• 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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Reach for Tomorrow

„T minus five hours! Repeat, five hours until lift-off! Vehicle is now secure on the pad. Entering pre-activation sequence.“

Leaning against the concrete wall of Stable VII and enjoying the shade, Zvezda looked on with interest as yet another transport balloon approached the busy patch of otherwise-unremarkable desert that had suddenly become an airfield. Next to her, Sara did the same, slowly and loudly chewing on a bubble gum, in highly erratic and unpredictable intervals that greatly annoyed Zvezda. The pair watched the enormous crowds of ponies ebb and flow around the Cosmodrome, carefully stemmed by the ever-watchful stallions of the commissar.

Zvezda wasn't sure she had ever seen such a large crowd all at once, not even at the first press conference; Ponies of every possible colour, hairstyle, and accessory were streaming in, hopping off the gondolas and uncertainly looking around their drab surroundings. Every strata of society was well-represented here; Academics in their thick glasses, vacationing families with little foals running and jumping all about, haughty-looking nobility seeking to be noticed at such a grand event, as well as just the occasional complete weirdo. Zvezda watched the multitudes stream by in silent fascination. Just when she thought she had seen the most interesting of the lot, another new arrival disembarked, brandishing an original outfit or an elaborate hairdo that made her reconsider. It was a little overwhelming, sure, but that was part of the fun!

A faint, uncertain voice broke her trance:

„Um... excuse me, miss?“

Zvezda tracked its origin; It was a little filly of pale olive skin, still without her cutie mark and sporting an adorable pink bow. Looking up with her giant orange eyes in a childlike mixture of fear and hopeful expectation, she made Zvezda's heart swell.

„What's the matter, sweetie? You lost?“ Zvezda asked, automatically slipping into that infantile inflection adults use when talking to little foals. The filly did not take it well:

„I'm not a sweetie!“ she began resolutely, digging her hooves into the ground, „And I'm not lost! Just... uhhh... exploring! That's it, I'm exploring!“

Ironically, that little display of resistance made her even more adorable. Not able to resist, Zvezda looked down and patted her on the head.

„Well, where do you want to explore, sweetie? I'm sure we can take you there.“

The filly flinched at the patronization, but obviously recognized her chance:

„I want to see the rocket!“

Sara smiled in response, likewise unable to resist the sheer tidal wave of cuteness.

„Whoa, steady there! You know we can't let you do that. Now, why don't you check out the museum? That has all the-“

„The museum? Mah sis stuffed me there! It's so stuffed and bare and boring! I want to see the real thing!“

The two mares exchanged amused glances, then looked back at the stubborn filly. Sensing her argument hadn't worked, she tried again:

„I just want a closer looksie! I won't break anything, I swear!“

„Aww. We know you won't,“ Sara began, a wide motherly smile on her face, „But what would your sis think of us if we let you wonder around dangerous chemicals? These rockets are full of them, you know!“

„She knows I can handle myself! That's why she let me wonder around all alone!“

„Did she really, now?“ Zvezda raised an eyebrow and gave her a questioning look. The filly was about to respond, then paused mid-breath. A few seconds later, she tried again:

„Mah sis' a champion of Celestia herself! You have to let me in!“

A shadow quickly blocked out the sun, for just the briefest millisecond.

„Should we ask her ourselves, then?“ Sara asked absent-mindedly, gazing upwards.

Zvezda, tracing Sara's sights, looked up above, and gasped in surprise.

A giant shining... something... was quickly making its way through the skies, circling the Cosmodrome in a wide loop as it slowly descended towards the ground. Zvezda tried to focus in on the object; Despite its polished surface nearly blinding her with reflected sunlight, she was nevertheless able to make out a quartet of far-swept wings, two on each side, flanking a vaguely conical central hull. As she studied the peculiar vehicle, a loudspeaker on the nearest corner of the nearby building crackled to life, in unison with the rest of the facility's PA system.

„General bulletin: The royal diarchy, the joint princesses of the sun and moon, blessed for all ages, have decided to bless our facility with their divine presence. The carriage is now on final approach,“ it blared in slightly distorted overtones, „Please rise for a rendition of the national anthem.“

The great vehicle continued its rapid flight through the heavens, and quickly disappeared behind the tall roofs of the concrete hangars that surrounded them.

„Come on!“ Sara suddenly urged them on, „Let's watch from the roof!“

As her friend galloped off towards the roof access, Zvezda spared one brief glance at the little filly, remembering the Commissar's lengthy lecture on 'civilian access to restricted areas'. Then, she looked into the foal's endearing eyes, pleadingly spread wide open in anticipation, and sighed.

Oh, why the hay not.

Gesturing after Sara, she was momentarily left surprised by the sheer speed the little filly reached as she rocketed towards the staircase, then, smiling to herself, set off in pursuit.

One rapid gallop up the rickety metal staircase later, the three were all standing on the roof of Stable VII, lined up on its very edge, looking out towards the launch pad; The little filly between them was almost jumping with excitement.

The royal orchestra, in all its entirety, was spread out just before the rocket, dressed up in glistening golden armour and conducted by a shining white unicorn. All around the facility, their efforts were being poorly re-transmitted by the omnipresent loudspeakers.

In two large quarter-circles, positioned against each other and centred around the main pad – and hence also around the band – towered enormous podiums and observation towers, currently about half-occupied by multicoloured crowds. Even from her distant vantage point, Zvezda could see the intermittent flashes coming from the spectators; Most likely the reflections of a hundred binoculars and opera glasses.

Amidst all this grandeur, the rocket looked almost mundane – five simple cylinders of dull steel, arranged side-by-side an 'X' pattern, each linked together with support struts and terminating in a small stubby nosecone. Only by its position at the central pad could an external observer deduce it was of any importance.

Suddenly, the air above the trio began shaking. Being a simple earth pony, it took Zvezda a few seconds to work out just what that deep hum at the edge of perception really was. Sara, on the other hoof, got it immediately:

„Everypony down!“ she screamed at the top of her lungs, and slammed herself, along with the puzzled filly, onto the ground. Finally connecting up the dots, Zvezda quickly followed.

And none too soon. Just as she was hugging the rough flat roof of the hangar, a massive dark shape passed directly overhead, thundering along and missing her head by mere inches. Feeling the massive turbulence throw streams of her mane in all directions, she quickly looked up.

With this (uncomfortably) closer look at the new royal carriage, Zvezda could now see it was a giant winged ship, built of gleaming space-age chrome and flanked by two long pods – probably enchanted with levitating magic, she half-deduced and half-guessed. Its hull was decorated with many delicate engravings, of past victories and ancient legends, as well as grand achievements of pony science. The entire vehicle was large enough to hold a decent-sized bedroom inside – which it probably did – and also had an upper observation deck.

And on that deck stood Equestria's eternal ruler, the wisest of all ponies, the most generous of overseers – Celestia herself, her pearly wings broadly outstretched, her starry mane and tail fluttering in the wind as the sky-ship continued its slow descent. Zvezda stared at the royal figure. It was the first time she had seen their ruler for herself – never knowing of her last visit until well after it had already happened, having spent the entire day working on nozzle actuators – and it certainly left an impression. At the back of her mind, she was thankful the Princess was facing away, and that she didn't have to meet her (no-doubt) steely gaze up front.

There was a subtle stir on the main deck. Peeling her eyes off the shining white goddess for a second, Zvezda noticed a second figure – when compared to Celestia, she looked small and insignificant, but, especially to a common pony like Zvezda, still remained impossibly royal.

It took her brain a few more moments to fully process the breathtaking scene. Unlike the Princess of the Sun, the second figure wasn't towering proudly, or even looking forward; Instead, and Zvezda's eyes widened as she realized this, she was looking backwards, directly at her, head slightly cowed and smiling almost... apologetically?

Off to her side, Sara waved excitedly after the distancing carriage. The filly followed, and Zvezda hesitantly joined in. Seeing the three ponies were fine and well, the dark mysterious figure smiled back, nodded to herself, then turned around and took her position at Celestia's side.

The carriage was touching down now, the royal fanfare crescending, but Zvezda didn't care. In amazement, she exchanged looks with Sara and the little filly.

„Was that...?“

„I think so,“ Sara wondered aloud, „I mean, I heard all the fanfare, but kind of glossed over it. Thought it'd never affect me, you know?“

„Yeah. I was starting to wonder if she actually existed. You have one giant announcement, and then she just completely disappears. Weird.“

Meanwhile, the little filly just kept staring after the carriage, and the two now-disembarking princesses. Excitement in her eyes, she looked up to the two mares:

„Is it always like this? Fanfares and princesses and flying ships and stuff?“

„Nah. Usually it's just a boring job. Come in early, work all day, go eat something, hang out a bit, then go to sleep late,“ Sara sighed, but with far less derision than she once have had.

„Well, it's pretty exciting. Not usually this much, obviously, but still quite a bit,“ Zvezda smiled.

The little filly looked between the two mares in confusion, then looked back at her blank flank.

„Maybe a rocket-building cutie mark...“

~~~~~

„T minus three hours! Repeat, three hours until lift-off! Power has been routed to onboard systems. Circuitry pre-heat underway.“

„So, anyway, the electricity builds up in the air between the two plates, and, uh...“ Twilight trailed off, then began shuffling through the pages of the massive book once again.

Rainbow's eyes rolled off the many napkin diagrams that now littered their table, covering every place not occupied by apples or apple-based products. If Twilight can't figure it out, how am I supposed to get it?

„Oh, I had this a second ago!“ Twilight exclaimed in frustration, „Just wait a sec, I'll find it again.“

Over Rainbow's shoulder, Applejack was examining the piles of scattered circuit diagrams and mathematical derivations with considerable interest. Catching Dash's eye, a sideways smile appeared on her face:

„Well, the Programme's sure done one miracle already! They turned you into a real bona-fide mathematician!“

„Shut up,“ Dash uttered defensively, „I just need it for tomorrow. I'm not actually learning anything.“

„Well, it sure don't look like that to me!“

Rainbow was about to retort, but then another pony appeared at the makeshift counter behind them, and Applejack was drawn away to service the customer. In the sweltering desert heat, cold apple juice was proving particularly popular.

Their table, set up right behind the rough wooden plank lying on several barrels that made up the counter, was positioned right at the base of the left spectator podium, with excellent view of the rocket, and plenty of traffic. Additionally, thanks to the sheer height of the podium, it was in cool shade, and as a result Applejack was getting a steady stream of interested customers. The fact that most of them were rich ponies with less sense than money also helped.

So does the sign, Dash smiled, looking at the silly thing again. 'Endorsed by Rainbow Dash' read the blaring mouth-painted letters hanging from a nearby podium support. 'Good enough for space – good enough for you!' read another. There even was a giant colour poster of her posing in a space suit, ready to chow down on some apples, her now-famous characteristic grin spread wide across her face. Rainbow still remembered that particular photo-shoot with much amusement.

Overhearing the customer say her name, her ears jumped to attention:

„-come on, just this once?“

„The sign says, 'No autographs'!“ Applejack retorted angrily, „Dash is a national hero, not some fancy-schmancy pop star! Now, do'ya want to buy anything, or not?“

„I will not be spoken to in this way! For your information, I am the long-running mayor-“

„Since ya can't even read, I'll make this crystal-clear now: Buy apple? Or no buy apple?“

As the customer scoffed and haughtily trotted off, muttering some vague insults under her breath, AJ turned back to the table:

„Sorry 'bout that. Some ponies just think they're such unique snowflakes,“ she began, the scowl disappearing off her face as she looked at Dash, „But some ponies really are!“

Seeing Rainbow's expression twist, she shoved her sideways: „Hey! That was a compliment!“

Dash shoved her back, and Applejack responded with a push so heavy Rainbow ended up in the sand. The two mares burst out into laughter, tears rolling from their faces.

As AJ helped her back up, Rainbow looked around at her friends and smiled. She could just feel all the pent-up stress from this stupid Cosmodrome already washing off her. Twilight was still staring into the thick book, silently mouthing obscenities as she looked down at a page full of equations, unaware of anything going on around her. Fluttershy was being as quiet as always, silently sipping her tea, but even she was smiling as she observed Applejack and Rainbow's hijinks – noticing Rainbow was looking at her, she quickly lowered her eyes to her teacup. Rarity was the only one missing, undoubtedly seizing her chance to mingle with some of Equestria's finest nobility; Rainbow couldn't blame her, though, this was a once-in-a-lifetime chance. They would have plenty of time to talk to each other later, after all.

Realizing something, Rainbow began to turn around:

Where the hay is-

„Boo!“

Rainbow jumped into the air as a giant grotesque creature suddenly appeared before her. Her eyes shrank as she looked it further; Vaguely resembling a pony, but twisted in all sorts of subtle ways. Its orange hide was crumpled and sagging, its mane and tail completely gone – not a hair on the entire body. The head was the most terrifying of all, a misshapen mass of reflective surfaces, thick black mandibles, and-

Seeing the abomination suddenly keel over on its side and burst out laughing, she shook her head and regained her senses. Immediately thereafter, she became intensely annoyed:

„Pinkie!“ she began, disconnecting the coverall's helmet and revealing the pink pony inside, „Those suits are for chemical emergencies! They're not toys!“

„You should've seen the look on your face!“ her friend barely got out between bouts of laughter, „Priceless! Priceless!“

Tossing the helmet about in her hooves, Dash surveyed the thick air-filter in its snout and the segmented reflective visor. The lightweight but sturdy construction spoke volumes not only of its practicability, but also of its likely pricetag.

„Where did you get these, anyway? It's not like complete-protection suits just grow on trees.“

„Oh, you know,“ Pinkie giggled, „Here and there.“

„You didn't steal it, right? Because-“

„No! What I am, a thief?“

Hearing shouts coming over from the direction of the Cosmodrome, Rainbow looked up from the expensive helmet; Off in the distance, an entire squad of the Commissar's stallions was galloping towards them, their thick leather coats fluttering in the wind as they bellowed threats and orders to any unfortunate passers-by.

„There she is!“ yelled the leading officer, „Stop her!“

Pinkie looked at Rainbow.

Rainbow looked at Pinkie.

„Dash?“ Pinkie uncertainly began.

„Yes, Pinkie?“

„You do out-rank those guys, right?“

~~~~~

„T minus two hours! Repeat, two hours until lift-off! Commencing final computeronics checkout.“

Wilhelmina, resting on a plush leather couch in the front row of one of the exclusive observation towers, idly looked on as chaos unfolded on the pad below. Redstone, standing near the base of the rocket, was rapidly flipping through large sheets of calculations as he read off long strings of commands, sometimes taking a brief pause to check up on the busy tech-ponies all around. Next to him, Sequine was concentrating intensely as her horn subtly glowed, accompanied by a constant subdued clatter of sliding switches and reconnecting wiring that resounded from inside the five nosecones of the vehicle.

„...inverting differential sequencer four, connect to node two-two-five. Variable resistance thirty nine, increase to five hundred ohm. Switch around condensers seventy-four and eighty-one. Flip valve nineteen. Reset programmable circuit distributor...“

Will shot a nervous glance off towards her side. Celestia, sitting only a few spaces away, was thankfully distracted by some random countess, listening idly to her impassioned plea for more regional school funding. The several members of the Assembly that had decided to show up for the launch were likewise chatting amongst themselves, or simply trying to survive the sweltering desert heat inside their formal black suits and top hats. None of them had yet noticed the chaos below.

Suddenly, an annoying voice, one which would undoubtedly come to hunt her nightmares, tore her from her woes:

„Greetings again, countess – I can call you Will, can't I? Of course I can – and let me say what an absolute delightful honour it is to have been invited to such a grand event.“

It was Rarity, that infernal mare Wilhelmina had met during the last royal visit, and hoped never to see again. At the back of her head, she wondered just how she had gotten herself past the guards and onto the royal observation deck.

„Anyway, I have been left most impressed by your speech this morning. You are quite right in saying the Space Programme reaches far beyond just engineering and arithmetic, and that we should all support it. We should, nay, we must, each offer our humble skills, no matter what they are. And, being a professional dress designer, I simply couldn't help but notice the sheer inadequacy of your spacemares' uniforms.“

„Yes, of course,“ Will absent-mindedly nodded and smiled, not even listening, instead trying to come up with an escape plan.

„You might say spacesuit design is an area for specialists, but, as it happens, I myself have had plenty of expert experience designing flight suits for pegasi. Ones which can survive through all sort of trouble, without ever losing any of their original fabulosity, and made from, shall we say, unconventional fabrics. Why, if you provided me with the required materiel, I'd even be willing to offer my services for free – provided, of course, that I receive some publicity for my efforts. A fair exchange, I'm sure you would agree. Now, the marketing campaign…“

In desperation, Will glanced around to her other side. Noticing the Director was looking at her pleadingly, Luna smiled, then gestured over to the rocket:

„Isn't it a little late to be making changes now, madam Director?“ she began, immediately shutting up Rarity, thus gaining Will's eternal gratitude. It didn't even matter she was asking dangerous questions: „I would have thought these kinds of details would have been finalized a long time ago, no matter how insignificant.“

Wilhelmina stood silent for a few moments, trying to determine the best way of approaching the goddess of the night. The other members of the Assembly were all easy to figure out. Celestia was a known unknown. But Luna, she had never met before, or even seen for that matter. Eventually, based on her prior experience with the other royal sister, she decided on the truthful approach:

„We've caught a last-minute mistake in the flight control unit. A possible divide-by-zero in the accelerometer system right after launch, to be precise.“

„Divide by zero?“ Luna chuckled, but kept her eyes on the swarm of tech-ponies as they worked the control unit, „I suppose that could prove troublesome.“

„Well, it is an unpredictable situation. It might crash everything, or it might keep working just fine. Either way, it's a simple fix, so we're just making sure nothing can go wrong. With half the Assembly here and all.“

Luna nodded, but kept staring at the launch pad. Meanwhile, Will took advantage of the break in the conversation by taking another sip from her glass of impossibly-cold pearly water. Modern technology had plenty of advantages, but in some cases, magic was still the best.

„Why are you using electricity, anyway?“ Luna resumed, „I understand your push for technological solutions whenever possible, but surely this is the one area wherein magic would prove far more efficient?“

„Oh, we did try using magic at first,“ Will nodded, „but, upon a closer inspection, we realized magic is incredibly specialized. One has spells which make light, drain heat, purify water… they cannot solve a quadratic equation.“

„Well,“ Luna took it as challenge, „With a bit of work, you could enchant, say, a piece of chalk, and then have it...“

„Of course, your highness, you are quite right,“ Wilhelmina quickly conceded in the face of far-superior knowledge, not to mention authority, „But that could take months of careful preparation, and quite possibly some very arcane materials. And even after all that, one is still left with the problem of somehow feeding the result of your calculations to the physical control surfaces.“

„Hmm...“ the royal sister paused briefly, obviously quite fascinated by the idea, „What about a network of counterbalancing enchantments? The vanes would turn according to which one was dominant at the time. Now, establishing a stable equilibrium would be...“

„I fully admit it's quite possible to do with magic,“ Wilhelmina quickly conceded again, not wanting to upset somepony with so much influence over their budget, „But, if you'll allow me to argue, your highness, that would require a world-class enchanter to accomplish. You can see that even you, with your untold millennia of experience, are having trouble figuring it all out. On the other hoof, anypony can read off a blueprint and weld a few wires together, or even hammer out a triode when given enough training. Certainly a lot less elegant than your proposal, but also equally cheaper.“

„Naturally,“ Luna nodded distantly, her imagination still captured by this new problem, „But doing this with just magic... you've put me on a dangerous path, Director. This one's going to keep me up all night!“

Wilhelmina had thought Luna stayed up all night anyway, being the Goddess of the Moon and all, but asking such a personal question would be highly inappropriate.

Leaving the princess to her thoughts, she turned back to the rocket. Seeing Sequine and Redstone argue over some pedantic – but undoubtedly crucial – detail in the plans made her even more uncomfortable than before.

Meanwhile, noticing her conversation with the princess was now over, Rarity began again:

„Now, I happen to own a specialized workshop just a short distance outside Canterlot. One cannot exactly call it a 'factory', true, but spacesuits are a small-volume order. In fact, hiring a larger concern might prove disadvantageous in this case, as they are too focused on mass production. Not that there's anything wrong with that, of course, but for the high tolerances required for space-flight, you simply need that personal touch. Something my workshop can quite easily provide.“

Wilhelmina looked around in despair, only to see Luna unreservedly tugging away at Celestia's shoulder. Mumbling something about the necessary paperwork in the general direction of Rarity, she kept staring in fascination at the sight of their immortal princess, the wisest of all ponies, eternal ruler for all ages, being treated in this most undignified way.

„Tia? Nth-order cascade propagation goes logarithmically, right? Right? Tia!“

Turning her head away from the pleading countess, the great goddess gave little regard to this most informal style of address. Quite the opposite, in fact: She became deeply lost in thought, considering the question fully. As she deliberated, Will shrugged. They were just sisters. Sisters can treat each other like that.

Even if they're omnipotent goddesses the very heavens bow down to.

Eventually, Celestia slowly nodded:

„Log base X to the minus N, yes,“ she smiled, adding a wink, „Have fun calculating that.“

Seeing her turn back to the countess, Luna sighed deeply and rolled her eyes. Proceeding to levitate a quill and some paper out out of seemingly nowhere – in reality, probably teleporting it from her royal carriage or something, Will guessed – she began to slowly sketch some complicated graphs and lay out scarily complex derivations, sometimes referring to a massive lookup table that covered another five sheets. After a minute or so of intense concentration, she looked back to the Director:

„Those electrics of yours – can they do logarithms?“

Wilhelmina's eyes widened. Redstone had been trying to sell some of the Cosmodrome's computeronic technology to the Royal Academy for ages now, never with any success. 'Too impractical', they said, 'Too complicated'. 'Quite unnecessary'. Now, if Luna herself were to use one...

She nodded quickly, then, glancing at Rarity and mentally shuddering, suddenly got a brilliant idea:

„If you wish, Your Highness, I can take you to the laboratory straight away. We have a wide range of prototypes, and you should be able to pick one adequately suited to your needs.“

„Really?“ her face lit up with excitement.

„It would be provided and delivered absolutely free-of-charge, of course. You'd have full technical support from the designers themselves, available at all times by direct dragon-fire messaging; As well as a full copy of the operator's manual, and of Redstone's personal notes. I can guarantee somepony of your intellect will have no trouble whatsoever using the machine.“

The princess immediately jumped from her chair and began heading down the stairs, already thinking of the possibilities that automated arithmetic offered. As Will began to follow at a respectable distance behind, she noticed Rarity likewise preparing to leave. She promptly announced:

„Authorized personnel only, ma'am.“

~~~~~

„T minus ninety minutes! Repeat, ninety minutes until lift-off! All visitors are reminded the Cosmodrome in not responsible for any incidental or accidental apprehension and detainment if you are caught entering unauthorized areas. Members of staff are reminded to carry their identification with them at all times. Please be conscious of permitted zones, thank you!“

Zvezda gritted her teeth as she fumbled through the large ring of keys, picking each in sequence and testing it inside the large steel door that loomed before her.

„Hurry up!“ Sara anxiously urged her on, sheepishly glancing all around, „Quick! Before they catch us!“

Dropping the ring of keys from her mouth, Zvezda gestured towards the rocket, towering in the sky as the centrepiece of the launch complex, far behind them:

„Look. Everypony who's here is only going to be interested in one thing, and one thing only; Seeing that huge rocket fly up into the sky. The Commissar will be paranoid, sure, but with less than ninety minutes left, he'll also be interested in that one thing. If he's really paranoid, then maybe Stable VII as well. Either way, nopony's going to be paying any attention to a small insignificant hatch on the far side of the Cosmodrome. So calm down!“

Picking the keys up again, she resumed her attempts at unlocking the door. Around her, Sara marched back and fro:

„But what if they notice the missing keys? That's a big thing to go missing, you know. I'm telling you, this whole thing was a bad idea. I bet they're going to fire the lot of us. All they need to do is take one look at the security station, and-“

Spitting the keys out again, Zvezda turned around and stormed up to the violet unicorn:

„If it's such a bad idea, then just leave! I didn't tell you to come along, did I now? But if you show up at my quarters brandishing a ring of keys you've 'found' somewhere, what am I supposed to think? Now, are you going to help me, or not?“

The mare sighed, and, turning in the direction of the launch pad, sat down to act as a lookout for any approaching ponies. Satisfied, Zvezda went back to the steel door.

Three more keys later, the lock finally clicked. As Sara began to approach the door, Zvezda suddenly stopped her:

„Wait!“

Walking up to the reinforced-steel doorframe, she leaned in and examined its smooth surface. A few seconds of closer observation were all it took to reveal the minuscule pressure pad hidden there.

„Security system. There has to be another switch somewhere around here to disarm it.“

Sara raised her eyebrows in respect of her friend's skill, then the two began examining the surrounding wall.

The entrance to the hat-wearers' habitat was a strange one by pony standards, but the many months spent in this peculiar place had already made Zvezda regard it as completely normal: A small square door of polished steel, completely featureless save for a small keyhole – even the hinges must have been on the inside; Then again, that was fairly standard for most of the other blast-proof doors around here. It lay set into a sturdy steel doorframe, that in turn was built into the wall of a small concrete shack at the very edge of the Cosmodrome. And, unlike most of the bunkers that made up the facility, this one seemed to be located almost entirely underground.

Well, either that, or there's a portal to hell inside. Intrigued by the strange ponies' constant silence and peculiar clothing styles, as well as their possible connection to everything else that was going on behind the scenes here, Zvezda was prepared for anything.

After a quick search, they discovered a small metal box at the back of the shack; Trying the keys to either side of the original one, Zvezda quickly managed to open it. Behind it lay a rugged electric switch, a small rusted plaque covered in an alphabet she didn't recognize, and a glowing red lightbulb. Having examined the inside of the box for any further traps, Zvezda shrugged and flipped the large lever. The red bulb went dead.

There was a tense silence.

„Is it off?“ Sara asked anxiously.

„I guess,“ Zvezda looked at the switch again, „Only one way to find out.“

Circling the shack, the two mares stared at the foreboding steel door. Zvezda had seen it open plenty of times, the hat-wearers coming and going infrequently, but always from a distance, never able to make out the interior.

Turning around to get one last look at the rocket, Zvezda readied herself, then leaped towards the door – halfway through her parabola, she suddenly cursed loudly, then began fervently praying the door really did open towards the inside.

Fortunately, it did, and a few moments later Zvezda found herself in the entrance stairway of the bunker. Slowly – and a lot more carefully than her friend – following close behind, Sara peeked down the stairs with great uncertainty:

„It's pretty dark down there. You've got a torch?“

Zvezda cursed herself for not remembering to take one, then stopped; It wasn't such a long way back to Stable IV, and if they rushed, they could be back in less than five minutes-

Hang on, this is stupid, Zvezda shook her head. As strange as the hat-wearers might have been, there was no reason why they should also be brainless. Returning to the entrance, Zvezda looked around and quickly found the light-switch.

Seeing the stairway light up, Sara nevertheless remained hesitant:

„Why couldn't they have a window or two? I swear, this whole place was built by somepony who really hated Celestia.“

Now that certainly didn't sound scary. Thanks a lot, Sara!

„Come on,“ she waved her head in the direction of the staircase. Looking at it now, in full light, she could clearly see the stairs weren't anywhere near as long or as foreboding as they had previously appeared; In fact, they ended pretty quickly, forty short steps and then another steel door.

Carefully descending the stairs, watchful for any tripwires or pressure plates, Zvezda soon reached the bottom; Taking a single deep breath, she carefully pushed on the steel door. To her great surprise, it swung open almost effortlessly.

Looking around the antechamber, Zvezda was... disappointed. No fiery portals to hell, no occult summoning pentagrams, or even unholy altars covered in blood. Just a few ugly old couches, a table or two covered in crumbs, and a slightly torn carpet lying on the floor. Several magazines strewn around. A half-full trashbin in the corner. A clock on the wall. And, perhaps most disappointingly, a quintet of small light-shafts in the ceiling, illuminating the room with natural light. Well, that kills that theory.

„A lounge?“ Sara grumbled in disappointment, blinking to make sure she was seeing correctly, „That's it?“

Gesturing towards the three doors ahead of them – no longer the polished-steel bulkheads of the entrance, but simple wooden things, visibly aged, with their pale green paint starting to peel off – Zvezda shook her head:

„This whole place is underground; Just think of how much stuff they could hide in all this space. Now come on, we've only got eighty minutes left.“

~~~~~

„T minus sixty minutes! Repeat, sixty minutes until lift-off! Weather squadrons are now reporting the winds have been stabilized to under one knot eastwards. Please report any unexpected gusts to the nearest member of staff immediately, thank you!“

Cherry stood before the wooden door, utterly petrified and unable to move. Not only was her heart beating rapidly, but she was also finding it difficult to breathe as she tried to steel herself for the upcoming encounter. As a result, she was left feeling slightly dizzy, and her thoughts were in even more of a jumble than they usually would have been.

There was still a chance. She could still turn around, go down the stairs, leave the observation tower, and...

And what?

And nothing. Turning around wasn't an option. Not anymore. Ever since her name had been publicly published as one of the Equestria Seven, it was a certainty this moment would come.

Her eyes focused. Her breathing deepened, her muscles flexed. She dug one of her front hooves into the wooden floor. That door was the final obstacle.

Let's do this!

Her hind legs tensed up, ready to pounce at the door. If she was going to enter, it would be in style. She crouched down.

Suddenly, there was a flash of light, and a fiery red pegasus in a frock and a top hat was standing in the doorway, a look of intense annoyance on his face:

„What the-“

Cherry, startled by the sudden movement, couldn't help herself. She jumped, keeling the unfortunate stallion over. After a brief bit of flurried commotion, she ended up leaning over him, as he lay on his back, panting.

Two guardsponies, one from each side of the door, rushed forwards from their posts. Cherry looked into the stallion's eyes. He stared back, amazed.

„Halt!“ he commanded, and the guards confusedly stopped dead in their tracks. Meanwhile, the pegasi continued staring at each other, perhaps even more confused than the guards. Cherry sure was, at least.

„Hi!“ she beamed, her scrambled brain unable to form anything longer.

The stallion continued staring at her, an expression of shock still on his face. His top hat had been kicked off his head and onto the floor, and Cherry noticed a few grey hairs in his black mane. Come on now, it hasn't been that long! Has it?

She continued beaming, struggling to keep her smile as wide as it had been originally. There still wasn't any reaction coming from the red stallion, not a word, not a movement, not a single change of expression.

Come on, dad! Say something! Anything!

He broke eye contact, then glanced around the observation deck, as if considering his most undignified position. The two ponies still hadn't moved since their initial ruffle, and what more, the guard stallions were now starting to give them disturbed looks.

„Get off,“ he uttered. Taken aback by the coldness of his voice, she hesitantly retreated. Grumbling, the old pegasus got back on his four hooves, put his top hat back on, then dismissed the two guards. After they had closed the door, he turned around, away from Cherry and out towards the immense rocket that towered in the noon sun.

„Seven months,“ he whispered, „Seven months. Not a single letter.“

Cherry fought to fight back tears. There's no way it had been that long. Just no way.

„Can you even imagine what's it like?“ he began intermittently, obviously also trying to maintain composure, „Having your own daughter just disappear off the face of Equestria?“

The two continued staring outwards, overseeing the busy launch pad below. Ponies were crawling across every square yard of the scene, dragging power cables, reading off checklists, inspecting the five sleek hulls of the rocket. In the surrounding podiums, there was even more commotion, as hundreds mingled excitedly, some chatting in small groups, others just staring at the technicians, or perhaps buying refreshments and souvenirs from one of the many traders. Anticipation was in the air, the launch was fast approaching. Cherry's eyes focused on all of this. It was better than looking at her dad.

„I've hired detectives, you know,“ he continued, breaking the silence, „Bribed dozens of officials. Even then, all I got were two sparse sentences a month. No details, no locations, just that you were still alive. I had no idea if they were true either, of course. But I had to keep hoping.“

Down below, Redstone was shouting loudly at Sequine, gesticulating wildly towards a pile of schematics as he did so. A group of tech-ponies were standing a respectful distance away, carrying some water hoses, looks of confusion on their faces. One of them was Geist...

„Then, one day, all out of the blue, my gardener – gardener, of all ponies! – walks up to me in the grounds, and asks me if I've seen you in the newsreels. I almost fire her on the spot, but she swears on her life, it's really you. I jet to the theatre, shoving others aside on the way, and what do I see there? Your smiling face plastered all across the screen. Just like that.“

„You think it was easy for me?“ Cherry screamed back, tears now running from her eyes, „Stuck on a secret outpost in the middle of nowhere? Never knowing if I was going to see you again?“

But it was, she added silently, Oh, it was so easy!

No matter how true those words were, though, she knew she couldn't voice them. She had screwed up the past, she knew she had, but refused to screw up her future as well. She had to lie, no matter how it broke her heart.

The old stallion didn't appear to pick up on any of that, though; And if he had, he pretended not to. Turning around on the spot, he looked at her, and saw the sweet, if sometimes simple-minded, Cherry that he knew and loved:

„You couldn't have sent one letter? Just one?“

Walking up to him, Cherry put her head against his neck, tears streaming across her face and into his mane. You knew you could have. But no. Had to live in your own special bubble here, didn't you? Not even aware the world was still going on around you.

„You saw it yourself, dad,“ she got out between sobs, „All that security everywhere. Commissars and passwords and bunkers and...“

„I know, I know,“ he hushed her. Oh, if only you did! You wouldn't be talking to me like this, that's for sure!

„I just didn't want you to remember me as the pony who slammed the door in your face.“

This caused Cherry to erupt into a new flood of tears. I'm so stupid! Why couldn't I just forgive that? I am really that petty?

„You should know, me and ma will support you always, no matter what you do. I just wished you had picked something a tiny bit little safer...“

The two remained immobile for a while, each lost in their respective thoughts. Cherry still remembered that night as if it were yesterday. Fed up with her dad's protectionism, she walked straight into the Bureau of Internal Security and volunteered herself for undercover recon. Her father... wasn't happy.

After some indeterminate measure of time, she realized something:

„Where's ma, anyway? And Rosie?“

Dad sighed deeply, and remained silent for a while longer:

„Poor little Rosie. She's just like you, always wanting to fly no matter what we tell her. One day, she just wonders up to the edge of a cliff, and jumps right off.“

Cherry's grip strengthened. Her eyes widened as reality began slipping away from her. Are you telling me-

Realizing how his words could have been interpreted, her dad quickly resumed:

„She's alive, don't worry! Broke her legs, the poor thing, but she's doing well now. Ma's with her in the hospital.“

Cherry couldn't believe what kind of hell the old stallion must have been going through, almost losing both his daughters; How could he be just standing there and patting her on the back? Doesn't he realize it's all my fault?

„It's OK now. I've got you both. You're both fine.“

After a while, she managed to regain herself. Lifting her head from his shoulder, she looked him in the eyes. He smiled softly at her.

I'll never do something like this to you again. I promise.

She wanted to say it. So much.

But she just couldn't. For all the love she had for her father, she couldn't just give up her dreams of space. Not after all this.

„It's alright, Cherry,“ he seemed to understand the silence, „Don't worry about me.“

He turned around and, facing the rocket again, approached the edge of the deck. A few seconds later, she walked up to his side.

„Can we watch the launch together?“ she asked. Her mind still couldn't quite accept the situation. He's going to forgive me, just like that? No screaming, no rage, no nothing?

He looked at her with surprise, „Why not?“

I have the best dad ever.

~~~~~

„T minus ten minutes! Repeat, ten minutes until lift-off! Vehicle integrity tests are now complete. The blue team will begin vacating the pad area.“

Her ears ringing from the loudspeaker blaring just five yards away from her, Lyuka gave the black box an evil stare. Considering just how quickly it had been thrown together, the system had behaved rather well, but still had a few kinks left to work out.

Redstone nodded to her as he walked up to the edge of the launch pad, then, checking his entire team had already left the elevated concrete platform, took one last look at the rocket and set out after them.

Only Lyuka and Sequine were left on the pad now. Well, them and the rocket, obviously. Even though it was an inanimate object, Lyuka couldn't help but think of it as something more. Trotting up to one of its five massive engine bells, she ran her hoof along its surprisingly-cold steel structure:

„It's just you and me now, girl. Just you and me.“

The five great cylinders remained silent.

„I know it's going to be a big day for you. But you know what? You can do it. Just don't rush, take deep breaths, and don't panic.“

The giant vehicle stood utterly immobile. Lyuka smiled.

„The open sky!“ she whispered, running her hoof along its elegant winglet assembly, and feeling the pressurized hydraulic lines flex softly in response. Over the course of these past few months, the vehicle had stood at the centre of all the worry, joy, and love the ponies of the Cape had felt. Alive or not, nothing material could absorb so much raw emotion and remain just a machine. It deserved a proper goodbye at the very least, Lyuka thought.

She quickly glanced around. The large semicircular podium behind her was completely full of ponies, all settling down to watch the grand event. Not the best place. Trotting over to the other side of the rocket, she approached the shielded space between two control winglets. Thusly shaded from anypony's curious eyes, she gave the rocket nozzle a long passionate kiss. It was a bit slobbery, but the rocket didn't seem to mind.

Suddenly realizing Sequine was standing next to her, Lyuka quickly backed away; Not quickly enough, obviously, as the pale unicorn gave her a highly questioning look.

„What?“ Lyuka asked indignantly.

„Is rocket.“

„Can't a girl have a little privacy?“

„Is rocket.“

„I can kiss whoever I damn well please!“

„Pony,“ Sequine insisted, as if explaining the concept to a dumb, confused foal, „Not rocket.“

„Well, it's got more personality than most ponies I know!“

The unicorn paused as she mulled the idea over. Eventually, she just rolled her eyes, snorted, then proceeded to walk away, as if insulted.

I bet she's just jealous, Lyuka smirked, then turned back to the rocket. They still had a few more minutes.

~~~~~

„T minus five minutes! Repeat, five minutes until lift-off! The red team has vacated the pad. We now have confirmation the flight control unit has initialized correctly, and that all systems are go for launch.“

Sitting on the roof of Stable VII and looking out towards the rocket complex, Zvez and Sara sipped idly from their bottles of cool apple juice. The view was a bit distant, but nevertheless sufficiently clear, and either way it was much better than sitting in the stuffed podiums with hundreds of other ponies breathing down your neck.

„Well, that was a bust,“ Sara spoke into the air, wiping some sweat from her forehead, „Thank Celestia we didn't miss the launch.“

Zvezda couldn't help but nod. Though they had come across a few intriguing locked doors, the majority of the hat-wearers' bunker was nothing more than empty corridors, mess halls, bedrooms, and the occasional bathroom. It was about the same as their own Stable IV, really, except a bit colder – probably because it was underground – and also significantly more aged.

„Why do you suppose they're so secretive, then? All those dark bunkers and hats and everything,“ Sara floated the obvious question. Zvezda shrugged:

„Who knows. Maybe they live here. I heard these buildings are a lot older than the Space Programme, that the Director's just loaning them from the state or something; Maybe these ponies are the caretakers.“

„Maybe,“ Sara sipped from the refreshing bottle again, „Who knows.“

That strange writing she had seen on the warning sign still puzzled her, though. No matter how much she tried, she just couldn't recognize any similarities with any other alphabet she had ever seen. Not that she was a linguistics expert or anything, of course... but that was nothing a few visits to the library couldn't rectify.

„T minus four minutes!“

The books would still be there tomorrow, though. For now, there was an exciting fireworks show to watch.

~~~~~

„T minus three minutes! Repeat, three minutes until lift-off! Entering last countdown hold.“

Wilhelmina looked around the launch control platform. Feeling the concentrated gazes of the two princesses and at least a dozen members of the Assembly burning a hole in the back of her neck, she nevertheless cleared her throat, then looked across the deck; The other four Chief Designers were all here, standing to attention around the long central table that oversaw the rocket, home to plenty of diagnostics equipment and many bundles of thick cabling. Amidst all this, Sequine was continually throwing weird glances to Lyuka for some reason. Disregarding this small detail, Will marched up to the table and posed triumphantly:

„Final status check!“

„Downrange clear,“ Sunny began, „Evac zones, clear. Weather, confirmed stable. Pad is go.“

„Computer, go.“

„Launch capacitors charging,“ Redstone reported, intently scrutinizing the dial of a large clunky voltmeter lying on the table, „Ignition, go.“

„Booster, ready,“ Lyuka finished off. Again, Sequine rolled her eyes.

Wilhelmina looked around. From a slightly elevated position right behind them, Celestia and the rest were all watching in anticipation. Noticing her gaze, Celestia smiled at Will. Thusly encouraged, she faced the rocket again and quickly nodded.

„Launch is go.“

The announcer pony, straining her ears to catch those long-awaited words, immediately began speaking into the microphone:

„Chief Designers' poll has now been completed. The Pad Führer has given final confirmation, and Cape Coltaveral is go for launch. I repeat, we are go for launch. The mission clock has been set to T minus ninety seconds, and we're counting down!“

An applause from the spectator podiums slowly began building all around them, the fervent stampeding of hooves and excited yells filling the air with excitement, as well as managing to shake their wooden platform slightly. At the back of her head, Will prayed those hastily-assembled wooden podiums wouldn't collapse from all that added stress. Now that would be an embarrassing end to the program.

The announcer, flipping a page in her notebook, began reading out the next lines:

„T minus eighty seconds. All visitors are advised, in case of emergency abort, the assembly areas are located to your-“

It was useless. No matter how hard the speakers strained, amidst the deafening applause they were left unheard. Looking up from her microphone, the announcer pony gave the Director a hopeless shrug. Will just smiled back, and waved it off. The emergency procedures were pinned up all around the place anyway.

„Seventy,“ Redstone commented, reading off his perfectly-synchronized stopwatch, his hoof hovering over a large button on the desk.

Will just closed her eyes and took in the atmosphere. The applause was dying down now, but it was rapidly becoming replaced by a tense, contemplative silence.

„T minus sixty seconds!“ came the booming voice from the speakers. On-cue, Redstone pressed his button, and with a soft hum the main control console powered up.

Wilhelmina looked at the beautiful device. Unlike the single-button jury-rigged contraption they had used for their last launch, this was a thing of beauty. Made from precision-machined steel and polished chrome, the small pedestal just radiated futurism. A single circular dial – the ignition capacitor voltmeter – took up most of the control panel, with three large brass levers directly underneath. Even the ugly thick cables connecting it to the rocket had been taken care of, carefully tucked away under the Chief Designers' table so that they wouldn't spoil its expensive aesthetics.

Yes, it was a complete waste of resources. The money that had gone into that thing could have fed fifty hungry foals somewhere in cold streets of Stalliongrad, or supplied a charity clinic for a month.

But the same went for all the money that was going into the Space Programme. They were in this for the long run, to the eternal benefit of all the coming generations, not for immediate gratification. And Equestria's leading scientific agency could not afford to be seen as backwards and jury-rigged.

Plus, it just looked so pretty.

„T minus fifty seconds!“

Will placed her hoof on the left lever. She could flip it with telepathy, sure, but doing things by one's own hooves was just so satisfying. Especially flipping large brass levers.

„Forty five... mark!“ Redstone shouted, and Will flipped the switch.

In a minor, but nevertheless quite dazzling display of pyrotechnics, the last few cables that had still connected the rocket to their groundside batteries and sensors were all blown off. As the spectating ponies applauded yet again, Will surveyed the plummeting cables carefully. Good separation, no snagging bits, nothing tangled... looks good from here!

„T minus forty, vehicle now switched to internal power.“

Turning around, Wilhelmina looked once again at the attending rulers of Equestria. Even the Duchess of Hackney, that great sceptic of the program, seemed enthralled by the incredible display of technological prowess and pyrotechnics. Will smirked:

You haven't seen nothin' yet, Duchess.

„T minus thirty for the launch of the Quinta cluster-verification vehicle, and all systems are still good for the count. The rocket looms, as patiently as ever, ready to cast itself unto the sky, and unto history! Atop its central hull, softly cradled in the payload compartment, the prototype heatshield, painstakingly cast by the finest metalsmiths of Equestria, awaits its chance to-“

Wilhelmina, turning about again, gave the announcer a harsh look. She was obviously just going off the cuff now, probably caught up in the fervour of the launch, and her drawn out commentary certainly wasn't helping anything. Meanwhile, Redstone waved his stopwatch urgently. Will's breathing quickened as the thought of missing the countdown passed through her head.

Come on, we can't fail now! Not after all this!

Thankfully, a shy assistant, also noticing the time, quickly prodded the announcer on the shoulder. She took one glance at her own stopwatch, then, stopping mid-sentence, quickly returned to the script, improvising slightly to catch up:

„T minus fifteen seconds, ignition capacitors now confirmed fully charged. Launch systems unlocked.“

Realizing it was now the rest of the team that was giving her the harsh stare, Wilhelmina quickly flipped the lever on the right side of the console. A small green bulb above the central switch lit up. This was it.

„T minus ten. Nine. Eight.“

Will's breathing was slowing down now. Hopefully, that brief confusion had been the mission's bug.

„Seven. Six. Five.“

They had fixed so much. Burn rate problems? Check. Control unit crashes? Check. Ignition systems? Double-check. They had left nothing to chance.

„Four.“

Or had they?

„Three.“

Her hoof shook wildly as she hovered it above the central switch.

„Two.“

„One.“

„Zero.“

With all her might, she pulled at the massive lever. Responding with a single loud click, the relays inside the launch control platform triggered, sending a massive outburst of electrical energy pouring through the thick cables, straight into the hexagonal arrays of the twenty-five redundant spark-gaps installed directly under each of the five engines.

For the briefest millisecond, nothing happened.

And then?

Then, there was light.

The immense flare of the five motors igniting in perfect harmony sent a sharp spike of pain running through Wilhelmina's eyes. The sudden shockwave of sound and sand that followed was harsher still, throwing her off her hooves and temporarily deafening her.

As she careened towards the rough wooden floor of the platform, there was only time for one thought:

This isn't-

~~~~~

Holding her father in a tight embrace, Cherry's initial reflexive action threw both of them towards the floor. As the sudden shockwave shook their observation platform, she grabbed his hoof, then made into the air.

Screams of anguish were coming in from all around them. The PA system was in chaos, powerful feedback resonating through its speakers, bouncing all around the pad and quickly picking up in volume. The ground shook underneath the two pegasi as searing white fire erupted from the centre of the launch pad.

Where are those emergency instructions when you need them!

Shielding her eyes, Cherry first made sure her father was alright – though the stallion was old and made comfortable by years of sitting behind a desk, he was still of the Skies family, and was keeping up close behind – then tried to make some sense of the situation. A powerful fiery roar echoed all around the podiums and launch facilities, making it impossible to determine just where it was really coming from. Meanwhile, vast columns of sand and smoke, kicked up by the initial explosion, were blocking visibility everywhere below; Cherry coughed as some of it got into her lungs.

The chaos and thick smoke made all her senses useless. The two hovered above the swirling sea of desperate screams and frightened crying, unable to see anything but blurred dark outlines, and even less able to do anything. The sheer helplessness was frightening.

Following her father's urgent gesticulation, she glanced above, only to spot a bright flickering light rapidly fade into the distance, advancing on its way into the heavens. She looked back down at the giant tower of white fire, still immobile, continuing to roar in the centre of the pad and growing in height.

Just what the hay's going on?

~~~~~

„Applejack? Twilight? Pinkie?“ Rainbow wanted to scream at the top of her lungs, but all she managed was a crackled whisper; The heavy smoke and hovering sand were making it just as difficult to breathe as it was to see.

Tears streaming from her stinging eyes, she blinked rapidly in a vain attempt to clear them. Finding that useless, she gave the air around a few powerful bursts from her wings, trying to stir it up and give her some space.

No such luck, however. The manoeuvre just made the smoke even more turbulent. She glanced upwards, but despite every fibre of her body screaming at her, refused to take off. Instead, she continued to look around. Ascending a few hundred yards might have made it easier for her, but she knew all too well her friends had no such option. And, with so much smoke suspended in the air, trying to spot them above would be worse than useless.

No. She had to stay.

A brief coughing fit later, she noticed a vague outline of what could have been a podium just before her; Once more cursing herself for trying to follow the rocket from the air, she set off towards it, feverishly praying Applejack's stand was close nearby.

There was an intense dry sensation at the back of her throat, growing harsher with each breath. Trying to suppress her gag reflex, Dash picked up speed as she approached the shadow; Only to slow down again as, seeing the green stripes painted across its wooden supports, she realized it was the base of the other podium, at the opposite side of the pad.

Her eyes were seriously stinging now. She briefly glanced again at the murky sky above, only to be knocked to the ground as a group of panicking ponies stampeded right past her.

Trying to pick herself up from the ground, she collapsed into yet another coughing fit. Just what kind of smoke is this? she wondered, suddenly remembering Redstone's many lectures on the various toxic substances employed by the rockets. Were her lungs being shredded to pieces right now? It sure felt like it.

Not that it mattered. Any worries about permanent medical consequences could wait until tomorrow. For now, her friends were still out there, probably panicking and lost, with no idea of where to go.

Come on, be of some use for once, stupid girl! she screamed at herself as she lay uselessly on the hot sand. With a sad smile, she noticed its usual yellow was now mixed and contaminated with a fine grey dust that seemed to stick to everything.

Steadily breathing in through her nose, she slowly got back on her four hooves, then turned around and began advancing towards Applejack's stand. The sight of the podium had given her the necessary bearings. All she had to do now was circle the entire launch complex.

Even behind the swirling dust and smoke, the giant tower of fire at the centre of the pad was still bright enough to hurt her eyes. Wondering just what the hay was actually going on behind all that searing light, she slowly continued walking forward, taking each step with great concentration. Even if she were to decide to fly now, the smoke had already taken its toll, and her wings dragged uselessly behind her. Even folding them would constitute too much of an effort.

Blinking ardently at the vague silhouettes fading in and out of visibility in the distance before her, Rainbow continued along her long march. Occasionally, a random pony would gallop past her, possibly yell something, then quickly fade into the thick fog again.

Even if she wanted to, she could pay them no heed. All her efforts now concentrated on trying to keep to a straight line as she put one hoof before the other, praying to Celestia that she wouldn't stray too far off the path.

Huh. Celestia. Wonder what she's doing.

~~~~~

„Will? Will! Come on, wake up!“

Lyuka patted her superior's cheeks with little success. Though none of their little group had ever been especially fit, Wilhelmina had always been even weaker than the others, her below-average height and paler colour more indicative of her health than other ponies would normally assume.

And now, she was lying unconsciously on the wooden floor, refusing to wake up. In desperation, Lyuka glanced around:

„Can I get some water?“ she screamed pleadingly.

To little effect, of course. Redstone and Sequine were rushing through their thick binders, turning the pages impossibly fast in desperate attempts to gain an insight into what was happening, and how to stop it. Sunny, meanwhile, was trying to calm the panicking bureaucrats and Assembly members, hopefully into something less resembling a screaming riot.

And at the centre of the platform, Celestia towered above the rest, her wings extended and eyes tightly shut, with front hooves firmly dug into the wooden floor as a giant glowing aura of light surrounded her horn. Only she herself could know what she was doing, but it probably involved fighting intensely to keep the situation from becoming even worse.

Looking around, though, Lyuka found that hard to believe. Everything was in chaos. What had been the shining beacon of Equestria's scientific prowess just two minutes ago, had now been transformed into hell itself. Even Wilhelmina's much-beloved launching console now lay turned over, ripped cables uselessly sparking but a few yards away.

Not seeing any way out, Lyuka turned back to her old friend. Shaking her once again, she screamed at the pale green unicorn to awaken. She had probably lost everything else by now. But not this! Never mind the stupid rockets, let them burn, just let her friend survive!

It was of no use. Devastated, Lyuka looked once again at the surrounding scene. She glanced towards Celestia again.

Save us from this nightmare, princess, she prayed silently, Please.

Seeing the goddess strain under her great feats of magic, however, sweat running down her face as her ethereal mane gradually dimmed, Lyuka had little hope that would be the case.

She took one last look at the giant unnatural column of fire, now at least a thousand yards tall and still growing, that towered at the centre of the launching pad. Its incredible presence dwarfed everything around her. In fact, continuing to stare at it, Lyuka was pretty sure it dwarfed anything ever made by pony hooves.

Well, that's one record broken for sure.

Can't say we failed completely.