„Bless us, O great Celestia, and these, Thy gifts, which we are about to receive from Thy bounty…“
Zvezda tried to stop herself from fidgeting about and hopping from leg to leg as she surveyed the sparsely-populated dinner table laid out before her. The stew wasn't exactly a rare speciality, but it was honest food, and today she felt hungrier than ever. Which made the ponies' prayer even more annoying.
„We thank Thee for Thy sunlight, by which our humble crops are allowed to grow. We thank Thee for its warm embrace, by which our herd is allowed to prosper…“
And they seemed to be going for the full-length version today, too. Okay, okay, I get it! It's Sunday! No need to rub our noses in it.
Still silent, she glanced at the ponies assembled around the rough wooden table; the leader of the small family, a rugged earth mare in her forties, sand-coloured and with short orange hair, stood at the far end, leading the prayer. To one side stood the husband – a stately fellow, slightly younger, wearing a light vest and sporting a bushy ginger moustache – and to other, their only child, a perpetually-smiling filly of about eight, with adorable sandy braids. It had certainly been awfully kind of them to take her in, Zvezda never denied that; as soon as the confrontation had officially ended and the water had been pumped back out of the locomotive, they came up to her, offering to share their food and shelter, for free no less. And they were friendly, too, not judging her for the mistakes of her superiors, and instead treating her as an equal.
Even so, she wished they could have been just a tad more progressive.
„We thank Thee for Thy guiding vision, which eternally guides our pony race. We thank Thee for its endless foresight, which has united our different ways…“
Ugh. Zvezda remembered her own family back in Sankt-Luneburg, and how they would also go through the entire lengthy saying of Grace every single day; telling her to either follow along, or not get any food. She wasn't quite sure when this entire silly ritual began getting on her nerves, but knew she definitely was glad it disappeared when she finally left for her apprenticeship.
The head of the family, still going through the words of the prayer, eyed Zvezda intently. Looking down at the ground, suddenly feeling rather ashamed for not joining in despite their sheer generosity, she gained newfound respect for them; unlike her own parents, they were understanding that some ponies might object to such rituals.
Blushing, Zvezda even considered to join them anyway, just out of thanks, at least for the final few words; then stopped herself intently. No modern, responsible pony should partake in such unlimited glorification of the state. The Princess certainly provided all their light and warmth, true enough, and Zvezda was thankful enough for it. But going as far as saying it outright, over every single meal? That just says Celestia is faultless.
And from there? Just a small jump to thinking the State can do no wrong; after all, it's under her direct leadership! And that, that can lead to all sorts of trouble…
„…and lastly, we thank Thee for Thy gift of friendship. Amen.“
The other ponies also all said their amen – even Zvezda instinctively mumbled it before she had a chance to stop herself – then, grinning, heartily delved into their plates. The next few minutes were filled with pleasant chomping noises, but soon enough, the discussion livened up again:
„So, anyway,“ Amber broke the initial silence, looking around the table at her husband, „Did y'all hear ol' Shale is at it again with his fancy tricks?“
„Well, this town could sure use some extra bits, that goes without sayin',“ he laughed in response, trying to fish a suspicious-looking vegetable out of his stew, „Still, I'm not sure he's gonna get anywhere the fourth time 'round. Not without seriously reconsiderin' the whole thing.“
„Well, ya never know,“ Amber declared, shrugging, then swooped her head to look at her child, „And what did you do all mornin', sweetie? Anything fun?“
„Zvezzie told me long division today!“ she announced proudly, beaming at her parents, „All the way to the millions! Did you know that two million and twenty five, divided by five hundred and five, is exactly three thousand-“
Amber let her slowly finish, then, whistling in respect, looked at Zvezda. „I must admit, I was sceptical at first, but I really gotta hand it to you. You sure 're helpful.“
„It's nothing, really,“ Zvezda smiled, looking at the little filly with the same accomplished look she usually reserved only for her best welds, „She's quite smart herself! I'm only prodding her towards the right track.“
„Oh, oh!“ the little filly resumed, „She also told me the names of the planets! Listen, listen!“
„Well, still, it's awful nice of you,“ Amber retorted, running her hoof through her child's mane as she mumbled down the list, „I wish we could give 'er more time, but with the quotas goin' up and everything, the both of us are busy enough as is. It's a shame, but you gotta pay the bills.“
„Up?“ Zvezda raised her eyebrow, still remembering all complaints that had ensued the last time the production quotas had raised, „Again?“
Amber shrugged, „Who are we to question the Princess' plan? She'll put all that iron to good use, mark my words!“
„Still, I'd sure be nice if they gave us at least a little more time with our little princess here,“ her husband sighed, looking at his daughter sadly, „Or at least built us a school.“
Those last words touched Zvezda's heart. She looked at the little, smiling filly again, and thought of herself; where would she be, if her parents hadn't ensured her such a good education? Had she grown up it a tiny frontier town with no facilities whatsoever? For all she knew, this filly here could be the singular genius supposed to bring forth the third industrial revolution; and nopony would ever even hear of her, simply because she hadn't been given the chance.
Add the heavy bag of coins stashed in her own saddlebags, lying not five hooves from here, and Zvezda couldn't help but feel distinctly guilty.
Judging by their sad looks, the parents seemed to share her views. Still, they were at least a little more stoic about it:
„Well, the ol' sheriff sent in another request to the committee last week,“ Amber announced, still distantly looking at her child, „We'll see how the good Princess decides.“
Zvezda rolled her eyes. The system worked, she knew it did; but all too often, even simple procedures got bogged down in paperwork, and the original well-meaning objectives got lost amidst the checkboxes. Appleloosa would no doubt get a school... eventually. What were a few years to an immortal goddess, after all?
Whether it would be in time to help this particular filly, however, was a different question altogether. Zvezda glanced at her one more time, then, looking back to her loving parents, sighed deeply. What was there to do?
You know very well.
She blinked, mind reeling from the surprise strike by her conscience. But the more she considered it, the more convinced she became. They had taken enough from these ponies. It was time to give something back.
„You know,“ she slowly began, still quite coy, but steadfastly urged on by her conscience, „The Cosmodrome's only half a day away, even by cargo train. Once all this water business gets sorted out, I'm sure we could arrange-“
Amber stared between her and the filly for a few confused seconds, then, with Zvezda's words clicking together in her head, straightened up:
„Now listen here, miss, I know you mean well,“ she began, hugging her foal protectively, „But I'm not lettin' you take her away to that strange place of yours, understand? No matter how much she might learn. Too many strange folks wandering about in there.“
Zvezda responded with some more confusion of her own, before realizing where the misunderstanding could be coming from:
„What? No, sorry, I didn't mean it like that! I meant the other way 'round. Right now, our schedule's pretty full, but there's almost four hundred of us employed there. And most of them are really helpful ponies, too. I'm sure we could find at least one pony to come visit you with a few books and prepared exercises, at least on the weekends.“
The family said nothing. Glancing back and forth between their sceptical eyes, Zvezda pleaded, „Please? At least give it a try? It's the least we can do.“
„How much it'd cost, though?“ Amber shot back, „You know very well just how little we can afford to spare.“
„Come on, Amb,“ her husband whispered into her ear, „It's fer Ruby's sake. I'm sure we could take a loan out or somethin'.“
Amber drew breath to respond, but then reconsidered, instead turning her eyes to Zvezda in a mix of worry and hope. The next word to come out of her mouth could very well decide the family's entire future from here on now. Wielding such power was a strange feeling, one Zvezda wasn't entirely comfortable with.
„Free,“ she finally beamed at them, shattering the uneasy silence.
„Free?“ the mare stared, highly suspicious, „What's the catch, then? Y'all own my daughter fer the rest of time? Brainwash 'er to worship your company? No deal.“
There was an awkward pause as Zvezda's brain processed the words; once, twice, thrice, not quite believing what she had just heard.
„What, no! Nothing like that!“ she eventually got out, once again taken aback by the sheer level of the misunderstanding happening here, „Just where are you getting all this from? I'm not in this for the money! I'm just trying to help!“
Amber scoffed, „Sure you are. Look, I don't mean t'be disrespectful or anythin', but you company types are all the same. Come bringin' gifts, and while we're saying thanks, you steal all our hard-earned stuff!“
„Yeah!“ her husband added, „Just take tha' train station! 'Multiplier effect', they said! 'Pos'tive feedback', they said! And how did all that work out, eh?“
„But- But-“ Zvezda stuttered, completely shocked by the reception she was getting here, „I'm just trying to-“
„Thanks, miss, but no thanks,“ Amber finished off, smiling sadly, „We'd got burned by y'all before. Listen here: If this were about anypony else but my little princess, I might consider giving you a second chance. But I'm not risking my little Ruby.“
Zvezda listened perfectly still, in utter silence. She was trying very hard not to take all of this personally. Here she was, offering a great education for their only child, a chance at a new life beyond the simple sustenance here, and all they were sending back were insults and baseless accusations. But, for the sake of the little filly, she couldn't get insulted and leave in a huff. She simply couldn't.
In the intervening silence, the mother seemed to have come to a new few realizations of her own. Easing her defensive pose, she smiled at Zvezda:
„Look, listen here, I'm sorry. I kind of got worked up there a bit. Don't get me wrong, I'm awful thankful of all that the stuff you've taught our daughter. You're doing wonders for her, I know that. It's just, having her spend all that time with all those other ponies from your company... again, sorry. But it's not your fault, let me tell you that.“
The kind words eased Zvezda, even made her smile back. Still, she did not say a word. What ensued was another all-too-uncomfortable silence.
„Thanks,“ she eventually got out, „Err... I apologize if I'll sound off now, but could I spend some time alone? Sorry, I know it's weird, but I just can't think properly unless-“
„Ah, it's quite alright,“ the motherly mare smiled at her, „You've seen the yard, right? When the trains ain't screaming past, it's actually pretty nice in there.“
With a flash of a smile and a quick nod of thanks, Zvezda promptly retreated from the room.
The yard outside was very nice indeed, exactly as Amber had said. It wasn't exactly enormous, but it was fairly big, and, perhaps most importantly, it was all grass; with a few apple trees thrown in for good measure. Since it was Sunday noon, there wasn't another living soul outside, and there were no distracting artificial sounds piercing her brain. It was just her, with the hustling grass and leaves.
Lying down under one of the trees, she closed her eyes and spent the next few minutes in serene meditation, letting the soothing wind gently roll through her mane and slowly wash her anger and worries away.
She had figured it out now; the strange feeling in her hooves, the one she had felt ever since leaving the Cosmodrome. It was even stronger here, that subdued warmth that somehow kept her cool in the boiling desert sun. For, despite all her technical talents and knowledge of rocket assembly, Zvezda was still an earth pony, with everything that entailed. She had a powerful connection to the land, and with her eyes closed now, could feel the trees around her as they grew, their long winding roots advancing through the earth under her, the leaves as they fluttered in the wind. She guessed the others felt these things too, and all the time; so often, in fact, that they could just delegate them to a simple subconscious hum. But for Zvezda, who had been cut off for so long, it was like lying in a warm bath, soft and relaxing. Even now, she could feel something tingling in her throat, as if the ground was reaching out in response and healing her, too.
She wondered again about the Cosmodrome. There was something strange about that place, something deeply wrong with it; after all, there were hundreds of earth ponies stationed there, some for several years now, spending all their waking hours in the sand. The Commissar's crews, too, were predominantly earth stallions – scouring her memory, Zvezda could remember just the one hat-wearing unicorn in all her time there – and behaved like they been stationed in those bunkers for whole centuries.
Why, then, was the place still an arid desert?
The trees around her idly murmured back, slowly draining the troubling thoughts from her head. A large insect buzzed past, emitting a noise that was usually so infuriating to drive her up a wall in rage; but Zvezda could hardly hear it now, too at ease with the world to care.
Suddenly, for some indeterminable reason, she opened her eyes, and it all broke away. The cause of that was the sight of a lone earth pony, walking along the railway tracks not a hundred yards away, staring silently at the ground. It was Ray, of course; sporting his once-white conductor's cap, and a bruise under one of his eyes. Zvezda had no idea what he had been doing past these few days, but looking at him now, she could see he looked all too much alone. Waves of regret rolled through her heart; Why did I have to insult him like that? You're a stupid girl, you know. Whatever happens next, you deserve it.
„Uhm, miss Zvezda?“
Despite its sweetness, the sudden voice startled her at first. Completely by instinct, she jumped back on her hooves, then spun around and assumed a defensive posture; it was only upon realizing it was just Ruby that she finally relaxed. She turned around again, but Ray was already gone; probably having disappeared behind one of the large coal bunkers stationed along the railway. Sighing, she turned back to the little filly; who seemed quite aware she had done something, but not sure what to do about it, and was looking at her sheepishly.
„What is it, sweetie?“ she beamed at her.
„Oh, nothing...“ the little filly began, then, intently looking at an apple tree to Zvezda's side, continued, „Do you know what's going to happen? Like, afterwards?“
Poor little thing. So much to face, so young.
„Don't you worry your little head about it,“ Zvezda patted her on the head, putting on a warm smile, „Just keep studying hard and learning all your maths, and I promise you, everything's going to work out just fine.“
Ruby scoffed at such a response: „I don't mean us! Mum and dad complain, but we always get by. And the good Princess always provides. I mean you.“
Zvezda smiled, now as much for herself as for the little filly. Whatever response she had been predicting, it wasn't this. „Us? Whatever you mean, sweetie?“
„You rocket-ponies!“ the filly clarified, quite obviously frustrated with Zvezda's reluctance, „What's going to happen to all of you?“
„We'll... we'll keep flying rockets,“ Zvezda replied, now with much less certainty than before, „What else do you think?“
„I heard the sheriff talkin' down at the Salt Block, you know. About how 'There's no way in hay the Program's getting through the Assembly.' Is that true? Is it?“
If nothing else, Zvezda was impressed. She herself hadn't even known about the Assembly, much less cared about what it did, before adulthood. Then again, she always has had a rather haphazard view of politics.
„Is is true?“ the filly insisted, „'Cause I'll cry if it is.“
„Don't worry, sweetie,“ Zvezda tried to cheer her up again, „We've had a little accident, but we'll get through it.“
The filly's eyes began to water. She tried again, this time smiling encouragingly:
„Ponies are gonna fly in space, you can trust me on that.“
„You grown-ups always talk like that when you're lying!“
Buck! Why are the little ones always so smart?
„Oh, come on, now!“ Zvezda almost pleaded to her, „Don't start crying now! Look, the Director herself is in Canterlot right now, talking to the ponies there about the Program's future, you hear me? She can't fail.“
„But- but- what if she does?“ the little filly sobbed, „What if it all gets taken away, just because of one silly-“
„Listen to me now, alright?“ Zvezda uncompromisingly grabbed her shoulder, refusing to let go, „Are you listening? You sure? Good. Because let me tell you, the Director's the biggest genius I've ever seen. She's the one behind it all – behind this all. Starting from nothing but thin air, she managed to take her dreams and make them into real metal and plate, using nothing but her wits and knowledge of science. What are a few politicians compared to that, eh? Eh?“
Although those words were at least as much for Zvezda herself as they were for the little filly, they seemed to put an end to the sobbing, at least a temporary one. Scrambling to find a more permanent solution, she suddenly remembered something:
„Remember that book I had in my saddlebags? The one I wouldn't let you read, because it was too hard?“
The filly, her tears now quickly drying up in the desert sun, nodded eagerly.
„Right. I want you to fetch me that book. We're gonna read it together.“
With a jubilant cheer, she rocketed back into the house, hopping all the way; almost as if that had been the whole plan all along. Smiling to herself, Zvezda looked back out towards the distant, flat horizon. She was fairly sure the Director knew what she was doing.
„Why were the spectator stands located so close to the rocket? Your own technical documentation, page seven, indicates they were inside the outer blast radius...“
„...regarding the Appleloosa situation; had nopony bothered to even run the numbers on that supply route? I struggle to think of another way that could ever have been authorized.“
„If the esteemed representatives will all turn to page eleven of my report, you will see that the Cape Coltaveral facility consumes fifty tonnes of quinone derivatives per month. That number represents almost fifty percent of Equestria's entire industrial output of that particular chemical; a substance which is sorely needed in microbial medication, and is causing the cost of its production to sky-rocket.“
They were all good points. Devastatingly good points.
Seriously. The one time you want your leaders to be laughably incompetent, drowning in piles paperwork, unable to decide; and they aren't.
Lyuka gulped as she glanced sideways at her friends. The table at which they were all standing was located in the middle of the grand closed amphitheatre that composed the central hearing hall, surrounded from all sides by the esteemed representatives, all of whom seemed to be eyeing them threateningly. Wilhelmina just stood there, next to her, eyes closed as she listened to the constant stream of litanies being hurled at her from the rows above. Sunny, Redstone, and Sequine, making up the rest of their little group, meanwhile all fidgeted around in varying degrees of discomfort, glancing at the finely decorated ceilings, the marble floors, their technical files, each other, all in vain attempts to gain at least some scant reassurance; and Lyuka suddenly realized she was doing the exact same thing.
And why wouldn't she be, after all? Their situation was beyond terrible. The smooth white marble and golden engravings of the enormous hearing hall might have been beautiful while empty, but right now, full of rows upon rows of Equestria's ruling elite, they looked impossibly ancient and imposing. The delicate mosaics set into the windows, at other times merely reminders of ages long gone by, today seemed to be staring deep into their souls, judging them. Lyuka glanced upwards at one, only to immediately lower her head again as she met the ancient gaze of Starswirl the Bearded. You dare call yourself a scholar? his eyes seemed to scream at her, You make a mockery of my tradition!
All this, and that wasn't even counting the Princess. Lyuka did not even dare turn her head anywhere near the direction of the golden throne upon which Celestia rested, illuminating the room with a subtle white glow; she feared righteous anger would strike her down otherwise. The Princess had not said a single word for the entire duration of the hearing, and yet her presence seemed to underline everything that went on.
She looked back to Wilhelmina, almost pleadingly. Come on, you said you knew how to get out of this. That you had everything prepared. That nothing could go wrong. Please? Please, Will, tell me you weren't lying.
Finally taking a deep breath, the small mare suddenly shook her curling blue mane, then began:
„I... I...“ she stuttered, „I concede that mistakes were made. That things might have been managed better.“
„However,“ she continued, slowly picking up in volume and confidence, „I ask the assembled representatives; does that not apply to every single undertaking in our long and varied history? Was this very castle built on-budget, or on-time for that matter? Did the first weather factory not suffer a catastrophic failure just five hours into its operation? Has-“
„Director, I am afraid you are missing the point here,“ the familiar voice of the Duchess of Hackney spoke up, cutting Wilhelmina off, „Yes, mistakes were made for every single of the examples you mentioned. However, would you care to wager a guess at what happened to the administrators of those projects? They were punished, plain and simple. Their plans were confiscated and re-examined, the construction crews dismissed, the work suspended for many years. And they themselves were hauled into this very hall, to face an investigative hearing. Just like you, now.“
„Of course, your ladyship, I am not trying to wriggle out of my responsibilities as the Director of this program,“ Wilhelmina quickly recovered, though sweat was obviously appearing on her forehead, „But I ask you to consider this: If the greatest architects in our history could not manage to construct a simple – though magnificent – castle without accident, what chance do the five of us stand of accomplishing an even greater task? You may choose to 'punish us, plain and simple'; perhaps even dismiss us outright. But then what will happen to the Programme? For Canterlot, there were always more architects to be found. There are no more rocket engineers in all of Equestria.“
No! Lyuka almost wanted to scream, You're saying all the exact wrong things! Stop giving them more stuff to shoot you with!
„And who says we want this Programme to continue?“ the Duchess immediately fired back, confirming Lyuka's fears, „Considering all the points my fellow representatives have raised thus far, would it not be better for Equestria if it simply were to be disbanded outright, and the freed budget re-purposed for more deserving goals?“
Boom. That's the big one, right there. Even the ponies assembled above began to murmur amongst themselves as the dreaded word was spoken, especially in the back rows. Meanwhile, Lyuka exchanged glances with her friends; they all seemed equally terrified.
Except Sequine, of course. The white unicorn was just standing there, minding her own business, apparently not perceiving a thing from the outside world. Lyuka would do anything to be as blasé as her right now.
The buzz coming from the back benches picked up enough volume to startle even the Speaker – a mysterious shrouded mare, staring at them from her honourable position directly next to Celestia's marble throne – who banged her gavel several times in an effort to silence them:
„Order! Order! Duchess, are you putting forth an official motion, or just posing a rhetorical question?“
„The former, your ladyship,“ the mare responded with a curt bow, and the back benches almost exploded. The Speaker repeated her previous procedure of hitting the gavel against the table, except now doing it with far more force, and for far longer. She kept at it until everypony had fallen completely silent, and for some more time after that. Only once the ears of all present had been thoroughly abused, she finally stopped, then announced:
„The motion has been put forward to fully cancel the national Space Programme, removing all its funding. Do I hear a second?“
For a brief moment, the hall was filled with a dead silence. Once again, Lyuka glimpsed at the white figure with the corner of her eye, and wondered just why the Princess had decided to attend, if she wasn't going to do anything. Did she get her thrills from watching their life's work be destroyed by a few haughty nobles, or what?
„Second!“ another earth pony – Lyuka had no idea who she was, but judging by her attire and row of commemorations, probably a very high ranking noble – suddenly exclaimed from the left side of the hall.
„Objection!“ Wilhelmina yelled out almost immediately, „With all due respect, countess, you are the very last pony in this room to be complaining about mismanagement! Wasn't it only a few months ago that the news broke of a town in your constituency possessing a major road that terminated off a cliff? Or a water dam, which broke after only two weeks of-“
„Appeal denied,“ the Speaker firmly announced.
Another hit of the gavel. „Appeal denied, Director,“ the shrouded figure gave Wilhelmina a stern look, „The motion is seconded. Are there any further objections, or can we now proceed to voting?“
„With the utmost respect for your ladyship, I'd like to raise a point of order.“
Lyuka's eyes widened as she processed the new information. A pony that wasn't against them? In this Assembly? Her eyes darted to the direction of the sound; it appeared to come from a fiery red pegasus with a short and jet-black mane, standing on one of the upper benches, far in the back. She had seen him somewhere before, but couldn't quite place it.
„Mister Skies, you may continue.“
Hang on. Skies? 'Cherry Skies' Skies? 'Skies Precision AG' Skies?
„Much appreciated,“ the pegasus bowed in the direction of the Speaker, then turned to face the designers below, „If it please the esteemed representatives, I would like to draw your attention to the fact that it is now almost lunchtime. Now, I am quite sure everypony remembers the recent finding by the Royal Academy that courts are far more likely to pass harsher sentences at this particular hour; not due to anypony's personal failing, of course, but simply from basic biological reasons. In the interests of a fair process, therefore, I hereby propose the Assembly takes a recess, and delays its decision until it is well fed.“
„Hear, hear!“ exclaimed a rather old and fat pony on the other side of the hall, speaking in a heavy accent through a thick moustache, „As the appointed representative of my stomach, I hereby second this motion!“
The back-benches erupted with waves of laughter and cheers. Even the front rows weren't completely immune, with a few otherwise stoic ponies nodding enthusiastically in agreement. Of course, the Duchess was furious:
„I challenge this proposal on the grounds of frivolity! The count is making a mockery of our great-“
Another bang of the gavel. „Appeal denied.“
„Well, in that case,“ she huffed, „I raise a second objection! The count is the owner of a large industrial concern, undoubtedly a vital contractor for the Cosmodrome; a clear-cut case of a conflict of interest! As he therefore cannot be trusted to act in the best interests of our nation, I hereby move he be removed from all ensuing discussion, and all his contributions struck from the record!“
„If your ladyship will check those records,“ the count responded with a wide smile, „I have not contributed anything to the discussion, precisely because of this very reason. My suggestion was merely a point of procedure, not a legalistic argument.“
Lyuka's heart sunk as she heard the stallion finish his claim. Our only supporter, and he can't speak. Just great.
„Noted,“ the Speaker curtly snapped, then fell silent, deliberating the matter.
Just as she was raising her gavel to give a statement, another voice sliced through the air. This one, like a hot blade through butter:
„I am sure I speak for all of us, Duchess,“ Celestia's warm voice resonated through the giant hall of the Assembly, soothing nerves and calming minds, „That we could all use a good, full meal right about now. Seeing as the motion has been seconded, I see no reason why we cannot adjourn for the time being.“
The duchess was fuming. However, confronted by the Princess herself, she stayed perfectly silent.
„Or is your argument really so weak that it could be affected by a single meal?“
Lyuka fought hard to avoid bursting into tears of laughter as Celestia's sentence finished. Sometimes, just sometimes, you're all right, Princess!
„Fine,“ the duchess eventually uttered, and the Speaker banged her gavel thrice, signalling the end of the meeting. The tension, having hung over the entire room for so long, vanished without a trace as the sound of shuffling hooves and tired murmurs filled the room. Some of the representatives were leaving the hall so fast, they almost resembled school fillies rocketing out of the classroom after the bell had rang; Lyuka wondered why those ponies were Assembly members at all, then.
Wilhelmina breathed out readily, and all the chief designers turned around, finally free to talk to each other:
„Wow,“ Redstone shook his head, „Just... wow.“
„Y'know, I was expectin' something intense, but this was absolutely insane,“ Sunny uttered, flexing her hooves, „I never want to go through anything like that again.“
„Politics,“ Sequine simply stated, summarizing the situation in one word.
„Keep it up, everypony,“ Wilhelmina tried to cheer them on, „I know it's tough, and it feels like there's no hope, but we've got to carry on. After so much, we can't just give up! Remember the dream.“
The others sadly nodded, and Lyuka joined in too. The Dream. That's what has been keeping them going for so many years.
Seriously, how long has it been now? Fifteen years? Twenty? And it was all at stake, right here, right now.
As the Designers, still quite shell-shocked, slowly gathered up their files and began following the example of the politicians – the vast majority of which had already since left the room – Wilhelmina loudly sighed:
„That being said, I do wish the good Princess was slightly more straightforward with us,“ she noted, turning her head up to the elaborately painted ceiling, which depicted the founding of the Midnight Castle in all its colourful glory. The ceilings in Canterlot did tend to be quite heavily decorated, Lyuka had noticed; probably because most of its inhabitants spent their days with their heads pointed up there, „If she wanted us gone, she could just issue a royal degree. Same if she really wanted us to stay. Instead, she just throws us out to the wolves, then makes a sarcastic remark about food. Honestly.“
„Maybe this is her way of having fun,“ Lyuka suggested, „Throwing ponies into horrible situations, then seeing what happens.“
„You watch your mouth!“ Sunny snapped back almost instantly, then dropped her voice to a near whisper, „You don't know how good her hearing is.“
As they filed out through the massive golden doors of the hall, Sequine – of all ponies – picked up on the discussion:
„Is funny,“ she announced, coming to a stop in the middle of the doorway.
„What is?“ Lyuka poked her, trying to get her to budge, „Or are you just lost in your dream world again?“
The unicorn gave her a stern look, then continued. „She was making support speeches, you almost worshipped her. She does one thing, insults start.“
„Well, duh! She was actually being useful back then. Now, she's just letting the Assembly decide everything,“ Lyuka grumbled, angrily staring down the red carpet that lined the hallway, „My entire life's on the line, and she lets those clowns decide?“
„Well, to be fair to good Princess, it is fairly divisive issue,“ Redstone chimed in, causing Lyuka to roll her eyes. Of course the professor was taking Sequine's side. It was the same when she was a student in his class back at grad school, and it was the same now. Honestly, even without the age difference, it'd still be creepy. Meanwhile, unaware of her private thoughts, the stallion continued with his extrapolation:
„Public opinion is flying all over everywhere. Tabloids screaming completely opposite views on each other. That stupid scandal with Scud. If Princess makes decision by herself, or even uses her veto powers, it could make her look quite bad. Much safer to let Assembly decide.“
„She's a billion years old immortal goddess of the sun,“ Sunny refuted, „She doesn't need to care 'bout her political career.“
„True enough. However, despite her sheer powers, only way she rules is by consent,“ the old professor postulated further, „Unless she wishes to use force against her own subjects, she must be far more limited in decision-making than we would believe.“
„As if anypony'd ever complain,“ Lyuka scoffed, „As long as the unwashed masses get their bread and their friendship, they won't care about a thing in the world.“
„That's a bit harsh, isn't it?“ Wilhelmina spoke up, exactly as Lyuka had known she would. Such choice of language always triggered a superior tirade from her, and today would be no exception. „This kind of attitude about the anonymous 'masses' is exactly what we've been trying to avoid all this time. They are ponies just like us; the fact they might work on a farm or clean the sewers does not make them any inferior to us, rocket-designers.“
„Hrmf. As if.“
„Tell me Lyuka; did you yourself care about politics at all, until they started affecting you personally?“
Well, no! Why should I? But these ponies are different. They won't care even if it does affect them!
Looking at Wilhelmina's serious face, however, she decided she wasn't going to continue along this track any further. Instead, she changed the topic completely:
„All this politics stuff is very interesting, but it doesn't change the real question here: What the hay do we do now? Skies bought us some time, but now we've got to figure out how to use it.“
Wilhelmina's expression turned sour, and, stopping in her stride, she looked up to the ceiling. What followed was a very uncertain silence as Lyuka, along with the others, waited for her to answer.
„You do have a plan, right?“
She could hear her heart beating.
A tear dropped from Will's face. It was soon followed by one more, then another, which soon became a torrent as she broke down right there, in the lobby of the Assembly.
Lyuka had never seen her friend cry before. Even in their darkest hours, when their problems looked insurmountable, the dear mare always took whatever came at her unflinchingly, seemingly without a worry in the world, always aware of the reward lurking just over the horizon. She kept going and never stopped, no matter the challenge.
And yet, here she was; and Lyuka had no idea of what to do.
„Come on, Will,“ she eventually whispered, offering up a hug, which the unicorn quickly accepted, „It's gonna be alright. We'll get through this, one way or another.“
„Yeah,“ Sunny quickly offered up, „It's not like we don't have any allies 'round here. We'll be fine.“
„Not if-“ Will began, then briefly choked on her tears before continuing again, „Not if I keep messing up like this.“
„Come on, it's not your fault,“ Lyuka patted her on the back, „We're all stressed around here.“
„I- I had it all planned out,“ the mare got out between sobs, „I'd march up there, give them a face full of logi- logical arguments, and they'd have no choice but to ac-accept. But instead-“
Another unbroken flood of tears, lasting even longer this time. After she was all cried out, she looked at her friends. Even Lyuka's previous anger towards her had completely vanished by now, replaced by genuine concern.
„I am so sorry,“ Will whispered, „I should have handled that better. I really, really should have. But when you march up to the podium, and there's all these high lords and ancient mosaics, just staring at you-“
She left the sentence hanging, and the hall was once again quiet. Suddenly, Sequine turned around, then began walking away. Lyuka first exchanged disbelieving glances with Redstone and Sunny, then promptly set out after her:
„Hey, hey, hey! What the hay do you think you're doing!“
„Academy,“ Sequine snapped, as if it was obvious, „Old friends.“
The white unicorn suddenly stopped, then hit Lyuka across the head. „Allies!“
„Allies?“ Lyuka repeated, still reeling from the impact. That pony sure could hit.
Sequine groaned in frustration, then set off again, not bothering to explain herself a third time. Meanwhile, Redstone exclaimed a yelp of excitement:
„Of course! I bet that ol' rascal Reszenik is halfway to dean by now! I bet he would speak in front of Assembly!“
And just like that, he was off, quickly catching up with Sequine.
„While we're talkin',“ Sunny spoke up from Lyuka's side, „I could call up my boss at the Leviathan mill. I sure know she was interested in rockets. Don't you worry, Will, she's a genius at speeches.“
Through her watery eyes, Wilhelmina nodded almost imperceptibly, and the earth pony galloped off towards the nearest door. It was just Lyuka and Will now, standing alone in the great entrance lobby of the Assembly tower.
„You're such good friends,“ Will eventually whispered, shaking her head, „Doing so much... and I'm just gonna let you all down.“
„Nonsense!“ Lyuka smiled, „You'll do fine. As long as you stop moping around and starting doing something useful, that is.“
„Right, right,“ Wilhelmina nodded again, taking a deep breath, „I've still got contacts here. I can go talk to them. I'm not quite sure how much help they'll be, but it's something, at least.“
„Just remember, we don't have to win all the battles,“ Lyuka circled around her friend, glad to see her coming back to her usual self, „Just as long as they don't cancel us. Most the big stuff''s already paid for.“
Wilhelmina nodded for a third time, much more resolutely than before, and a confident smile appeared on her rapidly-drying face. There you are!
„And I'm sure that nice mister Skies could help us too,“ Lyuka added, almost absent-mindedly, „I mean, he's gotta have contacts. Maybe even some-“
Seeing the smile quickly disappear, Lyuka shut up; unfortunately, already too late. Her friend first began drawing breath for an extended tirade, then instead chose to sigh deeply.
„No,“ she announced after a while, „Listen, L, I know you mean well... but no. Siding with some bourgeois factory owner is the last thing we're going to do. What's the point of getting to the stars if it's on the back of the exploited workers? The whole point of this entire Programme is to-“
„Sure, sure. As you want it, then,“ Lyuka quickly cut her off, shrugging, „Just remember there's always that option.“
Her friend shook her head once more, then quickly smiled and left in the direction of the entrance. Lyuka responded with a friendly wave back.
Seeing her disappear through the massive golden doors, however, she couldn't help but lower her hoof and sigh disapprovingly. Twenty years. I'm not gonna give them up because of some silly ideology from a dusty book.
She set off in the opposite direction, determined to find that mister Skies and talk to him herself. She was a bit wary of disobeying Wilhelmina's wishes, of course, but it had to be done. Sometimes, the only way to help your friends was to give them a firm slap in the face.
Besides, it's not like he's out for profit or something. He's doing this for his daughter! It'll be fine.
Huh. His daughter. Wonder how she's doing.
„Test article three, begin countdown! Five, four-“
As the loudspeaker's commands echoed from the concrete structures all around the small testing range, Cherry quickly scrambled to put her safety goggles on. All around her, crowded together on the tiny wooden podium, the other tech-ponies did likewise, preparing and steeling themselves for what would come. Their hushed, worried whispers slowly calmed themselves and died down, replaced by an anticipative silence. Meanwhile, sitting next to her, Dash just relaxed coolly as she chomped down on a bucket of popcorn.
„-two, one, zero!“ the announcer finished, and the test was off.
With a mighty roar, the giant emerald dragon standing to the side of the podium first braced itself against the desert sand, then, taking one last deep breath, unleashed a veritable torrent of liquid fire upon the small metal sphere suspended at the centre of the concrete-lined range. Although this was already the third attempt, Cherry couldn't help but briefly yelp in surprise as the heat wave hit the audience stand; she was expecting some sort of impact, sure, but this last attempt was even more intense than the previous ones. She could actually feel her skin tanning in real-time as the giant fire continued to rage below. Celestia only knew what it was like to be on the inside of that capsule right now.
As the great dragon sustained its output, the engineers around slowly began speaking up again, scribbling down observations and exchanging opinions. Even though the main spectacle was the current capsule in front of her, Cherry's eyes couldn't help but wonder to the two previous attempts, whose burnt-out husks were lying silently just a few hooves away. Liquid metal was still dripping off one of them, forming a dirty black puddle in the sand. Meanwhile, the other lay further away, in twenty separate pieces, having exploded for some complicated physics reason.
As she was looking away, she didn't see what happened next. However, judging from the brilliant flash that momentarily overpowered the sun, and the sudden screams and groans of several of the tech-ponies, it probably wasn't very healthy for the eyes. Of course, Dash's only reaction was a very smug grin; perhaps the engineers would finally stop mocking her sunglasses now.
„Abort, abort, abort!“ the announcer pony demanded, „Abort test!“
The dragon, having finally heard the loudspeaker, slowly began winding down its flame, eventually whittling it down to nothing. With the fiery jet now gone, Cherry could finally see what had happened; the sphere lay split in half, like an egg, the reinforced equatorial seal having burst. The exposed interiors resembled an egg too, the molten wires and plastics bubbling in a white soup, giving off acrid and no doubt very poisonous smoke.
As the engineering teams surged forwards to examine the remains, Cherry turned to Dash:
„Not too bad, eh?“ she suggested before stealing a bit of her popcorn.
„Well, to be honest, I still think number one was the best,“ her friend confessed, still staring at the smoking capsule, „That flash was pretty cool, sure, but you can't beat a good, proper explosion.“
„Just don't get too hasty!“ Cherry smiled as she reached for even more popcorn, „We've still got two more to go!“
„Well, I'll definitely be impressed if – Hey, hey, hooves off!“ Dash suddenly realized what her orange, winged friend was doing, and was staring at her bucket in disbelief, „You ate everything!“
„Now, wait a second! You said we could share!“ Cherry defended herself, „And there were barely two bites left! You had like what, a hundred?“
The mare grumbled something in response, then took to the skies with her bucket, disappearing in the direction of the lunch room. A grin on her face, Cherry looked back to the testing range, and examined the labcoat-wearing ponies standing a safe distance away. She missed Zvezda, but it was probably better she wasn't around to see this. Just how many nights had she spent on that design again?
Quite all of a sudden, her mind became filled with a surprising feeling of discomfort. It wasn't from the repeatedly failed tests, buck no – she was quite confident Zvezda and her friends would fix these little bugs soon enough – but from something far greater. Glancing around hurriedly, she soon found it; the ancient beast, standing on the side of the podium, was now looking directly at her. Its enormous eyes were the size of her own head, and the brilliant emerald scales that coated its skin played with all sorts of colours. The sight seemed to tug at some primeval strings in her brain, urging her to take to the sky, to run away. The beast released a puff of black smoke, and Cherry's hind muscles tensed, ready to leap upwards.
It released another puff, and then another; she'd have to get out of here, and right away, or it'd burn her too. But her hooves refused to budge, as if glued in place.
Don't stare at dragons, her father always used to say. Now she knew why.
Suddenly, the giant beast opened its mouth, and out came not the burst of fire Cherry had expected, but a roll of laughter:
„You little ponies are so fun!“ it exclaimed. Not with a primordial voice that boomed across the landscapes, as she had mentally assigned to the creature, but a strangely normal one.
„I don't remember seeing you here before,“ it continued, breaking its stare and allowing her to move again, „New scribe?“
Under more ordinary circumstances, Cherry would have just whipped her head away and ignored the stupid creature. But the thing had just insulted her. It was on.
„Well, I don't remember seeing you here before,“ she quipped, flexing her wings, „New furnace?“
„Youngsters these days,“ the dragon scoffed, releasing another puff of smoke, „What's this world coming to?“
„For your information, you're looking at Cherry Skies, daughter of the Skies family, and Equestria's first equenaut!“ she shouted back, quite insulted at being made fun of, „I suggest you start behaving!“
„Equenaut?“ the dragon raised one of its massive eyebrows, then shrugged to itself, „Can't say I have heard that one before. Is that what young whipper-snappers like to call themselves these days?“
„Did you spend the last year sleeping under a rock?“ Cherry began, „How couldn't you-“
„Yes,“ the creature snapped back.
The single word stopped her rant in its tracks, and made her feel very, very stupid. Dragons lived in caves, and lived so long a simple nap might last a century, every little filly knew that... the following silence was embarrassing beyond words.
The dragon, now evidently satisfied, broke it with a deep, booming chuckle. Marching over to the podium, it extremely carefully patted Cherry on the back with a single claw. Meanwhile, she just stood utterly still, too petrified to say anything that would embarrass her even further.
„The Director calls me Cawthorne,“ he commented, turning to observe the devastated capsule and its ring of tech-ponies, „No idea where she got that from; but I must say, out of all the names ponies had made up for me over the years, I like it the most. Tell me, what happened to that tiny unicorn? It's usually her that talks to me, not young hatchlings.“
Cherry remained silent, still trying to reconcile herself. Meanwhile, a look of worry suddenly appeared on Cawthorne's face. For Cherry, it was surprising to see this concerned, sympathetic expression spread across such ancient, beastly features.
„She is still around, I take it?“ he asked again, now very uncertain.
„Canterlot,“ Cherry pipped up, „Politics stuff.“
„Hah! You had me worried there for a second, little Cherry!“ he laughed in relief, folding back his wings, „I was sure I just closed my eyes for a second, but you never can tell with your kind.“
Another silence dropped over the duo; this time of the contemplative sort. After a while, Cherry cautiously looked up to the great beast again:
„You with the Programme, then?“ she quietly asked, very much unlike her usual brash self. Something about this great dragon just made her feel utterly tiny and insignificant.
Probably its size.
You're really useful, brain, you know that?
„I suppose so,“ Cawthorne meanwhile chuckled, releasing yet another cloud of black smoke, „Not that I have ever heard of it, of course. I merely know the Director is a very kind pony, who needs some help every so often. That is all.“
„Wait, were you here this entire time? You'd think I'd notice a giant dragon snoring the middle of the Cosmodrome!“
„I beg your pardon, little miss? I do not snore.“
„But, come on! I didn't notice a thing! That doesn't make sense!“
„You ponies often don't,“ the dragon smiled. Cherry was about to complain further, then shook her head. If she pushed the matter, he'd probably just make more fun of her. And, she had to admit, with quite good reason. Instead, she changed the subject completely:
„So... you have no clue what's happening here?“
The dragon shook his head.
„That makes two of us, then,“ Cherry smiled, looking at him again. For some reason or another, she was quickly warming to the venerable dragon.
Well, it does belch fire. Fire is rather warm, is it not?
„Oh, I am sure you exaggerate,“ Cawthorne smiled back, then looked at the capsule again, „But you have piqued my interest now. Just what are you doing here?“
Cherry briefly studied the melting piece of slag, then the industrial facilities all around. Finally, she glanced back to the ancient dragon, across his thick venerable scales and gigantic, magical wings. Where to even begin...?
„Well, uh, it's pretty complicated, and I wasn't lying when I said I don't understand half of it,“ she chuckled uncertainly, „But, um, basically, lots of science. And stuff. A bit here, a bit there... yeah, that's about it.“
Cawthorne's massive eyebrows frowned and focused as he mulled her words over:
„Science... science...“ he mumbled under his breath, tapping his massive paw against the weak wooden frame of the podium. Though Cherry trusted him now, her wings still tensed up, ready to take to the air. Just in case...
The old dragon continued this motion for a while longer; then, suddenly, his face lit up with understanding. „Ah! You mean philosophy!“ he laughed, puffing out a few more clouds of smoke as he winked at Cherry, „Trying to determine whether Celestia can make a plate so strong she herself cannot smash, or some such, are you now?“
As she struggled to respond, he looked around the site and nodded in amusement. „I simply knew there was something about you ponies. I've always liked philosophers, you know!“ he confided, then sighed, „The ability to just stay still for a while, and think about your surroundings; I used to think we dragons were the only ones who could do that! I am glad I was wrong, let me tell you. Of course, there does seem to be a lot less furled grey beards around than usual, today-“
„Uh, well, that's because we're not philosophers, I guess,“ Cherry quickly interrupted the giant dragon before he got irrecoverably locked into that train of thought, „By science, I mean more like physics.“
Cawthorne paused, then nodded again, slightly befuddled, „Yes! Philosophy. Is that not what I am saying?“
„I mean like, physics. With equations and stuff,“ Cherry attempted to clarify, waving her hooves around in a vain attempt to demonstrate, „You know, lots of numbers, little confusing symbols all around, that kind of thing?“
He stared at her (and her peculiar hoof gestures) for a moment longer, obviously quite lost. „Oh, those fancy squiggles?“ he eventually asked, as if remembering something, „Did they merge into philosophy when I was not paying attention, or what?“
Cherry struggled to come up with an useful answer; her knowledge of classical philosophy was essentially nil – what little her father had forced her to read when she was little, she had already forced out of her brain anyway – so trying to get her point across to this dragon was pretty hard. Still, remembering one of Redstone's many boring speeches, she suddenly got an idea, and in a few more seconds managed to transform it into a sensible sentence:
„Well, in a way, that's what we're doing here, yeah,“ she shrugged, trying very hard not to sound like an utter moron to this ancient dragon-philosopher, „You think about stuff, like how the world works, and then you put your ideas into numbers, and multiplications, and triangle roots and things. And then you use that to find out new things, which you'd never have thought of otherwise.“
„But it is just little wiggles,“ Cawthorne shook his head in protest, „They don't say anything. I can understand writing numbers down, just to avoid forgetfulness, but what about all the other symbols? I seem to remember this one very smart pony, getting all excited as she explained to me this 'discovery' of hers. Calculatus or some such. What can that possibly be good for?“
„Err,“ Cherry stuttered. She had asked herself that very question many times during Redstone's lectures. And this inquisition by Cawthorne felt way too much like a test.
Still, the dragon was challenging her. And, by extension, everypony on this Cosmodrome, along with all her friends. She'd make up something that would sound convincing, whether it would make sense or not!
„The thing is,“ she gradually began, „When you've finally got your equation, you can put in, like, any numbers. Any numbers you want. And you'll get the answer for that situation, and from that you can work out what will actually happen in the real world. Even for situations you've never tried before, you can work it out, just with the right equations and a bit of paper.“
The great dragon remained silent for a while. „Precognition?“ he finally offered, „I had thought such magic was impossible. Next thing you'll be telling me, earth ponies can do it too!“
„My teacher's the best at it, and he's an earth pony!“ she couldn't resist a wide, cheery grin. Cawthorne gave her a prolonged stare, as if trying to catch her out on a lie, then shrugged and sighed heavily, releasing a long gust of smoke:
„Earth ponies telling the future! What's the world coming to? I swear, every single time I wake up, you lot change all the rules.“
Meanwhile, the tech-ponies began retreating from the capsule, obviously satisfied by their observations and measurements. The launch announcer turned on her microphone again, and ordered the crew to begin preparations for the next attempt.
„Somehow,“ Cawthorne winked at Cherry, „Your little tale seems a little too fancy to be true. Even then, I must admit it was a pretty interesting idea. If I were you, I'd write a book.“
And, with those words, the dragon ended their dialogue, setting out to the testing range again.
As he slowly withdrew to his firing position, Dash impacted the podium, bearing another full bucket of delicious treats.
„Did I miss anything?“
„Not really, no,“ Cherry giggled to herself, still thinking about the conversation. Somehow, even though she hadn't really been very successful with Cawthorne himself, the whole thing seemed to make a lot more sense in her own head, now. Redstone's past speeches, all those 'fancy squiggles'... there was a reason behind them. A sensible one, even.
„Funny how you never think about stuff properly until you try to explain it to somepony, isn't it?“
The blue mare gave her a strange eye, but then shrugged and settled in to watch the show. She crunched down another mouthful of popcorn, and Cherry – stealing some – proceeded to do the same.
„Test article four, begin countdown!“
Wilhelmina detested the infuriating sound. Why on Equestria did all these offices have to have these incredibly loud clocks? Were these Canterlot ponies really so much above a 'mere' clock-tower in the middle of the city?
She glanced around the room once again, trying to divert her attention from its single occupant, who was still studying her stack of papers. Aside from the main hearing amphitheatre, the hallways of the Assembly tower were full of small meeting offices of all sorts, ideal for making deals and forging secret alliances. This was one of them, a dimly lit room right out of those cheap, high-flying romance novels Lyuka loved to read so much. Exquisite wooden panelling, a fine red carpet, a large crystalline chandelier hanging from the ceiling; which, despite its size and complexity, nevertheless managed to bathe the room in hushed, conspiratorial shadows. The perfect setting to hatch a plot, even against Celestia herself.
The only thing that diminished the effect, however slightly, was the array of fruits and salads spread out over the massive round table at the centre. It looked incredibly tasty, sure, but its cheery colours looked ever-so-slightly out of place in such a dusky room.
Its lone occupant did not add much either; the dark unicorn mare, clad in one of those infinitely interchangeable suits and top hats that everypony around here seemed to wear, along with smart thin-lensed glasses, was munching loudly on some rare berries as she lay on the plush sofa positioned just across the buffet table, and lazily scanned the last few lines of Wilhelmina's proposal.
Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, she looked up.
„Well?“ Will asked impatiently, eager to break the lengthy quiet, „What do you think, madam secretary?“
The mare first took another mouthful of berries, then, swiping her hooves against the velvet sofa – Will couldn't help but think of the poor, poor cleaning pony who'd have to somehow get all that fruit juice off again – scanned the document again, ever so slowly. Eventually, she spoke up:
„It certainly is an... intriguing idea, Director.“
Will's eyes lit up, „So, you'll...?“
The mare lowered her gaze to the buffet table again. „Unfortunately, it does not strike me as particularly tenable, especially not at this time.“
Wilhelmina's heart sank at the words. Meanwhile, the secretary continued:
„Do not get me wrong, Equestria as a whole would certainly benefit from a network of high-speed rail. And you are indeed right in stating that your facility is the only one in existence capable of high-volume production of the necessary boilers. You have the ponypower, the experience, the production lines. Nevertheless, your plan has a fatal flaw; who is to pay for all this?“
„Well, that's why I came to you, isn't it?“ Wilhelmina quickly spoke up, trying to somehow salvage the situation, „Surely, if there's any department that can afford it, it's the ministry of infrastructure!“
The mare chuckled as she took her glasses off, „True enough. But you must understand, madam Director; high-speed railways are something ponies can do without, and rather easily. You simply cannot compare it with something like country-wide electrification!“
„Countess,“ the mare's expression became adamant, „I do apologize, but there is no way this little pet project of yours is ever going to be passed by any committee. Electrification is proven, it works! There's even been a pilot hydroelectric dam constructed in one of the rural areas, and it's proven to work wonderfully. Electricity is so much cheaper than enchantment, the nearby villages are simply scrambling over themselves just to get connected first! On the other hoof, the existing trains are good enough. They might not be fast, but they do get there in the end. There is simply no need.“
As the secretary was going through her long speech on the wonders of electricity, Wilhelmina's mind was scrambling for ideas; and sure enough, she managed to compose one just as the mare finished.
„Since electrification is proving such a great success, then,“ she hurriedly began, turning over to a blank piece of paper and levitating out a pencil, „What about a country-wide distribution of computeronic machines? We certainly have enough personnel to start mass production. Imagine it, madam secretary! A machine in every school, in every town hall! They could process census cards, replace endless mountains of paperwork, educate a new generation of-“
Again, the mare cut her off with a brief chuckle; one which was quickly getting on Wilhelmina's nerves. How can these ponies be so short-sighted?
„Once more, madam Director, I am afraid I must decline. I have, in fact, been to the Lunar observatory to take a look at one of your constructs, and whilst what I saw was impressive from a technical standpoint, I do not believe there will ever be a market for more than five or six of such machines, at best. Again, there is simply no need.“
There is no need.
„Well, of course there's no need!“ Wilhelmina was now becoming very indignant, „There has not been a need in Equestria for a thousand years! This is exactly what Celestia's speech warned us against! If we just stick to what works and what we know, we're going to dig ourselves into a hole and just descend into stagnation, content to simply graze grass like all the other animals! Do you want that to happen to ponykind? Do you?“
„I do not believe I am getting through here, so let me make myself quite clear: The department of infrastructure is, and always has been, at the leading edge of Equestrian technology. We are bringing all ponies into the future, one light bulb at a time. However,“ the secretary took another berry, then gulped it down with a glass of water, „We have to focus ourselves on realistic projects. Ones with provable, empirical, results. Not distant flights of fancy that have no purpose aside from 'inspiration'. If your project ever becomes practical, then you have my guarantee, we will pick it up; but until then, I bid you a good day, Director.“
Wilhelmina haughtily turned her head to the ceiling, then briskly trotted off, slamming the door behind herself. As soon as she was alone in the corridor, she trotted a short distance further, then collapsed on the nearest sofa and stuffed her head into the pillow.
There is no need.
No practical uses.
It's nice, but what is it good for?
Everywhere she went, she got the same reply. State secretaries, chairs of media companies, famous academics; all very important ponies, who had been happy enough to pay lip-service to the program back when it was popular, had suddenly become very practical and responsible. There was not a single dreamer amongst them.
After all, at the back of her head, Wilhelmina herself had to admit that she could see their point. Right now, there really were no practical uses for rocketry: Even the secretary of defence, who had initially professed interest in the project – for tracking the migrations of dragons and ursas in real time, directly from orbit – simply could not justify its extreme price tag to her superiors, especially when compared to traditional pegasus patrols. And same went for all the others. Good idea, but we don't really have the bits, sorry.
No matter how hard she tried to argue that this was an investment towards the future, that the generations to come would be eternally thankful to them; they always had their cost analysis reports and data tables at the ready. There was always a bigger, far more useful project, which would bring results sooner. Urban renewal, social programs, that thrice-damned electrification, all were just examples of an overlying pattern.
To be absolutely fair, they even managed to touch Wilhelmina. For the first time, perhaps in her life, she was wondering whether all this was just a giant waste of bits, for the sake of a personal dream.
Raising her head out of the pillow, she sighed. Is it really worth sacrificing today, for a tomorrow that might never come?
She mulled it over for a few seconds, then suddenly burst out laughing; that right there was a really good question. One philosophers and historians could spend their entire lives attempting to answer.
Seeing as she was neither, though, she'd just focus on getting her rockets funded instead.
But how? Every lead that she tried had come up empty, and even considering the legendary length of Canterlot lunches, she was fast running out of time. Nopony was willing to stand up in the Assembly, to face Celestia and all those other high nobles head-on, and lead a speech in support. And the higher they were, the more adverse they seemed to be to taking risks, as if it would mean sacrificing everything that they had accomplished thus far.
Which, to be fair, it might. After all, the Assembly were an unpredictable lot, and Celestia was the most mysterious of the bunch; she was so many steps ahead of everypony, and playing so many different games at once, there was no telling what her next decision would be.
It was Lyuka; her oldest friend, the first she had chosen to share the dream with. Shaking her head in response, she watched the lively, green pegasus slowly approach from down the hall. Suddenly, Wilhelmina's eyes focused. There was something in the way her friend was walking, something... hesitant? Almost as if-
„Please, Lyuka,“ she began, „Tell me you didn't.“
The pegasus froze in her tracks. Wilhelmina held her gaze for a second later, then scoffed:
„I told you we don't need those greedy profiteering ponies. We can get through this on our own!“
It was a simple question; the kind that was always the hardest to answer. While Will struggled for an answer, Lyuka took her silence as a reply of its own:
„Come on, Will! Get your head out of that dusty book! There's a reason nopony talks about it anymore; it just doesn't make sense!“
Wilhelmina gasped. Had anypony else said this, she'd have responded with a valiant tirade on the virtues of Trottsky, and exactly why his writings were so important in modern society; especially with the 'second miracle' of industry now in full swing across all of Equestria. Equality amongst everypony was now more important than ever, and the Space Programme would do its best to bolster it.
But this was Lyuka. Her dearest friend, a pony who had been there for her since the beginning of this grand odyssey. Seeing her draw another breath, Will froze. Please, Lyuka. Please. Don't do this.
„Will, you are a mare of science,“ she whispered, now hovering right besides her. Wilhelmina allowed her to raise her chin with a hoof, and looked her friend straight in her bright, olive eyes, „Tell me... how did we ever reach the very edge of space? What method was it that set us apart from just superstition?“
You just had to go there, didn't you? You've got me all figured out.
„We took the theories that didn't work,“ Will sighed emptily, closing her eyes, „And we threw them away.“
„Exactly. Look, I know just how much you want equality for everypony, “ Lyuka briefly paused, letting the sentence hang in the air, „And I must admit, I don't like those snooty capitalists that much either. But what are you gonna do about it? Celestia tolerates them, so they're here to stay, at least for now.“
„Who was it that provided all those tonnes of top-grade metal? Trained our small army of tech-ponies, even helped with the research? You're not gonna lie we did it all by ourself, are you now?“
Now, that would be plagiarism. Something a true scientist would never do. Dammit, Lyuka. Don't make me do this!
„And who alone has enough pull to turn the Assembly around? Save all that we worked for?“
Her inner self screamed at her. This was all wrong! There had to a perfectly rational explanation for it! She just couldn't think of one right now.
„Please, Will,“ Lyuka pleaded to her, „All I ask is you think about this rationally. Like the scientist you are.“
Like the scientist I am. Will couldn't help but smile at those words now.
„I don't even care what you decide, just why. Personal belief's fine, but don't sacrifice everything we ever worked for, just because of some silly ol' superstition.“
Opening her eyes again, she looked into Lyuka's face, seeking any one trace of deceit, of false pretence; as much as she was loathe to admit it, right now, she'd accept any excuse to refuse her. Even if it meant breaking their long friendship.
Unfortunately, Lyuka's face was nothing but genuine. Every pore on her tanned, emerald skin, every last hair in her chemically-bleached mane – even the few grey ones – seemed to radiate sincerity itself. This was not some horrible trick to get her to submit to the capitalists; only honest concern, from her best friend.
Even now, as she was thinking about it, she had to accept Lyuka's viewpoint; what she was doing here really was silly. Thinking this through logically, without the muddying puddle of emotion, the situation really was quite simple; the Cosmodrome was in trouble, and these industrialists could help. Nothing more, nothing less.
„I- I suppose we...“ she trailed off, then lowered her head again, and reduced her voice to almost nothingness, „Yeah... let's try.“
It's not like she could have ever toppled them anyway, right? Celestia wasn't going to budge, so these ponies were here to stay, and there was nothing she could do to change that.
Nothing, she repeated to herself.
Not that she believed it, of course.
Meanwhile, a wide grin broke across Lyuka's face. „Glad to have the ol' you back!“ she laughed, then, lifting Will up from the couch, flew her off and gently lowered her to the ground. „Let's get going, now. Break's almost over.“
Indeed, the gong sounded only a few minutes later, and the emptied halls of the Assembly soon began filling with activity. Assistants and ushers were galloping around, carrying paperwork and final refreshments for their superiors. The nobles themselves, meanwhile, began streaming in through the doorways and from the private offices, forming up into large rivers of frocks and top hats as they grouped up on the way to the central hearing hall. Amidst all this commotion, Wilhelmina meandered about silently, led around by Lyuka and still lost deep in her own thoughts. Remember the Dream. Just remember the Dream.
Despite the sheer chaos, they soon found their friends, huddled up in a tight group next to the main entrance. Judging by their tired and dispassionate faces, they obviously haven't had much luck gaining allies, either. There goes the last hope of that, then.
Standing next to them was another group of ponies, most of which Wilhelmina didn't recognize; however, seeing Mr. Skies standing at the head of the group, any ambiguity about their purpose here immediately vanished.
Noticing the arriving director, the red pegasus quickly approached and shook her hoof:
„Greetings, madame von Brown! Based on the eager expression of your friend,“ he pointed to Lyuka, then briefly laughed, „I suspect you've accepted my proposal?“
Will nodded curtly, but did not say another word.
„Excellent!“ Mr. Skies exclaimed, unfettered by her coldness, then dropped down to a far quieter and more hushed tone of voice:
„There is little time before the meeting, so I shall make myself brief. The plan is as follows: Since a vote has already been called for and seconded, all we can do is fillybuster. The mayor of Detrot-“ he paused, then gestured to a smartly-dressed earth mare standing in his group, „-has already agreed to lead the effort. She'll present a long speech on the Cosmodrome's enormous impact on industry, local infrastructure, and how that has benefited the locals.“
Somepony has obviously thought this through, Will noted dryly, then looked towards Lyuka, who was still fluttering excitedly at her side and hanging off the stallion's every word, You obviously weren't expecting a no for an answer.
„Now, of course, there'll be protests,“ he meanwhile continued. He seemed full of energy and passion in his talk, Wilhelmina noticed, constantly winking and gesticulating wildly; as if he had somehow managed to conquer the traditional pegasus urge for flight, and convert it into a fiery aptitude for politics and management, „Calls for an immediate vote will be voiced. Objections of all sorts. You know the drill. That's why Graf von Hufgrund – that yellowish unicorn over there, yes, the one with the grand moustache – will make another address to the entire Assembly, this time on the wonders of industry. Now, that in turn will get called out by the Speaker, or maybe even Celestia, for being off-topic. And that's where we play our master card.“
Wilhelmina raised one eyebrow. The stallion savoured the moment for a second longer, then smiled at her:
„You! You will step forward, and put forth the idea that the Space Programme and our national industry are inseparably and eternally linked; that what happens to one necessarily affects the other. We supply you with the industrial basis required, and you in turn both serve as a great customer, and also make the technological advancements necessary to push our factories to new heights. Add some techno-speak about those new smelting methods you developed for the heatshield, and that nifty new way of insulating copper cables used in the computeronics that all the factories in Equestria have now copied, and you've got yourself a winner!“ he victoriously ended his exposition, then rounded it off with a wink. „So? What do you think?“
„I don't know,“ Will sceptically announced, going through the plan in her head, attacking it from different angles, „Seems to put an awful emphasis on industry. I know you believe in your own company, Mr. Skies, and all the amazing things mechanization can bring; but do the other representatives truly think likewise?“
For a second, he didn't reply. And then, suddenly, he burst out laughing:
„Good question!“ he announced to the world, shrugging wildly, „I don't know!“
This lackadaisical response stunned Wilhelmina. Stuttering, she nevertheless got out, „Then how on Equestria can you-“
„Let's ask one!“ he grinned, then gestured over to the mayor of Detrot, who trotted up immediately, „Say, countess, what do you think of the good Director's question?“
„Well, on the one hoof, I must agree the strategy is horribly one-sided,“ the mare slowly began, obviously equally taken aback by the pegasus' sheer energy, „However... at the same time, I do not believe the rest of the Assembly will be able to put up any form of resistance against it. After all, they know the age we live in; they've seen the wonder of electrification with their very eyes! As long as you present all the off-shoot technologies developed during your Programme clearly – and make it equally clear that the most exciting is yet to come, as long as there is funding – I do not see any problems with it.“
The second gong reverberated throughout the hall, and Mr. Skies quickly glanced towards the massive golden doors towering nearby. „So, everypony ready? Everything clear?“
Wilhelmina nodded, and he was off; but not before padding her on the shoulder and laughing encouragingly for one last time:
„Excellent! Just follow the plan, and don't trip up. Today's a big day for all of Equestria, mark my words! After all, who knows what ponies will be able to achieve through the joint and unbridled forces of science and industry? Not even Celestia, my dear Director! Not even her.“
And with those words, he disappeared into the crowds streaming around them. The few politicians that had accompanied him similarly bid their farewells – though in a far less ostentatious manner – and then it was just Wilhelmina, Lyuka, and all the rest of their little group. Just like old times.
Seeing the last of the nobles disappear, Will turned around to take another look at them. Gone were the devastated expressions from their faces; whatever gave that pegasus his mighty energy, it seemed to be infectious.
„Ready to make history?“ Lyuka grinned, landing at her side. Wilhelmina feigned an enthused smile, then set out towards the enormous swinging doors of gold that led forward. As she marched, she brooded; no matter how many flabbergasting adjectives the old capitalist used to describe his plan, something about it still seemed deeply and utterly wrong. Like she was selling her very soul, along with everything she ever stood for, all just for getting a few shiny firecrackers into orbit a little faster.
Oh well, she shrugged it off with a forced smile, You can't have it all.
'Introductory Differential Equations' probably wasn't certified primary-grade reading material in any Equestrian syllabus, but the little filly didn't seem to mind. Smiling as she lay in the soft shadow of the apple trees, Zvezda slowly leafed through the pages of the book, letting Ruby stop her at any time and inquire about the curious symbols found therein.
I must admit, even I didn't realize you were this smart, kid, Zvezda thought to herself as she watched the filly work through an equation, trying to solve it. She wasn't doing calculus, obviously; Zvezda had carefully skirted past all those triangles and squiggly snakes that were found on many pages of the book, and stubbornly refused to answer any questions whenever they were brought up. However, the rest of the mathematics was fair game, and there was plenty of elementary algebra to be found on almost every page – moving symbols around, rearranging equations, substituting variables, and so forth – that Ruby seemed equally content to play around with.
Looking up from her piece of paper, she dropped the pencil she was holding, then tugged at Zvezda's mane again:
„Is this how you're supposed to do it?“
Still smiling, she examined the filly's working out; the route she had taken was very circuitous, obviously, and there were plenty of things she still had no idea about – like writing 'X*X*X' instead of X3 – but, eventually, she had managed to substitute everything in and get the right answer. Who could have known somepony as young as this would understand simultaneous equations?
„You've got a gift, you know that?“ she beamed as she patted the filly on her head, „I'm pretty sure this'll be your cutie mark, right here.“
Instantly, the filly's head shot back to examine her flank, then disappointedly returned back upon seeing it still bare.
„Don't worry,“ Zvezda remained encouraging, „Maybe you still need to wait a bit longer. Practice makes perfect, don't you think?“
Ruby nodded eagerly, then, with light in her eyes, turned the page over to a blank side and eagerly awaited the next question. Zvezda wrote down another set of two simultaneous equations, except this time, one of them was a simple quadratic. As the little filly almost jumped with delight, she set the paper down, then got up on her four hooves and stretched each of her legs in succession. Meanwhile, the filly began quickly flipping through the book by herself, already looking for advice all on her own.
Seeing this, Zvezda smiled. She's already learning how to learn without me... pretty soon, she'll know everything in that book by heart!
I'll make sure you get an amazing education, kid. I don't know how, but I'll work it out.
Of course, the first step on that road was to leave her alone, just for a little while, to see how she would cope. With a brief wave and a reassurance she'd be back soon, Zvezda left the little filly alone in the back garden, then slowly wondered out onto the dusty streets, wondering what else there was to do in this tiny town. The sun was already beginning to set, and everything was utterly deserted. A few of the locals were still out on their porches, but, seeing her approach, quickly returned inside, some even loudly slamming the doors as they went.
Though Zvezda turned her head away in disdain, deep down she didn't really mind. After all, the ponies here were perfectly understandable; trapped inside all these political and corporate struggles, what did they gain out of it? Expensive water, and a great lot of worrying.
Suddenly, a flash of genius hit her. Is this why the public hates the Programme so much now? We promised them great things; incredible wonders, all at the hoof's reach. The stars for everypony. But all they got were dashed hopes at best, lung complications at worst.
Had we gone slower, had we bided our time... would anything have come out any different?
Submerged in such morose thoughts, she suddenly looked up to realize her hooves had led her to the one place in this town she had felt truly comfortable; the train station. She stared at the enormous prototype engine standing on the rails before her, a black colossus of steel and science. Once the pride of Brandenburger Stahl and all of Equestrian technology, it was now disrespectfully left out in the open, gathering sand and dust; which was already beginning to slowly infiltrate its ephemerally-delicate inner workings, fouling up axes and jamming gears.
To Zvezda, it brought up the image of a great painting, thrown out into the garbage, spilled tomato sauce slowly soaking into its canvas and destroying it forever. Another pony might suggest that artworks were unique, whereas locomotives could be replicated, mass-produced; but to her, it was the same. Every machine was solitary in its detail. The exact flow of the filler as their boilers were delicately hoof-welded, the tiny dents in the metal where it had brushed against some crane or other construct in the workshop; everything came together to form the work of art. She pitied those ponies who couldn't see all this wonder and sheer awe present in every machine around them, she really did. Though her gift had its downsides at times, she'd never exchange it for anything. Not even for the kingdom.
„Well, hi to you too,“ Ray's voice, almost unrecognisable in its dryness, sounded from somewhere. Quickly shaking her head, Zvezda realized he had been standing in the doorway of the engine's cab, probably for a good few minutes now.
„Uh,“ Zvezda stuttered, quite uncertain as to how to brush out of this situation, „Hi! Err… I know it sounds stupid, but I didn't actually notice you there. Sorry. I can be dumb like that.“
Ray just laughed in response as he swung open the door and jumped from the cab. He first looked at Zvezda, then turned away and began slowly walking past the giant wheels, scrutinising every speck of dust stuck to the incredible machine.
„So,“ he spoke up after a while. „How have you been?“
„Alright, I suppose,“ Zvezda chuckled nervously, digging her hoof into the sand, „This one little family took me in. They're a bit backwards, but... nice. Very nice. And their daughter's a genius.“
Ray nodded back, still looking at the engine.
„And you?“ Zvezda asked, very cautious.
„The townsfolk treating you alright?“
Ray continued studying a particularly fouled-up bearing for a while longer, then shrugged again, „The sheriff brings me food and water. I guess I can't complain, seeing as I'm apparently the one who brought all this to their town now.“
The words stung Zvezda. But that was a good thing. At the very least, it meant she still had regret. That she wasn't a completely terrible pony.
„Ray,“ she began, walking up to approach him. He remained turned away, however, still trying to clean away the grains of sand with his hoof, „I know this won't change anything, and that I can't undo what I did wrong. But, for what's it worth, I'm sorry. I really am.“
No response whatsoever. But she was saying this as much for her own sake as for Ray's. She wouldn't stop:
„Maybe you already noticed, maybe you didn't, but I'm horrible with words. I always tangle myself up when it comes to saying the right thing, fumble over and say something wrong,“ she began, then smiled to herself, realizing even those lines could have been worded so much better. „Especially when it matters,“ she added, „But even then, I should've never, ever, ever, said something like I did. I shifted all the blame to you, all for getting a slightly better position to make my argument from. I did that, to somepony who's been nothing but friendly ever since the moment he saw me.“
„I'm sorry,“ she finished, still staring at the side of his face. Suddenly getting an idea, she began leaning in towards him, just for a quick kiss on the cheek. She usually wasn't the type to act this fast to anypony, but she wanted to prove just how sorry she was. Plus, Ray was the first even remotely attractive stallion she had seen in months. Honestly, guys. Just because you're rocket engineers doesn't mean you don't have to shower.
As she approached, however, he acted faster, and with a raised hoof he turned her away. Slightly fazed, she quickly backed away, as if to deny to the world she had ever made such an attempt in the first place.
„We all are sorry for something, aren't we?“ Ray suggested in a distant tone of voice, obviously lost in thoughts of his own, „Things we regret. Things that are done and gone, and we can't ever change them again.“
„But if we could, then we know exactly what'd we'd change, don't we?“ Zvezda nodded, smiling at the sand, „Got it all planned out, even though it'll never happen.“
„Heh,“ Ray chuckled to himself, „I guess we're just stupid, that way.“
Zvezda nodded back, and another shroud of silence fell over the two ponies. Ray remained half-turned away, still trying to unjam the small, exposed axle with his hoof. Meanwhile, she passed the time by examining the curious braking mechanism that surrounded each wheel, lost for more things to say, all the while kicking herself mentally. The scene was just so perfect for this; the empty desert town around them, the slowly setting sun, the beautiful locomotive standing right there... Why can't I do this?
„Wow,“ she eventually commented, „I'm really bad at this heart-to-heart stuff.“
„Eh,“ Ray shrugged, stopping in his repair attempts, „I give it a three out of ten. Not quite the worst I've heard.“
„Three?“ Zvezda suddenly became furious, „Come on, that's at least a six! What about all that 'planning' stuff? That's grade-A material, right there!“
„It sounds like it's from a bad romance novel,“ he turned away from the engine, and looked her in the eyes. Only now did she notice the amused smirk spread wide across his face.
„Come on!“ she loudly protested, approaching him, „At least it was better-worded. And you've got to give me extra marks for the presentation.“
„Presentation?“ he raised his eyebrows, then turned around in step as she slowly circled him, „Honestly, Zvez. That was one of the most sloppily-handled apologies I've ever heard. I think you'll have to repeat the year.“
„Oh, really?“ she gave him a sideways glance, stopping in her tracks, „I think you underestimate me, mister. I know some very influential ponies, who'd be highly displeased if I failed your class. Surely we can arrange something?“
Ray heartily laughed again, now fully back to his previous self. „Oh, I am sure we can, countess.“
Zvezda leant in closer. And so did he. Some annoying part of her brain complained at the speed she was moving at here, but the rest shouted it down. The Cosmodrome was sorely lacking in the stallions-who-heard-of-grooming department, and she had been stuck there for months. Perhaps she'd have to write a complaint to the Director.
As their lips were about to touch, however, she got a strange feeling. A flicker of something imperceptible, hiding just outside her vision.
A hunch, one could even call it.
Suddenly turning away, she scanned around her around to check what was causing it, leaving Ray just standing there, alone and confused.
„What's-“ he began, only to be hushed by Zvezda. There was a mystery to solve!
Searching the nearby area a few times, trotting back and forth, sweeping her head high and low, she soon localized the origin of the feeling; and, unlike with the rocket, this time the problem was obvious.
It was the town's central pump, a short metal structure squatting near the train station, and feeding the local water tower. It was a standard design, with a giant spoked wheel ponies could yoke themselves onto and turn, powering the rest of the machine. For such a heavily-used structure, it still looked fairly new, and Zvezda gathered it had been installed only recently, for the purpose of the trains.
And that's exactly what was so weird here! She had never looked at it from so close before, not without other ponies crowding around it and blocking her view. But from what could she gather now, up close, it looked exactly like the standard reciprocating Rückenstück model used in so many rural places all around Equestria to supply the local trains with water. This was a tiny town, and even considering the demands of the trains – The sheriff said 'One every three days', didn't he? – this machine was an old and tried model, with more than sufficient pumping output. It should be working just fine. Intrigued, she peeked her head under the metal reinforcing rods and inspected the piping underneath.
„Ray, get up here and start pumping,“ she resolutely commanded, speaking very distantly, her mind already running through the possible failure modes, „Hurry!“
„I need to see it moving. Now go, go, go!“ she stamped her hoof. Ray replied in some way, but she didn't pay any attention to his words. This was more interesting.
Ever so slowly, the stallion yoked himself onto the power-wheel, then began straining to push it, working all by himself. The machinery slowly sprang into life, simple pistons starting to turn and channel the fluid upwards, from the well shaft deep below.
A few minutes' more of careful inspection revealed the core cause; each time the little cylinder completed its up stroke, the badly-mounted receiver spilled about two thirds of the water, causing it to fall back down again. She looked at the silly thing; one of its two attachment screws had fallen out, making it tilt at least sixty degrees sideways. The other one looked loose too, as if it could fall off any minute. Had the ponies here waited any longer, the well would break down completely!
Suddenly, a loud shout from right behind her broke the brief trance she had found herself in:
„What th' hay are you folks doing to our pump?“
It was the sheriff. Pulling her head out of the machinery again, she looked at his stern, suspicious face, and the small group of gruff, committed townsponies that were following him.
Ray stopped turning, and glanced to Zvezda. This one was on her, now.
„Your stupid pump is broken!“ she shouted back, gesturing to the machinery inside, „And if you don't help me fix it, right now, it's gonna fail completely!“
The ponies stopped approaching threateningly, and were now just standing there, looking dumb in a strange mixture of surprise and confusion.
Could I wish for any more?
„Come on!“ she yelled again, „On the double! You three there, help poor Ray turn this. You, find me a fifteen screwdriver! We're fixing this today, even if it takes us the whole night!“
Seeing the ponies quickly respond to her orders, a confident smirk appeared on her face. You know, I'm getting pretty good at this management business. They really should promote me again, sometime.
The sun had long since set, and the central marble hall of the Assembly now lay dark and cold. The massive chandeliers having been extinguished, all that was left lighting the room were the scant few lights that flanked the doorways.
Of course, that just leant the moonlight even more space to work its magic. Shining through the massive, finely-detailed mosaics that lined the round walls and the ceiling, it lit the room in such a serene way, Wilhelmina could hardly conflate in her mind the images of intense argument inside this very room from just a few hours prior.
The subtly-glowing, white figure of Celestia herself, standing alone and immobile in such unearthly light, additionally gave the entire scene a whole fourth dimension of otherness. Wilhelmina thought back to their gallery, Cape Coltaveral Stable II... even among all the paintings of strange alien horizons and impossible spacecraft, this sight would fit right in.
Ah, yes. The Cosmodrome.
„Can I ask something, my princess?“ she spoke up, breaking the silence that had befallen the room, for what now felt like a century.
Her voice was still warm, motherly; but there was a distinct new chord in its tonality now. The feeling of stoic reassurance.
„Had you really intended this to happen?“ she began, trying very hard not to let the scathing anger flash through her words, „Is this how you wanted it all to come out?“
„My dear Wilhelmina,“ she began after a brief pause, „I fully intend for ponykind to reach the stars. Your work here will not have been in vain, you can be sure of that. However-“
Celestia approached, and looked her straight in the eyes. It was hard to remain angry when confronted with such a warm, compassionate face, that much was for sure. And yet, Wilhelmina did.
„-you have to realize, the time is quite simply not there yet. You have rushed into this so fast, everypony is still reeling from the shock. Whole industries still have to catch up. Mindsets still have to adjust. Just a century ago, we still lived on farming and sustenance. We have to learn to look towards the stars; and it will happen, but as all these things, it will take time.“
„To be entirely honest, Princess,“ Wilhelmina curtly began, no longer minding her words as she did in her previous dialogues with the goddess; since from this day on, Celestia was no longer her boss. „That is rather easy for you to say. You've got loads of time. We... I... don't.“
Another sad smile appeared on Celestia's face. It was compassionate, it was warm... but it couldn't deny the truth.
„What do you want me to say, Wilhelmina?“ she posed, „You know I can't comfort you with lies, you are too smart for that. And you know equally well that this is out of my powers now; what is done is done, and there is no way to go about changing it.“
What is done is done. Wilhelmina thought back to their great plan, and how it all came falling apart; the mayor of Detrot and the Graf had put up a courageous fight, that much was for sure, but when it came for her to speak, she failed, utterly. No matter how she tried to phrase her speech, how well she tried to argue the wonders of industry, it just didn't work.
How could it, after all? She never believed any of it anyway. It was all made up, and despite the fact she was a fairly capable speaker, not even she could look Celestia directly in the face in the face and lie. During all their planning, Mr. Skies and Lyuka had clearly miscalculated on that one factor. And now everything was gone, and there was nothing to be done about it.
„But, surely,“ she pleaded, „Just one more-“
„I have already helped you with your dream as far as I could,“ the Princess resolutely shook her head, „Grand royal speeches, all the publicity you could ask for, plenty of royal pomp and ceremony; you might not have realized it, but today marked the seventh time have I defended your enormous budget in the Assembly, Director. Seventh. All fought and won, despite your stubborn insistence on that ridiculous façade. Really, you should have just admitted the truth from the start.“
Wilhelmina nodded along in resigned acceptance. So, the goddess had known about what 'Atmospheric Experimentation' really meant, probably from the very beginning. Then again, knowing her, it was not a big surprise. And it definitely explained a lot.
„The funny thing is, I really think we could have done it,“ she admitted, turning her eyes away from the Princess, „That we finally got all the bugs figured out, all the questions answered. Just a few more bits to pay for the final rockets, and we'd be there, you know?“
„Do not worry, Director. When the time comes, I will make sure you are well-remembered for your efforts,“ Celestia smiled briefly, then continued, „Now, about your future… I was thinking of a small royal observatory, just a bit south of here? That way, you and your friends can stay close to the stars. Perhaps you could even keep launching model rockets, just to refine-“
But Wilhelmina was already walking away, towards the exit. Realizing this, Celestia stopped halfway through her sentence.
„Director?“ she repeated, evidently puzzled, „Did you have a better idea in mind, then?“
„Yeah,“ she smirked, opening the door. Stepping through it, she glanced back at the Princess:
And, just like that, she slammed it shut.