Gathered in the high-roofed, but perfectly undecorated, briefing hall of Stable II, today's crop of new recruits waited. Looking at the cutie marks of those around, Zvezda already could spot the predominant technical bias. Smiths, metalworkers, architects, mathematicians. Even the assembled pegasi seemed to be very level-headed, with such talents as surveying, organization, or photography. Cherry appeared quite the exception here. Noticing Zvezda was looking at her, she smiled, revealing that her teeth were still full of half-eaten salad.
The murmur quietened down as a small aqua-coloured unicorn entered the stage. Much to Zvezda's expectations, it was the very same mare she had crashed into half an hour ago – though she was now wearing a new (and uncracked) pair of glasses.
„Fillies and gentlecolts, comrades all!” she began her speech, „I'm sure you have many questions about our organization. Why is our facility so secluded from the rest of Equestria? Why does a ''Bureau of Atmospheric Experimentation'' need so many technical non-pegasi? And how do they make the transport balloons so comfortable?”
„Those others got here on a balloon?” Cherry's jaw dropped, „The bastards!” she whispered.
„The answers to all these questions will become steadily apparent, very soon. For the moment, however, I'd like you to wait a minute longer and consider the following schematic. Roll slide, please.”
The lights of the briefing room cut out, and a projected engineering diagram appeared on a large white screen that suddenly dropped from the ceiling. After a few seconds, and after considering the large scale pony to the diagram's right, Zvezda realized she was looking at the cross-section of a common – if somewhat large – firework.
„This is your simple everyday solid-fuel firework that little foals so dearly love,” the Chief Director began, „It uses a few engineering tricks that are not immediately obvious, but nothing difficult. Next slide.”
This time, a parabolic trajectory appeared on the wall, with altitude and downrange distances labelled on the Y and X axes; A hundred strides in each direction.
„Again, a fairly straightforward boosted-projectile trajectory.”
„Straightforward?!” Cherry pipped up from the side, but was quickly silenced by the collective gasp the assembled ponies drew upon seeing the next slide.
Zvezda studied the new schematic. It was a firework. Well, several fireworks, stacked on top of each other, getting progressively smaller with height. There was also a considerable amount of reinforcing struts running along each one. While trying to check the schematic's scale, she noticed the performance statistics in the far left corner. Twelve tonnes mass, thirty tonnes thrust, one million ponypowers of peak output.
Blinking, she re-read the numbers again. 'High' was an understatement of the century, when compared to these figures. Nothing she had ever seen, not even the most amazing feats of locomotive boiler engineering, came within sight of such sheer, concentrated power. Why, just the amount of metal required to prevent buckling under these pressures would be...
Suddenly, Zvezda smiled to herself. It would be high, yes. Very high. But not infinite. And accounting for the size of that combustion chamber... why, yes, yes! Hard, incredibly hard to make. Top quality casting required. But not impossible.
She nodded to herself, her mind still quite blown; What the director was showing here was a proposal so far beyond conventional pony engineering, that no metalsmith in Equestria had bothered to even consider it. But now, some crazy pony had run the numbers – and they had come out just within reach of the possible.
The Director, satisfied that the ponies were now all sufficiently impressed, ordered the next slide. Again, it showed a fairly simple parabola... but the distances were greater. Impossibly greater. But a quick mental calculation confirmed they weren't fantasy.
„Unfortunately, these impressive diagrams remain, for the time being, just that; Diagrams. Roll film, please.”
A scenic shot of the desert outside covered the wall; Zvezda realized that it was a time-lapse shot as a small tower – perhaps three ponies in height – began growing in its middle, ponies jutting all around the frame as scaffoldings were erected and subsequently torn down. Finally, the tall firework lay assembled, and the time lapse switched to realtime. In the far edge of the shot, a single pony with goggles and a safety helmet pressed a large button on a small control box, then rapidly left the frame.
Rolls of white smoke began emerging from the bottom of the vehicle, slowly creeping over the desert sand, spreading to cover the entire viewport. Suddenly, a massive explosion threw the camera upside down.
The shot switched to another of these massive 'fireworks', even taller this time. Upon ignition, the vehicle lifted about ten strides off the ground, then spiralled suddenly and crashed back into the ground.
Another shot, another explosion, this time mid-flight.
And so the scenes dragged on. The constant explosions were certainly visually interesting – doubly so for Cherry – but there definitely was that faint subtext of despair about them. After the film finished, the Director was ready to speak again:
„As you can see, we still have quite a way to go in this line of research. That is where you come in. My recruiting agents have managed to gather the best craftsponies from all over the world. Our plans are bold, our methods untested; This I admit. But working together, I truly believe we can overcome any obstacle, push back the boundaries of science, and provide better living for everypony in Equestria!”
There was a fervent clapping of hooves against the ground, the solid concrete floor adding to the effect by amplifying the volume even further. As the lights turned back on, the Director again reminded the audience to check in with their respective department heads, then withdrew amidst even more applause.
As the assorted ponies slowly scattered from the room, already excitedly exchanging opinions about casting strategies and alloy compositions, one stayed perfectly still. Stopping in one of the hall's many doorways, Zvezda looked around to see Cherry standing utterly immobile in the middle of the room, legs quivering. Temporarily withdrawing from that amazing world of new possibilities the presentation had unleashed, she trotted up to Cherry's side.
„What's the problem? Too much awesome for you?” she asked playfully.
„Test... test pilot?” the orange pegasus managed to get out.
Oh. Right. Zvezda wasn't quite sure how to respond to that. Eventually, she softly nudged Cherry's side with her head.
„Don't worry. Unlike those other ones, yours'll have me on its design team.”
That seemed to cheer her up. Her legs stopped quivering, and turning to Zvezda, she raised her left foreleg: „Brohoof?”
„Brohoof,” Zvezda answered, returning the gesture.
Retreating from the podium, Wilhelmina wondered if that had really been the best way of introducing the project. Her recruiting officers had assured her that the explosions not only 'looked cool', but also immediately and succinctly outlined the recruits' goals; And yet the thought of showing this footage made her uneasy.
What if there were investigators from Canterlot present in the audience? All calls were monitored, and the remote location made it difficult to leak information, but the risk was definitely there. Wilhelmina did not want Celestia to know where all those millions of bits earmarked for 'weather research' were really going. At least, not before there was something to show for it. Seeing the Commissar waiting at the bottom of the stairs, she nodded to him:
„Drive up security around the site. I don't want any leaks,” she commanded, then quickly added „But don't overdo it. I don't want another blue salad incident, you understand?”
The pony saluted and, with a shout of „Jawohl, Stute-Direktor!” galloped off, his thick leather coat fluttering in his stead. How he withstood the heat, Wilhelmina had no clue, and she did not want to know. Still, the Commissar had proven himself a most dependable stallion, so she was willing to cut him (and his department) a little slack in clothing style.
After a brief refreshment, she left Stable II for a pleasant stroll through the entire facility, checking on all the new recruits. It was pleasant to see the mighty machine of the Cosmodrome slowly tuning into gear.
With all the equations invented, the initial calculations computed, and some minor groundwork now laid, it was finally time to really kick this project off. As much as she was looking forward to the science, however, she still had one last bit of annoying PR to prepare for. The first test pilots would arrive next Monday, and they would have to be treated to a most decidedly different introductory session.
Days at the 'Cape' passed rapidly. Though there were only a handful of experienced personnel, who were quite outnumbered by the sudden influx of new recruits, they nevertheless managed to wield the swarms of newbies with surprising skill. And as Madam Director was a firm believer in the 'sink or swim' school of didactics, the first launch was scheduled for the first Sunday in.
Easing her leg off the controlling pressure pad, Zvezda dropped the welding torch and took a few steps back, inspecting the seam she had just made. The joint was very good, one of her best, a clean even run with no bubbles. However, she was far less confident than she had been on the first day of her first apprenticeship. She usually made ploughs and carriage wheels, not rocket engines.
The long concrete workshop was sweltering with heat, and Zvezda took a small break to steal a few sips from the trough of water nearby. Despite its low roof, the facility was in fact several hundred strides long – enough for the entire rocket, and its still-unassembled components, to fit comfortably when laid on its side. A pair of tracks ran across the length of the hangar, to provide a means of removing the vehicle from the assembly building. Her overseer had joked (or perhaps related a bitter truth) that with the very first rocket of this size, they had no railway tracks, and couldn't get it out of the hangar; In the end, this forced them to completely scrap the whole thing and start over again.
A week earlier, Zvezda would have laughed at such a ridiculous failure, but with the rocket now slowly growing before her eyes, she had to give serious respect to those first ponies. Armed with nothing but a few vague sketches from an absolutely insane genius, and several untested equations, they were inventing a whole new industry.
Looking back at her joint in more detail, she noticed one of the two plates had a visible bulge in it; Annoyed at the poor craftsponyship, she looked around the workshop:
„Sara! Another one here!” she yelled.
„Coming, coming!” came back the exhausted reply. A few moments later, a visibly dirtied violet unicorn emerged from behind the other side of the vehicle. Trotting over to Zvezda, she inspected the buckled plate.
„Makes you wonder why there are so many, doesn't it, Vez?” she asked as a dim light surrounded her horn, and the metal plate slowly began falling into shape.
„I sure know that I've never made plates this thin for a plough,” Zvezda related, still fascinated by the sight of magically morphing plate, „Or made this many this fast.”
„You tell me,” Sara gritted through her teeth, drops of sweat flowing down her brow as she forced the metal into position.
„There, done,” she added, „Look, my whole life I worked in my parents' jewellery store in the tourist quarter of Manehattan, right? Ever since I was a little filly, the metal just flowed for me. I thought that's all I was going to do. Now, I'm making giant boomsticks that will revolutionize the life of every foal, mare and stallion in all of Equestria. Yay me.”
„The pay's good though, right?” Zvezda smiled. Sara could be a bit sour at times, but the sheer amount of effort she put into the project was nothing short of amazing.
The mare nodded, „Oh yes! Whether this stupid thing works or not,” she punctuated her sentence with an angry – yet weak and controlled – kick at the metal hull, „At least we'll finally be able to afford redoing that old facade. I tell you, that thing's falling apart!”
Zvezda suppressed the urge to ask why a jewellery store – in Manehattan of all places – lacked the money to redo its facade, and instead looked at the emerging vehicle. The Director's deadline was harsh, but they could probably meet it. With a miracle or two.
„Got another one, Sara!” came a shout from the other side of the hangar. Giving Zvezda one last look of desperation, she trotted off.
Seeing her run off, Zvezda found her assignment checklist and groaned at how many boxes were still left unticked. This would be one long shift...
„Wait, run this by me again,” Cherry ordered the technician, disbelief quite audible in her voice.
„So, you're going to send me up in this balloon.”
„You'll send it up so high that I'll have trouble breathing and my wings'll barely work.”
„And then, then you'll blow up the balloon part of the balloon.”
„The one that makes it fly.”
„One question comes to mind. WHY ON EQUESTRIA ARE WE DOING THIS?” Cherry screamed in helpless rage. Something that was becoming very much commonplace in the Equenaut training complex.
„Look, after you've flown up into space and gone through re-entry, you don't want to just end that by getting smeared across half of Fillydelphia. That means you're going to have to jump out of the capsule, and do that while it's still high up enough for you to level out from the fall. That final step is what we'll be practising here tonight.”
Cherry considered the brown pony's words. They were reasonable enough, but this whole 'Test pilot' business has ended up meaning a lot more falling and a lot less flying than she would have preferred. In fact, this appeared to be about the only part of the program where she'd get to strut her wings, at least a little. And even here, it would be more of a glide. Lame.
Plus, as she watched the technician lock the straps that attached her to the basket – to emulate the various tangled oxygen and water lines that would be attached to her during a real flight, as he had explained earlier – Cherry realized nopony had yet explained just what that whole 're-entry' thing was about. It seemed to pop up a lot, but the tech-ponies had this peculiar habit of either suddenly remembering forgotten errands, or simply whimpering in terror and galloping away whenever she asked.
The last latch in place, the tech-pony locked the balloon's burner on full open, quickly set the spring-loaded timer on the explosives, then bid her good luck and galloped away, towards the observation post. Meanwhile, two assistant ponies let go of the tethers, and Cherry shot off towards the skies.
As the vehicle started on its slow ascent, Cherry tried wiggling around to check just how much the straps limited her movement. As it turned out, apart from the neck, she was pretty much locked in place. Making sure she could reach the foreleg release latch with her teeth – something that she really should have checked back on the ground now that she thought about it – she relaxed and enjoyed the evening air.
Evening was the best time in the desert, really; The sun's eternal glory had since gone down and stopped frying innocent ponies, but the temperature had not quite dropped to frightfully cold yet, as it would after midnight. Plus, especially at this altitude, gentle breezes blew past her face. It was pretty nice, actually, a welcome break from the the constant mechanics and astronavigation classes. Life was too short to spend hours calculating apogees and thrust coefficients and supermajor semiaxis inclinatures, that was Cherry's philosophy! The only maths a pegasus needed was percentages, and she knew hers off by heart.
Right now, she certainly could appreciate being about 50% warmer. The balloon had already ascended quite a way above the surface, and the temperature was dropping quite rapidly.
Craning her neck to get a glimpse of the explosives timer, she noticed it had already stopped ticking. Furthermore, a thin layer of frost was covering the detonator circuitry.
„Uh oh,” she said, somewhat redundantly.
As the balloon continued its ascent, Cherry was now getting seriously cold. The straps prevented her not only from leaving the basket, but also from curling up to conserve at least some extra heat. The burner had ran out of fuel a while ago, but the ground certainly wasn't drawing any closer. She was pretty sure she'd freeze before it came back down.
'Time', and passage thereof, were fairly alien concepts in the abandoned nightly skies. There were no clouds, no visible terrain features, nothing to judge movement by. The balloon simply continued to float, seemingly lost in space and time.
Feeling her joints stiffen, Cherry moved her neck about, trying the attachment latches again, for the umpteenth time. Of course they didn't release; They wouldn't, not without an electric signal from the main detonator. Cherry had no idea what genius thought that one up, but she promised to cause serious bodily harm to whatever pony was responsible, hopefully by the means of a welding torch; There were plenty back at Stable VII.
Another indefinite measure of time passed. She was cold. So cold. All feeling was lost from her hooves, and the senselessness was slowly making its way up her legs. Not that she minded too much, though. No feeling meant no cold.
Managing to lift her heavy head, she looked up, to find herself staring straight into the Moon. It was a beautiful sight, especially from this high up. It somehow seemed much bigger than back on the ground. Studying the subtle greys and whites that played across its alien terrain, she smiled. It would have been nice to walk upon its surface. But even so, this was definitely the highest she had ever flown. With just a bit of luck, higher than anypony else. Setting a record wouldn't be such a bad way to go, would it now?
The grin on her face widened as she continued to stare into the Moon. Luna, if you can hear me, promise me this. Promise me I'll die the highest-flying pony in all of Equestria.
The feeling of nothingness continued to creep up her legs. It had already reached her flank. But Cherry regretted nothing. Had she turned down that friendly recruiting officer back on campus, where would she be? Junior assistant cloud removal at best – let's face it, she never was that good at weathermaking. Spending the rest of her career chasing after those little cloudlets the real weather-masters couldn't be bothered to clean up. Perhaps even managing to find a nice stallion to settle down and start a cute little family with. That life would be long and peaceful, sure. But it wouldn't be a life for her. This way, though she wouldn't last, she has been given a chance to realize what had once been just a fantasy; To soar high above the limits of feeble pegasus wings. To touch the stars.
Or for the stars to touch me, it seems.
Whoa. That thought had come out of nowhere. Wondering what prompted her mind to think such a ridiculous thing, she suddenly noticed a pair of fireflies circling below her.
Fireflies? Where would fireflies come from?
One of them abruptly exploded in a brilliant flurry of coloured lights. Cherry was just about to pity the poor thing, before her cold-straddled brain managed to fully process the display.
Fireworks? The second one detonated into a similar pattern of light, confirming her suspicions.
And it wasn't just the two. All along the ground, more and more specks of light were rocketing towards Cherry. Most exploded before ever coming near her; Some flew past her to detonate somewhere higher up in the stratosphere (or was that the ionosphere?). Either way, with each subsequent salvo they steadily drew closer and closer.
What parts of Cherry's mind still worked were seriously impressed, both at the pretty visuals and the amount of effort the Cosmodrome was putting into saving one single pony. The entire crew must have been mobilized in order to get those fireworks shooting up that quickly, and only Celestia knew how many crates' worth of propellant would disappear into this one desperate attempt. And to add to that, she realized what a poor return-on-investment she was; For all her bluster, Cherry knew very well that her skill at mathematics was well below expectations, and that she simply didn't get astrodynamics. For the Director to try and organize such a vast rescue attempt nevertheless… she was touched, to say the least.
In only a few seconds more, one of the thousand fireworks managed to detonate exactly above her balloon, close enough to trigger a secondary explosion from the basket fasteners. Slowly realizing she was falling, Cherry heard the most beautiful sound in the world; a faint 'click' as the electromechanical relays in the fasteners triggered themselves, unlocking the release latches.
Her mouth numb from the cold, she slowly managed to undo the first strap; And soon, the second. As the basket tumbled through the air, spinning wildly in all directions, Cherry thought that this must be what a real return from space would feel like.
The rapid pumping of her heart managing to inject some life into her frostbitten limbs, Cherry continued working down the list of straps, faintly singing the brief ditty she had memorized to remember their order.
At last, she was free! With what little strength she had left, she kicked herself away from the spinning basket, finally soaring unbridled through the air.
There was one last snag – her wings. Though she tried as strong a flap as she could, her body simply lacked the strength to fly after being subjected to subzero temperatures for so long. She tried to stretch them out and attempt a controlled glide – or at least a slowed fall – towards the surface, but they simply would not hold, uselessly fluttering in the wind instead.
Seeing the ground approach rapidly, Cherry screamed:
„I am not going to die! Not now! Not after all that!”
Putting all her strength into the motion, she managed a single mighty burst of upthrust, then nothing. As she plummeted towards the ground, she tried to think of good last words. But the effort had been too great, and she promptly lost consciousness.
Wilhelmina watched the plummeting pegasus though her pair of binoculars. Though she had shown courage and willpower that was beyond most ponies, there was only so much a strong mind could do against the laws of physics.
Fortunately, she had planned for this contingency.
„Stage seven recovery team, GO!” she yelled towards the teams of ponies assembled below, then added her own powers to the mix. Though most unicorns weren't very good at general magic and could only perform highly specialized tasks, all could handle at least basic telekinesis, however weak.
The combined strength of the Cosmodrome's unicorns was now all being poured into a single action; Slowing the descent of the world's first Equenaut.
„Final... stage... GO!” she managed to utter, straining at the effort. The commissar relayed the order, and a pair of the facility's strongest pegasi rocketed off. The telekinetic efforts had managed to slow Comrade Cherry's fall sufficiently, and Wilhelmina watched as the two approached her, matched velocity vectors, grabbed her, and finally slowed down to land softly and safely back on the desert sand. Collapsing on the ground from the exhaustion – magic certainly was not one of the Director's talents – she gasped: