Wilhelmina stared at the good professor, who seemed to shrink away before her very eyes. Much to her surprise, however, his expression was one of clear despair as he glanced around, almost like he wanted to evaporate into nothingness; anything, if only to avoid her glare.
Noticing this, the suspicious, accusing look on her face suddenly dropped.
„This isn't just a bad joke, is it?“ she quietly posed, already aware of the impending answer. Redstone's brief shake of the head just made it explicit.
With everypony else in the command centre staring emptily at her, she sighed heavily, then turned sideways, towards the massive telemetry board that took up the entire far wall of the bunker. Once again, it was reading all-zero; but, in some strange way, even that was reassuring. The numbers might have been wrong, true enough, but they were still numbers. And numbers could be computed. Substituted into equations, and rearranged. Solved.
„Right, then. What do we know?“
„Nothing yet,“ he reported, wandering over to her side and avoiding the tall stacks of paperwork that littered the room. „I called you right after initial report. In middle of electrics reconfiguration procedure, capsule went dark.“
„Dark? How dark?“
The professor did not even reply. Instead, he looked away, at the empty telemetry board, and a sense of dread befell Wilhelmina. So that's why he had been so vague, she realized.
„Backup telemetry?“ she tried desperately, „Manoeuvring? Lights? Anything at all?“
Once again, silence was her only response.
„At least the wireless must still work!“
„That, and nothing else,“ he nodded emptily.
Scenarios began multiplying in Wilhelmina's head; likely points of failure, along with contingency plans and probabilities of recovery. There was at least one for every system aboard, and the numbers soon became too overwhelming to count. Trying to cut them down, she began quickly pacing in a small circle around Redstone, humming urgently:
„The telemetry hitch was related to the rocket, and did not affect operation anyway, hence it doesn't apply. And asides from that, the launch went perfectly. So it must be a spontaneous fault in the capsule systems. What precise operation were you trying?“
„Switchover to Block H, like we discussed. Power loss on inverter activation,“ he uttered, then tapped his hoof deliberatively, prompting Wilhelmina to stop in her rapid walk. „What about pressure reading on oxygen tank? That was off.“
„Sunny mentioned a 'pad mishap during ingress, I think,“ she mumbled, already gesturing to the nearest tech-pony, „Get me the LCC director! Zvezda what’s-her-name!“
The mare first gave a somewhat-confused salute, then immediately galloped away, hopefully in the right direction. Satisfied, Wilhelmina turned back to the professor. „Anything else?“
„Well, launch profile was unexpected, too. Liquid engine actually performed above specification.“
„Putting the capsule in higher orbit as a result,“ she quickly completed, then sighed. „One which will take at least eight days to decay naturally. Meaning, we can't just wait this out.“
The entry hatch suddenly came swinging open again, and in entered Lyuka. Not even bothering to catch her breath, she quickly flew over to Wilhelmina and Redstone, and landed without a second unnecessary word. „Came as fast as I could. What's the problem?“
„Total electrics failure during systems reconfiguration. Most likely a short.“
She nodded immediately. „Our plan?“
„Procedure would call for isolating the two buses, then resetting each fuse manually. Whichever bus has gone wrong, the other one will still be able to fire the retro engines.“
„Is good idea, I suppose,“ Redstone shrugged, looking between the two of them, „Should I instruct equenaut?“
Although Wilhelmina nodded, Lyuka quickly stopped the stallion before he could tap his headset again. „Wait, wait, wait! If it's really a short, why is the telemetry reading all-zero? Shouldn't it just freeze at the last-received information?“
„In theory, maybe!“ Wilhelmina scoffed as she glanced towards the giant indicators board, „But real-life electric faults tend to be messy. The sudden surge in current might have easily confused the sensors; hence making them transmit the default reading, zero.“
„Or, it could be an incredibly complicated controller error, locking down all the controls and resetting all telemetry readings,“ Lyuka briefly continued under her breath, then looked at the board again. „But I'll be the first to say, that's stretching it a bit. I guess decoupling and trying the fuses can't hurt.“
„Could short everything again,“ Sequine muttered, suddenly standing to the right of Redstone.
„That's a very good point, actually!“ Lyuka exclaimed, completely ignoring how the peculiar pony had just managed to sneak up on them, „That wiring isn't exactly highest-bidder. What if something managed to melt together in there before the fuses flipped? In that case, we can't know what might happen when we turn the power back on!“
„We'll try it on the capsule lighting first, then,“ Wilhelmina promptly objected, „It isn't connected to the avionics, so we won't be risking anything vital. Send the plan up, Red.“
Despite her order, the professor remained motionless. She stamped her hoof, groaning incredulously. „What? You have an objection, too?“
„Sorry. Just thinking,“ the old stallion suddenly shook his head, then turned around before tapping the headset with his hoof. „Friendship One? Come in, Friendship One. We have discussed your situation, and…“
Meanwhile, Will turned over to the rows of silent tech-ponies, standing at their various desks and being completely useless. From the moment she had entered the bunker, they had done nothing but just stare.
„Move it, everypony!“ she quickly commanded, stamping her hoof several times to break them out of their stupor. „Astro, re-check the current orbit, and get me the precise time before natural decay! Calc team, we're gonna need a de-orbit solution immediately after the power is restored, so get going now! Range, mobilize the pegasi squadrons! Somepony, wake up Dash!“
At her shouts, the ponies slowly began moving, and a busy chatter of rushed conversations began flooding the centre. Satisfied, she turned back to levitate up some detail schematics, only to be interrupted by Redstone again:
„Tried lights fusebox. No response.“
She rolled her eyes. „What do you mean, no response? Did the bulb blow? What about the feedback lights? Have you tested both of the instrument-“
With one of his stern glares, the one he usually reserved for under-performing students, the professor promptly silenced her. However, it still took him a moment to follow up. „I designed that controls board, Will. Trust me. Is dead.“
„Obviously not the fuses, then,“ Lyuka uselessly added.
„I know, dammit!“ Wilhelmina smashed the schematics into the ground, then levitated up a new set, beginning to march around the central planning table as she did before. Her voice meanwhile became faster, more focused. „Right, nopony panic. There's probably a lot of juice still left in those batteries, even after the short. We built in all those safeties for a reason, after all! Only thing left is to figure out how to get it out of there, and into the retro engines. Simple.“
Seeing the sceptical looks on her compatriots' faces, she tried smiling again. „Come, comrades! We did what was thought impossible – we got a pony into low orbit! Fixing a few wires should be quite elementary.“
„Well, it would be, if we had it right here in our assembly lab,“ Lyuka briefly snorted, still rifling through her notes.
Wilhelmina wasn't quite sure if it was rather the tone, or content, of that short proclamation; either way, she felt an indescribable anger begin to rise in her chest, and her face went red as her heart started beating ever more forcefully. You're not helping, you know that? she wanted to scream into her friend's face; and it was only the lost faces of all those tech-ponies crewing the bunker that stopped her from descending into a fit of rage. For their sake, she had to remain composed.
For their sake.
To dispel the tense silence, as well as calm her nerves, she pretended to carefully inspect a large blueprint of the capsule's electrical system that she had levitated up; positioning it so that it would cover up her seething face. Fortunately, this uncomfortable moment was soon dispelled by the timely appearance of a new tech-pony:
„Zvezda Horyova reporting for duty, ma'am!“ the grey earth mare cheerfully saluted immediately upon arriving at the table. However, as she glanced around and noticed all the rolled-out blueprints, along with the decidedly-ominous presence of all the chief designers, she suddenly ?fell rather dejected. „There's- there's nothing wrong, is there? With the capsule?“
„Of course not!“ Wilhelmina exclaimed rather theatrically, waving her hoof around. „Everything is just perfect! Especially the capsule!“
The mare's eyes quickly shot sideways, towards the large telemetry board in the corner; then suddenly grew wide, as she obviously realized every single dial was reading zero. Seeing the panic slowly mount in her eyes, Wilhelmina coldly continued, „Or, rather, it would be, had somepony not disobeyed the checklists!“
She could see it in the mare's eyes. The surprise, the sudden regret, the fear; all the tell-tale signs of a revealed cover-up were there. Nevertheless, she still tried arguing. „I- I don't know-“
„The oxygen tanks, you mule!“ Wilhelmina barked impatiently, marching up to her, „What on Equestria were you thinking with that? Were you even thinking?“
The tech-pony obviously tried to protest back, to defend herself somehow, but all that came out were brief incoherent noises.
„We've had two deviations from procedure on this otherwise utterly perfect mission, worker!“ she resumed, scoffing at her pathetic hide, „Two! And one of them – that is, a whole fifty percent – rests squarely on you and your irresponsible decision! I swear, if it ever turns out you were in some way responsible for sparking this whole mess off…“
The hanging threat was obviously enough to make even this little earth mare protest. „But- but- the oxygen supplies-“
„Are utterly irrelevant!“ Wilhelmina quickly completed for her. „Or did you perhaps forget there is no atmospheric regenerator aboard? Without more carbon dioxide filters, it doesn't matter how many days of oxygen we bring along! Did that even occur to you?“
The mare suddenly froze, and an incredibly scared expression took over her face; quite obviously, it hadn't. Wilhelmina could only nod to herself. „You want to fix this? You want to save your friend?“ she whispered, leaning further in. The mare was barely breathing now; she was listening so intently. „Then I advise you start working, and quickly. Wake up everypony who had ever touched that broken capsule of yours, and peer through every single millimetre of those damned blueprints. Find anything that could have shorted. If two wires are as much as running near each other for too long, I want to know. Clear?“
With a virtually imperceptible nod, she accepted.
„Get moving!“ she snapped, but the frozen mare refused to move; only on a repeated, louder gesture did she gallop away, obviously straining to fight back the tears. Wilhelmina felt a bit bad, but only slightly; a well-motivated engineer was a hard-working engineer, after all. Ignoring the terrified expressions of the other chief designers, she turned around again. „How's that calculation coming?“
„Second pass!“ a tech-pony reported from the far side of the room, briefly glancing away from managing his hordes of workers swarm over the computeronics clusters. „It's looking like an ocean splashdown, though!“
„I want at least two wings in range of every possible re-entry point!“ she then commanded to the range manager, speaking without a second thought. This done, she proceeded to turn back to her friends, who were craning over a large blueprint.
„Well?“ she demanded.
„I must say, I don't like this wiring cluster here,“ Lyuka began, tapping her hoof over the section in question.
„Correct,“ Redstone hummed, nodding rapidly, „I know it was required for manoeuvring thrusters, but is simply not nice. High wiring density. Sufficiently high current, and insulation could potentially be boiled away. And if all those circuits are now melted together-“
She quickly stopped him. „They're not. And even if they are, we could just isolate that entire section away. The engines are on a specialized circuit, aren't they? Should be simple. Nopony panic, we'll fix this yet.“
Lyuka slowly looked up at her, rising disbelief evident in her face. „Nopony's panicking, Will. You should just-“
But a sudden idea suddenly flashed through her head, and Wilhelmina quickly cut her friend off. „Red, can you get confirmation if the capsule's actually dead? It could just be the cabin lights and telemetry. Try a thruster, the heating. Anything hard-linked.“
„I… guess,“ Redstone hesitantly answered, balancing from side to side as his eyes flashed back towards Lyuka. But, upon a second nod from Wilhelmina, he simply sighed and returned to his headpiece.
Feeling very jumpy, she fought to stay still as they waited the lengthy ten seconds it took the professor to communicate his request, and receive the reply. „No response,“ he noted back.
Gritting her teeth, Will fiercely swooped a stack of folders off the command desk, clearing space for more blueprints. „No response, no response, no response! We've designed a dozen mutually independent electrical systems – one of them must still work!“
Still staring at the blueprint, Lyuka sighed. „Yeah, well, that's kinda the thing, isn't it? There's way too many, and they don't all have proper diagnostics. We've got no idea what actually failed up there.“
Nodding to herself, Wilhelmina was about to ask Red to issue another request to the equenaut, when she heard a new voice suddenly join the fray. It cut through the background sea of hushed noises like a lighthouse through the fog, evidentially coming from somepony very well-versed in public speaking:
„What in the good heavens is going on here?“
She didn't even have to turn her head to see. It was Mr. Skies, standing in the opened doorway of the bunker, his voice scared and furious at the same time.
Idly listening to the quiet, intermittent hisses of white noise streaming through the headphones, Cherry slowly sipped orange juice from the straw in her collar. Meanwhile, a subtle blue light reflected from the oceans below, bathing the interior of her tiny capsule with beautiful, serene rays. Though the initial power cut was a bit startling, now that her eyes had adapted enough to see the faint blue light, she was even enjoying it.
The chief designers had only come in a couple of times since the mishap, each time with terse, precise commands that Cherry promptly obeyed. Even through the distortion of the wireless, she could tell they were a bit harried, perhaps a bit too much; but, to be perfectly honest, she really didn't mind. Were she in their place, she'd probably be reacting in the same way.
„Cherry, you there? Please, come in!“
She produced a little smile as she reached up with her hoof and toggled the small switch on her suit's breastplate. „I hear ya, dad. Everything's fine.“
„Oh, thank Celestia!“ he immediately resounded back, obviously still trying to catch his breath, as if he was speaking to her right after an endurance flight. „When I heard there had been a problem… nevermind, I'm just glad to be hearing your voice again.“
Cherry would have been glad enough if he had just ended there. A brief check-in, and then leaving the rest to her. Unfortunately, that was not to be; as she realized when he resumed, speaking quickly and almost falling over his words. „Listen here: the chief designers got this, alright? They're waking up every single pony who ever worked on this stupid piece of junk. They're even mobilizing Dash and her recovery teams. You're gonna be-“
„I'm a professional, dad,“ she gently cut him off, smiling under the collar as she shook her head. Despite everything else, some ponies never changed. Especially when it came to their little daughters. „I can handle this.“
He stopped right there, in the middle of his sentence, and for a few beats she could only hear his hasty breathing. It remained quickened for a while longer, then, over the course of the next few seconds, steadily slowed itself to a sensible pace. When he spoke again, he was calm and composed:
„Roger that, Friendship One. We'll… we'll have the emergency solution ready soon. I promise you that. CAPCOM out.“
„I know. Just hang in there,“ she whispered, before turning her microphone off again. Her headphones crackled once, twice, and then finally fell back to their faint idle hiss.
As she turned her head back to the brilliant view outside again, she took another brief sip of orange juice. Even she had to admit, she had no idea how she could be feeling like this. Back on the ground, whenever she had imagined herself in an accident, or just had a bad dream; there was always lots of screaming and cursing involved, desperate panic as her craft rapidly spiralled out of control and met its fiery end.
But, floating up here, weightless, it was different than anything she could have possibly imagined. The lack of gravity permeated her entire body; almost like swimming through a cloud, or perhaps floating in the sea. Ever since the failure, the capsule had gone completely quiet, too, the mechanical humming of the fans and buzz of the wiring giving way to a peaceful noiselessness. The window outside completed the trinity of senses, the enormous ocean below stretching out for hundreds of miles and interrupted only by the occasional fluffy cloud. Staring at the sight, she didn't even realize she had raised her camera and snapped a picture until well after the fact.
It felt hard to be at war, when everything around was so majestic, so breathtakingly beautiful. She already felt like enough of an outsider just by soaring through all this, as an intruder sullying the heavens with her ugly metal can and the annoying clicks of her camera. Being overly agitated would just be the final straw, and she wasn't about to indulge in such behaviour.
After all, her dad had always taught her to be a polite guest. And she wasn't about to mistreat such a kind hostess. She'd return when the heavens commanded it, and not a moment before.
Suddenly feeling hungry after all this introspection, she opened her supply cupboard and removed a protein bar. Tearing off the wrapper and letting it float freely through the cabin, she began munching loudly, all the while contemplating just how long that going to take.
She remained like that for a good few minutes, just taking in the sights some more. True to the stalwart equations she had spent so long revising, the world underneath her never ceased spinning, and there was always something new and interesting to look at. Right now, there was a beautiful coastline basking in the sun, a pristine golden beach that advanced for miles. Suddenly imagining her father, helplessly staring at the telemetry in the dreary confines of the command centre, she opened up the channel again:
„Remember when we went on that trip to the beach?“ she spoke slowly and quietly, lost in memories, „The one with the big castle. Like, ten years ago.“
„Fort Lundydale, you mean?“
She laughed faintly, „I dunno! I was ten, the name wasn't important.“
„Nine,“ he quickly corrected.
„Whatever. The point is, I still remember what it looked like. And I'm looking at it now. Makes me think of you.“
It was all lies, of course; that beach down there could have been any beach, and the odds of randomly hitting the right one were astronomical. Plus, her memories weren't that great anyway; she wouldn't have recognized it from orbit had she tried.
„Yeah, I remember it alright,“ he meanwhile spoke back, „You never wanted to go flying with us. We've literally had to drag you out of that hotel!“
„Well, to be perfectly honest; even you have to admit it was a very nice hotel.“
„You know, I still don't think you realize just how much that trip cost!“ he protested back in rising voice, „I booked a whole airshow! And to think you just wanted to waste it all inside, behaving like a little princess!“
At the back of her head, she suddenly realized that, standing in the middle of the command bunker, he probably must know her current orbital position, demarcated in bright red marker right in the middle of that massive central desk; and realize it was on the opposite side of the planet. Perhaps he knew, or perhaps he simply refused to look and spoil the moment for himself; either way, she was infinitely thankful for it.
„We should go back sometime,“ she whispered, looking at the beach slowly drift past her window and out of sight.
„Don't worry. We will.“
And for one brief, shining moment, she could almost believe it.
„Alright, everypony, listen up!“ Zvezda resolutely announced, unrolling a giant detailed schematic of the Star Walker's wiring system across the workshop floor. Her voice still wavered slightly, and her eyes were still watery after Wilhelmina's assault. But she bore no ill will towards the old mare; things were bad, and had to get fixed soon. There could be time for emotions and personal conflicts later, but right now, she had a job to do.
„As of twenty three hundred hours Cape time, Friendship One had suffered a total and unexplained loss of power while switching over to the backup inverter system. It's up to us to figure out just how that could've happened, and decide how we're going to fix it before it's too late.“
She glanced around the rest of her little team. Though the mares nodded in acceptance at her speech, she could see the distant, sleepy looks on their faces, the subtle resentment in their eyes. Clearing her throat, she put on a wide smile, then tried again:
„Listen, I know this is the last thing anypony wanted. We all deserve our week of sleep and two months' holiday. Celestia knows, I was looking forward to that. But at the same time, it has happened, and now Cherry's up there, counting on your help. We're not gonna leave a friend hanging, are we?“
A slow chorus of dissent sounded back, and, amidst much yawning, the ponies slowly leant forward to study the enormous blueprint. Zvezda could only empathise – after all, she was as every bit as tired as them, perhaps even more – and hence tried to keep her orders quiet, yet encouraging. Eventually, they did warm up to the job, and the first signs of progress began to appear.
Scanning the blueprints was a lengthy and arduous, yet incredibly painstaking process, which was probably why the Director had assigned Zvezda and her team. It involved tracing out the entire length of each wire, and noting down all the locations in which it either touched, ran alongside, or even connected to, another electrical (or just conductive) piece of equipment. Obviously, the chief focus was on the 'secondary' electronics of Block H, which had somehow managed to short everything out; but even so, after a whole hour of concentrated effort, they had already filled several notepads and still were barely a third of the way through.
Because of all this, it seemed like the Princess herself had smiled upon them when Rainbow suddenly appeared in the doorway of their little lab, wearing a slightly smudged apron, and pulling a small trolley literally loaded with stacked mugs of coffee. The tech-ponies did not even wait for Zvezda's permission, and immediately descended upon the beverages like… like…
Well, like engineers to coffee, I guess, Zvezda shrugged. There really was no comparison to anything else.
She followed their example, and seized the largest remaining cup. Her mind was still so busy with endless schematics and wiring diagrams, it took her a moment to realize that something was off with this particular liquid:
„Hey!“ she exclaimed towards Rainbow, then took another sip, „What the hay did you do this coffee? It actually tastes good!“
The pegasus just waved her hoof, smiling mischievously. „Eh. I just stole it from the press stands.“
„And they let you?“
„Well, after I told them there something wrong with the mission, they all rushed to the post office,“ Rainbow revealed with a glib smile, „So, yeah, they did!“
Any other time, Zvezda would be at least minimally surprised by the mare' rather liberal approach to property. Right now, however, she was just grateful enough there was plenty of coffee for her and her team. As she watched her friends hastily down their cups, then immediately take second ones from the trolley, she just quietly nursed her own, trying to get her mind back together again. These constant thirty hour shifts were really starting to take their toll.
„So, uh… how's it going?“ Rainbow spoke up again, obviously hesitant to break Zvezda away from her thoughts.
But she just smiled back. „Pretty slow. The ship was supposed to be as simple as possible, but there's still a lot of systems up there. Everypony was so worried something might go wrong, they filled it to the brim with safeties; redundant primaries, backups, emergency failsafes, you name it. And any one of them could be the cause here.“
„Kinda funny this is where it fails, isn't it?“ Rainbow posed, idly stacking the empty cups to the lower tray, and swapping the full ones up top, „I mean, nopony'd be surprised if the rocket blew up. Same for the heatshield. Lots of fire, sparks, whatever, it's a dangerous business. But to go out like this… just stuck up there. Unable to do anything, just circling, until you-“
„We're working on it,“ Zvezda quickly interrupted, spotting the mounting trepidation in the pegasus' eyes. „We've brought her up, and we'll bring her down.“
The mare remained silent, however, still continuing to rearrange the cups. Maybe it was a pegasus thing, maybe just being especially concerned for her friend, but she seemed to be taking this a lot harder than Zvezda.
Trying to be reassuring, she nodded back in the direction of her massive pile of blueprints, which the rest of her team was already studying again. „All we need is to find the right wire. That's the only problem here. Isolate which bus is shorted, connect the other battery, and fire the engine! Couldn't be easier.“
„I know, I know,“ Rainbow smiled sadly, finally finished with her rearranging. „I just wish I could help more than this. She's fighting for her life, and I'm stuck here doing nothing, you know?“
Zvezda patted her on the shoulder, chuckling. „Never underestimate the effect of good coffee! You're helping more than you think.“
„Well, if she really wants to help, she could bring in some cake, too. I'm hungry,“ Sara dryly noted from her blueprints, and the smile disappeared right off Zvezda's face:
„Sar! This is Rainbow Dash you're talking to here! She's not just some-“
But before she could even finish her sentence, the pegasus was already leaving, pulling her trolley away through the door. „I'll take care of everything. You just find that wire,“ she smiled.
„Yeah,“ Zvezda emptily smiled back, barely suppressing a yawn, „We will.“
The following hour, though significantly more tiring, as well as difficult – the supply of short, obvious wires quickly depleted itself, leaving only the long and circuitous paths behind – actually proved far easier to live through than the one preceding it. Every time Rainbow visited their lab, she brought in more delicious foodstuffs, as well as the brief dose of good conversation they all so desperately needed. Even as the work got more and more frustrating, their pace managed to keep up, bolstered by a powerful mix of urgency and hope.
Only once Zvezda was trotting back to the command bunker, saddlebags stuffed to the brim with filled notepads, did the sheer despair of their situation begin creeping back in again. It was evident in the other ponies, as well, the dozens of techs and assistants carrying papers through the corridors; the closer she got to the control room, the more serious and concerned their expressions became.
Finally arriving in the cavernous bunker, she spared only a single glance to the giant telemetry board – which still displayed nothing but zeroes – before quickly advancing to the central table in the middle of the room. All the stations were occupied, and the room buzzed with busy conversation. Not yet hopeless, Zvezda smiled to herself.
„Assembly team reporting,“ she saluted to Wilhelmina, then quickly began unloading her notepads onto the command table. The director did not even acknowledge her at first; instead finishing up a phone conversation with what was obviously some very important pony:
„Yes, countess, I realize just how much money you are losing every hour… yes, I know how important that stupid port is to your constituents! Uh-huh… uh-huh… Look, I didn't write the laws of physics! It's not my fault your town's under the projected path. We need those airships, and we've got written permission from the Princess herself. Go complain to her!“
Seeing her slam the phone down so violently, Zvezda couldn't help but smile smugly at the scene; and, as she noticed, neither could the Director herself. No matter their differences, it was nice to know that both of them enjoyed seeing some self-important aristocrat getting overruled.
But there were bigger issues at stake, and Wilhelmina's more official side soon took over. „Final report?“ she demanded, looking at the thick stack of notepads that Zvezda and her team had produced.
Zvezda sighed, removing one from the pile and opening it to the appropriate page. „About what you'd expect, really. The autoswitcher's the most complicated part in that block, and so it's most likely to have gone wrong. I mean, just the wiring density in that-“
„Yes, yes, yes,“ the director waved her hoof impatiently, „That is the obvious point of failure. Any foal could see that, and that is exactly why we tested it twenty times during the final week. Come on, Zvezda, there's a reason I put you on that team! You always see these things. Is there anything… less obvious? Anything we didn't test?“
Zvezda gulped as she stared at her pile of notepads, the hope immediately drained from her and again feeling utterly defeated by the Director. Not obvious, not obvious… she closed her eyes, and saw the schematics flash in front of her.
„Got something?“ Wilhelmina asked again, confidence strong in her voice.
Yet all was hazy and unfocused, obscured by the cloudy veil of insomnia. Endless miles of wiring, all merging together into one giant messy cobweb. The blueprints in her head danced all around: Connections formed themselves, stretched, then became broken again. Components spun in circles, and soon, Zvezda wasn't even sure which end of the spacecraft was which; to say nothing of actually remembering the precise technical minutiae that her mind usually tracked, and which were so critical here.
Opening her eyes again, she glanced around the rest of the bunker in desperation, doing anything to avoid Wilhelmina's lengthy gaze. The rest of the room was unwelcoming, however; unlike before, now she noticed that even those ponies who still moved with a purpose had a sense of irrelevance in their actions, as if they were only acting to avoid the empty feeling of powerlessness. Mechanically shuffling the same papers back and forth, repeatedly checking certain entries in their endless notepads, it was clear that this problem was not going to be resolved without a sudden flash of inspiration.
Inspiration, which was supposed to come from her. And which she was failing utterly to provide Think, girl, think! she wanted to scream at herself. She always could see these things: The tiny fractures in the poor welding of the cargo trains, the irregularities of the early fuel grain, imperfections with the mounting assembly electrics. She saw all of that, for Celestia's sake! So why couldn't she see the only thing that actually ever mattered?
However, no matter how hard she tried to remember, she always hit a mental brick wall in her head, fastidiously built up and reinforced over the long weeks of sleeplessness. She had always wondered whether this insomnia was ever going to cost her anything; and now, it was looking like she just might have to pay the biggest price of them all.
Her eyes hit upon the solemn figure of Mr. Skies, standing off in the corner of the room, far away from the busy hubbub of running computers and shuffling ponies. His face was utterly unreadable; an aimless jumble of a dozen conflicting emotions, uncertain as what to expect. She noticed that, aside from his lips, he was utterly immobile, not flinching a muscle as he continued to sometimes speak, othertimes just listen, to his dear daughter.
That's who you're upsetting, right there, her mind spoke mockingly towards her. Not yourself! You've barely known her for a year. Do you even know how big her family is? How many other friends she has? That's the actual tragedy here! And all because you can't remember a single stupid wire. Pathetic.
Still staring at her, Wilhelmina suddenly sighed. „Well, it was worth a try,“ she added sadly, already levitating up another pair of schematics to inspect, „Thanks for your time, Zvezda. Go get some sleep, now. You certainly look like you need it.“
Buck you! she almost yelled out in response, but managed to channel the impulse into merely tensing her leg muscles instead. I can do this, dammit! Just let me try!
But it was obvious enough, even to her sleep-straddled mind, just how senseless her objections were. She obviously couldn't do this, and her lengthy silence was ample proof of that. She tried one last time to claw aside those banks of wavering thyratrons and gyroscopes, trying to get at the pattern of circuitry beyond them. But, all she could make out was a loose clump of wires and relays, completely unrelated to Block H, and hanging just above the primary inertial measurement unit.
Her eyes widened. Could that really be it? It didn't seem like anything at all, but over her time at Cosmodrome, she had learnt to watch for these little warning signs from her head. Perhaps, if she got a few hours' sleep, it might become-
„Got something?“ Wilhelmina interrupted, obviously interested by her sudden change of expression. Zvezda shrugged.
„Block F, sequence control system,“ she offered up, still wondering about it herself. „That mean anything to you?“
The mare's empty stare revealed that it did not. However, she still proceeded to turn around, towards the central desk where all the chief designers were now assembled:
„Sun? L? C-SEQ on F. Any way that might have anything in common with our problem?“
The various ponies looked up from their schematics as they began pondering the question:
„I don't think so,“ Lyuka thought aloud, „Not during orbital phase… the only time that comes into play is either before launch, or after retro burn, and even that's just a minimal-“
„Ah-hah!“ Redstone suddenly cut her off, almost jumping with excitement. The sudden exultation caused almost everypony in the room to fall silent, and look directly at his face, which was now occupied by a wide smile.
„Ah-hah?“ Wilhelmina repeated suspiciously.
„Ah-hah,“ the old professor nodded.
„So, you're absolutely sure about this?“ Wilhelmina asked once more, as she let the young mare in front of her finalize her make-up and mane. A rather bourgeois comfort, true; but when making such an important address, one had to look as confident and inspirational as possible.
„Fairly sure,“ Red shrugged nonchalantly, sipping from a glass of water.
„You can't give me anything better than that?“ she asked again, skimming the hastily scribbled notes she was levitating before her face, „I am willing to bet that both of the Princesses are going to be listening very, very carefully to each and every word I say. And with them, almost all of Equestria. So this better not be wrong.“
„We've something similar pop up in simulators. Dozens of times. Always drove techs up walls.“
„Why didn't you think of it sooner, then?“
Redstone laughed. „Oh, those things had millions of faults. Billions! And only few ever appeared on real thing, too.“
With every word, Wilhelmina was fast becoming more and more agitated. „If you knew about it, why didn't you fix it?“ she almost yelled.
„But we did!“ the professor clumsily defended himself, before letting his eyes wonder to the ceiling again, and mumbling nervously, „At least, I thought we did. Obviously got lost in revisions somewhere. Like that mix-up we had with Sara test launch, remember? Sending wrong blueprint to manufacturing… that sure was stupid.“
Wilhelmina just rolled her eyes. Paperwork. Always the thrice-damned paperwork. Usually, it just sits there, sucking life out of you. But stop paying attention for one brief second, and-
„All done!“ the stylist mare suddenly smiled, quickly withdrawing. Wilhelmina nodded, sizing up the curtain before her, and imagining the hordes of ponies anxiously waiting beyond.
„How's the press release doing?“ she asked, this time somewhat hesitantly. If there was anything she dreaded even more than facing the Princesses, it was the thought of having to explain precise technical details to almost a thousand utterly-clueless reporters.
„The paper's still warm, but we've managed to print 'em all,” the mare quickly reported, and Wilhelmina drew another breath of relief. At least something was going well today.
„Cameras warmed up!“ a pony from the newsreel networks peeked her head in, „We're ready to go anytime!“
„Now, then,“ she announced. Giving the pony five seconds to trot off and get the reels rolling, she took one last deep breath, then emerged through the curtain and stepped onto the wooden podium.
The vast conference hall of Stable II was packed with reporters, who welcomed her with a barrage of photography flashes as she made her way up to the podium. Taking a moment to wait for the room to quieten down, Wilhelmina sized up the crowds. They were about as numerous as on the dawn of the launch, and every square inch of the floor was taken up by unicorns and earth ponies; the pegasi had to float in the air, just to fit. The only empty space was around the two princesses, with even the most aggressive of reporters giving those two imposing figures at least a stride's clearance.
The hall fell quiet soon thereafter, and, clearing her throat for one last time, Wilhelmina began:
„Fillies and gentlecolts,“ she spoke slowly and solemnly, taking only occasional glimpses at her notes, „About three and a half hours ago, Equestria's premier space mission, Friendship One, has suffered a complete and unexplained loss of electrical power. If you consult your press release booklet, you will obtain a distinct summary of what little we know thus far. In brief, a failure in the backup-“
„We can all read, madam Director,“ Celestia suddenly cut her off, speaking clearly and audibly even over Wilhelmina's electrically-amplified voice. „We also all know what is at stake here. Only question is, what are you doing about it?“
The princess' icy tone sending a chill running down her spine, Wilhelmina quickly began levitating her notes about again, swerving her eyes to avoid the relentless gaze. In retrospect, she probably should have expected a comment like this, especially with both the goddesses in audience; but it was still a shock to her already-precarious mental balance. She took a lengthy sip of water to calm her nerves. Now feeling far more confident, she looked back up, and met Celestia's scrutinizing glare head on:
„Thanks to the relentless work of our technical teams – especially doctor Redstone – I believe we now have a solution at the ready. I'll skip past the technical details, but the plan is to first disable, then bypass, the electronic flight sequencer.“
„Is that the source of the short circuit?“ Celestia immediately snapped back, obviously not in the mood for press briefings.
„To our great surprise, it's actually not a short. The flight sequencer's primarily a safety device: Before launch, it keeps the engines cold and prevents them from firing accidentally. And after re-entry, it's supposed to cleanly shut down the electrics, and arm the hatch ejection mechanism. It's there to avoid numerous accidents, like the hatch opening itself while the capsule's still in space.“
„But it triggered prematurely?“
„Exactly,“ she smiled back in pleasant surprise, feeling very thankful she wasn't just talking to stupid journalists. „And because it's a safety device that needs to act far faster than pony reflexes, it can override everything else without warning. There's a network of pressure sensors and timer mechanisms in place to avoid such a situation, but, for some reason or another, this rather complicated system has obviously malfunctioned.“
The Princess just glared at her. Wilhelmina felt as if she was being provoked here. Go on, say it. Say it's my fault, blame me for the budget cuts and rushed tests.
But deep down, Wilhelmina was very aware just whose failing this entire débâcle was. That is not to say she wasn't tempted to shift the blame; but, in the end, she just took a sip of water, and continued as neutrally as before:
„Though the sequencer's very well integrated into the capsule systems, with some work, it can be entirely circumvented, and replaced with full manual control,“ she announced, and attempted an encouraging smile. „The mission can still be saved.“
Amidst sounds of rapid scribbling from the reporters all around, Celestia still carried on. „And the equenaut?“
„Even if the capsule suddenly lost all atmosphere, her suit is fully vacuum-capable and can operate independently for up to four hours,“ Wilhelmina flatly dodged, already lowering her notes. „She will be fine,“ she added, briefly glancing at the anxious reporters all around.
„That is all.“
As she turned away from the microphone stand and began marching down the podium, however, the briefing hall almost exploded in an uproar. Every reporter and journalist in the room shrieked in dissatisfaction. „What about questions?“ she heard one voice cut through the rest. „Yeah!“ another added, „All you gave us is two pieces of paper, and a lousy three minutes! You call this a press conference? What the hay's actually going on?“
Stopping in her tracks, she turned back to the audience, which immediately fell silent again.
„There's a pony stuck in low orbit. We are going to save her,“ she resolutely announced to the crowds. „There will be no questions.“
She left the sentence hang in the air for a few moments, then quickly withdrew behind the curtain before the journalists could start up again. On the other side, Red was waiting for her, grinning for the first time over these past few hours:
„What a briefing!“ he laughed, quickly catching up to her as she began marching towards the command bunker. „I tell you, all you need to do is brief retro engines for five minutes, and they will ignite themselves!“
„Joke after it's all over and done with,“ she reprimanded him. Or at least make it funny, she mentally added. Levitating a blueprint out of his saddlebags and unfolding it in the air before her, she turned to study it as they began descending down a flight of stairs. The theory was right, she was certain of that, but there were still a few niggling details remaining to be worked out. Even in weightless conditions, the equenaut was going to have to contort rather unnaturally in order to disassemble the required access panels, and she wondered whether-
„Is unhealthy, you know.“
Slowly lowering the blueprint, she glared at the professor. „I'm trying to diagnose the most complex machine in the history of Equestria here, Red. I'd certainly appreciate not being disturbed with useless hubris.“
Instead of reciprocating her stare, he instead focused on very thoroughly examining the ceiling lamps pass by. „See? That is exactly what I mean,“ he eventually spoke, adding a dim smile. „Equenauts had same problem, too. Running hundred percent all time… I would be careful, Will. Really careful.“
„We need answers here, not traditional medicine!“ she snapped, accidentally tearing her levitated blueprint in the anger. Realizing her heart was pounding rapidly, she took a few deep breaths, then continued, „You've seen the numbers, too. Unless we do something, and do it fast, that pony up there is going to die, Red! Do you even realize that?“
„Of course I do! But if you keep going like this-“
„Nineteen hours,“ she cut him short, „And that's if she saves her breath. We simply don't have time for taking this easy.“
It was obvious the professor was going to continue further, but thankfully, they had already reached the end of the tunnel. Slamming the entry hatch open, Wilhelmina marched into the command bunker. It was full of ponies, as always, various techs and scientists peering over blueprints and debating various approaches. A few more were swarming over the computeronics towers in the back, and the Commissar's stallions were keeping guard at every door, making sure no pesky reporters got through. No matter the station, however, their heads all turned towards her as she advanced through the room, head held high. She registered their expressions; worry, exhaustion, faint flickering hope.
That last one was crucial, though. As each pony looked towards her, she made sure to smile back reassuringly. We're going to do this. It's not gonna be easy, but we'll keep trying.
And we'll win, she confidently added, arriving at the central desk. We already did it once, after all.
„Status report?“ she demanded from the other chief designers, now all gathered around the table.
„We're basically ready,“ Lyuka beamed, the intensity of her smile even strong enough to temporarily mask out the deep rings under her eyes. „A couple of steps could still be better phrased, I'll be the first to admit that… but we've got it.“
„Great. Where is it?“
Barely suppressing a yawn, the pegasus nodded towards a short stack of hastily-scribbled bullet points balancing on the edge of the desk. „All sorted and numbered, for your convenience.“
However, as Wilhelmina carefully levitated them up and began speed-reading them, her friend continued further. „I'm telling you, that Zvezda did one heck of a job getting this sorted out. You'd better give that poor girl some kinda apology.“
„There'll be plenty of time for medals later,“ she waved her hoof absent-mindedly, still scanning the checklist. A few moments later, however, something finally clicked together in her brain, and she raised her head again, stopping halfway through a line. „Actually, where is she? This is good.“
„Ran off to check something on the simulators. Point one-fifteen, I think.“
Wilhelmina quickly turned to the appropriate line. „Reset fusebox?“ she read aloud, not even realizing where the problem was. She gave it a few more moments, but the clock was ticking, and so she soon looked back at Lyuka with a shrug.
„Look at the previous page. If you've got that long interconnect cable stretching 'cross the whole cabin, are you even gonna be able to reach that panel?“
„Oh!“ she exclaimed, flashing just the briefest smile, „I'd never have thought of that.“
There wasn't chance to think about that mare for any longer, however, as the entry hatch swung open again, and both of the princesses entered, accompanied by the full royal entourage of Rainbow and the rest of the Champions. The ponies of the centre began to bow uncertainly, but Celestia stopped them; there was a life at stake here, after all. Protocol could wait.
Arriving at the chief designers' circle, the goddess briefly inspected the short stack of papers, then glanced inquisitively all around.
„We are ready, your highness,“ Wilhelmina announced, levitating up the wireless headset and securing it over her ears.
The princess only missed a single beat.
„Very well. Let's give this pony her wings.“
Despite everypony's assurances to the contrary, the actual implementation of this desperate plan was beyond difficult. Probably not for the ground crews, who just sat in their cosy little chairs and drank coffee as they read off a piece of paper; but for Cherry, left with doing all the physical hard work in the dim light of her helmet's torch, it was fast becoming more infuriating by the minute.
Her surroundings certainly weren't helping her mental state, either. Bright, thin layers of frost were beginning to accumulate over every metal surface, their reflections giving the capsule an eerie and mystic look. But against the ice, she still sweated profusely, as the cooling pumps were now no longer carrying the heat away from her well-insulated suit. In turn, her exposed face was slowly growing cold, as icy drops of sweat stuck to her forehead instead of dripping down. Sealing up the helmet would mask her face and fix that last problem, sure; but then, the heavily tinted, sun-shading visor would also make it impossible to see in this anaemic light. She knew, because she had tried it.
Likewise, the wonder of weightlessness had since subsided, instead replaced by a strange – and none too pleasant – churning in her stomach. Not even the random rotation of the capsule decided to cooperate, and the window was currently turned away from the planet, at the blackly void. It was like every part of her environment had conspired together, just to make her experience as incredibly uncomfortable as possible. Before, she had felt like an explorer of this strange new world, uncovering and documenting its many wonders with her camera; now, she was but a prisoner. She just wanted to feel the wind again.
„Done yet?“ the director's voice inquired over the headset, then immediately continued, „Right. Once you have the access panel open, we'll proceed to instruction fifty four, where-“
„Wait, wait, wait!“ Cherry shouted in frustration, still clawing away at the offending piece of metal. In theory, each shoe of her space suit was equipped with a variety of small hooks and holders, which should have allowed her to seamlessly manipulate a wide assortment of instruments and tools in any number of situations, giving her untold flexibility over mere hooves. 'Just like an unicorn!' Redstone even had the gall to call it. And, indeed, working with it on the ground, it seemed easy enough. But theory always fell to practice somewhere along the way, and today was no different, with her screwdriver slipping away each time she tried to turn it.
„Well?“ Wilhelmina impatiently demanded, obviously picking up the strange noise coming over her headset. That noise was Cherry, now reduced to simply banging on the panel with her hoof.
Pausing in this futile endeavour for a second, she leant in to inspect the damage. „I'm making a dent. That's a good thing, right? Unless there's like a buckload of super delicate glass right behind it or something.“
The chief director's sudden silence made her memory trigger again. „Oh. Right.“
„Don't worry. We don't need it anyway,“ Wilhelmina spoke reassuringly to her, for perhaps the first time ever. „Just get through.“
„Aye, aye!“ Cherry happily chirped, eager she was finally allowed to smash something. First making sure she had a stable hoofhold against the opposite wall of the capsule, she then proceeded to attack the panel with all her force. Somewhat disappointingly, the thin plate buckled on the first try, and Cherry was then able to easily clear it away by using her screwdriver as a crowbar.
Accompanied by plentiful metal dusts, the unruly panel finally floated away, revealing what lay beyond. True to her memory, it was a huge array of glass; namely, two rows of miniature thyratrons, each somewhat reminiscent of a small lightbulb, arranged in latched pairs that together formed the fifteen bits of the capsule's operational memory. The heart of the flight sequencer.
For a while, she wondered just why she was giving these things so much attention. They were kind of pretty, sure, especially the glowing ones, but she had seen them dozens of time before during her training. There was absolutely nothing-
Wait. She shook her head, then, confident she wasn't seeing things, suddenly burst out laughing. I'm so stupid!
„Cape Command, be advised,“ she reported, watching the glowing bulbs like they were the most amazing things in the universe. „Some of these cells are live. I repeat, the sequencer still has power.“
„Excellent, Friendship One. That's exactly what we were hoping for,“ the director's voice sounded through her headphones, accompanied by distant shouts of jubilation and hoof-bumping in the background. They might still have had a lot of pages to go in the checklist, true enough; but, for the first time since the power cut, things were looking bright again.
Warm, too! she smiled, as she closed her eyes and moved her head forward to bask in the dim warmth of the thyratrons. It might not have been much, but inside the slowly freezing capsule, it was at least something.
Another burst of static suddenly interrupted her. „Cadet, can you read your state data? We need to confirm theory.“
Hazily opening her eyes, she proceeded the scan the array again. The upper row was only composed of assistance valves, used to blank the memory cells once they were set, and hence currently all dark; but the data contents could easily be determined just by lookingh whether the lower thyratron was lit or not. Quick and painless.
„Bright-Bright on two-one: Re-entry lockout. Looks like you were right, prof.“
„We can celebrate once you're back on the ground, Friendship One,“ Wilhelmina quickly moved to spoil the moment, „For now, we'll be moving to instruction fifty four. You're going to have to find the cable running from datacell three, then carefully strip the insulation about halfway along…“
The capsule remained exactly as unwelcoming as before. But even so, her work went much quicker now. The faint light and heat generated by the thyratrons certainly did not warm the capsule, or bathe it in welcoming brightness; but it didn't have to. All it had to be was a tiny candle flickering in the darkness, guiding her ever onward. Whenever she got too angry trying to swap in new tools into the badly-fitting receptacles on her shoes, or by the long and useless coolant hose of her suit getting tangled and snagging on everything – and which she wasn't allowed to remove, lest it spill water all over the place – all she had to do was glance towards those weak lights, and imagine her face basking in the summer sun. Wind, scattering her long mane. Walking with her dad down the beach, kicking at the sand.
Those moments were worth fighting for.
„Ignition bridge established,“ she finally announced through the wireless, trying to wipe the sweat off her forehead. If there had been one advantage to all this strenuous work in her clumsy suit, it was that her face no longer felt icily cold.
„Great work, Friendship One! Take five and rehydrate, then stand by for further instructions.“
For once, she was glad to obey Wilhelmina's orders to the letter. She had already gone through her suit's entire supply of orange juice, but even bland water was better than nothing in this chafing heat. As she floated an inch above her acceleration couch and sipped idly from her second straw, she finally had a chance to observe the full effect of her reconfigurations. Multiple panels, including parts of her controls board, now lay fully exposed, boards of hastily-soldered resistors and capacitor jars covering every inch. Meanwhile, thick bundles of wires floated haphazardly through the middle of the capsule, making temporary interconnections that would hopefully bypass all the malfunctioning safety mechanisms and get her back home.
It was a glorious mess of pony engineering at its finest, made all the more interesting by the numerous pieces of debris now populating her capsule. Various discarded tools, broken-off screws, plastic insulation shavings, and even the occasional space-snack wrapper, all spun and drifted through the cabin, occasionally bouncing off one another, and generally creating a very dangerous field to navigate. However, illuminated only by the moving light of her helmet torch and the subtle glow of the memory cells, they also made for quite a pretty show, their shadows constantly changing shape as they advanced across the sides of the capsule.
As she was admiring this unearthly sight, however, and amusing herself by bobbing her head slightly to observe how that changed the faint reflections coming off the frosting walls, she still spared a single glance to the dark window. She had really wanted to see a sunrise – or a sunset, she wasn't picky – from orbit, at least once before her return. But if things went as planned, she probably wouldn't enjoy that chance.
A crackle over her headset stopped her from any further deliberations, however. „Friendship One, ready when you are, over.“
She glanced one last time in the direction of the window, then turned back to her floating wires. „Roger that, Cape Command. Things're getting awful gloomy in here. 'Bout time we got this over with.“
„Copy. Recovery wings have been dispatched to your predicted splashdown,“ Wilhelmina first reported, before a faint rustling sound of turning pages temporarily replaced her voice. „Circuit breakers one through six, all off.“
„All off,“ Cherry confirmed back, reaching out to flip each of the six switches above her head.
„Pump control to AUX. Thruster control to B.“
„Check. Check.“ Much to her delight, a bulb announcing the pressurization of the navigation system lit up.
„Master sensor sensitivity, zero-zero-zero.“
As she began turning the dial, however, a loud, digital buzzing noise suddenly filled the cabin, accompanied by an orange flashing light. But before she even had the chance to panic, Wilhelmina sounded back:
„Master alarm, off.“
„Uh, roger,“ she slowly acknowledged. She knew it was a perfectly normal thing to do; but still, she felt strangely discomforted as she depressed the large plastic pad and dismissed her warning signal.
„We're disabling all the safeties. You should be worried if the alarm didn't trigger,“ Wilhelmina briefly tried to reassure, before clearing her throat again. „Backup sensors, off.“
„Check.“ The loud buzz started up once more. „Master alarm off,“ she added, now disabling it out of her own accord.
There was a brief pause before the next instruction was given. „Proceed to final stage. Master fuse, reset.“
This time, she flipped the switch without a second thought.
And there was light. Squinting in the sudden brightness of the capsule lighting, she nevertheless grinned as she scanned the length of her control panel. Dials and indicators all began powering up, readings first jumping greatly, then returning back and settling themselves in the correct positions.
„We are receiving telemetry, Friendship One. Well done.“ Despite the director's attempts at an official tone, it was obvious she was delighted. The ample cheering in the background helped, too.
Exactly as expected, much of the data, especially the inertially-sourced speed and position, was absolute nonsense. Be it from the scores of bypassed sensors, or simply from having lost power for so long, about half of her avionics were now entirely useless. But that didn't matter: Steering by the window was way more fun, anyway.
Experimentally, she tried gently pushing the flight controls; and much to her relief, the reassuring heavy thud of a firing thruster was her reply. They still had a long way to go, all through correct orientation, retrofire, data stowage, re-entry, descent, to the high-speed ejection; and every stage had to go one hundred percent perfectly in order for her to survive. But now, she at least had a fighting chance.
„Navigation is live,“ she reported down, checking her panel again for any abnormalities. „Bus voltages running stable. Lighting good. Pressure good. Temp low, but acceptable.“
„Copy. You definitely deserve a break after all that work, but just in case anything goes wrong, I'm sure you understand if we start on retro ASAP. Make prep for MHS.“
„Roger that,“ Cherry smiled, slipping her hooves into the control gloves. Back in the simulators, manual horizon seek was always her highest-scoring test. Probably because she always enjoyed spinning the capsule around so much, trying to line up perfectly with the horizon, with no annoying automation or instruments getting in the way. It was simply eyeball-and-hoof; pure skill and instinct. The way things were meant to be.
Standing at Redstone's side near the chief designers' desk, Zvezda did not even dare breathe as she listened to her friend's reports slowly come in over the speakers. From under her hooves, the blueprints stared out wordlessly, their countless criss-crossing wires and component arrays making her ever more unsure. What if they had missed something? There were so many pages, the possibility seemed very real indeed.
She anxiously glanced around, then, upon being reminded of her immediate company, quickly lowered her head again. Aside from the chief designers, both of the Princesses were standing just a couple of hooves away, staring at the telemetry board. What more, their six royal champions were all scattered around as well.
Despite her rather pleasant discussions with Rainbow and Twilight, their presence still made Zvezda feel distinctly uncomfortable. However easygoing and 'average' they might have been at all other times, right now, standing next to Celestia in this tense moment, they seemed to have taken on a whole different character. They might not have realized it, but to Zvezda, they had transformed into the great arbiters of the goddess, towering at her side and ready to carry out any order. Seeing somepony like Rainbow in such a different light was terrifying, to say the least, and made her wish for Cherry to be back already.
„Cape Command, I have visual of the horizon. Stand by for ref-guide retro orient.“
But that formal and almost-mechanical voice coming from the speakers was as alien as the six champions. It definitely wasn't the carefree, fun-loving Cherry she had come to known and love; and that made a shiver run down her spine.
„Pitch acquired. Still about plus eighty off heading. Pressure levels, nominal.“
„Copy that. Just make sure you don't spin too quick. You'll need a stable platform for retrofire.“
She was surrounded by big damn heroes. World-class scientists, immortal deities, legendary champions, and Equestria's first space traveller. She certainly did not belong in these circles.
Suddenly, on the big telemetry board that everypony was staring at – but few understood – something stirred. First one dial, then a second, began rising surreptitiously. Along with many others, Zvezda turned in the direction of Wilhelmina, seeking answers.
„Friendship One, can you double-check your battery temperatures?“ the old mare demanded, still staring at the telemetry. „We are getting some unusual readings here.“
„They are fine, Command. Proceeding with roll. Heading still plus-seven-five off.“
Though scant, the brief message did calm Zvezda's nerves, at least a little. But before she could even draw a single breath of relief, another report arrived. „Uh, I just got a master alarm. Should I be worried?“
Some of the tech-ponies began murmuring between themselves. Even Redstone turned discretely to Zvezda, speaking quickly and quietly as not to be heard by any officials. „Bad sensor?“ he suggested.
„That, or bus short,“ Zvezda whispered back, still staring at the telemetry board. Come on, Cherry! Just seventy degrees left!
Wilhelmina seemed to think likewise. „Alarm off and continue, One. You are almost there.“
It didn't even take another five seconds for a third reading to begin climbing abruptly.
„Master alarm again,“ came a new communication, now far less confident. „Also, I'm seeing… wait, this isn't- how-“
„Friendship One, report!“ Wilhelmina demanded.
„The lights just flickered. And I'm losing volts from B.“
The director did not waste a second. „Shut it down!“ she screamed, desperately scanning every single dial on the entire telemetry board. Zvezda couldn't understand much of it, but even she could see one thing; every reading, every indicator, was now utterly frozen. Not one was being updated any more. „I repeat-“
„Master fuse, unresponsive,“ Cherry's voice carried on, quickly calling out her every action. „Breakers one through six, no effect. Hundred volts now. Emergency override, dead. Switch to external, dead. Engine lo-volts alarm just tripped.“
Wilhelmina quickly turned around. To Zvezda's horror, she realized the mare was now looking directly at her. „How do we shut it down?“ she demanded in desperation.
But Zvezda's mind was useless. With every safety system aboard disabled, their pool of actions was beyond limited; and for every brief idea she had, the very same thing was reported by Cherry not a second later, along with its failure.
„Bus cross-feed disabled. No-go. Seventy volts.“
She didn't have one idea. Not one.
„Routing through AR. Forty volts, thrusters now off-line.“
Wilhelmina spun around rapidly, seeking at least one pony who could come up with a suggestion. But, in the entire bunker, not one spoke up.
„Twenty volts. Lights just went dark.“
Come on! Zvezda wanted to scream, looking at all the so-called brightest minds in Equestria gathered around her, looking absolutely lost. Somepony!
„Fifteen. I got nothing.“
But there just wasn't time.
„Ten… five… three…“
The voice trailed off. Zvezda stood perfectly still, dread slowly encroaching her. But not all hope was gone yet. Maybe, it's still good. Maybe, the breakers cut in at the last second. We might still have-
„It's gone, Command. Complete power loss.“
Wilhelmina's face turned to a solid stone mask. Perfectly professional, without the barest hint of emotion. „Copy that, One. Please stand by.“
However faintly spoken, that last statement nearly made Zvezda's heart stop. Despite the sheer impossibility, all this time she had been expecting a sudden rescue. A genius idea arriving out of nowhere, at the very last second; preserving just enough power to ignite the engines, and return Cherry safely to the ground.
But instead, they got this.
Wilhelmina levitated the headset off her head, then gently lowered it onto the command desk. Meanwhile, around her, everypony was silent. Even that pink one, which had spent the entire preparation period hopping around the command centre, was now sitting still, staring at the speakers.
If anything, Zvezda was even more blank.
„Right!“ Mr. Skies suddenly cut through the silence, clearing his throat loudly. Despite everything, he still managed to sound enthusiastic. „We can't just stand here doing nothing! What's the next plan?“
Zvezda did not have the heart to voice what every engineer assembled here already knew. She glanced around, at Redstone, at Lyuka, at Sunny. But even the non-technical crews seemed to be quite aware of the impending answer. It was only him, grasping at the thinnest straws.
„There are only three sources of electrical power up there,“ Wilhelmina spoke heavily, sighing. „Two being the capsule batteries, the third inside the suit's helmet torch. And that last one does not store enough energy to fire the retro motors. Simple as that.“
„What do you mean, simple?“ the fiery pegasus exclaimed, becoming more agitated by the second. „Nothing's ever that simple!“
„Up there, it is.“
Wilhelmina's quiet insistence made him even more furious. „Listen to yourself! What about these last few hours? It looked like a simple short at first, but turned out to be something completely different! What if the same thing-“
„Completely different situations. That was a sudden power loss. This was a slow, continual, drain.“ There was no doubt in her voice, which made her words all the worse. „We saw the batteries slowly lose every single ounce of power, bit by bit. Every piece of telemetry is consistent with this fact, no questions possible. We know they are dead.“
„Telemetry, telemetry!“ he thundered, rolling his eyes. „Snap out of it, Will! This isn't one of your logically-watertight simulations! We can't know anything for sure!“
Though seeing her unshaken by his impassioned pleas, he just continued. „When they told me it was impossible for my plant to ever become profitable, did I believe them? No! And just look where it got me!“
„This isn't just an everyday, ordinary 'impossible'. This is simple logic,“ the director coldly continued, levitating up a loose blueprint and unfolding it before him. „See this? That's everything she has up there. Every last component, every last tool, every last molecule. If it wasn't on the capsule when we launched, she doesn't have it. You can't 'live off the land' in space.“
The poor pegasus was obviously at the end of his wits. „But- But if we try-“
„There is nothing to try. Hope might work here, but up there, you're at the mercy of cold, uncaring nature. Equations don't care for compassion.“
„Equations, maybe,“ his eyes suddenly lit up. Voice rapidly becoming more confident, he continued, „That's your problem, Wilhelmina! You see everything in terms of equations… when we have a world-ranking team of spellcasters, assembled right in this very room!“
The director scoffed loudly at the suggestion, but that didn't seem to bother Mr. Skies. He was on fire. Rapidly hovering about the room, he kept turning about, addressing the entire crew of the bunker as he rapidly and enthusiastically extrapolated:
„The Star Walker's about four tonnes in total, true, but the re-entry capsule's half that. And we don't need to stop it still or anything: Even the mighty retrorockets just slow it down by ninety miles per hour or so, and leave the rest to gravity! To get her down, all we'll need is a small, sustained force dragging against the direction of travel. If we double-team, we might even be able to-“
Wilhelmina was the first to interrupt. „Inverse square law, simple as that. It's hard enough to grab something in the other room, never mind a hundred miles up in the sky.“
The stallion's eyes shot first towards Sequine, then the other unicorns in the tech-pony ranks. Met with firm shakes of the head everywhere he turned, he finally stopped at Twilight. But even she just smiled uncomfortably:
„Sorry. The power loss is proportional to the square of the distance, just like the director said. Myself, I could do ten miles, no problem. Even fifteen, maybe. But a hundred?“
„What about some amplification device, then?“ he stubbornly tried, hope in his voice. „Like the one you set up during the fire! If you managed to keep a huge shield up over an entire podium, then surely, a couple of poundals of force can't be a problem!“
„Well, I guess we could try,“ she smiled meekly, uncertainly tapping the ground with one hoof. „But we're talking unprecedented amounts of capacitance here, just to offset the transmission loss. Ten, perhaps fifteen thousand horn-hours in the least; to say nothing of the inefficiencies! The heat flux running through the array could level an entire city all on its own! And dissipating that would require an even larger-“
„Why are we even debating this?“ Rainbow suddenly proclaimed, making everypony's eyes turn to her. „I think the solution is pretty obvious, actually,“ she continued, eyeing Celestia importantly. „My friend's stuck up there, and only an impossible feat of magic can save her. A miracle, you could say.“
The princess just smiled back; politely, yet ever-so-slightly sternly, much like a patient mother. „Rainbow. You know perfectly well-“
„No.“ Rainbow just resolutely cut her off mid-sentence, and everypony froze perfectly still. The room grew colder as the faint smile on the goddess' face vanished, and Zvezda closed her eyes, steeling herself for a smiting of untold proportions.
But Rainbow stood her ground, unflinchingly reciprocating the goddess' stare. Transfixed by the utter wonder of the scene, Zvezda just watched wordlessly. At the back of her head, she pondered what being one of Celestia's champions must feel like: To them, casually chatting with the Princess must have been the most natural thing in the world. But to Zvezda, being able to talk down the eternal ruler of all ponies without fear of repercussion, of consequence, was something quite out of fairy tales.
„Sorry, Princess, but no,“ Rainbow meanwhile continued, slowly advancing forward. Her every step, her every word, all radiated absolute certainty, the likes of which few other ponies could command. „Like Will said, there's nothing complicated 'bout this. There's a pony stuck up there, and she's my friend. A couple of poundals is all we need. I'm not exactly asking you to move the sun here, am I?“
„Rainbow!“ the Princess produced a quick smile, obviously eager to diffuse the situation, „Haven't you listened to your good friend Twilight? The amount of power-“
„You're a goddess, dammit!“ she yelled, stopping a few hooves before the white shining figure; yet somehow wasn't dwarfed by it, the sheer conviction of her gradually rising voice enough to shatter steel. „You're supposed to be the protector of all ponies, our last great hope! That's why you're in charge! But every single time it comes to you actually doing something, Princess, every time the chance appears to actually show your 'great' powers, you just-“
„Enough,“ Celestia suddenly proclaimed, her words slicing through the air like daggers. Their sharpness almost hurt Zvezda's ears, and immediately silenced Rainbow; all of a sudden, the mare just looked tiny again, an insignificant speck before the power of a true god. „You already know, I will mobilize any resource I have to help get her down, no matter the cost. Royal magicians. Pegasi squadrons. Access to any foreign land on this planet. But the heavens will move for nopony.“
The impact of her words reigned supreme, resonating throughout the centre, bouncing off the insides of Zvezda's skull. Were she the one facing the goddess, she'd be lying on the ground and praying for forgiveness right about now.
But Rainbow stood unbroken. „Why not?“ she screamed, „Is that some kind of rule? Were you given a big book of them at your coronation, or, or, something?“
„Your rockets should have taught you, Rainbow, every action has an equal and opposite reaction; no event, no matter how trivial, can come without consequence.“
Rainbow seemed plenty infuriated by the goddess' cryptic answer, and, though absolutely terrified, Zvezda couldn't blame her; were she able to think straight, she'd probably feel the same way. „What does that even mean?“ the mare cried out indignantly, lifting off the ground to get on the same eye level as the princess. „And how can you be so damn sure?“
Celestia's eyes skirted around the bunker, around the dozens of her royal subjects all watching her every move. After all, what was happening here was quite unprecedented, at least in Zvezda's lifetime: A pony standing up, and calling Celestia out on her indirect methods. The very same question could be asked every time there was an industrial accident, every time a great beast rampaged across pony lands. Why, princess? Why didn't you do more? Zvezda had always just assumed there was a good answer, and left it at that.
But now, a true hero, set ablaze by the concern for her friend, had risen to ask the question aloud; and one of the royal champions, no less. All eyes were on the Goddess, awaiting her response to this clear and obvious challenge of her authority. Zvezda also glanced towards the nearest exit, making sure she had a clear run should things turn sour.
„I am sure, because I have already tried,“ the answer finally fell. „In this very place, no less. To save another, I jarred my hoof in the clockwork of the skies.“
Rainbow stared back:
„So, you won't help us? I mean, you already did it once! A good pony's life-“
„You do not hear of the Coltaveral beachside any more, do you?“
A few of the nearby ponies gasped at the sudden revelation. Yet more looked at each other in utter and complete befuddlement. Everypony spent a few moments trying to process the Princess' words.
That is, everypony except Zvezda. In the privacy of her mind, she had been thinking along similar lines for quite some time now. After all, the ancient and blast-resistant architecture, that wounded emptiness of the surrounding land she had felt, even the location's peculiar and seemingly-ironic name; everything added up to a highly destructive act of magic at some point in its long history. The only unknown had been the identity of the perpetrator, and whether it had been accidental or not. In a way, it was nice to finally know the answers; but they did not help in getting Cherry back down.
Unlike the previous shows of power, the goddess next spoke softly, voice heavy with sorrow. Upon the fall of every word, Zvezda could feel the heavy memories of a hundred generations bearing down on ears; hear the desperate wails of those never remembered. „I was young and reckless in those days, Rainbow, seeing just the one, pleading pony before me. But now, I know what the fallout would be; I can see the untold legions of those who would, eventually, suffer.“
She wrapped one wing about the tiny pegasus, then leant in closer, laying her neck against Rainbow's head. „It bears as heavily on me as it does on you, Rainbow. Trust me. But it's one pony, one brief life that won't last; set against a permanent price. I could hurt millions living now, and untold billions in the future. I cannot make that call.“
Rainbow did not reply. She remained, her head still against the princess' neck, keeping utterly quiet. And so did all others, including Zvezda. Celestia's words had unleashed a veritable avalanche of thoughts inside her head; suddenly, the awesome power of their rocket, the incredible complexity of the space capsule, all the struggles they had fought through to get this far, felt inordinately tiny and unimportant. Of certain, individual significance, yes; but still nothing, when compared to the entire collective past and future of ponykind.
The speakers crackled to life once again, bringing her out of her brief muse. „Cape Command, situation still unchanged. Nearing end of comms range. Any updates?“
Everypony looked at the headset, still lying on the central desk, precisely where Wilhelmina had left it.
„…I just don't want you to worry, sweetie, alright? It's going to be fine. All your friends are working on something. You've got princess Luna herself running the computers! You're in the best possible hooves you could be in, and you're gonna be just fine. We'll still visit that beach together. Just don't-“
„Dad!“ she finally cut him off, eyes watering. Far and above everything else, this one thing was really the worst. His desperate scramble to make it all good. „I know all that,“ she continued in a calmer voice, adding a reassuring smile. „I told you, I trained for this. I can take it. Stop worrying about everything, OK?“
„Oh, Cherry…“ he gasped, and suddenly she realized something must have happened down there. „Science failed us. Magic failed us. Even the almighty Princess failed us! How are we to-“
„Through good, honest work,“ she declared, smiling into empty space. „Wasn't it you who always told me that?“
The headset buzzed with static. „My littlest Cherry…“ he finally came in, voice breaking up.
„I'll take care of myself,“ she quickly reassured, before the signal could completely fade away. „Just don't panic. See ya in an hour, right?“
He shouted something back, but it was already inaudible through the mounting distortion. Uncaring for their little talk, her capsule resolutely continued along its pre-determined elliptic trajectory, and the transmission soon faded away. Nevertheless, she remained carefully listening for a few minutes longer, trying to pick out any last fragments of speech. Even once she was quite sure no signal could possibly ever get through, she still kept the wireless running, and simply let the faint white noise fill her ears. Listening to it helped keep her mind off things.
This thing really needs a gramophone player, the thought flashed through her head again. And more OJ. And a food cupboard that's easier to reach.
Realizing there were actually quite a few things wrong with the capsule, she turned her helmet torch back on, then tore a sheet out of the back of her flight log and affixed it against the main panel with a specifically-designed magnetic clip. Grasping a pencil with her teeth, she then proceeded to list every single design shortcoming she could think of; everything from the positioning of a few control panels that made the interior needlessly cramped, to the overly-long hose connecting her suit to the capsule's coolant pumps, and which just wouldn't stop getting tangled. Once she had listed all the failings, she then turned the page over and proceeded to write a few paragraphs on how each of the designs could be improved, complete with scribbled diagrams and insulting comments to Redstone along the way.
At some point through that lengthy procedure, her capsule tumbled far enough to bring the sun back behind her window, so she turned off the lamp and continued to work in the daylight for a bit. After she was finished with the design suggestions, which took another few pages of her large and clumsy mouthwriting, she then progressed to her medical remarks. They were a bit boring, essentially a long list of every part of her body accompanied by the words 'no harmful effect', but she was quite sure somepony down below would find it useful.
This whole series of activities had originally been scheduled for her post-flight briefing. However, since she had the time to spare, and the capsule's slow tumble was currently refusing to point her window in the direction of the planet, she decided to get all the paperwork done with, sooner rather than later. It was for the best anyway, because if she hadn't, she was quite sure Equestria's illustrious army of bureaucrats would have figured out some way of mailing the forms up to heaven.
Though the pile of assignments had initially seemed incredibly vast, she had nevertheless managed to somehow finish them in record time, before the capsule had even come back into communications range. She double-checked, but her list was fully ticked. Shaking her head in utter disbelief, she then quickly gathered up all the loose bits of paper floating about her cabin, and, folding them over twice, secured them safely behind the collar of her suit. The capsule was going to deorbit itself sometime, after all, be it by the retro-rockets, or natural decay. And thanks to its carefully calculated centre-of-mass, it would orientate itself correctly even without pilot control.
She nodded. If her notes would benefit Equestrian science, or even just make the future equenauts' journeys that extra bit more comfortable, it would be worth it.
Of course, not even that nice feeling of accomplishment could dispel boredom for long, and soon enough, she was fidgeting around again, trying to think of new things to do. This was supposed to be just a simple, double-orbit flight after all; there was no flight program past the three hour mark, and without power, she couldn't do much anyway.
She spent the next few minutes just hovering idly, carefully studying the vast numbers of tiny specks of dust floating all across her cabin, highlighted in the sun's golden rays. Not the most exciting of sights, but she took what she had; and it was certainly better than imagining the toxic clouds of carbon dioxide she released into her tiny cabin with her every breath.
At least she wasn't cold anymore; for the brief period the power was back on, the capsule heaters had done their best to restore living conditions inside her small craft. But a brief glance at the dead bulbs of the thyratrons made her acutely aware of how this was going to change over the coming orbits.
When she had returned into communications range, now on her sixth orbit, she was greeted by the familiar voice of her professor; apparently, her father had gone to sleep for now, just to calm his wrecked nerves. Instead, she ran a few diagnostics together with her mentor, first cleaning away most of the extra cables that littered her cabin, then reading off the results of all the dials on her panels. Except for the purely-mechanical ones, most of them read zero, but Redstone nevertheless remained oddly encouraging as he first congratulated her on the timely completion of her tasks, then promptly withdrew again. At her request, the ground crews then played some light music through her headphones, which lasted until she had circled back out of signal reach. This time, rather than listen to the increasingly-tortured distortion of the failing transmission, she switched her wireless off outright.
Idly wondering just what inhaling excess carbon dioxide would feel like – whether it'd more like trying to breathe water, or just thick smog – she relaxed in the relative comfort of her suit, hovering about an inch above her acceleration couch. As Redstone hadn't given any orders for her next orbit, she instead decided to lower and lock her protective visor, then simply stare at the bright circle of the sun through its thick, gold-tinted glass. She was now getting pretty tired, too; but as much as she tried, sleep stubbornly refused to come. Unsure whether that was from the sheer excitement, or some adverse reaction of pony biology on the state of weightlessness, she instead emptily stared forward, mind utterly blank.
She didn't even know how long she spent doing that. Her only stimulus were the clouds floating past below, and the occasional streaks of water or land; no ventilators were running, no turning dials or clicking relays to provide distraction. Just her, and the world below, spinning a hoof's length out of reach. Drowsy and near-entranced, it was almost too late when she realized something had stirred in the view outside. Something, which she had spent almost an entire year dreaming of. Spending the remainder of what little time was left scrambling for her camera, she first quickly span its dial to the highest shutter speed, then raised it towards the window:
Outside, the fiery wheel of the sun was now drawing ever nearer towards that bright blue sheath of atmosphere cradling the surface. As it glacially descended over the horizon, Cherry noticed its vast diffuse reflection on the ocean steadily climb upwards, to meet it halfway. Meanwhile, the few fluffy clouds above became more accentuated by the tilting light, casting enormous shadows on the waters far below.
As the sun continued along in apparent freefall, and a wave of inky blackness began racing across the surface, she noticed this had no effect whatsoever on the thin layer of air lining the horizon; if anything, it began to glow ever brighter, turning a beautiful back-lit shade of blue that shone in the darkness. She took a few photos at every step of this descent, each at several shutter speeds. But the best was yet to come.
The sun was now completely submerged below the outer edge of the atmosphere, and the ocean's surface was but an enormous pool of black ink that blotted out the stars. Next, the colour of the air began to shift, from solid blue to fiery orange. To her surprise, the shining disc of the sun could still be seen through all those kilometres of air, though faint and heavily blurred; and what more, even those fluffy clouds she had seen earlier were visible, as minuscule outlines, thin dark wisps that hovered high above the surface, in the middle of that brilliant orange crescent. It was eerily reminiscent of a waning moon, and yet completely different; every bit as beautiful as she could have hoped for.
Unlike the steady beginning of the spectacle, its end was entirely sudden. In the blink of an eye, the sun fell under the horizon and disappeared, leaving only the diffuse glowing embers of a sunset sky behind. In the cold of the void, even those then proceeded to fade quickly, and soon Cherry was left looking at a solid disc of black, virtually indistinguishable from the starscape beyond.
Her capsule, too, was now entirely dark; and, as she soon realized, growing rapidly cold. From above her head, the silent shapes of the sleeping thyratrons watched forebodingly. Rows of dark panels stared from below, frost starting to cover them again. It was quite the hopeless sight.
And yet, she couldn't help but smile as she glanced down at her camera. Somehow, after the beautiful sunset, and all her frenetic picture taking, she still had one more shot left. One last chance to make a contribution to the ponies below; to leave her mark on history. Looking out of the window, she began to wonder just how she'd spend it. Interesting cloud formations? Space dragons? The mess of crumbs and dust inside her capsule?
Meanwhile, the capsule continued along its slow tumble. Whether by divine intervention or simple luck, the moon soon appeared behind the window, reluctantly lumbering into view only a few minutes later. Momentarily shuddering with cold, she then began studying the subtle greys and whites that played across its alien terrain. It looked just like on the night of her ejection training accident, all those months ago.
A year, she reminded herself, then scoffed in disbelief. Has it really been that long?
The cold, distant landscape advancing slowly below, the failed machine around her, everything was just the same as back then. Only this time, the fireflies weren't going to save her.
Suddenly, she remembered the prayer she had made. She might have been a different Cherry back then, but the words still rang true through her memory: Luna, if you can hear me, promise me this. Promise me I'll die the highest-flying pony in all of Equestria. Looking around her capsule, at the dead thyratrons, the powerless dials of her instruments, and then the stars outside, she smiled.
„Thank you, Princess,“ she whispered, raising her camera one last time. „This one's for you.“
Removing her final roll of film, she stowed it safely inside a specialized suit pocket.
There. Mission accomplished.
She could finally go.
Holding her breath, Zvezda watched as the two large dials on her diagnostics panel flickered. They wobbled left, they wobbled right, and at times it looked like they were almost going to stay at their new position; but they never did, and the voltages always returned back to zero again.
„No good?“ Luna asked, standing right beside her. On other days, this would have been amazing. The greatest scholar of Equestria, working on her own project, under her direct command. But today, she simply shook her head:
„Sorry, princess. It was a good idea, but the decoupling capacitors just aren't big enough. There's no way we'll ignite the engines from them.“
The great goddess nodded distantly, then began tapping her hoof against the floor, thinking intently. Had Zvezda the energy for even a faint smile, she would have done so. From Redstone to even the eternal princess of the night herself, these academics all seemed to have the precise same mannerisms.
Around them, the cavernous underground hangar of the simulators room moved slowly, but stubbornly. Even after all these hours, tech-ponies were still dragging cables around, configuring power supplies, checking hydraulic pressures, and scavenging spare parts from unnecessary pieces of equipment. Everything, to keep the giant metal box of the simulator pod, towering in the centre of the room, running at peak efficiency.
So many ponies doing their best just to keep it all running, and yet Zvezda couldn't come up with anything. I ought to be down there, dammit, working with the rest of them! That's where I belong! Not up here with the Princess, trying to talk the big words. And failing miserably.
It was Rainbow, sticking her head out of the small hatch in the simulator pod's side. Zvezda just sighed, then placed her head on the cold steel of the control panel.
„You've gotta have some idea,“ the pegasus tried again. Seeing Zvezda remain immobile, she shrugged, then proceeded to stretch each of her hooves and wings in sequence. „Well, I'm not moving. If you think of anything, just say the word.“
„Thanks,“ Zvezda smiled meekly. Again, she felt very guilty; all these ponies were now treating her as some kind of genius, offering to obey her every word, when all she had done was weld the stupid thing! She wished the chief designers were here. Somepony who could handle the responsibility.
But instead, she was here, and all alone. Even Geist, that tall tech-pony who had designed and built all these simulators almost entirely by himself, was keeping up a special kind of deference as he worked a nearby computeronics tower, occasionally glancing at her in faint hope; as if she had a better idea of how it all worked than him!
„What about…“ the princess briefly spoke up, then fell silent again, looking up at the bare concrete ceiling. „…no, that would not work. Wait, yes! The carbon dioxide is the problem here, not any of the other supplies. Hence, what if we were to seal up the suit, vent the entire capsule, and re-pressurize with the surplus oxygen?“
„We'd have to do that every time the toxicity built up,“ Geist commented from behind his computer, „But theoretically, it should work, no?“
Zvezda lifted her head off the panel, then briefly flexed her jaw. „Right,“ she began, and saw the princess' eyes light up, „'Cept you'd be filling the entire cabin with hundred percent oxygen each time. There's a lot of oxygen in that tank, but not enough to completely replace the whole capsule several times over, not for ten days.“
„Ah, but that is just the thing!“ Luna exclaimed, levitating up a blueprint of the capsule's thruster system. „We already have two high-capacity tanks of cold nitrogen aboard! By supplementing the atmosphere with those, we can then easily pressurize the capsule, without excess oxygen usage!“
Zvezda stared at the sheet. As far as ideas went, it was certainly an original one, unlikely to be in any of Wilhelmina's contingency procedures. She was about to suggest that Rainbow try it, when she realized something:
„How exactly will you get all that nitrogen into the cabin?“ she posed, looking up at the princess. So concerned with the engineering, she didn't even really realize she was talking down an immortal goddess.
„The venting system, of course,“ Luna quickly smiled back, then pointed her hoof to a small assembly of pipes and valves in the side of the Comrade Module. „From what I see here, there is a single outlet for venting both the cabin and the thruster fuel; and what more, it is entirely mechanical, with no electrics. Simply lock the outer venting seal, open the cabin and nitrogen tank valves all at once, and the fuel will vent inside!“
„Just who on Equestria designed that?“ Geist shook his head in wonder, „That doesn't sound very safe!“
Still looking at the blueprint, Zvezda smiled sadly. „You're right, it doesn't. And that's exactly why we built in a safety feature to avoid that exact situation. Either the capsule vent valve is open, or the thrusters one.“
„Any chance of an over-ride?“
Zvezda shook her head. „Like you said, Princess; It's mechanical. Absolutely foolproof.“
„Safety, safety, safety!“ Rainbow suddenly cursed from her place up the simulator hatch. „Just how many stupid safety features have we ran into so far?“
„Look, just like Geist said, what we're trying to do here is all incredibly dangerous stuff, and shouldn't ever, ever happen under normal conditions. The safeties're just doing their job.“
„Yeah, but still, come on! If that damned Wilhelmina hadn't insisted on so many-“
„Rainbow, please,“ Zvezda tried hushing her. The pegasus puffed, but fell silent. „Back then, everypony was worrying about the rocket. We couldn't know if it was going to explode on the pad, or even break up in mid-air, so it made sense to stuff the thing with as many safeties as possible. Wilhelmina was just doing her job.“
Rainbow seemed less convinced. „Well, she sure as hay isn't doing it now!“ she added, glancing around the simulators room. „It should be her managing everything down here, fixing her own screw-up! But instead, you've had to take over, and where is she? Taking a nap!“
„You need a clear head for troubleshooting,“ Zvezda continued arguing, however weakly. „Just look at us. We've been up for over thirty hours, and sure as hay aren't doing anything useful. If anything, she's way more responsible than us. No offence.“
Obviously annoyed, Rainbow mumbled something back, but Zvezda was already turning back to the Princess. „In all the blueprints of the capsule, I can't see anything that'd help us in re-pressurizing. But what about the suit? A much smaller volume there.“
„The suit had been designed as a fully-independent system. No oxygen interconnect.“
How else? It was all safety features, smart additions, ideas that sounded good to somepony at some point in the design process. In retrospect, they might have all been obviously stupid; but the teams had been running under pressure, and over budget, for almost the entirety of the programme. Meanwhile, major features like the flight computer had slowly crept in, then been suddenly cut again, leaving the final creation a horrible, barely-working hodgepodge of a dozen entirely different design philosophies.
As she slowly sifted through the mountains of blueprints that lied scattered across the floor, every one of these imperfections was now painfully obvious to her eye. The capsule was one countless system after another, piles upon piles of large clusters that had might have served one highly-specialized purpose or another at some point during ascent, but were now just needlessly obscuring the parts that actually mattered. What she'd give for removing all this useless complication!
Zvezda yawned lengthily. It was all so stupid.
But just as she was turning to a close-up of the flight sequencer and all its intricate electronics, Geist – of all ponies – suddenly interrupted her. „You know, Zvez… I can't believe you're still working after all this time. Nevermind this hard. You're one big, damn hero.“
„As if!“ she snorted loudly, still peering through the schematics. „Just doing my job, is all.“
„Well, sometimes, that's all you need to do.“
Rolling her eyes at the useless remark and quickly brushing it aside, she turned the page to another overcomplicated close-up. As her eyes began glazing past its endless redundancies, however, something suddenly connected together in her head, and she looked back to the Princess:
„The decoupling capacitors obviously don't have enough power,“ she quickly announced, excitedly returning to an earlier fork in the conversation, „Nor does the the suit battery. But if we managed to combine those two sources, then fed it through the ignition lines…“
„I'll get the config ready!“ Rainbow saluted, immediately snapping back to action and disappearing inside the simulator pod. „Geist, set the new state! We're bringing this pony down, no matter how long it takes!“
Energized by her friend, Zvezda shook away the mental fog that was blurring everything in sight, and began checking the long diagnostics panel. Meanwhile, Luna was already programming the new scenario into the computeronics clusters. All around, the morose tech-ponies also returned back to life, and began working away at their individual stations again.
Quite obviously, this desperate solution failed; even at full charge, the helmet battery could only provide a minuscule amount of power. The decoupling capacitors – another safety feature, Zvezda noted with amusement – likewise produced but a trickle, and the total was nowhere near enough to spark even one of the capsule's three solid retro-rockets. No failure could deter them, however, and they soon tried again with another crazy plan, and after that, another; all the while encouraged on by Rainbow's bottomless determination.
Zvezda's engineering mind was beyond simply tired now, however. Common sense began slipping away from her, and she kept forgetting vital technical details about the spaceship's workings. Luna and Geist tried their best, but nopony else currently awake knew the blueprints as innately as her.
And so, in the end, it was all for nothing. The capsule simply kept circling in orbit above them, guided by dispassionate laws of motion, cold numbers that cared for nothing at all. Inside it, carbon dioxide levels, unseen by any instrument, yet most definitely there, steadily climbed in accordance with basic chemical principles. And all the while, deep inside Zvezda's head, concentrations of neurotransmitters veered dangerously out of equilibrium. A crash was inevitable.
Eventually, she regained consciousness on a white hospital bed in the Cosmodrome's sterile infirmary, with no memory of how she had gotten there, or even how many hours had passed. Lying there, stuck with a head-splitting migraine, her immediate thoughts were of the Director.
Surely, her little own self wasn't the only pony capable of fixing this? Wilhelmina was far more qualified, after all. She'd think of something.
Standing solemnly in the centre of the command bunker, Wilhelmina stared at the static telemetry board before her. Its readings were still the same, rows of dials and lights faithfully displaying the last telemetry transmission they had received, all those hours ago.
Through the opened entry hatch, early sunlight pierced the bunker, bathing the consoles in cold, golden rays. A cup of fine coffee, wisps of steam slowly rising from its delicious surface, stood on the desk opposite her; along with a small plate of crumbly biscuits and squares of chocolate. The room was still empty, all the other tech-ponies having since either relocated to the Cape's various testing laboratories, or simply dropped from sheer exhaustion.
In contrast to her unsleeping subordinates, however, Wilhelmina's mind was quite clear. She resolutely stood in the middle of the empty room, mind utterly free from any distraction, and coldly analysed the problem before her. She approached it from every possible angle: Maximising drag in order to speed the natural decay of the orbit. Kick-starting retro ignition using the bare smidgen of energy left. Creating a carbon dioxide scrubber from the equipment carried aboard.
But, everywhere she turned, she ran into the exact same problem. Insufficient resources. The capsule only carried a bare complement of equipment, the absolute minimum required for two orbits, and nothing else. This entire situation was completely and utterly beyond its designed operating parameters. In the same way that it was impossible for three to be greater than four, it was impossible for this capsule to re-enter the atmosphere before the carbon dioxide levels built up; literally as simple as that. Somewhere deep inside, Wilhelmina was already consigned to this fate.
There just remained one loose end to wrap up.
„Cape Command, I don't think this is really working,“ her headset crackled. Despite everything, the equenaut's voice was level and unwavering; but even then, Wilhelmina could clearly hear her breathing was fast becoming quickened and laboured.
„Roger,“ she emptily announced back. Rewiring those circuit breaker capacitors had not worked, just as she had known it wouldn't. But after everything else, giving that mare a few last pointless tasks to busy herself with was the last little merciful thing she could do.
„It's getting a little hard to breathe in here, Command,“ the equenaut suddenly came in again, her intermittent coughs and weakening voice suggesting the situation was far more serious than just that. „Requesting… requesting permission to seal up suit and engage the emergency life support, over.“
It was the sheer professionalism that truly shook Wilhelmina to her core. Given the pony's irresponsible antics and peculiar personality all through the build-up to the launch, she had half expected her to break down completely the moment the capsule had failed, and become an utterly useless sack of angst. Instead, the mare had held her ground remarkably well; almost machine-like in the efficiency and calculation of her motions. Which just made everything that much harder.
„Switchover complete, Command,“ the equenaut reported, her breathing now far louder than before. After a while, she continued, „The visor's fogging up. If this keeps up, I'll be blind in a couple of minutes.“
Well, now was the time. Bracing herself for what would come next, Wilhelmina first took a deep breath, then toggled her headset again:
„Affirmative, Friendship One. Please remove the data cassette from the temperature sensor and stow it in your suit, then flip the emergency separation lever.“
The shock was clear. „E- Emergency separation, Command?“
„But that'd separate the entire Comrade Module!“ the voice over her headset argued back for the first time, breathing becoming quicker again. „That's where all the retros are! Without it-“
„-your capsule will have a far easier time of re-entering without pilot guidance,“ Wilhelmina coldly completed. „If it breaks up during re-entry, we'll lose all your scientific data. You don't want it all to be for nothing, do you?“
„There must be some way-“
„I'm sorry,“ Wilhelmina sighed, a tear running down her face. „But there isn't. Look, we can save the data, at least. I know this sounds cold-“
„You're damned right it does!“ the mare's voice screamed over the headset, loud enough to partially break into static, „This is all your fault! Your insane schedules that drove everypony insane! You turned honest, friendly ponies into walking zombies, just so they could fulfil your stupid dream! Science isn't a method for you, it's a bucking religion! I swear, you're going to-“
What followed was an incredible torrent of abuse, the likes of which she had never heard in all her years on this world. Vile emotional assault exploiting her every insecurity, attacks on both her and the ponies she held dear, things that should not have been said within a ten mile radius of the Princess. And all the while, her hoof hovered just above the power switch, ready to shut the wireless down for good.
But she forced herself to listen to every single word.
This was all her fault, after all.
Lying flat on her bed, eyes pointed up to the ceiling, Zvezda listened to the mounting ticks of the clock. Every second lost was another puff of carbon dioxide, another nail in Cherry's steel coffin.
She was just wasting time here. However, the second she touched her blankets with an intent to remove them, the physician mare was over her, and forcing her down again with a gentle push.
„Please,“ she whispered, looking the doctor in the eyes. „I need-“
„What you need is a good, full rest,“ the unicorn, Verdure, strictly announced, then tried to smile sympathetically. „I understand you want to save your friend, Zvezda, I really do. But there's no sense in killing yourself over it.“
As she drew breath to speak back, however, her throat suddenly seized up again – for the first time in many months – and she briefly descended into a coughing fit. Looking at her closely, Verdure just wrapped the blanket tighter around her:
„See? Your entire body's out of balance. Even your throat's coming back again! You cannot keep stretching yourself like this.“
But Zvezda was adamant. Finally managing to cough up a large ball of phlegm, she proceeded to violently shake her head. „I've got to-“ she managed to get out, before having to stop for air again. „You've got to let me out!“
„You need at least a week of rest, Zvezda. Simple as that.“
She tried to argue, but her throat kept clogging up every time she tried to speak.
„No objections,“ Verdure announced, already turning to leave the room. Opening the door, however, and seeing the stately figure of Ray waiting there, nervously smiling, she suddenly stopped.
„Visitor?“ she inquired suspiciously, inspecting the stallion from head to hoof and obviously already preparing to turn him away. Upon seeing the way his eyes locked with Zvezda's, however, she hesitated slightly.
„Well, I suppose, if you keep her thoughts off blueprints for a while,“ she eventually produced, stepping aside to let him pass. „But for her sake, don't let her get up. I am serious,“ she still made sure to add before finally shutting the door.
Verdure was soon proven right in her decision, though; as Zvezda watched Ray slowly approach her bedside, then lean in for a kiss, the pounding, head-splitting pain between her ears seemed to wash away almost immediately.
„Hi,“ he smiled gently, adjusting her blanket.
Zvezda tried to smile back, she really did. But she suddenly realized that along with the headache, the endless schematics and contingency scenarios were quickly fading from before her eyes too; and with them, any chance of ever saving her friend. She glanced desperately to the side, where the clock was still ticking, panic beginning to mount in her chest.
But Ray just pulled her head back, to face him. „You did your damned best, 'Vez.“
Her eyes skittered from side to side, trying to figure out some way of escape. If she got out here fast enough, then maybe there'd still be time to-
„You almost killed yourself trying to save her. Nopony could have done more,“ Ray slowly continued, running a hoof through her long blonde mane. „All six of the royal champions, combined, couldn't save her. Not even both of the Princesses. Sometimes, things just don't work out, you know?“
Zvezda refused to accept. Despite feeling the stifling sensation in her throat coming back again, she fidgeted around, preparing herself to do something, anything. It's never over. Everything can be fixed, with the right approach. There's always some external variable we forgot, at least one crazy solution!
„You've already proven yourself a hero, 'Vez. More than enough. I mean, working alongside Luna herself?“ Ray continued, even slower than before. But suddenly, Zvezda noticed there were tears in his eyes. One dropped off, and fell on her cheek.
„Ray?“ she whispered, grabbing his hoof.
„I hate holding you back. But what about us? What about our future? If you hurt yourself, trying where even the Princess just gave up…“
Seeing him like this, Zvezda stopped. She suddenly remembered all her other friends, back here on this tiny planet. Sara, and Blues, and Terra, and Rainbow… all those smiling faces of her class, the fillies and colts who looked up to her as their model…
„Life goes on, 'Vez,“ he got out through the sobs. „Sometimes, it's just pointless to fight.“
She smiled weakly to herself, finally managing to put things in perspective. Rockets and Goddesses, Commissars and ancient secrets; everything around her was just so huge, so impossibly larger than herself, it had been all too easy to feel like a part of it. Like one of Celestia's champions, able to tempt fate; able to challenge the cold equations with nothing but her wits, and emerge victorious.
But in the end, you aren't. You're a simple earth pony, just trying to get by.
And, for the first time, she was perfectly fine with that. Oh, she still was incredibly sad for Cherry, no question about it; but she no longer felt it was her direct fault. It had been a systematic failing at every single level, from the Director upwards. Even nature itself had conspired to make their plight impossible.
Sometimes, things just didn't work out.
„One thing I still don't quite get,“ she suddenly muttered, more trying to make some sense of the broken thoughts in her head rather than making conversation, „If this was all just an old magical facility that blew up, why all the security? Why the guns, the Commissar, the ancient dragon?“
„I got no idea,“ Ray smiled back mischievously, before kissing her on the cheek. But Zvezda remained silent, staring up at the ceiling in deep thought:
„If the Princess herself really cast a spell that backfired, and started turning this whole place into a desert, why would they pull out bombs and cannons? Did they want to shoot the sand?“
„Maybe they were doing the same thing as you,“ Ray shrugged, still looking at her gently, „Or maybe they weren't. Can we ever know?“
Zvezda ignored his brief asides, however. She was going to figure this one out, at least. „Still. They must have known it was the Princess herself who cast that spell. The fact they pulled out their little metal sticks, and tried to fight back anyway… it just makes no sense.“
„Well, ponies are silly.“
„Not usually this silly, though,“ she shook her head, then held him back as he leant in for another kiss, just so she could conjecture further. „All they had was guns and fireworks. To try and defeat-“
Suddenly standing up in her bed, she looked at Ray's surprised eyes, face lit up like a hearthwarming tree. „By Celestia! That's it!“
„Fireworks!“ she added, excitement mounting in her voice.
A simple „Huh?“ was all that he managed to get out. But she was already kicking off her blankets and getting off the bed. She gave him one last kiss, then galloped off, down the winding corridors of Stable IV. Ignoring the harried shouts of nurses and other tech-ponies coming from behind her, she quickly found the exit hatch, and ran outside. The morning sand bit into her hooves with cold; but she didn't care. Soon scaling the low dune upon which the command bunker stood, she galloped inside.
It was utterly empty, save for Wilhelmina, the rest of the chief designers, and Mr. Skies. They were all silent, emptily staring at a plastic headset lying on the desk before them. There were sounds and words coming from the speakers, but Zvezda didn't have time to interpret them; she just rushed forward, pushed the feeble frame of Redstone aside, and grabbed the headset. She could see Wilhelmina tense up as she mounted the wireless over her head, and uncertainly paused; but the mare did not follow up with anything, and let her continue.
„Cherry?“ she shouted, still struggling to catch her breath. But her friend was shouting something, paying no attention. „Cherry! Shut up and listen for a second, you silly filly!“
„Zvez? That you?“ Suddenly stopping in its tirade, the voice on the other end seemed as confused as the chief designers all around.
Zvezda rolled her eyes. „Of course it's me, you dunderhead! Now, start listening!“
Cherry stared forward, still rather in shock from this sudden turn of events. Her small and steadily fogging visor, the way her breathing was almost deafening in the sealed helmet; everything kept distracting her. Maybe she was just hallucinating from carbon dioxide poisoning?
Meanwhile, the voice from her speakers kept going strong, twittering quickly and happily. „I've got an absolutely ridiculous idea. It's completely untested, all sorts of dumb, and probably's gonna get you killed in a huge explosion than actually help you in any way. But we'll still try it, because we're silly like that. You up for it?“
„Uh, alright,“ she shrugged, and a smile spread across her face. Whatever. It's a nice hallucination.
„Alrighty, then!“ Zvezda proclaimed from the other end, then fell silent for a while, leaving Cherry with only the sounds of unrolling paper, and much associated fumbling. „Got it! Panel C, master, switch AT/EQ. Flip to MANUAL-OPEN.“
Cherry almost began reaching out with her hoof, then stopped suddenly, realizing what the switch actually did. „Erm, you absolutely sure 'bout this? You want me to vent all my atmosphere into space?“
„Look, I already told you, it's completely insane. But it just might work. Do you trust me, Cherry?“
„I trust you,“ she sighed back, flipping the switch. Committing suicide was better than doing nothing, anyway.
The capsule did nothing for a while, then Cherry began to see the various pieces of debris around her slowly start drifting towards a pipe inlet above her head; ample proof that all the air inside the small cabin was now steadily escaping through a tiny, mechanically-controlled valve somewhere deep inside the capsule's complicated plumbing system, equalising the interior and external pressures. Had there been any power still left, every single alarm and safety would be wailing in perfect digital terror right about now.
„Done?“ Zvezda impatiently asked, then immediately followed up, „Great! Next, get your survival pack.“
Clumsily reaching for the pair of saddlebags stowed into the top compartment, Cherry hesitantly followed the instruction, still with absolutely no clue of what that crazy mare was hoping to accomplish here. Finally grasping it between her hooves, she pulled the heavy, waxed-cloth bags out, then opened them and rummaged through their pockets. What came out was a wide assortment of helpful items: A map of Equestria, compass, chewing gum, phrase book, royal passport signed by Celestia herself, a few golden bars to barter with…
„Get the flare gun,“ Zvezda pipped up.
Cherry froze in mid-motion, staring at the brightly-coloured red tube at the bottom of the satchel. There was no way this was the actual plan. „You can't be serious,“ she eventually produced, speaking in utter disbelief.
„Sure I am!“ her friend seemed positively cheerful. „Next up, get that hatch open.“
Cherry, however, remained completely and utterly unconvinced. „How's this even gonna work in space? Doesn't fire need oxygen to-“
„Fireworks got their own oxidiser, perchlorate. Just like the solid engines, 'cept a bit cheaper; the Designers had to start somewhere, after all. Now, get cracking!“
Cherry was about to mutter something under her breath, before realizing that no matter how quiet she made her utterance, the helmet microphone would pick it up anyway. Gritting her teeth, she instead strapped the gun's velcro straps tightly around one of her forelegs, then reached out to open the capsule hatch. Very, very carefully avoiding the large lever labelled 'EJECT', she put her hooves on the long metal handle running across the length of the hatch, then tried to push down with all her might. But the metal bar refused to budge, and her effort just accelerated her away and upwards, in the direction opposite to the original force. As her breathing quickened and she began sweating profusely, she also noticed that her visor was fogging up even faster than before.
Cursing as she hit the ceiling with her helmet, she first stopped herself, then floated back into position and carefully braced her hind legs against the cabin wall. Even with a stable hoofhold, however, the mechanism remained stubborn, and it was only with an awful grinding vibration that it finally moved; releasing its hold on the capsule door.
Propelled by the last remaining ounces of internal air, the hatch then suddenly swung open, and Cherry was pushed forward. In the blink of an eye, she was whisked through the small circular frame, leaving her capsule completely behind; and suddenly, there was emptiness all around her. Eyes shot left and right in shock, but they couldn't see any trace of her metal home. Accompanied by only the loud, rapid sounds of her breath, and the quickened beating of her heart, she dared not move as she stared out at the sight before her:
Above, the harsh rays of the sun bore down, near-blinding in their magnificent power even through her tinted visor. But below, the planet stretched out for as far as the eye could see, looking almost motherly in its embrace. She felt incredibly weird, just floating so high above it, not falling, nor feeling any motion, while the surface moved past at almost seven kilometres per second; but this emotion soon faded as her eyes began scanning its features, and tried to somehow take in the incredible level of detail all at once.
For once, she was actually thankful of the fog on her visor, otherwise the expansive vista would have all been too much to bear, parading itself before her in all its breathtaking scope. Clouds, oceans, vast mountain ranges. Endless tiny squares of golden fields, green blobs of forests, the occasional wood-and-stone growths of cities, all interlinked and fed by the criss-crossing capillaries of roads. Watching this without the protective border of her capsule, without the thick plate of her window, she felt distinctly naked; utterly at the mercy of this strange and impossible environment.
A sudden pull backwards tore her away from the sight. In a brief bout of confusion, she began flailing her legs about uselessly, trying to swim in absolute nothingness. But this panic soon faded away, and she began to approach the problem of manoeuvring with cold, precise calculation. After a few seconds' thought, she had decided on a solution:
Uncertainly – yet methodically – swinging her legs back and forth, extending them on the forward go and retracting them on the backwards to seize advantage of her changing angular momentum, she gradually began to slowly, ever so slowly, spin herself around. Performing a mental leap of joy as she realized this technique was actually working, she then redoubled her efforts, straining all the harder. Finally, the coolant hose of the suit came into view; now stretched taut, reassuringly connecting her suit to her shiny home in the skies. Looking at the tiny metal can, its brushed metal surface poorly reflecting the wonder of the world below, she couldn't help but smile. Out here, seen to scale with everything else, it seemed even smaller than before.
„You still there?“ her headset suddenly crackled, and this time, there was a definite hint of worry in Zvezda's voice.
„Alive and kickin'!“ Cherry grinned. She glanced at the planet below for one last time, then looked back to her capsule, and, carefully pulling at her own coolant hose, began reeling herself towards it. Though the joints of her suit were stiff and would only bend in a few directions, movement was still quite possible; and she steadily began to accelerate towards the capsule. After a few tugs, however, she suddenly realized she wasn't going to slow down naturally, and quickly stopped pulling before she would have picked up a dangerous amount of speed. „Moving back to the hatch.“
„Right.“ Though still sounding confident, it was now obvious that panic was steadily beginning to mount in her friend's voice. There was a sound of rapidly turning pages, and it was a while before she spoke up again. „How's the capsule turned? Is it pointing at least vaguely retrograde?“
There wasn't time to answer the question, however, as she was still floating forward, and the capsule was now fast approaching. Stretching out all her legs, Cherry braced herself for collision as she neared the circular opening in the side of her capsule.
Fortunately, the difference in relative velocities was fairly low, and she only made a soft impact on the metal. Feeling herself immediately bounce off and begin floating back away again, she quickly slid two of her hooves through the hatch and braced them against the inside of the frame. This killed the inertia on the remaining parts of her body, and she then proceeded to pull herself in.
„They really should've have put some hoof-holds on this thing,“ she commented, pausing to sip from her straw and otherwise recover from the sheer exertion. Her visor, too, had fogged itself up again, and she took purposely shallow breaths as she waited for it to clear.
„Well, nopony sure expected this kinda circus when the plans were drawn up!“ Zvezda laughed from the other side, „We're lucky enough the hatch can open without an ejection! But if you insist, little princess, I can put it on the wish-list.“
„Oh, I got three full pages of a wish-list written up here! Just you see!“
With a smirk on her face, she first withdraw her legs from the edges of the hatch frame, then spun around with a brief kick, only to stop herself again once she had rotated to face outwards. From there, determining the capsule's orientation was easy as pie:
And, upon seeing it, she performed yet another mental leap of joy. „Retrograde! Can't be more than thirty degrees off. Tumble minimal, too, even with all my acrobatics. The Princess must be smiling today.“
Zvezda burst out laughing. „Oh, she's smiling alright. She's listening to your every word!“
„Uh, roger that,“ Cherry replied in perfect monotone. Only after a few moments more, once she was confident of her strength again, did she continue, „Anyway, I'm standing right here, in the doorway. What's next?“
„Let's see, doorway, doorway… you'll need to throw yourself sideways, then up, across to the maintenance panel on Block E. Then get it open, with a screwdriver or something.“
Confirming the instruction, Cherry then craned her neck as forward as far as it would go, trying to find her target. The Comrade Module was a large, squat, cylindrical shape, bolted onto the side of the spherical cabin; and from her vantage point it looked like a monolithic block of brushed metal, punctuated only by the occasional access panel or supply valve. But even on its mostly-uniform surface, her destination was rather easy to distinguish: A bright red panel, rectangular in shape, and positioned approximately halfway along its length.
In theory, reaching it should have been quite elementary. She simply had to release her hold on the hatch frame, then turn around and propel herself downward with a gentle kick, gliding the rest of the way. Unfortunately, there seemed to be little in way of hoof-holds on the capsule hull; though there were definite breaks in its surface, nothing was big enough to lodge one of her suit's shoes in.
„Magnetic horseshoes would be nice, too,“ she smirked again, wondering just how on Equestria she was going to do this. Above Equestria, even, she reminded herself, glancing at the cloudy skies below.
Suddenly getting an idea, she quickly removed a screwdriver from one of the endless utility pockets her suit possessed, then secured it in the appropriate holder on one of her shoes; angling it at ninety degrees off, such that it jutted out of the front. After hitting it against the capsule hull a few times, just to check it was working, she then took a deep breath; and gently, ever so gently, kicked herself off with one leg.
As she began floating towards the panel, she felt oddly conflicted. On the one hoof, she was advancing at a tortuously glacial pace, and wished she could go a bit faster; yet on the other, she was moving with no propulsion or sense of motion whatsoever, and felt like she would just keep floating forward forever, until the end of time. The knowledge of her coolant hose did little to calm her paranoia; after all, it wasn't designed for this kind of treatment, and despite Rarity's efforts, it could still snap or tear rather easily.
Hearing nothing but the sound of her own heavy breathing, she also felt incredibly alone, like in a world of her own. The planet spinning underneath her suddenly felt quite unreal, as if her little corner of space was the entirety of existence; the thought of ever coming back, never mind actually walking on that grass she was seeing from up here in orbit, sounded quite impossible.
Something at the back of her head reminded her the access panel was now fast approaching, and she snapped to attention again. Her breathing quickened as the bright red panel drew closer and closer in, but that only made her visor start fogging up again. Forcefully holding her breath, she waited until the panel was directly underneath her, then plunged her screwdriver under the large handlebar in its centre. It stuck, and for a moment between heartbeats, it appeared as if the tiny blade was going to break off; but the metal held, the cover broke off in a dazzling shower of ice particles, and Cherry was suddenly left holding a slightly bent, rectangular piece of metal, as she kept floating forwards, away from the now-exposed maintenance point.
Thankfully, she had thought ahead, at least this much. Quickly bringing the panel in towards her body, as far as the suit's stiff joints would bend, she then proceeded to kick it away into deep space with all the force she could muster, completely annulling her previous motion. This manoeuvre propelled her back towards the uncovered panel, where she managed to catch her hoof against a now-bared truss panel, and haphazardly slowed the rest of her body down. Her visor was now even less clear than before, and what more, she could distinctly feel the sloshing of liquid – probably sweat – in each of her legs as she moved them. Having spent so long in the boiling suit, she hadn't realized she was hot, or even sweating; but her throat was beginning to feel incredibly parched, and she prayed this would all be over soon. One way or another.
She hastily surveyed the access point: After the outer panel had been broken away, what remained was not only a few exposed valves and knobs, but a free view of the Comrade Module's entire innards. To save mass, there were no additional walls deeper inside the hull; instead, she could see complicated plumbing, spherical pressure tanks, and exposed circuitry that run through the length of her vessel, all the way to the thin metal skin on the other side. What little structural supports there were consisted simply of thin metal trusses, full of mass-lightening holes. Unlike the confined re-entry capsule, which had to be as compact as possible and where every cubic inch counted, there was actually a surprising amount of free space inside here. She even had a clear view of the damned retrorockets: Three long metal tubes, painted a pale greenish yellow, arranged in a triangular pattern along the module's chief axis and spanning its entire length.
„Okay, I'm at the panel now,“ she huffed, still trying to recover her breath after that last piece of exercise. „Please tell me your stupid plan isn't much longer.“
„Oh, it's quite short!“ Zvezda chirped. Meanwhile, in the background, Cherry could hear the frenetic voices of all the chief designers, loudly arguing about something. Now, that's definitely not foreboding, no ma'am…
She groaned. „Just tell me already.“
„Okay, there's two steps, both of them very simple,“ her friend began, and Cherry's previous feeling of dread suddenly materialized into very definite horror. „First, find the O2 supply valve, and manually open it, all the way. It'll vent sideways, and usually that wouldn't do anything. But because it's at its maximum possible pressure right now – thanks to yours truly – it'll be strong enough to get the capsule spinning. I'm talking, like, fast.“
„…and the second?“ Cherry posed hesitantly, staring at the bright red tube of a flare gun attached to one of her forelegs. She just knew she was going to regret asking that question.
„Shoot the retro rockets. Now, if the capsule's spinning fast enough, it'll become stabilized like a gyroscope, and that should keep it on-course even with whatever sideways thrust we'll get from the explosion. I think.“
Cherry did regret asking that question.
„Not that I did any calculations or anything,“ her friend quickly added. In the faint distance, the loud argument between the chief designers had now escalated into an outright sonic war.
There was a lengthy period of silence that followed.
„You know what?“ Cherry finally announced, reaching towards the oxygen valve, „You're right. This is a dumb idea.“
She was just about to flip the vent open, however, when she suddenly stopped. If this wasn't going to work, which was almost a certainty… well, Zvezda would be left feeling pretty bad, that's for sure. And so, she paused for a little while, just floating above the access panel, trying to think of a suitable goodbye. Something short, yet poignant. The kind of thing a tech-pony on the ground could carry around as a fairly happy, though final, memory.
„Whatever happens, Zvez,“ she eventually began, settling for something simple, „You did good. Make damn sure you remember that, alright? You deserve seeing this horizon far more than me.“
She drew a deep breath, one which might be her last. „You did good, Zvez.“
Then, she opened the vent. And things started happening.
First of all, a jet of white gas began shooting out of a small valve just a couple of hooves away, aimed sideways to the craft's chief axis and missing her by mere inches. She stared at it for a moment in utter confusion, not knowing what was wrong; until she realized the entire event was eerily silent, save for her breathing. Her mind automatically associated such a fast and violent jet with a loud hissing noise, yet there was none, and that just felt incredibly wrong. Back home, every action had a noise that came with it, no matter how quiet; and that's the way things should be.
She did not have time to pontificate, however, as she quickly noticed the capsule was beginning to spin, all four tonnes of it; very slowly for now, but steadily accelerating as time went on. Acting before the uncovered access panel could float away, she braced her hind legs against the exposed truss frames, then began to balance precariously atop the spinning module.
Seeing that she had succeeded, and that she was now standing directly over the opened access panel with a clear shot at the rockets below, she smiled. But her victory was only fleeting, as she realized once she suddenly began feeling a new force acting upon herself. It was like some invisible hoof had hit her, and began pushing her upwards, away from her capsule and into the empty void above. She scrambled her own hooves, but the thin truss frame could only offer so much support.
„Cherry, you still there?“ yelled the now-frenzied Zvezda over her headphones, „Remember, the rockets are sheathed! You've got to hit them near the ignition caps!“
„I know, I know!“ she screamed back, trying to keep her balance. The capsule was spinning even faster now, whipping between shade and direct sunlight; and with it, the lifting force kept growing ever stronger, trying to fling her outwards.
She raised the hoof with the flare gun, trying to line it up with the retro rockets. Against the fogged up visor, it was hard enough to distinguish them from the oxygen tank, never mind aim accurately. With her last free hoof, she smashed the red safety cover off its back, which then proceeded to fly away into the void above, revealing the tiny grey cap of a detonator.
This is so stupid, she thought repeatedly, as she felt her back shoes slipping from the holes of the truss frame, This is so bucking stupid! She kept tilting her body in all sorts of ways, but balancing on two legs like this was beyond difficult. Meanwhile, the heavy pounding of her heart joined her breath as the only other sound drowning her ears.
The capsule kept accelerating even faster.
She was balancing on a rapidly-spinning mechanical contraption trying to fling her off into the void via centripetal force, hanging on by the bare tips of her shoes, alternately blinded by the sun and unable to see in the shadow; trying to aim a long temperamental tube of unstable chemicals strapped to her leg, just to ignite an even bigger stick of chemicals below, in the vain hope that would somehow provide enough thrust to break her from this state of permanent fall they called 'orbit'. Her visor was clouded, her legs literally bathing in sweat. Nothing made any sense. All her training, all her natural instincts, were completely and utterly useless in this environment.
And yet, at the same time, it was so laughingly simple. A cavepony could have understood it. Hit, and stand a chance of getting back to grass, to wind, to fluffy clouds; or miss, and perish in this silent tomb.
She tried to aim the barrel again, struggling to point her hoof directly at the three massive rockets. But it was of no use. With every breath she took, every beat of her heart, her visor became all the more impenetrable. She was trying to survive in a place that seemed to detest life with every facet of its existence. It was too cold, too empty, too huge. Ponies did not belong here; and, as its only inhabitant, she felt completely and perfectly alone.
„Cherry!“ Zvezda suddenly screamed through the wireless. „Cherry! Just shoot the damn thing!“
And that's all I have to do, she realized. Shoot, and it's over. It's decided.
Who cares if you miss?
„Let's go!“ she exclaimed at the top of her lungs, firmly closing her eyes and looking away as she slammed the gun's ignition cap with her only free hoof. She felt her limb wrenched aside by the recoil. She saw a brief, forceful flash of igniting perchlorates penetrate her eyelids.
And, quite suddenly, she felt herself flung away with great force, back hooves leaving the truss frame behind and finally soaring free.
Opening her eyes again, she was greeted by an amazing sight: One of her capsule falling into the inky depths, spinning rapidly as a giant flare of light blasted from its side. Her projectile had obviously not only ignited the rockets, but also ruptured their thin metal casing; while a significant amount of the harsh yellow flame poured out of the nozzles in the back, at the same time, almost half of it was shooting out the side, through the opened access panel and countless other openings. This unexpected lateral thrust was sending the capsule tumbling violently; and yet, thanks to its rapid rotation, the capsule stayed more-on-less on target as it tumbled, never veering too far away from its original orientation, balanced through its angular momentum. Precisely like a gyroscope. Or a spinning top, Cherry added with a faint smile.
However, despite the violence of the combustion, the sheer magnitude of the opposing forces involved, the scene seemed almost tranquil; perhaps because it was happening in complete silence. Either way, Cherry watched it with great relief. It was done. The dice were thrown.
It took the sudden tug of the coolant hose, stopping her 'fall', to bring her back to reality. Quite aware the taut white hose could snap at any second, she began quickly reeling herself back to her cabin, much like before; except now, she had to fight the massive centripetal force at every step of the way. At some point, the motor flames finally subsided; and she was left with the sorry sight of the charred Comrade module, gigantic holes blasted in its structure by the malfunctioned rockets.
The hatch was so close now. Cherry could see the faint outline of her comfy acceleration couch in the darkness, imagine its motherly embrace as it protected her from any harm. She kept pulling herself forward, imagining all those who were waiting for her. Zvezda. Dad. Rainbow. If she had any energy to spare left, she would have laughed; a simple length of hose had suddenly become the most critical piece of equipment on this mission.
Finally, she was through! She now used the unrelenting centripetal force to her own advantage, bracing her hooves against the inside wall of her capsule. With a final, monstrous push, she then leant outside, and slowly brought the hatch in. The spring-loaded locking mechanism secured it in place, and that was it.
„Capsule sealed,“ she reported, trying to rest for the first time in what felt like decades. But it was impossible; the force pushed her against the capsule wall, caving in her lungs and making her head dizzy. There was just one last thing that she needed to do.
One last thing, and she could sleep.
Looking around the capsule – feeling like lying on the wall of a spinning centrifuge – she finally found the switch. A large, mechanical lever, just below the left control panel. Inching her right leg forward, she reached out, bit by bit. Her leg felt impossibly heavy, but she kept raising it, fighting the centrifugal force pushing her back.
Centripetal force, the voice of Redstone reflexively sounded in her head, correcting her. That single, brief, utterly stupid, irrelevant, pointless, ridiculous distinction just made her blood boil. In a final act of defiance, she violently kicked the emergency separation lever, flipping it. A violent jolt was her reward, and that was it.
I can finally sleep, she smiled, the world fading to black from the crushing force, her breathing becoming more disparate as every breath just felt emptier and emptier. She had no idea of a great many things; did that crazily inefficient manoeuvre give her enough delta-v? Was her angle of re-entry too steep? Would the heatshield hold? Where would she even splash down?
But she did not care about any of that. She's fought. She could go out, knowing she had tried her damn best.
Whether she would win or not; that was just plain dumb luck now.
Meanwhile, somepony was screaming something over the wireless. But her world had already gone dark.
Zvezda stared at the princess of the night as she worked the large machine, easily correlating dozens of data-points from five independent sources into one massive calculation. In the command bunker around her, the other ponies milled about uselessly; some humming under their breaths, others completely silent, and all quite nervous.
The sheer magnitude of what she had instructed her friend to do was just beginning to dawn on her, too. A flare gun? Seriously? Running the entire event in her head again, she realized she must have gone quite mad.
Her eyes turned back to the abandoned comms headset, now lying on the central desk again. Static buzzed through the bunker speakers. Cherry's last transmission had arrived about twenty minutes ago, and though the observatories optimistically reported her capsule was still in the sky, nopony knew anything about its trajectory nor the number of pieces. A preliminary guess by Redstone, made on the assumption the capsule had braked exactly enough to re-enter, placed the splashdown point near the northern borders of Equestria, about a thousand miles from here; but even that was just a vague approximation of an inkling.
The faint hiss of the speakers was suddenly interrupted by a new voice, breathing rapidly and heavily distorted by poor signal quality. It was Rainbow, almost drowned out amidst the high-pitched gale of passing air:
„Just passed Dodge Junction! Would be nice to know where I'm going, Princess!“
Luna frowned as she worked the machine. „We have rushed the observatories, so there is rather a lot of inaccurate measurements to sort through. But from looking at the raw data, the entry angle will be quite shallow. I suspect a three-skip trajectory, not merely two.“
„Oh, come on! It's already far enough!“
„Those are the numbers, Rainbow.“
A loud, superior scoffing noise sounded through the speakers. „Guess I'd better speed up, then! Dash, out!“
Meanwhile, new seeds of concern began to grow in Redstone's expression. „Can capsule even survive three skips?“ he voiced to the other chief designers as he paced about rapidly, „Peak temperature should be acceptable, but I am worried about thermal stress. Repeated heating and cooling cannot be healthy for any metal, especially such delicate alloy. Is untested situation.“
Lyuka shook her head. „The first two are just tiny bounces. Should be fine.“
However, Zvezda wasn't even parsing these sentences any more. To her, talking about peak temperatures was just senseless worrying. They've tested that heatshield against the breath of an elder dragon, after all. The mere thought of a burn-through from some slight manufacturing defect, especially after all this, was just too unbearable to even consider.
Suddenly feeling a wave of impossible fatigue wash over her, she briefly lost balance, then decided to lie down on the concrete floor rather than risk tripping over her own hooves. Closing her eyes, head feeling too heavy for her neck, she idly wondered just how many weeks of sleep she was soon going to need; and whether they'd be spent as far away from the desert as physically possible. Ray better already have those tickets.
She heard another pony lie down next to her, and, with unyielding effort, lifted her eyelids again. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it was Wilhelmina, smiling weakly as she looked at her.
„Sorry for kinda stealing the mission from you there,“ Zvezda chuckled. „I hope I wasn't too crazy.“
„Oh, you were quite insane. Absolute and utter irresponsibility, quite undeserving of your station!“ the mare sternly announced, looking over the brim of her glasses. But there was just no way she was speaking in anything but jest. Her overly-serious expression reminded Zvezda of those early secretive times, where she was just a lowly assembly mare, fearing the mysterious figure of the nameless Director. She laughed at the quaint memory.
And Wilhelmina joined in, too. Though nothing was yet certain, though the fate of their beloved friend still hung in the balance, the two mares still laughed heartily, their giggling reaching across the entire command bunker. Sometimes, a laugh was just necessary to survive.
„Speaking on a more honest note,“ Will soon resumed, her voice becoming soft for the first time in memory, „You've saved this mission, Zvezda. All I ever cared about was touching the stars, feeling their cold warmth; and my role as a leader became quite secondary to that. I never quite realized my responsibilities, until it was too late.“
Zvezda shrugged distantly. Whatever the mare's shortcomings, she could admit her own failure in the end; and that was enough by her book. „It still all worked out in the end, didn't it?“
Will firmly shook her head, however. „Only through your beautiful piece of insanity,“ she whispered. „Thank you, Zvezda… for doing what I couldn't.“
„Well, that's what friends are for.“
Seeing Wilhelmina's eyes swell up with tears, she beamed back. She just couldn't feel angry at somepony like this.
Meanwhile, judging by the other designers' reactions, the capsule had begun its first re-entry skip. Somewhere far above their heads, two tonnes of metal were impacting the static air at almost eight kilometres per second, heating themselves to over a thousand degrees. From the other side of the bunker, Luna began calling out altitude figures, deceleration vectors, estimated times of arrival. Over the speakers, Rainbow started demanding constant course updates. All important numbers, yes; but still just numbers.
As she listened to Luna and Rainbow frenetically exchange ideas and numeric reports, Zvezda just yawned. Her part was over now.
Time for the true heroes.
Racing through the skies high above a snowed mountain range, an oxygen mask nuzzled over her mouth and nose, Rainbow kept her eyes constantly peeled, scanning the skies for any fast-moving objects. And not only spaceborne; these were dragon lands, and despite Princess Celestia's best diplomatic attempts, a sudden ambush was always a possibility.
Her enchanted earpiece buzzed again. „New course delta, plus zero-fiver-two,“ the steady voice of Princess Luna instructed, „Past the snow.“
Delicately shifting one of her hind legs an imperceptible amount to the right, she grinned as her course immediately began veering sideways. Mane and tail reduced to perfectly straight lines streaming behind her, the feeling of air rushing past her face at hundreds of metres per second, warm sun on her skin; supersonic flight was always the best.
She whipped a few scant metres above a white mountain path, kicking up an blizzard of untold fury in her wake. She skirted by ancient peaks and bizarre rock formations shining with frost, rejoicing in the rush of the flight. There were even a few dragons roaming the landscape below, vast ponderous creatures that looked up in amazement at the streak of sudden rainbow shooting through the sky. But before they could even raise alarm, though, she was already gone, leaving the snow of the mountain range behind and passing a maze of rocky valleys, scarcely visible under the heavy clouds that hugged the ground.
All of that was secondary to her now, however. She desperately eyed the perfectly blue sky above, searching for any traces of her friend. But there were none, and soon she turned back to her headset:
„Cape, I got clear skies! Requesting status update!“
„Standby,“ came the hesitant response. „Maintain heading. We're running a new iteration.“
Had she the breath to spare, Rainbow would have cursed violently. But her sprint-paced marathon had turned out significantly longer than first anticipated, and she was fast tapping into her remotest reserves. And with the rate things were going, she had no idea how much longer this was going to take.
Briefly dropping subsonic again, she deployed her wings and entered a high-altitude glide, trying to recover as much energy as she could. Far below, thick blackly clouds churned, brief flashes of wild lightning occasionally arcing through them. It was a scene of uncontrolled nature, a sight to behold.
But she watched the skies above. Her pegasus eyes, more sensitive than the best instruments in Equestria, skittered all across her field of vision in a desperate search for her friend. Having recovered enough voice to complain again, Rainbow was about to unleash a veritable torrent of abuse at Luna's calculations; when she saw it! A burning trail of light and smoke, flaming bits of ablating heatshield breaking off as the entire contraption soared through the heavens at an incredible speed. Looking at it closer, however, her excitement soon faded, as she realized it was so far away. So impossibly far away.
But impossible was what she did best.
Stretching her forelegs even further forward, she picked up the pace with her wings, soon feeling – rather than hearing – a sudden shockwave hit her body as she broke the sound barrier. But a glance could reveal the capsule was travelling far faster, and she angled her wingtips further back to again increase her speed. To say the air around her was rushing past would be an understatement.
Meanwhile, she kept her eyes on the capsule, trying to line up perfectly with its trajectory. It was visibly slowing down now, and the streaks of flame were subsiding away; only to reveal a charred and ragged lump, a far cry from the perfect sphere of polished metal she had seen in the assembly lab. As far as she could see, however, there were no holes in what remained of the heatshield; and that filled her with hope.
Hope, which she immediately channelled into yet more wingpower. She lunged forward, gathering ever more velocity with every second, and the capsule began growing bigger in her sights. All the while, she kept making microscopic adjustments to her trajectory, shifting her fore and hind legs about by mere millimetres. A nudge here, another nudge there; and finally, she was on a direct collision trajectory, and rapidly approaching.
She timed her next manoeuvre perfectly. Just as the capsule began to loom dangerously close, she fully extended both of her wings, and locked them in position; deploying her feathers alternately down and up at the same time. Though air smashed into her wings with the force of a charging bull, coming dangerously close to snapping them both, her air-brake nevertheless functioned flawlessly. With a sudden jolt, she was smashed out of supersonic, then matched her speed further by precisely angling the outer segments of her wing. One last course change, made through a quick whip of the head; and she was cruising directly beside the capsule, soaring towards the incoming ground at what must have been at least half the speed of sound.
Wasting no time to marvel at her own accomplishments, Rainbow quickly spiralled around her target, until she found the exit hatch. She approached the scorched metal hull as close as she could, until she could feel its dim warmth against her skin. Glancing around for a few seconds, she quickly found the emergency release cover: A blackened, twisted rectangle mounted just above the hatch. Already feeling the ground fast approaching, and thinking of her dear friend, she only hesitated for a single heartbeat before kicking the cover open. The intense heat blistered her skin and made her flinch away in pain, but it was done; the cover flew away, revealing a relatively-unharmed lever that occupied most of its small compartment.
Rainbow pulled it immediately – thankfully, the metal was a lot colder this time – and, with a tremendous bang, the machine under her lurched, explosively jettisoning its entry hatch a hundred metres away into the air. Though the blast all but burst her eardrums, she only reeled slightly before immediately returning to her task.
Through the circular opening of the hatch frame, she almost jumped as she saw the figure of her friend, fully dressed in her silvery suit and powerlessly slumped against the acceleration couch. Surging forward, she quickly grabbed Cherry by her hooves, then pulled away in one smooth motion. Immediately thereafter, she began beating her wings again, leaving the capsule alone to complete its long plummet towards the ground.
Only once she had fully cancelled out her fall, and was hovering stably in mid-air, did she finally begin thinking again. Quickly turning to her friend, she deftly undid her helmet and tossed it aside; freeing Cherry's luxurious orange mane into the wind.
Noticing the paleness in her face, her closed eyelids and peaceful expression, Rainbow, still shaken from the flight, began to panic. „Cherry!“ she yelled, trying to shake the pegasus awake. „Wake up! Wake up, damn you!“
And yet, nothing seemed to work. In desperation, Rainbow glanced around, searching for any help; only to be greeted to the breathtaking sight of the capsule smashing into the hills, hundreds of metres below. With an impact that shook the landscape, the blackened sphere of metal hit the ground once, kicking up untold quantities of dust and rock; and then bounced, flying up into the air again. Staring in awe at this apparent violation of the laws of physics, Rainbow could only watch as the machine ascended higher and higher upwards, eventually stopping in thin air. For an ephemeral second, it seemed as if it was going to remain up there forever; but then, cold hard gravity took over, and the capsule began plummeting once more.
But when it met the land a second time, the great planet was far less forgiving. With an enormous grinding sound, something in its structure snapped, and the metal split like an egg. Rectangular control panels, lengths of piping, bits of delicate scientific instruments and invaluable electronics, spilled forth from its innards, flying out in wide arcs and shattering themselves across the surrounding jagged rocks.
Breathlessly watching the worth total of Equestria's entire scientific and engineering ability become utterly obliterated in a matter of seconds, Rainbow suddenly yelped in surprise as she felt something cold pull at her mane. She quickly turned to the offending object.
It was a pony's hoof, clad in a grey, plastic shoe.
„Gotcha,“ Cherry pipped, smiling mischievously.