Weeks passed. The development teams enjoyed a pleasant vacation away from the Cosmodrome, coming back fresh and ready for a new schedule. Whether it had been luck or not, the unexpected – however slight – success of the last launch had sent morale soaring everywhere, and the work crews returned to the Cape genuinely excited for their next assignments.
Which was good, for this next attempt would be the most significant yet; Not only was the unprecedented technique of clustering to be tried in practice for the first time, it would also be the first launch with a payload – a prototype shell of the first-generation Starwalker, intended to put some of the Director's ideas about heatshield design into practice.
That is, assuming they could ever build the stupid thing in the first place.
With a deep sigh, Wilhelmina surveyed the array of test articles that lay prepared in the middle of the lab, suspended from the ceiling via thick steel cables; Each a five-by-five plate of thick rough metal; Each of a slightly different colour and texture; And each last one badly burnt and half-molten, with large gaping holes where the metal had completely wasted away.
With the Commissar menacingly standing to attention at her side, the Director faced down the head metallurgist, looking at her over the top of her spectacles. The brown unicorn stood her ground, but it was plenty obvious she was afraid.
„You told me you would have this alloy ready for use in half a year. That was eight months ago,“ Will slowly began, choosing her words and body language carefully for maximum impact, „Our entire schedule depends on finalizing the heatshield composition as soon as possible. Without it, the entire Star Walker project is on indefinite hold. Now, what do you have to say for yourself?“
The terrified unicorn could barely speak, but a provoked assistant saved her:
„The requirements you gave us are insane! They call for ninety five percent purity! Ninety five! That's utter madness!“
„Well, I suggest you try something new, then. And quickly. I allocated a significant portion of our budget to your lab, provided all the expensive beryllium and aluminium you asked for, but now I'm expecting results.“
„What do you think we've been doing all these months? Look, there is only one alloy known to ponykind that even approaches your ridiculous requirements, and guess what? The same properties that make it resistant to heat, also make it extremely difficult to produce! We've spent half a year trying to figure out a way of separating the chlorine out with magic; We've tried a dozen different methods, and unless there was a revolution in metalworking while we weren't looking, we're never going to get this alloy purified fully. The technology just doesn't exist!“
„Well, what do we suggest we do, then?“ Wilhelmina insisted, „The equations are clear. Unless your heatshield can withstand four thousand degrees peak and three thousand degrees sustained, for five minutes, then our brave equenaut's going to end up as cinders. It's as simple as that.“
„And unless this alloy's ninety five percent pure, it can't do that!“
The two mares stared each other down; Each behest by the laws of nature, neither able to back down.
„There is... one other way,“ the chief scientist interjected, breaking up the staring contest as all eyes snapped to her. Judging by her slow, careful tone, the Director got the feeling she wouldn't like this suggestion.
„We... could, theoretically, fulfil those requirements at our present eighty percent purity... if we made the shell thicker. Instead of one and a half inch, use two and a half. It would still ablate dangerously during peak load, but with the extra material it should be able to hold.“
Wilhelmina's hunch rang true. She didn't like the news. Especially after a brief mental calculation.
„So you want me to cut half a tonne of mass from the capsule?“ she incredulously began. The rocket design already teetered at the limits of the impossible as it was, and adding another half a tonne of payload was simply out of consideration. Hence, if the heatshield suddenly got heavier, the other systems would have to become lighter, by an equal amount.
The head scientist shrugged. Will stared at her for a few seconds more. It was bad, but it was their only option. Make the avionics and life support half a tonne lighter; Or give up.
„Fine,“ she snapped bitterly, turning around for the door. What else was going to go wrong with this infernal capsule?
„Velocity, Twenty seven thousand hooves per second. Altitude, one hundred fifteen miles. You are go for second orbit.“
Shuffling about in the confined space of the simulator, Cherry very carefully began pulling at a cord hanging from a metal box above her head, taking great pains not to rip it off. The cardboard ceiling of the mock-up bent inwards dangerously, but did not collapse. Inch by inch, she slowly increased weight on the string, until an audible click of a relay confirmed the system's activation:
„Spacecraft instrumentation visual assistance and guidance system, enabled!“
A single small bulb on the ceiling slowly warmed to life. Privately, the orange pegasus wondered who came up with these ridiculous names.
„Checking bus A,“ she announced, squinting her eyes as she tried to observe the dial, „Oh, for Celestia's – Abort test!“
„No can do, cadet! You are floating over a hundred miles above the surface. No aborts there!“ Redstone's resolute voice commanded, speaking from just behind the black curtain that their mock-up used for an entry hatch.
„I know, I know, but just look at this thing! Who thought it was a good idea to put the most important reading on a tiny little dial right next to a huge glowing bulb?“ Cherry complained, still in disbelief the Chief Designer had managed to miss such a glaring error.
Then again, she had seen the blueprints for herself too. Some things just weren't obvious until they were tried in practice.
„Well, somepony did, and now you have to deal with result!“
„We are going to change this for the real thing, right?“ she asked, trying to figure out a way to get the reading. Without the bulb, the capsule was too dark, and with it, the glass cover of the dial simply reflected its glare, completely obscuring the measuring needle, „I mean, I literally can't see what it says. Am I supposed to just guess?“
„Geist, write it down!“ the professor snapped to his side, then turned back to Cherry, „We still continue test, though!“
„While we're at it, I can't actually hit the hatch release. There's a big stupid box in the way. And I'm pretty sure I'll need to open the hatch as some point,“ she continued, demonstrating by trying to extend her hind leg, only to be blocked by a large wooden plank that seemed to have no other purpose but to restrict her movements, „What's the point of practising on a mock-up if the real thing's gonna be completely different?“
„You learn improvise! Now get on! Continue procedure!“
In frustration, Cherry kicked a large metal cylinder attached to the side wall; To her surprise, it broke off its loose screws, tipped over, and made an enormous racket as it split its contents of random nuts and bolts all over the capsule's interior, as well as its only occupant. Flinching as a particularly heavy screw hit her on the head, she wondered what the purpose of this particular 'system' was supposed to be.
The ruckus was enough for even the otherwise stoic professor to interrupt the test and poke his head in through the hatch curtains. After briefly scanning the chaos inside, and seeing Cherry covered in assorted metal components, he demanded:
„Good heavens, what page of ops manual are you on? Page twenty says 'Check voltage', not 'Destroy flight computer'!“
„That's not a flight computer, it's a big box of rusty scrap metal! Why is it here?“
„Well, we don't have flight computer. Is not built yet. Is not designed yet. So we use mock-up. Good enough, no?“
„No!“ Cherry screamed, rubbing her head, „And what's that thing for, then?“ she banged on a wooden box that hung off the ceiling, appearing to have no other purpose but to provide pain whenever she hit her head on it.
„Is oxygen regenerator.“
„No, it's a banana crate! It even says 'bananas' on the side! What kind of simulator is this?“
„Look, Star Walker uses three hundred fifty six separate system, yes? Of those, two have reached prototype stage: Hatch handle and cooling fan. We are doing best we can.“
„But what's the point of training in a mock-up if it's nothing like the real thing?“
„Is supposed to be psychological test; You alone in dark capsule, suddenly I come up with problem, you must work to fix it. Also test if you memorized control panel yet.“
Cherry scoffed at the plan, „But why should I memorize the controls if they're completely unusable? I'm telling you, this whole thing needs a major redesign!“
As if to punctuate her point, the entire warning panel lit up at once, ablaze with red and yellow bulbs. A few seconds later, the master alarm began ringing. It only took a few moments more before something outside snapped, there was a creaking sound, and the entire front wall of the simulator broke free of its rickety supports and fell outwards, hitting the ground with a loud thud.
Poor Geist, the thought ran through her head as she remembered her favourite insomniac techie, He worked so hard on this thing. Too bad it's utter rubbish.
„Well, at least we have learnt something,“ Redstone dryly noted, idly looking on as the hangar's panicking tech-ponies began swarming around the mock-up, desperately trying to rescue as much of it as they could before its wood-and-cardboard structure completely disintegrated, „Use more tape next time.“
Standing in her office, Wilhelmina looked at the latest stack of progress reports in disbelief. It seemed as if the entire Cosmodrome was falling apart around her. Messages of disastrous setbacks were coming in from the vehicle assembly teams, propellant mixing plants, the Star Walker complex, even Sequine's electromechanics department. And to add insult to the injury, Lyuka's liquid engine laboratory had gone up in green flames during an experiment. Everything, from the research notes to the prototypes of combustion chambers, had burnt down to the ground; And somehow, the room's atmosphere had gotten replaced with hydrofluoric acid in the process. She didn't think the lab would be usable ever again.
Rolling her eyes over the description of the accident – Just because liquid halogens are highly reactive does not mean you immediately have to try igniting two tonnes of the stuff! – Will was suddenly torn away from her paperwork as an exhausted Lyuka crashed open the door to her office, made a small loop in the air, and landed roughly on the red carpet before the Director's desk.
Looking over the frame of her glasses, and noting her frizzy blue mane was still bleached yellow in places from that chlorine fire, Wilhelmina gave her an inquisitive look:
„What is it this time? Did you burn down your new lab already?“
The pegasus dug her head out of the carpet, still breathing rapidly. Eyes wide open, she screamed:
„Worse! It's Celestia! Celestia's on her way here! Right now!“
A stunned silence befell the room; „The... the schedule says-“ Will barely managed to get out before her assistant gathered enough breath again:
„The schedule's a joke! She's making a surprise inspection of the entire facility! She's on her way here right now!“
Possible scenarios began running through the Director's mind. Primary approaches, backup plans, contingency scenarios, estimated percentages of success, degrees of failure. One crucial variable was missing.
„Her vanguard just landed in the main courtyard!“
That collapsed the tree of available options significantly. Nodding in acceptance, she quickly commanded:
„Tell the commissar's stallions to throw together some refreshments in Stable IV. Then fly straight to Five. Make sure Sequine stays in her basement, that the labs look pretty, and that the projection room has the film; As per plan Celestia/Three. Oh, and make yourself presentable – you look awful.“
Checking against a mirror to ensure she was prim, the Director rapidly left the room, leaving the ruffled pegasus in her stead. As she walked through the halls of the administrative bunker, she could plainly see the word had already gotten out; Panicking ponies were rushing through the corridors, dragging out impressive-looking pieces of equipment, carrying records to be shredded, or simply galloping to hide themselves behind locked blast-doors; Those last ones were probably the smartest of the lot.
Emerging through the main door of Stable I, Wilhelmina could see that Celestia's cavalcade was already landing. A few of the golden flying carriages were already on the ground, their armoured crews emerging to secure the perimeter and set up their small orchestra. In the distance behind them, a few last ponies were still running for cover, desperate to not be seen for the entire duration of the visit.
Squinting in the desert sun, the Director inspected the incoming fleet of vehicles. There were at least ten still on the horizon, all approaching rapidly. Either the Princess of the Sun had brought far more guards with her than usual, or she was being accompanied by a royal entourage. In either case, foreboding news.
Seeing the carriages manoeuvre in for final approach, the Director wondered what might have prompted this surprise visit. Perhaps one of the vacationing ponies had talked? The Commissar had done everything in his power to allow only reliable ponies to leave, but even that stallion had his limits.
Regardless, what had happened happened, and a strategy was already developing in the Director's mind. She just needed to smooth-talk the Princess for a few more minutes until she got the details mapped out.
The largest carriage began descending rapidly, the shining figure of their leader already clearly distinguishable. Wilhelmina gulped. Smooth-talking a goddess. Easy.
The landed orchestra began playing the royal fanfare, having timed it so precisely, the crescendo was reached just as the wheels of Celestia's carriage touched down on the desert sand. Even the Director was left impressed by such a degree of co-ordination..
Seeing the carriage rolling up to her, she took a deep bow. The scorching sand was uncomfortable, but this was the ruling goddess of all of Equestria, after all.
The wheels came to a stop, and Wilhelmina saw a shining silver hoof, clad in a brilliant golden slipper, sink slightly into the sand before her.
„How good to see you again, madam Director,“ a warm motherly voice spoke from above. Getting back on her hooves, she stared at Celestia' royal figure; Overreaching any mortal pony in height, wings slightly outstretched, her imposing pose was one of power. Yet her eyes and subtle smile spoke deeply of her true nature.
Or at least, what Wilhelmina hoped was her true nature:
„My princess. It is an honour to have our research facility graced by Your presence. Please excuse our unpreparedness, but-“
„It's quite alright. I know my visit was rather unexpected – don't worry about making a bad impression,“ Celestia beamed with all the power of the sun, „In my years, I've often seen ponies stretch themselves excessively for a royal visit, preparing huge banquets and so forth. I simply did not want to put such a strain upon you.“
„Most noble decision, my lady,“ the Director began, quite sure that wasn't the real reason. She paused as she glanced at the other landing carriages, „And what of your retinue?“
„Oh, just one of my students, and some of her friends that decided to come along. She is a great magician, but is still intrigued by the technical sciences. I thought she'd be most interested by your work here.“
„Of course, your highness. I've ordered for some light refreshments to be assembled, but I fear it might take a while for them to get organized. You must be tired from your journey.“
„Don't worry, Director. In fact, I myself am rather eager to stretch my legs after all that sitting,“ she said, again with a wide smile on her face. Privately, Wilhelmina wondered just how much cold calculation lay beneath all those warm gestures.
The remaining carriages landed, and a multicoloured group of six ponies disembarked. One purple and one white unicorn, a pink and an orange earth pony, and two pegasi of blue and yellow. All that was missing was a token male, and the rainbow of political correctness would be complete.
The group excitedly chattered amongst themselves as they walked, flew, or, in the case of the pink pony, hopped up to the Princess. The purple unicorn at their head was looking around, appearing most interested by her surroundings:
„Wow, thanks again for letting us tag along, Princess! I've never seen buildings like this before!“
Celestia surveyed the squat concrete bunkers that littered the area:
„It's just some old royal grounds, Twilight. Centuries ago, we built them here for a magical experiment that needed doing. I must admit, Director, your ponies have done a fine job with the restoration. I never thought I'd see this place live again.“
„Must have been some magic. I can still feel its traces around,“ Twilight noted. From her side, the pink pony bounced happily:
„And I can still smell them!“
As the group laughed, the Director gave the pink pony a questioning look. She never knew Celestia kept a court jester. Suddenly, the blue pegasus sniffed, then spoke up:
„Actually, me too. What is that funky smell?“
„Ammonia for the perchlorates. Our vats are at full capacity right now.“
„Perchlorates, hmm?“ Twilight pondered the word for a while, then snapped to attention, „Wait, aren't those dangerous?“
The Director barely stifled a laugh:
„You will see in no time, miss. Now, are you ready for the grand tour? We will begin with the heart of our complex; Our research labs.“
Celestia discretely turned her head to Twilight, „See? I told you this visit would be educational.“
„Educational? Aww heck, nopony told me that!“ an earth pony at the back of the group complained, drawing giggles from the others.
„And nopony certainly told me that there'd be all this sand ruffling up my hooves. Oh! I think some got into my hair!“ the group's other unicorn began, a most disdainful look on her face.
„Quiet, gals, I told you both. But you just had to tag along, didn't you?“
„I merely thought a 'royal research facility' would be far more dignified, perchance even staffed with some fine nobility. Instead-“
„Now there, Rarity,“ the Princess' soothing voice interrupted, „Don't be so hasty to judge. The Director right here is the first daughter of the esteemed Magnus Brown, are you not, Wilhelmina?“
„Yes...“ Will sighed, always embarrassed when her past was brought up.
„Oh, my,“ Rarity began, and quickly trotted up to the Director's side and took a small bow, „My most sincere apologies, countess. I have read all about your family's great past. Isn't your father still the mayor of Zäumberg?“
„We don't really talk much anymore, I'm afraid.“
„Oh, and what a pity it is. Great, great, pity. Say, have you read what happened at the last Landesrat meeting? Such insolence. Why, I could hardly believe it myself! I think Freiherrin Haugwitz was acting most inappropriately, don't you?“
Ugh. This was going to be one long tour.
„Anyway,“ Wilhelmina loudly announced as they passed through the bunker's entrance, silencing Rarity's long-winded political tirade, „This is Stable V, where most of our exciting technologies are tested and developed. Though they usually originate from either my or my assistants' desks, it takes teams of specialists and fully equipped laboratories to flesh them out fully.“
„Say, Director,“ Twilight – probably the student Celestia had talked about, judging by her sincere interest, as well as lack of participation in the inane chatter taking place further behind – trotted up to her other side, opposite Rarity, „This is all very nice and all, but you still haven't quite explained what you're actually doing here.“
For the briefest millisecond, Wilhelmina stopped in her tracks. She could swear she could feel the Princess' gaze burning a hole in the back of her neck. Resuming her walk and clearing her throat, she began:
„Apologies, I assumed her highness had informed you. Here at the Bureau of Atmospheric Experimentation, our original mission remains the same as ever; Developing revolutionary new methods of large-scale weather and climate manipulation.“
„Hey!“ the blue pegasus shouted, suddenly appearing right over the Director's head, „You brainiacs aren't trying to build some fancy new machine to make all us pegasi jobless bums, are you?“
Laughing nervously, Will continued walking along the corridor, „Of course not! We are simply trying to come up with more efficient and centralized methods using technological approaches. Natural ability remains important-“
„Damn right!“ the pegasus hollered.
„-But there are some distinct physical limits to it. For one, no matter how great a flier you are, it is quite impossible to climb above a certain altitude using only wingpower. We considered using balloons, but it turns out, even those have their limits, however big they are. To fly higher, you need something revolutionary.“
As they came up to a heavy blastdoor set into the side of the corridor, Will gulped. She had intended to use the other entrance to the bunker, the one that did not pass by Lyuka's old lab, but with Rarity's incessant babble bearing down on her, she had forgotten herself. Was bringing this pony along another of Celestia's devious plans, perhaps? She tried to pick up the pace and distract the group from the steel vault door:
„We had studied many technological means of reaching the extreme altitudes required to conduct our experiments. In our long studies, we've managed to stumble upon a particular kind of vehicle, a rocket. Think of it as a large firework, except it doesn't explode at the end.“
Not on purpose, anyway, she mentally added as she glanced at the large imposing door.
„Lyuka F., Liquid Engines Department?“ Twilight questioningly read out from a small sign beside the door, then turned around to the Director: „Can we take a look?“
Realizing the group had stopped in their tracks, the Director turned around, and noticing the pink pony was already prying away at the vacuum seals, urgently shook her head:
„I'm afraid that whilst studying the last batch of possible fuels, namely inter-halogenic compounds, our labs experienced a... uh... well, let us simply say we will all live a lot longer if nopony opens that door. Ever.“
Though Celestia raised her eyebrow at the statement, the group as a whole – and after a bit of panicked gesturing, even the royal jester – decided to forgo any further questions and instead rapidly move on. After a hurried walk through zigzagging concrete corridors designed to dissipate any advancing explosion, they arrived at a new door, this one far less massively imposing, but still quite bomb-proof. As the Director came to a stop before it, the pink pony crashed into her from the back.
„I must remind you again, please do not touch anything once we've entered, and don't disturb our scientists,“ Will repeated, throwing open the wide doors to the lab. The ponies quickly all jumped back, then peeked out from behind Celestia's towering figure.
„Don't worry, this one's safe,“ Will tried to reassure them. Nevertheless, they weren't convinced until she had stepped in the lab herself; At which point, they all rushed in and began scrutinizing everything in sight.
Visuals-wise, the scientists had done a pretty good job at getting the lab this prepared at such short notice; Instead of the usual caskets of clear liquid and barrels of toxic white powder, the benches were stacked with coloured and bubbling water of every sort, each giving off exotic sweet smells. The scientists were also all looking sufficiently scientific, each wearing a labcoat and thick goggles. Overall, Wilhelmina was satisfied.
„While Lyuka's department investigates revolutionary liquid-propelled engines, here in Lab C we are trying to approach the problem from an evolutionary perspective instead. We are taking the classic firework design, and applying chemistry to come up with fuels far more powerful than common black-powder.“
„Like those perchlorates earlier!“ the purple mare remembered, intently studying some sketchings of various oxidizing agents on a small blackboard in the corner.
Nodding, Will suddenly froze up as Celestia idly wandered up to her, that infernal warm smile still on her face.
„Director, all this is extremely nice, and apologies if I'm rushing you, but you still haven't quite explained just how all these 'revolutionary' and 'evolutionary' methods actually work. You talked about fireworks earlier, but could you perhaps elaborate?“
„Of course, your highness. Would everypony be so kind as to follow me to the next room, where a short video has been prepared for you.“
„A movie!“ the pink pony squealed, extracting her head from a vat of coloured liquid.
„Pinkie!“ the purple mare suddenly screamed, „Did you just stick your head in that?“
A vigorous happy nodding as her reply, the unicorn shot a terrified look to the Princess:
„We need to get her to a hospital, now!“
„Don't worry, Twilight,“ Celestia responded with a calming smile, „I don't think those are perchlorates.“
„If they were, your friend wouldn't be jumping about so happily. Or at all, for that matter,“ one of the nearby chem-ponies uttered under her breath, looking on in revulsion as Pinkie bounced all around her precious lab, knocking over beakers and unsettling volatiles. Once again, Wilhelmina was extremely thankful for having moved all the actual propellants to the nearby storage shack.
„Anyway,“ the Director began, urgently funnelling the ponies into the adjacent projection room before they stumbled on something that was actually dangerous, „Onwards with our tour.“
As per the emergency plan Celestia/Three, the adjacent room had been furnished with a video projector and several scale models of the Cosmodrome's designs – those got a few quizzical looks from the group, but they quickly seated themselves as the lights dimmed and the film began rolling.
The silent footage was of the last launch, and as the towed rocket rolled into frame, Will began her narration:
„As I said earlier, we had decided to base our design on a simple firework. Except, of course, much bigger.“
While she spoke, the onscreen rocket was erected into launch position and prepared for launch.
„Those scientists you saw earlier managed to come up with a particular propellant – using a mixture of powdered asphalt and potassium perchlorate – which is double the intensity of the blackpowder you'd find in a normal firework.“
The film cut to a molecular diagram of their fuel, then to a short scene where a sample of the propellant was ignited in a lab.
„Lyuka's ongoing experiments could give us even greater efficiency, of course, enough to even reach what is called 'orbit'; A state of perpetual falling, wherein one is moving sideways so quickly that by the time you would have hit the ground, you'll have missed it. This means you literally break free of our planet, of gravity, of the atmosphere. Something ponies never even dreamed of. Quite an interesting concept to ponder, I believe.“
A small animated diagram replaced the view of the lab, and the audience watched on as the basic principle of orbital motion was explained. To bring the point home, a photograph taken thirty miles above the surface was shown, clearly displaying the bright blue sky of their world gradually fade into a black starlit void. The altitude was such, even the curvature of the ground below was becoming noticeable.
It was blurry, it was overexposed, but it was the first such picture to ever be seen by pony eyes; An automated nosecone camera on the last flight had miraculously survived the explosion, having been shielded by the massive bulk of the control unit, and though most of its film compartments had been smashed open, their teams still managed to recover this one picture.
As the ponies watched in silence, taking their time to fully appreciate the sheer scope of the idea (or just look at the pretty picture), Twilight hesitantly interrupted:
„I... I'm not quite sure I can express the coolness of this quite enough, madam Director. But what does it have to do with weather control?“
Wilhelmina smiled back, „As is obvious when you consider a firework, rockets consume an incredible amount of fuel, incredibly quickly; And when you add more fuel, you make the whole thing heavier, so you have to burn it faster to compensate. Thus, even our biggest designs cannot keep going for more than ten minutes. As spending hundreds of tonnes of rare chemicals on a few minutes of flight would be utterly wasteful, we instead opted to reach orbit, whence we can conduct high-altitude weather experiments for weeks on end, never using any fuel.“
Seeing the mare nod in satisfaction, she continued on with her presentation:
„While our teams work on resolving the few last issues with Lyuka's design, however-“ such as the minor 'sets steel on fire and fills the lab with hydrofluoric acid' bug, „-we have decided to do a few practical tests with solid fuels first, just to verify our equations work.“
The film cut back to archive footage of their last launch.
„To actually reach 'orbit', we will require both methods; Liquid for its high efficiency, solid for its significant thrust. What follows is a demonstration of the solid fuel booster.“
The footage finally came up to the final countdown, and the camera shots began switching rapidly – nosecone close-up, shaky aerial view, a slow-motion detail of the nozzle – as the massive firework ignited and shot off into the air, accompanied by much applause from Pinkie and a few scattered gasps from the others. Nervously glancing at the Princess, Will had to admit the constant subtle smile on Celestia's face was the most brilliant poker face ever.
The film followed the rocket as it ascended into the skies, switching angles and cameras, eventually becoming a faint speck even at maximum magnification. The recording cut to black precisely one second before the explosion; Wilhelmina had made sure of that.
As the lights came back on and the ponies applauded, Celestia turned around to Will:
„Director, a private word with you, please?“
Oh dear. This was it. As she took what might have been her last steps on this planet, she couldn't help but notice the smile on the Princess' face wasn't quite as gleaming as before.
Sealing the reinforced door tightly behind them, the Director turned around and faced Celestia. Her imposing form towering over her, Wilhelmina was nevertheless surer than ever that whatever might follow, she'd have no regrets.
„You have promised me great things, madam Director,“ the Goddess promptly began – the usual warmth now quite gone from her voice, „To revolutionize Equestria, to bring about great benefits for everypony, all via the amazing power of technological advances – and yet here you are, spending countless millions on little more than entertaining fireworks. That budget could have gone to feeding the poor, new roads, better healthcare. I know you're trying, and that you mean well, but your Bureau is simply burning through bits like there's no tomorrow, and has only pretty explosions to show for itself.“
There was a big lump in Wilhelmina's throat. Celestia must have heard of the launch failure, then. But she wouldn't get banished. Not now. Not after so much progress. They were so close!
„Have you ever wondered, my highness-“ she began her carefully prepared speech, „-why there are so few earth ponies in our history books? We read all about the amazing exploits of great unicorn magicians. But the earth and wing proletariats?“
„I can think of ten famous ponies straight away,“ Celestia brushed her aside, „And what does this have to do with-“
„Yes, ten,“ Wilhelmina continued, a large part of her brain not quite comprehending she had just interrupted a goddess mid-sentence, „And how many of those just happened to be in the right place at the right time? And how many were actual philosophers, artisans, scientists?“
„You repeat the same tired fallacies that 'revolutionaries' had been trying to use against me for millennia. I am sorry, but they were wrong. Earth ponies are essential to society, many are rich landowners, and unicorns do not rule the world,“ Celestia recounted in the warm, yet tired voice of an old teacher who has been faced with the same naïve question a thousand times before.
Wilhelmina was most surprised by her patience; Hopefully, this particular speech would bring a new twist on the ancient claim:
„You are right, earth ponies bless the land, and are respected for that. They are good apple farmers, wheat farmers, rock farmers. Why should they bother with anything else, after all? Leave the dreams to the unicorns. The dirt is good enough.“
„Except, of course, for all the famous earth pony scientists, and writers, and inventors. I am not quite sure where you are going with this.“
„Apologies, your highness. But consider: How often do you hear of such ponies? Rarely, and for a very good reason: All they have are hooves. No magic to levitate and manipulate delicate clockwork with, to handle several objects at once. While a unicorn can write thousands of words every day with ease, an earth pony has to clumsily handle the pen with her mouth.“
Will could see Celestia was already ready with a thousand rebuttals. She was an immortal goddess, after all – she had seen it all, heard it all, and given every matter ample consideration. And yet, in her infinite magnanimity, she was nevertheless letting the Director speak for herself, without interrupting her. Most thankful, Will pressed on, praying she had thought everything through:
„Same with pegasi, really. Why spend months trying to master the laws of electrodynamics, when you're never going to be as good at handling the components as a random unicorn across the street? Forget penning a masterpiece or preparing a brilliant new invention, all you need is a strong pair of wings, and you can make a great living thoughtlessly shifting clouds about. If you're particularly adept you get a job robotically running the machinery of a weather factory, or just become a good smith; But that is as engaging as it gets, and while it is skilled work, it is not inventive work.“
Guessing that Celestia's patience was probably wearing thin by now, Wilhelmina mentally scolded herself for not taking the time to shorten her speech, then continued:
„Like I said, it's not impossible to be a writer if you're not a unicorn, but without telekinesis, every intellectual labour becomes ten times harder. And since you can live by manual labour anyway, why bother trying? Leave the thinking to the horn-blessed bourgeoisie.“
That was enough for even the Princess. She resolutely interrupted Wilhelmina:
„If you pulled your head out of Trottski's old dusty book, Director, and looked at the real world for a second, you'd plainly see it's nothing but seditious lies. As the recent royal census all but proved, wealth distribution across all three races of our society is normalized. We are not all equal, I do not deny that, there are the rich and there are the poor, but all are given equal chance at the start, no matter their birth.“
„Apologies for the imprecise language, Princess – I was talking about a bourgeoisie of the intellectual,“ Wilhelmina quickly clarified herself, „There are individual exceptions, but in the big picture, ninety per cent of our society's artists, philosophers, and scientists have been unicorns. That has always been the case, and now that this system has had millennia to entrench itself, it is more oppressive than ever. Growing up a smart earth pony or pegasus, not only are you pressured by your friends, by your family, but you do not have any role models to look up to either. So why take the seemingly impossible plunge, when you can just go with tradition? And bury your dreams under a mound of earth.“
„Don't try to deny this, Princess – I've seen it happen to a dozen of my friends, every last one a brilliant mind, and every last one eventually resigning itself to a simpler life. Lyuka is the only one that pulled through. It's real, it's right now, and nopony's doing anything about it.“
There was a deliberative pause as Will stopped, trying to clearly formulate her next words. Celestia, meanwhile, took it as the end of her grandiose speech. With a faint sad smile, she began in her sweet voice:
„Wilhelmina, you must realize, I understand all that. Though I admit you've understood Trottski's real argument far better than most who attempt to interpret his work, and possibly better than his own essays, I must ask: What is there to do? Earth ponies aren't unicorns, nor are pegasi – that's just how the world is. I can't change it, nopony can. All we can do is each take our roles, and do what nature says we're good at. This natural order of things cannot-“
The Princess paused. There was a small break in her poker face. Then, her sympathetic sad smile turned into a real one:
„Oh, I see. How clever.“
She understands!, Wilhelmina almost screamed in joy. Meanwhile, the goddess continued:
„Using technology, to break up the natural order. Doing something far greater than any known magic allows for, and doing it without magic,“ she recounted softly, almost for herself, „Allowing anypony to touch the stars, to do something magical, no matter how they were born.“
Yes! Yes! Exactly!, Will thought, nodding along to every sentence. Celestia gleamed at her with a playful smile:
„Your idea is good, but there is one flaw. Why no publicity? How do you intend to give role models and inspire every last pegasus and earth pony in all of Equestria, when it's all kept secret?“
Will's smile disappeared off her face as fast as it had appeared. There was a brief terrified silence. Would this be the end of it all? Then, Celestia just... laughed:
„I suppose you just weren't sure if it would work, and didn't want a public failure.“
The Director nodded quickly; Yes. That will do.
Celestia then smiled, and mischievously winked at her.
Oh buck. Does she know I just made this whole speech up?
„Regardless, now that you do, I fully expect every last pony on this planet to know all about your next launch. That footage is going to run on every last cinema screen in Equestria.“
She's probably one step ahead, Will realized, She knows you've made it up, and she doesn't care. All I said is still true, no matter if it's my real reason or just a nice side-effect. Why waste a good cause?
Then again, maybe she just wants everypony in Equestria to see your failures publicly, and punish you that way.
Regardless of any internal speculation, there was only one external action left to take:
„Of course, your Majesty,“ Wilhelmina took a deep bow.
„Anyway,“ Celestia turned around, and suddenly the Director, taking her eyes off the Princess for the first time since the conversation began, realized the group of five ponies had been silently listening in this entire time, „I think this conversation has answered all my questions. We could be leaving now, unless...?“ she paused, eyeing the assembled team of ponies.
„Oooh, ooh!“ Pinkie bounced up and down, „Can we stay behind? Please? Pretty please?“
„Oh?“ Celestia seemed somewhat surprised, „You want to do that?“
„I just can't wait 'till we start liberating the earth and air comrade-proletariats by amazing feats of technostakhanovite labours!“ the pink pony bounced, „While wearing funny hats!“
Wilhelmina froze mid-movement. Her ever-active brain suddenly began charting out all that might go wrong if this pony stayed here for more than a few hours. The list was exploding at an exponential pace. Terrified, she managed to get out:
„I... well... the facility is quite at its capacity for the moment. And adding new bunkers could take months. Not to mention the paperwork-“
„Awwww... Pleeeeeeeease?“ Pinkie made her best puppy-dog eyes at the Director, „This place sure needs more parties!“
No. Just no, the Director shuddered as she remembered some of the Vehicle Assembly Team's recent hijinks, More parties is quite the opposite of what this place needs.
„Now there, Pinkie Pie,“ Celestia interjected, „I am quite sure you could help the program even back in Ponyville. Maybe put your... cooking... talents to use?“
„Oh, what a great idea! I'll make all sorts of space food! Space cupcakes, space drinks, space sweets, space pies!“ she hopped in response.
Thank you, Goddess! Disaster averted.
„Hang on there a minute. Where in hay is Rainbow Dash?“ the other earth pony looked around, prompting the Director to do a recount. Of the royal retinue, there were indeed only five ponies present. Where was that sixth one?
Slowly swinging open the door to the projection room, the group peeked in. Rainbow Dash was silently sitting there, watching the rocket take off on what must have been the hundredth replay by now. Her eyes seemed to be in a trance as the vehicle ascended on a shining column of blazing fire, a controlled explosion whose sheer power made gravity huddle away in fear. As the rocket slowly disappeared into the sky, she glanced quietly at her small wings.
Noticing the other ponies peeking in, Rainbow quickly dashed up to the Director:
„How much do these cost? I want one! I need one! Please? Please? Pleeeeease? I'll take up a second job! Just let me join up!“
Celestia and the Director exchanged amused looks, remembering the annual budget of the facility. Rainbow looked on, hope in her voice:
„Maybe take out a loan?“
„Perhaps the Director can arrange something?“ Celestia's voice suddenly cut through, just a hint of playfulness in her voice.
The smile disappeared off Wilhelmina's face. She looked at the pleading pegasus. She looked back at Celestia.
„Won't you, Director?“ the Princess asked again. Despite the friendly tone, Will felt distinctly threatened by the question. It just seemed to have that unspoken 'or else' hanging off it.
„Well...“ she played for more time, eyes alternating between Dash and Celestia. Maybe she was reading too much into the Princess' words. Maybe it was just an innocent question.
Then again, maybe it was not. Who knew what Celestia's real motives were in all this? After all, even Wilhelmina herself would agree her impassioned argument hadn't been the best; It simply was the only one she managed to think of. It might have worked for a smaller venture, but a multi-million project really did need a better reason besides 'role models'.
The Director was not willing try her luck again. Not after so much. She had just about managed to save the Cape. Were she to suddenly lose the funding now...
She studied the pegasus again. Ever since Vera had failed her physical, the Equenaut corps had been one short. And if this really was the Rainbow Dash... Wilhelmina distinctly remembered reading about her during past research; That sonic rainboom she had performed at the Best Young Flyer Competition marked the first time such a phenomenon had been captured clearly on high-definition film, sending ripples of excitement throughout the Equestrian scientific circles. So there was that to consider. And she did seem like the sort who'd be popular enough with the public... maybe it wouldn't be such a disaster after all!
„Well, that was a disaster,“ Will promptly stated, kicking the door closed behind her, then proceeding to throw herself on the carpet of Lyuka's office.
„Why? You saved the program. Isn't that all that matters?“ she asked, leaving her sketches and flying over to the Director.
„Yeah, but now we'll have to go public,“ Will uttered the last word with disgust, „All interviews and freedom of the press and paid overtime. How am I supposed to do what I want if it's not all kept secret?“
„You know, paid overtime might not be such a bad thing-“ Lyuka discretely began, but was cut short:
„We're doing science here! If people start poking around, who knows what they'll find!“
„Hey, at least we'll get a bigger budget, right?“
„At what cost! I bet those crazy journalists will just get in the way. 'Should uneducated workers really be handling deadly chemicals?','What happens if that rocket full of liquid fluorine explodes above a populated area?'. Stupid paparazzi.“
„You know, if we actually had the extra bits to afford new fuel tanks instead of constantly reusing the old ones, that trifluoride might not have caught on fire, and our lab would still be usable!“
„Budget schmudgets. We got by on chump change so far!“
„Yeah, but now that we're planning on sending a mare to outer space, don't you think-“
„If we run enough on-pad simulations, we can keep the test flights to a minimum. Besides...“ the Director began, laying out her argument. As soon as she finished, Lyuka shot back with her own, and so their dialogue bounced back and forth, slowly escalating both in volume and language.
This will be a long night, some resigned neuron at the back of her head fired, Again.
Rainbow tightened the last strap of her saddlebags, just about ready for her departure. She had made sure to memorize the route Celestia's cavalcade took as it was returning to Ponyville, and would now fly all through the night to retrace it. The Director had given her some papers saying something about a 'ferry balloon' a week from now, but that was the way for engineers and sparkling brainiac unicorns, not Rainbow Dash!
Leaping into the air, she shot through the doorway of her cloud home and took off into the nightly skies. Doing a few loops and spins to stretch her wings and warm up for the long journey ahead, she eventually slowed to an idle hover, then turned around to get one last look at Ponyville, peacefully asleep far below.
She had already bid goodbye to all her friends, and they would come visit frequently enough; Nevertheless, it was a strange experience, leaving her home for so long and so alone.
She looked up at the starry sky. This whole thing was a strange experience. With determination in her eyes, she picked out one star from the hundreds above, then began accelerating towards it. The cool night air rushing past her face, her rainbow mane and tail fluttering in the wind, she tried to pick up the pace, her heart beating faster and faster as she put all her strength into her wings.
And yet, no matter how hard she tried, the star refused to approach any closer.
Levelling out from her steep ascent, she swooped her wings outwards in one smooth motion and began to effortlessly glide, far above the clouds. She looked at the ground below; Once, the height would have seemed considerable to her; Now, it was nothing.
Closing her eyes, she saw the rocket launch into the skies before her. She saw the one blurry photograph it had taken; That familiar azure horizon, gradually fading away with altitude, until it disappeared into nothing. The green surface of their world so far below, its curvature already becoming clearly visible. Her friends probably saw it as nothing more than a pretty picture; Twilight as an impressive feat of technology, Celestia most likely as a waste of bits.
But for Dash, that photograph had reached out and stirred something deep in her heart. It didn't just represent the greatest adventure of all time, though there certainly was be plenty of that. No.
For all her bluster, Rainbow had always thought of herself as a down-to-earth pony, as strange as that might sound for a high-flying pegasus. She wanted nothing more out of life than a clear sky, a pair of good wings, and some good friends to cheer her on.
Being able to fly for the Wonderbolts and being admired by ponies all across Equestria would be amazing, true. But not once had she actually believed it was really going to happen; Ambitious as she seemed, she was actually rather pleased with her life so far. The occasional dragon, parasprite invasion, or flying competition made things exciting, she had an easy (and well-paid) job, and had already found the best friends of her life. It just couldn't get any more awesome.
And now, all out of blue, this just appeared. The chance to be the face of a revolution, to be written about in history books, to have little fillies a thousand years from now sit in a classroom and hear, „Today we'll talk about Rainbow Dash, the first pony in history to ever leave our small world and explore the great unknown.“
It was unreal. It was too much, too suddenly. Things like this didn't just happen. Not for ponies without magic, not for ponies like Dash. Was this all a dream?
A confident smile appeared on Rainbow's face as she gazed upwards into the heavens. She knew it wasn't. Her saddlebags were far too heavy for that, the night air far too cold. It was real.
Obviously, it wouldn't be easy. There'd be other candidates competing for the first flight, and Twilight, though she had spent the entire journey back calculating trajectories and bonding energies, still wasn't quite sure an efficient enough engine could ever be built.
Rainbow did not care. If there was something she was good at, it was competitions. Now that she had been given the opportunity, she'd become the first mare in space, and nothing would stop her. No other pony, no silly law of physics.