Trying to keep on her four hooves as the train wobbled left and right with ever increasing amplitude, Zvezda pondered two things. Firstly, why on Equestria would a weather control office be interested in such a common Earth pony like herself? And secondly, why did a long distance train not have chairs?
Inspecting her carriage further – For what else there was to do, after her magazine had long been read, and the countryside beyond the window had since vanished into naught but arid desert that stretched out in all directions? – she realized that the train was even more lacking in amenities than she had previously thought. Though the lack of such simple elements as a water fountain (or a door) had previously tipped her off that the voyage might be less than comfortable, upon a thorough investigation the carriage appeared not only spartan, but outright unfinished.
From her vantage point atop a wooden crate – the floor, a bare sheet of metal laid over the structural cage, had already grown hot enough to scorch her silver skin hours ago – she could see no less than five different joints that, instead of being properly welded, had been simply taped together. What made it worse, at least two of those were loadbearing. Those that had been welded were no better. From her ample experience of metalwork, Zvezda could see the typical tell-tale signs of rushed labour; The metal was warped from excessive heating, the filler material was unevenly spread, and the little bubbles running along its length revealed much about the many trapped air pockets inside. Some of these were so bad, they could even be considered works of art.
The other ponies on the train did not seem to mind much, though. Judging by the bored resigned looks on their faces, most of them had already made this journey several times. For some imperceptible reason, many of them were also wearing thick woollen hats, though the temperature in the carriage hovered steadily near boiling point. Some of them were even standing directly on the metal floor as they did so.
Thankful for the onboard air conditioning system – namely, the severe lack of doors – Zvezda desperately scanned her surroundings for another pony that seemed at least somewhat sane. Even discounting all the hat-wearers, the pickings were rather slim. There was a dark unicorn that had apparently renounced her hat for an even thicker leather coat instead. There was an earth pony that had, either willingly or unwillingly, been affixed to the ceiling with rope and left hanging there. And finally, there was an orange pegasus that, for reasons known only to her, had decided to board this train of the damned instead of simply flying to the destination. Considering the alternatives, she decided to try her luck with the pegasus.
Carefully making her way over the breadth of the carriage, making sure to neither touch any of the searing-hot metal components with any part of her body, or startle the cargo crates in any way (their markings were written in some coded alphabet, but the warning icons were obvious enough – black smoke and pony skulls), Zvezda managed to approach the orange pony, who seemed to be rocking back and forth with her eyes closed, constantly mumbling something to herself.
Wondering whether or not she had overestimated the pony's sanity, Zvezda coughed to garner her attention. Though the howling wind and squeaking wheels drowned out most sound, the pegasus nevertheless stopped rocking and immediately snapped to attention. Upon seeing her wild crazy eyes, Zvezda regretted interrupting her:
„I was promised a cape! An honest-to-Celestia cape! Seas, palm trees, beaches!” she screamed directly into Zvezda's face, almost hitting her with one of her legs as she gesticulated wildly to the lifeless wastes outside, „Does that look like palm trees? Does it? DOES IT?”
Somewhat taken aback by this outburst, Zvezda was nevertheless baffled: „Cape? What cape?”
„What cape? They said cape in the booklet! They even had a hoofing photo!” the pony screamed, proceeding to temporarily remove her face from Zvezda's as she fumbled through her saddlebags, eventually extracting a garish pamphlet. Remembering the quiet unassuming ad that had recruited her, Zvezda studied its many colourful exclamation marks with some interest:
„Want to push back records? Want to be at the forefront of weather control technology? Want to fly faster than the Wonderbolts? Soar higher than the stars? Well then, come to Cape Coltaveral!”
And indeed, there was a scene of a beautiful tropical forest, complete with smiling ponies flying all around. Off to the side, a few unicorns in lab coats were doing some sciencey things with blackboards. A few scattered testimonials of various ponies spouting meaningless marketing phrases sealed the deal.
„See? See?” the pegasus screamed, „If I ever see that recruiting stallion again, I swear I'll trample him! I mean, I graduated top of my class for this? No way! When I find whoever's responsible, I'll make sure to-” she continued, proceeding to spend the next few minutes detailing exactly how she would enact her revenge.
Meanwhile, Zvezda studied the pamphlet in detail. Something about it seemed... off. It was hard to describe, but the feeling was definitely there. By the time the orange pegasus got to chainsaws, she finally noticed it; The final testimonial, the last sentence; The message was written in a playful rainbow font, but the dot above the 'i' in 'astounding' was jet black, and slightly odd in shape. Interrupting the detailed tirade, she showed the dot into the pegasus' face.
„There. I'd need more time to be sure, but that looks like a microdot.”
That stopped her. „Mi-microdot?” a puzzled expression appearing on her face.
„Probably contains a disclaimer. Or ten of them, judging by that scene outside.”
There was a second of silence. Silence, followed by a bloodcurdling scream:
„How did you spot that? How could anyone spot that?!”
„Have you never seen a recruiting poster? They all do that. Name's Zvezda, by the way.”
Mention of her name seemed to derail the poor thing's single-track thought process. „Zvezda? That's... Aha! Stalliongrad, right?”
Zvezda sighed. Every. Single. Time.
„You westerners- There's more than one city in the east, you know! Sankt-Luneburg, if you must...”
„Okay, okay, sorry! It's not like geography was my strong point. Sheesh,” the pegasus replied indignantly, before immediately switching to cheerful: „Anyway, I'm Cherry! Cherry Skies! And I like-”
An ear-piercing scream of sliding metal suddenly turned Zvezda's existence into a torrent of suffering. Not even jamming her head against the crate and covering her ears seemed to help, as the rusting brakes of the train continued their unending assault on the senses. Of course, whether it was preferable to Cherry's voice or not was still undecided by Zvezda.
After what seemed like an eternity, the cacophony subsided, and the train was suddenly standing still. Getting back on her hooves and taking a look around, Zvezda couldn't see anything worthwhile outside. Still, seeing all the other ponies disembark, she decided to join them. Cherry, unfortunately, was in close pursuit.
Hopping off the train, Zvezda was immediately blinded by the noon sun. After a few moments of confusion, she regained her vision and scanned the horizon. Apart from the rail tracks, a few large concrete boxes half-sunk into the ground, and some peculiar rickety towers in the distance, there really wasn't anything more to this 'Cape'.
Not unless she counted the chaos, of course. All around, ponies of every kind – most wearing thick woollen hats – were unloading crates, carrying them into storage bunkers nearby. With some concern, Zvezda noted the casual way with which they haphazardly tossed boxes labelled 'EXTREME DANGER' about. A few others seemed to be working on the train, perhaps servicing it? But if that were the case, they were going the completely wrong way about it...
Despite the melting heat, a sudden chill ran across her back as she realized exactly what the service ponies were doing with their blowtorches. Slowly undoing every seam, they were taking the carriages apart, working piece by piece to deconstruct their only way of going back.
She had no more time to consider this, however, as she suddenly felt Cherry tug at her blonde mane:
„Look, look! New recruits! It says, 'new recruits', right there! That's us!”
Managing to tear her eyes away from the service ponies – mostly because her mane would be torn away by Cherry instead – Zvezda set out in the indicated direction and looked at the pegasus. She seemed awfully cheery for someone who had spent fifteen minutes carefully detailing every part of her chainsaw-laden revenge plan, and Zvezda inquired about exactly that:
„I mean, that's what I thought at first too, but look at this place! It's obviously a top secret research lab!” Cherry began, „Isn't this so awesome? Like, we're in the middle of the desert, doing secret magic experiments that'll make the Sonic Rainboom look like a beginner's trick! And I'll bet we'll all have awesome code names. I'll be Agent Fireblade! Oh, it'll be great!”
Zvezda had no words. Some ponies were annoyingly cheery. Some were terrifyingly sadistic. Cherry somehow managed to combine the worst of both worlds into one great mass of utterly unpredictable pony. Secretly, Zvezda hoped she wouldn't last long in this strange place.
They finally approached the row of small stalls Cherry had been gesturing to. As there was a queue of new recruits behind each one, Zvezda lined up to which looked the shortest (Cherry in tow, unfortunately). Glimpsing towards the front, at every stall a stern-faced pony in a thick leather coat, each one quite undistinguishable from his peers (or the one on the train) was working behind the desk, carefully peering over the documents of each candidate and comparing them with the contents of a large ledger, eventually sending them off to somewhere.
The queues moved fairly steadily, but between the sweltering heat and Cherry's one-sided 'dialogue', seemed to take far longer than they should have. Finally, she was at its head, and grabbing her papers from a side pocket of her saddlebags, dropped them on the blackcoat's desk. Studying them closely, he read out in a tired voice:
„Zvezda Horyova, birthplace Sankt-Luneburg, metalsmithing specialist?”
Confirming her name, she turned slightly to show the stallion her cutie mark; Two overlapping I-frames, with a star in the middle. After a satisfied nod, he continued to inspect the documents for a few more moments before putting them down, proceeding to drone out in the well-rehearsed voice of somepony who has said the same thing a thousand times before:
„After your orientation session in Stable II, proceed to your section overseer for detailed briefing. Don't forget to take a map of the facility and your assignment papers. Dismissed.”
Quickly seizing the necessary documents, Zvezda galloped out of sight before Cherry would be processed. As she darted between the concrete bunkers of the facility, the only thing on her mind was putting as much distance between herself and that mare as physically possible. Thus, it came of little surprise when her rapid sprint ended with an abrupt collision.
Shaking her head to reorientate herself, she looked to see what she had crashed into, only to be confronted with solid wall of identical stallions in thick leather coats.
„Sector and ID number, worker! We'll have you shipped out of here before you can say 'lift-off'!” the most imposing of the group commanded, towering over Zvezda.
Still fazed from the crash, her brain began parsing the request. Sector... number? Before she could respond, however, a weak voice pipped up from behind the solid wall of guard-pony:
„Comrades, comrades, that is good enough! Come now, let me see this 'assailant'.”
Grudgingly, the living wall split, letting an aqua-coloured unicorn of a small frame walk through. Stopping before Zvezda, she smiled as she studied her through a pair of cracked glasses, then turned back to the guard pony:
„Commissar, whilst I appreciate your concern for my safety, we cannot exactly afford to ship off skilled workers as soon as we receive them. Especially not after your last round of 'purges', yes?”
The commissar mumbled something unintelligible, and saluting, proceeded to help Zvezda back on her hooves. While doing so, however, he made sure to whisper a foreboding message into her ear: „We'll be watching you.”
That done, the security cordon withdrew to a safe distance, and the strange pony looked back at Zvezda:
„Excuse my security staff. This desert is such a tranquil place, and they have little to do. They certainly get... overzealous, at times.”
Despite not knowing anything about her, it was obvious to Zvezda the mare was in a position of high authority. Maybe even Chief Director? She made sure to respond fittingly:
„Of course, ma'am. You have my sincerest apologies for the accident, and I assure you-”
„Oh, don't fret it. The Cosmodrome is a busy place. As long as you're not carrying high grade explosives or fuel, a bit of crashing is fine,” she responded nonchalantly, then her face turned serious, „Watch out for ponies carrying fuel, though. I don't believe they've quite grasped what we're doing here yet.”
With a worried sideways glance at the storage bunkers, the pony bade her a quick farewell, then quickly retreated back behind the cordon of guards.
Looking at the strange group as they walked away, Zvezda sorted her saddlebags and was about to set out.
„There you are!”
Far too slowly, unfortunately.
„I've been looking all over the place for you! Anyway, check out this amazing assignment!” Cherry began twittering as she shoved a paper headed „Top Secret – For Your Eyes Only” right into Zvezda's face.
„Look, look! Test pilot! Oh, I can't believe I'll be flying one of those fancy new wingships I keep hearing about! I'll be the envy of everypony back in Sturmgart!”
Zvezda consolidated this new influx of information. Wingships, though a fairly recent development, did not require high-grade explosives, nor unstable fuels. In fact, they were little more than modernized balloons that could steer without the need for a pegasus to shift the winds. They certainly did not require test pilots to break speed records. And finally, though metal-wing manufacture was difficult, it did not require those elusive „Top-level metalsmiths experienced with high-pressure systems” that mysterious ad had sought for. There certainly were interesting things going on in this facility, and Zvezda got the firm feeling this job would be less boring than most.
As all these disparate puzzle-pieces floated through Zvezda's head, a new piece of information suddenly came crashing in, unsettling the whole picture:
„You're- You're from Sturmgart?” she asked Cherry, somewhat in disbelief that such a crazy pony could come from Equestria's most-efficient industrial zone.
„Next you'll be asking where's my accent and my Lederhosen and where I hid my vast industrial estates,” Cherry smiled, before continuing, „I mean, my family might own a weather factory or seven, but that's completely unrelated to my place of birth! Now come on, let's go find that briefing hall. I heard there'll be free food.”