„Zvez, gimme a hoof here, will ya?“
With a quick nod, Zvezda left the plans she was studying on the floor of her office, then opened the door and trotted over to where Sara was standing. Or at least, attempted to, as her new labcoat almost immediately snagged on a jutting piece of metal, got stuck, and propelled her with great force straight towards the ground.
As the workshop around her exploded in laughter, Zvezda slowly got back on her four hooves, then silenced the assembly crew with a stern gaze:
„Honestly, girls! I'm gone for a week, and everything goes to hay!“
The workshop around her was, indeed, in a state of absolute chaos; which was surprising, given its sheer volume and size. Nevertheless, her friends had managed to circumvent that setback whilst she was gone, and had gone ahead to fill every square yard of available surface area – floor, walls, and ceiling – with cables, rivet guns, boxes of spare screws, soldering irons, large segments of pipe, numerous pressure vessels, electronics components, and many other things Zvezda couldn't even begin to identify. Trying to navigate it was like cutting one's way through a jungle.
„Who was responsible for the organization here? Huh? Huh?“ she demanded, pushing away cables that hung down from the ceiling like vines, „And whose idea was it to leave all this until after I came back?“
„Look, we tried to clean it up, honest!“ Sara protested, gesturing to the components all around, „But the stuff just kept piling in! Every day, we got four more boxes arriving from some new workshop we've never heard of before!“
„So, you hung it on the ceiling?“ Zvezda asked in disbelief, staring at a small cobweb of electronics – quite literally, it was a circuit of coils and wiring so densely tangled, it stuck together despite not being soldered anywhere – menacingly hanging from one corner of the room.
„Well, we had our hooves busy just getting it through the door fast enough,“ Blues shrugged, hovering near the ceiling of the hangar as she tried to attach a heavy glass condenser to a badly-machined fitting near the capsule's control panels. She was holding it in such a haphazard manner, it came as no surprise when it slipped from her hooves not two seconds later, and shattered loudly against the floor, momentary electrical arcs sparking through the air as bubbling yellow acid and shards of glass splashed absolutely everywhere.
Zvezda did not react. She simply stood there for a few moments, staring in utter shock at what had just happened, letting her thick goggles, helmet and labcoat silently fizzle as they absorbed the blast. Then, she suddenly burst out laughing, and the rest of her friends followed. Appleloosa was an interesting experience, sure enough. But it was good to be back home.
„You ponies are utterly insane!“ she announced towards the heavens, grinning widely, „But that's why I love you. Come on, let's get this stuff organized and back on track.“
Her friends nodded back eagerly, and Zvezda began supervising the lengthy process. Proceeding systematically, from the top of the room towards the bottom, she commanded her little team: Sara levitated the smaller and more delicate electronics, while Blues and Terra lofted the heavier piping. Meanwhile, Zvezda herself scurried all around the room, clearing up space for the other ponies to deposit their cargo. Soon enough, several neat piles began forming in the four corners of the room; one for the atmospheric regenerator, one for manoeuvring thruster piping, a shelf for the control electronics…
As the three mares were straining to carry one of the heavy double-walled nitrogen tanks across the room, however, a small speaker in the manager's office suddenly crackled to life. Zvezda first ensured that her friends lowered the heavy, yet delicate pressure vessel to the ground safely, then gestured them over for a listen.
„…I repeat, this is extraordinary announcement from Director herself,“ the Commissar's voice finished, then the little box fell silent for a few seconds. Zvezda used the time to anxiously glance around at her friends: Everypony knew the Director had been gone for the past few days, fighting things out in Canterlot. The rumours over the breakfast table were so wild and varied, she couldn't decide what to believe. Now that she was actually here, what news would she bring?
„Red, is this thing on?“ came a hushed whisper, followed by a slightly embarrassed clearing of the throat. „Ponies of Cape Coltaveral. My comrades. This is your Director, Wilhelmina Brown, speaking. As you are no doubt aware, the Assembly had just passed a new proposal concerning our facility yesterday. After a lengthy debate…“
„Come on, come on, just get to it!“ Blues snapped at the little speaker, fidgeting around impatiently.
„I bet we're getting a paycut.“
„Stop your worrying,“ Terra waved her hoof, „You've heard Celestia's huge speech all those weeks back. She'd never let such a huge thing get cut, not after-“
„Shut up, shut up! I can't hear!“
„…has been cancelled.“
„What?“ Zvezda shrieked, looking up at the other ponies, unsure whether she should be confused or shocked.
„That can't be right!“ Sara rolled her eyes, then faced the two pegasi, who were now twittering excitedly to each other, „Shut up already! We can't even hear what's going on!“
„I know this must come as a shock to a great many of you,“ Wilhelmina's slightly garbled voice continued through the speaker. Even through the distortion, however, Zvezda could hear her voice was shaking. „The things many of you had done for this project have been, and I do not use the word lightly, incredible. The constant overtime, the sheer effort and strain, and the willingness to sacrifice your own safety for a reach at the stars… no ponies have ever given as much to a mere industrial project as you lot have. Which is exactly what makes my next words all the harder.“
Even Terra and Blues have stopped their chatter now. Everypony was staring at the small metal grille of the speaker, with no idea of what would come next. Meanwhile, a conflated series of emotions ran through Zvezda's heart; she had no idea what to feel. Over the past year, this strange place, the amazing things they were doing here, all of this had become an everyday occurrence to her… and now it would come grinding to a halt, just like that? What the hay was supposed to happen now? Rocket engineering specialists weren't exactly in high demand around Equestria. Where would she go? What would she do? She didn't even-
„Comrades,“ Wilhelmina's voice stuttered, „Some of you, some will just shrug and carry on. For many of you, this is just a job. Just an annoying eight hours a day that you spend, to feed and clothe your family. This speech, then, isn't for you. It is for all the dedicated ponies who had sacrificed so much for this project. Who truly believe.“
„As I said, I hate what I have to ask of you, especially after you've all given so much. But, look at your own work, now. Look at the things you're carrying in your hooves, that are lying on the ground around you. Think back to what was there, over a year ago. Probably a hammer, or perhaps some protractors… but now, there's armour plating that can bear the full brunt of dragonfire, and survive. Computeronic circuits, which can carry out an entire five operations per second. Combustion chambers, that can carry one hundred tonnes of rocket ten times above the limit of feeble pony wings. And who has made all of this? It was you, comrades. You alone.“
Though not quite sure where this was going, Zvezda couldn't help but nod along to the Director's speech. Glancing up from the speaker, she examined the steel colossus towering at the middle of their concrete workshop. A giant metal skeleton, vaguely resembling a dragon head, both in shape and size; assembled more precisely than the finest locomotive, cast more purely than the Princesses' golden crowns. She looked down at her earth pony hooves. Four simple things, quite devoid of magic, or any other powers… and yet, what have they made!
„You have already made the impossible happen, a thousand times over. We have all gone so far… we cannot give up now. No matter what a few haughty nobles say. After all, all they could ever do was cut off our funding! Look around you, now, the testing racks and prototype beds already there; it is almost enough to make a full rocket.“
„Is she crazy, or she crazy?“ Terra pipped up, only to be quickly hushed by Sara.
„And it is not like we are completely without allies,“ the Director continued, „Mr. Skies?“
„Hello, everypony!“ came an enthusiastic shout over the speaker, „And especially hello, my little Cherry! I hope you're doing well!“
Zvezda couldn't help but giggle to herself, trying to imagine her friend right now, surrounded by all the other equenauts. She must be so embarrassed!
„Anyway, yes. As of yesterday, Skies Precision AG is no more. Nationalised, every single bit of it! Two hundred years of a fully-independent family business, now gone way down the drain!“
Whaa? Things seemed to be happening so fast today, Zvezda's brain was not keeping up. At all.
„I've kept a bit of the money for myself, sure, just enough to get by, but the rest is all yours! So make sure you don't spend it all on drinks! Wilhelmina?“
„I think I speak for all of us, Mr. Skies, when I thank you from the bottom of my heart for what you have done for us today. Without you, we'd be finished. Simple as that.“
So there's a hope after all?
A new voice sounded on the speaker. Zvezda could distantly place her as one of the other Chief Designers, but wasn't quite sure which:
„But even with this great sacrifice, there's still a problem. You must realize, ponies, rockets are expensive. Incredibly, amazingly, breathtakingly expensive. And even though we can recycle half of the equipment from what we already have, there's still that other half left. As Wilhelmina said before, we feel bad of asking this. But if we want to succeed, all of us have to make sacrifices, simple as that. Therefore,“ there was a brief pause, and everypony leant in closer towards the speaker, not even daring to breathe, „Effective today, all of your wages are to be indefinitely suspended. Janitor, doctor, equenaut, it doesn't matter who you are, we just can't afford to pay you.“
As the shell dropped, not even Zvezda could resist a brief gasp as she glanced around at her friends. She found them all in similar states of shock and surprise. Sure, sacrifice's one thing. But this?
Wilhelmina, no doubt anticipating their collective reaction, quickly stepped in again:
„I realize that, for many of you, this will be the deciding factor. You all have families to feed, children to support through university… nopony should have to feel any loyalty towards our facility. Nopony will be shamed if they leave. It is merely a job, after all. But, before you decide, my friends, I urge you to think of what we've done so far. Of how little is left, of just how much we can achieve. Just a few more months, comrades! A few more months, and this will all be over. Think of Mr. Skies, and his family business. Think of-“
With a brief flash of magic, Sara disconnected the Director's impassioned speech halfway through, leaving Zvezda and the two pegasi looking at a dead speaker. They turned around to look at her; but the unicorn simply stood in the door of the manager's office, silent, staring at the workshop beyond.
„Work for free?“ she suddenly uttered, setting out towards the ship, „They expect us to work for free?“
„Shut up,“ she snapped, then slowly looked over the length of the skeletal steel frame, „All the stupid overtime, all the damned menial labour, and they want me to work for no money! Our family shop's almost bankrupt, we're halfway through renovating our house, and they want me to work for free?“
The unicorn levitated a few insulated cables out from a nearby shelf, then began spinning them around the capsule:
„I bet there's a thousand of these stupid things we have to connect. Stupid, fiddly, little things… each takes half an hour to get connected just right, and they want me to put a thousand of these together, out of sheer good will?“
Zvezda stared at her friend as she spun the cables around the room at an ever increasing velocity. Behind her, Terra and Blues peeked out from the office door, continually flinching, not daring to speak in case the unicorn would lose her control and send the heavy cables crashing through the walls.
Quite abruptly, they were all stopped in mid-air, then began slowly approaching the Star Walker, each from a different angle. As they drew closer, they bent and angled, conforming to the complex structure and manoeuvring around obstructions.
„Zvez, where's that tape?“ Sara demanded, speaking in the same voice as before, concentrating as she fitted the high-voltage cables carefully around the bare metal skeleton. Zvezda stood still, staring at her.
Seeing her not respond, the unicorn turned around angrily:
„Get me that stupid tape!“ she shouted, „If I'm gonna be working for free, it's not going to be on stupid overtime! Hurry up!“
„You sold it?“ Cherry asked, standing in the open doorway of the chief designers' office, and still quite stunned from the recent revelations, „Like, all of it?“
Her father nodded enthusiastically as he paced around the small meeting room, glancing at the blueprints and sheets filled with numbers that were strewn about everywhere. Around him, in the little free space the room offered, the designers themselves worked steadfastly, going through calculations and looking up reference values in countless thick binders.
„But, wasn't it like doing really well?“ she insisted, advancing up to him, „How are you gonna pay for Rosie's college now? What about-“
„Cherry, stop worrying about these things!“ he beamed, lifting his head from the sketch of a rocket engine, then taking to the air and reaching his fore hooves out for a hug, „Daddy's worked it all out before selling the silly thing. I've made sure to keep enough to pay for everything. You don't think I am stupid, do you?“
„Of course not!“ she quickly retorted, accepting the hug. Still, the concerns multiplied in her mind. „But what about the-“
„Look here, sweetie,“ he cut her off, withdrawing the hug and proceeding to look her straight in the eyes, „I've had so much money lying around, I didn't know what to do with it! Every day, I'd get up in the morning, and my butler would inform me how many millions we've made only through breakfast. It got to the point that everything became just numbers. Virtual things, with no impact on my actual life. And what do you think I care about more: Having bigger numbers, or seeing my daughter happy?“
„Dad,“ Cherry whispered, trying to fight back the tears, „You don't even know if it is going to be me! I told you, the other ponies are so much better at this. You've got Bliz, and Ala, and Dash, and-“
„Come on, now!“ he ran his hoof through her mane, just like he used to when she was little, „You know as well as I, all it's gonna take is one success. One success, one pony in space, and the money will come flooding right back.“
„Not to mention,“ Lyuka entered the conversation with a stifled cough, „We just got resignations from Ala and Chasse, with Skyflare adding she's 'seriously considering' one. Basically, that just leaves Dash, Shepard, and miss Skies here. One out of three isn't so bad a chance, is it now?“
„See?“ he smiled at her, „I'll get to watch my little Cherry fly above the skies, no matter how long it takes!“
„You're the best,“ Cherry whispered into his ear, then completely broke down. She leant her head against his neck, and let the happy tears flow, not even caring any more.
Best. Dad. In. History.
The tender family moment lasted for a few moments longer, before it was broken by Sequine:
„What now?“ the white unicorn asked, looking up from her stack of notes.
„That's a very good question!“ Mr. Skies exclaimed, suddenly tearing away from Cherry and, landing back on the ground, marching across the room to begin checking up on every Chief Designer in turn, looking over their shoulders as if to double-check their calculations.
„Your donation was huge,“ Wilhelmina slowly began, frowning as she crossed out several lines of equations and restarted her sums again, „And we've got a lot of equipment already on order. Even then, we can't possibly go through with our original plan. There's barely enough to launch one rocket, nevermind five!“
„Well, surely then, we just launch the one!“ the pegasus grinned, „That's all we need, no?“
Lyuka muttered something incomprehensible underneath her breath, then looked at him, „There's so many things we still haven't tested: Staging! Extra-atmospheric performance! Even the liquid engines!“
„You have all these calculations here,“ he replied, gesturing towards the metric tonnes of ink and paper that littered the room, „And the best engineers in Equestria. Don't you trust your own designs?“
„Look, let me put it this way,“ she sighed, then flew up to him, „When this thing is finished, it's going to be a little tin can – perhaps with your own daughter inside – wrapped in two hundred kilos of explosives, sitting atop sixteen tonnes of liquid high explosive, suspended above ninety more tonnes of explosive, held together by a staging ring made from explosives, and steered by the most temperamental computeronic system this side of existence. Do you really want to risk lighting all that off, in front of half the ponies in Equestria, untested? Bearing in mind what happened the last time we tried just that?“
„Look, I get that it blew up, alright? And let me tell you, saying this isn't any easier for me than it is for you. Celestia knows how much I love my little Cherry,“ he glanced in her direction, and Cherry's heart melted again. „But look at the numbers. We can either launch a test rocket, or a real one. It's your call.“
His absolute announcement made the chief designers pause, and turn back to their calculations, perhaps in some meagre hope of cutting some costs somewhere and making all the money work out. But of course, there was no such way. Cherry looked at them work for a while, then stepped forward:
„Listen, Director, I know you want to keep us safe,“ she began, making Wilhelmina look away from her notes, „But let's face it. I didn't sign up to be safe, and I guess the others didn't either. And let me tell you, a fiery end atop a hundred tonnes of burning rocket? It's a lot more awesome than freezing to death during a stupid training exercise.“
The reminder of their first near-disaster made the designers pause for a while longer. Eventually, Wilhelmina looked around the circle of present ponies.
„Well, what do you want us to do?“ she asked, „Lyuka's right. There's simply too much we don't-“
„Actually, since there is so much discussion,“ Sunny suddenly interrupted, voice dripping with sarcasm, „Let's put this to a vote! Everypony up for this absolutely suicidal, all-or-nothing desperate attempt that will most likely blow up on the pad and take everything we've ever worked for with it, along with all our loved ones?“
Cherry waved her hoof enthusiastically as she hopped on the spot, much to Sunny's apparent chagrin. However, her spirits soon dropped as she noticed that nopony else was joining in; all the chief designers were just staring at her in contemplative silence, along with even her dad.
„Come on!“ she urged them on, „It's not like there's much choice, is there?“
„There is always a choice,“ Wilhelmina uttered solemnly with her eyes fixated on her notes, almost too quiet to hear, „And it is not mine. I cannot, in good conscience, make a decision which I know will almost certainly lead to another pony's violent death. I simply cannot. Without all the prerequisite test-launches, the chances of success are simply too low.“
Cherry waved her wings in front of the Director, „Um, hello? I've got these! If anything happens, I can just pop open the hatch and fly out of there!“
„What if the accident occurs ten thousand hooves above the surface?“ Wilhelmina argued, still refusing to look Cherry in the eyes, „What if something goes wrong during re-entry? The hatch doesn't open? The rocket explodes on the pad?“
„What if I choke on a berry eating lunch?“ Cherry quickly fired back, „As far as stupid deaths go, a giant burning rocket's pretty damn cool. And even if-“
„Now, now,“ her dad rapidly interjected, cutting her off before she could get to the really morbid stuff, „What's all this talk about dying? We're gonna make it, simple as that!“
„I wish I could share your enthusiasm, Count, I really do,“ Wilhelmina smiled sadly, „But the problem is, we don't even know what can go wrong! Last time we tried a launch, we never even guessed a mere ignition delay could destroy everything, and that was with just five boosters in the first stage. The orbital rocket will have nine!“
„And a second stage, with a completely untested liquid engine,“ Lyuka added.
„And I don't care!“ Cherry waved her hooves around again, „How many times do I have to tell you?“
„Miss Skies, with all due respect, you are not only one to decide,“ Redstone snapped, „It might not even be you in that capsule. Or are you talking for others now, too?“
„Listen here, mister,“ Cherry snapped, relishing in the feeling of finally talking down at her professor, „Out of the famous Equestria Seven, four've already resigned. Which means it's gonna be either me, Bliz, or Dash. And if you know either of those two, you know damned well how they'd answer that question!“
Surprisingly enough, Sequine used that exact moment to toss an old magazine onto the table, one she had dug out from her enormous pile of notes. And on it, right on the front page, posed Rainbow Dash, announcing her sheer commitment to the Programme in bold and flashy font. Seeing the page, Cherry winked at the unicorn. It was nice to see at least one pony here was supporting her.
„Well, yes,“ Wilhelmina sighed, shaking her head as she stared at the magazine, „But suppose we do try it, and then it all blows up on the pad. How do you think we would feel, knowing we literally signed your death warrant?“
„But that could happen anyway!“ Cherry insisted, wings fluttering as she banged her hoof against the table in frustration, „No matter how much testing you do, rockets are never going to be perfectly safe! Like Lyuka said, it's always going to be ten billion tonnes of explosives, sitting on even more explosives, no matter what you do! So we might as well try!“
„Tests won't make it safe, I give you that. But they will make it not suicidal.“
That cut the discussion short again, as Cherry scrambled to find a workable counter-argument; while she worked, however, she couldn't help but notice the conflicted, frustrated looks on the chief designers' faces. They all wanted to do this; this was the moment they've been waiting for ever since everything began. But they couldn't just justify risking another pony's life for that goal, not even if that pony didn't actually mind. It really was all quite stupid.
But these things always are.
In the end, it was Redstone, surprisingly enough, who came up with a solution:
„I suppose,“ he hesitantly began, „Since most of failure scenarios – avoidable ones, of course, not heatshield failure or stuck hatch – involve rocket blowing up on pad, we could just install pressure sensor into base of rocket, and link it directly into capsule electrics. If accident does happen, capsule immediately separates and fires re-entry engines, which carry it away from explosion.“
„But that assumes the system can react quickly enough!“ Wilhelmina protested, still visibly torn between her dream, and the cold, harsh consequences, „And what about all those other failure modes?“
„Best we got,“ Sequine noted, then levitated up a pencil and began writing down some numbers. Cherry had no idea what they meant, but, judging by the subtle nodding of the other designers, they probably were guesstimates of just quick everything could happen.
The other designers looked at the final answer, then at each other, sighed heavily one last time, and the ensuing vote was unanimous; if somewhat hesitant. Smiling in satisfaction, Cherry nodded, then sat back and watched her father quickly take over:
„Let's get this rolling, then! First thing on the list, do we need to order any fuel? We'll need a good hundred tonnes in total, like you mentioned, so I hope we-“
„Fuel's cheap,“ Lyuka shrugged, „We've already got the plant set up. All we need is some ammonia, bleach, a few wagon-loads of sulphuric acid, and we're good to go.“
„Ah, excellent! Indeed, you are right,“ he noted, looking over a cost report lying on the table, „Right, next up is the control computer. How's that coming along?“
„Slow,“ Sequine spoke up from across the table, „Endless loops. Too many branches. Huge mess.“
„Namely, there is issue of making control program fit into memory,“ Redstone added, scanning through some more of his notes, „Especially, we have problem with branching tables. Currently, even after optimization, prototype still requires minimum twenty b-decks. Physical computer allows sixteen.“
The pegasus curled his brow for a while, briefly thinking about the complex issue, then simply burst out laughing:
„Right! Sorry, I can't help with any of that; I don't even understand half those words! But it's just a thinking problem, right? Even if we threw it twice as much money, it wouldn't get solved any faster.“
„Right,“ Redstone nodded, and it was off to the next column.
„Ah, of course, the liquid engine. How's that coming along?“
„A prototype is on its way right now, arriving by rail from the Equestrian Dynamics plant in Manehattan,“ Lyuka began, „However, seeing it's the very first full-scale prototype, it's probably going to fail spectacularly the moment we light it. I estimate-“
„Hang on, I just realized something,“ Redstone suddenly interrupted Lyuka's report, then gestured towards a line in his notes, „Since we are removing all automation from Star Walker anyway, we can completely cancel order LK-5. That frees up enough money to buy one extra 'Sara' stage. And seeing we already have surplus fuel…“
„Hey, you're right!“ Lyuka exclaimed, looking over the page for herself, „That way, we can make at least one test launch! Not a big one, sure, but at least we can try the staging. Of course, we're gonna have to cut some big corners on that one. Use a dummy for the second stage-“
„But that's brilliant!“
Slowly and inconspicuously, Cherry withdrew from the room and closed the door after herself, leaving her dad alone with the designers, letting them excitedly discuss all the really super-important – but equally boring – details by themselves. This was management stuff, not piloting; and the less she'd have to suffer of it, the better.
As she left, however, she smiled to herself. He's had that spark in his eyes today, she noted, thinking back to what just happened, The one he hasn't had ever since Skies AG finally bought out its last rival and the job lost all of its challenge. Running a Space Programme with next to no money, and very little support? Must be great fun for him!
Oh, dad, will you ever change?
Too much was changing, too fast. Once accepted truths were now just memories, and old customs were in flux. Nothing could be relied upon any more. In this time of uncertainty, Wilhelmina subconsciously fell back to safe tradition; her customary afternoon walk through the entire Cosmodrome.
It started off innocently enough, a simple decision to leave her office for a few minutes, just to clear her head from the endless budgetary calculations and get some fresh air. However, before she even realized, her legs had already carried her halfway along the well-trotted path to the equenaut complex; and from there, it was much easier to just finish the rest of the walk, than turn around and go back again.
„Ah! There you are, madam Director!“
It was that doubly-blessed, thrice-damned Mr. Skies, standing in the middle of the path, trying to decipher a confusing signpost at a nearby crossroads and looking quite decidedly lost. Wilhelmina wasn't surprised; the Cape was nothing but rows of identical, sand-blasted concrete bunkers from beginning to end, and unless one knew it well, it was all too easy to get lost. Always in the past, though, one could just ask one of the dozens of ponies that never ceased trotting along the paths, carrying expensive components and veritable mountains of paperwork… but today, the roads were all but silent.
Even with all this, however, seeing the fiery red pegasus wave energetically before proceeding to fly over, she couldn't help but roll her eyes. She had really been hoping for some quiet, to think properly about what had just happened. And with this stallion around, there never was quiet.
„Let me say, am I glad to see you!“ he laughed, landing softly on the ground beside her, then smoothly transitioning into a trot, „I was hoping to try inspecting the laboratories myself, you see, but that's obviously not going to happen. Would you mind terribly if I joined you?“
„Of course not,“ Will lied, forcing a smile, „But if you want to see the labs, they are all the way over there, on the opposite-“
„Oh, I don't really mind what I see!“ he boomed, still enthusiastically examining the imposing bunkers all around, „As long as it's something! Where are you going, anyway?“
„Just the equenaut complex,“ Will sighed, kicking a rock off the path.
„Splendid! I've always wanted to see where my little Cherry works!“
Will nodded curtly, but otherwise didn't respond. The conversation dropped off there, and she concentrated on watching the ground pass slowly below her hooves, while Mr. Skies took in the alien scenery all around, lengthily examining every crane or pump assembly they passed. Unfortunately, not one slowed him down enough to ever leave Wilhelmina alone.
Why do you hate him so much, anyway? Without him, that'd be it for the Programme. Farewell twenty years of work, goodbye Dream! He's not all that bad, is he?
But that's exactly it, isn't it? she mused, looking on as he examined the scrubber plant's row of steel furnaces, housed inside a rickety metal shed right next to the assembly workshops, There's nothing wrong with him!
For Celestia's sake, this stallion was a factory owner! An industrialist! Up until yesterday, he has owned seven weather factories and who knew how many steel mills, each employing entire thousands of ponies, and heading a two hundred years old business. Even amongst the rich, he was the most hardcore of the bunch.
So, how on Equestria could he be that… normal?
„An interesting set-up you've got going on here,“ he meanwhile commented, catching up to Wilhelmina once again after she rounded a corner, „Heavily… err, what's the word… distributed. Supply bunkers and workshops on the very opposite sides of the facility. Is that in case of uncontrolled explosions?“
„Not really,“ she absent-mindedly confided, smiling to herself. That exact explanation was what they always used on the government inspectors and journalists. But seeing as he was neither, she might as well tell him the truth, „Let's just say, when we were moving in, nopony had any idea what to do. So every time we needed more space, we just took the nearest bunker, whatever it was; no planning or anything. Obviously, that ended up in this huge mess, and now you have to trot halfway across the site just to get some extra wires.“
„Oh,“ he raised his eyebrows as he looked around again, then suddenly burst out laughing, „But when the reporters asked, you called it a 'revolutionary workflow process', am I right?“
She nodded subtly, and the bout of laughter intensified even further. Judging by this reaction, Wilhelmina guessed he had done the exact same thing himself, at some point in his past; and imagining this, she couldn't resist cracking a smile of her own.
Noticing she was smiling, however, she quickly stopped herself, then fell back into deep thought. This exact thing was what was bothering her so much here. Talking to him was just so damn normal. He appeared relaxed and easy-going about everything. The stallion had just invested his entire fortune into this burning project, and every hour he was finding more and more things wrong with it; surely, he should be just a little more concerned?
„Anyway, as I was being lost all around the place,“ he began again, completely dropping the old topic, „I thought of a great way to make some more money: Merchandise! Dolls of the equenauts, action figures, model kits, that sort of thing. Won't pay for the rockets, obviously, but should at least help with some of the food and power costs. Honestly, I can't believe you hadn't thought of that earlier…“
„I think Lyuka suggested something similar at some point, but Canterlot refused to fund it. Ticket sales for the launch were about as commercial as they were willing to get. The equenauts had a few magazine and photo deals, yes, but the money went to them, not to us.“
„Ah! Government agencies, am I right?“ he chuckled, and Wilhelmina had to seriously resist the urge to shout at him.
„Well, you have to give it to them,“ she calmly spoke out in their defence, „Having all this merchandise just makes the entire thing into a joke, doesn't it? I mean, toys and model kits? We might as well paint the entire rocket in advertisements!“
„Who cares how it looks?“ he shrugged, „The money will go towards getting the real science off the ground. That's a worthy goal, isn't it?“
„Yes, but…“ she trailed off, seeking an argument beyond simply 'it feels wrong'. For a brief while, the two continued along the path in silence, slowly coming up to the massive blast-doors of the equenaut complex.
Unnerved, she quickly glanced around, trying to look at something different in an effort to dispel her jumbled thoughts. Unfortunately, the one thing she did catch in the corner of her eye were the last few outbound passenger balloons and air-ships, shrinking into the distance against the bright azure sky as they left for Manehattan, and other ports in Equestria. Despite her never-ending respect and understanding for those hundreds of ponies that had decided to leave after the announcement, she just had to grit her teeth. Traitors.
Advancing through the heavy metal hatch, they continued along Wilhelmina's traditional route and soon entered the simulators room; a massive underground hangar, the first stairway down from the entrance. Inside the undecorated concrete room, two giant boxes of metal balanced on sets of heavy pistons, bundles of thick cables streaming from their sides and running along the floor to the row of whirring computeronic clusters and flashing control panels positioned near the staircase. On an usual day, both of the simulators would in full use, and the other five equenauts would be queuing nearby, exchanging friendly jibes and banter.
Only one of the two pods was in active use today, however, rocking back and forth as the base pistons angled the capsule all around. In fact, looking around, Wilhelmina noted the entire hangar was almost entirely empty; and was again reminded of just how much things had changed, never to come back. No tech-ponies were darting between the cables in desperate attempts to keep things running, no secretaries and stray journalists were admiring the resting pilots. Just a lone comrade was still here, standing at the controls of the far left panel, watching idly as some dials flickered back and forth.
Mr. Skies seemed unfettered by this disheartening emptiness, however – possibly because he had never seen the room back when it was alive – and enthusiastically approached the single engineer with a big smile on his face:
„Greetings!“ he began, startling the poor pony and proceeding to shake his hoof vigorously, „Management inspection! I hope you don't mind too much.“
„It's- it's alright,“ the engineer – a chestnut earth stallion in his early thirties, with a short-cut mane – stuttered, obviously quite ambushed by the pegasus, in the way many often were. The manager seemed to pay it no attention, however, and immediately began scanning the myriad of glowing instruments that played across the controls panel.
„So, this is the simulations room, is it now?“ he nodded to himself, then gestured towards the tumbling metal box a few hooves away, „And what are you simulating there, then?“
„Re-entry procedures, sir,“ the pony reported, still glancing around nervously; it was only upon seeing Wilhelmina that a look of relief washed over his face, and he was able to continue with new-found certainty. „Proper orientation of the capsule is the most critical part of a successful de-orbit burn, and was supposed to be managed by computer. However, since that's been apparently cut now, we're trying to figure out exactly how are we supposed to accomplish that manually. For free, mind you.“
His voice was just dripping with resentment towards the chief designers; and Wilhelmina could not blame him one bit. Just the fact he was still here was commitment enough. Mr. Skies obviously picked up on that too, and smiled again as he patted the stallion encouragingly over his shoulders:
„I like your style! Tell me, worker, what's your name?“
„Geist Silbervogel, sir.“
„Geist!“ he repeated to himself, as if trying to remember it, „A good name! And let me tell you, Geist, the Cosmodrome's incredibly lucky you hadn't left us!“
„Well, I couldn't exactly do that now, could I?“ the tech-pony groaned in response, „After a million sleepless nights I finally get the simulator working, and Canterlot decides to cancel it? Hay no! There's no way I'm leaving before I get at least some use out of that infernal thing.“
„That's the spirit! Stick it to those stuck-up nobles!“
„Geist?“ suddenly came a different voice, this time from inside the capsule. He quickly flipped a few switches, and there was a hiss of escaping air as the pistons steadied themselves and settled the giant metal box of the simulator pod down to a stable platform. Once that was done, Rainbow Dash stuck her head out through the black entry curtain.
„This thing's useless!“ she shouted, gesturing with her hoof to the darkness behind her, „I have no clue which way around I'm rolling, so I just end up wasting all the thrusters just to spin even faster! I just can't stop it. It needs to have way more fuel.“
„Well, it can't! And I told you, use the IMU!“
„Easy for you to say, when it's on the opposite side to the window,“ she chortled, running a hoof through her mane, then added „ Also, it gets stupid hot in here with everything running. Get me another fan!“
„Yes, miss Dash,“ the tech-pony grumbled, then took a sarcastic bow as she returned back to her capsule for another go. „If you excuse me,“ he hushed, turning away from the control panel, „I mustn't keep the Princess waiting.“
Mr. Skies waved him a friendly goodbye as he galloped away and up the stairwell, then turned back to Wilhelmina:
„Quite an interesting fellow! I must say, I was worried out of my mind when you first suggested we suspend all the wages. Glad to see I was proven wrong!“
Wilhelmina was about to snap back with a biting comment, but Rainbow interrupted, sticking her head out from behind the curtain once more:
„Hey, bosses! Can you restart the simulator? I want to try out a few more things with the roll control. This thing's way too much fun!“
Wilhelmina nodded back, then walked over to the controls panel. Stopping a few hooves before it, she looked back to Mr. Skies:
„They're amazing, I'll give you that. I just hope there'll be enough of them left. “
„Ah, but there will!“ he enthusiastically exclaimed, looking up from the restart console he was studying, „The way you built these ponies up, Director, it really is quite something… I wish I ever had a workforce half as loyal!“
„Well, there's a few things money just can't buy, aren't there?“
The smile disappeared right off his face. There, Wilhelmina smirked to herself, Finally some reaction!
„Madam Director,“ he stalwartly began, his voice changing quite abruptly as he turned away from the flashing controls panel, „I have been trying not to judge you based on your reproachful comments, but that is one step too far. Despite my best attempts, you still appear to hold some sort of irrational grudge against me. In my experience, these just tend to poison every kind of working environment, be it just a research lab, or even your family. So, I would like to know exactly what your problem is. Now.“
Despite the abrasive tone, Wilhelmina remained silent, trying to figure out a way of phrasing her sentence that didn't sound completely insulting. The pegasus obviously noted her silence, and, drawing closer, curtly added:
„Be as frank as you like.“
Frank. All this time I've been trying not to scream at you, and you want me to be-
Well, alright then.
„That's the thing!“ she suddenly released the floodgates, screaming at the ceiling as she began pacing around, „I don't hate you at all! You gave us support in the Assembly, millions with no chance of a return on investment, you've been so friendly this entire time! You're about the best thing that's happened to us ever since that accursed accident!“
He let the echoes off the hangar walls die down, then angled his head. „But?“
„But I hate everything you stand for!“ she continued, suddenly turning to face him, „All that plucky optimist individualism, manipulating politicians for private interest, carrying on against all odds… just imagine the spin the papers are going to put on this when they see what's happening here: They'll absolutely love it! 'Private investor leads Equestria to the stars', 'Without the goddess, progress marches on'! And then come the opinion articles, the lobbying… 'Seeing just how much private industry can give us, why does the state feel the need to stifle them so?' The outcry's going to be such a complete mess, Celestia might just cave in and deregulate everything. And then boom! Bye-bye lovely, lush green Equestria, hello smog-poisoned, oppressive Industria! This is exactly what Trottski's been warning us about, all this time, ever since the first steam engine got going! That's the whole point behind his book! We've got such a brilliant society already, and industry's just going to ruin it all.“
He did not respond. Finally lowering her voice, Wilhelmina looked down at her hooves, and at the machinery all around, heart still beating rapidly:
„And it's all going to be because of me,“ she took deep breaths, trying to calm herself, „The one pony who just wanted equality for all, to give the earth and sky races a parity to magic… will also be the one to turn our land into a nightmarish hell. Funny when you think about it, isn't it?“
„It'll never get that far,“ he quickly began, approaching her closer, „The Princess is simply too careful for that. She hasn't budged for a hundred years of steam, she won't budge because of a few rockets.“
„But this time, it's all different, isn't it?“ she remarked, examining the giant metal cube of the simulator, with all its silver piping and cables curling around it, and imagining what it would look like to the average rock farmer, „It's not just cheaper toys or faster travel any more. If we ever reach outer space, without magic, without the goddess, it's suddenly going to be a whole new world. All the ponies will realize the rules have changed, and that anything can go, no matter what the princess says. Imagination will be able to gallop free. And it will do so, in the exact wrong direction. It might take years, or decades, but eventually it's going to happen. And it's going to be my fault.“
Suddenly, she chuckled to herself. „Oh, Celestia… I actually want us to fail, now.“
„Just stop worrying of what might come in a hundred years. Even if this was likely to happen – and that's a big if, mind you – it's Her responsibility! Not ours!“
Typical short-mindedness. Just like every industrialist! Wilhelmina simply could not believe just how easily he was dismissing all this. „But don't you-“
„Nothing of the sort!“ he insisted, cutting her off, „Listen, you've talked to her. Does she look like somepony without a plan?“
She didn't. Even so, the stallion's words weren't exactly reassuring.
„And even if she doesn't, it's not like we can't avoid all this anyway,“ he suddenly beamed, „Pay a few journalists, a couple of politicians? Should derail everything quite nicely.“
„But you're as self-made as they go! How can you possibly-“
„Oh, it's simple,“ he shrugged, „Even logical! All we have to do is publicise just how dependent we've been on everypony else, and especially the Princess. After all, who educated all the ponies in our factories? Who paid for the tracks we used to ship our supplies? Who paid for most of the research? Just point that out from a few independent sources, and the myths will all come crashing back down. It's not like the public likes rich snobs too much anyway. Believe me, it'll work.“
„That's… that's…“ Wilhelmina stammered, not quite believing he had just suggested something like that. Using bribery and lobbying, their own methods… to destroy them? Seriously?
„I like it,“ she eventually whispered, smiling warmly.
„That's good, because that was my last idea,“ he burst out laughing, patting her on the back, „Honestly, you're about the same age as me, and still have all the political passion of a college girl! Quite remarkable, that.“
„Hmmrf,“ Will snorted, not sure if that was an insult or a compliment. Eventually, she took it as the latter, „I guess I never grew up, then. Never lost my dreams.“
„Good, good!“ he added, and the two fell quiet for a while, each lost in their respective thoughts. Eventually, it was a third pony who broke the silence, poking her head out of the curtain of the simulator's entry hatch:
„Hey, hey! Less philosophy and more simulator resetting! I've been waiting for ten minutes in this stupid thing!“
„Pilot!“ Wilhelmina glanced over, raising her voice at the insolent equenaut, „Watch how you address your superiors!“
That made Dash pause. „But, aren't we all like, comrades here?“
Smiling, Wilhelmina saluted the blue mare, then turned to check the long line of control panels again. After spending so much time talking about silly hypotheticals, the point behind it all was far too easy to forget.
There's still a rocket to finish.
The weeks passed, and then the months. The halls gradually grew quieter as more and more ponies left; faced with ever-harsher schedules for no compensation, even those once counted among the most adamant defenders of the programme eventually packed their bags and left.
But, over time, the river of deserters calmed to a stream, to a trickle, and then died away altogether. And what remained once it was all over, was a truly strange thing indeed; never in her life has Zvezda seen a group of ponies come together in such a way, not for anything. As the cafeteria slowly emptied, the seating arrangements changed: Far from becoming just isolated islands in a sea of loneliness, the ponies all began to eat together. The chief directors alongside the janitors, the physicists and the chemists; even the mathematicians next to the engineers. Now only three, the equenauts also left their dedicated rooms and came over to eat with the rest. Eventually, not even the Commissar himself could resist, and now held a place just opposite Zvezda.
And, as the eating arrangements drew closer, so did the friendships.
„…and the mare's looking at me, right, absolutely dumb-faced, and just goes: 'You want how many bottles of aspirin?'“
The table collapsed into tears of laughter at Lyuka's story, and Zvezda joined in too. Seeing the success of her anecdote, the plucky designer quickly resumed:
„Oh, we've got hundreds of stories like that back from when we were just starting up. Did I tell ever you the one with the potassium-“
„L., no,“ Redstone sternly silenced the green pegasus, looking at her over the brim of his thick glasses, „We do not talk about potassium salad.“
„Potassium salad?“ Sara raised her eyebrows, then, looking down at the salad she was just eating, began eyeing it suspiciously.
„Well, yeah, you see,“ Lyuka continued despite warnings, „We were just figuring out how to synth perchlorates cheaply, and I suggested using salt. Sodium chloride, right? So, obviously, I bring home a bucket-“
„Alright, that's about enough, OK?“ Wilhelmina cut the tale short, „That happened once! Once, I got it mixed up, and you never lived it down!“
„Well, what kind of pony puts salt in a salad, anyway?“ Lyuka shrugged, visibly amused, and the table burst out laughing once more.
Wiping a tear from her face, Zvezda suddenly remembered the thing that's been balancing on the tip of her tongue the whole morning. Quickly turning to the Director, she spoke up:
„Anyway, Will, speaking of buckets-“ she began, and the table burst out laughing again, „-just what are we supposed to do with that oxy-regenerator case now? Since Sunset's left, there's no way it's ever getting finished. I'd just throw it out, but it's awfully well-machined titanium. Seems a pity.“
„Hmm, I don't know,“ Wilhelmina levitated another piece of pasta straight to her mouth – dining standards were another thing that has all but disappeared since the early days – then hummed to herself, „I guess we could just throw it in storage, but you're right, it seems kind of a pity.“
„But don't we need the case in the capsule anyway?“ Geist spoke up from the other end of the table, „Otherwise, what else's gonna hold the backup battery in place?“
„Eh, we can just stick some more tape in there,“ Sara waved her hoof, almost hitting Sequine square in the face, „Tape! Now that's a space-age material!“
„Here's to tape!“
„But why can't we put it there, anyway?“ Geist replied amidst the clinging of glasses, already finishing up the last pieces of his meal, „It's not like we have to save mass. In fact, it might even be bad if we do that.“
Lyuka looked up from her salad, then glanced around the table, „Hey, that's a good point! The rocket can physically fly with less mass, sure, but can the flight computer adjust?“
„Not to mention, first stage's pure solid. You can't throttle solid engines.“
Zvezda curled her brow. That doesn't mean your argument makes any sense. „It's just a few kilos! And anyway, we can just stuff more cylinders of Li-O's there to make up the weight.“
„Re-programmation should be quite elementary in either case,“ Redstone commented, still barely halfway through his meal, as he appeared to be the only pony with any table-side manners (or dignity, for that matter) still left, „We have restructured main loop so brilliantly, is beauty to look at! Everything required now is changing one constant, and code adjusts. No more changing everything!“
„Alright, prof, we get you're happy with new your code,“ Cherry moaned, already sweeping the dish off and pulling out her textbook, „But can you finally tell us what's going to be in the test? It's only in a few hours, for Celestia's sake!“
„No!“ he exclaimed in his dictatorial manner, „I told you, everything we do this month might be on it. Is all you need to know.“
„But we've, like, done everything this month! Can't you just-“
Cherry nodded in resignation for a while, then, finding something in her book, looked at the professor again:
„Even the stupid animal-“
„Yes! Stop asking!“
„Man, I don't get anything from this stuff, at all,“ Dash meanwhile commented, also glancing through her textbook now.
„But sure you do!“ Cherry twittered, „You knew it all yesterday! Come on, what particles in a chlorine atom?“
Rainbow began peeking into her book, as if by instinct, then quickly caught herself. Slamming her notes shut, she began staring into the ceiling. „Let's see, let's see, I knew this! How many protons was it again, silly little blue things… not twenty… not twenty five… thirty five? Aha! And thirty five electrons, too!“
„Anything else in there?“
„Nope!“ Dash responded, now with much more confidence in her voice than before.
Zvezda herself just sipped some coffee. She had no idea of atomic theory, and could only guess whether that was the correct answer; but, judging from the brief smile on the Professor's face, it most likely was.
„And can you identify the electrons?“ Cherry pushed further, still staring into her open book. The blue mare closed her eyes, and began rubbing her front hooves against her temples.
„Oh man, oh man, I knew this, I know I did…“ she began, „Let me just- err… well, there's eighteen N-electrons, I think, sitting all nice and cosy inside the nucleus. And, uh, seven V's?“
„Exactly!“ Cherry exclaimed, „Which means?“
„The rest is O's!“
Cherry responded with a celebratory clap, and Rainbow opened her eyes again, evidently accomplished. Watching all this, Sara leant in closer to Zvezda, and tapped her on the shoulder:
„Aren't all these ponies supposed to be competing?“ she whispered, „I mean, there's just the one place. Why are they helping each other?“
Zvezda gave her an evil eye, and the mare quickly shrunk away. „OK, OK, just don't put me on dish duty again!“ she hushed, and the discussion was thankfully left at that.
„I must say, miss Dash, you are starting to get hang of this! Congratulations!“ Redstone now added, having finally finished his pasta while the revision was going on, „In fact, everypony is doing better and better. Even you, Geist: Your food was hundred percent edible this time! Great success!“
The canteen resonated with the clapping of hooves against wood, and an embarrassed expression appeared across the tech-pony's face.
„Really now, professor, there's not many ways to mess up pasta.“
„Oh, you never know!“ Lyuka exclaimed, winking in the direction of Wilhelmina, „If you add some potassium-“
„Shut… up…“ she uttered through clenched teeth, igniting yet another roar of laughter from the others, and causing Zvezda to spit out her drink; all over the unfortunate Commissar, as it happened, who thus far had been observing the scene in complete silence.
As she immediately rushed to apologizing, with a tissue in her hoof to clean up the mess, she still couldn't help but smile to herself. The bickering, short-sighted Assembly had certainly succeeded in their original goal; the old Cosmodrome was dead and buried, and it would never be coming back. What had appeared in its stead, however, was a thing beyond anypony's wildest dreams.
„Bring it up, bring it up!“
Zvezda looked upwards from her sheets, at the scene unfolding in the sand below her. Even though it was already well past ten in the evening, and the desert was quickly growing cold, she felt comfortable as she lay on the vacated rooftop oversight of the storage bunkers, huddled in a thick blanket and sipping from a warm cup of coffee she had brought along.
Meanwhile, the ground below her was awash with activity, ponies straining as they attempted to safely unload a large, canvas-covered cylinder from an idle wagon sitting on the nearby railtracks. Even though the Commissar's stallions were trying their best, the package was obviously very heavy, and had to be helped by some of the facility's better-bodied researchers.
Fortunately, Zvezda did not count amongst those. Seeing Blues and Terra on the ground, lit by multiple halogen lights and sweat flying off them as they stressed their wings to lift the precious cargo into the air, she gave them an overly cheery wave, then sipped from her coffee. Blues, catching the inappropriate gesture with the corner of her eye, mouthed something in response; likely incredibly vulgar, but fortunately too quiet to actually hear. Zvezda just responded with a second wave, this one even more obnoxious than the last.
„Now, now! That's not very nice, is it?“
Spinning her head around, Zvezda smiled as she saw Ray ascend the few last steps of the rickety fire staircase and hop onto the rooftop. In the poor lighting coming from a small emergency lamp above, it took her a while to spot the wide smile spread across his face.
„You know, you should be down there, helping them too,“ she chided as he covered the rest of the distance across the flat concrete roof, „Celestia knows, you're far more stately than most ponies around here put together.“
Ray's smile first grew even wider as he took the unexpected compliment, but then he suddenly paused in mid-step, and replaced it with a highly suspicious expression. „Hang on. You just complimented my muscles.“
„Yup!“ she smiled, taking another sip of coffee. It was fun watching the look of sheer terror slowly creep up across his face.
„Please don't tell me you need your stuff moved,“ he groaned, glancing around, „I didn't travel across half the country to help you haul your pianos or whatever to the tenth damn floor!“
„Relax! Do you even see tenth floors around here?“
„Well, then, tenth floor underground or something,“ he shrugged, still remaining a safe distance away, „Don't think you can trick me, I saw the map! This place's hay of a lot bigger than it looks.“
Zvezda put on an evil smile as she stared at Ray, and even sustained it for a few seconds. But when he opened his mouth in a mock gasp, she just burst out laughing:
„Come here, you!“
She shrugged her blanket off as she got back on her four hooves, then took a few steps and nuzzled Ray passionately. After he withdrew again, he looked at her:
„No kiss?“ he asked in a tinny voice, eyes wide open.
Zvezda patted him across the cheek, then gestured towards the ponies working below, „We'll see if that thing works or not. You might have broken it on the way!“
Ray held his pleading face for a while longer, then smiled and looked over the edge of the roof himself.
„Just what is it, anyway?“ he asked, settling down on the ground, „All I was told is that it's awfully expensive. Boss himself inspected the carriage five times before letting me drive away with it.“
As Zvezda lay down next to him, she raised one of her eyebrows, „You seriously don't know?“
„I tried to get a peek, but there was an important-looking seal on the tarp, so I didn't risk it. And all the shipping form said was 'Lyuka-R'. Can I have some of this coffee?“
„Sure, just don't spill it,“ she waved her hoof across the piles of papers she had spread out around her, „And from what I hear, it's supposed to be the new liquid engine. Finally doing a test burn today.“
„Liquid, eh? Didn't the last one you tried explode? And Princess, is this coffee horrible!“
„I know, I know,“ Zvezda nodded, looking at the cup again, „Will's decided we all drink too much coffee, so she's started ordering this horrible thing to get us to stop. Honestly, two gallons a day's nothing!“
„Bleh!“ he exclaimed again, then quickly lowered the cup to the ground, „I sure hope your rockets are going better.“
„They're alright. We're doing nothing 'cept running hundreds of cables now, so it's a bit boring, but it's the last thing left. Like, literally, we finish this, and the capsule's done.“
„Serious? I thought you still had a way to go! I mean, you don't even have the engine tested yet.“
Zvezda looked down at the sand, as the ponies carefully unrolled the canvas and revealed the dull metal cylinder beneath. Unlike the previous prototype – a large sphere of metal, completely covered in mazes of piping and with an enormous nozzle sticking out of the back – this one was a lot smaller, and consisted of just a simple green cylinder that gradually expanded into a nozzle at the back. And that was it; no visible pumps, no byzantine piping, nothing but the absolute bare minimum. As the team below, personally overseen by Lyuka herself, began quickly securing the engine onto a concrete testbed, shortening straps and locking down bolts, Zvezda gulped down some more from her cup – horrible or not, it was still coffee – then nodded:
„Yeah, they've had awful problems with the rocket. Especially that engine. Overheating, burn-throughs, bad reliability… makes me glad I got shuffled over to the capsule when I did! It's funny, because the first stage of the rocket got built ages ago, but this liquid! Sunny just decided to get the fuel tanks started anyway, and make a modular adapter for the engine, just to avoid delays. Whatever design we see works, we'll just stick that on there and launch.“
„Wow,“ Ray shook his head, looking on as more ponies came galloping in, carrying heavy hoses from the fuel and oxidiser tanks a few dozen yards away, „Sounds like a total mess. So much for the shining beacon of Equestrian science, eh?“
„Oh, it is! And that's exactly the problem. Nopony here has any idea what the hay they're doing.“
The two ponies laughed, and a pleasant silence dropped over the two, interrupted only by Lyuka intermittently shouting orders from down below. Zvezda looked down at her papers again, trying to study them further.
„And what's all that?“ Ray asked, looking over her shoulder, „They've got you working overtime, too?“
„Oh, there's no way I'm doing overtime, not for free! Not even I am that crazy!“ she chuckled, then pushed the papers across for Ray to see, „Just preparing stuff for the next lesson. Seriously, that Ruby filly's insane. I almost have to prepare one class for her, and one for all the other foals!“
„Heh, I can see that happening. The lessons going alright?“
„I dunno,“ Zvezda shrugged, finally finishing her disgusting cup of coffee, „I'm hardly a certified teacher. I mean, I show them stuff, they ask questions, seem to have fun. Not sure if they're learning much, though.“
„I'm sure they are,“ Ray whispered into her ear.
„Connections alright?“ came a shout from below.
„Line one, check! Line two, check! Electrics, go!“
The ponies quickly began withdrawing to a safe distance as Lyuka herself checked over the engine one last time, flying over and carefully inspecting every last bolt and seam on its cold surface. Meanwhile, a steady hum slowly began to mount as pumps and generators began spinning to life all around the test site, building up in pressure.
„All is go!“ she eventually declared, then rapidly retreated behind a concrete wall two dozen paces away, „Ten, nine, eight-“
„You might want to wear these,“ Zvezda smiled warmly at Ray, a pair of earmuffs in her hooves, „Those things get awful loud.“
Ray nodded in thanks as he accepted them, then quickly mounted them over his ears. Zvezda then adjusted them a bit more, just to make sure they fit him snugly, then put hers on in the last few moments of the countdown:
„-three, two, one, fire!“
Even through the ear protection, there was an initial bang powerful enough to make her jump, which then steadied itself to a loud roar as the enormous engine began working. Feeling a wave of warm air wash over her, Zvezda quickly removed her blanket, then watched the giant rocket as it screamed at the darkness.
Compared to the brash solid engines they had flown before, this was a very different kind of rocket; a far more focused and discreet one, producing a near-invisible tail of faint blue fire, and virtually zero smoke. But that wasn't the only difference, oh no.
Zvezda blinked a few times to make sure she wasn't hallucinating, then looked at the faint jet of exhaust again. Strange, yet beautiful, geometric shapes sharply glowed in the exhaust, some resembling discs, others diamonds, all motionlessly hovering right in the centre of the thin plume. She exchanged a look of amazement with Ray, then looked back at them again. They seemed to be coming from the edges of the flame, slowly picking up in brightness as they approached its centre, glowing yellow and searing white at the centre as they just stood there, right in the middle of all that power.
Zvezda kept staring at them, wonder in her eyes. Tell me that isn't magic. Tell me.
Sure, she had seen a fair few flashy shows in her own time. Some of them even far more visually impressive than the simple glowing shapes hovering before her right now. But all of them came from unicorn horns, from enchanted objects and intangible power fields.
The metal cylinder before her, on the other hoof, was just that. A metal cylinder, with a few pipes inside, fed by a pair of steam pumps and held in place by a block of concrete. She could come up to it, she could touch it. If she knew the right equations and had enough money, she could make her own.
She glanced one last time at Ray, and the two earth ponies hugged. For her, this was the moment. From this point on, nothing was impossible any more.
All that was left was for the rest of Equestria to realize that.