The ground below was full of activity. Ponies screaming at each other, running through checklists, carrying cables back and forth; a rocket launch was a hard thing to get organized even for a full and experienced crew given plenty of time. Managing it with egghead academics at the ropes, on the double, with zero margin of error was virtually impossible; and indeed, the sounds of commotion coming from below were proving just that.
Fortunately, that job wasn't hers. Sparing a brief smirk of sympathy for the poor losers down on the ground, Rainbow just crossed one leg over the other as she relaxed on her fluffy cloud, positioned just above the administrative building – whence she could get the best view of everything – and let the sun shine down on her. The other ponies called her lazy, but the truth was, calling up a cloud in the middle of the desert was no easy thing! Took lots of effort, that.
And that wasn't even counting what she had to do before the sun had come up, of course, while everypony else was still asleep in their nice cosy beds. That damned Redstone just banged on their doors at four in the morning, and demanded a full-length flight test through the Cosmodrome, double-time. She still couldn't believe it: Four in the morning! It just wasn't natural. If the Princess had intended for her ponies to get up at that time, she'd raise the sun then.
But stuff was happening now, and the chief designers were driving everypony extra hard, herself, Cherry and Bliz also included. Indeed, thinking about the poor ponies slaving away down below, Rainbow had to grudgingly admit the equenauts probably had it the easiest of the lot. And the talk was, the directors would be making their final decision for the first flight crew soon, just as fast as Zvez and her team got the Star Walker fixed up right. So extra hard tests made sense, she supposed.
Of course, to keep up with such additional workload, Rainbow would have to step up her own private exercise as well. So, starting today and effective immediately – as Wilhelmina liked to say so much – she decided to double up on her napping regime: No more five minute naps, no one-eye-closed-one-open half-deals, this would be the real stuff!
Plus, she deserved it, right? Being an equenaut and all.
„Equestria's finest,“ she grinned to herself, lying back on the cloud and feeling it lightly prop her back up. There was a reason she liked lying on these things so much; better than a massage! It was a state of bliss, that's what it was.
She was allowed to remain in this pleasant state for about two entire seconds before another pegasus' prodding hoof interrupted her. Lazily opening one eye, she sighed to herself: There's always something.
„Erm, miss Dash, ma'am?“
Turning her head about, Rainbow quickly localized the vile assailant; a sand-coloured stallion, slightly on the pudgy side and sweating in the desert sun, with a colourful sports cap stuck on his head and a running tape recorder hanging from his neck. Her eyes opened wide; it was that most fantabulous of species, the tabloid reporter! She hadn't seen one of those around for a while, that was for sure.
„Yeeeees?“ she drew out the syllable, trying to appear disinterested as she began examining her hooves instead of looking at the stallion. No need to make him feel too important, after all.
„Joey Flatsides, Hoofington Post,“ he quickly reported, as if mechanically. A couple of moments later, he followed up, this time with far less confidence:
„Is… is all that supposed to be happening? Down there on the ground?“
„All what?“ she asked, now glancing at him in irritation. He was talking to an equenaut here! He ought to show some respect.
„What I mean is,“ he began again, rifling through his sweaty mane for a second as he bobbed around in the air, „My boss sent me here to write six inches on the lonely ruins of the Cosmodrome. Maybe even snap a cool picture of an abandoned bunker. Write a nice, touching piece on how it's all such a shame. Something that'd hit with the public, you know?“
A nice, touching piece? In the Hoofington?
Rainbow stared at him with great suspicion. He tried to fight it, but after a few moments of such sustained firepower, threw his hooves into the air, exclaiming in resignation:
„It's been a slow week, a'right? We've run outta scandals! Literally scraping the barrel for the Sunday edition here. Now, can you please tell me what the hay's going on down there, and let me go on my way?“
Rainbow raised an eyebrow inquisitively, but didn't otherwise respond. She was starting to get the feeling this reporter wasn't trying to run a front-page article about her at all!
„Oh, not you too!“ he suddenly grasped at his colourful cap with both hooves, an expression of despair on his face, „Nopony down there's willing talk to me! It's like they don't want to be in the much-acclaimed Hoofington! The very bastion of journalism!“
She stared further, not uttering a word.
„All I need is ten paragraphs, and the boss'll let me go home,“ he continued, now switching over to an even more pathetic voice, „I've got kids back there! My wife! Come on, please, the techs might not talk to me, but you owe me for all that stuff I ran on you. Just say something, I don't care what! I need a quote, at least! Please? I got no clue what's happening here!“
He really doesn't know?
She blinked to herself several times, realizing the magnitude of the situation. All the way out here in the desert, far away from any inhabited place… and there haven't been any reporters around since the accident, either. This really might have been the first pony of the press seeing the Cosmodrome since its much-publicized 'cancellation', the first to notice what was actually going on here – and he was asking her for comment!
Oh, she grinned to herself, still looking up at the open sky, This is way too good to be true.
Now firmly decided, she let the reporter sweat for a while longer, then, lying high on her cloud, gave him an almost imperceptible nod. As he exclaimed in relief, however, she raised her hoof and cut him short:
„Front page, Joey,“ she made her demands clear, „Me, in my coolest space suit. Full colour photo, and not with that cheap chemical stuff either. Enchanted.“
„Can't promise nothin',“ he began, then, seeing the expression on her face, quickly added, „But like I said, it's been a damn slow week. You give me a story that'll sell, I give you that place no prob.“
„Oh, you'll get that. Don't you worry.“
A wide grin slowly spread over Rainbow's face as she jumped off her cloud and into the air, suddenly quite full of energy. Wake-up time notwithstanding, this had rapidly turned into a highly awesome day.
A full seven on the awesomeness scale, she suddenly realized.
And it isn't even lunch.
Landing just outside one end of the imposing, yet low-roofed structure of Stable VII, Rainbow quickly covered the last few strides, then began fumbling around with its large metal lock. Security was supposed to be a big thing around the Cosmodrome – especially recently, for some reason she still wasn't quite sure of – but in reality, it wasn't much more than empty words. Ponies simply saw the locks, and assumed they were unbreakable. But a little wiggle this way, one more that way, and the rusty mechanism came snapping open.
„You know,“ Joey got out between heavy breaths, only catching up by the time she had finished with the lock, „You still haven't said 'xactly what's-“
„I've never been one for speeches,“ Rainbow grinned back, already sliding open the massive steel doors to the hangar. That done, she let the scene speak for itself.
Joey, though still panting heavily, nevertheless managed to momentarily hold his breath and gasp in shock as he saw the immense creature of metal that idled inside. Tearing herself away from his incredibly fun expression, Rainbow too had to admit the sight amazed even her, and she saw the damn thing every evening!
The hangar hall itself was empty and dark, all the available ponies temporarily requisitioned for launch preparations. Rows of electric tools and heavy machinery lay stacked up against the walls, neatly sorted and packed away for use. Power cables coiled across the cold concrete floor like snakes, some hooked up to the construction tools, others to the steel hull itself, charging batteries and powering groundside circuits. Even more plastic and metal lines hung from the ceiling, along with cranes that propped up yet more machines, and the few still-unattached plates of the outer hull.
And, in the middle of it all, rested Equestria's finest rocketship, filling out the vast majority of empty volume inside the massive assembly hall. Though it was still not quite finished, its empty, opened nose cone and miles of exposed wiring very obvious to even the untrained eye, all the primary components were already long finished. At it was magnificent.
Nine separate solid rocket boosters, all arranged together in a massive three-by-three matrix that made up the first stage. Each one was fully twice the size of the tiny rocket being launched now, and an uncountable number of supporting struts and reinforcing panels were arranged between them just to keep the whole assembly from falling apart; a somewhat suspect-looking solution, but one Wilhelmina was fairly sure would work. Atop that construct sat the lengthy cryogenic tank of the second stage, nestled neatly into a central staging shroud that also covered up Lyuka's liquid engine. Further along yet was the massive computeronics cluster, capable of steering the entire thing into high orbit; and on top of that, the empty payload frame remained, ready to accept the Star Walker capsule once it was finished.
But all those details weren't important. The main thing about the rocket, the one singular aspect that defined its very presence, was its sheer mass. The impact it had on the eyes, just the simple concept of how much space it took up in your field of view. Even perched onto its side, it towered a good ten pony-heights above their heads; and it was over five times as long. Trying to imagine it standing proud and tall on the pad, all fuelled and ready to go…
Rainbow glanced away at the reporter, who was still looking at the thing, jaw almost literally on the floor. His expression was utterly blank, but his eyes said it all: Whether by accident or not, he had stumbled into a real story here.
„Yup,“ she announced, voice swelling with pride, „We launch in a week. Nopony outside knows nothing.“
She looked back to the rocket, considering just what to say next. After all, she'd be a part of this story too; she could say whatever she wanted to Joey, and he'd write it down and publish it front-page. She could command him to write all sorts of things about her own coolness, and he'd write that, because she was bringing him this story.
But even as she was thinking these thoughts, she felt the always-watchful eye of the rocket pierce through her. It was worse than a dragon, much worse than Celestia; somehow, it just seemed to touch her soul, though it was just a piece of metal. It felt weird.
„You know,“ she began, speaking quite absent-mindedly, her brain still distracted, „If you asked a year ago, I'd have said I've seen it all. The rises of ancient gods. Their defeats. Even just the occasional parasprite invasion or two. All the thousand things the normal pony only hears of-“
Suddenly, she stopped, realizing something about her words; she was speaking in a surprisingly low tone of voice, one she definitely didn't use often. She spent a second trying to name it. 'Thoughtful', maybe?
Who knew. She shrugged, then continued, her eyes sliding along the long metal hull of the rocket, „And that's not even it. Whenever anything happened, I was always there, always seeing it first-hoof. Usually fixing it, too. Stuff just tended to find me like that. It's not easy being an element of harmony, let me tell you! But looking at this thing now, lying there, it makes me feel… hay, I don't even know what to call it.“
„In awe, perhaps?“ Joey suggested, glancing at her momentarily before returning his eyes to the rocket. Rainbow noted his voice was also hushed, and secretly smiled to herself; she wasn't the only one feeling weird from this!
„At the top of the world?“ he meanwhile prompted further, „Amazingly awesome? Confident you'll be the one to take Equestria to the stars?“
She considered his suggestions. They were all very nice soundbites, true enough. They had a cool ring to them, the sort that'd look great on the front page of a newspaper, or even better, a magazine cover.
But they weren't true.
„Small,“ she whispered. Joey looked like he was about to speak up, to protest, but after a moment's consideration instead decided to hold his peace.
„All my life, I've been in the middle of everything. The best one around, saving Equestria half by myself. The good stuff,“ she eventually continued, suddenly inspecting the broken concrete floor with painstaking care, „But what's happening here, I haven't done a thing. Not one. Everything these ponies here have achieved, all the amazing stuff they'd done… they've managed without me. I never even lifted a hoof, not to become an equenaut, and definitely not to help with the rockets. I was just along for the ride.“
The reporter seemed somewhat taken aback by this sudden outpouring of her feelings; probably almost as surprised as Rainbow herself. His mental image of the plucky, gung-ho equenaut most decidedly shattered, he tried arguing: „But, surely-“
„No,“ she resolutely cut him off, „I'm not gonna claim credit for anything I didn't do myself. I know you like my picture in the papers – and Celestia knows, I do, too – but all this isn't about me. I'm not gonna to be the one to ride that rocket into orbit. Other ponies, smarter ponies, will do that. I'll just stand by here, and watch.“
Finishing with another one of her wide trademark grins, she left the sentence hanging in the air, alone with the massive launch vehicle. That was a lot of stuff to say all at once, probably awfully melodramatic too, especially coming from her. But it needed to be said.
„You… you sure you want this on the record?“ Joey spoke up hesitantly, eyes alternating between her and his voice recorder, „If you want, I can just rewind and delete all that, no prob.“
She considered his offer. Just for the tiniest bit, fair enough; but she did consider it. But an 'undo' would be far too easy.
„Just go out there already!“ she leapt into the air, gesticulating wildly towards the door, „Make a story about the real heroes here! Before I change my mind!“
A couple of vivid hoof gestures later, he was out the door and flying away towards the first pair of unsuspecting engineers; with a smile, Rainbow noted it was Geist and Terra, two ponies who had worked so hard over this past year to get everything working, yet never had so much as a single good word spoken about them. Finally, they'd get their just recognition.
She turned back towards the rocket. It seemed pretty happy about how the whole ordeal turned out.
„Just keep your end of the deal,“ she warned its metal hull, „You hear me?“
„Now, which one of you little ponies can tell me, how does a rocket fly?“
Looking at the giant, shining eyes of her small class as they sat in the sand, all staring directly at her, Zvezda strained to prevent her heart from melting. It felt almost silly to say, but she felt like a mother to all these foals; like she was really making a difference in their lives. Considering all her nightmares about this little trip, and how difficult it was to convince all the parents, it was rapidly proving to be the single best decision she had ever taken. The ponies were very excited from all the big, fancy machinery, and enjoyed the gallery too. Now, however, was the time for some theory.
„How 'bout you, Ruby?“ she smiled widely once again, gesturing for her to stand up, „I'm sure you'll make a great job of it!“
„M-me?“ the little filly stuttered, apparently shocked.
„Come on! I'm sure you understand it better than me!“ Zvezda urged on further. The filly was absolutely brilliant, and quite an amazing talker, too; she just needed a little encouragement every once in a while.
„But I'm- but, miss I'm not- I mean, you are the qualified-“
„Qualified?“ Zvezda burst out laughing, „Look, the only qualification I have is glueing bits of metal together! You don't need any special training to just explain stuff. Come on, give it a spin.“
„But I don't know!“
„Come on, now! What did it say in book we had yesterday?“
The filly was obviously looking quite lost, and Zvezda nodded to herself. Though the little filly was an absolute genius when it came to mathematics, she was still just a young filly, with all that entailed. Linking seemingly unrelated facts together was a skill she had yet to master. That wasn't unexpected, though; in fact, it had been Zvezda's hope. Otherwise, she'd feel really stupid.
„Okay, don't worry about that,“ she smiled at the embarrassed filly, „Instead, let's try this another way. What can you tell me about the Principle of Reaction?“
„One of the eight laws of motion, applying both to magical and non-magical objects,“ the filly rolled off almost immediately, suddenly speaking confidently and with textbook precision, „It says that for every action, there's an equal and opposing reactive force, which is proportional to the product of the mass and acceleration.“
„Exactly right, Ruby!“ she beamed, then looked at the other colts and fillies, all looking profusely lost. „Now, everypony, listen close. Don't worry about remembering that, just think about this: If I told you that answered how the rocket works, what would you say? Be honest, now.“
The ponies muttered a little between each other, and eventually Clank, a light-blue earth colt with a frizzy mane – son of Appleloosa's smith, and a well-meaning foal, if little impulsive at times – slowly and uncertainly lifted his hoof. Zvezda eagerly nodded towards him, and he finally got up and cleared his throat.
„Erm, it was confusing?“ he offered.
Ruby went red with embarrassment, but Zvezda just glanced reassuringly in her direction, then looked back towards the colt. „Now there, Clank, what did we say about constructive criticism? Can you explain why it seemed a little confusing?“
„Well, it doesn't mention rockets at all!“ he shrugged, nervously glancing from side to side and apparently feeling stupid, „Just some products and stuff.“
„But that's it! You got it!“ Zvezda beamed widely, „That's what I wanted you to notice. The thing about the principle of reaction – or any other principle – is, it doesn't mention anything real. Not rockets, not birds, not anything. But that's only because it applies to everything! When you swim, you kick the water backwards, and the water propels you in the opposite direction, by reaction! When you kick a desk, the desk hits you back! A flying bird pushes the air downwards with its wings, and the air pushes the bird upwards. And finally, a rocket throws out propellant in one direction, and its accelerated in the opposite.“
Finishing her long explanation, Zvezda looked back at her crowd of ponies. She was hoping their faces would have brightened up a little now; but unfortunately, they seemed about as lost as before. Not all of them had been paying attention all the way through, of course, and even those who were, stared at her with mostly blank expressions, likely more concerned with when the rocket was going to launch. Zvezda couldn't blame them; after all, the majority of them were still the foals of poor miners and farmers, probably unaware of just how important all this theoretical knowledge really was. They just didn't have anything to connect it with in the real world, and likely lost interest at the first mention of the word 'principle'.
However, she was ready for this. In anticipation of this first science class, she had gone up to Redstone to ask for a few tips. Even now, his words rang through her mind: First tell them what you are going to tell them. Then tell them. Then tell them what you've just told them.
„So, you can see, all these principles work the same, no matter what thing or situation you're applying it to,“ she slowly began, eyes wandering around as she searched for a physical example to demonstrate it on. Suddenly, her sight settled on the very sand they all stood on, and she remembered a scenario she had thought up a long time ago. She had originally planned it for some other lesson, sure, but buck the plan.
Turning her side to the class, she first dug her fore hoof into the hot desert, then began repeatedly kicking at it, sending scatterings of sand grains flying through the air.
„Everypony, look at the sand as it flies through the air,“ she turned her head back, still continuing with kicking up more sand, „What shape is that?“
„A half-circle!“ Snow, a short, white unicorn filly shouted from the back of the crowd.
„Close,“ Zvezda smiled, „But do you remember the graphs we drew last week? How we started with lines, and then-“
„A sad face!“ Clank offered, „The sad face graph!“
„That's called a quadratic, dummy!“ a filly from the back of the group shouted him down.
„The minus one!“
Seeing a frown appear on Ruby's face as she studied the arc of the sand grains further, Zvezda gulped, then quickly pre-empted her upcoming remark:
„Alright, it's not perfect, I admit,“ she shrugged, finally stopping the motion, „But that's because of air resistance. Still, you've got to admit, it's fairly close. And were we on the moon, it would actually trace out a perfect quadratic.“
Ruby raised her hoof again, „Is air resistance because of reaction? Like, the sand's pushing on the air, and so the air's pushing back?“
Zvezda smiled widely at the little filly. „That's exactly right! See, ponies? The principles apply to everything. And now, let me ask a challenge question: Look at that rocket standing over there, and tell me, what shape will it trace out in the air, once the fuel runs out and it starts falling?“
Ruby's hoof shot up into the air immediately, but Zvezda ignored her, looking amongst the crowd of others:
„Come on, now, it doesn't have to be just Ruby answering everything. How 'bout you, Snow?“
The little filly first jumped with horror, then began looking around nervously, trying to find somepony else to answer. „Why does it have to be me, miss Zvezda? Can't-“
„Just tell me what you think, Snow. I know you know it.“
„I- but-“ she adorably stuttered, then lowered her voice to virtually inaudible, „A quadratic?“
„Exactly!“ Zvezda jumped on the spot, then beamed widely at the rest of the class. „Science doesn't care if you're talking about a grain of sand, a desk, or a rocket. In the same situation, everything behaves just the same, whether it looks similar or not, whether it's big or tiny. It's all the same to physics.“
She examined the class again. Their little, wide-eyed faces seemed a smidgen less confused now. They still didn't look utterly convinced of what she was saying, but at least they were willing to consider it, for now. Another bunch of examples later, and that ought to be sorted out too. Overall, a good lesson.
And just in time, too, judging by the momentary sudden burst of white noise coming over from a nearby loudspeaker pole; a power-up of the amplifier valves, most likely. One brief glance towards the launchpad confirmed Zvezda's suspicions; the pad was now vacated, with the rocket standing alone and upright, free from most of its previous power cables. The launch would be coming soon. The fillies and colts had obviously come to that realization as well, and were now all quickly getting up from the ground, excitement and anticipation in their eyes.
But there was still one more matter to sort out. Looking at Snow again, she took another breath and, making sure they were all paying attention, continued, „Everypony, now, just one last thing, then we can finally go see the launch. Please listen up, this is important. How many of you were thinking of 'quadratic' when I asked the question? Hooves up. And be honest.“
As she saw the hooves slowly rise up into the air, one after the other, until each foal had one in the air, she couldn't help but smile.
„See? You all did, but only Ruby raised her hoof! You probably weren't sure of your answer, but you know what? Nopony ever is! Tell me, Ruby, were you sure your answer was right?“
The little filly shook her head, and Zvezda laughed. „Well, there you go! Seriously, I'm not trying to trick you. If it feels right, it probably is. So just say it.“
The PA speakers crackled again, louder than before. Of course, this time, it probably wasn't valves warming up; more likely, Redstone had just not bothered following the procedure again, and was messing about with the valves himself.
Seeing the foals looking at her anticipatively, Zvezda shrugged:
„Don't worry, I won't keep you any longer. You all know where the viewing stands are.“
And before she could even blink, the ponies were all galloping towards the viewing stands, positioned on a nearby dune a safe distance away from the pad, and leaving a cloud of dust in their wake. Zvezda had to seriously struggle to keep up as they raced onto the top the dune, all the while listening to the pre-launch commentary boom across the facility:
„Welcome, everypony, to the STG test launch! I'll be your announcer, Mr. Skies, and we have a lovely day here today at Cape Coltaveral! According to the plan, the vehicle has been positioned and prepared, and is now running on full internal power with all systems showing green. Downrange is reported clear, and Wilhelmina has given us permission to launch. Once Lyuka has finished with the final systems checks, we shall begin with the countdown…“
Finally reaching the top, Zvezda first stopped for a second to count her class – all twelve were here, thankfully – then glanced at the rest. Everypony not present in the observatory bunker was here, about a hundred ponies in total, from the equenauts and chem-ponies to the single remaining janitor. Zvezda gave an intrigued look to the one journalist who was present; she sure hadn't seen one of those around in a while. He was talking excitedly to Sara and Cherry, though, and neither of them seemed to mind, so she guessed it was alright.
Seeing the stand was already full, she sat down at the base of the podium, and it was only with a great deal of skill that she managed to calm the overly-excited foals, getting them to sit down quietly and just watch the rocket in peace.
This done, she briefly examined the vehicle – a thin white line from where they were standing – by herself. It looked just like the first rocket they had launched, all those months ago; except this time, it had a big, unseemly, snub-nosed container struck to the top, the dummy second stage. A heavy reinforced seal ringed with explosive bolts connected the two; obviously the decoupler, the main subject of this test flight.
„Vehicle checks out good as guidance valves pre-heat is completed, and we are good for the count,“ the nearby speaker resonated, then Mr. Skies drew breath and began shouting enthusiastically:
„Ten! Nine! Eight! Seven! Guidance is internal!“
She hushed the foals again, even pushing down on Snow to get her to calm down.
The „Fire!“ was drowned out in a blast of noise as the solid booster ignited, sending the rocket rushing into the sky. Feeling the air around her shake as the vehicle quickly climbed upwards, Zvezda smiled to herself. If this was cool, she couldn't even begin to imagine the orbital version launching.
Of course, that was assuming this one actually worked…
„Hmm. Would you look at that,“ Cherry whistled, watching the quickly rising dot of light, along with the much larger plume of black smoke it was riding, as it gradually disappeared into the sky. In front of her, an old wooden table was creaking on the sand, overloaded with opened textbooks and stacks of astrodynamics notes. Since Redstone was far too likely to find her in her quarters, this was her new favourite spot now.
„Hmm,“ Rainbow sounded back, standing at her side as she also watched the dot.
„Hmm,“ Cherry repeated, still looking at the ascending rocket.
„Almost burnout, coming up on staging!“ Mr. Skies' voice suddenly cut their productive dialogue short, sounding from a speaker mounted on a nearby pole, „I repeat, SECO imminent. Coming up on staging!“
„Hmm,“ Rainbow added, nodding at Cherry sagely.
„No explosions yet,“ Cherry noted, „Hmm indeed!“
She looked at Rainbow, also nodding back sagely. The two mares continued nodding at each other like that for a few more seconds, then both suddenly burst out laughing.
„Five, four, three,“ the announcer's voice meanwhile boomed through the facility, „Two, one, SECO!“
The shining speck, however, continued going for a good few moments more, seemingly acting in insubordination. It was only five seconds later it finally sputtered out and went dark, roar disappearing along with the flames.
„A bit slow on the burnout there, but no problem. The computer's programmed to compensate. We should have staging any moment now,“ Mr. Skies announced in his eternal optimism.
However, as the last reverberations died down, the facility fell utterly quiet. All eyes were towards the black dot in the distance, hopefully waiting for whatever might come next.
„Any moment now.“
Cherry glanced down and around for a few seconds, just to make sure Rainbow was also watching right with her; satisfied, she looked back up, just in time to see the tiny speck glitter slightly.
„Hang on,“ came the uncertain announcement over the sound of whirring wheels and heavy shifting optics in the background, „Hang on, we are trying to… is that… that's… fillies and gentlecolts, we have a separation!“
„Yes!“ Rainbow exclaimed, leaping to the air in joy. „Take that, Canterlot!“ she shouted, dancing around in the air and making superior hoof-gestures in the direction of the capitol.
Watching her, Cherry just smiled, then exhaled deeply. The designers had been 'quite certain' this launch would work; but that had been the case for all the previous launches as well. It was nice to see something actually work in reality, for once.
„Come on, we have to celebrate this!“ Rainbow meanwhile flew back, then smiled widely as she tugged at Cherry's shoulder, „To the canteen! First round's on me.“
„Good idea,“ Cherry nodded back, then lowered her head back to the books lying on the table, „In the evening, though. I've still gotta revise the retros operation procedure.“
„The retros manual?“ Rainbow backed off, visibly shuddering, „Sheesh, Cherry! When did you become such a nerd?“
„Look who's talking, miss I-know-the-electron-configuration-of-chlorine,“ Cherry dryly shot back as she dragged the heavy volume out from the bottom of the pile and opened it. Her snap obviously struck a lot deeper than she had intended, however, as Rainbow quickly flew up into her face, forehooves crossed over her chest:
„That was just showing off to the other ponies! And I only learned it because Red forced me to!“ she immediately began making excuses, „Come on, Cherry, you know me! I'm the definition of coolness itself! You know I'd never learn all this stupid maths unless I absolutely had to!“
„And that's why you stay up all night with physics books, isn't it?“
„That's not maths!“ Rainbow's voice grew even more defensive, „Didn't you hear Red? It's waaay different. Completely different subject!“
Cherry drew the breath to toy with the pegasus even more, but then decided to drop the subject, opting to smile instead.
„Alright, alright, I believe you.“
„Rainbow, you've convinced me! Seriously! No sarcasm.“
Though she dropped out of her argumentative pose and landed back on the ground, a look of deep suspicion remained on her face. „Just making it clear. I'm not a nerd.“
„Okay, okay, I agree with you,“ Cherry backed off slightly, then fell silent for a while, biting her tongue in attempts to resist another smirking remark. She even managed it.
For about two seconds.
„Just saying, the way you look in those reading glasses-“
„That does it!“ Rainbow jumped back up into the air, „No free round for you! Now, if you excuse me, I'll be at the bar, having an awesomely cool wild party. No nerds allowed.“
Haughtily turning around, she slowly flew away, eventually rounding the corner of the nearby bunker, sneering the entire time. Cherry counted the seconds. Four. Five. Six. Sev-
The blue mare peeked her head from behind the corner again, „Wait. Is that funky grav-potential integral derivation on the final,too? Or was that just a thing we did for fun?“
She could see Cherry's upcoming remark. She could just see it. „Don't. Say. A word,“ she gritted her teeth, „Just answer.“
„Red said everything. So, I guess so.“
„Oh!“ Rainbow exclaimed, then approached the table to pick up a heavy book, „Better take this, then.“
Cherry tried to resist, at least this time. She really did. But as Rainbow reached forwards to pick up her book, her ear just happened to skirt past Cherry's mouth. The opportunity was simply too perfect to ignore.
„Nerd,“ she whispered, fighting the urge to giggle.
The equenaut remained utterly immobile for a few seconds, as if not comprehending what her friend had just said. And once she did?
Then, all hell broke loose.
Cherry wasn't even sure what had happened; one moment, her mouth was at Rainbow's ear, and the next she was lying on her back, mane spread out all over the sand, and Rainbow towering over her. The blue mare had an expression of righteous anger on her face, and Cherry was quite sure she was going to get it this time.
Of course, it was at exactly this moment that Redstone chose to round the corner. „Hello, girls!“ he began, reaching back into his saddlebags, „Is just three hours until final exam, so I brought you some-uh…“
Cherry glanced sideways to check what had made him pause like that. Noticing his cheeks were blushing, she looked back at Rainbow in confusion, wandering what the professor's deal was.
Meanwhile, he continued, stuttering and breaking his sentences. „I, err- I guess I leave you two alone. Papers will be in your quarters, is that right?“ he confusedly mumbled, quickly backing away behind the corner.
Cherry looked up again, at Rainbow standing right over her, then glanced over her own body, lying on the ground just like-
Rainbow evidently came to this very realization at the same time too, as she quickly backed off into the air, then set out after the distancing stallion:
„Professor! Professor, wait! That wasn't what it looked like!“
Cherry slammed her forehead with her hoof. Sure, Rainbow. That always sounds convincing.
„Right,“ Redstone began, looking at the row of three equenauts standing to attention in his office, studying them intently over the top of his thick glasses. He was looking with especially deep concern at Cherry and Rainbow in turn; however, Cherry had made sure Bliz was standing between them, just to avoid any more misunderstandings.
„Anyway,“ he continued, shaking his head briefly, „Throughout entire duration of my training programme, you have all proven yourselves more than worthy of piloting Star Walker to orbit. No matter what physical challenge I threw at you, what failure I ran in simulator, you all performed exceedingly well. You truly are Equestria's finest.“
Cherry's chest boomed with pride. She had suffered a year under this infernal professor, and the biggest compliment he had ever given her was when he forgot to mention her in a sentence. For him to say something so… nice, now of all times, it made the accomplishment feel all the greater.
„Unfortunately, there is always catch,“ he remarked, turning around to pick up a stack of papers from the desk, then giving one to each of the mares. Cherry scanned hers briefly; it was a record of all her numerical marks, from every single test over the last year; practical simulations, physicals, and theory exams all. „Only one pony can be first. Understand, all of you are great. Very great. But it is my sad job to find who is just that small bit better than others. Based on your marks throughout my programme, I shall-“
„Hey!“ Rainbow was the first to interrupt, glancing upwards from her sheet. Cherry noted it was spotless, except for a single, giant red splotch that covered the entire 'Theory' section. „That's hardly fair, is it? I mean, when I came here, I didn't know what a variable was! How am I supposed to compete with all these fancy, college-educated ponies? I want fairness, at least.“
„Be assured, I did consider your situation, miss Dash,“ he quickly nodded back, „And you are right; when you arrived, you were total disaster. Immediate write-off. Kept only because of popularity with public.“
Rainbow was too busy staring at him in stunned silence to actually respond. Even Cherry flinched at the remark; when he wanted to, the professor could be really mean.
„Nevertheless, you do show certain promise. Perhaps not in arithmetic, or science, or even wit; but maybe logical thinking. And that is exactly what this final test is designed to determine.“
„You've been talking mysteriously about this 'final' for weeks now!“ Cherry snapped, „Just tell us already!“
„One half-hour interview,“ Redstone announced proudly, „Me, you, alone, talking.“
„That's it?“ Rainbow rolled her eyes, „That's the mighty final test?“
„Oh, you might be surprised,“ he winked back, walking over to the door, „Now, Shepard, Dash, out. Miss Skies' on first.“
„You were here first, cadet. You two, out!“
Cherry looked pleadingly after the two other candidates as they withdrew from the room. Don't leave me alone here! Not with him!
Although Rainbow gave her a sympathetic look as she closed the door after herself, it wasn't enough. Turning around to face the professor, who was already returning back behind his desk, she gulped. This was it. These thirty minutes would decide her entire future. First pony to fly amongst the stars? Or just another name lost to history? The stakes were enormous.
„Miss Skies, then,“ the stallion began meaningfully, „Let us begin with something related to that nice name of yours. Tell me, why is sky blue?“
Because it reflects the sea, dummy! Trained on simple knowledge questions, Cherry immediately opened her mouth and almost snapped back with that very answer, before realizing just how stupid it was. She stood there for a few seconds more with her mouth hanging open, the panic in her mind slowly building as she ransacked her memory for answers, and kept coming up empty.
And all that time, the infernal professor was just standing there, a subtle smile on his face. Cherry's anger at him grew: What kind of question is this? 'Related to my name', really? What does this have do with flying rockets? How am I even supposed to know such a stupid-
„I am not expecting you to come up with answer, nevermind correct answer,“ he suddenly broke the quiet, smile widening, „But silence is not helpful either. Try voicing your thoughts or something. Show off that brain of yours.“
Cherry smirked. Oh, you stupid, infernal, sadistic, evil pony, you do NOT want to hear what I'm thinking about you right now! Is this your great idea of a final test? This? THIS? Are you gonna ask Bliz about herding sheep? This is the single, biggest, stupidest waste of time I've ever-
„Let me be clear, is not knowledge test,“ Redstone tried to be helpful (for once in his life, the selfish git), „I am mostly interested in your thought process. If you were to try finding out why sky is blue, what physical effect would you consider first?“
The principle of reaction, when my hoof hits your face! You've just ruined all my chances at ever becoming famous, just because my name is-
She stopped herself right there, and frowned. 'Becoming famous'? Really, now? That was just about the most idiotic reason she had ever thought of.
But that's why you want to pass this test, no? her subconscious retorted, To be the first pony in space? To be remembered forever?
She remembered that one flight – just a couple of days after the accident – she spent with Rainbow, high over the desert. What was it that she said, back then? Whatever happened to 'Just don't mind if you don't make it'? Something like that, anyway.
Suddenly, she smiled to herself. That's right; whatever had happened to that? All three of them were good, and Cherry was ready to admit she wasn't the best; Redstone might have been harsh, but he was fair, and would simply pick the most capable of the bunch. No hard feelings.
Noticing the professor was still staring at her, tapping his hoof in anticipation, Cherry idly turned her head towards the ceiling:
„What physical effect I'd consider first?“ she wondered aloud, trying to remember anything, anything at all that could be useful. „I dunno. What does light do again? It reflects off of stuff, right?“
„Mm. What else does it do?“
„Oh! There's that refraction thing, isn't there?“
Cherry almost leaped with excitement. She was actually starting to get somewhere. She couldn't just give up now!
Scrambling through the furthest reaches of her memory again, she continued wondering aloud. „Let's see, refraction occurs when light passes from a less dense material to a more dense one… wait, wait, wait, I got this! Vacuum to air, am I right?“
„You are supposed to be convincing me here.“
She grit her teeth. He was fighting with her now. And she'd win this one, she just knew it.
„What is maximum thickness of Star Walker heatshield?“
„Four hundred forty millimetres!“ Rainbow snapped from memory, then bit her lip, „I mean hundred forty. Oops.“
Mentally kicking herself, she carefully watched the professor's face for any signs of disdain. Much to her surprise, however, they did not arise, and he calmly carried on:
„And why is this heatshield needed?“
„Because of the re-entry heat. Duh.“
„And what generates this heat?“
Aha! That's the kind of question Cherry must've been thinking of when she stumbled out of the office, cursing loudly. Rainbow considered it for a second. Let's see, heat, heat… she idly began rubbing her hooves together, then, looking at them, suddenly realized something:
„Friction!“ she pronounced victoriously, „When two things go against each other! The capsule's moving super-fast, so it makes loads of it!“
„Ah, but what if I said it wasn't friction?“ he raised an eyebrow, „What then?“
„I'd call you a liar.“
Catching the professor flinch slightly, Rainbow just grinned to herself. Gotcha!
„Yes, yes. But for purposes of argument, assume it is not friction. What else could it be?“
Rainbow bit her lip again, trying to remember what other things made heat.
„Uh… maybe the friction gives just a little heat, which sets fire to the capsule?“
„And how exactly would fourteen centimetres of solid beryllium plate catch fire, miss Dash?“
Dang, he's good! Rainbow smiled at her own pathetic attempt, then tried to think further.
Mm. This question was hard.
„Look, I don't care how amazing your story is,“ Lyuka chided the poor reporter, who was hanging an inch above the ground, pinned up against the wall by the Commissar's mighty grasp, „We can't let you run it, at least not just yet!“
„But-but-“ the reporter tried to protest, only for Ironhoof to push him even harder into the wall. Seeing the poor pony start gasping for air, Lyuka quickly interceded:
„By Celestia's mane, there's no need for that! It's not like he's a spy or something!“
„You ordered complete security of information,“ Ironhoof flatly stated back, continuing to stare the poor journalist straight in the eyes, „Only following orders.“
„But you're strangling him!“ she screamed furiously, „Stop! Stop!“
Almost begrudgingly, the Commissar eased off the pressure, and the shaken pony slowly slid down the wall. Quickly getting down to the ground, Lyuka began checking him over for injuries, all the while wondering just where did this crazy security pony come from, and why Wilhelmina was so intent on keeping him.
„No need to worry,“ he meanwhile announced, watching unflinchingly as the reporter wheezed to catch his breath again, „I do not strangle ponies. Only warn them.“
Lyuka rolled her eyes, then quickly ordered him out the door and helped the journalist get back on his hooves. Seeing the anger in his eyes, she quickly returned his confiscated tape recorder and smiled nervously:
„I'm so sorry, Mr. Flatsides,“ she fervently began apologizing, „The paperwork about your arrival must have gotten lost. Our security staff had no idea! This is technically still a secret research facility, so-“
„Secret research facility? 'Secret'? That's yer excuse here?“ Joey uttered in disbelief, shaking his head. „Y'all attacked a member of the press! The public'll hear of this, you hear me? I'll whip up such a-“
Seeing him descend into a litany of threats, Lyuka was at her wits' end. What the hay was she supposed to do? A huge scandal at this moment was the very last thing they could afford-
Wait a second! 'Afford'?
„Mr. Flatsides, please, calm down,“ she urged fervently, then smiled. „What about a monetary compensation for your troubles?“
„Monetary?“ the reporter stopped mid-tirade, „That's more like it, lady! Two thousand, and not a word of this gets to the public.“
„One thousand,“ Lyuka quickly snapped back, hoping there was still at least that much left in the budget.
„One and a half.“
„Deal. And you wait 'till Tuesday morning to publish,“ she restated her original requirement, just in case he forgot.
„Sorry, no can do,“ Joey quickly shook his head, „Need to phone it in now, else I miss Sunday edition.“
Ascending a few inches above the ground, Lyuka threw her fore-hooves into the air. „Who cares about the Sunday edition? You've got a real story here. Ponies will read it any day of the week. Wouldn't it be better to just wait a day or two, and build it up, until you have something really legendary?“
„But my bosses-“
„Buck the bosses!“ Lyuka grinned widely, „That's been our running motto here, and just look where it got us.“
Seeing the journalist still quite unconvinced, Lyuka sighed, and her eyes began wandering all over the nearby buildings. Stopping at Stable I – Administration – she suddenly got an idea:
„But what about exclusive interviews with some of the chief designers?“ she suggested, trying out her best salesmare voice, „Get an inside look at the space programme? Red's choosing the equenaut for the first mission right now, you know!“
Seeing the interest pop up in his eyes, she smiled to herself. That was the carrot. Now comes the stick.
„Look, the truth is, we're in the middle of some serious politics right now,“ she slowly approached Joey, an icy look on her face, „The Director's away to Canterlot, and we can't let you publish this before she's done. So you have a choice: Either we do everything to help you make a great story out of this, or we hold you prisoner 'till Tuesday, with our chief of security – that pleasant pony you just met – as your warden. Now, which sounds better?“
Rather begrudgingly, the reporter had to admit it was the former. Finally satisfied, Lyuka made a mental note to remind the Commissar to keep a close eye on all outgoing calls – just in case – then led Joey through the winding corridors of the administrative stable and into Redstone's office.
„Hey, Red!“ she smiled, landing on the carpet of the small wooden room, „How's it going?“
The professor seemed a bit surprised by the presence of the reporter, but seeing she didn't seem to mind, just shrugged to himself and pointed to the towers of papers strewn all around:
„Is hard,“ he sighed deeply, scratching his head, „No obvious first choice. All three seem good, in their separate ways.“
„Really?“ Lyuka was rather surprised, „Even Rainbow? I thought she was a write-off for sure!“
„Oh, I wish it was that simple. But just look at these numbers!“ he exclaimed, shoving a table of meaningless markings into Lyuka's face, and not even waiting a single second before snatching it back. „Physicals and simulator practice, she's first best. Theory, she comes in last, true, but although her interview was disaster, it still showed promise. She made amazing progress in the past year, which is considerable. So, no, not a complete failure.“
„Excellent mathematician, and also good in simulator. But I am worried about her physical results: she is fast, but little clumsy at times. Ejecting from capsule will be tricky at best, and we will need top athletic performance.“
Taking advantage of this pause in conversation to quickly swap the tape in his recorder for a new one, Joey looked up at Redstone: „And what about that, that rich one? Whatshername Skies.“
Noting the subtle nod Lyuka gave, the professor shrugged and turned to the reporter. „She's strange,“ he began, pulling up some more performance reports and giving them a second look. „Does not come in first for any area. Physicals, simulator, theory; she is always between Bliz and Rainbow. Always.“
„Shouldn't she be the first write-off, then?“ Lyuka asked, fully realizing how cold she sounded. But there was no easy way about this: In order for one to fly, the other two had to stay on the ground, simple as that. Stupid Wilhelmina, running away to Canterlot and leaving this to us!
„See, that is exactly what I thought at first, yes?“ the professor began, pausing briefly to sip from a cup of tea, „All that rhetoric about how 'only the best will fly'. But is being average not its own strength, too? After all, it means she has no weakness.“
Lyuka nodded distantly, and set herself down to Redstone, fully intent on quickly figuring out a simple solution and getting to bed by midnight.
Alas, it was not to be.
Blinking in the blaring light of the morning sun, Lyuka slowly veered out of the office, carrying a single pin and a sheet of paper. She slowly stumbled through the many corridors of the building, not even bothering to say hello to the three candidates as they all chirped her good morning – they must have been relentlessly waiting for their results ever since the interviews, from the look of things – as she gradually, slowly, eventually wobbled over to the large notice-board in the lobby and pinned up the typed announcement. She only made a single step sideways, to allow the three mares to rush forwards and crowd around the notice, before dropping on the floor where she stood and falling into sweet, sweet sleep.
Checking her tie was snugly and properly fitting for one last time, Wilhelmina glanced quickly around the small, but finely furnished waiting room. Her newly-bought black frock was all sorts of uncomfortable, tight in all the wrong places, loose in others, and itching all throughout. She wished she could have spent more time choosing something else, perhaps better-fitting, but those infernal airships always arrived late. Of course, under normal circumstances, she wouldn't even bother with such bourgeois ostentatiousness; but today, if she played her cards right, footage from what she was about to do would play on newsreel screens all throughout Equestria. So she might as well look good.
Still, the suit could have been just a little less itchy. Honestly, how could these nobles stand it?
It was Mr. Skies, examining her bemusedly as he leaned against the wall on the other side of the otherwise empty room.
„Bit jumpy, yeah,“ she smiled, „Aren't you?“
„A bit, I admit,“ he nodded back.
It was at this moment that a loud knock sounded at the door, soon followed by a uniformed valet unicorn sticking her head in. „The Equestrian Dynamics delegation is about to leave. Any time now, Mr. Skies.“
„Alright, then!“ he exclaimed, getting back on his hooves and advancing towards Wilhelmina. „Any last words?“
„The article still hasn't been published, right?“ Wilhelmina asked with some concern, „Otherwise, this could prove quite embarrassing.“
Chuckling briefly, he shook his head, obviously amused at the possibility. „Don't worry, it'll be evening edition at earliest. We still have a couple of hours.“
„Mr. Skies?“ the valet's voice was obviously anxious now.
„Coming!“ he bellowed, then winked at Wilhelmina, and the two set out through the open door. After a short distinguished trot through the decorated marble corridors, they arrived at the main lobby of the Assembly building. The gates to the grand hall were hanging open, and a small delegation of ponies in top hats was just leaving. From further inside the great hall, the voice of Celestia could be heard. Wilhelmina peered her ears just for a moment:
„…and Konik Industries is to be granted the right to construct a new steel mill in Stalliongrad, in exchange for fifty thousand bits in afforestation funding for the region of lower Derbyshire,“ the heavenly – yet slightly bored – voice of the goddess resounded, „Furthermore, Equestrian Dynamics shall be allowed two new-“
„Closing statements, indeed,“ Mr. Skies remarked, then pointed towards the massive golden gates of the central chamber, and the royal guards who were just leaving their position to shut them close again. „Now or never, Will.“
„Don't you worry,“ she smirked, then, taking one last deep breath, set out in full gallop across the giant marble lobby. A few of the royal guards flew up to intercept the running ponies, but, spotting Mr. Skies, they slowed down and let them through.
„And thus we conclude the one-hundredth-and-twenty-fourth general industry council,“ Celestia announced, her voice gradually becoming more eager as the prospect of an end loomed, „Unless, of course, there are any last minute concerns. No? Good! I henceforth call-“
„My Princess!“ Mr. Skies yelled out from just behind Wilhelmina as the two suddenly stepped into the hall, causing Celestia to stop mid-sentence as she noticed them. With some dismay, Wilhelmina noted the princess did not break her facade for even a second, her subtle smile not betraying any signs of surprise whatsoever.
Meanwhile, the Assembly hall around was as imposing as always, a massive closed-roof amphitheatre with imposing mosaics. The benches were full, too, of strict-looking ponies in full formal attire; all of whom were now glaring at the two intruders sternly, robbed of the prospect of adjourning early.
Yet, unlike her last visit, Wilhelmina did not feel afraid. She was in control here, not them. Checking the few film cameras rolling in the background were now quickly turning towards them, and that the tired journalists in the back rows were quickly snapping out of their collective stupor, she confidently smirked. Payback time.
„Count Skies? Countess Brown?“ the Speaker announced simply from her position at Celestia's side, turning her hooded head ever-so-slightly in an inquisitive matter, „What brings you to the industry council? I had thought you to be retired.“
„Only a last-minute matter, my ladyship,“ he responded, reaching the centre of the hall and bowing. Wilhelmina watched him for a second, then remembered herself and quickly bowed too.
„Should you require a royal hearing, you know the Princess' court is always open to anypony in need,“ the Speaker replied, still composed, but visibly annoyed at their intrusion. Wilhelmina couldn't blame her; the sun was slowly setting, and these boring meetings must have gone on for an entire day. „I simply do not see why-“
„Allow me, your ladyship,“ Wilhelmina interrupted, relishing in cutting the Speaker short halfway through. The hooded pony raised one eyebrow, obviously annoyed, but nevertheless fell silent. From her side, Celestia simply watched, unflinchingly peering at Wilhelmina from her marble throne.
„I wish I could have scheduled a meeting, but it is a last minute urgent matter,“ she carried on, eager to draw the string out for as long as she could; it was only upon a subtle prod from Mr. Skies that she cut to the chase. „The truth is, we come here make a request to the Ministry of Defence. More specifically, we require about two score of Court wizards, skilled in air magic.“
„I beg your pardon?“
If the Speaker had a monocle, it would have flown right off. Her expression was delicious; absolutely, utterly, completely, delicious.
A pity the Princess seemed unaffected, though.
„For about three days,“ Wilhelmina tried again, smiling warmly.
„Get those fools off the stage!“ demanded a moustached noble in the front benches, „Guards!“
„I do apologize, my little ponies, but the entire Assembly is present here,“ the goddess smiled – sadly, true, just with the corner of her mouth, but still, it was a smile – as pegasi in full royal armour slowly began approaching from the back of the room, „Your esteemed representatives here have travelled all across the land to discuss serious political matters. And they've just finished a day full of tiring meetings. They're in no mood for jokes.“
Playing nice for the cameras, eh? Wilhelmina scoffed, Just you wait.
„Jokes?“ she exclaimed in feigned surprise, suddenly wishing she had also bought a monocle along with her suit, just so she could now drop it, „This is a serious matter, my princess! Or are you saying that insufficient safety of our citizens is a laughing concern?“
Hearing this, the approaching guards glanced towards Celestia, who stopped them mid-air with a wave of her hoof. She didn't say anything else, but her expression was clear enough. I am bored now. And tired. This better not be a joke.
„For the rocket launch?“ Wilhelmina innocently added, and the chamber fell entirely silent. „You do remember the last one exploded, right? We simply want to stay on the safe side when we launch a pony into orbit.“
As the faces of the nearby nobles went through a rapid kaleidoscope of varied emotions – ranging from But you got cancelled! to Who invited all these journalists anyway? – she kept staring into the Princess' burning eyes, not breaking line of sight for a second.
„You know? Next Monday?“
The immortal Goddess of all pony-kind did not flinch at the announcement, of course. Unlike many of the politicians that surrounded her, she did not gasp, or make a double take; and Wilhelmina expected no less of her. After all, even with the Commissar's heightened security measures, and Skies' front companies, their project was too big to hide completely, at least from her. So, it was of no surprise that the constant, subtle smile remained on her face even then.
But, and Wilhelmina would revel in this fact for the rest of her natural life, she did blink. Just for the shortest fraction of a second, never changing the rest of her expression; but she did blink.
The eternal ruler of all ponies, blinked.
„And who is the prime crew, if I may ask?“ she smiled warmly, showing no further signs of surprise. After all, she had an image to maintain.
„Comrade Cherry Skies as prime crew,“ Wilhelmina nonchalantly rolled off, „Bliz Shepard for backup, and Rainbow Dash as commander of range safety.“
„I see,“ she flatly stated. Her voice was barely audible over the furious scratching noises of the journalists' notepads; but even then, that single moment would forever bury itself in Wilhelmina's memory.
Yes, you do, Princess.
Yes, you finally do.
„Ack, the phones, the phones! Curse these infernal phones!“
Standing in the doorway of Redstone's office, Cherry couldn't help but giggle at the professor's loud exclamations as he paced through all the corners of his little book-covered chamber, tracing out a highly elliptic orbit around his desk; and the five ringing phones on it.
„You called for me, professor?“ she asked, politely tapping the opened door again. Suddenly realizing she was there all along, he quickly walked up and waggled a hoof in her face:
„Do not use that verb!“ he commanded, „Anything telephony-related is now strictly forbidden! Punishment of death!“
„So I guess Will broke the news, huh?“ Cherry smiled, entering the room as she nodded towards the ringing phones. Redstone simply shook his head again, then looked towards the sky:
„Every single line! Four hours! Non-stop! I have half of all ponies on this Cosmodrome answering as fast as they can, and is still not enough!“
„Well, I guess we're popular now,“ Cherry shrugged, smiling warmly. There was no coming back now. No last-minute cancellation. She was going to space. „Anyway, you wanted to see me?“
„What? Oh, yes!“ the professor exclaimed, then glanced towards the ringing phones one last time. Uttering something in foreign – probably very vulgar, judging by the used intonation – he marched up to the desk, then picked the phones up with his mouth and smashed them into the ground, one by one. Having done this, he proceeded to stomp on their remains with great force, continually jumping up and down until the infernal machines were all reduced to silent scraps of wood and brass.
Having visibly enjoyed this activity, the elderly earth pony stopped for a second to catch his breath, then gestured Cherry to come over. Meanwhile, he began drawing files out of his desk.
Approaching, she opened one and gave it an inquisitive look; the folder was full of spreadsheets, endless numerical tables stretching on and on to infinity. Noticing what she was looking at, Redstone slammed that file shut again, then opened five other ones instead.
„Additional simulations. Abort scenarios. Endurance-building exercises,“ he began, pointing towards a paper containing a schedule. Just glancing at it, Cherry could see it was impossibly full. „Now that you have been chosen for primary, we have to seriously step up your training.“
„Step up?“ she repeated incredulously, still staring at the paper, „Haven't we all been training enough? I mean, just look at this! I can't possibly-“
„Is true you all trained hard, yes. But you are prime crew now. You launch in less than one week, and capsule has absolutely zero automation. By time you fly, you will be able to perform all manoeuvres tied up and hanging from ceiling, blind-folded, while being hit by a wet fish.“
Cherry paid the professor's eccentricities little heed. Instead, she continued going through the lists, still in utter disbelief. „'Dietary procedures'?“ she read off one particularly mean-looking sheet, „Are you saying I'm too fat to-“
„No, no, no, not at all!“ he quickly interrupted, then glanced her over for a moment, „Well, maybe. Every pound of payload needs fifteen pounds of propellant to reach orbit, so it is in our best interests to-“
„I'm not fat!“ Cherry meekly protested, looking herself over. Right? I'm not, am I?
„Regardless, there are also other matters. Capsule has no, uh… sanitary facilities, so we need to put you on, well, low-residue diet. Also-“
„Wait, wait, wait,“ Cherry interrupted again, running that sentence through her head one more time. She could not believe this entire conversation was still getting more and more insane, „You're telling me now? What other surprises did you forget to mention?“
„Hmm… oh yes! Turns out, new atmosphere regenerator does not actually work,“ Redstone smoothly carried on, „Stupid lithium chlorides. Anyway, we will have to conduct some groundside tests in gas chamber, just to check our maths on much carbon dioxide you can take before fainting.“
„Are you kidding-“
„We just want to check our maths! Since we kind-of sort-of miscalculated on amount of sound insulation needed for capsule. Hope you like earmuffs, by the way.“
Finally finishing up, Redstone pulled out a small silver tube from a drawer and offered it up to Cherry. „In good news, we also received first batch of space food from our contractor. Here, free sample.“
She eyed the small tube suspiciously. Somepony had crudely drawn, in crayon, a blueberry cupcake and a pink smiling pony on the otherwise blank paper label, along with the words 'Pie Industries', and '144% Crunchalicious!'; which would have all been fine, except the whole thing whiffed powerfully of glue and sour milk. Uncertainly popping the top off, Cherry carefully brought it up to her nose, only to instinctively throw it away again as she caught its incredibly foul smell full-blast. The silvery tube hit the wall and exploded, leaving a residue of grey, sticky mass that quickly began drying in air.
„Is first prototype,“ Redstone shrugged, „They'll get it right by launch.“
„But that happens in a week!“ Cherry screamed, staring as the 'food' quickly solidified into a foul blackened blob, „How can they possibly fix that?“
„You'd be surprised at how much can get done in a week,“ he shrugged again, then suddenly blinked, and put another thick binder on the table, „Which reminds me! Learn these codes from memory by tomorrow. We still need to practice new communication protocol.“
Cherry just blankly stared as she let the stallion quickly stuff more and more thick files into her saddlebags, already relishing the prospects of spending even more time with him than she would otherwise. It would just be a wonderful week.
Seriously, though. Who could have guessed that going to space would be hard?
Rainbow had not visited the Carousel Boutique for a long time. In fact, she usually made it a point to avoid the place. Not because she didn't like Rarity, or anything like that. The entire idea of dressing in style and all just didn't really fit with her most of the time. Dresses were just annoying things that slowed you down, and the 'fancy parties' they were usually worn to were nothing to talk about either.
Because of all this, she wasn't quite sure exactly when Rarity had turned the place around; probably around the time of the Programme's 'cancellation', but you never knew with that mare. Lying on a red couch in the main floor, Rainbow studied the scene around her with interest. She remembered the time when it was just a simple showroom for fancy dresses and silly hats, which made its current transformation all the cooler. The dresses were still there, obviously – this was Rarity, after all – but there were now many strange machines all over the place, composed of delicate glass tubules, small motor assemblies, pressure tanks and stuff that she couldn't even identify. Beyond the window, she could see at least three newly-erected tents as well, filled with even more of these machines; there was even a smoke-stack there, for Celestia's sake! Smiling to herself as she scanned the scene, Rainbow noted that the only machines allowed inside the main boutique were the cool-looking, pretty ones. Apparently, all the bulky heavy ones had to stay in the tents outside. Ponies never change, she smiled to herself, turning over on the couch and trying not to dirty it too much with her hooves, out of simple respect. Not very successfully, though.
It was at this time that there was a brief commotion behind the door, and Rarity came walking in, accompanied by a small group of stallions, all dressed in fashionable, tight-cut uniforms and straining heavily as they balanced a particularly heavy piece of machinery on their backs. Spotting Rainbow, Rarity gave her a sweet (and warmly surprised) smile, before diverting her attention back to managing her crew:
„Yes, put it over there, right next to the steam-lathe. Clover, mind the power cables, will you? Yes, that's right, right there…“ she conducted the ponies through their motions as they softly and carefully lowered the heavy (and hence doubtlessly expensive) piece of machinery to the ground. That done, she turned back to Rainbow, the sweet smile still on her face:
„Rainbow!“ she exclaimed, wandering over to her friend and hugging her dearly. Rainbow embraced her back; the Cosmodrome was a fun place, sure, but being separated from her friends was the worst thing ever, and although they did come around to visit regularly, it was nowhere near enough. „I got a message saying one of the Seven would be stopping by for an inspection,“ she continued, still smiling, „I was hoping it'd be you.“
„Well, I did want to get a look at this place you've got here,“ Rainbow reluctantly left the hug, then smiled widely, „I mean, I was told it was pretty cool – but, wow! It's an outright factory!“
„Oh, you know. I manage,“ Rarity put one hoof behind the other. Rainbow couldn't help but snicker at the false modesty.
„Anyway, I think that will be quite enough for today, gentlecolts, thank you,“ Rarity turned to the waiting work-stallions, speaking in that superior tone of voice she always used pretending to be nobility, „Miss Rarity is seeing a good friend. You're getting an early break today – with full pay, of course.“
While most of the stallions cheered and left the workshop amidst shouts of thanks to Rarity, one stayed behind, glancing nervously at the floor and the walls. First giving him a lengthy stare, Rarity the proceeded to ask what the matter was.
„Ah, well, you know…“ he began uncertainly, then glanced at Rainbow, „It's just, I'm a big fan of the Space Programme, and miss Dash here-“
„You want an autograph?“ Rainbow asked, already grinning. Ever since the accident, very few ponies had asked her for one, which was a pity, as giving them was great fun. Seeing him nod almost imperceptibly, Rainbow quickly flew over to her saddlebags, and getting out a stack of photos she always carried around – just in case of an emergency, of course – quickly signed one and turned it over. Seeing the stallion almost jump on his hooves with excitement, she bade him goodbye, and he was gone almost immediately.
„Honestly, Rainbow, you didn't even ask for a single bit in return,“ Rarity dryly commented, shaking her head, „If you keeping going around like this, ponies might start forgetting who's the real element of generosity around here!“
Rainbow burst out laughing, and Rarity quickly joined in. It felt good to be back; if only just for a few hours.
As she wiped a tear from her eye, she nodded towards the rest of the workshop. „Speaking of, how the hay did you pay for all this, anyway? I thought the chief designers were dead-broke.“
„Oh, they certainly were!“ Rarity laughed again, wandering over to some strange hissing silvery box-shaped thing she then began working on. Looking at it, Rainbow was reminded of pressure chambers back at the Cosmodrome; but still had absolutely zero idea of what it actually was, or why Rarity felt the need to own one. Meanwhile, her friend continued: „The bank didn't know that, though. And I got the loan through just before the news broke.“
„Wait, so all this stuff isn't actually yours? The bank can take it away at any moment?“
Switching off her strange machine, Rarity laughed again. „Almost! Except it's gone bankrupt now, of course.“
„Wait,“ Rainbow repeated, eyes suddenly blinking wide as she gave Rarity a harsh look, „Are you telling me you've managed to ruin a bank? Like, you alone?“
„Maybe,“ she innocently hummed as she winked at Rainbow, before disappearing behind the big machine and opening something. Meanwhile, Rainbow just emptily stared forward, not quite sure what to think:
„Is this another thing fancy ponies do for fun or something? Because, wow.“
„…a bit like that, yes,“ Rarity pipped up from behind the machine, still rummaging through something, „Not like anypony cares about banks anyway.“
„Hey, isn't my money in a bank?“ Rainbow suddenly spoke up, realizing something, „And wasn't it you who told me to put it there? Did you, like, become some kind of evil mastermind while I was gone or something?“
„Rainbow!“ Rarity exclaimed, sticking her head out from behind the machine and giving her a lengthy look, „I'd never do that to anypony! Honestly, it was just an investment bank.“
„The kind honest, hard-working ponies never touch,“ Rarity explained, then a smile appeared on her face as she slammed something shut at the back of the machine. „Anyway, enough about that. Guess what I've just finished!“
„The spacesuit. Duh,“ Rainbow indignantly answered, „That's why I got sent here in the first place. What else would you have these machines for?“
„Come on, Rainbow!“ Rarity spoke up cheerfully, ignoring her dejection as she finally left the machine, levitating a folded silvery suit along with her. „This is exciting! Live a little! You'll wear this to space!“
Rainbow winced. „No I won't,“ she announced flatly, voice utterly devoid of any emotion. „Didn't get picked. Don't you read the papers?“
Perhaps she didn't, because the news seemed to genuinely surprise her. And it wasn't just some kind of feigned surprise either, oh no; Rarity genuinely gasped, even dropping her precious work on the ground in the process. Rainbow knew her too well to realize, she'd never do that on purpose.
„But-but-“ she began, looking Rainbow over repeatedly in utter confusion, „How? Did they go mad or something?“
„Nah,“ Rainbow shrugged, „Just didn't get picked.“
„It was fair,“ she snapped briefly, „They explained the reasons well. There was somepony better, simple as that.“
There was a brief silence, until the sudden flash of a smile appeared on Rarity's face, before being replaced by a stern expression. „Rainbow, you shouldn't joke about things like that!“ she chided, regaining her composure again, „Good heavens! For a minute, I thought you were being serious there!“
„Rarity, I am serious!“ Rainbow shouted, angry for the first time, „I'm not flying! I'm not even the back-up!“
„As if,“ the mare laughed softly, picking up the dropped spacesuit again and quickly inspecting it for damage, „You're a terrible liar, you know that? 'There was somepony better'… ha! Either you're making a joke, or you're not my Rainbow, simple as that.“
„For the last time!“ she raised her voice, „I didn't!“
For solid proof, she flew back to her pair of saddlebags and picked out a slightly smudged print, which she then proceeded to show her friend. Proving her stubbornness, Rarity had to re-read it several times, and verify the signature up close over a high-power lamp, before she was even willing to admit the truth:
„But…“ she began, visibly shaken as she glanced between the piece of paper and Rainbow, „And you're not gonna fight? Complain?“
„Why would I?“ Rainbow shrugged, „I didn't meet the conditions enough. Simple.“
With a look of deep suspicion spread across her face, Rarity inspected her up close, as if checking she wasn't just some kind of impostor. Rainbow let her stew in her puzzlement for a few seconds later, savouring the surprise. Finally, she spoke up:
„I'm not very shaken, am I?“
„I must admit, you are taking this… far better than I anticipated.“
„And you know why?“ she quipped back, the smugness in her voice almost unbearable. Rarity slowly shook her head, and Rainbow finally unleashed the big one:
„Because I'll be commanding the Wonderbolts!“ she let loose, performing a triumphant loop of excitement in the air as she yelled, „Me! Captain! Wonderbolts! Can you imagine it?“
Even Rarity seemed surprised by this revelation. „But-how-“
„Range safety!“ Rainbow grinned victoriously, quickly flying over to remove another sheet from her saddlebags, and shove it into Rarity's face. „See? See? The designers need somepony to clear the airspace or something, so they've loaned the Wonderbolts from the ministry of defence. And since I'm clearly the best, they put me in charge! Me, in charge of the Wonderbolts! Me!“
Rarity seemed taken aback with excitement, and Rainbow was, too. Who cared about space? Nopony at all!
But the Wonderbolts?
„This is so awesome!“ she gushed, dancing in the air with joy.
Suddenly, a loud thud against the wall spoilt the triumphal moment. Stopping mid-way through a loop from the surprise, Rainbow proceeded to look at the wall in righteous anger, just about ready to snap in half whoever was responsible for that noise.
„Sorry!“ sounded a dazed voice from behind the window; one she recognized immediately, and groaned in response. Derpy.
Of course. Who else but her would spoil such a great moment?
Another clumsy impact against the wall soon followed, then another. Straining her ears, Rainbow could hear other strange sounds of commotion coming from outside the tent; and, judging by her puzzled shrug, so could Rarity. The two mares exchanged some further questioning glances, then both slowly advanced towards the door, curious what that crazy pony was doing this time. Rainbow smirked to herself; wrecking half of Rarity's factory in vain attempts to fit a cargo crate into the mailbox, perhaps? Or just clumsily navigating to Sugarcube Corner in search of muffins, crashing into every second building in the process?
Opening the door and seeing what was outside, however, she had to blink several times to make sure she was seeing right. In the field just by the Carousel, a short stick was stuck into the earth, with Derpy's filly – Dinky, was it? – standing nearby. Meanwhile, a rope tied to its top stretched all the way out to Derpy herself, who was bobbing in the air just a short distance above them, holding the other end.
Of course, that wasn't what caught Rainbow's interest at all; that honour belonged to the small, elongated wood-and-metal cylinder lying on the grass near Dinky's hooves. It had a rounded tip, and a metallic nozzle sticking out of the end… she refused to accept it really was what it looked like. It just couldn't be.
Meanwhile, Derpy, finally spotting them, gave the pair a friendly wave:
„Hi, Dash!“ she cheered, hovering near the wall of the Carousel Boutique, still holding her end of the long rope, „Hi, Rarity! I hope you don't mind if I set this up here!“
Speechless, Rarity proceeded to reply with a somewhat puzzled – but extremely worried – concentrated stare. Despite its sheer intensity, however, it did not stop the grey pegasus, who proceeded to quickly tie her end of the rope to the very tip of the Boutique, then fly back down to the strange creation. There, Dinky was already hard at work, lifting the small vehicle off the ground and methodically attaching it to the rope.
„Is that-“ Rarity finally recovered enough composure to speak again, „It- it can't be-“
„Well, if you've got any other explanation, I'd love to hear it,“ Rainbow noted, still studying the peculiar device that Dinky and her mother were now securing to the rope, „But it sure looks like it.“
„But-“ Rarity stuttered, „It's- it's Ditzy! I mean, sure, she did appear at my door a few times, asking for strange chemicals, but I just gathered she was trying to make muffins or something! Being her usual self, you know! Not… this.“
„Might as well ask,“ Rainbow shrugged, then quickly flew over to where Ditzy and Dinky were setting up their peculiar creation, now connecting a pair of wires across its hull.
„Hi, Derpy! Hi, Dinky!“ she smiled, landing close to study the vehicle in detail. Though the nozzle looked like it was battered together from random scraps of metal, and the whole hull was just made from roughly-worked wood and the occasional metal brace, not even Rainbow could deny it looked like a rocket. Well, sort of.
„Hi, Rainbow!“ Derpy enthusiastically greeted her again, perhaps forgetting she had already done that the first time around. „Never mind us, we'll be out of your sights in notime! Just need to make a little test.“
„Test, huh?“ Rainbow eyed the tiny rocket, now attached to the rope and hanging loose. „And just what on Equestria are you doing here, anyway? Fireworks?“
„Oh, it was my little muffin's idea,“ Derpy smiled warmly, patting the filly on the head. Rainbow noticed that when she was looking at her child, then – temporarily, at least – her eyes uncrossed, just so both of them could see Dinky at once. „I just helped her get the materials. But she built it, all by herself!“
„Come on, mommy, you helped too!“ the filly protested, still inspecting the model rocket one last time. „Who made all the winglets?“
„She even went to Twilight, just to read up on how fireworks work, and how to make her own fuel! She's such a clever little thing. Doesn't take after me, that's for sure!“ Derpy laughed merrily, looking back at Rainbow; who smiled back absent-mindedly, but kept looking at the little filly.
„Why do you want so much to make a rocket, anyway?“ she asked playfully, not quite sure what answer to expect, „Want to fly to space?“
„No, you silly!“ Dinky snapped back, breaking away from her rocket just to give Rainbow an amused stare, „Rockets this small can't go to space, duh! You should know that!“
„Dinky! Remember your manners!“
„Sorry, miss Dash,“ she shrunk back immediately upon the scolding from her mother, „But you've got to admit, it was a silly question.“
„Yeah, it was,“ Rainbow smiled back, and the filly went back to re-checking her vehicle one last time:
„Anyway, it's to help mommy,“ she continued, carefully checking the exposed wires weren't crossing over anywhere, „Imagine it, miss Dash! Rocket mail! Covers a thousand miles in minutes! Mommy will make millions, and show everypony who ever made fun of her!“
„Dinky, I told you, you really don't-“
„But I want to!“ she insisted, stomping her hoof, „Those other ponies are mean! You've gotta show them!“
Meanwhile, Rainbow raised her eyebrow at the idea. Rocket mail? Really? It certainly sounded like a very Derpy thing to do, that was for sure.
Then again, so does our entire Programme.
Who knows, it could even work.
She gazed at the little filly, who finally seemed satisfied with her machine, and began unrolling the ignition cables as she retreated to a safe distance. Quickly following suit, Rainbow then turned around and watched as Dinky connected her wires to a battery.
„Ready!“ she reported. Clearing her throat, her mother took to the air and began:
„Dinky Test Vehicle One, all stations reporting ready for launch! Range?“
„Dear fillies and gentlecolts, the DTV reports ready for launch!“ Derpy exclaimed enthusiastically, then winked hopefully in the direction of Rainbow. „And now, for the countdown, here's one of the legendary Equestria Seven, the famous Rainbow Dash!“
„Thanks, Derpy,“ Rainbow opted to play along, then, nodding at Dinky, began:
„Three! Two! One!“
The filly crossed the two wires, and with a powerful flash of light, the little rocket took off. Guided by the long rope, it quickly accelerated along its track, riding a long trail of heavy, smoky fire. After running out of fuel halfway through, it slid along the rest of the track, slowing down. It gently hit the top of the Carousel, then bounced back and began sliding down again, eventually settling at a low point on the rope.
Derpy cheered mightily from the air, clapping her hooves and shouting encouraging phrases. Meanwhile, the filly glanced up towards Rainbow, looking slightly embarrassed; as if afraid of showing off such tiny rockets to a real equenaut!
Rainbow, however, was impressed enough. „Gotta hand it to you, kiddo,“ she grinned, patting her on the shoulder, „Your first try, and it didn't explode. Much better than us! Want a free autograph?“
„Autographs are silly,“ the filly snapped.
„Huh. I guess they are,“ Rainbow sighed in amusement, then, still staring at the rocket, got another idea. „How 'bout a design tip?“
Seeing the filly's ears snapped to attention, she grinned to herself. With a bit of practice, this pony was going places.
„The engine's pretty important, but if that's all you have, your rocket will just end up tumbling. It won't get much cooler than a firework. What you really need is a guidance system.“
„I know, I know,“ the little filly smiled sadly, „I tried going to Twi and asking for a book on computeronics, but there aren't any! And she said they're too expensive anyway.“
„Nah, you don't need computeronics. Those things are useless,“ Rainbow waved her hoof, „What you want is to angle those winglets at the back, right? So they spin-stabilize the rocket. Conservation of angular momentum.“
„Of course!“ the filly exclaimed as her eyes lit up, and Rainbow suddenly felt very stupid. It had taken her weeks to understand how that could possibly work, and here, this filly got it in seconds.
Seriously. What the hay?
Stepping back a little, Zvezda took a few moments to admire the silvery, polished metal hull of the spaceship. Their spaceship, she reminded herself. The capsule itself was a near-perfect sphere, spoilt mostly by a large hatch in its side, which in turn housed a single round window. There were other imperfections, too; connection ports for the Comrade Module, opened maintenance hatches for access to internal cabling, and so forth. But, on the whole, it was close to a highly geometric shape, one it was easy to calculate aerodynamic performance for.
The Comrade Module, in turn, resembled an ugly cylinder, that would eventually attach to the sphere's underside and provide everything from propulsion to main power. Its surface was a complete mess; thick plumbing, manoeuvring thruster nozzles, exposed circuitry, the re-entry engine package, thick-walled pressure tanks, everything that wasn't strictly necessary for the return from space, being left to burn up in the upper atmosphere.
Slowly, as she glanced at the other ponies in the laboratory, she let the beginnings of a smile creep up across her face. On-time, and under-budget; the best any manager could ever wish for. It was done.
Now, if only the stupid thing actually worked.
„Hey, didn't we have a cool mystery-solving group around here, once? Whatever happened to that?“
Looking up at her friend, Zvezda groaned. „Blues, we still need to run one hundred and fifty four tests by midnight, or we fall behind with the deadline. Can you take your silliness someplace else?“
„Okay, okay!“ the pegasus quickly raised her hoof in defence, „Sorry! I was just asking, since I just saw that Commissar fella walk past the door. All suspicious looking and stuff.“
„Suspicious?“ Zvezda became curious, looking over to the door. There was nopony there now, of course, but this route was way, way off the Commissar's usual evening beat, and he was definitely not the sort to break protocol, or even tradition… she wondered if the craziness of the upcoming launch was just getting to him, too.
„He seemed kinda nervous, too. Skittish, I guess you'd call it.“
„Whatever,“ Zvezda shrugged, picking up the end of a thick cable with her mouth. There was just a week left to test everything, to fix every bug they found. For Cherry's sake, they had to do the best job they could.
Running across to the capsule, she opened up a service hatch in the side of the Comrade module and, after a brief fight with its vacuum-proof seal, managed to access its internal workings. Attaching her cable to a waiting connector, she first made sure it fit snugly, then looked back and nodded to Terra:
„Electric systems test, hundred-twenty-four-B,“ the pegasus announced, checking off a line from the large checklist that hung on the wall, „Stand by for power.“
As the pegasus fumbled around in attempts to find the right lever to flip, Zvezda quickly left the opened service hatch behind and circled the assembly lab to take a look at a readouts panel on the other side. Confirming everything was ready, Terra engaged the power, and Zvezda began watching the dials and light bulbs intently for any signs of abnormal activity.
Meanwhile, standing off to the side of the Star Walker and surrounded by a large pack of reporters, Sara began her with explanation:
„Although you might think this all looks quite complicated, the Star Walker design is, in fact, the very epitome of simplicity,“ she spoke in the ordered, commanding voice of a newsreel narrator, prompting Zvezda to consider just how much she had practised for this opportunity, „Considering it has to contain life-support, orbital engines, navigation aids, and so forth, it is the simplest possible design it could be. It does not contain parachutes, or other recovery systems: At ten thousand feet, the pegasus pilot simply ejects and lands by herself. There are no computeronic systems: The capsule is navigated entirely by visual reference from the window and telescope. Instead of using an active atmospheric regenerator, we just have a row of boxes with lithium hydroxide in them. All this might sound silly, even humorous, but it's done for a very good reason; virtually every system is the simplest it can possibly be, and hence the most reliable, with very few possible points of failure.“
Idly listening in to the narration, Zvezda suddenly tuned back in when a bright red light lit up on her diagnostics board: 'SPS ARM'. First tapping the panel with her hoof, she waited for it to disappear, and for the correct bulb to switch on. A little concerned it wasn't happing, she first gave a gesture for Sara to momentarily shut up, then leant over to the side:
„Ter, I said one-two-four!“ she yelled across to her friend, who was still hovering at the power-routing console on the other side of the lab, „Not three-five-eight!“
Quickly snapping to attention, the pegasus checked her console over. „It is one-two-four!“
„Then why's the hoofing SPS arming? We should be stirring the nitro tanks, not preparing for staging!“
A simple „Uhh-“, along with a confused scratch of the head, was all the pegasus managed before a sudden flash of blue light, accompanied by a loud bang and the laboratory's lights cutting out, spooked everypony in the room. Quickly recovering from the shock, Zvezda suddenly realized that a raging fire had broken out from the side of the Comrade Module. As she, along with Blues and Terra, scrambled to find the extinguishers and rescue the capsule, all whilst navigating a frenzied sea of panicking reporters, Sara spoke over the chaos in her calm, authoritative voice:
„Of course, despite the simplicity of individual sub-systems, the electrics still are a sprawling nightmare of thousands of miles of tiny little wires that just go everywhere and all look the same. Add to that the fact they're the cheapest wires we could find, it should come of no surprise that the occasional bad connection or short-circuit happens.“
While Terra furiously flipped through the circuit breakers in attempts to isolate the short and put the lights back on, Zvezda tried in vain to get across to the rack of extinguishers, navigating past the scores of panicking journalists in the wild flickering of the fire. Meanwhile, the fire alarm finally tripped, and a few seconds later a full squad of fire fighters rushed in, clad in full-protection suits and levitating up a heavy hose, along with several spot-lights. Seeing Zvezda, their chief smiled sadly; this occasion would mark the fourth time this week they had to do this.
„Of course, electrics aside, you will find that the Star Walker is one of the safest transport vehicles in the history of Equestrian engineering,“ Sara meanwhile continued, too well-used to these accidents to be shaken in any way. However, suddenly noticing the last of the screaming reporters had already escaped through the opened door, she stopped, and, sighing remorsefully, looked over to Zvezda:
„Well, I tried, didn't I?“
„Nah, you did great,“ she smiled back at the unicorn as the lights of the laboratory gradually flashed back on and the fire was quickly extinguished, „Just give them a few hours to recover from the screaming and the fire. I betcha they'll come right back.“
Briefly glancing over the devastated lab – thankfully, the room itself was already used to such accidents, and they'd have it up and running in notime at all – she surveyed the damaged Comrade Module with some definite concern. A large blackened splotch of soot covered the once-shiny metal hull, and acrid white smoke was still rising from the melting insulation. Carefully approaching the segment, she briefly inspected the damage: The secondary inverter (which shouldn't even have been powered, had the circuit been connected right) was a total write-off, and most of the surrounding circuitry was melted together into a giant, ugly mess.
„It's not too bad,“ she commented to her girls, who had been anxiously waiting for a report, „No worse than the usual, at least. Block H is backup anyway, and the fire didn't touch the other blocks. Just swap the inverter and reconnect.“
The ponies drew a collective sigh of relief, and Zvezda nodded to herself. They still had a week to get this wiring right. With a miracle or two, they'd make it just fine.
„Everypony take five for some fresh air and coffee,“ she announced, „Looks like another long night for us.“
The other mares nodded in resigned acceptance, then slowly filed out through the door. All the nights were long anyway, so nopony really minded an extra hour or two. Zvezda began following them out of the lab and into the evening air, then suddenly stopped in her tracks, spotting a closed envelope lying just on the outside edge of the door. Normally, a loose piece of paper wouldn't surprise her – especially not in her lab – but this one was unfamiliar, and still sealed. Intrigued, she picked it up and opened it, only to find a small card, inscribed in a harsh, blocky font.
„Look outside,“ it read. Confused, she scanned her surroundings: Miles upon miles of empty, arid desert, pocked by a few of the Cosmodrome's stables, and the lone launch pad. Nothing of interest whatsoever. Unless one found the sand interesting, of course.
Wandering just what was going on here, she turned the card over, to reveal a second message:
„Why is it called a 'Cape', then?“
Smiling to herself, she looked back at the omnipresent desert, stretching out in every direction. Good question! She always assumed it was just a silly joke…
But what if it wasn't?
Though there were still a few more days left, they all passed in almost a dreamy haze. Looking back, Cherry could not isolate one single, unique memory from that week; instead, it all merged together into an insane, never-ending frenzy of simulations, training, testing, press conferences, and very poor sleep. Thanks to Redstone's efficient timetabling, she hasn't had a single honest break in that entire period, and was starting to envy Rainbow more every time she saw her.
Yawning lengthily as she stood at her 'canteen' table – in fact, a laboratory bench re-purposed from the solid propellant labs – she watched as Redstone carefully measured out a portion of her breakfast, nudging tiny bites on and off his set of precision scales until the readout was accurate to the last gram. It wasn't even proper food; just a bulbous sticky mass of scrambled eggs, along with a glass of machine-metered orange juice. Originally, she had felt nothing against such a meal; but after a solid week of nothing else, she was quite happy to never see these ingredients ever again, for the rest of her entire natural life.
„Do you really have to do all that?“ she asked dismally, watching the professor shuffle the plate – which looked more like a Petri dish, come to think of it – over to her side of the table. „I feel like a lab rat.“
„Oh, but you are, miss Skies!“ Redstone exclaimed happily as he set out to re-checking her glass of juice, probably just in case some milligram of it had evaporated or something, „You are single greatest experiment I ever had!“
„Gee. Thanks a lot,“ she snapped as she set out to eat the disgusting mass, single slow bite by single slow bite. One more day, she told herself. Just one more day, then I'm out of here! Forever!
She wasn't even ten bites in, when something happened that shocked her, even in her present consigned state. The metal door of the tiled lab opened, to reveal a camera: A film camera, for Celestia's sake! A giant one, too, with six film reels all as large as her head, advancing on a heavy set of all-terrain wheels (with stabilizing suspension, of course!) and crewed by not one, but two tech-ponies. Stopping mid-bite, she glared at the smiling professor. She just glared.
„What?“ he shrugged, „This is historic day, miss Skies! Your last day on our little planet before you become citizen of Cosmos! We must record and archive every second!“
„I'm trying to eat here,“ she uttered in disgust as she pushed her plate away; then winced almost immediately as she heard the camera's optics whirr and buzz, zooming in for a detailed look at her every movement.
„But think of the future!“ the professor responded happily, pushing the food right back, „Generations of ponies will all look back at this moment, in hushed wonder!“
Well, buck 'em, Cherry shook her head resolutely. This was ridiculous.
Seeing her leave the plate alone, the smile gradually disappeared off Redstone's face. Suddenly giving a 'pause' gesture to the camera, he leant in, then pleadingly whispered into her ear:
„Come on, Cherry. You survived this long. Put on a show. Show those future folks who you truly are: Greatest pony in history!“
History. She repeated that meaningless word to herself. It was all such a joke. Hundreds of years from now, ponies would remember this day, and speak about it as if it were something great; when really, it was just disgusting eggs along with a severe lack of sleep. Ridiculous.
Still, seeing the hopeful smile on the professor's face, she considered it a little more. She thought of the scores of other legends in Equestrian lore; did she really have reason to believe any of their triumphs were in any way dissimilar to hers? Ponies loved heroes. They loved a good, inspiring story.
Might as well give it to them. Forcing a smile, she begrudgingly accepted the plate and began eating again. Redstone gave a signal, the camera began rolling, and all was proper.
„Anyway, Comrade, here are latest recovery procedures,“ the professor began, speaking loudly and clearly – obviously for the camera – as he removed a set of binders from his saddlebags, „Any comment?“
Already resigned to play along, Cherry first took a brief, revolting sip of orange juice, then opened the folder and gave it a careful look. A few things jumped out at her:
„I still think we should review the maritime contingencies,“ she frowned, gesturing towards a specific line in the protocols, „I know the plan is to re-enter over land, but anything can happen. In case of a water landing, I don't want to fly a thousand miles before reaching the first recovery ship.“
„Agreed. I shall contact Navy officials later in evening. Meanwhile, there is also matter of re-entry in non-pony territory. Princess Celestia assures us all appropriate treaties have been signed, but we should nevertheless aim for Equestria as our ideal landing point…“
And that was it, really. From that point on, the day faded back into a meaningless roller-coaster of tiring tests, forced smiles, flashy picture-taking, Very Important Discussions with many esteemed politicians and other nobles; and, of course, the evening speech.
The speech. That particular fakery was so intense, it stood out from the rest, enough to distinguish itself in Cherry's memory. She remembered the scene well: Standing at the microphone in the giant hall of Stable II, alone on the podium, facing the largest crowd yet. Every leading Assembly minister, a journalist from every newspaper in the country, at least ten separate film cameras, and both of the princesses, all staring at her. She remembered going through the carefully-prepared speech, shipped from Canterlot that very morning, putting all her emotion and weight into something she didn't really believe. But, looking straight into the eyes of all those ponies, into the hopeful, yearning faces of her friends, she realized she couldn't disappoint them. She really couldn't.
„My dear friends,“ she began passionately, „Those who are already close to me, and those I do not yet know, fellow ponies, and inhabitants of all the countries and continents of our small planet: Tomorrow morning, a powerful rocket vehicle will carry me into the distant realm of space. What can I tell you today, standing on the eve of the launch? My whole life appears as a single beautiful moment. All that I previously lived through and did, was lived through and done for the sake of this one mission.“
„Tomorrow, history will be forever changed. Tomorrow, we all become proper citizens of the Cosmos, no longer confined to our single planet. Through the awesome power of science, we have achieved what was once thought impossible. Broken barriers we once did not know existed.“
„But, on this dawn of a new era, I ask you: What else is science, but very friendship incarnate? This achievement could not have possibly been performed alone. It was only thanks to science, that enormous friendship stretching across all of space and time, across all the nations and all the generations, that we have reached this point. And, as we march into the tomorrow, we must never forget; we would never be here without the work of those who came before us. Those that spent their entire lives working out the very things we now take for granted.“
„We pledge to do this, not for ourselves, but for all the ponies that have helped chart out this great path, lifting us out of simple sustenance and into industry and prosperity. We do this for the Princesses, in eternal thanks of all they have done to guide us along that path.“
„We do this, for the eternal Friendship that binds us all, through all the years, and through all the generations.“
As she spun around in her bed, unable to fall sleep despite her sheer exhaustion, she couldn't help but wonder what was going to happen tomorrow. A wide smile appeared on her face as she imagined the shocked face of Celestia, staring emptily after the rocket exploded in front of her very eyes, taking her historical speech along with it; the fact she'd die in the blazing inferno not bothering her tired brain at all.
History. She shook her head in disbelief.
What a joke.