaker mounted into the doorway of her study. „You are reminded to remain indoors until the all-clear has sounded, and that the local time is now half past ten AM. Thank you again for your understanding, and hope to see you all at the mooring celebrations later today.“
Taking a sip through the straw of her tall drink, Cherry nostalgically glanced at the heavy volume for one last time, then firmly closed it shut, feeling slightly guilty. No matter how many times she promised herself never to open that book again, every so often, she would fall victim to her own weakness, and spend another five hours going through the musty pages. Just pointlessly staring at the pictures and cut-outs. Remembering all the fun she had.
But this would be the last time, she steadfastly decided. No matter how great the temptation would get, she swore never to open it again; however sweet, it was all in the past, and memories would get her nowhere. Time to get with the times, girl. Time to get with the times.
She ponderously got off her soft couch, and left the accursed book lying where it was. Trying to quickly clear her head of such nostalgic baggage, she instead wondered off to the giant window that covered one entire wall of her room, and peered at the peaceful scene outside:
Though the corporate tower of Cherry Engineering Group Unlimited was one of the tallest buildings in the land, and her private suite was built into its very top, the vast aeronautical expanse of Sturmberg nevertheless stretched out on every level around her. Dozens of dark, painstakingly-sculpted clouds, some entirely covered in apartment blocks, others straining under the countless shining citadels of heavy industry, crowded the skies. Her home city was truly a marvel of the air, one not even the mighty Cloudsdale could hope to match; a beautiful mass of concrete and fluffy whiteness, steel and rainbow, soaring high above the ground. As its one crowning touch, it was all bound together, connected by a vast network of floating sky-ways; levitating iron streets that snaked through the air, allowing even the earth-bound ponies to freely work and live in this lofty city.
But, right now, the massive city of fifty thousand lay entirely quiet; its famous sky-ways empty, the many grandiose squares and airparks utterly devoid of living beings. The reason for this was entirely mundane, yet all the more amazing for it: The entire, enormous cluster of clouds was currently in motion, advancing at a tremendous speed over the cold barren plains of eastern Equestria. Underneath, snowed hills and icy rivers raced past at almost a hundred miles per hour. Propelled by a cluster of three arcane engines that strained reality to its very limits, the city thundered along its transcontinental trajectory.
Cherry stood still as she watched one of those contraptions work. It resembled a giant brass orrery, a series of spinning brass rings a hundred metres in diameter and half-sunk into a triply-reinforced raincloud. At its core, a small tetrahedron of compressed light pulsed brightly, giving off sharp sparks as its energies were funnelled to speed the great city along. But her eyes weren't on all that. They were on the black equilateral triangle of her company, painted onto the wall of a nearby control tower. Even after all these years, a small part of her still felt proud for making all this possible.
But even as she watched, the immense power plants were already slowing. Indeed, on the ground below, the barren countryside was now finally beginning to show the first signs of inhabitance, with the first few outlying cottages drifting past; soon, they would reach Sankt-Lunburg proper, and after that, come to an eventual stop only a few hundred metres above its centre. The following exponential boost in trade would benefit both cities incredibly for a few months, and then it'd be off to the next carefully-planned stop, all in a never ending cycle that was currently making Equestria the planet's chief economic powerhouse. And, of course, improving everypony's lives in the process.
The behind her opened with a faint click, and somepony entered. She didn't even have to turn away from the window to identify her visitor, however; there weren't that many ponies who could see her without an appointment. Of those, the kids were still in school, and Reinhardt at the docks, trying to fix that damn ignition on their cantankerous air-yacht. Lastly, her butler's breathing was nowhere near that heavy.
„An impressive sight,“ her dad commented, slowly approaching. Cherry could only smile as he stopped at her side, and she glanced sideways at him. His mane and tail were now all but grey, voice crackly, wings thin and feeble; and yet, there was still a powerful flame in his eyes, urging him ever onward. „With solid foundations, too,“ he added, nodding in direction of the heavy arcane engines, „Merely improve upon an existing product, and you'll always be in competition with those who do it even better. But invent and corner an entirely new industry, out of thin air… I can easily imagine this little empire of yours lasting a hundred years, you know.“
Aww. He always knew how to make her happy. „Well, it sure wouldn't, if it wasn't for a very special somepony,“ she reciprocated, trying to wrap her wing around him. But he only pushed her away:
„Blood has nothing to do with it, my dear!“ he exclaimed, shaking his head wisely. Just as Cherry began to feel proud, however, he unfortunately continued. „Neither does skill.“
Her warm expression immediately faded away. „Oi! What's that-“
He shook his hoof at the air, wildly. „You see, back in my day, ponies had to earn investment! Flying around every last noble in the Assembly, pleading your flank off for every last bit; I remember it well! But nowadays, all you have to do is join some flying circus for a year, and suddenly every last pony in Equestria's buying your shares! Just because they saw your name in the papers – business plan, or not!“
She stared at him for a few seconds.
He fumed back, indignant fury still strong in his eyes.
She burst out laughing. As he continued staring, she just kept laughing, stamping her hoof against the ground a few times.
„Humbug,“ he eventually cursed, then turned back to the window, looking quite dejected. „I have always wanted to pull off a rant like that, you know. Seemed like great fun. But when I am finally old enough for it to work, you just laugh! Be at least slightly insulted, girl!“
„Try a bit less hard next time,“ she suggested, still wiping the tears from her eyes.
He grumbled something back, but she didn't quite hear. Not wanting to spoil the atmosphere, she instead simply followed his lead and turned back towards the window for herself. Far below, the seas of rolling plains had now since given way to the enormous expanse of neoclassical spires and apartment blocks that was Sankt-Lunburg. Despite the less than encouraging myths surrounding its name, it was simply another pony city, bad and good alike. Its inhabitants may have been a little more grumbly than most, sure, but Cherry attributed that to the lonely, bleak landscape; there was little here in the far east that resembled the warm green hills of the Equestrian heartland.
„Ever regret leaving?“
Cherry turned around, only to see the old stallion standing over her couch, inspecting the finely-bound volume lying there. Buck. She mentally kicked herself for forgetting to clear it away.
„No,“ she quickly reassured. Perhaps a bit too quickly.
He gave her a raised eyebrow.
„Alright, maybe a little,“ she admitted, turning back to the window. She spent several seconds just staring forward, watching the massive arcane engine come to a smooth stop. Guided by massive computeronic clusters a thousand times more powerful than those that had flown her to the stars, the incomprehensible energies slowly ebbed away in a safe and controlled manner, the great machine slowing down with it. Finally, the rings performed one final revolution, and the glowing tetrahedron at its core fell dark. The floor stopped shaking, a two-tone whistle sounded across the streets, and that was it. Arrival.
Almost immediately, the entire city below sprang back into life. Shop shutters unrolled, doors slammed open, and a great torrent of ponies came pouring out onto the clouds and sky-ways. Street vendors began peddling their goods, the taxis shot into the skies. Pegasi and loaded air-ships left their berths and began descending to the streets of Sankt-Lunburg, only to pass their equivalents ascending from the surface. In only a scant few moments, it looked at if the two cities had always been standing there.
„I couldn't just stay there, though,“ she continued with a distant smile, watching as the colourful crowds filled the sky-ways. Far below, the great gates and hangar doors of her own tower also came swinging open, and dozens of work crews left for their destinations: The surrounding ring of floating shipyards and manufacturing plants that formed the core of her industrial empire. She continued scanning the torrent of employees, before finally settling on a particular pair of pegasi that had split off from the main stream, making their way in a most unusual direction. „After all, I've had a debt to pay.“
The duo flew up, higher and higher, until they arrived at the control pod of a massive sky-crane floating nearby. It only took them a few seconds to bring the great machine to life, and then they began working immediately, lifting up a massive welded-steel logo of Skies Precision AG from a cargo ship anchored nearby. Seeing the old sign again, in its full-scale, ten-tonne glory, sent chills of childhood memories up her spine. Meanwhile, a second crew of pegasi was also hard at work, blowtorches already sparking wildly as they steadily began to clear away every last trace of the old equilateral triangle from the city-engine's concrete control tower.
„You know, speaking strictly from a business point of view, this is probably the single dumbest decision you will ever make of in your entire life,“ her father announced, also watching the busy scene. „I mean, how much did that buyout cost? Hundred million? Hundred fifty?“
„Two hundred,“ Cherry whispered.
„Two hundred million bits!“ he exclaimed, rolling his eyes, „And for what! A silly brand name?“
She just smiled.
All the time, the sky-crane crew continued at their task. Within a few minutes more, they had lofted the steel logo up to the tower, and the second squadron surged forward again, ready to begin the complicated procedure of affixing it to the wall.
„But, even so,“ he eventually sighed, „It does feel good to have the old name back.“
Cherry extended her wing, and wrapped it around him. This time, there was no resistance.
„I mean, your own one was just awful,“ he quickly added. „CEGU? You really couldn't make up a better acronym? And that logo – just a stupid black triangle! No flair, no class! What the hay were you thinking?“
Right. This time around, she did get insulted.
Rainbow yawned lengthily as she first stretched her wings and legs into the air, then rolled herself around again. Her bed was as fluffy as a cloud, its pillows and blankets as soft as they were warm. The television in the next room was playing some slow, relaxing tunes, and just behind the half-opened window of her bedroom, she could see a pair of squirrels scurrying through a tree. Everypony was out, so she had the house entirely to herself for once. And she was enjoying the peace and quiet in the best way possible: A proper, aviation-grade nap.
Now that's the stuff.
She smiled to herself. Life was good in Ponyville.
Unfortunately, a short, accidental glance around her room spoilt the mood. Her desk was absolutely covered by a precarious pile of envelopes, several hooves tall; each with the red stamp of the Cosmodrome marking its great urgency, each containing a dozen pieces of annoying paperwork to fill out, and each addressed to one Mrs. Rainbow Dash.
She sighed. Even during her time off, the Directors could always find a way to ruin her day.
Rolling off her bed, she first got back on her four legs, then quickly began to leave the room before her precious vacation could be damaged any further. Of course, after a full week of weightlessness and only a scant few days of recovery, earthly navigation was a bit of a chore, so she more hobbled, than walked, across to the next room. The deep gash in her hind leg – still covered in bandages – wasn't exactly helping, either. Once there, she firmly shut the door behind herself, blocking out all traces of that evil pile. That done, she first breathed a sigh of relief, then leant against the door to rest, minding her wounded leg.
It wasn't long, however, before her interest became piqued by the peculiar device that had appeared in the house while was away on her last mission; the 'tee-vee', as the foals called it, a large and heavy-looking wooden box, with a circular cathode-ray screen in the front, a couple of wires poking out the back, and about a billion interconnected control elements. Right now, it appeared to be tuned to some sort of music channel, and the slightly-grainy picture quivered slightly as it displayed some griffon orchestra play live, from all the way in the Canterlot philharmonie.
She spent a few minutes poking at the various control knobs, in an attempt to tune into something slightly more interesting, but the stupid thing was harder to figure out than a general guidance computer. After she had somehow managed to turn the entire picture a dark shade of red, she simply gave up on the machine, and wandered off in direction of the fridge instead. Now that was one piece of technology she understood.
The wooden tiles of the corridor kept creaking as she slowly ventured down the length of the house, occasionally stopping to catch her breath. Thankfully, there were no stairs; back when they were planning it, she had made it very clear that this house would be a single-floor affair. As she limped through the long corridor, past the many doors and windows, she glanced around at the framed pictures that lined the hall: Roster photos, shots of launching rockets, magnificent space stations, a even a couple of magazine covers proclaiming her 'The Mare of the Year'. All the good stuff, chronicling her many achievements all the way from the early days, and with plenty of space still reserved for the future. There was only a single photograph missing from this collection, taken way back; and that was for a very good reason. Unfortunately, Cherry always kept bringing more copies of the damned thing whenever she came around to visit, and Rainbow was now fast running out of places to 'lose' the unwanted picture in.
Eventually, she made her way over to the kitchen, all the way at the other end of the house. Once there, she first took the daily dose of her prescribed pills – a wide assortment of diet supplements, chemicals to increase her blood pressure, painkillers, and the like – then quickly gulped their foul taste down with a glass of water. This arduous task done, she then enthusiastically turned to rummage through the waiting fridge.
Thankfully, the leftovers from yesterday's homecoming party were still there. She stole a hefty slice of Pinkie's delicious cake – now looking a bit stale, but still incredibly delicious – and sat herself down at the table. First nudging the empty bowls and glasses away to clear space for her plate, she then proceeded to munch down with great gusto. The gelatinous mass was incredibly tasty, and wonderfully unhealthy; worlds away from the small array of carefully-regulated foodstuffs allowed into just the equenaut complex, and never mind the capsules themselves. Technology might have advanced by leaps and bounds over the past two decades, but space food was still just as horrible as ever.
Still chewing powerfully, she looked around the kitchen for something to read. Her eyes settled on an old newspaper, still lying in bread basket. The date in the margin was a whole week past, but she didn't care. Instead, she only grinned widely as she admired the large, colourful photograph that crowned the page: A colossal shot of their blue, cloud-streaked planet in the background, with Rainbow in her shining white spacesuit in the dead centre, leaping heroically towards a damaged space shuttle. The headline was none too bad, either: Rainbow Does It Again! Eight Saved In Daring Space Rescue.
In fact, the more she looked at it, the more she felt it'd make a good addition to the corridor. First making a mental reminder to get a frame fitted the next time she was in town, she then continued to heartily munch down on her cake, casting only the occasional glance on that awesome picture.
However, she wasn't even halfway through her fifth helping when the wireless phone on the table suddenly began ringing. Rolling her eyes, Rainbow was just about to silence it, when she noticed the dim rune glowing in the brick's side; it was Rarity, and it was urgent.
Bah. Clearing the crumbs from her mouth, she hit the large button on its front, setting the phone to speaker mode:
„Planetside Residence?“ her old friend's voice inquired over the enchanted grille, as haughty and indignant as ever. „I wish to speak to Mrs. Dash. Can you call her over?“
Rainbow puffed. „You know, when I came back, they promised me at least two months' holiday. Maybe three, even! But I'm back a single night, and you're already-“
„Yes, yes, yes,“ the mare quickly cut her off, „You can take it up with management later, darling. For now, I need you over at R&D. We'll have to take some measurements for the lunar excursion suit.“
„The LES? Again?“ Rainbow groaned, growing more irritated by the minute. „Come on! I don't eat that much cake, you know!“
„Despite what you might think, Rainbow dear, this isn't a comment on your diet. Although you could certainly stand to lose an inch or two around the waist…“
Rainbow gritted her teeth.
„…but I digress. We've had a database crash here at the plant, so I can't access the computer. We've got backups, but they're taking ages to load, and I need to get this order finished now. The shipment date is tomorrow, for Celestia's sake! Can you even imagine what will happen if I miss it?“
„Fine, fine,“ she sighed back. The times might have moved on, but some ponies have remained just as theatrical as ever.
„Oh, thank you so much, darling! Meet me in the lobby in five. Ciao!“
The phone beeped, and the line cut out. Taking one last bite out of the cake, Rainbow muttered some blasphemy to herself – like, she liked Rarity and everything, but sometimes she could get pretty annoying – then got up and limped through the screen door, to the veranda outside.
The weather was beautiful, and lifted her mood somewhat; she couldn't have made these clouds better even if she tried herself. Drawing deeply at the warm, summer air, she looked around the yard, at the neatly-trimmed grass and the full green trees. A few foals were running about the playground just beyond the gate, and their laughing was like a balm to her nerves.
She scanned the skies above, preparing herself for launch. But, before she spread her wings, she first made sure to dig a tiny hole into the yard dirt with her hoof. It was a silly little thing to do, she admitted that even to herself; but in her profession, she always took every chance she could to touch the earth.
Just in case.
Gently, and in direct disregard of every doctor back at the Cosmodrome, she took to the air and quickly climbed to a hundred hooves above the town. Her wings still felt a little weak, and she was meandering from side to side a little, but it was way better than limping the entire way. Slowly spinning around to get her bearings, she breathed deeply to offset her sudden dizziness, then leisurely set out in the direction of Rarity's plant.
Below her, Ponyville was the same as ever. Nothing had changed since her last mission, exactly as with the mission before that. Sure, every year, the construction standards got a bit better, a few more families chose to replace their straw roofs with tiles; but it was basically the same as when she first arrived. Outdoor markets, squares of fields, little vegetable gardens, ponies with baskets full of produce hopping through the streets; after the rush of orbit, it was the perfect little place to return home to.
Not even Rarity's factory had managed to ruin the scenic rural outlook. Unlike, say, Stalliongrad, there were very strong regulations for industry out here in the heartland – both aesthetic and environmental – and they were very strongly enforced. As a result, the factory was hidden away in the corner, behind a thick line of ferns, and resembled more a fairytale cottage than an advanced manufacturing complex. Even the smoke stacks were very short, looking more like a small kitchen chimney, and equipped with all sorts of filtering spells that didn't let an atom of pollution through.
Rainbow touched down on the cobbled pathway leading up to the door, beating her wings vigorously to slow herself down and make the impact as soft as possible. Even so, she felt a brief flare of pain spike through her wounded leg.
Should've called a taxi, she scowled, cursing under her breath. Fortunately, the door was only a few hooves away, well within hobbling range, and she quickly managed to cover the distance and punch the doorbell.
After a few moments, Rarity herself opened the door. The mare looked a bit harried, designer glasses titled slightly to one side, and Rainbow even managed to spot a minute imperfection in the otherwise-flawless curls of her mane. It was obviously a bad day for her. However, as soon as she saw her friend, her expression immediately changed for the better:
„Rainbow!“ she exclaimed, in obvious relief. With a sneaky – if somewhat tired – smile, she then added, „You look a complete mess.“
„Well, you did kinda tear me away from breakfast,“ Rainbow beamed back, then bit her lip, holding back her own sarcastic comment about Rarity's looks. The poor mare looked like her plate was more than full enough already.
Meanwhile, Rarity's wavering smile managed to hold. „And thank Celestia I could! I just don't know what I'd do otherwise… anyway, come in, come in!“
Rainbow limped her way inside, and took a look around. The interior of the plant was like a mirror of Rarity herself; the usually-impeccable floors now covered in unpacked cardboard boxes and spilled piles of replacement parts, the artistic glass tables and comfortable sofas of the lobby buried underneath torn plastic bags. All the doors were open, with cables and extension cords hanging taut between them. Lastly, tech-ponies in bright orange vests, with logos of Amber Computing emblazoned on their backs, circulated amidst the disorder, carrying circuit boards and running recovery tapes through various terminals.
„Please excuse the horrible untidiness, dear,“ Rarity blushed as she steadily led her friend through more and more of the plant, obviously greatly embarrassed. „The server just completely burnt out overnight. I woke up in the morning, and nothing worked! We still don't know what happened.“
„Wasn't SatCom reporting something in the Everfree?“ Rainbow hazily suggested, trying to scramble her most recent memories of the Cosmodrome back together.
Rarity simply shrugged in response, then momentarily stepped back to allow another tech-pony to gallop past them. „If they blame it on a 'wild magic flare' again, I swear Canterlot is going to receive a very strongly-worded letter! How is a decent businessmare supposed to work in this climate?“
Rainbow was about to smile back encouragingly, but they then suddenly entered the fitting room, and she froze. Standing in the doorway, expression utterly blank, she looked into the giant wall of mirrors that ringed the walls:
Seeing herself so clearly, outside an airbrushed magazine cover and without any make-up, came as quite a shock. Relativistic effects aside, she was quite sure she wasn't much more than forty years old; and yet, that blue pegasus looking back from the mirror must have been at least fifty. She had always known that space travel took a heavy strain on the body, but this?
She ran her hoof through her faded mane, those bright strains of colour that once shone so naturally, making her a little star amongst her peers back in Cloudsdale. Now, they were supplemented with chemical dyes. Likewise, her face ran criss-crossed with a hundred minor wrinkles, and a dozen more scars; an especially visible one ran all the way down her left cheek, a vivid memory of that terrible docking accident which nearly cost three brave ponies their lives. Standing next to Rarity, who – though currently quite distressed – still looked very much like she had twenty years ago, the contrast was startling, to say the least.
„Sorry for calling you over so quickly,“ the mare suddenly spoke up, still uncertainly stopped at Rainbow's side. „I'm sure, if you had more time… that is, I mean, under normal conditions, your looks are far-“
„It's alright,“ she whispered, quickly cutting her friend off.
The two remained standing there in the doorway for a while longer, staring silently at the mirror before them. A tech-pony carrying an oscilloscope suddenly appeared behind them, and Rainbow had to awkwardly step aside to allow her through.
„It's my life, after all,“ she then smiled towards her friend. „I made the choices. And good or bad, I'd never leave it.“
Just as Rarity was about to say something back, however, another tech-pony came running past, this time levitating a phone.
„Erm, Mrs. Dash?“ the young stallion inquired discretely, moving the phone across to her. „Planetside Residence on the line. Apparently, they want to know where you are.“
Rainbow accepted the call. Greeted by the happy gurgling of her youngest foal in the background, a warm smile spread wide across her face. A warm smile, accompanied by just the tiniest speck of guilt:
„Yeah… yeah, I'm just at Rarity's. Getting some measurements for the moon suit… well of course it's important! I can't be a moonbase commander without a suit now, can I? It won't be a bit, I promise… listen, I know I said that. We'll have the whole vacation alone, honest! Just us, the kids, and absolutely zero business. Just need to clear up this one last thing…“
Standing behind thick, dusty windowpanes, Wilhelmina stared out at the empty desert horizon. From the back of the room, a clock was ticking loudly; but she didn't need its guidance. After so many countdowns, she knew exactly how long a second lasted.
„Five,“ she muttered quietly under her breath, „Four. Three. Two. One.“
There came a distant momentary flash, and a tiny speck of pure light appeared in the far distance. Hydrogen fuel mix, she observed, watching the faint blue glow of its engines rapidly rise towards the heavens. And judging by that rate of climb, definitely a twin turbopump – couldn't build up that much thrust otherwise. Probably a Zv-10.
She shook her head. This new, clean, technology just bothered her somehow. Oh, was it financially viable? Sure it was. And the damn environmentalist yuppies just loved it. But nothing could be anywhere near as satisfying as a rickety solid-fuel contraption, lobbing out endless magnitudes of black acrid fumes and halogen smoke, fighting wildly just to stay upright in the air. These youngsters didn't know what they were missing.
The sound only came much later, delayed by almost a full ten seconds; but when it did, the rumble was powerful enough to rattle windows and stir up the surface in her glass of water. Ears snapping to attention, she analysed its every variance in pitch, every minor tremble.
Burn rate seems nominal, she noted, straining to pick apart the hundred individual melodies and get at the mechanical systems themselves. LOX injectors running well. Turbopumps peaking.
There was only one last thing that could stop the space shuttle from its mission. Adjusting the thick plastic frames of her government-issue glasses, she carefully watched the trajectory of the bright dot as it soared through the empty skies. Her offset perspective was distorting things slightly, of course, but a bit of quick mental trigonometry soon took care of that problem.
„Launch roll nominal,“ she eventually announced aloud, turning away from the window. „And that is how you should launch a space mission, kids. None of that first-stage-abort business the zebras are having.“
Of course, the pupils weren't paying much attention; they were busy enough working their way through what was, quite possibly, the most important exam in their lives. Making her way back to her desk at the head of the classroom, she just observed them for a while, watching them sweat. It was getting a little hard to keep calling them 'kids' now, however – after all these years, her little fillies and colts were now all grown up. Just this last paper, and then they'd be off, scattering away into the wind.
Shuffling some papers around, she nodded to herself, saddened and delighted at the same time. They were a good year, this one; considering they were all the foals of simple apple-pickers and miners, their scores on the standardized tests were significantly above Canterlot's target goals. Against these bureaucratic predictions, it pleased her to be able to say that a whole third would be leaving Appleloosa, either for prestigious universities all over the country, or apprenticeships at the Cosmodrome. And even the rest wasn't that bad off; the local computeronics plant was still expanding, and always in need of some skilled ponies. They'd all be just fine.
Provided they would pass this last paper, of course. Even from her position, she could clearly see a couple of her little ponies were struggling; especially Crystal, an azure unicorn at the back and near the window. She was a good kid, that one, and a brilliant pupil in class, but always so panicky when it came to an exam. And right now, she seemed to be taking it even worse than usual: Her hooves were shaking, eyes darting from place to place, and the levitation spell holding her pen up was so unstable, it was unsettling the dust around her desk. She wasn't even writing anything; just flicking through the pages, going from question to question, obviously trying to desperately remember at least something from what they've done before.
Wilhelmina gulped. She probably shouldn't have played that 'most final and important exam you'll ever take' part so much during the preparations. Staring at the filly – mare, she corrected herself – further, she also noticed the deep rings around her eyes. If previous occasions were any indications, the poor thing had doubtlessly been up past midnight dutifully revising, and now her brain had completely and utterly locked up.
All in all, a teacher's worst nightmare. Though Wilhelmina had tried her best during the term, she just couldn't get that sweet, intelligent, funny pony to truly believe in herself. And now was the day of the final test, and she was bound by every regulation to just stand still, watching silently as the mare's potential was utterly wasted and her future went down in flames. The first pony of Appeloosa to ever receive a conditional offer from the Manehattan Institute of Technology, and she'd blow it, all because of a single panic attack.
This utter helplessness painfully reminded her of something.
Trifling through the drawers of her desk in a foolhardy attempt to find anything useful, she suddenly came across her box of prize chocolates, carefully stashed away behind all the pieces of paperwork. Teaching in general – and triply so when one had to stay up late to mark papers – always proved to be a test of endurance unlike any other, and a certain degree of these tasty, tasty, incredibly wonderful chocolates, imported from halfway around the planet, were simply necessary to get through the week. Her meagre salary couldn't pay for much, of course, so she always kept a tight lid on them; but one last glance at the struggling filly was all the conviction she needed.
Levitating the nearly-untouched box out, she first did a quick count of the pieces inside, just to ensure there were enough, then cleared her throat importantly. She then began pacing out a large circle around the classroom, stopping at each student in turn, and lowering a single, beautifully-wrapped sweet on the corner of their desk.
Though she was fairly sure there technically wasn't anything in the exam regulations forbidding this, she was also equally sure that if the state bureaucrats actually saw her right now, she might just as well kiss her meagre pay goodbye. However, she just continued going through the rows of desks, distributing sweets as she went. Some of the ponies just ignored it, others gobbled up the expensive prize chocolates in a single bite; but she kept going.
Reaching Crystal's desk the last, she stopped in front of her, and waited. It only took a couple of moments for the filly to look up from her empty answer sheets, and into Wilhelmina's eyes. The sense of failure, the humiliation, the resignation to a lesser fate; they were all too clear.
„Some of you seem to be taking this test a little hard,“ Wilhelmina began importantly, levitating the last piece of chocolate out of the box and placing it squarely in the middle of Crystal's desk. „How about you take a bite, and just relax for a few minutes? Clear your heads a little. Remember, there's still two hours left – plenty of time to answer everything!“
A new emotion entered the filly's eyes and quickly replaced all the others, as she stared at the small, wrapped sweet before her. Wilhelmina wasn't quite sure how to identify this new arrival – but it was definitely unlike the resigned acceptance just before.
Hearing the door open, she winked one last time in the direction of Crystal, already levitating the box away and out of sight. Turning around, she gave a quick nod to Mr. Peagreen, the school's other teacher, assigned to supervise the second two thirds of the exam. Rumour was, thanks to the town's improving, computeronics-fuelled budget, the school'd be getting a third teacher next year; but for the time being, it was just the two of them. And even though she knew him well, Wilhelmina couldn't suppress a brief bout of worry as he entered the class.
However, the old stallion didn't even notice the wrappers of chocolate lying on everypony's desks as he made straight for the teacher's desk, then proceeded to bury himself in his book of crosswords. Still beaming widely, Wilhelmina followed the regulations to the letter and quietly left the classroom. After all, if only one teacher could supervise the entire exam, who knew what irregularities might take place? The state exam was the state exam; sacrosanct, standardized, and untouchable.
Quickly trotting down the corridor, she left through the wooden door and sat herself down on the porch outside, then turned towards the skies. The rocket was far gone by now, obviously – the reusable first and second stages were probably already landing somewhere in Bridle Shores and Neighpon, respectively, whilst the space shuttle itself would be almost a hundred miles higher up, still making the final corrections for a perfect orbit. Closing her eyes, Wilhelmina imagined the command centre around her, and submerged herself in the constant radio chatter and busy shuffle of computer tapes going on in the surrounding desks. She muttered the commands under her breath: Check AGSG. Extend antennas, switch to UHF. Prewarm hydrazine feeds.
She sat there for a long while, just watching their magnificent planet majestically spin on the big colour screen, transmitted live from a camera aboard the shuttle. The red phone on her desk was ringing, Princess Celestia herself wishing to congratulate her on the successful completion of such an important launch; but she'd just let the mighty Goddess wait for a while longer, instead personally making sure every system was functioning perfectly. It was a hard job, but she'd never do anything else.
In her old age, she probably dozed off for a while, too – because when she next opened her eyes, the clocks have jumped another couple of hours, and exhausted ponies were now streaming out of the doors, varied expressions of worry and relief across their faces. Wilhelmina began scanning the crowds intently, but as it turned out, she didn't have to; Crystal made her way straight up to her by herself. Stopping uncertainly a few hooves away, she nevertheless looked ecstatic:
„Miss Brown!“ she exclaimed happily, then briefly trailed off, falling over her words. „I- I just-“
Wilhelmina simply sighed, shaking her head. „No, I won't have your papers marked before the fifth. They've got to be faxed to Canterlot and marked by an external examiner, and that takes time! Don't you know that, Crystal?“
The mare stopped mid-motion, eyes widening abruptly as she processed the obviously-unexpected reply. „No!“ she tried again, „I mean, yes! That's not what I meant! I just want to-“
But Wilhelmina just firmly pointed her hoof back towards the crowds. „Bribes won't help here, girl. Now, scurry off with your friends, go on! School is over! Celebrate!“
The mare was about to speak up for a third time, but then stopped suddenly, reconsidering. Took her a while! Wilhelmina smirked. Flashing one last smile, the gal then bowed briefly, before trotting off in the direction of her waiting friends. She took a few glances back, but Wilhelmina was already turning away, and back towards the empty sky.
The space station soaring far above might have been invisible to even the sharp eyes of a pegasus, but in her head, it was as clear as day. Ponies, trotting amongst the stars. Braving the odds, standing up to the cosmos, challenging the titanic and unearthly forces that threatened them each day. Even making a living.
It was all there, just a hundred miles above her head.
But it was all down here, too. Hour by hour, day by day. Test, by test.
Glancing at Crystal's happy, excited trot as she vanished into the distance with the rest of her small pack of friends, Wilhelmina couldn't help but smile. Her own, selfish dream was all but fulfilled now. Giving something back, to the ponies who had their own dreams, was the least she could do.
Shuffling from side to side in one of the great lecture hall's comfortable chairs, Zvezda once again regretted choosing the front row. It wasn't that the conference was boring or anything, oh no; although some of the other contractor ponies would sometimes interrupt with their boring industrialist questions, Luna herself was a great public speaker, and would always answer the questions with humour and sharp wit, managing the admirable feat of both providing a satisfactory response and keeping the meeting interesting for the rest of the audience. The room wasn't too bad, either: The University of Sankt-Lunburg had allowed the Space Bureau to book its most historic great hall for this meeting, a building which was perhaps more imposing than even the Assembly court of Canterlot. The giant marble columns and golden chandeliers present here were making Zvezda feel like a princess herself.
But all this quality, was, in fact, the crux of the problem. Ever since being promoted to the design council, Zvezda had attended a thousand boring business meetings, and her mind had since evolved complex mental circuitry designed for coping with them. It had obviously been too successful, as even now she struggled to not zone out from the Princess' speech and listen carefully to what was actually being said. Fighting back an involuntary yawn, she shook her head, then tried again:
„…the telescopes of the royal observatory had since detected at least fifteen of such suitable objects,“ Luna firmly carried on, then took a brief pause as the projector clicked. A new slide appeared on the wall behind her, this time showing a large table full of numerical values. But before anypony in the audience could even start understanding it, the princess resumed:
„As you can see, preliminary spectroscopic analysis has revealed large quantities of indium, cobalt, and even celestium embedded inside these asteroidal bodies. Such elements are all solely needed in advanced and growing industries across our kingdom, and though more ordinary mining methods have thus far proven satisfactory in meeting the demand, we must recognize that supplies here on the surface are painfully limited. A space-borne metals industry should therefore become one of the Bureau's foremost priorities, effective immediately. Yes?“
Prompted by the princess, a fat pegasus pony sitting across the room lowered her hoof, then posed her question. „I am still not convinced that such an operation could be profitable. Even though you have specially selected bodies with close-by orbits, the fixed costs are still immense, and without special subsidies, cannot be overcome. Shouldn't this wait until ten, twenty years down the line?“
„Indeed, at current market rates, the operation could not be profitable,“ Luna nodded eagerly, as she magically clicked the projector a few times to return to an earlier slide. „That much, you can clearly see from here. However, we must remember that such an operation will take at least five years to set up, even if we adapt existing moon-based infrastructure. Even today, Equestria's indium reserves are on a sloping downward trend…“
Zoning out again, Zvezda finally let out her yawn, somewhat dismayed. The earlier stuff with extending the moon base was kinda interesting, especially the colony study, but this corporate tangent was just getting more tedious by the minute. Shuffling in her seat, she brought her focus away from the presentation and towards the other ponies in the hall. Apart from the rest of the design council, it was a fairly monotonous mix of mares in business suits, with the occasional stallion; about an even split between local earth and unicorn industrialists, and visiting Sturmberg pegasi. Sitting between all these fancy high-class ponies in classy top hats and expensive suits, Zvezda felt slightly out of place with the chequered blue bandanna in her mane.
Fortunately, Cherry was here too, sitting only a couple of chairs away; a welcome beacon of familiarity in this sea of industrialism. And although she was dressed just like the others, there just seemed to be something different about the way she sat in her chair, the way she listened carefully to the Princess' every word. Perhaps it was just the memory of them hanging out in the Stable IV canteen together, lobbing pieces of salad at each other; or perhaps she really was somehow different from all these other ponies. Zvezda didn't know, but certainly preferred the latter explanation.
Or, maybe, it was just the nametag. Where the other ponies all had gold-stamped rectangles announcing their full names, full titles, and precise positions within their company, the orange pegasus had to make do with a single scrap of hastily-scribbled paper proclaiming her as the „CEO of Skies Precision AG“. That random, utterly pointless merger had obviously caught everypony by surprise, meeting planners included.
Slowly, her friend noticed the extended stare, and, turning away from Luna for a moment, winked mischievously. The gesture only lasted a millisecond, and then Cherry was looking away again – but it was enough for Zvezda to keep stupidly grinning to herself for the remaining two hours of the lengthy lecture.
Fortunately, towards the end it did get interesting again, with an educated discussion concerning the possible mission configurations for the asteroid mining craft. Zvezda even managed to contribute a little, with her account on the long-burn capabilities of their latest engine line. But soon after that, the royal briefing was finished, the department budgets repeated, priorities for the next year decided, and – with many murmured discussions amongst themselves – the hungry ponies began to flood out of the hall. Zvezda tried to stand in the door and wait for Cherry to catch up, but the torrent was unrelenting and pushed her along. Only outside the great marble doorway of the lecture hall could she pause, and wait in the cobbled street for her friend to emerge.
If there was one word to describe the scene outside, it would be 'busy' – though the initial upheaval caused by the arrival of the enormous pegasus city into the air just above their heads had since ebbed away, the skies were still crowded enough with traffic, be it airships, triplanes, or just pegasi-pulled carriages. The presence of Sturmberg itself, on the other hoof, seemed oddly mundane. Seen from below, it was almost like an everyday overcast sky, which Sankt-Lunburg enjoyed often enough; and it was only upon a closer inspection that one noticed the hundred thousand metric tonne structures built into those clouds, hanging just above everypony's heads. Thankfully, unlike most pieces of pony engineering, these particular constructs were held to somewhat more stringent standards.
Eventually, Cherry did show up, trailed by half a dozen secretaries and assistants that were busily noting down her every word. With an apologetic tip of the hat to Zvezda, the pegasus remained with her retinue for a few moments longer, finishing off the long list of decisions; and then, with a sudden stamp of the hoof, she sent them off, and they scattered into the air. Finally free, she slowly trotted up to Zvezda, and the two hugged.
„Thanks so much for waiting,“ Cherry whispered into her ear. Zvezda tried to smile back, she really did; but underneath the crushing pressure of the pegasus' hooves, it was hard enough to maintain consciousness, never mind attempt cognitive function. It was only mere seconds before permanent brain damage would set in that the hold loosened, and Zvezda managed to wriggle herself free of the choke.
Breathing deeply through what little remained of her shattered windpipe, she slowly regained control of her vocal chords. To buy some time, she nodded towards the enormous floating islands of Sturmberg, just above their heads. „Arrival was quite a show,“ she eventually smiled, however weakly. „I couldn't tear Starlet away from the window!“
„Ah! Our little zvezduschka!“ Cherry grinned as she looked around the active street, and waved for a taxi. „How's she doing?“
„Fine, fine,“ Zvezda reassured, joining in the search for a taxi. And she smiled, too: Even after all these years, that nickname never stopped being amusing. „Reading lots of books, as always.“
„She like that encyclopaedia I sent?“
„Oh, did she ever! Instead of bedtime stories, I have to keep reading her astronomy articles now.“
Cherry nodded back, obviously satisfied. „Good, good. This stuff runs in the family, you know.“
The sudden arrival of an air coach, towed by a pair of pegasi in grey uniforms, interrupted their conversation. Letting Zvezda board first, Cherry climbed in after her and sat in the seat opposite, then commanded they be taken straight to Zvezda's apartment. The pegasi set out immediately, and as the ground fell away underneath them, she smiled back at her friend. For about a minute, nopony said anything. It wasn't awkward or anything; just two friends, reunited, and lost in memories.
„So, what does she want to be?“ the pegasus eventually broke the pleasant silence. „Equenaut? Or rocket designer?“
„Neither, if you'd believe it!“
Cherry raised an eyebrow. „I thought she liked astronomy?“
„She sure does, but not in that sense,“ Zvezda shook her head, looking off into the distant landscape below. „Like, she's bored to death with the numbers and maths. But you start just telling her a story about all the stuff out there, or show some pictures, and she falls so quiet you wouldn't believe it.“
However, Cherry just grinned widely at the explanation. „Sounds like a plain normal filly to me!“ she exclaimed enthusiastically, tapping her on the shoulder, „Princess knows, I certainly didn't care 'bout maths at that age. I do think this flying circus made your expectations a bit stilted, my dear Zvezda!“
Something in all these eager, theatrical mannerisms was strongly reminding Zvezda of the old Mr. Skies. Not that it was a bad thing or anything; just a bit of a contrast with her memories. Made her wonder how much she herself had changed.
How everything else had changed.
Meanwhile, casting a quick check at the golden watch around her hoof, Cherry stretched back in her seat. „And how's the ol' sire doing?“
„Well, you know,“ Zvezda shrugged back, „Keeping 'round the house. Buying things, fixing things. Same old, same old.“
„Never shutting up about air-yachts?“
Hearing the trigger word, Zvezda exploded. „Oh, don't you even mention those! I once thought the train thing was bad, but this… dear Celestia, and that look on his face whenever he sees one fly over! If I didn't keep a lid on the bank account, you can bet he'd sell our whole apartment just to get one!“
Cherry nodded along all the way through; obviously, all stallions were the same. Eventually, she smiled warmly, „You know, all you have to do is ask. I mean, if he really won't shut up about it, I'm sure I could-“
„Nope,“ Zvezda quickly cut her off, before anything was even hinted at. „Thanks for the offer, but nope. If we ever get one, it's gonna to be through honest work. Maybe it won't be as stylish or big as some others; but it's gonna be ours.“
„Say no more, say no more,“ Cherry quickly dropped the tangent, and looked at the distant city, passing by underneath them. Noticing the carriage was now already descending again, however, she quickly returned to Zvezda:
„Tell you what, though – we don't see each other anywhere near often enough. And by some impossible stroke of luck, my agenda free all evening today. What if we get together for dinner, kids and all, and go to someplace fancy? You won't be insulted by that, will you?“
Zvezda smiled back. „Only if we split the bill.“
With a gentle bump, the carriage touched down on the cobbled road of a wide riverside avenue, fairly quiet this time of day. As it came to a quick stop, Zvezda exchanged one last hurried hug with her friend, then flipped the taxi ponies a few coins from her saddlebags and promptly hopped off. She turned around, and waved as the carriage took back to the skies; in response, Cherry only tipped her tall hat, adding a confident smile.
The carriage soon disappeared above the heavy clouds of Sturmberg, and Zvezda turned away again. She trotted up the stairs of brickwork flat, and the grandfatherly guardspony in the lobby smiled as he opened the door and called the lift for her. Seeing his tall red hat standing upside down on the doorside desk, she quickly threw in a coin as he was looking away, then smiled graciously as the platform arrived and he held open the gate.
On her way to the third floor – she felt like such a spoiled pony for not just using the stairs, but that old guard at the entrance always seemed so happy to be able to call the lift for her – she quickly sorted through her saddlebags again, and pulled out a particularly heavy book. But there wasn't even time to check it was the right one; the moment the platform had stopped, her little filly was already shooting out the apartment door and into her face, like a small grey rocket.
„Muuuuuummy!“ Starlet cried, arcing through the air.
Zvezda's eyes widened at the sight of the incoming projectile. „Whoa, whoa, whoa!“ she hollered, quickly dropping the book and catching her daughter in mid-air. „Be more careful, you silly filly!“ she then promptly reprimanded the small pony, lowering her to back to the ground.
The over-excited filly seemed to be paying no attention to her words, however. Her interests were more focused on the thickly-bounded volume Zvezda had just dropped:
„Is this for me? Is this for me?“ she squealed, hopping all about with the cutest little smile in the world you could possibly imagine. Zvezda gave a slow, tired nod, and the filly literally vanished from her sights in a millisecond; taking the book away with her. Looking up at Ray, who was leaning against the door of their apartment, she shook her head in disbelief:
„What's up with her? She ate a whole bag of sugar or something?“
Obviously still amused by the previous scene, the chestnut stallion shrugged. „I dunno. Been like that all day. Must be that thing hanging in the skies.“
Remembering Cherry's many antics at the Cosmodrome, from way back, Zvezda rolled her eyes. Great. Just great. That mare's contagious.
Despite little Starlet's unexpected bout of sudden hyperactivity, the remainder of the day nevertheless passed by fairly uneventfully. Zvezda spent most of it in bed, lying comfortably under the fluffy blankets and simply enjoying the time off work, reading her trashy adventure novels. Meanwhile, Ray lay next to her, reading his train magazines. Occasionally, their daughter would suddenly gallop into the room and jump onto the bed, startling them both; but these visits were brief, and she would only ever stop to ask for the meaning of a new word she had just read, before flying off again.
But before long, the sun began to set, the phone rang, and Zvezda had to painfully drag herself out of bed to begin prettying up, at least a little. Ray had it simple: The hat he had inherited from his grandfather, a random tie, and that was it. Her own choice of clothing was a bit more varied, but eventually, she simply picked the first decently-looking, vaguely-formal set that fit – a comfortable vanilla dress along with a low saddle and fitting bonnet – then brushed her mane over a couple of times. Starlet, on the third hoof, was obviously a lost cause, and Zvezda was just happy enough the filly was relatively clean.
Perhaps surprisingly, the place Cherry had chosen was not some eccentric millionaires' recluse; much to the contrary, it was a small, homely restaurant built into the side of one of the lower clouds in Sturmberg, a family business, and boasting a simply stunning view of Sankt-Lunburg's nightly skyline from a hundred metres above. But before she could spend even a second admiring this magnificent sight, her entrance had already been registered:
„Zvez! Over here!“ Cherry shouted from across the restaurant, sitting at the end of a long table with her husband and two fillies. Seeing her there like that, dressed not in a rigid business suit but a comfortable white dress and waving merrily, Zvezda initially grinned; only to then realize, in some irritation, that the old mare had reserved an entire, long, row of tables, about fifty places in all (essentially half the restaurant) just for the seven of them.
Well, it's the thought that counts, she shrugged to herself, navigating her way through the few free tables that remained. Cherry met her halfway through, and two hugged again, if more briefly than before. Afterwards, it was time for introductions:
„Ray, meet Reinhardt. Reinhardt, Ray,“ Cherry beamed, standing aside to let her husband through; a stately faint-blue pegasus in his early forties, with unusually sharp wings and looking very dignified in his black flight-frock. He bowed curtly, yet respectfully, to Ray, who returned the gesture (albeit with far less élan). The stallion's almost regal posture seemed to pose a stark contrast to Ray's more earthly qualities, and for a second, Zvezda worried just how well the two would get on.
„Charmed,“ Reinhardt meanwhile announced, speaking with a distinct Manehattan accent and smiling widely. „I've been informed you are quite the expert on locomotive engineering. Perchance this knowledge extends to yacht motors as well? I merely ask, because I've been having the most burdensome time with ours.“
„Are we talking the four hundred series here?“ Ray quickly posed, interest slowly rising in his voice. „Or five hundred?“
„In fact, it's the new eight-cylinder model. Not even on the markets yet; a private present from the Konik Motorwerks president, you see.“
Ray raised an eyebrow in suspicion. „Eight cylinder? Back on the tracks, we've always had the biggest trouble with those! Sure, they work fine the first few runs, but then your regulator starts drifting out of phase because of the dust, and the whole thing croaks. Now you see, if that's the case, you usually have to…“
Or perhaps, they'd get on just perfectly. Exchanging a sideways grin with Cherry, Zvezda let the two stallions draw away, their discussion about regulators and piston-based whatnots rapidly mounting.
Surprisingly enough, it was the kids that proved to be the bigger problem, even though they weren't raising a hubbub. The little hyperactive Starlet, though she was bravely holding back her impulses, seemed to want little to do with either of Cherry's impeccably-dressed and well-behaved fillies, who were both keeping to their side of the table. Instead, the little pony was behaving strangely quiet as she blankly stared forwards, and it took a while before Zvezda realized she was breathlessly watching the television screen, built into the far wall of the restaurant. For one reason or another, the screen was tuned into SkiesTV, and running some footage of the Cosmodrome; seeing places where mummy worked seemed interesting enough for the little filly, so Zvezda let her be, at least for the moment.
„Anyway, how's life nowadays?“ Cherry floated, still trying to select something from the lengthy wine list. „Anything exciting going on in Lunburg?“
Zvezda shrugged, sparing only a single glance to the complicated foreign names printed next to each bottle before she decided for water instead. „Not much to say, really. Same old, same old. Deadlines, budgets, boring design meetings. Contractors've fallen behind on the rangefinder delivery again, so everything's kinda-“
Cherry's soft smile interrupted her.
„Right. I guess I do think about the job too much,“ Zvezda shook her head, glancing guiltily in Ray's direction and reminding herself to forgive him whenever he'd raise that point again. Sneaking a slice from one of the small bread baskets set up on the table, she slowly continued, „But in my defence, there's not much else going on. Starlet's getting good grades. Ray's keeping the house in order. What more do you want?“
„My, my, you do need some more excitement in your life, girl!“ Cherry enthusiastically prodded her on the shoulder, grinning. „I know you don't want an air-yacht, but what about a holiday? I can get my hooves on some good tickets for this undersea cruise 'round the world, if you want. You get to stay on a huge submarine and everything, it's pretty awesome. I bet zvezduschka would love it.“
„Well, maybe. I dunno. This new schedule's exciting enough. And the new quadro-“
„Look, mummy! Look!“ Starlet suddenly exclaimed, pulling on Zvezda's tail. „It's Dee! Dee's on Tee-Vee!“
Following the filly's urgent gesticulation, Zvezda turned her head towards the round screen on the far wall. And true enough, the young mare was there, standing in front of a huge engine test stand and talking to the camera crew of the latest space documentary. They had even been considerate enough to flash her name on the screen: Dinky D., BSc. (Asst. Jnr. Engineer)
„You never told me Dee was going to be on the telly, mum! Are you going to be there, too?“
Ignoring the question, she instead patted Starlet on the head. The filly gave her a brief insistent look, but then the scene on the screen changed, and her little head swivelled right back.
„…now, how exactly can this crazy idea work, you ask?“ Dinky posed rhetorically, marching down the concrete corridors of the engine research laboratories. She stopped at a large hanging poster of the periodic table, and smiled, „Well, that's just the thing! For the longest time, ponies thought the tiniest thing in the universe was an atom. They were supposed to be the building bricks of everything: Put the right ones together in a certain way, and you get, say, water. Put different ones together in another way, and you get a pony! And that was how things were taught in schools across Equestria. But then, one day, a very clever pony suddenly stopped to think about all this, and asked: What if atoms are made from smaller things, too? And if they are, what power holds them together?“
„Thank you,“ Cherry meanwhile smiled to the waiter as their drinks were delivered, then, grasping the glass in her fore hooves and swirling in under her nose, she turned back to the table. „You know, little zvezduschka does raise a fair point. Isn't the big boss herself going to show up, too?“
Chortling, Zvezda quickly shook her head. „Sweet Celestia, no! Haven't you ever seen me on camera? I'd just embarrass the entire department. Much better to let somepony like Dinky do it – she may be pretty new, but she's great at this stuff.“
„Well, with a good enough crew, everypony's equal,“ Cherry grinned, then suddenly stopped, as if she were weighing her next words. With a sudden conspiratorial smile, she suddenly continued:
„Besides, who said anything about a boring documentary? How 'bout a film?“
Zvezda stammered. Twice. „What the-“
„Don't you think the story would just write itself?“ Cherry quickly continued, lowering her glass to the table and leaning in closer. There was a glint in her eyes, as if she was presenting some grand, amazing idea, „A young, impressionable mare from the far east, bright but penniless, answers a strange job offering in the papers… arrives at a secret research facility, privately overseen by the Princess herself… and though everything stands in her way, from the insane bosses and their schedules to the lack of wages, she braves the odds: Not only building Equestria's first space ship, but also saving its first equenaut! You've got both the huge epic story, and a sweet, down-to-earth protagonist you can relate to. Would be a great summer blockbuster, don't you think?“
Zvezda sat still, face utterly blank. Her thoughts were simply in too much of a jumble from this sudden proposal. And, as much as she was loathe to admit it, the idea did seem more than appealing: A way to share her story, both with those alive now, and the generations that would follow. She'd never become a world-famous figure like Cherry, but she'd get her name out in the books. She'd be remembered.
„Well? What do you think?“
Wordlessly, she watched the documentary. On-screen, the lengthy scientific explanations had now finished, and a music-accompanied montage was playing. Equestria's premier nucleonic engine, an enormous beast of world-quality steel piping and powerful aetheric conduits, was now being ferried out of the lab and into a secluded corner of the desert, where it was prepared for testing. In reality, this had been a month-long process, involving over two thousand ponies from a hundred separate companies and universities, not to mention the two million metric tonnes of paperwork that Zvezda had to sign. But here, with a little editing magic, it was all compressed to about twenty seconds of rapid cuts and fast-paced music.
It finished, and there was Dinky again, standing on a tall dune a few hundred metres away from the gleaming cylinder of the engine. Busy engineers and technicians were galloping all around, carrying pieces of equipment and blocks of notes. The air shimmered with the steady glow of arcane fields, powerful enchantments that could withstand any accidental release of radiation; up to and including a complete reactor meltdown.
„Well, here we are! Finally!“ the young mare grinned to the camera, looking all around, „It took a lot of work, but the Third Sister nuclear lightbulb prototype is finally ready for its first firing. Four times as efficient as the best hydrogen engine, and almost as strong in thrust. Pretty cool, huh?“
„Hay, there've been worse films made, right?“ Cherry tried again. „Come, 'Vez. You did all the work on that flight. Won't you accept a little token of gratitude from your dear old friend?“
Zvezda looked at the screen. She looked back to Cherry. She looked to her little Starlet, watching the documentary in breathless anticipation.
„I didn't, though,“ she smiled sadly, swerving her eyes downwards. „Do all the work, I mean. What about all those hundreds of other ponies? And the thousands, all across Equestria? You can't make a film about them all.“
„But don't you think they should get a figurehead, at least?“ Cherry argued passionately, „I agree, we'll never remember everypony that deserves it; there's just not enough space in the books. Does that mean we should just forget every last one?“
Zvezda shrugged, eyes off into the distance. „I'll always remember what I did. You'll remember. Our kids will remember. Isn't that enough?“
Meanwhile, Dinky had just accepted a pair of brass protective goggles from a fellow engineer, and carefully put them on as the countdown began. If she looked carefully, Zvezda could just about see herself in the picture: A thin grey smudge, standing atop the control platform in the background and observing the test intently.
„This one's for you, mum,“ Dinky uttered to the camera, just before the count hit zero.
The screen flared white, and righteous atomic fire spilled forth from the massive nozzle, searing the sand below. Even once the chaos of ignition subsided, the pillar of searing light continued expanding itself in a vast plume, for a second threatening to tip out of control; but then it suddenly jumped back, brought under control by equation and circuit. All around, the protective fields danced with a million small lights as they struggled to contain the incidental bursts of radiation.
And yet, despite the wild nature of the forces involved, this sheer primal rage of nuclear forces, it was a perfectly safe and controlled sight: Not once in the entire two-minute duration had the counters dipped even slightly into the red, and the temperature readings all remained perfectly within the calculated bounds.
Zvezda closed her eyes, vividly remembering what the test felt like from the front lines. The sheathing magic might have been powerful, but it could never take away the full impact of the raging inferno, the searing heat and light. And although she'd never voice such blasphemy aloud, in the privacy of her own mind, she had really felt like she was standing in front of her own, private sun.
Her. A simple earth pony. Creating a sun.
Remembering that single moment, she briefly forgot about the world around her.
„Okay, okay,“ Cherry eventually quipped, reaching back for her wine. „Sorry for trying.“
But before Zvezda could even say anything else, the pegasus suddenly tapped on her glass, loudly enough to even pull their husbands away from their intense discussion:
„A toast!“ she then began, raising her glass in the direction of first Zvezda, then the raging torrent of searing, radioactive fire flooding the television screen. „To Zvezda! For bringing light to the world, and our hearts; one checklist at a time!“
„Hear, hear. To Zvezda!“ Reinhardt echoed.
Ray winked. „To Zvezda!“
Looking at the adults all raising their glasses, little Starlet obviously felt a little excluded. Grabbing the nearest empty glass, she flung it wildly into the air:
„To mummy!“ she shrieked excitedly.
And all the night was light.
From the topmost tower of Canterlot, Luna watched the landscape below in quiet fascination. As far as her millennial memory stretched, this scene had always been cold and dark. At the end of every day, the ponies of Equestria would go to sleep, leaving her night behind to be watched only by the moon and stars.
But today, that picture was different. Cheap electric lighting flooded every village, no matter how poor or secluded. Navigation beacons of airships and triplanes criss-crossed the skies, flying low and high. The gigantic steel towers of Manehattan shone through the dark; radio transmissions streaming from them and across the entire country. Warm windows of high-speed passenger trains rocketed along their tracks. In the far off distance, an entire pegasus metropolis was slowly advancing over the mountains, propelled by the glowing tetrahedra of its arcane city-engines. And if she looked carefully – very, very, carefully – she could even see a tiny spot of cold light, shining from the dark half of her waning moon. The trio of equenauts there, squished into their tiny habitation module, were evidently just preparing their dinner.
And yet, despite all this light, there seemed to be a feeling of immeasurable sadness underlining every angle of the scene. Turning her head, she looked to Celestia, standing just off to her side. She, too, was watching the landscape below, the many lights of their rapidly growing kingdom; but, unlike Luna's, her expression was grim and morose. Where her skin once shone brightly enough to blind unprepared ponies, now it was almost grey.
In an attempt to lift her sister's spirits, Luna first lifted up, the nestled herself underneath, the great goddess' wing: Just like she used to do when she was little. The princess smiled, but only a little.
„They grow up so fast, don't they, Tia?“ she whispered, staring at the lights below. „It seems like yesterday they were still figuring out fire.“
Celestia flashed another brief smile; this time, a little wider.
„We still have plenty of time,“ Luna tried further. But she seemed to have hit the wrong chord, and her sister fell glum again:
„A mere two decades after learning to walk, and already they test the door,“ she produced, turning her head to the silent stars above. „Give them two centuries, and they will be gone. What good is a single ageing sun, when you command a thousand?“
„They'll never leave completely, you know. You brought them up too well for that.“
But nothing seemed to break her sister's spell. „I wonder how they'll remember us, Luna? Our bouts, our quarrels… we were so far from perfect.“
„Nopony's perfect. I think they understand that.“
„I can only hope.“
A silence dropped over the two sisters as they stared out into the shining night. Though they had gone through their ups and downs before, Luna had never seen her sister this morose before. Not in such a prolonged, chronic way. As a result, there was little in her vast banks of experience she could draw from here.
She looked back at her moon, at the three hungry equenauts on its surface. Judging by the sporadic bursts of radio signal streaming from their craterside base, the only hot plate aboard had broken, and there weren't enough spare parts to fix it; so they were using the mass spectrometer oven instead. From their laughing comments, it seemed to taste rather good.
Improvising. Luna smiled.
„Well, nopony can say you did a bad job,“ she announced, playfully prodding her sister on the shoulder and nudging her in the direction of the moon. „They've sure grown up to be smart ponies.“
„Our little ponies,“ Celestia whispered again, still as quietly as before. But this time, Luna noticed there was the fragment of a smile in her eyes.
„Little, no more.“