• Published 4th Jun 2012
  • 4,157 Views, 110 Comments

Our First Steps - Mrakoplaz



A tale of the Equestrian Space Programme, in the style of 50s science fiction novels. Poyekhali!

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Songs of the Space Age

„ONWARDS TO THE STARS! – PRINCESS CELESTIA GIVES SPEECH OF THE CENTURY

In a grand announcement before the annual open-doors session of the Assembly, her Royal Highness, the esteemed Princess of the Sun, has announced the beginnings of an unprecedented public venture:

'[...]During my millennia on the throne, I have seen many things. With great interest, I watched the construction of the great transcontinental railway. I was there when the first weather factory produced its inaugural snowflake. With these very ears, I have heard the very first stroke of a steam engine. And yet, no matter how many hundreds of these amazing developments I had seen, the next one would never cease to surprise me. Listen to me now, citizens of our great kingdom, for I will speak the honest truth; My magic, my power over the heavens, pales to nothing compared to you. Your sheer inventiveness, your unbounded creativity, your constant drive to make things better for everypony; You are the real gift of this land. Not some ancient princess sitting on a dusty throne.

I am humbled that you have granted me the chance to watch this once rural and medieval kingdom blossom into something quite incredible. A land of industry, of growing economy, of safety. We have defeated disease. We have forever abolished famine. Millions of ponies are free to spend their entire lives in happiness, confident their basic needs will always be met; And it is all thanks to you.

And yet, we cannot rest idly on our hooves. Now that our next meal is forever secure, it would be all too easy to just lay our talents to rest and live out the rest of our lives in passive comfort.

No. That way lies the road to boredom, to slow decadence – to downfall. Make no mistake, citizens; Though we live in a golden age, it is more important than ever that we never let our great culture decay to depravity and baseness.

With grand words should likewise come grand actions, and hence I put forth to the present Assembly the following: To ensure the everlasting prosperity of Equestria, to firmly train our sights beyond just the next meal, we should – nay, we must – keep pushing ever onward. But with all the continents of our world mapped, all the seas sailed, all the peaks scaled; Where can we go next?

There is only one way to go from here, my little ponies, only one way to go. Just yesterday, I have observed a great new facility spring to life; In the far western deserts, the best metalsmiths and mathematicians of Equestria gather to build the future. Together, they will work on exploring the final frontier, the last reaches untouched by pony hooves; They will bring the stars to Equestria.

But they cannot do it without your help. Space exploration is a costly and risky endeavour, and might not pay off immediately, I cannot deny that. Despite this, I ask you; What would we be now, had we never taken risks funding uncertain scientific projects? A loose scattering of small rural villages and stone castles, nothing more.

That is why I ask the Assembly to join me on this great adventure. By diverting just a small portion of each county's annual budget, we can accomplish something never even dreamed of before. The benefits are too numerous to count, the advances in technology that will follow too fantastic to predict.

We had come a long way since the ancient times, and now stand on the edge of a revolution. To back away now would not only be unwise, it would throw away all our ancestors had ever stood for.

Thank you.“

Putting the paper back down on her desk, Wilhelmina remained silent. Ever since her encounter with Celestia, she had been dreading something like this would happen; That the Princess would not only announce the project publicly, but that she'd do it with such grandeur and pomp to break even the most disinterested pony from her stupor. All the eyes of Equestria would be watching their every move now.

Right. No pressure, then.

~~~~~

Meanwhile, in the canteen of Stable IV, Zvezda had just been reading a very similar article, also containing a transcript of the speech. Taking a bite out of the still mostly untouched salad on her table, she continued:

The proposal was immediately met with a five-minute long standing ovation, then unanimously voted into law by all active members of the Assembly. Bowing in thanks, her royal highness had this to comment:

'By royal decree, from this day forth and effective immediately, ponies should no longer think of the sky as the limit. As this ambitious programme will prove, there are no bounds to what we can accomplish, if only we try.'

But is this really the best course of action? And how will such a grand project be funded? We consulted our political expert, Professor Neighsson, for answers to these questions:

'Some ponies had raised objections about just where the money for this great venture is supposed to come from. I wish to bring their attention the fact that the Princess had discussed the matter with the Assembly in a subsequent proposal, and eventually arrived at the decision to cut back Equestria's internal security budget; A department full of dark secret projects that have been put into place decades ago, most of which, quite frankly, waste ridiculous amounts of money on quite insane pie-in-the-sky experiments, and which almost never succeed in their goals. All in all, I commend her royal Highness on this difficult decision, and predict the programme will undoubtedly provide an immense stimulus to the metal-working and scientific sectors of our economy, as well as convince entire generations of the wonder of scientific progress. Equestria, Ad Astra!'

Of course, not all are satisfied with this new direction. Faced with a project of such sheer revolutionary intensity, some members of the public remain intensely sceptical of its feasibility. One of them is Josh, a crotchety old stallion that shouted at us from the front porch of his dilapidated dusty house, apparently having nothing better to do, as he has no job and lives on welfare:

„Ah don't know about you, but goin' to the stars seems awful dodgey to me! The sky snakes are gonna eat them all!!“

To refute these and other similarly unsubstantiated claims, a representative of the Royal Academy of Sciences has issued the following thoughtful analysis:“

A very large blot of coffee covered up the entire next paragraph. Irked, Zvezda looked across the canteen table in annoyance, and stared at Sara cravingly gulping down an entire mug of coffee in one go:

„Hey! I was reading that!“

„What do you have there, anyway?“ Blues casually asked from across the table, then, noticing the title of the newspaper, burst into tears of laughter, „Canterlot Daily? Really? You read that stuff? Wow. Just, wow. I mean, I thought you were-“

„It's a great source of entertainment, you have to admit,“ Zvezda quickly interrupted the laughing pegasus, „I don't know how they do it, but the way they put their own spin on things, without actually having to resort to lying, is really quite amazing.“

„Oh. If you're laughing at it, I suppose that's okay,“ Blues shrugged, wiping the tears from her eyes, „But I know some who read those articles sincerely! Honestly, everypony, it's fine to admit that even Celestia screws up once in a while!“

„That's it, though. That right there's a hard one to accept. At least for some,“ Zvezda noted between more bites of her morning salad, „When your ruler has so much power over your life, you want them to be perfect.“

The other mares nodded in quiet agreement. From across the table, Terra looked up from her own paper, probably a far more trustworthy one; Zvezda certainly knew there were plenty of those to go around, but she was equally convinced none could match the sheer hilarity of Canterlot Daily:

„Hey, Zvez, does it mention the Duchess of Hackney at all? She brought up some good points after Celestia's speech.“

She didn't even have to look at her copy, knowing the paper's ideological bent far too well for that:

„Nope.“

„Hmmph. What does she say? I'm interested,“ Sara asked, finally putting down her mug. Meanwhile, Zvezda did a double take. Did she really just drink all of that in one go?

„She basically questions the whole thing. Says directly spending the money on schools and education would bring a far greater benefit than, and I quote, 'This most circuitous way of going about things'.“

„She's got a point, you know,“ Sara began, discretely levitating another full mug of coffee from an adjacent table towards herself, „Sure, it's all pretty cool, but I don't really know why we're doing this. Shooting millions off into the sky.“

„Shh. If others hear you, they might start asking the same thing!“ Blues theatrically hushed her, „And then we'll all be out of a job!“

„You will all be out of a job unless you hurry the hay up and get to the hangar right this minute, ladies!“ the voice of their boss suddenly came out of nowhere, jolting all the ponies out of their morning stupor.

Rapidly stashing the newspaper under the table before it could raise any more questions, Zvezda looked around to see the Supervisor standing in the doorway of the canteen, fuming with rage. She then slowly turned her gaze upwards, to the large clock hanging from the corridor ceiling. Swallowing, she turned back to the doorway; The Supervisor was nowhere to be seen.

A few last hurried bites later, the ponies were all galloping to the workshop at full speed, paying little heed to any unfortunate passers-by or doors that got into their way.

~~~~~

„Right, now that we're all finally present, here are your daily assignments,“ the Supervisor menacingly glared at the group of four mares for a few seconds, then continued, „Terra, we still need to test the integrity of the clustering nodes. All two hundred sixty eight of them.“

„Blues, it seems like the Commissar intercepted some of my procurement paperwork and censored out every incriminating detail. That would normally be fine, except he decided to include the serial numbers and quantities of every single part I happened to request. I need you to make him stop doing that.“

„Zvezda, Sara, the delivery company messed up yet another shipment. I'm seriously going to have to talk to whoever's supposed to be in charge of delivering mail around here. Meanwhile, though, it's going to be your job to make that crate of half-inch rivets we got fit into the third-inch holes on the winglet assembly.“

They disdainfully looked at the Supervisor. She shrugged, „What can I say? If you want to pick off the list for yourselves, don't come fifteen minutes late. Now, get moving!“

Grumbling, they all slowly left for their assignments. Of course, upon arriving at the rocket, Zvezda and Sara discovered that not only had the delivered crate been loaded with the wrong size components, it also had inexplicably been shipped to the Equenaut training complex instead.

Idly trotting across the length of the Cosmodrome and enjoying the shade provided by the tall concrete bunkers that towered around them, the sight of a lone pegasus reporter snapping pictures off in the distance resurrected their breakfast's discussion:

„Seriously, there's no way ponies are just going to accept this, no matter how many articles Canterlot Daily publishes,“ Sara began as the two mares continued alongside the stone path, „I don't know what the Director said to Celestia, but by going public, she's just condemned this place to a slow painful death of steady budget cutbacks. The public will see us continuously fail and slowly lose interest. As opposed to a quick death by royal mandate. Not much of a win either way, really.“

„The Assembly did seem to like it, though. Some might've abstained, but nopony directly voted against.“

Sara scoffed, „Would you vote against an omnipotent goddess that controls the sun and can banish you in the blink of an eye, no matter how crazy it was?“

„Come on, Sara! The Assembly doesn't just rubber-stamp everything. Remember that huge cautionary speech the Duchess gave?“

„Whatever. Just look at it from the point of view of an ordinary pony. A rock farmer living all her life in some rural hellhole; Ponyville or something. Compared to getting bigger subsidies, this whole thing must look like a giant waste of bits.“

Zvezda began composing her reply, then seized up as a familiar dark shadow passed directly overhead. Oh no, don't let her see us here, not-

Sure enough, all it took was a few more moments, and Cherry's excited cry sounded from the sky. Immediately glancing around for places to hide, Zvezda was nevertheless unable to react quickly enough to the orange pegasus, who dropped to an idle hover at her side mere seconds later:

„There you are! I haven't seen you girls for ages around this place! How have you been?“

„Fine,“ Zvezda uttered, still considering various means of escape.

„Great! What brings you away from the training complex, anyway?“ Sara beamed.

„Nothing! Just on my morning flight, stretching my wings after a long sleep in bed, getting ready for training, you know!“ Cherry smiled, „Say, you girls coming to the big thing tonight?“

„Big 'thing' tonight?“ Zvezda repeated questioningly, pausing briefly before the gears in her head had clicked, „Is this another of those exclusive Equenaut-only 'things' that us common plebeians do not even have to apply for?“

„What? No it is n-“ the orange pegasus began, then fell silent for a while, „Wait, I think you're right, actually. I've never realized that before!“

„Sure you haven't,“ Zvezda sighed, wondering how much longer this pleasant conversation was going to go on for.

„It's so unfair, isn't it? I mean, you girls do all the real work around here, but we get all the nice perks! I've got to ask Redstone about this, right away!“ Cherry declared, causing a sudden lump to appear in Zvezda's throat. She then padded the two mares on their backs, „Don't worry, I'll make sure you get front row tickets! Right next to me! Oh, it's going to be great!“

And just like that, she was off. Looking at the orange pegasus quickly shrink into the morning sky, Zvezda pondered the likelihood of Cherry's success at towing them off into one of those stupid exclusive dinners or something. It was uncomfortably high.

„Press conference, I guess,“ Sara noted, „After that huge speech yesterday, every reporter in Equestria must be rushing to reserve tickets here. We've seen one so far, but come evening, the whole place'll be crawling with them, mark my words.“

„Well, hopefully they won't pay too much attention to us simple ponies,“ Zvezda sighed again, absent-mindedly kicking a rock along the desert path, „This job's hard enough without cameras scrutinizing your every move.“

„Say what you think, but I sure wouldn't mind an interview or two. Cherry's right. We're the girls who actually do all the work around here. We should be in the spotlight getting press conferences, not the equenauts!“

~~~~~

Arriving at the entrance of Stable IX, Zvezda was taken aback by the sheer size of the crowd that had already gathered outside. She never doubted there'd already be a few early arrivals, but this many? Zvezda tried to guess at their number. Hundred? Hundred fifty? That was almost the size of the all the assembly teams of the Cosmodrome. Absolutely preposterous.

One reporter standing at the back of the crowd momentarily glanced in their direction, yelled something, and before the two mares knew it, they were being swarmed by a group of at least two dozen frenzied journalists, all coming from the far back of the crowd, and all desperate for scoop; Every one of them armed with elaborate hairstyles, bulky cameras, and expensive voice recorders. Zvezda veered uncertainly as her senses were bombarded with bright flashes and rapid shouting:

„Can you tell us anything about the Equestria Seven?“

„How soon before the first launch?“

„Do you agree with Duchess Hackney's statement about-“

„In five words, how would you describe-“

It was all too much, all too sudden. The unending barrage of stroboscopic camera flashes, each of a slightly different colour and intensity, a fact undoubtedly stemming from the cheap electrolytic jars they used; The two dozen different brands of reel-to-reel voice recorders the reporters carried; The immense range of perfumes and scents they wore; The sheer multitude of colours and movement being jammed before her eyes.

Zvezda's brain was desperately racing to process and consider every one of these details, to analyse their meaning and then stow it away under the correct section of her memory, as it always had when confronted with a new device or situation. But flooded with such a torrent of sensory inputs, it couldn't keep up, and her world began to slowly dim as-

„ENOUGH!“ Sara screamed, managing to silence the reporters in one fell swoop, „We're just delivery crews! Not engineers! Now go pester somepony who actually knows about these things! Shoo, shoo!“

Seeing the crowd rapidly scatter, she turned to Zvezda, concern in her eyes:

„You okay, Vez? You looked kinda iffy there for a sec.“

Zvezda shook her head. No longer flooded with a constant stream of new information, her brain was now catching up at categorizing the already encountered experiences, considering every one of them. She repeatedly blinked, trying to clear her mind of all the shoddy cameras and kitsch hairstyles that now filled it.

„Don't worry. I'm fine,“ she reassured her friend; apparently quite unconvincingly, judging by Sara's continued expression. A brief bout of embarrassed silence followed.

„I... thanks for clearing them away,“ Zvezda uncertainly began, then smiled in apology, „Sorry for screwing up your one chance at an interview.“

„Don't sweat it. All that matters is that you're alright,“ Sara waved her off, then gestured to the large crowd surrounding the main entrance of Stable IX, „Now, say we go around and slip in through the back?“

„Sounds like a plan.“

~~~~~

Slowly opening her eyes, Lyuka ineptly stared at the blurry world outside. It was bright, far too bright, and the brightness was hurting her eyes.

Groaning as she rolled over in the bed, she pulled her sweat-soaked blankets closer in. Her head was filled with a million tiny splinters, all repeatedly stabbing at her fragile brain from every conceivable direction.

Blinking again, she considered the unfamiliar ceiling.

Huh. That's strange.

Hearing a nearby noise, her gaze quickly shot sideways, and her eyes tried their hardest to focus on the vague shapes occupying the room. Though not succeeding fully, she still managed to identify two particular blurs.

Are those a... oh dear. They are.

A pile of empty brown bottles with illegible writing occupied the floor besides the bed – which, as Lyuka was slowly realizing, was little more than a hard mattress tossed on a concrete floor – and behind them, in the distance, a tall stallion stood behind a table, writing something down.

Unknown room. Ear-splitting headache. Empty bottles. Good looking stallion.

Uh oh.

Forced into action by this influx of data, Lyuka began iterating through the large gaps in her memory, trying to piece together exactly what had happened; The greater picture was obvious enough, yes, but some highly critical details, such as the identity of that particular stallion, were still missing. Lyuka might have been a little wild at times, but even she had standards, dammit.

Now, what had happened yesterday? Celestia had given the speech. Hardly a reason to go partying, unless-

Hang on a second... Oh no. Don't tell me that is – Are you kidding me? Seriously? HIM?

Lyuka's eyes had finally focused enough to recognize the stallion's black leather coat and tall woollen hat. Were she more in control of her body, she might have screamed in anguish.

The Commissar? Of all the stupid ponies on this Cosmodrome, why would I-

Wait. This did not make sense. Even if she had been drunk enough to try and hit on the Commissar, why would he ever show even the slightest interest in returning the gesture? His only concern for such activity remained strictly limited to its potential for security leaks.

No. There must be some other explanation for all this, Lyuka thought. She prayed.

As more of the world slowly drifted into focus, she looked around once more, and, with her eyes stopping on the familiar bell of her experimental exhaust nozzle prototype, everything suddenly fell into place.

These weren't the Commissar's living quarters; This was her lab!

Leaping off the mattress – the one, as she now remembered, she had brought in after too many nights of falling asleep on the cold concrete floor – she looked again at the opened brown bottles. Hydrochloric acid, from the reactivity tests yesterday. She glanced at the time. Ten in the morning. No wonder her head hurt so much, she has had less than three hours of sleep!

However, all that still left one question unanswered. She uncertainly looked at the Commissar. The tall stallion was standing behind her desk, a thick marker in his mouth, meticulously blacking out every line of some oddly familiar documents...

„Just what the hay do you think you're doing?“ she screamed, suddenly recognizing her research notes. Pausing in his destructive labours, the Commissar dropped the pen and shrugged:

„Censoring classified information. What else would I be doing?“

„Those are my research notes! I need those! For my work!“

„Journalists will tour lab in one hour. I must secure all classified information and-“

Lyuka pointed to the door, „Out.“

„But state secrets-“ he confusedly began, only to be cut short again:

„OUT!“

She didn't know if it were her blood-shot eyes, the utter mess of a mane standing on her head, or her terrifying scream. Either way, the Commissar promptly saluted, then began a hasty retreat through the door.

Locking the blast-hardened hatch after him, Lyuka dropped back onto her mattress. Who cared about the press, her sleep was far more important.

~~~~~

Meanwhile, Zvezda and Sara had managed to navigate into the equenaut complex through the back door, recover their shipment, and slip back out again without encountering a single reporter; Or anypony at all, for that matter. The entire bunker seemed eerily silent, with the only sounds coming from the direction of the main entrance.

Returning to the main workshop, the two mares then began their arduous task of attaching the winglet assembly to the back segment of the rocket, all with incorrectly-sized rivets.

Installing rivets was a complicated enough procedure in the first place, requiring one pony to hold the bucking bar up against one side of the planned joint, whilst the other positioned and triggered a pneumatically-powered hammer from the other side; And to make this ridiculous procedure even harder, the heavy recoil of their air-hammers also meant, that, unless one wanted to shatter all her teeth at once, it couldn't be held with the mouth, and had to be levitated by a unicorn instead. All in all, Zvezda deeply despised whoever had invented the fiddly little things, and desperately wanted to go back to the all-welded construction of their last rocket.

Unfortunately, impractical as they were to install, rivets were also the only existing method of sufficiently strong and lightweight enough construction that did not require large amounts of electricity. Meanwhile, the workshop was working to a schedule, and their new design was to be five times as complicated as the last one; Quite literally five times, as the new vehicle would consist of a cluster of five of the old rockets stuck together via strong steel supports, then ignited all at once.

To manage such an increase in workload within the strict schedule, the assembly process had to have been ruthlessly optimized, all waste and inefficiency eliminated; This meant all of the workshop's welding torches were constantly in use, attaching the heaviest and most critical joints together, thereby leaving the assembly of other systems to simpler methods. Zvezda, given her talents, would normally have been assigned to one of the welding teams, but the Supervisor must have gotten up in a seriously bad mood today.

Of course, all of these complaints about riveting applied to the most ideal situation; When the rivets were the same size as the holes, and the pneumatic hammers worked. Neither of which was the case today.

Her horn glowing bright, Sara screamed in frustration as she repeatedly smashed the air-hammer onto the hard concrete floor of the workshop in vain attempts to repair it, possibly under the old adage of „If it doesn't work, kick it harder“. On another day, the sight would have deeply amused Zvezda, but today she felt only pain as she tried to push the large rivet into the thin winglet component with her teeth, the metal refusing to budge in response.

After a few more minutes of fruitless activity, the two mares gave up and, exhausted, lifelessly slumped up against the cold metal hull of their workpiece. The rocket segment was still on its own, an isolated cylinder of sixty-five inches diameter and one hundred inches of length, fresh from the factory, lying in a distant corner of the workshop. Unfortunately, the schedule called for it to be attached to the rest of the rocket by tomorrow evening, and to accomplish that, the winglets would absolutely have to get mounted today.

„This whole joke costs millions of bits to make, but they couldn't spare a few hundred on a single working compressor?“ Sara complained, still breathing rapidly from the exertion.

„Or, you know, they could've just bought more welding torches,“ Zvezda wished aloud, flexing her back and yawning, „Either way, it's a pretty good way of making sure we never oversleep again.“

„True enough,“ Sara smiled sadly, then looked around, „Speaking of Mrs. Cranky, I haven't seen her since we came back from Nine. You?“

Ah. That would explain why she wasn't screaming at them for abuse of workshop equipment right about now. Zvezda shook her head in response.

„Want to sneak back to Four for some coffee?“

„Sure.“

After a few more minutes of lifeless leaning, they managed to gather enough energy to get back on their four hooves and carefully make their way over to the workshop's massive doors. As Sara carefully peeked outside and checked the coast was clear, Zvezda took one last glance at the metal cylinder.

A warning light suddenly lit up in her head. Her mind screamed at her. Probably not good signs. Surprised, she took a long careful look at the rocket segment, mentally cross-referencing every detail with the copy of the blueprints inside her head. The outer plates arrangement, the unbroken texture of the propellant filling, the position of the winglet adaptors; Everything was... perfect.

Huh? What's wrong with that?

„Come on. Let's go,“ Sara pulled her away from the rocket, and the two quickly galloped across the open yard. Zvezda shook her head. She really needed some coffee.

~~~~~

„Anyway, mister Silbervogel-“

„Geist, please.“

„-Geist; What can you tell us about your job here at Cape Coltaveral?“

The brown earth pony smiled as he looked into the face of the reporter, a voice recorder held under his mouth. Turning around, he gestured across the long hangar, where the seven equenaut candidates were each sitting in a spinning acceleration couch, rapidly flipping switches and toggling buttons as their training units continued to revolve faster and faster, bulbs of various colours glowing around them.

As a large crowd of reporters took pictures of the exercise, or shouted over each other in attempts to pry more information out of Redstone, Geist stood in a distant corner of the room, alone with the single reporter. Looking at the scene again, he silently thanked Celestia for not giving him the professor's place, just this once.

Suddenly realizing the journalist was still waiting for his answer, he cleared his throat and began:

„Essentially, I am chief mechanic for the Equenaut training programme. My responsibilities include both the planning and construction of various-“

„So you built these things?“ the reporter interrupted. Seeing him nod, she quickly followed up:

„Could you perhaps explain what they're doing there, then? It looks quite... pointless. Just spinning around and pressing random buttons.“

„Well, at first sight, that's certainly what it looks like,“ he chuckled, „But our calculations have shown quite clearly that, upon take-off, the equenaut pilot will be subject to many strenuous accelerations and rotations. This means we need to test each candidate's ability to concentrate under such harsh conditions. Basically, we've had them memorize a checklist, which they then have to replicate while the seat spins faster and faster. Each testing unit also contains a specialized electro-mechanical recorder, which logs the precise time and position of every single keypress. Once the test is finished, we can go over these paper tapes and compare-“

„So, you have access to the performance records of the Equestria Seven?“ the reporter, who appeared to be dozing off during Geist's technical exposition, suddenly regained her focus. An uncertain nod was all that she needed.

„Can you tell our readers who's looking most promising, then?“ she asked, adding a wink, „Who'll be going up first?“

Geist, remembering Redstone's earlier lecture on confronting the press, suddenly became very fearful for his job, and quickly shook his head:

„I... err... not really, no,“ he slowly began, stalling for time until he hit on a workable excuse, „At least not yet. The flight's going to put incredible strain on both the mind and body of the pilot, and until we have done some serious testing we cannot-“

„As head mechanic, you must have spent plenty of time with the equenauts. Can you tell us anything, how should we put it, 'interesting', about any of them?“

„We... the Cosmodrome cannot release any personal informa-“

The reporter violently stamped her hoof, „You're not exactly giving me much to go on, here! Come on, the readers want all the juicy stuff! Do they drink? Is one of them lesbian?“

„This is ridiculous-“

„You'll have full anonymity. 'Trustworthy insider source' and all that.“

„I... I honestly cannot-“

„I'll make it worth your while,“ the reporter winked again, producing a small bag of bits out of nowhere, „Here's a hundred. Now come on, spill the beans. What's the deal with Dash's mane? What brand's colour does she use? Or,“ the reporter suddenly gasped in excitement, „Is she an illicit-“

„Lady, that's quite enough!“ Geist quickly stopped her, kicking the bag of coins back, „I don't know what's more insulting; That you're asking these questions in the first place, or that you're trying to bribe me with such a pitiful sum of money.“

For a few seconds, tense silence filled the air as the two ponies stared at each other.

„Fine. Have it your way, then,“ the reporter snarled, scooping up her money, „I'll find somepony else who'll talk, you bet your flank! And just wait 'till you see the headlines tomorrow! 'Overpaid engineers stuff their faces while poor foals freeze in the streets of Manehattan'... you'll regret ever messing with the press, I promise you that!“

As she retreated back towards the rest of the crowd, uttering ever more horrible things, Geist sighed in relief. As if that headline would ever convince anypony.

~~~~~

Having fuelled up with some aviation-grade caffeine, Zvezda and Sara spent the next three hours steadily chipping away at their work. As Sara slowly moved from one mounting hole to the next, using her magic to enlarge each and every one, Zvezda stripped down and reassembled the entire pneumatic hammer, discovering the small pressure regulator cap had gotten lodged in the closed position.

„You know, this is the one problem that you could actually have fixed by just hitting it against the wall,“ Zvezda idly noted in amusement, breaking the past two hours of silence.

Except for the two mares, the workshop was now completely devoid of life, with the primary assembly crews having left for their lunch breaks half an hour ago; Zvezda and Sara wouldn't normally skip lunch, but they had taken too long in retrieving the crate, and would have to hurry up to get all the rivets installed in time.

The pair spent the next ten minutes in more blissful silence, upset only by the subtle creaking of metal and Zvezda's repeated tests of the air-hammer. As she verified the piston was working for the last time, she thought again about the rocket, and wondered why she just couldn't shake that feeling of wrongness out of her head. She had glanced at the segment frequently during the past few hours, and made certain that every single component was exactly where it was supposed to be, that every single seam was perfect, that the metal was smooth and unbuckled; It was all good, so why did it feel so wrong?

Her thoughts were interrupted as the large doors of the hangar suddenly came sliding open. Exchanging worried glances, both mares jumped on their feet to investigate the intruder. It was a blue pegasus, wearing an elaborate hairdo, sunglasses, a pair of bulky saddlebags, holding a camera as she suspiciously looked around; Obviously a journalist. Even disregarding the camera, nopony living here had such well-combed hair.

As she began taking pictures of the workshop and the massive half-assembled booster, Sara took a concerned look at Zvezda.

„I can handle one,“ she smiled back. Nodding at each other, the two then quickly galloped up to the reporter:

„Ma'am, this is a restricted area!“

„Why?“ the reporter screamed in disbelief, ascending closer to the ceiling where she couldn't be caught, „Why do you have so much security everywhere? Why don't you let anypony see the rockets? Or the labs? You're more than happy letting the tabloids take all the pictures of the equenauts they want, but not one single pony has bothered to tell me anything scientific about the giant spaceships here! Is it really so evil of me, just trying to run a factual article?“

Once again, Sara and Zvezda glanced at each other, this time with far more uncertainty. The reporter seemed to be almost in tears at the end of her tirade. This was no Canterlot Daily employee, that much was for sure.

„We're just assembly workers, sorry,“ Sara quietly began, „We can let you take the pictures, I guess. But can't really say much about what it all is. Or how exactly it works.“

The reporter seemed to pick up interest at those words. Flipping a switch on her saddlebags, a reel-to-reel recorder began spinning up to life on her back as she descended and approached the duo:

„So, you don't actually know what you're working on here? They don't tell you?“

„Well, not really. We mostly go off the blueprints and don't ask quest-“ Sara began, but was promptly cut short by Zvezda, who sensed a potential disaster brewing:

„We know all the theoretical principles. The action-reaction engine, the expander nozzle, so on and so forth,“ she quickly iterated over what little she knew of the rocket's operation, „We just don't know all the details – say, the precise aerodynamic characteristics – because that needs lifelong experts.“

„Of course,“ the reporter smiled innocently, then flew up to an unassembled segment of the rocket and ran her hoof over the sandstone-like material that filled the entirety of its interior. Snapping a picture, she continued, „So, this is the solid propellant?“

Trotting up behind her, Zvezda glanced at the rocket and nodded, „Yeah. Like I said, I specialize in metalworking, so I don't know its exact chemistry, but-“

„You assemble this rocket here, then? How? With those?“ she suddenly changed the topic, pointing to the rack of welding torches on a nearby wall. Zvezda could sense these questions were being oddly specific, but had no choice except to nod.

„Arc welding, yes? Using electricity and consumable electrodes. Only used in small-scale lab tests before.“

„Yes. The Cosmodrome employs plenty of revolutionary-“

The reporter quickly faced the rocket again, „So, you assemble the individual segments with the propellant already cast into them? Using electric torches?“

Oh buck. Zvezda suddenly realized just what story the reporter was playing at here. She quickly scrambled for damage control:

„It's all grounded! The workshop takes utmost care when handling fuelled components. And the ignition temperature of the fuel is so high it cannot possibly be triggered-“

„You say 'cannot', but it is theoretically feasible, no? If sufficient care isn't taken, this rocket could blow up in everypony's faces? Like a big firework?“

„The- the energies for space flight are so high, that-“

„Thank you for your time,“ she beamed at Zvezda, cutting her off in the middle of her sentence and completely throwing off her train of thought.

As Zvezda tried to get her mind back in order, the reporter turned around to Sara. Seeing the confounded look on her face, she quickly took a picture, then continued:

„As for you, don't worry. Once the public hears of this, we'll do our best to get this sweatshop closed down. You have my word.“

And just like that, she was gone.

„Sweatshop?“ Sara got out, the puzzled expression still on her face.

„If you're already sceptical of the programme, that's what it might look like, I guess,“ Zvezda shrugged, „She probably talked to a few of the other girls too. Hired under false pretences, forced to do overtime with no extra pay, handling dangerous substances with little education... that dumb look on your face sure didn't help.“

„Oi!“ she shouted, „I just work the metal! I've never even heard of an 'action-reaction engine' before you said it. Or 'ignition point'...“

Pausing a bit, she took a worried glance at the rocket, then added, „And just because you figured it all out doesn't mean I have. Has that rocket really been fuelled this entire time and nopony's told me anything about it?“

„That's why the supervisor spent the entire first day talking about good safety procedures! Why she kept insisting all the time we can't overheat the joints! Did you really think all that yellow filling was just ballast?“

„I didn't know, all right? Maybe the fuel would only become explosive after you've mixed it with some chemical at the pad or something! I just thought the heating would warp the metal! And I certainly didn't think we could all blow up with a single mistake!“ Sara shouted, then stared at the rocket again, „You'd really think they'd tell us we're working on high explosives here.“

„Well, no matter how you frame it, rivets can't blow anything up,“ Zvezda gave up, yawning, „Come on, we have a lot to catch up on.“

Grumbling, Sara slowly returned to their explosive workpiece. Zvezda was about to follow her, then, realizing something, did a second take on the large and almost finished booster lying at the centre of the workshop; Six of its seven segments were already welded together, only awaiting the final piece that the two mares were still working on. She studied the structure for a long time, then closed her eyes. No warning lights, no hunches, no nothing. Huh.

Mumbling something about ghosts, Zvezda trotted off to their workpiece. Using the straps provided for that purpose, she firmly attached the bucking bar to her hind leg, wearing it like a clunky metal sandal.

As Sara lifted the air-hammer and levitated the first rivet to the joint, Zvezda firmly pressed her hoof against the metal. Sara positioned the air hammer directly against the other side of the joint, then, with a click, fired the pneumatically powered tool, smashing the rivet against the bucking bar, the small piece of metal deforming on impact and becoming irreversibly latched in place.

Zvezda flinched at the recoil, then, removing her hoof, moved an inch to the right and pressed her hind leg up against the next joint in line. They had about a thousand of the stupid things to install.

Zvezda sighed as she went through this ridiculous practice. She just knew a unicorn had invented these. Or, perhaps, an anomalously educated dragon. Either case, someone who wasn't stuck with hooves!

~~~~~

Though the sun had since gone down, Cherry was flinching at the light. In the tall briefing hall of Stable II, the seven equenaut candidates were proudly standing side by side, all wearing their reflective space suits and posing for the hundreds of cameras that unceasingly flashed at them; Their grandeur further enhanced by the rather insignificant figure of the Director standing off to their side, looking most mundane when compared to the row of shining pegasi.

Cherry glanced at herself with pride. The gleaming silver suit she was wearing was nothing more than a mock up, the first trial of the first version of the first prototype. Literally every system required for a space suit was still missing, from the cooling water inlets to the wing seals, and their helmets were yet to be elevated from the status of sketches lying on the Director's desk.

Nevertheless, one couldn't tell that from a simple glance, and its reflective silver surface and dozens of zips definitely looked most space-agey, not to mention very cool. Cherry was most pleased with the design.

„You've been hearing about them the whole day. You saw them train, watched as they went through strenuous exercises designed to stretch their bodies and minds to the very limits,“ the Director spoke into one of the many microphones prepared at the front of the podium, „But finally, here they are, ready to answer all your questions! Fillies and gentlecolts, I give you... the Equestria Seven!“

For the first time since they had entered the stage, the barrage of camera flashes ceased, instead replaced with a thunderous applause. Cherry smiled, and, with the other equenauts, took a deep bow for the audience. She felt at the top of the world.

All the training, the late nights spent looking through boring textbooks, the constant verbal abuse by Redstone and his ridiculous training schemes, were all finally starting to pay off. She had never particularly wanted to be a superstar, but this wasn't empty fame, oh no. She wasn't just some pretty model, or a singer who just happened to have a nice voice. Instead, she was one of Equestria's finest, one of the best pegasi on the entire planet, being rewarded for skill and determination instead of simple luck. Quite simply put, it was the best moment of her life.

Soon thereafter, the applause died off, and a hundred hooves shot up into the air. The Director pointed to one of them, seemingly at random:

„Joey Flatsides, Hoofington Post. A general question for the Seven; Faced with such scepticism from all ends of society, do you really think this project can succeed? Is it really possible for a pony to fly into space?“

The Director took a breath, but then stepped back and turned to face the equenauts. It was all on them now. The pegasi glanced around at each other. Cherry hadn't really been expecting such a loaded question right off the bat, and wasn't quite sure she could answer it properly, at least not without ample potential for misquoting or out-of-context mangling. And judging by the looks on the others' faces, the rest of the corps wasn't either.

A deep blue pegasus with a short azure mane, standing on the very left of the line, cleared her throat and stepped forward. Cherry smiled to herself. Bliz always had been at the forefront of the group, and tonight was no exception:

„Personally, I think that's a very silly question. The best minds of Equestria stand behind this space programme, ponies whose match this world hasn't met for a long time. And remember, even Celestia herself has personally blessed this project. I say to our neighsayers; Look at the light bulbs in your home. That electric oven you use daily. You don't question those, and yet they run on the very same mathematics as our rockets. Just think about that for a second. Thank you.“

„Next question, please. Yes, you, the mare with the yellow mane.“

„Amber Wright, The Royal Herald. Another question for the Seven; You're all very aware of the sheer risks involved. Nopony can even guess at the dangers that will await you up there. What drives you to disregard all that, and fly anyway?“

„Like I said before, the best minds across the planet have gathered to work on this project. We cannot fail,“ Bliz started off. To her side, Rainbow Dash stepped forward:

„You're talking to the best fliers in all of Equestria here. If anypony can ride these things up to space and come back alive, it's us.“

„Who, me? I'll be going last. They'll have six flights to make it work right, so I don't worry,“ Ala joked, drawing a laugh from the audience, „Seriously though, those ponies are geniuses. I'm sure the first flight will be just as safe.“

„I was born in a small village north of Haliflanks. Insignificant little place, not on any map you'd find. We didn't have much money, but my parents worked the clouds day and night to put me through the Academy and give their little filly just a chance at better future than they themselves could ever hope to have. I'm doing this for them.“

„This is the greatest adventure of our lives, maybe of our entire history. I'd be a fool not to try.“

Cherry, standing near the end of the line, nervously examined the huge assembled audience. She glanced around. No matter how convincing she had tried to be, Redstone simply wouldn't allow for Zvezda, Geist, or any of the others to be present here, alternating between 'Are you mad?' and 'No. Just no.' every time she asked. She would have brought them along anyway, but they weren't in the canteen or any of their rooms. Swallowing, she began:

„Every morning, I see the ponies who build the rockets that will take us up. I hear them talk about possible improvements over breakfast. When I go to sleep, I can see their lights still on, working their flanks off to ensure the ships are in the best shape physically possible. Even when we have lunch together, they bring over a few schematics to study up on. They're my friends, they're working their hardest, and I know they won't let me down.“

„I think the others have said it all, really,“ Scud, a pink pegasus with a long flowing blonde mane, proudly finished off, „We're the best, we're backed by the best, and we're going on the best adventure ever. What's not to like?“

„Strong words there, coming from the Equestria Seven,“ the Director nodded approvingly as the audience applauded, „Next question, please? You there!“

„To Ala – you said you'd be going up last. Who will be the first?“

„I was just joking,“ she laughed, then continued, „There are still a lot more tests to go through before that can be decided. But I think it's plenty obvious I'll be going up first.“

„Miss Dash, any comment on that?“

„I think Ala is quite right; I think it's plenty obvious I'll be going up first.“

The room exploded in laughter as Ala jokingly slapped Rainbow's head with one of her wings. After the uproar had quietened down, another reporter got her turn:

„Ruchka L. Krasnya, Only Pravda,“ a crimson pegasus announced from above the crowd, „This one's aimed at 'Bliz' Shepard; You talked about how your rockets operate on the same physics as an oven, or a light bulb. While that is undoubtedly true, and there certainly are similarities, wouldn't you agree that our knowledge of such high-energy situations is far more limited than of the kitchen?“

„Thanks for that question, Ruchka, I'm glad you asked,“ Bliz smoothly began, „I admit I wasn't particularly clear on that part of my argument – I certainly did not want to suggest building a rocket was on the same level as building a refrigerator, or any such similar appliance. My point was this; When you hear a mechanic talk about the physics inside a fridge, the heat exchange pumps and cooling mediums, you don't doubt her one bit. And yet, when we start talking about going to space, your faith suddenly vanishes, even though it uses the same theoretical approaches, even though the equations powering our rocket are exactly as trustworthy as those powering a fridge. I know that it's a hard concept to wrap your head around, but going to space with technology is no less possible than keeping your food cold for an entire week without magic – something our ancestors would have regarded as equally impossible.“

„Thank you for that most eloquent explanation, Bliz. Next question!“

„Another one for miss Dash; The Director refused comment, but perhaps you will reveal this yourself. Since you are technically a 'civil servant', what kind of salary will you receive?“

„Not one bit more than my old weather job. Surprised me too, actually. I'm kind of hoping for some magazine deals now. Hint hint,“ Dash winked, drawing another laugh from the audience.

„A question for Cherry Skies,“ a reporter shouted, causing her to snap to attention, „Shares of Skies Precision AG have already jumped thirty per cent from today's opening value, and are still trending upwards. Can you give us any comment on that?“

Cherry, suddenly realizing her father would be opening the evening papers about this time of day, paused uncertainly. Being a public celebrity was quickly becoming harder than she had ever expected.

~~~~~

Rolling around in her bunk bed – the lower one, obviously, as when they had first been shown their room, Sara had used magic to hold her back while grabbing the top bunk for herself – Zvezda still couldn't shake that rocket segment out of her head.

Of course you can't! You've been working on the thing the entire day! Makes perfect sense.

That's what she told herself, at least. But she knew it wasn't true.

She thought back to the sight of the half-assembled vehicle. That strange feeling, that hunch she got upon looking at it. That was the reason.

Zvezda scowled to herself as she remembered it. She knew how her own mind worked. She knew she was much better at spotting details than most other ponies. That's what made her a good metalworker, after all; Whilst a normal pony might glance over a minor imperfection in a weld as something inconsequential, Zvezda's brain would make sure to carefully consider its severity and possible modes of failure. She saw all the little things.

She didn't get 'hunches'. Such imprecise feelings were for other ponies.

What's a hunch supposed to be, anyway?

A warning light from the subconscious, maybe? Yes. A cry of attention, desperately trying to tell the conscious mind it had missed something. Silently, Zvezda wondered about that massive intelligence hidden inside her head, never accessible, but always working. It was amazing to consider, really, a mind which never stopped running, always controlling the million little things inside her body, plugging away through the night, discretely slipping her conscious mind ideas when she ran low on inspiration; Those sudden flashes of genius, seemingly coming out of nowhere, were each the product of a vast intellect ceaselessly working day and night.

And now, that intellect was trying to tell her something. Zvezda thought about it. If a normal pony got a 'hunch' when Zvezda would have seen the problem right away...

There was something there. She was sure of it. Balancing just on the edge of perception, barely visible, but most definitely there, and most definitely wrong.

Quietly getting out of bed and putting on a thick coat by the dim moonlit, she managed to slip out into the corridor without waking Sara. One quick trot through the cold desert later, she was standing at the doors of Stable VII.

Just as she reached for the door, a tall stallion in a dark leather coat interrupted her:

„Halt! What are you? Saboteur? Or spy?“

The thought of him guarding the workshop had crossed Zvezda's head. Fortunately, she had a plan:

„Commissar!“ she put on her most desperate voice, „Thank Celestia I found you! Some strange ponies are trying to break into the research labs! Hurry!“

The guard pony's ears straightened up, and with not so much as a 'thank you, worker!', he was gone. Zvezda smiled. With the sudden influx of unauthorized journalists and visitors touring the Cape without any special permission or oversight, the Commissar's normal paranoia must have been whipped up to ridiculous extremes. All it took was a little push, and...

Smiling, she entered the dark hangar. Grasping a small torch in her teeth, she turned it on and trotted over to that very same booster segment she had spent the entire day working on. Angling the light better in her mouth, she closely examined the imposing metal cylinder. Its cold grey sleeve was still perfect, as she had already verified many times today. Similarly, the sandstone-like propellant that filled the cylinder in its entirety was flawless, its rough texture glistening in the shaking light of the torch. There was nothing wrong.

Of course, that could only mean one thing. Zvezda realized it now. If the perfect module felt wrong; That meant all the others, the ones that didn't 'trigger' anything, must have been somehow imperfect. Including their last rocket launch, and including the ones that were being assembled right now.

Quickly moving the torch over to the mostly-assembled booster, she began studying its every detail. All the seams were nothing short of perfection, each painstakingly welded together with great effort and love, the filler element flowing and devoid of any bubbles. Unlike the earlier attempts, the metal skin was quite smooth, direct proof the forgemasters had gained plenty of experience on the last rocket and could now churn out masterwork by the roomful.

Moving the torch up again, Zvezda stared at the unfinished end of the rocket, the place where the end segment would be attached tomorrow (or possibly today, depending on the current time). The propellant also looked as normal as ever; A solid filling of rough sand, cast in place, taking up the entire interior of the rocket.

She approached it. Everything else was good, so this must have been it.

Hearing shouts outside, her ears snapped to attention. The Commissar must have seen through her admittedly poor trickery, and would be bringing the entire security detachment back with him. For a second, Zvezda wondered whatever had made her do such a stupid thing in the first place – probably her chronic lack of sleep – then dropped the thought and concentrated on the rough yellow material.

Too late. The door smashed open, and two dozen dark figures appeared in the entryway, shining torches into Zvezda's eyes.

„Step away from that rocket, worker!“ the Director's commanding voice boomed through the cavernous hangar, „Commissar, advance!“

„Wait!“ Zvezda screamed, „Look at this! Look!“

The advancing stallions ceased in their gallop, and turned to the Director. Intrigued, she carefully made her way over to Zvezda, flanked by security and stopping a safe distance away.

„Explain yourself, worker,“ she said coldly. Zvezda gesticulated wildly to the cast propellant:

„Look at this! Just look!“

„I am not coming one step closer until you explain yourself. Commissar, take-“

„I mean these cracks! Can't you see them?“ she shouted to the Director, running her hooves across the surface of the propellant, „It's full of them. Tiny little cracks. They're not on the segments fresh out of the factory, but they are all over the assembled ones.“

„That is irrelevant, worker! Such-“ the Commissar began, but was cut short by the Director, who proceeded to slowly approach the rocket, not saying a word. After running her head an inch above the propellant's surface, she turned away, blinking at Zvezda in disbelief:

„How did you ever notice this?“

„Call it a hunch,“ Zvezda beamed, „I think I even know what's causing it! The propellant is cast into the ring segments, then hardened and shipped here. When we weld two of them together, the metal heats and expands unevenly, stretching and squishing the propellant with it!“

The Commissar approached closer, then glanced at the booster, „But they are so small. This is huge rocket. How can this matter?“

„When we ignite the rocket, the propellant burns slowly from one end to the other, like a candle,“ the Director began, „The thrust of the engine depends on the rate of burn.“

„And cracks?“

„Normally, the fire only burns the fuel mass in immediate contact; But when it hits on an air pocket, it ignites all the propellant lining the sides of the fracture, a much greater surface area than a contiguous surface. That gives you sudden and unexpected jolts in the burn rate.“

„Hmm... did you not say last rocket explode from unexplained acceleration?“

„Exactly! I based everything off the theoretical rate of burn. If these fractures were on the last rocket as well...“ she trailed off, then looked back at Zvezda, „How did you know of all this?“

„I didn't. I just thought something was wrong, then saw the cracks,“ she shrugged in response. The Director briefly laughed at such candour, then nodded approvingly as she surveyed the rest of the rocket:

„However you did it, this discovery changes everything. If you hadn't caught it, the next rocket would accelerate too fast and break apart again, just like the last one. You just saved us a few million bits, worker!“

Zvezda smiled uncertainly. Now that this strange 'hunch' was off her mind, she was quickly starting to realize just how tired she was.

„You work Vehicle Assembly, correct?“ the Director resumed, „How would you like a promotion, worker? We need to get Star Walker prototyping underway, and that job requires the best metalsmiths in Equestria. From what I've seen of you here, I think your talents are being wasted just welding parts of rocket together. What do you say?“

Zvezda's instincts jumped at the proposition. But there was one important detail stopping her:

„With all due respect, Director, I don't think I can just accept this. The job is interesting, but without my friends, without Terra, and Blues, and Sara, I just don't think I'd-“

The Director's ears jumped to attention, „Sara? That unicorn you ponies christened our last rocket after?“

Seeing Zvezda nod, the Director looked first at the rocket, then back at her:

„You know what? You just saved us from major public embarrassment and entire months of our time and budget. You four can get the job, why not. Report to Lab F in Stable V tomorrow, nine hundred hours and not a second later. I'll finish up the paperwork before going to bed, so don't worry about that. And, again, you have my thanks, worker.“

Leaving Zvezda behind, the Director walked off at a brisk pace, flanked by the retreating security guards, and already mumbling of new models for burn rate estimation under her breath.

Meanwhile, Zvezda considered this new development. There was one detail in particular that jumped out at her: She'd get to wake up a whole two hours later.

Oh yes.

A dumb smile on her face, she slowly left for her quarters in Stable IV.