• Published 2nd Feb 2016
  • 4,532 Views, 259 Comments

Safe Landings - Goldfur



When airplanes full of humans transformed into ponies pop out of the timestream, who can they count on to save them? The Aeronautical Returnee Rescue Response Squad! (A Ponies after People story.)

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Is anybody there?

Machspeed was getting the monthly paperwork out of the way before the team meeting later that morning, when Amelia wandered through the open door of his office. Without a word, she walked up to his desk and just let her head slump down upon it. She looked up at him with dull eyes and ears drooping.

“I’m b-o-r-e-d,” she drawled.

The stallion smiled in sympathy. “I know it’s been over a month since our last rescue, but that’s the nature of the business – sometimes we get several in a week, and then there are lulls like this.”

“Still bored,” Amelia replied apathetically.

“At least you got to fly that Boeing 767 for several hours to burn off fuel, and pull off some stunts that you would have been sacked for pre-Event. I could have insisted on you just dumping the fuel and heading straight for the landing strip.”

She gave him an ingratiating grin. “Oh, but you’re a good boss! You’d never do that to me.”

“Even so, you got to do the flying last, so it’ll be my turn next.”

“Aww!”

Machspeed had to chuckle. Amelia had taken to her new life as a unicorn exceptionally well, and retained her sense of fun and joy of flying. He never regretted hiring her into the Aeronautical Returnee Rescue Response Squad, and the team liked her a lot. But she was like a lost puppy when there was nothing to do for a long while. Fortunately he had a plan to ameliorate the situation.

“I was saving this for the team meeting, but Flashpoint and I have been organizing a team event that should alleviate your boredom. It’s why I asked everypony to keep the day free. We’re going to have a beach party starting right after the meeting.”

“Beach party?!” Amelia exclaimed, her ears perking up. “That sounds fun.”

“I thought we could all do with some excitement, and it’s good for the team’s morale.”

“I’m all for that. Anything I can do to help?”

“I’ll let you know when I tell the others at the meeting.”

“Okay. Thanks, Mach! You’ve brightened my day already.” The mare trotted out of his office with her tail swishing excitedly.

# # #

The A.R.R.R.S. team arrived at the beach with a cart laden with food and equipment that was being hauled by their muscly earth pony stallion member. While Pounder was being helped out of the harness, the rest started unloading the cart and taking everything to a spot where the vegetation ended and the sand was bare. Some started setting up a marquee to give them shade and a wind-break if the breeze picked up, while others set up a barbecue and folding tables. One pegasus stallion immediately took charge of the barbecue, and he started the process of getting a suitable fire going. Several ponies started the food preparation while others set up a net for volleyball. Seaweed and other materials washed up on the shore were used to demarcate the courts. Machspeed mixed up some dough and placed it into a covered pan that he placed into the barbecue coals, while the pegasus grilled corn cobs and other vegetables.

While they were waiting, the remainder of the team started a volleyball game. Pegasi weren’t allowed to use their wings, but that didn’t stop them from being agile leapers at the edge of the net. The two earth ponies on the teams took places at the back of the courts. Amelia and Flashpoint were also on opposing teams. Unicorns were not allowed to use telekinesis during play, but Amelia had grown up without it and was better suited to the magic-free game.

Several of the team had brought along their spouses and children which included Machspeed and Flashpoint’s filly, Starstruck, named after the star-shaped blaze on her forehead just below her horn. The foals raced away to play in the water, while Flashpoint appointed herself as lifeguard.

The volleyball game had not achieved a result before it was announced that the food was ready, and the ponies immediately lined up to get their meal. Machspeed retrieved the pan from the coals and removed the lid to reveal the perfectly baked damper inside. He took it out of the pan and tore pieces of the hot bread off to put on the plates of the ponies as they passed by. Soon everyone had a plate heaped with food and had settled down to eat in the shade of the marquee. Sunbeam, the barbecue tender, was heaped with praise for a job well done.

After the meal, they broke up into groups for various activities. Some resumed the volleyball game, while others preferred to throw around a Frisbee, and a few opted to play in the waves. They swapped activities all through the afternoon, and there was a sandcastle building contest at one stage. By the time the sun was setting, everyone was feeling a bit tired, and had worked up an appetite. A second round of food preparation began, and they ate in the fading twilight.

Musical instruments were brought out and some enthusiastic singing was done, tapering off into some instrumentals. By the time the last tune was done, the stars were out in all their glory, undimmed by the lack of light pollution. While some of the team remained sitting around the campfire and chatting, others had wandered away down the beach, a couple indulging in a moonlight swim. The earth ponies were currently snuggling back in the vegetation, and another couple was currently kissing and holding hooves just out of voice range. Machspeed and his wife, Flashpoint, had pushed together some sand that they could lie back on and would support their heads while they cuddled together and watched the stars.

“This was a great idea, Flash,” Machspeed said.

“It was a good excuse to come down here and cuddle with you,” she replied with a sly grin.

“It’s better starting with all our friends though. It just makes this time all the more sweet.”

“Uh-huh,” she replied, leaning over to kiss him. “Thanks for finding me and giving me a great life.”

Machspeed gave her a long kiss in reply. “Thanks for making my new life complete.”

He put an arm around her shoulders as she leaned into him, and they watched the stars in contentment.

It was about half an hour later when Flashpoint noticed something unusual.

“Look at that star,” she said as she pointed with a hoof. “Why is it moving like that?”

Machspeed spotted what she was talking about. “Oh, that’s not a star. That would have to be a satellite. It’s remarkably bright for one though.”

“What’s a satellite?”

“They’re artificial devices that humans used to launch into space. They were used for communications, weather observation, and orbital studies of the surface.”

“That’s amazing. They’ve been up there all this time and I’ve never seen one before.” She felt Machspeed suddenly tense. “Is something wrong, Mach?”

“Thirty-two centuries is a long time, alright. Too long. All the low-Earth-orbit satellites would have suffered orbital decay ages ago and crashed back to the ground, and the geostationary ones would be too far away to see by the naked eye, so what is that satellite doing up there?”

“One survived somehow?” Flashpoint guessed.

“Not possible. Those things had lives measured in decades, not centuries, and even then they needed to be monitored to keep them where they belonged. The only answer is that it’s new, and the only way that is possible is if it just suddenly appeared, and do you know the only way that is possible?”

“If there were Returnees on it?”

“Right!”

“You mean to tell me that humans went up into space too?”

“They’ve even walked on the moon! My god, I think I know what we were looking at!” He scrambled to his hooves and started heading back to the marquee, and Flashpoint hastily followed.

“Amelia!” Machspeed called out as he approached the group. “What’s four hundred kilometers above the ground, travels around the Earth in an hour and a half, and has people on it?”

“Umm… the International Space Station?” she replied.

“I think I just saw it.”

“You’re shitting me!”

“Nope. It’s big enough to be easily spotted if you’re looking in the right place at the right time.”

“Where is it?” Amelia started scanning the night sky.

“You’re too late. It’s below the horizon by now. I don’t know how long it has been Returned, but there should be a crew of six aboard it. There’s no way that they can get back to Earth safely in their condition.”

“Are you thinking of launching a rescue mission for those astronauts?” Amelia asked with growing excitement.

“First we have to try to contact the I.S.S.”

“How are we going to do that? Radio, I suppose, but what frequency?” Flashpoint asked.

“As I recall, they used to chat with people on the ground with ham radios. It should be a fairly simple process to find out, if they are transmitting.”

Amelia looked concerned. “Mach – how long have they been up there? If no one has realized what that is before, they could have been up there for months without support. We could be trying to rescue corpses.”

“I know, but if they only just arrived, they’re going to need our help.”

“Then I suggest we head over to Coolangatta airport. They’ve got some good radio equipment over there.”

Machspeed grimaced. “The airport will be closed by now.”

“Then go back to the office and phone up some other airport that might be open still.”

Machspeed face-hoofed. “Of course. I’m going to head there now. The rest of you might as well keep enjoying yourselves. I don’t think I’ll be needing you tonight even if I can get in contact.”

“Are you kidding me, Mach?” Amelia asked. “I’m not letting the most exciting thing to happen in a long time just blow right past me. Let’s go!”

“I’ll look after things here,” Pounder offered. “I’ll make sure everything is packed up and stowed properly.”

“Thanks, Pounder,” Machspeed said with a nod, and then he, Flashpoint, and Amelia headed back to the office.

The A.R.R.R.S. office was also Machspeed and Flashpoint’s home, which meant that there was always someone there to answer the phone if an emergency occurred during the night. However, as they were all going to be at the beach party, their daytime receptionist had agreed to stay back and work overtime in their absence. She was surprised to see Machspeed much earlier than anticipated.

“Is something wrong, sir?” Rosethorn asked.

“Something has come up, Rose. We could be needing you, so don’t go yet.”

Rosethorn was used to the odd hours that the job occasionally entailed, and she nodded in acceptance.

Machspeed headed into his office, followed closely by the others. He rummaged in his desk drawer for the list of phone contacts at various airports and rescue services, eventually pulling out a shabby dog-eared book with a cry of triumph. His magic turned the pages until he found what he was looking for, and then he picked up the receiver of the phone on his desk. He dialed the number and waited for an answer.

Auckland Air Traffic Control – Jetstream speaking,” came a mare’s voice on the other end.

“Hey, Jet! It’s Machspeed here.”

Mach? What’s up? There’s nothing needing your gang of pirates here at the moment,” Jetstream answered with a tinge of humor.

“You’re not going to believe this one, but we’re going to need your help for a change.”

Oh? Must be really important to call me in the middle of the night, so hit me with it.

After a terse summation of what he had seen and what he suspected, Machspeed waited for a response from Jetstream. After a brief stunned silence, Jetstream replied.

Get your fuzzy flank over here! We’re going into the astronaut business!

# # #

Machspeed, Flashpoint, and Amelia (who had threatened mayhem if she was left behind) teleported into Jetstream’s office. She was not there though, so they had to wait until she showed up. The pegasus mare arrived six minutes later with a small drake in tow.

“Sorry to keep you waiting, but I had to grab Rangi first. He’s our resident radio expert. Rangi – this is Machspeed, boss of the A-Triple-R Squad, and his wife, Flashpoint.”

“Happy to meet you, Boss,” Rangi replied, holding out a clawed hand to shake their hooves.

“Same here, Rangi. This is Amelia, by the way, a fairly recent addition to the team. She’s a pilot also.”

Jetstream and Rangi both shook Amelia’s hoof.

“So, with a name like Amelia and skills as a pilot, may I guess that you’re a Returnee also?” Jetstream asked.

“Got it in one,” Amelia confirmed.

“Me too. The authorities like to grab us Returnees for our pre-Event skills. Back then I was called Robert Garland.”

Amelia stared for a moment. “You used to be a guy? How did you feel about the sex change?”

Jetstream grinned. “Honestly? It didn’t bother me in the slightest. I’d lived a full life as a male human, so becoming a young female pony felt more like an adventure than a problem. I was healthier than I could recall in a very long time, and I learned to use these wings to really fly. After a couple of decades, the thrill still hasn’t worn off.”

“As much fun as it is to chat about our lives,” Machspeed interjected, “we’re here for a reason.”

Jetstream nodded. “If the I.S.S. can be contacted, Rangi will find the way.”

Rangi grinned excitedly. “I can hardly believe that there might actually be people up there in space! Jetstream reckons that they used to be able to chat with amateur radio enthusiasts back pre-Event, right? I’ve researched that kind of thing, and I believe I know where to start. You’ll have to give me a bit of time to put together the necessary equipment before we can give it a try.”

“Rangi, if you can contact anyone up there, you’re going to be famous.”

The drake’s grin grew broader. “If they’re up there and still alive, I’ll be stoked just to be able to talk to them! Real astronauts! I’m excited! I… I gotta go!”

Rangi rushed out of the office, leaving behind the bemused A.R.R.R.S members.

“Bit excitable, isn’t he?” Machspeed asked with a smirk.

Jetstream nodded. “Yep, but if it can be done, he’s the one to do it. Can I offer you ponies something to drink while we wait? It might be a while.”

# # #

A hoof shook Amelia’s shoulder and she woke to find herself lying on the couch she had been sitting on while waiting for something to happen. Unsurprisingly, sleep had overtaken her, but judging by the bleary looks on the faces of Machspeed and Flashpoint, they had succumbed also.

Jetstream said, “Rangi thinks he’s got a contact, but the I.S.S. moved out of range before he could confirm. It takes about ninety minutes to orbit, and its position ought to be better next time around, so your best chance is coming up soon.”

The pegasus led them from the office and through the building until she came to a door marked ‘Workshop’. When they entered, they found Rangi with a lot of jury-rigged radio equipment on a workbench. The drake looked at them with an eager smile.

“I reckon I’ve cracked it. It took me a while to set up a new antenna for this rig and try to find the right frequency, but in only about ten minutes, we will know for sure if what I detected is them.”

Machspeed said, “Considering their normal avenue of communication is almost certainly unavailable, if I were them, I would be trying the ham radio bands constantly. As long as we’re listening on the correct wavelength, we should be hearing from them.”

If they’re not dead and we’re not chasing corpses,” Amelia reminded them all.

That thought hung over the entire group as they tensely waited for the space station to come into range. Machspeed was beginning to have a sinking feeling when a quarter hour passed without sign, but an incoherent burst of noise from the radio made them all sit up with renewed excitement.

Rangi fiddled with the tuner a bit, and a minute later another burst came through. This time it was more than mere noise, but still incomprehensible. Nevertheless it had the semblance of modulation to it. Another adjustment and Rangi hit the transmission switch.

“This is Auckland Air Traffic Control – is anyone receiving me? Over.”

They waited in vain for a response for a minute before another signal arrived. It was still weak but otherwise clear.

This is Commander Ferguson on the International Space Station calling anyone who might hear this transmission. Please respond. Over.” The voice had an American accent and sounded tired and stressed.

Everyone cheered excitedly before Rangi hushed them. “Commander Ferguson, we hear you! I am Rangi Whetu transmitting from Auckland Air Traffic Control. Are you receiving me? Over.”

Auckland, I’m receiving you, thank God! We have been trying to contact someone on the ground for six days. We have encountered a major problem and have lost communications with Houston Control. Can you help us? Over.

All the listeners had been able to hear other excited voices in the background.

Rangi hit the transmit switch again. “Commander Ferguson, we are aware of the problem. I am turning the microphone over to Machspeed, a rescue specialist. Over.”

Machspeed took the microphone from Rangi. “Commander, I am Captain Machspeed, head of the Aeronautical Returnee Rescue Response Squad, a specialist emergency team. First of all, let me tell you that what has happened to you, happened to every human on Earth. There is no need to dance around the fact that you have been transformed into something else, likely ponies of some kind, but possibly other kinds of creatures. Over.”

Even over the radio, the listeners could tell that Ferguson was stunned. “How did… Every human? Over.

“Yes, and it’s a long story, but that’s not all. Commander, that happened over three thousand years ago. However, the majority of people were shoved forward into the future and have been popping out of the time-stream randomly ever since. I gather that you did just six days ago? Over.”

Three thousand years? That would be a lot harder to swallow if I wasn’t a small winged pony right now. We had wondered at what had happened to all the city lights though. As totally bizarre as what you have said sounds, I’m forced to believe you. As you are the first contact that we have managed to make in six days, does that mean that civilization collapsed? Over.

“Sadly, yes. Long story best saved for later. Right now, what is your status, Commander? Over.”

Not good, Captain. I and several others are these colorful pony creatures you mentioned, although Doctor Underwood seems to be a unicorn, and Lieutenant Mgabe is a zebra. Anton and Yuri are griffins, I think. If it wasn’t for those two, we would be in a worse predicament because we now have useless hooves while they still have grasping claws that can manipulate things. However, that doesn’t overcome the problem that the facilities were not designed for non-humans, and things are getting very unpleasant up here, not to mention that we seem unable to stomach some of the food. Over.

Machspeed had been thinking of all the things that could go wrong, and probably hadn’t thought of even a fraction of them. He shuddered. Thankfully they had been spotted before something irrevocably bad happened. Considering that the Commander had not mentioned such though, he began to feel a bit more optimistic. “Commander, I assume that you are not in a position to get down from the space station by your own means, correct? Over.”

That is mostly correct, Captain, although ironically it is tantalizingly within our reach. A shuttle had just arrived to resupply us, and some of us were scheduled to return in it. We cannot control it as we are now though, so it’s useless to us. Over.

Machspeed’s eyes opened wide and he stared at Amelia. “Are you thinking what I’m thinking?” he asked her.

“Yes!” she practical shouted.

“What are you talking about?” Flashpoint asked with a hint of annoyance.

Amelia turned to her with an almost manic grin. “Salvaging the space shuttle! What a coup that would be!”

“You can’t tell me that you know how to fly one of those!” Flashpoint said skeptically.

“If it can be done, we’ll do it!” Machspeed replied before turning back to the radio. “Commander, my team and I are going to work out a rescue plan. It’s a little outside our normal field of operations, so it might take us a little while to put it together, so hang in there for a little while longer. Over.”

A little outside? Captain, we’re orbiting at an altitude of about four hundred kilometers and travelling at over twenty seven thousand kilometres per hour. How on Earth do you expect to help us? You can’t tell me that you have a space program if civilization has gone downhill. Over.

“Trust us, Commander. You will believe in magic. Over.”

# # #

Machspeed, Amelia, and Flashpoint left Jetstream and Rangi talking with the occupants of the space station. For as long as they were within radio range, they informed the astronauts about the details of the Event that had occurred on the 23rd of May 2015, why it happened, and what had happened to civilization after that. Flashpoint teleported the team back to their base where they could start making plans. She was the first to raise an objection though.

“Sure, I can teleport us up four hundred kilometers; that’s closer than the trip we just did to Auckland and back. There’s no way in hell that I can match that speed though!”

“What if you did it in stages?” Machspeed suggested. “Get us up there, then build up speed in jumps until we’re close enough to lock onto the space station?”

She stared at him as if he had lost his mind. “And what are we to breathe while we’re making those jumps? I’m no expert on space, but I do know that there’s no air up there.”

“I already have ideas about that. We need an airtight pod that we can stay in while you make the jumps. It could have a porthole to look through so you can get a visual on it. We can use the pod to bring the astronauts down too.”

Flashpoint looked thoughtful. “W-e-l-l… that does sound possible,” she admitted. “There’s still the problem of me targeting the space station. I’m used to doing that from much closer and way slower relative velocities.”

“If we had the luxury of time, we could build some sort of crude tracking device, but I think that we’re going to have to rely on dead-reckoning. Even spending the time building the pod is a necessary evil,” Machspeed replied.

“I don’t get it,” Flashpoint said with a frown. “They apparently aren’t in any danger of crashing, and they have air and food, so what’s the rush?”

Amelia put a hoof on Flashpoint’s shoulder. “Flash, take it from us – any problem in space is major. It’s totally hostile to all life, and the systems on the space station are very sophisticated to support the crew aboard. But that’s for a human crew.”

“But all the commander said was that it was not good, not a disaster!”

Amelia sighed. “Astronauts are some of the most highly skilled and disciplined professionals in existence. When Apollo 13 had an explosion that came close to killing them, they only said: ‘We have a problem’ when they reported it. ‘Not good’ is their equivalent of a big problem.”

“Oh. So time is really of the essence then?”

Machspeed replied, “The truth is that we cannot know. They might be able to adapt and survive for weeks, or things might even now be getting close to desperate. It’s up to us to ensure that it doesn’t reach that point, and that means acting in the most expeditious manner.”

“Right,” Flashpoint conceded. “So let’s get started. We have a pod to build!”

# # #

“You want a what?!” Hammerstrike exclaimed.

Hammerstrike was head of the crew that salvaged equipment and materials from the aircraft that the A.R.R.R.S. rescued. Machspeed had approached him with their need.

“A space pod,” Machspeed repeated. “Basically just an airtight metal shell with a window in it big enough to hold several ponies or other species.”

“So – just the simplest and quickest box that I can build that isn’t going to get you killed up there in space? Not even a door?” the earth pony asked.

Amelia said, “I’ll teleport us in and out.”

“Then don’t forget to teleport fresh air in with you.”

“Good point. The pod will have to be big enough to have enough air to sustain us while we manoeuvre, and that’s going both ways.”

Machspeed nodded in agreement. “So how long will it take you?”

“Give us a few hours. It won’t be pretty, but I’ll make sure it won’t blow up on you.” Hammerstrike turned around and gave a piercing whistle. “Everypony drop what you’re doing. We have a Priority One job to do!”

# # #

Not pretty’ was definitely an understatement, Amelia decided. The space pod was basically a steel frame with sheets of metal welded on it. With several ponies working on it, putting it together had not taken very long. It was ensuring that all the joints were airtight that had taken a lot of time. She watched as Hammerstrike disconnected an air hose from the pod that he had been using to pressure-test it, and then screw in a plug to seal it. It matched a plug on the opposite side that he had used to flush the worst of the welding and sealant fumes from inside.

“There – it’s as ready as this hideous thing will ever be,” Hammerstrike said.

Amelia looked thoughtful before replying, “Nope – one more thing. Got any red paint?”

“Sure.” Hammerstike trotted off, returning a minute later with the handle of a paint-can in his teeth, with a brush sitting on the lid. He put it down in front of Amelia and watched curiously as she popped the lid off with her telekinesis and dipped the brush in the paint. She then proceeded to draw a design followed by the squad’s initials underneath. She stepped back to admire her handiwork and nodded in satisfaction. Hammerstrike chuckled and said, “Yep, that makes it official. Better go tell Mach it’s ready to fly.”

Amelia nodded and galloped off, leaving the crew to laugh over the skull and crossbones that Amelia had painted on the pod below the window.

# # #

Flashpoint teleported out of the pod after a practice ’port into it to take a volume of fresh air in. The trick was to not take too much or else there would be too big of a change in air pressure. With the plugs out, this was not too large a problem, but they would not have that luxury while up in orbit. She looked at the clock on the wall. “It’s nearly time.”

Machspeed nodded. “Hopefully we’ve figured out correctly when they will be within relatively easy reach. Are you ready?”

“How can anyone be ready for this? Let’s do it anyway.”

Machspeed turned to Amelia and said, “This is going to be risky, which is why I want only Flashpoint and me to go…urk!”

He was cut off as Amelia grabbed his jacket in her magic and wrenched him over to her until they were muzzle to muzzle. She then glared at him and said in a deadly level voice, “Consider very carefully which is more dangerous – taking me with you or leaving me behind?”

Flashpoint was killing herself laughing as Machspeed very quickly decided that a crew of three might be more appropriate.

“All aboard!” Flashpoint said, putting her forelegs about the other two. A moment later, they were in almost complete darkness within the pod, wrinkling their noses at the smell within. Only a small amount of light admitted by the porthole lit the shell until Flashpoint’s horn glowed once more as she teleported the pod straight up about four hundred kilometers… hopefully. Without a reference point, it was a bit of an educated guess based on experience on her part.

The improvised pod creaked and groaned at the sudden pressure difference, and a searing beam of unfiltered sunlight came through the porthole, startling them with its intensity, but that was quickly forgotten as they dealt with the sudden loss of gravity. All three floated weightlessly within the pod. Only two were coping with it though.

Machspeed and Amelia managed to dodge most of the vomit as Flashpoint violently upchucked. Machspeed was almost ready to sacrifice his jacket to gather the vomit until Amelia pointed out a rag that had been left behind by one of the workers. It did nothing to help with the smell though.

Machspeed looked at Flashpoint with some concern. “Are you going to be able to go on, or should we go back?” he asked her.

His wife looked at him queasily and shook her head. “I… I’ll be okay. The sudden change… was a bit much.”

“If you say so. Are you ready to do the velocity ’port?”

“Yeah. Which way though?”

Amelia was at the portal, and she said, “All I can see beside the sun is space. I have no idea which way we have to go.”

Machspeed frowned. “I’m going to have to try rotating the pod until we can see the Earth and get our bearings. Hang on….” His horn lit up, and then he abruptly started spinning in place. “Whoa!”

“What happened?” Amelia asked.

The stallion looked chagrined. “Without anything to anchor me, my telekinesis doesn’t work too well. The greater mass of the pod meant that it spun me more than I spun it!”

Amelia looked out of the portal again. “Don’t let it worry you – it was enough. I can just see Earth slowly coming into view. One moment…. Okay, I know which way to go.” With her eyes still on the planet, she stuck out a foreleg in the appropriate direction. “Thataway!”

Flashpoint groaned. “This is crazy!” Nevertheless her horn lit up, and they felt the jolt of teleportation several times as she boosted their velocity in stages.

“How much speed did we gain?” Amelia asked when Flashpoint finished.

“Do I look like a speedometer?” Flashpoint growled. “Lots, okay? I estimated it relative to the motion of the planet below, but it’s still a best guess.”

“Seriously, honey,” Machspeed said placatingly, “we need to know that we’re going into orbit and not hurtling towards the ground.”

Flashpoint stretched out her magical senses. “If it makes you feel better, we seem to be gaining altitude.”

“That’s a relief. However, if we started at the correct altitude and are rising, that means were going faster than the space station, which means it’s likely that we won’t get close enough to detect the I.S.S. You’re going to have to slow us down a tad.”

“Speed up! Slow down! I’m not an aircraft engine!” Flashpoint whined. She strained her talent to try to make a good guess at how much to slow down. “There! I hope that did it, because I’m getting very tired, and this nausea isn’t helping.”

“Good work, Flash,” Machspeed said, giving her a quick hug. “The space station ought to be coming within range very soon. The moment you can sense it, try to match velocities.”

“I know! I know! Leave me alone!”

Machspeed seriously hoped that spacesickness was not going to abort their rescue plans. If they missed the I.S.S. on this try, they would have to go back to the ground because they would not be able to stay in orbit for too long without replenishing the air. It was already getting stuffy in the pod.

Amelia spoke up. “I think you had better try cancelling the spin on the pod, Mach. Otherwise we’re going to lose our view of the planet again.”

“I should have gotten them to put in more windows.” Machspeed went into his Whirling Dervish routine again.

“Stop!” Amelia cried out. “I think that’s as close as we’re going to get to completely still.”

“Good. I was getting dizzy.”

“OUCH!” Flashpoint cried out, jerking her leg away from the wall where she had been trying to brace herself.

“What’s wrong, honey?” Machspeed asked in concern.

“The wall – it’s really hot!”

Now that he was paying attention, Machspeed could feel the heat coming from it. “Damn! Maybe we should have taken the time to insulate this thing a bit. The sun is shining on that side with nothing to stop it. Watch out for the opposite side – it’ll be getting freezing cold.”

“This has got to be the most hare-brained rescue we’ve ever tried,” Flashpoint complained queasily.

“Do you want to go back? I know I’m putting too much pressure on you and your talent…”

“Stop right there! I’m here because I want to rescue those astronauts, not because you badgered me into doing this. If it wasn’t for the urgency of the mission, I would want us to think this through a lot more, and build a better pod, but we don’t have the luxury of time, so we have to deal with it. So let me concentrate and try to find that damn space station!” She shut her eyes and stretched out her senses once again.

Machspeed dutifully shut up and let his wife try her best to find the needle in the haystack.

There were several tense minutes while nothing happened except for the air getting worse. Machspeed was seriously considering aborting the mission when Flashpoint suddenly gasped and opened her eyes.

“I think I’ve got it. Hang on!”

There was a jolt of teleportation, and Amelia looked frantically for the space station.

“I can’t see it!”

Flashpoint pointed at a wall that did not have the porthole in it. “It’s that way.”

Machspeed immediately set about spinning the pod until Amelia announced that she could now see it. He waited until it was in clear view before cancelling the spin, then held a hoof to his head. “Urk! If I try that again, I think I might join my wife in chucking-up.”

“Guys!” Amelia called out. “We’ve got an audience!”

Flashpoint and Machspeed joined Amelia at the window. About thirty metres away, the I.S.S. floated serenely, and the observation cupola had a purple pegasus stallion gaping in shock at the sight of the bizarre pod. They grinned and waved at the pony who automatically waved back.

They drew back from the window, and Machspeed said, “It looks like you’ve matched their velocity perfectly, so we aren’t going to lose the pod or bump into the space station while we’re over there. Awesome job, darling!” He gave Flashpoint a hug. “Now let’s pay our friends a visit!”

That was by far the easiest ’port that Flashpoint had to do. From that short range, she could clearly sense the open areas where it was safe to travel, and she could place them with precision. “I’m going to swap a volume of air equivalent to us between the space shuttle and the pod, otherwise the displaced air will create too much of a shockwave in those confined quarters.”

Her horn lit up, and abruptly they found themselves aboard their goal. The first thing they noticed were the yells and screams of surprise at their sudden appearance. The second was the bad smell. Things were definitely wrong up here, but the rescue crew put on their professional faces and gave the astronauts confident smiles.

“G’day everyone!” Machspeed started in his most professional and confident voice. “We’re from the Aeronautical Returnee Rescue Response Squad, and I am Captain Machspeed. These are Flashpoint and Amelia. It is our pleasure to be your rescuers for today.”

The pegasus that they had seen in the cupola approached them. “I’m Commander Ferguson. How the hell did you get in here?”

“Same way we got up into orbit.” Machspeed indicated Flashpoint. “Courtesy of my lovely wife’s astounding teleportation skills.”

“Astounding is correct, but mind-boggling is what I call that!” Ferguson said as pointed towards the pod seen through the cupola.

“Yes, well, we don’t exactly have a space program, so we had to improvise.” He looked around at the rest of the crew as they gathered. In the few days that they had been transformed, they had apparently managed to figure out how to use their new forms in freefall to maneuver sufficiently well. “So, how about some introductions?”

Ferguson introduced the crew, although Doctor Underwood was easily identified as the only unicorn aboard, and Mgabe the only zebra. Yuri and Anton were easily distinguished despite both being griffins due to their very different plumage and fur colors. The remainder of the crew were either pegasi or earth ponies. With a total of ten crew including the four that came up with the shuttle, plus the three rescuers, it was getting plenty crowded in there.

“Okay, our first priority is to get you all safely on the ground,” Machspeed announced. “We’ll be using the pod out there to get you down because as awesome as Flashpoint’s abilities are, killing the relative velocities between here and the ground requires more than one ’port, and the more people aboard, the more mass to deal with. We’ve made the pod big enough to hold all of you, but it also means that the air supply is very limited, so we will have to do it as quickly as possible.”

“You don’t have an auxiliary air supply in your capsule?” Underwood asked.

“We don’t have anything in there. Calling it a capsule is exaggerating its sophistication, as it’s basically an airtight box with a window. As I said, we don’t have a space program, nor do we have any instruments or equipment that we could adapt for this rescue. All we have is sheer native talent. So who’s ready to trust in magic?” Machspeed asked with a grin.

“You already did the impossible getting up here,” Anton replied drily in English that only had a slight Russian accent. “Getting down is easy.”

Machspeed laughed. “Yeah, it’s stopping safely that’s the tricky bit. Anyway, if there’s anything that you really want to take back with you, I suggest you go grab it. You have a bit of time before our orbit brings us back over our base for the easiest teleportation. While you’re doing that, we’re going to have a look around the space station and check out the shuttle, with your permission.”

Ferguson replied, “I suppose there’s not much point in stopping you under the circumstances, although I do advise not touching anything. You can still accidentally cause problems, especially if you’re unfamiliar with maneuvering in freefall.”

“Noted. We’ll be careful. Amelia and I have had some experience....”

“And I’m not going anywhere,” Flashpoint interjected. “I’m still queasy without trying to aggravate it more.”

“Perhaps I’ll come with you,” Ferguson suggested.

“Good idea. Lead the way,” Machspeed replied.

The pegasus did so, awkwardly pushing at handholds not designed for hooves, his wings occasionally fluttering in an attempt to correct his attitude.

“Are you getting any use out of your wings yet, Commander?”

“Call me Ryan, and no. I can’t figure out how to control them.”

“Don’t worry – you will eventually, and then you can start enjoying them.”

“What good are tiny wings on a pony though?”

“Flying without the need for an aircraft would be at the top of my list.”

“You can’t be serious! These things couldn’t possibly get me off the ground, let alone fly.”

“And ponies can’t teleport into orbit either,” Machspeed pointed out. “It’s magic, Ryan – get used it. Magic pervades most aspects of our lives, and it’s a genuine force in the universe now. Spells can be written to accomplish amazing things, and it lets me do things like this.” He reached out with his telekinesis and detached a pouch that was tied to the wall, brought it over surrounded in the glow of his magic, opened it and pulled out its contents, then put them back inside and replaced the pouch.

“That’s amazing, but it also explains how you were able to build that pod without hands. Will I be able to do that?”

Amelia shook her head and tapped her horn. “Sorry, you gotta have one of these to do that. However, you will be able to fly, while we unicorns can’t. Most of us can’t even teleport like Flashpoint can.”

“However, you don’t need a horn to manipulate many things. You can still do a lot with these.” Machspeed held up his forehooves.

Ferguson looked at him disbelievingly. “Now I know you’re kidding me. What do you think we’ve been trying to do this past week?”

Amelia gave him a confident smile. “Trust me! A couple of years ago, I was in your position, sitting at the controls of an A380 and going nuts trying to figure out how I was going to land it and not kill myself and all the passengers in the attempt. Now though, I can handle things like a pro, and I rescue planes for a living.”

Machspeed added, “And while I was lucky enough not to be in the air when the Event occurred, I had to learn how to use hooves and forearms too. Before you say something like I don’t have arms anymore, when we use our forelegs like arms, we tend to refer to them as such. Even the ponies who were never humans do that. It’s a trait that separates magical equines from natural ones.”

Ferguson smirked. “After seeing what some of what magic can do, I’m hardly going to nitpick about terminology. Right now I’m more interested in the possibility of actually flying one day.”

“You’ll get plenty of training once we get back down on Earth, but for now, you have a couple of extremely curious rescuers who want to play space tourist.”

Ferguson laughed, perhaps the first real laugh that he had done since becoming a pony. “I know the feeling, and I’ll try to give you your money’s worth.”

The commander gave them a comprehensive tour of the space station. Occasionally they would encounter astronauts trying to retrieve articles that they wished to take with them, most of which were personal, but some pet projects also. Flashpoint was helping occasionally when their fumbling efforts were in vain. Eventually they asked about the shuttle, and Ferguson guided them to the access tube that connected the I.S.S. to the shuttle. Machspeed noticed that despite his protests, the astronaut was making reasonable use of his new body after a week’s practice in zero gee, probably even better than himself. It had been a long time since the rescue pilot had practice in freefall maneuvers in the special plane flights, and very little of it even then. The airlock door was securely shut as per standard operating procedure when the shuttle was not in use, and Ferguson turned to look at Machspeed.

“Could I prevail upon you to open the hatch for me? Until I learn how to use these hooves like you do, it’s a bit awkward for me, and I don’t have a horn as a back-up.”

“No worries.” Machspeed opened the hatch and waved Ferguson ahead. The Pegasus passed through, followed by Amelia, and then Machspeed. Amelia was grinning like a fool when Machspeed saw her face; it probably matched the one on his own.

“We’re really here. We’re really aboard the space shuttle! I never dreamed this could happen. Can I fly it first?”

“I beg your pardon?” Ferguson said with eyebrows raised in surprise. “I thought you were going to be using your pod out there? Besides, does either of you know how to pilot this?”

Machspeed replied, “Yes, we’re going to take you down in the pod. However, aside from the fact that the A-Triple-R Squad makes its money by salvaging pre-Event equipment, neither of us would pass up the opportunity to fly this thing. But you’re right – neither of us has trained for this. Care to help us out? You are one of the pilots, right?”

“I am, and you’re nuts. There’s a hell of lot less room for error trying to land one of these than a normal aircraft.”

“I’m ex-air force, so I’m no stranger to more esoteric craft, so I reckon it’s not too difficult to learn.”

“Are you willing to bet your life?”

“Not really, but I do have one advantage that you never had – I can escape in an emergency.”

Ferguson thought for a moment, and then nodded. “Teleportation. Handy, I admit, but you still need your escape pod, don’t you? You said that you had to get here in stages, so you can’t just go back to Earth in one jump.”

“That’s right, but correct me if I’m wrong when I say I think it will fit in the cargo bay.” Machspeed gestured to the compartment behind the crew area.

“You have a point, providing you made that pod the right size.”

“We had to guess a lot because there are no records left aside from our memories, but we think it will fit. We’ll give it a try if you consent to give us some training.”

“I still think you’re crazy, but this whole situation is nuts, so why not one more thing? We aren’t going to do it in just a few hours though. If you’re going to bring this bird home, you’re going to have to train on these systems for a while.”

“If that’s what it takes, we’ll do it!” Amelia interjected.

Machspeed grinned. “My colleague has spoken. You have your trainees. Now let’s go back and have a look around the rest of the station while we wait until we’re back in prime position to return to the ground.”

# # #

The time seemed to fly by as the visitors were shown around the I.S.S. One of the crew who was keeping an eye on their orbital status announced that desired time was about to arrive, and they all gathered back in the largest open area. Flashpoint took a pendant that had been hanging around her neck since they had left the ground, and found a place to secure it.

“What’s that?” asked Doctor Underwood.

“A magic charm,” Flashpoint replied. The crew gave her skeptical looks and she grinned. “Okay, it’s a bit more complicated than that. It really is magic though. It’s a mana beacon that I can use to home in on the space station when I return. This way I won’t have to guess and estimate like I did coming up here. We really did have a large dollop of luck finding you, but this will take luck out of the equation. I created it with my magic, so it’s attuned to me, so I’ll know where it is now.”

“This magic is going to take a lot of getting used to,” one of the crew admitted. “It just defies the laws of physics.”

“But not the laws of magic. You have to understand that thaumaturgy is also a legitimate science now. It has laws and formulas, and its interaction with the classic sciences is consistent. Spells are actually precise equations, although the simplest of them seem to require no great effort or thought. What can be achieved with magic is very complex though, and understanding it is still a work in progress. Anyway, we can discuss this more once we get you back on the ground. Everyone hold onto your neighbors, and I’ll ’port us over to the pod.”

The pony astronauts awkwardly hooked hooves or limbs together, and a moment later they found themselves all within the pod. It was a lot more crowded now that there were thirteen people inside.

“That was mind-blowing,” Mgabe commented, “even if it’s now a legitimate science.”

“Time to be boggled later,” Flashpoint said. “I transferred a volume of air with us, but it’s not going to last long with so many ponies in here, so I have to make this a quick trip. It shouldn’t be long though, so everypony align their hooves with the wall that has the yellow paint. That’s going to be the floor when we get down.”

Flashpoint waited until they were in acceptable orientation.

“Okay, let’s go!”

Flashpoint started killing their speed in a short series of hops that brought them into position over Australia, and then made the transition down to the A.R.R.R. Squad’s headquarters. There were cries of surprise and disorientation as gravity suddenly made itself known. She let them steady themselves before she teleported them all out into the workshop, emerging onto a roped-off area of the floor.

Machspeed smiled at the astronauts and announced, “Welcome back to Earth, ladies and gentlemen. I hope you enjoyed the ride.”

The workshop crew dropped their tools and started stomping their hooves in applause, both for the squad’s success at the rescue, and for the astronauts who had achieved what no pony had done since the disappearance of the human race. The hoof-stomping bewildered the new ponies and griffins, but the cheers made them smile, even as they staggered around trying to figure out how to walk anew.

Ferguson looked up at one of the pegasus staff who was hovering over the group. “Well, I’ll be damned – will you look at that!”

The astronauts embarrassed Sunbeam with all the attention they gave him as they wondered over the impossibility of a pony that could fly. Flashpoint nudged Machspeed and said, “They’ve already forgotten about teleporting,” she commented with a wry smile.

Machspeed cuddled his wife. “What can I say, love? They’re astronauts, and flying is in their blood.”

# # #

Machspeed had contacted the usual authorities for when the A.R.R.R. Squad brought in a bunch of Returnees. They weren’t usually picked up from the squad’s headquarters though, and it took a bit of extra explaining this time. Nevertheless, they were soon all bussed away for their induction into their new lives.

“I thought you needed my help?” Ferguson asked Machspeed before they left.

“We do, but your welfare is more important than our salvaging right now. Let the authorities do their thing for the first few days, and then we’ll meet up again. The I.S.S. will be okay by itself until then, right?”

“Barring unforeseen circumstances, it should be fine. Might even give the systems time to clear the air a bit too. What if we have problems finding each other again though?”

“Admittedly we don’t tend to follow-up on the people we rescue – Amelia came and found us rather than the other way around. However, I doubt it will be a problem. Just in case though, Flashpoint suggested that we insure our investment.”

The mare stepped forward and tied a small charm around Ferguson’s neck.

“Is that…?” the astronaut began.

“A mana beacon,” Flashpoint confirmed. “Don’t let them take it from you. I’ll always be able to locate you with that.”

Ferguson smiled. “Then I look forward to seeing you soon. Farewell until then.”

The A.R.R.R.S. crew waved them off, and then headed inside for a huge celebratory party.

# # #

The authorities tried hard to persuade Ferguson to remain in their care for a while longer, but eventually allowed him to leave in the company of Machspeed, so the beacon was not needed. The astronaut was soon back in space along with Machspeed, Amelia, Flashpoint, and a couple of technicians on the squad who would be starting the salvage process on the space station. With Ferguson’s guidance, they began extracting equipment that would be of the most value to them. While they were doing that though, the others headed for the shuttle.

Amelia and Machspeed had brought along special cushions designed to help adapt their pony forms to the human seats, and each of them took a position – Machspeed in the commander’s chair on the left, and Amelia in the pilot’s chair on the right. Ferguson hovered in the air above and between them.

“Let me make this perfectly clear before we start,” the astronaut said sternly, “we are not going anywhere until I am reasonably certain that you have a chance of landing this thing in one piece. I know that you are perfectly capable of kicking me out and trying anyway, but you would be crazy to try. I trained in a simulator and a modified Gulfstream jet trainer for a thousand sorties for the best part of two years, but we don’t have either available, so we are going to train the best we can until I am sure that I’ve made real shuttle pilots out of you, no matter how long it takes. Are we understood?”

“Understood, Commander, with the one caveat that we won’t have the luxury of that much time,” Machspeed replied.

“I know. I just don’t want the people who saved my life to lose theirs doing something stupid.”

Thus began weeks of intensive training for Machspeed and Amelia. It was occasionally interrupted by the need to do rescue runs on more Returnee aircraft, and Ferguson had to do training of his own in how to be a pegasus pony when they returned to the ground. They gave him a spare room at their headquarters, and he basically lived and worked with the crew when he wasn’t up in the space station. Every day, each of them steadily improved, but it was Ferguson who got a taste of real progress first.

The astronaut looked genuinely nervous for the first time as he stood between two grinning pegasi. Featherdrop and Sunshower had volunteered to take Ferguson up into the sky for his first experience at cloud-walking. Even though he had been assured multiple times that it was an unconscious reflexive action, and pegasi really and truly could walk on seemingly insubstantial vapor, his lifetime of knowledge and experience was screaming, ‘What the hell am I doing?!

“Stop sweating, Ryan – we haven’t dropped anyone for quite a while now,” Featherdrop said with a smirk.

Ferguson just glared at the stallion while Sunshower chuckled.

The pegasi hooked forelegs to Ferguson’s and took off into the sky. Despite having seen them fly many times before, it was a different matter being carried into the air by those impossible wings of theirs. He had barely mastered opening and closing them at will, let alone managed to do anything useful with them. They kept climbing higher and higher, finally passing the lowest of the clouds. They continued onward though until they reached the top of a fluffy cumulus at a higher level, and they lowered onto its top. Despite his fears, Ferguson did not plummet when they let go of him. He sank down a bit, but it felt much like walking on a trampoline. He stood there in shock for a long moment before he gingerly started stepping once, then a second time. Suddenly he was giddy with glee at the incredible but amazing feat, and he started prancing around like a colt while the other two pegasi watched with grins on their faces.

After giving Ferguson a decent amount of time to enjoy the experience, Sunshower said, “We’d like to try something else while we’re up here. We know that you haven’t been able to access your flight magic yet, but that’s not unusual for a Returnee. We can try something a little daring that might stimulate it though, and at worst could be quite a thrill.”

“Okay, I’m in the mood to try anything right now, so I’ll bite. What is it?”

Sunshower led him over to the edge of the cloud and pointed down. “See that cloud below us? I want you spread your wings and fly down there. Just try gliding, but if you happen to feel the magic, give true flight a try. At worst, nothing will happen and you should have a fairly soft landing on the cloud. We’ll be flying beside you in the case of a real emergency, but I don’t see that happening.”

Ferguson gulped. It was one thing enjoying the feel of a cloud firm under his hooves, but another thing entirely to rely on one to stop his fall. He wasn’t about to balk while the others were watching though. He opened his wings, holding them out like he had been shown. Then he firmed his resolve and jumped off the cloud.

Gravity was still his mistress, and he fell rapidly, but he did seem to sense something with his wings, enough to make some difference to his flight. Although hopelessly small in proportion to his body mass, they did seem to have an undue amount of influence on his descent path, and he managed to come down on his hooves with a fair amount of control. His heart was pounding, but he found himself grinning from ear to ear.

Sunshower and Featherdrop alighted beside him. “Well done,” the mare complimented him. “We’ll have you flying properly in no time.”

“That’s enough for today,” Featherdrop said. “Let’s go back down and you can tell the others what it was like for your first time.”

Ferguson nodded. Yes, the first time, but absolutely not the last!

# # #

Amelia and Machspeed completed their latest run-through of procedures on the shuttle with ease. Ferguson nodded in satisfaction before taking a deep breath and making a decision.

“There’s nothing more that I can teach you without a simulator or trainer aircraft. You are as good as you are going to get at flying this shuttle without that experience, and you can still handle things better than I can with hooves. I still don’t recommend taking the risk, but I also know that you’re determined to do so anyway, so I’m giving you the go-ahead to try taking Atlantis back to Earth.”

“Yes!” Amelia cried out as she pumped one foreleg.

“That’s great,” Machspeed added with a bit more self-control. “We’ll make arrangements with the ground team.”

“Where do you plan to land? You do realize that this needs a much longer runway than even a big passenger jet?”

“I do, and I already have that sorted out. Have you heard of Amberley Air Base?”

“Yes – that is one of the emergency alternative landing sites for the space shuttle.”

“I was stationed there for a while when I was in the Royal Australian Air Force. The airfield is used today, although it’s not a military base anymore. In fact they only took advantage of the landing strips as the buildings had long since decayed.”

“The runways would be decayed as well, wouldn't they?” Ferguson pointed out.

“Yes, but there was a much smaller amount of work that needed to be done to clear them of accumulated dirt and vegetation to get them into a semi-usable state, which is more than can be said about any other existing airfield at the moment. When I realized that we were very likely going to be able to bring the shuttle down, I contracted to have the landing strip cleared. It wasn’t as expensive as it could have been because the owners of the airfield plan to take advantage of the reclaimed strip, so they split the cost with me. It also has the advantage of being only about a hundred kilometers from our base.”

“You seem to have this all worked out, so when do you want to do this?”

“I’ll have to talk to the owners of the airfield to ensure that we have a clear run and that the landing beacon we improvised is in position and working. I’ll have some of the team stand by in case of unforeseen circumstances. I’ll have to check the weather situation too. I don’t want to pay some weather pegasi to clear the skies if I don’t need to.”

“At least you have that option. We were always at the mercy of Mother Nature.”

“We try not to muck around with the natural weather unless it gets too extreme, but it certainly comes in handy. Anyway, if everything is fine, I’d like to do this tomorrow.”

Amelia grinned and said, “I’ve started the countdown. It’s gonna be awesome!”

# # #

Flashpoint moved the pod into the shuttle’s cargo bay, and the bay doors closed around it. Previous tests had shown that it would fit, although only in one particular way, but to the satisfaction of all including Ferguson.

“How do you plan to secure it?” the astronaut asked.

“We’re not,” Flashpoint replied.

“That could cause problems during maneuvers,” he replied with a scowl.

“Not as big a problem as securing it would. If we did that, it would essentially become part of the shuttle, and my teleportation power would try to ’port it all, and I simply can’t move that much tonnage. It has to remain a discrete vessel, or it won’t be of any use to us in an emergency.”

“Ah, I see your point. Well, at least I don’t have to concern myself with incidental damage, and our landing maneuvers will hopefully be relatively mild. You don’t know how reassuring I find it that we have a way out if things go wrong, and I don’t mind saying that if anything can go wrong, it will with this inexperienced crew.”

“Ryan, we appreciate your concern, but there isn’t a single one of us that doesn’t enjoy the calculated risks that we take in our line of business. And frankly, you wouldn’t be an astronaut if you didn’t feel the same way.”

Ferguson grimaced. “You got me there, Flashpoint. Okay, we’re coming up on departure time. We’d better take our positions.”

It was not long before Machspeed and Amelia closed off the access tube and were strapped into their chairs, with Machspeed taking the commander’s seat. Ferguson was at the aft flight deck side control panel chair, while Flashpoint had the Mission Specialist’s chair behind and center of the pilots.

“Everypony strapped in?” Machspeed asked.

When everyone acknowledged, Flashpoint spoke up. “Final reminder, guys – if we have to ’port out of here, make sure you take off your belts immediately. I’ll come forward and hook my arms around Machspeed and Amelia, and Ryan grabs onto me so that we’re all one easily teleportable unit. That will enable us to use the pod to make our escape in a timely manner.”

They all soberly acknowledged her.

“Right – let’s go!” Machspeed said.

They disengaged from the space station, slowly drifting away until they fired the RCS thrusters to turn the shuttle until it was travelling tail first. At the calculated moment, they then fired the OMS engines to start the process of slowing down from orbital speeds, and they began their fall back to Earth. It took them about twenty-five minutes to reach the upper atmosphere, during which time the RCS thrusters changed their attitude once again so that they were travelling nose-first and the bottom of the shuttle would face the atmosphere at an angle of about forty degrees. They then burned the remainder of the fuel in the forward Reaction Control Stabiliser as a safety precaution as that area got the hottest during re-entry.

Ferguson said, “Okay, we’ve done the easy part. Remember, we won’t be so much flying as much as falling with style. You need to adjust your de-orbit burn and angle exactly, a few seconds off and we are dead. It’s like flying a razor blade.”

“We remember, Commander. Prepare for re-entry!”

It wasn’t long before the first wisps of atmosphere started making their presence known, and it quickly built up to a steady vibration. They plunged into the atmosphere at twenty-five times the speed of sound, and pink and orange-hued plasma streamed past the windows. This was both exciting and nerve-wracking as they waited for several very long minutes while the shuttle killed its enormous speed by atmospheric drag and its forty degree attitude was maintained with the help of the aft steering jets. Abruptly, re-entry was over, and the shuttle started flying like an airplane. At this point, the computer took over, making a series of S-shaped banking turns to slow its descent speed as it began its final approach to the runway.

Amelia got onto the radio. Now that they had passed the radio black-out due to the hot ionized gas produced during re-entry, it was time to let the ground crew know that they were coming. “Amberley Air Control, this is Atlantis – are you receiving? Over.”

The voice that replied was obviously extremely excited even as it struggled to remain professional. “Atlantis, we hear you. Sweet heavens, you did it! Over.”

“Not quite yet, Amberley. Still gotta land this bird. Is everything clear? Over.”

“Field is completely clear, and we have emergency equipment on stand-by. You may land when ready. Over.”

“We’re a giant glider, Amberley – we’re going to land whether we’re ready or not. See you soon. Atlantis out.”

To Machspeed’s relief, they picked up the landing beacon when they were still over two hundred kilometers away and at an altitude of 150,000 feet. That was fairly critical to a safe landing. When they were forty kilometers away, the computer surrendered control, and manual flight devolved onto Machspeed. With only the occasional prompting from Ferguson, Machspeed flew the shuttle around an imaginary cylinder about five and a half kilometers wide to line the shuttle up with the runway and drop the altitude. During the final approach, he steepened the angle of descent to minus twenty degrees, which was far steeper than that of a commercial airliner – almost seven times. He had to fight his instincts a lot at this time, and this was where his lack of real training was going to hurt the most.

When they reached 2,000 feet above ground, Machspeed pulled up the nose to slow the rate of descent, but they were still approaching the runway fifty percent faster than a passenger jet. Amelia deployed the landing gear, and after a few very tense moments, the shuttle touched down. Machspeed applied the brakes, and they deployed the parachute and speed-brake on the tail. The shuttle rumbled and jolted down the hastily prepared runway, coming to a stop about three quarters down its length.

For a long moment, there was silence on board before Machspeed and Amelia both started yelling in excitement, the tension of the landing evaporating into sheer exultation. They whipped off their seat belts and climbed out of their chairs to hug and pound each other on their backs. Flashpoint and Ferguson joined in and nobody noticed the radio for a couple of minutes.

Finally Machspeed calmed down long enough to notice the Amberley air controller trying to get their attention, and he grabbed the radio. “Amberley – Atlantis here. We’re down and all safe. We’re going to start shutdown procedures now. See you soon. Out!”

It took them about twenty minutes to complete the shutdown procedures, although it wasn’t strictly necessary because Atlantis was never going to fly again, but the shuttle had to cool down and the noxious gases generated during re-entry had to disperse anyway, so it killed time until they could disembark. Of course Flashpoint could have simply teleported them out of there, but where was the fun in that? The moment of triumph came when they opened the hatch to the outside and waved to the ground crew.

For Ferguson, it was a particularly heartfelt moment as he finally had the satisfaction of completing the mission that he had started over three thousand years ago. The Space Shuttle program might now be forever closed, but it had ended on a high note, and that was the best that he could have ever asked for. He did not even notice the shooting-star cutie mark that had appeared on his flanks.

# # #

(MONTHS LATER...)

“If you are ever looking for work, look us up,” Machspeed told Ferguson.

“Thanks, Mach, but I have big plans for my new life. I’ll drop around to visit occasionally though.”

“You’ll always be welcome, Ryan, and if you put as much into your new plans as you did as an astronaut, I’m sure you’ll succeed.”

“Then it’s farewell for now,” Machspeed said as he raised his leg to hoof-bump Ferguson.

The former astronaut then turned to Amelia and gave her a hug, then did the same with Flashpoint. “I’ll miss you all. You’ve done so much for me, and I’ll remember this past year as some of the best of my life. Goodbye, my friends!” He then spread his wings and took off, climbing into the sky with confidence, if not terribly gracefully as yet.

Machspeed watched him go for a while before murmuring with a smile, “Safe Landings, Spaceman.”

# # # # # # # # #

Author's Note:

Before anyone comments, yes I know that the shuttle program was discontinued years ago, but we didn't all turn into ponies in 2015 either. This is an alternate universe where the shuttle program continued until the Event. I'm no expert on either the I.S.S. or the space shuttle, but I have tried to keep it as accurate as possible, and I did some research on the landing procedures.

After completing the original "Mayday" story, I was urged to do a sequel, but I had no idea what to write about. I had always intended only to write a one-shot, so I hadn't given it any thought. It really was a flash of inspiration when I thought about the I.S.S., and after that it was a matter of figuring out how to go about the rescue.

So will there be more stories? Yes! As I think of suitable ideas, I will add new episodes, so I changed "Safe Landings" to Incomplete to leave the option open. Damned if I know how to top this one though!

ART BY KAT MILLER a.k.a. Foxenawolf. Check her out for commissions!