Nodding in thanks to the nurse holding the door for him, Geist entered the long hall of the sterile medical bunker, carrying a large bouquet of flowers in his mouth. The brown-skinned techpony stood in the doorway for a confused second, then shook his head to remove the short-cut black mane from before his eyes.
Having done that, it wasn't too hard to spot the room's only occupant amidst the rows of empty medical beds; And neither was it hard for the bed's occupant to spot him, he realized, as Cherry slowly lifted her foreleg and gave a careful, if not any less cheerful, wave to her personal techie. Though it was the wee hours of the morning, the pegasus seemed to be as awake as ever.
Trotting up to her side, Geist dropped the veritable banquet directly on her bedsheets.
„Aww, Geist, you shouldn't have! Where did you get these in the middle of a desert anyway?“ Cherry's cheeks flushed, restoring at least some colour to her faded face.
„Don't worry, it was nothing. A few of us tech-ponies got together and scoured the entire facility for anything green. You deserved it.“
The pegasus did not reply, opting to sink her face into the flowers instead. Though she was still just as cheery in her demeanour, it was painfully obvious to Geist just how much had that brief brush with death taken out of her. Her voice was weak, her movements slow, and what little could be seen of her underneath all those blankets was dangerously pale.
Taking a timid first bite out of the bouquet, Cherry nodded in satisfaction:
„Mmm, but these are good! Really good...“
A few seconds of silence followed; Whether it had been awkward or not, Geist couldn't quite tell. Nervously digging his foreleg into the floor, he cleared his throat and spoke up:
„Anyway, I just got back from the Accident Investigation Committee and wanted to-“
Feeble as her voice was, Cherry still managed to interrupt him:
„Oh my gosh! You weren't fired, were you?“
Geist stopped for a second, slightly taken aback by her concern.
„What? No no no, that's not it at all! One of the batches of wiring we imported was faulty – what more, a lot of them ended up in the rocket we're building right now. If we hadn't caught that, the whole thing would have gone boom right after lift-off. They're replacing them as we speak. The Director's just grateful that we found out in time, and that nopony died.“
„Glad to be of assistance,“ Cherry smiled, taking another bite out of the flowers.
„Still, I came here to... well, to apologize, really. I should have tested the stupid thing before sending you up in it. It's all my fault,“ Geist lowered his head, looking at the ground. He hadn't gotten any sleep ever since the accident, working day and night to discover its cause; And yet he felt horrible about the whole ordeal.
Feeling her hoof brush across his mane helped with that.
„Hey, it's okay. I'm still here, aren't I? The nurses say I'll be up and flying in notime!“
Geist looked back up, into her weakly smiling face. Though he certainly appreciated the emotion, he couldn't stand her smiling, not like this. Someone like Cherry ought to be full of life and energy, and to see her weak and subdued like this was simply heartbreaking. So, he looked back at the ground:
„You really don't mind?“
„Just remember: Before this, I had no chance. I was a guinea pig, testing the training program until the real 'nauts showed up. I might be pretty good at flying, but they'll also actually be good at maths and theory. Unlike somepony,“ Cherry chortled to herself, „But now, I have real experience. The Director'll know she can rely on me when things go wrong. That should help my chances. If anything, I should thank you!“
Somewhat surprised at such a level of cynicism (not to mention realism) coming from Cherry, of all ponies – perhaps the accident had changed her? – Geist uncertainly returned the smile, then reached back into his saddlebags. Extracting a thick yellow folder and dropping it right beside the flowers, Geist quickly changed the topic:
„Anyway, look what the director gave me as I left the meeting,“ he announced, quite the bit of pride in his voice.
„Star... walker?“ Cherry questioningly read out the folder's title.
„Yup,“ he smiled, dragging the suspense out a second longer, „The Director has just finished with the first draft. And she wants me to build the training simulator.“
Turning the cover card with his teeth, he stood back and let the orange pegasus first gloss over the technical specifications, then carefully inspect the sketch of the design.
„What you're looking at is a whole new era of Equestrian history. A revolution in engineering. Our first steps towards giving the stars to everypony.“
„Looks... like a ball. With some blobs glued on the side,“ she announced, the disappointment in her voice clearly evident. Despite his bombastic introduction, Geist really couldn't help but agree; Compared with the artists' impressions of futuristic space-planes and moon-landers that lined the corridors of Stable I, the first actual design was, quite frankly, a joke.
„I know it's not exactly glamorous, but right now, practicability comes first. With mass and heatshield concerns as they are, that sphere's going to stay. The blobs we can change, though. The Director may be a genius, but drawing certainly isn't one of her stronger skills,“ he chuckled, remembering some of those first attempts at rocket sketches.
Cherry nodded as she took it all in, then asked, „Heatshield?“
Geist gulped. He had been waiting for one of the other ponies – perhaps Redstone – to explain the concept of re-entry to her. Considering her current condition, he instead chose to skirt around the subject:
„Anyway, like I said, it's just the first draft. The first locomotives were just a hodgepodge of pipes and gearing too. It's going to get cooler with time.“
„One thing that'll to have to get cooler quick is the name. I mean, 'Star Walker'? Come on!“
„I – Uh. Hmm. Well, the Director's always on the lookout for suggestions. There's a box for them in Stable IV's canteen.“
„I'll make sure to drop by once those nurses let me out of here. At least I'll have lots of time to think 'till then. First off, it's going to need a lot more X's – it's not an experimental craft unless it has X's. Next, 'Walker' sounds like it's being piloted by an old granny; I'm a pegasus! I want speed! Something like 'Eagle' ought to do. Plus,...“ Cherry began excitedly twittering to herself. Leaving the summary page but taking the rest of the folder, Geist smiled and bid her a quick farewell as he retreated from the dreary medical wing. Finally, it was time to get some sleep.
Insomnia appeared to be a quickly rising trend amongst the Cosmodrome's design staff. 'Rocketing', one could even call it. Chuckling to herself, Wilhelmina gulped down another large cup of coffee as she searched through the stacks of papers that covered every square inch of the wooden floor.
„Where did I put that blasted... ah, there it is!“ she victoriously announced, telekinetically levitating a series of sketches on possible interstage designs out of the chaos below, before proceeding to shove them into Lyuka's face.
Her assistant, a green pegasus with a long, if badly kept and somewhat fuzzy blue-tinged mane, shook her head:
„I'm telling you, if our test data is anything to go on, that thing'll be undergoing enough oscillation to shake the capsule right off! We need to get a structural support in there!“
Dropping the paper, the Director slammed her hoof into her own face:
„And how are you going to fit it to the capsule? Drill a hole in the heatshield?“
„Well, yes, but-“
„Whoo!“ Will clapped sarcastically, „You just fried our country's first Equenaut! But hey, better that than risk a tiny chance of it wobbling, isn't it? Oh no, not the wobbling!“
Strutting around the quarters in frustration, Lyuka waited patiently for the Director to finish with her melodrama, before firing back:
„It's not going to wobble, it's going to shake apart! Unless you've magically solved the thrust variability problem while I wasn't looking?“
„Hmm... magically...“ Will pondered the idea for a second.
„Why, yes! All we need to do is find a unicorn whose cutie mark is dampening solid fuel motors! How obvious!“
„Not to mention one who can fly,“ Will conceded, „In-flight magic won't be an option until we've made a soft-landing capsule, one which doesn't require a mid-descent ejection. Until then, we're stuck with pegasi.“
„'Stuck with'? Do I sense magic-user privilege?“ her assistant insolently asked, wings flaring.
Will took a deep breath, „We're getting side-tracked in pointless bickering here.“
„You're right,“ the pegasus nodded, folding her wings. She then threw herself on the ground and lazily turned hooves-up, „Again.“
„It always starts off so well, doesn't it?“ the Director sighed, collapsing on the sea of papers next to Lyuka, „I get a brilliant idea, run to your office to get a second opinion, and before we know it's four in the morning and we're screaming murder at each other over something ridiculously simple.“
Turning around again, Lyuka fished out another sketch and laid it over the others, „Or something ridiculously hard, in this case.“
„Yeah...“ Will trailed off, then yawned and looked at the sketch with Lyuka, „There has to be a simple solution here, I know it. But we just keep missing it.“
The two mares continued to silently stare at the sketch for a few minutes, then Lyuka swore in frustration and, with an angry burst from her wings, sent the paper (along with many others) soaring across the room.
„Can't we just submerge the whole thing in water? That'd dampen it nicely,“ Will spoke the first random thing that floated into her head, as she watched the blizzard of floating sheets slowly settle itself back on the floor.
„Nah. Too heavy. We're over our mass budget as it is, and adding several tonnes of water isn't gonna help,“ her assistant replied almost absentmindedly as she stared off into the distance. Tracking her gaze, Wilhelmina followed it to the large poster tacked onto the wall; A profile view schematic of their current rocket design. The one that was being assembled right now in the confines of Stable VII.
„Do you think there's any point to what we're doing here?“ Lyuka asked, her gaze still distant, „I mean, we've built seven of these things, and they all just blew up. Some just rumbled on the ground, some flew a hundred hooves before shaking themselves apart, but they all. Just. Blew. Up. Here were are, talking about sending ponies into outer space and back, and we can't even get a simple rocket right!“
Will stayed silent for a while, mulling over what her assistant had just said. Eventually, she spoke up:
„The rocket's the hardest part. If we can get that right, the rest will all fall into place. We'll get prestige, funding, Celestia's respect- oh dear. Celestia.“
„Still haven't figured out how you'll tell her, huh?“ Lyuka asked with a sad smile on her face, „I'd say 'told you so', but I know all too well we couldn't have gotten this funded otherwise.“
„Gosh, what if she really is omniscient?“ Wilhelmina sunk her head into her hooves, „Maybe she's watching us right now, and just laughing.“
The green pegasus blinked:„...that doesn't really make sense. If she were all-knowing, she wouldn't fall for the trick in the first place.“
„Or maybe she just pretended to, so she could later hit us with a big fat punishment for even daring to trick her like that in the first place.“
„She's not like that,“ Lyuka retorted with hope in her voice, then added, „Plus, the deception wasn't all that big, right? I mean, 'Bureau of Atmospheric Experimentation' could easily be construed as meaning lots of things.“
„Too bad I explicitly claimed it was for weather research, then.“
„Yeah,“ Will dryly nodded, then let out another lengthy yawn, „Sometimes, I really do wonder if it's all for nothing, though. You're right. Our heads are in the stars, but our rockets just keep failing.“
„The equations are right,“ she continued, „I've double and triple checked every last one. They all work. The gas flow dynamics, the expansion factors, the dynamic heating; It all checks out! And I still hold that putting a supersonic nozzle onto a firework was pure genius. But when it comes to putting theory to practice...“ she trailed off.
Brushing a few dozen papers away and slowly getting back on her hooves, Lyuka shook her head: „You know, you could have just published those in a book or something and be forever remembered for your contributions to pony science. But no, you had to run off and trick a goddess into funding your little toys!“
Despite the distinct annoyance in those last few words, Wilhelmina still knew her assistant supported her all the way. Their dream was shared; Just their methods sometimes diverged.
„I'll bring the stars to every single foal, mare and stallion in Equestria if it means surviving Celestia herself, mark my words,“ the Director announced resolutely. Deep down, though, she was not so sure.
I was born in the wrong damn century, she thought briefly to herself before collapsing from exhaustion. Bed, floor, lava pit, her mind was too tired to recognize the difference now.
Lyuka looked at the snoring Director with considerable respect. Her constant all-nighters, personal inspections of every workshop, regular morale-boosting speeches; That was one committed pony. She had even managed to avoid saying 'comrade' once this entire conversation, so more power to her.
Though Lyuka had been encouraging every time the topic was brought up, personally she was quite worried about the whole Celestia business. She knew her superior far too well. Unlike Lyuka herself, when confronted, Wilhelmina really would defend her dream to the bitter end, even against the gods themselves. And who knew how the gods would react? After all, the stars had belonged to them since time immemorial. Would their attempts be interpreted as insolence and rebellion?
Not able to push sleep back any longer, Lyuka hazily looked around her quarters. All these questions were better left for another day. Meanwhile, she was quite sure there was a bed underneath all these papers somewhere, but no matter how hard she looked, she just couldn't see it.
Deciding to simply follow her superior's example instead, Lyuka smashed herself into the floor beside the Director. She didn't dream of anything that night, like she hadn't ever since starting up this project; All her dreams were out there in the real world now.