• Published 2nd May 2016
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Changeling Space Program - Kris Overstreet



The space race is on, and Chrysalis is determined to win it. With an earth pony test pilot and a hive full of brave-but-dim changelings, can she be the first pony on the moon? Inspired by Kerbal Space Program.

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Chapter 12: Mission 20: Keep Her Alive (And Show Her a Good Time)

CSP-20 T minus 32 days

“Welcome to Horseton Space Center, home of the Changeling Space Program.”

Queen Chrysalis walked back and forth along the line of nine (oh buck what was I THINKING) tourists, freshly arrived to spend the last three weeks of winter south of the snow line training for their springtime launches. Eight ponies and one griffon. Two Manehattanites, two from Cloudsdale, three from Canterlot, and two from Rainbow Falls.

All within the bounds of basic fitness to fly at accelerations of up to four G’s and of a size to fit in the tourist compartment.

In one case, just barely.

“Over the next three weeks you will be trained and instructed as if you were a proper astromare,” the queen continued, not making eye contact with any of the tourists (and especially not one particular tourist). “You will be exercised, trained in our simulators, instructed by our experienced scientific staff, and prepared to derive the maximum enjoyment out of your orbital flights.”

Nine tourists. I don’t care how much money it was or how badly we needed it. I must have been insane.

“Thanks to your generous support of our program, the expansion of our Vehicle Assembly Building will be completed on schedule nine days from now,” Chrysalis continued. “On the second day after Winter Wrap-Up- that’s twelve days from now- you will get to watch as we use our new facilities to launch a global exploration satellite sponsored by the Canterlot Explorers’ Society.(276) Two days after that we’ll launch Mission Fifteen, a science flight into high orbit that will test Probodobodyne’s ability to interact with a crewed capsule.”(277)

George Bull and Marked Knee spent a week writing about a hundred pages of gobbledygook to handle the probe-cockpit interface. They sent it to that pink interloper in Ponyville to double-check it. She sent them back a copy of the old program with about twenty words added, and no other changes. I can still see their jaws swinging back and forth with no sound coming out as they double-checked it. I don’t know if I like her or want to kill her.

“After that launch four of you will enter final-week training, with simulations, briefings, and observation of the assembly of your rocket. Two of you will fly with me; the other two will fly with our program’s chief pilot, Cherry Berry.”

She’d wanted so badly to stick Dragonfly with all the tourist flights, but the new three-pony capsule wouldn’t be ready in time, and Goddard the Griffon’s reports on the heavy lift systems designed for it couldn’t be repeated in public. The tourists flights would re-use Mission Thirteen/Fourteen system of the one-mare capsule and the two-mare passenger compartment, aerodynamic instability and all. Every other member of the space program leadership, those traitors(278), insisted that Dragonfly couldn’t fly a tourist mission without either a proper large capsule or a solo orbital flight- which would happen over the queen’s cold dead body.

That meant she and the pony were stuck playing taxi pony for seven well-heeled ponies, one very important griffon…

… and her.

I must have been insane. Which pony psychiatrist could I kidnap who wouldn’t be missed?

“Four more of you will go up a week later,” Chrysalis continued. “And, in the final flight, which will launch as soon as a capsule is available, we have Princess Luna, who joined us as part of her investigation into the safety of space flight. We hope to satisfy all her concerns by the end of the coming month, so we can resume working on our ultimate goal- landing a mare on the moon.”

The eight paying tourists turned their eyes to the ninth, the one pony in the room taller than Chrysalis, the one who couldn’t quite meet anyone else’s eyes in return. Chrysalis could sense a bit of sympathy from a couple of the passengers and a lot of resentment from the other six.

This was, after all, the pony who had brought the space race to a screeching halt.

And, despite her own best efforts, Chrysalis’s mind kept orbiting around one simple, paranoid thought:

What does she know?

Footnotes:

(276) The Society’s vote to fund the satellite had been a narrow one. The losing faction argued that once Equus was completely mapped, there would no longer be unexplored lands, and thus the Society would lose its reason for existence. The winning faction argued, more persuasively than the other side, that it would make the Society look like a collection of useless old toffs if their arch-rivals in the Daring Do Fan Club beat them to it. This was a distinct possibility, as the DDFC had some members with inexplicably deep pockets…

(277) This was making a virtue out of necessity. Occupant had surprised everyone by soaring through the academic portion of his science training, mostly because he already knew most of the material as part of his job as flight manager. But the final stage of his training would require a flight, and noling trusted Occupant’s piloting skills less than Occupant himself. So the bulls would get fresh data, Occupant would train on servicing equipment in space, and Dragonfly would sit on the ground and be reminded of her ongoing punishment.

(278) Chrysalis’s delight at treason only applied when she wasn’t the one getting betrayed.

CSP-20 T minus 101 days

A flare of purple magic lit up the royal palace at Canterlot like a short-lived second sun. (279)

Twilight Sparkle swooped down to Luna’s private balcony, the place where she normally stood when she raised and lowered the moon. The door to the princess’s private chambers stood shut, but the first round of knocks from Twilight’s hoof threatened to knock it down. “LUNA, OPEN UP!” she shouted. “I know you were awake half an hour ago! I want some answers!”

“As do I.” Celestia, looking a bit annoyed, flapped her wings in place as she hovered, then gracefully lowered herself to the balcony floor. “You’re welcome any time, Twilight, but is it really necessary to make such a scene?”

I made a scene? I made a scene?!?” Twilight hammered the door a second time. “LUNA! Come out and explain to your sister what you just did!”

“Perhaps you could explain it to me first?” Celestia asked patiently. “After all, Luna isn’t the one who just frightened four nobles into thinking we had a new Nightmare.”

“You weren’t watching television today, were you?” Twilight asked. “And nopony told you what happened in Horseton just now?” WHAM, WHAM, WHAM. “LUNA!!”

“No, and no,” Celestia replied. “I’ve kept my interest in space affairs quiet and my positions strictly neutral, you know that. I have the highest hopes for peace with the changelings if all works out.”

“Well, kiss your hopes good-bye!” Twilight growled. WHAM, WHAM, WHAM. “I’ll be surprised if we’re not at war with the changelings, the yaks, the griffons, the diamond dogs, and Outer Mulegonia by tomorrow!” WHAM, WHAM, WHAM. “Luna, come out and tell us why you stopped everypony’s space programs!”

“What?” Celestia gasped.

“I did not,” said a voice from behind the door. A moment later a window next to the door opened, and Luna, looking quite bleary, poked her head out. “The rockets can fly wherever they want. Except my moon.”

Celestia does most things with dignity, and her facehoof was a most dignified thing to behold, insofar as putting one’s own hoof over one’s face and hoping the stupidity will be gone when you remove it again can ever be made dignified. “Oh, dear sister,” she moaned. “What have you done?”

“She pulled the moon away from Mission R2!” Twilight accused the dark alicorn. “Just before the probe would have entered local moon space and won the award for first fly-by! And that’s not all!”

“Why, Luna?” Celestia groaned. “Our relations with the changelings are still quite delicate, as you well know.”

“Well, I had to stop them,” Luna insisted, no longer looking quite so certain of herself. “I had no idea what they might do up there.”

“Well, why didn’t you stop them BEFORE?” Twilight shouted.

“I didn’t think they were actually able to DO it before,” Luna replied. “I’ve been thinking about it for moons, and… well, time ran out, and I had to do something.”

“Oh, you did something all right,” Twilight snapped. “You shut down every space program on the planet!”

“Did not,” Luna insisted. “I only ordered that all of them keep away from the moon. I couldn’t single out the changelings, after all. It’s important that we act fairly and be seen to act fairly.” She nodded her head, as if that settled it, and added, “You taught me that, sister.”

Before Twilight could shout again, Celestia laid a calming hoof on the younger alicorn’s shoulder. “Sister,” she said quietly, “I wish you had discussed your plans with me before. I would have understood.”

“Would you?” Luna asked pointedly. “Could you?”

“But you chose the most inflammatory method I can think of, short of bucking Chrysalis in the head, to express your wishes,” Celestia continued.

“Do you know, she never asked me?” Luna said quietly.

Celestia blinked. “Er… what?”

“Chrysalis never asked me for permission to visit my moon,” Luna said. Looking at Twilight Sparkle, she added, “Neither did you. Nopony did. Everypony just assumed that I was fine with a free-for-all rush to MY moon.”

“Is that what this is all about??” Twilight shouted. “All right, I ask permission. And I’ll tell Chrysalis to ask permission. Everybody will ask permission-“

“No, that is not what this is all about!” Luna shouted back, finally roused to anger. “If it was just that I would have gone along with it all. I’ve tried throwing a snit-fit before. It didn’t work out.” Anger gave away to a sad smirk as she added, in a softer voice, “You were there for the end of that.”

“Oh,” Twilight said, much subdued. “Er, sorry. I wasn’t thinking about what I was saying.”

“Well, it did upset me, being ignored,” Luna said. “And I confess it was very satisfying to make certain that beepy-box missed its target. But that’s not why I did it.” Looking furtively back and forth, she leaned a bit further out the window and said softly, “I suspect Chrysalis.”

Celestia and Twilight both gave Luna identical flat looks. “Really,” Celestia said for the both of them.

“This is not a joke!” Luna insisted. “The changelings have to be plotting something! They have no earthly reason to want to go into space!” She looked Twilight in the eyes and said, “Can you tell me with a straight face that Chrysalis and her minions were suddenly overcome with a spirit of disinterested scientific curiosity?!”

“Luna,” Celestia said quietly, “of course Chrysalis is plotting something. Anyone with half a brain knows that. And we also know that such a plan, whatever its goal, will take quite some time. For almost a year she’s put all her hive’s resources into the effort- which means she’s not using those resources, for example, to sneak into our bedrooms in the middle of the night and kidnap us all.”

“And look what we’ve accomplished!” Twilight Sparkle said. “Equestrian technology is taking mighty leaps! New ideas, new science- we’ll have that long after we defeat Chrysalis’s scheme, whatever it is!”

“And those new ideas include the idea that changelings need not steal love,” Celestia added. “That they need not hide. That they need not fear or be feared. It’s not just technology that changes, Luna. The whole world is changing. And at the end of it, Chrysalis may find that her prize, whatever it is, isn’t worth giving up what she gained along the way.”

Luna raised an eyebrow. “Have you had another vision, sister?”

“Not of the kind you mean,” the sun princess said serenely. “But I have hope.”

“And I have a moon,” Luna said sulkily. “And I’m keeping it.”

Celestia took a deep breath. “If that is what you want, then I shall support you, sister,” she said at last. “But you know what you have unleashed.”

“You mean I might drop below last place in the Favorite Princess polls? Oh dear,” Luna mocked. “Our ponies still fear me, sister. Many resent me. I can endure it.”

“Your popularity is the least of it,” Celestia replied. “The longer the goal is kept out of reach, the less attractive it will be. Chrysalis might give up, or change her plans to something more direct.”

“Ponies will lose interest in space,” Twilight added. “We won’t be able to keep up the funding. And we’ll fall short of the stars.”

“That will not happen.” Luna raised her head, then winced as she hit the window frame just behind her horn. “Ow… It will not happen because, as I said, I have thought about this for a very long time. And I do not intend to keep the moon off-limits permanently.”

Twilight’s head jerked upwards. “You don’t?” she asked.

“I await the return of my messenger,” Luna said, “since the plan depends on Chrysalis agreeing to my terms. But between her investment in reaching the moon and the other… incentive… I have offered-“

“What incentive?” Twilight asked.

“I am confident,” Luna persisted, “that Chrysalis shall invite me to be one of her- what is the term? Space tourists?”

Celestia and Twilight Sparkle cast confused glances at one another. “Tourist?” Celestia asked.

“And while I am training for launch among the changelings, I shall be free to investigate their activities and intentions!” Luna said triumphantly.

Celestia groaned, her haunches flopping to the balcony floor. One elegant gold-clad hoof rose for a slightly less dignified facehoof, which turned into a prolonged rubbing of her temples. “I love you dearly,” Celestia sighed, “but there are ursa minors more subtle than you are.”

“Says the pony who could never find me when we played hide-and-seek,” Luna retorted.(280)

“I still want to know what other incentive you’re talking about!” Twilight Sparkle insisted.

“When the time comes,” Luna said. “If I speak of it now, I risk betraying my promise to Chrysalis. And though changelings break promises all the time, I am not a changeling.”

Footnotes:

(279) Normally the prolonged chain of teleport spells required to cover the distance between Horseton and Canterlot would have totally exhausted even Twilight Sparkle. But righteous anger can carry a pony quite a distance before it drops them like a dirty blouse. It could have carried Twilight Sparkle into orbit, had she wanted to go there, and had she been wearing a spacesuit.

(280) In the ancient past when they were fillies together, Celestia had taken pity on her sister’s incredibly unconvincing efforts to hide behind saplings, to pretend to be statues, and to lurk in the one and only shadow in sight. Based on her conduct since being restored to sanity, Luna’s concepts of subterfuge hadn’t advanced much since childhood.

CSP-20 T minus 98 days

“I still think we should pod the nosey princess and replace her with a changeling,” Chrysalis grumbled.

“I said no,” Cherry Berry replied. “Five reasons. First, um, NO, second, because the first time the drone was called to adjust the moon everypony would know, third, because it’s wrong, fourth, because you know it wouldn’t work and you’re just being grumpy, and fifth, NO.”

“But it’s so tempting!!” Chrysalis insisted. “First she blackmails me into agreeing to her little deal, and then as part of the deal she puts herself totally in my power! Without even a single guard!”

“Yep,” Cherry agreed. “Sound like anypony else you know?”

Chrysalis ignored the remark, stopping at the door of the conference room to give her chief pilot a direct stare. “Haven’t you ever seen something you really wanted, in easy reach, but you couldn’t have it?”

“Nope. You don’t kidnap cherries,” Cherry Berry replied, stepping past the changeling queen and opening the door. The other members of CSP’s leadership were already seated: Occupant, Warner von Brawn, Goddard the Griffon, and Dragonfly. “Good morning, everypony!” she said cheerfully, to the quiet nods or soft grunts of the others.

Chrysalis followed behind, closing the door and taking her usual seat at the head of the table. “All right,” she said, “why are we having this meeting again? I thought we made the agenda for the tourist flights yesterday.”

“The issue is Mission R2,” said Warner von Brawn. “The vessel appears to be reaching its apoapsis. Our projected course shows it falling almost straight back and impacting with Equus.”

“And?” Chrysalis asked.

“It doesn’t have to,” von Brawn continued. “If we make a minor course correction now we can put the ship into a stable elongated orbit that will keep R2 in position for future use.”

“What’s the point?” Chrysalis asked. “We missed the moon. That’s it. Mission over, isn’t it?”

“The Probodobodyne hardware appears to be hardy enough to survive for quite some time in space,” von Brawn said. “So long as the probe doesn’t lose power or hit anything-“

“Like, say, a planet,” Goddard muttered.

“-it should be good for months, possibly years,” von Brawn finished. “And we consulted Miss Pie by telegram about the programming. She says a simple restart command will fix almost any program error we may encounter, and…” He pulled out a yellow piece of paper from his suit pocket and read aloud, “’You don’t need to worry about Probey-Dobey going haywire and destroying all Equestria unless you see weird robot ponies with Hosstrian accents trying to kill the ancestors of the future resistance.’ I’m choosing to treat that as a humorous way of saying there will be no problems.”(281)

“So we keep a probe that Luna won’t let anywhere near the moon,” Chrysalis grunted. “What does that get us?”

“A probe with almost half a tank of fuel?” Goddard pointed out. “Already in space? That we don’t have to launch? That we don’t have to pay for a second time?”

“And which will be in the neighborhood if Princess Luna changes her mind,” von Brawn added.

Chrysalis nodded. “All right. What will it require?”

“Very little,” von Brawn said. “The probe is so far from Equus that the tiniest thrust will radically change its trajectory in respect to the planet. We could even kick the probe into interplanetary space with a few seconds’ burn.”

“Then do it,” Chrysalis shrugged. “Keep the thing from crashing. If it’s that simple we don’t need to have a meeting about it.”

“There’s another option,” Goddard grumbled. “We have a contract to put a satellite into orbit around Equus. We could repurpose R2 for it, like we discussed before launch.”

“That would require at least two burns,” von Brawn said. “One of them quite lengthy, to put us in the contracted polar orbit. We would be back in the same problem we discussed before launch, only with less fuel to return to the moon with.”

“I see,” Chrysalis said. “What do you recommend?”

“Send R2 to polar orbit, collect the new contract, and make a new launch if the moon opens up again,” Goddard said. “That gets some money back out of R2, and we aren’t out the cost of a second launch.”

“I think we should keep R2 and make a new launch for the satellite,” von Brawn dissented. “We already have a probe that crosses the moon’s orbit. So long as we keep it that way our options are open. At the least it looks like we’re still trying.”

Chrysalis nodded. “Yes, we don’t want to look like we’re giving up. Especially not since public opinion seems to be turning in our favor.”

The others nodded. A number of newspapers had indeed cheered on Princess Luna for thwarting the changelings, but their opinion was definitely a minority. More newspapers, and all but two of the several television companies, had come down against Luna for, as the Manehattan Times put it, “prematurely closing the frontier in a fit of pique.” Luna’s claim that the ban was temporary- until, as she said in a press release, she could “see for myself the safety of space flight for all the ponies of Equestria”- hadn’t gained much traction.

“So let’s go with von Brawn’s option,” Chrysalis said. “Occupant, make a press release that says Mission R2 will keep ready for a second attempt at a moon fly-by once Luna lifts her temporary restrictions. Oh, and repeat that CSP will give our full cooperation to any investigation of space flight.” After a moment she added, “And do NOT leave out those last three words, understood?”

“Of-space-flight,” Occupant said, jotting it down on a notepad.

“Are you sure that’s wise, my queen?” Dragonfly asked. “We changelings are all honest and legal now, obviously…” She gestured not-so-subtly to the non-changelings in the room. “But, well, maybe we don’t want to stir up the past?”

“Relax,” Chrysalis smiled. “The Changeling Space Program has nothing to hide. And even if we did,” she said, not gesturing to the non-changelings in the room in any way, “Princess Luna knows nothing.”

Footnote:

(281) von Brawn thereby chose the method 99.2% of all those acquainted with Pinkie Pie used to maintain their own sanity, i. e. ignore anything they couldn’t understand or explain.

MISSION R2 EXTENDED REPORT

Mission summary: Adjust R2’s orbit to prevent satellite crash, take photos of ground site on Equus

Pilot: Probodobodyne OKTO (Dragonfly)
Flight duration: (ongoing)

Contracts fulfilled: 1
Milestones: none

Conclusions from flight: A nudge. We gave it a nudge. Big deal.

MISSION ASSESSMENT: SUCCESSFUL


CSP-20 T minus 25 days

I know NOTHING, Luna thought, staring at the chalkboard with a total lack of comprehension.

Equations littered the chalkboard. Some were the kind of maths Starswirl had once tried to teach the two newly installed Princesses of Equestria in ancient days. (Celestia had learned quickly, but Luna struggled and eventually gave up completely, filling her note-scrolls with cute little sketches of spiders.) Others were some kind of strange drawings that Luna thought were chemistry, which Twilight Sparkle had told her was like alchemy but without any magic whatever. Preposterous thought!

Luna looked down at her desk, at the paper she’d been sketching on with the pencil held in her telekinetic grip. She’d managed a most adorable picture of a wolf spider, eight innocent eyes looking up in joy at the viewer.

Sighing, she neatly folded the paper, tucked it behind her tiara for safekeeping, and took out a fresh piece of notepaper. Not that it matters, she thought. They can’t flunk me out of my rocket ride, and I’ll have discovered Chrysalis’s secret scheme long before then anyway.

Part of Luna recognized that last thought as blind optimism, since her subtle, secret investigations were going nowhere on wings. Yes, she had the run of the space center- she even had permission to go into secret or dangerous areas the other tourists weren’t allowed into- but she never had the time. Between Marked Knee‘s exercise drills, George Bull’s maths and chemistry, George Cowley’s advanced aeronautical theory, and riding the training machines under Dragonfly’s supervision, Luna barely found time for her all-important afternoon nap. And then, of course, she still had to raise and lower the moon and guard the dreams of her little ponies all through the night.

Luna had sent for her special roasted coffee beans and a second coffee brewer from Canterlot. Only the unholy brew kept her awake from moonset through lunch…(282)

… and what do you know, just as she thought of lunch and bed, not quite in that order, bells rang across the complex.

“Ah, our time is up for today,” George Bull said. “Tomorrow we’ll discuss the advantages and disadvantages of hydrazine and nitrogen tetraoxide versus liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen. Bon appétit!”

As the other tourists filed out, Luna held back a moment. “Dr. Bull? May I ask a personal question?”

The minotaur smiled and said, “So long as it doesn’t keep me from my own lunch.”

“Why do you do this?” Luna asked. Simple question, to the point; she hadn’t time or energy for anything else.

“Hm.” George Bull gave the question several moments of serious thought. “Dr. von Brawn does it because rocket science is his life’s work- indeed, it’s his life,” he said. “And the rest of us from the Isles are also very enthusiastic about that, but we have our own reasons. Marked Knee wants electronics that can make technology available to the non-magical. Lord Cowley wanted to fly in his youth, and he’s still quite passionate about that. As for myself,” Bull said, smiling a little wryly, “I’m in it for the mathematics. For the logic, to be precise.” Taking a deep breath, he added, “I’ve always believed that everything is solvable, every secret of the universe, if we first understand the processes of the rational-“

“I do beg your pardon, Doctor,” Luna interrupted. “You could do all that elsewhere. Why are you doing it here, for Queen Chrysalis?”

“Aaaaah,” George Bull nodded. “Well, it seems a bit ungrateful if we were just to pull up stakes after, not to put too fine a point on it, she bailed us out of our own difficulties. Lord Cowley was on the point of mortgaging his manor, and the rest of us were quite without means of visible support, as they say.”

“And that’s it?” Luna asked. “For sale to the first bidder?”

“At least once bought, we stay bought,” Bull said with a chuckle. When he noticed Luna not smiling in response, he added, “Seriously, none of the four of us has any head for business. Von Brawn is good at working with people, but that’s all. Here we have a steady though limited research budget, a relatively free hand, and possibly the most stimulating possible environment for scientific advancement.” He smiled and added, “What more could we want? Besides dinner.”

Without waiting for any further questions, the minotaur bowed, closed his folder of lecture notes, and strode out of the astromare briefing room. “Er, thank you, Doctor!” Luna called out after him. In a softer voice she added, “You poor, deluded soul.”

The mess hall lay only a few doors down from the lecture hall, and only a couple of minutes later she had a nice hot bowl of soup, a watercress sandwich, and a cup of warm cocoa practically covered with mini-marshmallows(283). She was looking for a seat when she heard someone call, “Princess! Over here!” One of the other tourists, Billy Bobtail, was waving her to a seat with the other tourists.

The first couple of days, meals had been rather tense. Most of the changelings were angry at her- that was no surprise- and so were most of the tourists, as much as Luna wished otherwise. But Billy Bobtail and Rooster Tail (no relation) (284) had from the start tried to incorporate the princess into the group, and by the fourth day she was, if not forgiven at least tolerated by all.

“Thank you,” Luna said, taking the open stool. She levitated a spoon and took a sip of her soup. “Has anyone heard anything new about Garriott? He was asleep when I lowered the moon this morning.”

“The changeling medic said she wants him kept to bed one more day just to be safe.” Rooster Tail shuddered gently. “Her exact words were, ‘I never knew a pony that wasn’t the tastier for a few sweet dreams!’ Gave me the creeps!”

“Now, be fair,” said Stock Ticker, the Manehattan unicorn. “The missus and I tried out their pod clinic and spa when it first opened. Three days in and out, no monkeyshines, no impostors. And it was as sweet and relaxing as a pony could ask. Although they ought to work on something for the hangover afterwards.”

“Oh, really?” “Heavy” Damp Drizzle, a slightly overweight Cloudsdale pegasus, squinted at the unicorn. “And how can we tell you’re the genuine article, hm? Won’t catch me in any cocoon, no sir!”

“But apparently you,” chuckled Billy Bobtail, “have no problem being shot into space in a tin can on a giant bomb with a changeling holding your life in her hooves.”

“Well… well, that’s different!” Drizzle snapped. “At least the changeling will be in the can with me, hah! And what about you?”

“Yes, actually, I would like to know as well,” Luna interrupted before tempers rose any higher. “You all know I’m here investigating space flight.”

“Investigating the changelings, you mean,” Drizzle grunted. “You don’t exactly hide it under your hat.”

“I don’t have a hat,” Luna said, a little bit nonplussed. “But I’m curious to know why you are all here. You all paid Chrysalis quite a lot of money to be, er, shot into space in a tin can on a giant bomb, as you put it.”

“Well,” Drizzle grunted. “I… er… don’t nudge me!” he snapped when his wife elbowed him gently. “Well, I… to be honest I always enjoyed your sky, Princess.” He rushed the last words out as if evicting unwelcome guests.

“Really?” Luna asked.

“Honestly!” Drizzle nodded. “Before you returned I spent so many nights on a cloud high above Cloudsdale just looking at your face in the moon- didn’t know it was you, and now I see you in person it didn’t half do you just- ow!!”

“You don’t have to flirt, dear,” Mrs. Drizzle muttered.

“I was nine!!” Drizzle insisted before gathering his composure. “And all of the stars, the Milky Way on a really clear night… sometimes I imagined I could reach out and touch ‘em. And this is my chance to get a little bit closer to ‘em, so I took it.” He reached out and hugged his wife, who (a little to Luna’s surprise) leaned into the hug. “It’s something I can share with my wife. And you can just imagine how I felt when my former favorite princess,” he growled, “very nearly shut it all down.”

“Honey Dear and I just wanted to fly together,” said Fair Dues, the earth pony stallion nudging his pegasus spouse. “We’ve travelled in balloons and airships. Unfortunately nopony’s built a passenger aeroplane yet, though we’re working on a two-pony ornithopter in the garage. But when we came to the R1 launch, we met Queen Chrysalis and asked for a ride like Jet Set and Upper Crust got. And she was so delighted!”

“Oh, don’t I know it!” Stock Ticker agreed. “I’d already asked Princess Twilight Sparkle, but she insisted that space flight was too dangerous for tourists. Said what Chrysalis was doing was completely irresponsible!”

“Yeah!” Drizzle took a healthy bite of his own sandwich and continued talking as he chewed. “An’ who elshe y’gomma ash’? Griffoms’ome? Yakths? No-“ At another poke from his wife he swallowed, nearly choked, and finally managed to bark, “Will you please stop elbowing me in front of Princess Rocket-Blocker here??”

“Yes, dear,” Mrs. Drizzle said, “just as soon as you quit acting like a boor in front of her.”

“So if you want to look down on the world as I do,” Stock Ticker continued, raising his voice to stop the bickering, “from as high as it is possible to get, then the CSP is really the only option.” He sighed and added, “Unfortunately the missus is terrified of heights. Do you know, we’re the only nobs in Manehattan with a deluxe luxury sub-basement apartment?”

This turned the conversation to a comparison of living-spaces, which allowed Luna to join in at the end with her story of how she sent Princess Platinum through the wildest ride of booby-traps and spinning walls and drop-chutes at the opening of the ancient castle in the Everfree Forest. This story actually won a couple of chuckles from the other ponies, bringing her closer (she hoped) to being fully accepted as one of the group.

After that, their meals more or less finished, the tourists parted ways, the others to various activities or study, Luna to her bed for the four or so hours’ sleep she could spare before the moon needed raising.

Perhaps I should have a word with Twilight Sparkle about tourism, she thought. I don’t wish to meddle with her project, but we may be allowing Chrysalis to hurt our relationship with our ponies by ceding her a monopoly on space tourism.

I wonder if she’ll be at the R3 launch next week? She might be too busy with her own satellite launches, but…

Footnotes:

(282) Lord Garriott de Gryphon, the sole non-pony among the tourists, accidentally drank a cup of Luna’s coffee the previous day. For the rest of that day he insisted on being called Lord Trottingham and that he would become the first griffon to perform a sonic rainboom. When Luna woke up to raise the moon, she found him in the infirmary, lying next to the two changelings who’d broken his fall. After this incident labels were added to the coffee pots: REGULAR, DECAF, and WAIVER REQUIRED.

(283) Before her exile Luna had enjoyed, whenever it was available, the sweet, gooey extract of the mallow root. The modern confections called “marshmallows” didn’t taste much like the old at all, but she wouldn’t have the old back for a million bits. Of course she only took them with her before-bed cocoa, so that she could continue teasing her sister about her well-rounded “personality” without being a hypocrite.

(284) Both Mr. Bobtail and Ms. Tail (no relation) worked in the food industry. Billy, an earth pony, began as a carter hauling produce up from the fields around Mt. Canter and, over the years, became the second-largest grocery distributor for Canterlot and a couple of outlying villages. Rooster Tail, a pegasus, sold a popular hot sauce that many Canterlot natives secretly carried in their saddlebags when visiting the notoriously bland upscale restaurants of the city. Both had been saved from anxiety dreams by Luna, and both shared her dim view of the capital’s unicorn aristocracy. Thus they were prepared, as almost none of the others were, to give the princess the benefit of the doubt.

MISSION R3 REPORT

Mission summary: Place artificial satellite in designated orbit

Pilot: Probodobodyne OKTO (Dragonfly)
Flight duration: (ongoing)

Contracts fulfilled: 1
Milestones: none

Conclusions from flight: BOOOOOORING.
Additional conclusions from flight: Hooray for any launch and mission completion which Dragonfly finds boring.

MISSION ASSESSMENT: SUCCESSFUL


CSP-20 T minus 23 days

“Do you mind?” Dragonfly asked, setting a large pile of papers and folders down on a work table. “I’m very busy right now! I have R3 launching in three days and, assuming that goes well, Mission Fifteen two days after that! And tomorrow is Winter Wrap-Up, which means all you ponies are going to want a holiday, and I’m in charge of that too!”

Luna flinched. She’d expected the changeling to be hostile, but not this particular kind of hostile. The last time she, a princess with a dark reputation, had received this kind of reaction, it had been from a pony in the grip of a nightmare about working in a candy factory. The changeling was angry not because of anything Luna had done, but because she was being interrupted in the middle of her work.

“I’ll keep it brief,” Luna said quietly. “Why do you do this?”

Dragonfly’s big glowing eyes blinked. “Really?” she asked. “I’m a changeling drone. Why do you think I do ANYTHING?”

“Well, why do you?” Luna asked. “It’s not like you couldn’t just leave the hive any time you wanted. I’m told there are a number of changelings who have done just that.”

“Not me,” Dragonfly said firmly. “Listen, Princess. The queen has her rough spots, and she’s a bit of a stick-in-the-mud sometimes, but her schemes kept us fed and mostly safe. We came that close,” and the changeling raised her forehooves and held them about half an inch apart, “to conquering your whole kingdom because of her brain. You may not like her, but we changelings think she’s pretty smart, all right?”

“I apologize-” Luna said.

“And another thing,” Dragonfly continued, not letting Luna speak, “even if Chrysalis was a bad queen, it’d take a lot before I abandoned my buddies! A changeling needs to be part of something!” She gestured one hoof in a broad circle, indicating more or less the entire space center around them. “The hive isn’t like one of your towns! This is a team! A family! And family doesn’t leave family!”

Luna bowed her head, remembering darker times when she’d tried to do away with her only relation.

“Now, if that’s all you wanted, I have simulations for Mission Fifteen in half an hour,” Dragonfly said, opening one of the file folders. “Every single sim we’ve run has failed to reach orbit, and we’re still trying to figure out why the thing acts like a ballerina once it gets past the sound barrier.”

“A bal… no, pardon me,” Luna said, abandoning mental visions of a hundred-meter-tall rocket in a tutu. “Perhaps I should rephrase my question. What do you want with the moon?”

“Me? Nothing,” Dragonfly said curtly. “I’d like to fly there, but I’m not planning on staying.”

“But what about-“ Luna’s question stopped at the sound of a very large engine revving up, followed by the tell-tale cackle of Queen Chrysalis. “What diabolical plot is being conceived?” she gasped.

“Hm?” Dragonfly perked an ear-fin up for a moment, then shrugged. “Sounds like Occupant’s getting a session in the centrifuge.”

The laughter grew louder, threatening to drown out the motor sound.

“And the queen hasn’t forgiven him for her first ride in it,” Dragonfly added, “never mind the Stayputnik incident.”

The motor began overpowering the maniacal laughter again, with a wooshing sound overlaying all the noise.

“Is Mr. Occupant in danger?” Luna asked, concerned.

“Of course not!” Dragonfly snapped. Then she thought about it, shrugged, and corrected herself, “Probably not, anyway.”

Luna trotted out the door and dashed across the hallway into the large training equipment chamber (285). As she entered, she heard Chrysalis shout, “Are you ready? It’s time for STAGING!” As she barged into the cylinder which held the centrifuge and its controls, she saw the queen at the control panel yanking down a lever, then shoving it back up again a moment later. “Ha-HA! How do you like THAT?”

“VVvvvvvvvvveeeeeeeerrrrrrrryyyyy ggoooooooooooodd, mmmmmmmmmyyyyyy Quuuuueeeeeeeeeeennnnnnnn,” a buzzy voice croaked from the rapidly spinning centrifuge. Blasts of air pulsed through the chamber with every spin of chair and counterweight.

“CHRYSALIS!” Luna roared, causing the changeling queen to jump halfway to the ceiling. “Release that poor creature at once!”

The queen dropped to the floor again and switched off the centrifuge engine before her brain had a chance to catch up with her fear reaction. Luna watched with bemusement as stark terror gave way to affronted rage on the queen’s face. “What do you think you are doing,” she roared back, “interfering with the operations of my space program??”

“I am putting an end to your torture of that poor subject of yours!” Luna replied, jabbing a hoof in the direction of the still-spinning centrifuge.

“Excuuuuse me?” Occupant called from the seat of the still spinning centrifuge. “I’mmmm pretty sure the ssssssession isn’t over yyyyyyet. I haven’t passssssed out yet.”

Luna’s anger gave way to confusion. “You make him ride in that thing until he passes out?” she asked. “And he WANTS to?”

“All of us have done the exact same thing,” Chrysalis grumbled. “I was the first to ride in that thing(286), as it happens, before we even moved to this swamp. It made me so sick I blew slime across half the floor.”

As the centrifuge’s spin slowed to a gradual halt, Occupant’s voice steadied. “We had changelings magically spinning it up at the hive,” he added helpfully. “Here we can use a magic motor. Much easier to control!”

“You’re going along with this?” Luna asked.

“I’m going to space!” Occupant answered. “But we need to be sure I’m fit to go to space first! And I need practice dealing with the forces of acceleration and deceleration.”

“And I need a socially acceptable way of inflicting punishment on a much-deserving subject,” Chrysalis said without shame. “At the very least I’m going to make this grub lose his goo.”

“What for?” Luna asked insistently.

Lese majeste, if you insist on a formal charge.” Chrysalis’s hoof toyed with the main control lever again. “This idiot made a public fool of me with the whole Stayputnik thing, so I’m going to have satisfaction out of him one way or another!”

Luna walked past the queen, reaching up a hoof and halting what little spin the centrifuge had left. Looking at Occupant, apparently calm and happy in the pilot seat, she asked, “Why in all Equestria do you put up with this?”

“Because it beats being the door-guard on a door no pony ever wants to enter,” Occupant said simply. “For the first time in my life, I’m doing things that matter- for my queen, for the hive, for everyling!”

“But- but- but she tortures you for her pleasure!” Luna said, gesturing to the unrepentant queen.

Occupant shrugged. “Yes, she’s good at that,” he said. “But her hugs are even better!”

Luna fell flat onto her flanks. She turned her head to Chrysalis, who blushed brightly(287) and kept finding things to look at that were neither the alicorn nor the drone.

“I… er…” The princess of the night suddenly found her desire to learn what went on within the changeling hive much reduced.

Composing herself, Chrysalis said quietly, “Princess Luna, in the interests of peace between our peoples and the long-term welfare of my changelings I have promised you full and unconditional cooperation in your investigation.” She took a deep breath and continued, still in the same quiet tone, “And we trusted that you would use this cooperation, and the access that comes with it, discreetly and judiciously.”

“You want me to leave now,” Luna said flatly.

“I hear the coffee in the mess room is very good these days,” Chrysalis replied. “Might I suggest you try it?”

The instant the door shut behind Luna, a furious screech erupted from behind it. “YOU IDIOT!” Chrysalis shrieked. “Why do you SAY things like that??”

“But my queen, you did order us to-“

“Get ready to experience sudden deceleration!” Chrysalis shouted. “All three parachutes opening at once! It’s like slamming a carriage into a wall at twenty miles an hour!”

“Yay!”

Luna took the very, very many questions she had, opened up a mental hole into oblivion, and stuffed every last one down it.

Footnotes:

(285) She, like the other tourists, had had at least one ride in each device, but she was the only one who’d had only one ride. Her time in the centrifuge had been uneventful; for an alicorn of immense magical power, who had fought Tirek and Sombra and Discord and countless monsters, and who for quite some time had been a monster herself, seven g’s of force presented no real interest. On the other hoof, the three-axis spinny chair thing had entertained her so thoroughly that she’d put in an order to have one delivered to the palace in Canterlot.

(286) Not true, but Chrysalis didn’t know that.

(287) Still an accomplishment.

MISSION 15 REPORT

Mission summary: Train scientist in orbital flight and scientific equipment use

Pilot: Probodobodyne OKTO (Dragonfly)
Crew: Occupant (scientist)

Flight duration: 4 hrs. 51 min.

Contracts fulfilled: 0
Milestones: none

Conclusions from flight: Dragonfly complains everyling gets orbit time except her.

MISSION ASSESSMENT: SUCCESSFUL


CSP-20 T minus 15 days

Two changeling guards, especially sharp in their blue uniform tunics and peaked uniform caps, stood on either side of the personnel doors leading into the Vehicle Assembly Building’s main chamber. In front of them, resting on the venture bells of their massive Thud solid rocket boosters, stood two rocket stacks under construction, some changelings holding parts in place with magic while others welded or bolted them together. And, on the floor, watching every step of the process, sat one midnight-blue pony princess.

“So,” the one on the left said to the one on the right, “has she asked you the question yet?”

“Which question is that?” the other one replied, not turning his head or moving anything other than his jaw.

“You know, THE question,” the first insisted. “Night princess’s been asking everyling that crosses her path the same thing.”

“Really?” Now the second guard did move his head, tilting it in confusion for just a second before resuming his proper stance. “Because I was on guard when she asked Goddard what hydrazine tasted like. And the words he used answering her, well, I’m pretty sure nobody, not even a pony, would need to be told twice.”

“I’ll bet,” the first guard said(288). “But that’s not the question.”

“Oh?” The second guard considered this. “I was also on guard when Luna talked to Eye Wall about the nitrogen tetraoxide fumes. Asked if she could borrow the red clouds to make a special sunset with her sister.”

“She did?”

“Yep. Eye Wall doesn’t know as many bad words as Goddard, but she makes up for it in repetition.”

“I’ll remember that,” the first guard said(289). “But the question I meant was, ‘Why do you do it?’”

“Oh, that one. No,” the second guard said, shaking his head briefly, “no, she hasn’t asked me.”

“Me either,” the first guard said. “I hear she even asked Uncle Pointy. The queen put him under Carapace, you know, running the gift shop.”

“What was his answer?”

“He said that he got to read all the books in the shop,” the first guard shrugged. “What more reason did he need?”

“That’s Pointy all right.”

“But Pointy’s a nobody,” the first guard said. “You and I, we’re really important changelings. Why, this place would be completely overrun if it weren’t for us.”

“Too true,” the second guard agreed.

“So why hasn’t the princess there asked us?”

“Hm.” The second guard gave this a bit of thought. “You know,” he said at length, “it might be that she sees how important our job is and doesn’t want to interrupt us.”

“You really think so?”

“Dunno, but it makes sense, doesn’t it?”

The first guard nodded for just a moment. “Yeah. I’d never have thought a pony would have that kind of smarts, though.”

“Well, she is a princess.” The second guard waved a perforated hoof at Luna, who continued to watch the rocket assembly with intense concentration. “They don’t give you that just because you have a horn and wings, right? Otherwise every changeling would be a princess.”

As if one body controlled both heads, the two guards glanced across the immense chamber at Plastron, who was doing nothing more than holding a clipboard and nodding to himself.

“Except Plastron,” the first guard said.

“Yeah,” the second guard agreed. “Even Occupant would get a tiara before Plastron.”

Upon the rock of mutual contempt for CSP’s health and safety officer the conversation ran aground, and the guards stood for a while in silence, watching the VAB to make sure nobody stole it(290). As the assembly crew began assembling the crew capsule stacks for what would be Missions Sixteen and Seventeen, the first guard asked, “So, if she asked, how would you answer?”

“Probably a bit more politely than Goddard or Eye Wall,” the second said.

“No, no. The other question, remember?”

“Oh. Well…” The second guard shuffled his hooves. “I kinda have a confession to make… I put in for a transfer to tour guide duty.”

“Really? Why?”

“Snacking.”

“I know you were around for the queen’s lecture about that.”

“I don’t need to eat anything except what the ponies give me directly,” the second guard replied primly. “I’ve been smelling the yummy gratitude for months now.”

“Yummy gratitude?” the first guard said, making a face.

“I can’t help it if everyling else has no taste.”(291) The second guard shrugged and added, “What about you?”

The first guard shrugged. “It gets me out of the hive,” he said. “Out and around other people. Do you know, I have a date for Hearts and Hooves Day next week?”

“Under what disguise?”

“No disguise!” The first guard tapped his chest proudly. “There’s a pony in Horseton that feeds me for who I am!”

“Anypony I know?”

“The trash collector.”

“The mare with four teeth and the knotted-up mane?”

“That’s her,” the first guard nodded. “We’re going for a sail on her garbage barge.”

“You always get all the luck,” the second guard grumbled.

Another several minutes of intense silent guarding followed. This time it was the second guard who broke the silence, asking, “Do you know if Luna’s asked the queen that question?”

“No clue,” the first guard said. “Not that it matters. Whatever answer the queen gave would be a lie too slick for the pony to figure out.”

“You don’t think she would tell the truth?”

“I’m pretty sure the queen wouldn’t tell US the truth,” the first guard insisted. “Why would she tell a nosey pony?”

“The queen hasn’t told us anything at all,” the second guard said. “I figured, if she had a lie, she’d have told it to us already.”

“Don’t be silly,” the first guard snapped. “The magic of lies is, they never run out.”

Footnotes:

(288) Accidents happen, and some things, like N2H4, can overcome even the resilience of changelings. The guards remembered in particular one fellow guard who had been too close to the fuel lines when they disconnected, getting a splash of the new fuel on his body. He’d had to be rushed back to the hive for changeling-specialized medical treatment and, eventually, a forced molt. Even after the molt his chitin was discolored in the exact pattern of the splash. Fortunately that had been the only such accident thus far, and it had made the changeling ground crew even more cautious around the truly deadly liquid-oxygen and liquid-hydrogen tanks and feed lines.

(289) Of the chemicals that Goddard the Griffon had found most efficient for liquid-fueled rocket flight, N2O4 was probably the least dangerous except for ethyl alcohol. That didn’t make it exactly safe- quite the contrary. Changelings had learned to track down and fix leaks quickly after several guards, who had been proud of their bright shiny nickel-plated security badges, had brought in horribly blackened badges for replacement after being caught in a plume of red smog. It hadn’t taken anybody long to wonder, if the fumes did that to a badge, what was it doing to their lungs?

(290) This was Equestria. There were precedents.

(291) Gratitude is to changelings much like Brussels sprouts are to practically everyone else; it can be eaten, it’s healthy and mildly nourishing, but in short order most changelings look for something, anything else to eat instead. The very mild gratitude tourists felt towards a good tour guide would be even closer, metaphorically speaking, to celery or possibly even parsley. But there’s always someone who likes what everybody else hates, whatever the species.

MISSION 16 REPORT

Mission summary: Take two tourists to orbit and return them safely

Pilot: Cherry Berry
Crew: Damp Drizzle, Misty Drizzle (tourists)
Flight duration: 4 hrs. 5 min.

Contracts fulfilled: 2
Milestones: none

Conclusions from flight: Mr. Drizzle didn’t like the meal. The meal didn’t like Mrs. Drizzle.

MISSION ASSESSMENT: SUCCESSFUL

MISSION 17 REPORT

Mission summary: Take two tourists to orbit and return them safely

Pilot: Chrysalis
Crew: Billy Bobtail, Rooster Tail (tourists)

Flight duration: 7 hrs. 48 min.

Contracts fulfilled: 2
Milestones: none

Conclusions from flight: The passengers said in the survey they weren’t afraid of heights or closed spaces. Too bad we didn’t ask about heights AND closed spaces.

MISSION ASSESSMENT: SUCCESSFUL


CSP-20 T minus 9 days

Luna slumped at the breakfast table next to the four remaining tourists. “Why won’t anypony lie to me?” she asked, interrupting the discussion about how the first four tourists had had unhappy flights.(292)

Garriot the Griffon raised a feathery eyebrow. “That’s an unusual thing for a pony to say. Especially a pony princess.”

“I can smell a lie a mile away,” Luna moaned, not paying any attention to the comment. “I can use lies. Lies lead places. But how can I find out what Chrysalis is hiding if all I ever get is useless truth??”

“Maybe they’re not hiding anything at all,” Honey Dear said, taking a sip of her coffee.

Three other ponies and a griffon turned their full attention to her. Stock Ticker spoke for the group when he said, “You have to be joking.”

“They’re changelings, pet,” Fair Dues added. “Of course they’re hiding something!”

“No, hear me out,” Honey Dear said. “The other day- well, you know how Cherry Berry always makes her own bed? Keeps it nice and tidy? I thought maybe we all should be doing that, taking responsibility for ourselves. So I was making my bed when the changeling maid came in.”

Luna hadn’t questioned the bedmaking until now, and after her second day in Horseton she hadn’t given it any thought at all. She hadn’t made her own bed since before there were beds to be made. Usually, by the time she stumbled to her bunk for the handful of hours of sleep she could spare, she was in no condition to care how the bed looked or who had done what to it, and when she woke it was straight to work, raising the moon, bringing out her special little stars, and guarding the dreams of a nation. The idea of making one’s own bed intrigued her, and the identity of the changeling who did intrigued her even more. She leaned forward to listen better.

“Turns out the maid used to be a spy,” Honey Dear continued. “She worked at large hotels in Las Pegasus and Manehattan. Kidnapped a few notables here and there, she said. And she wasn’t shy at all about telling me about it.” The peach-colored pegasus tilted her head a bit in remembered confusion. “She said the past was the past and that the queen had told everypony to answer any questions honestly. When I said she probably didn’t mean me, she told me she didn’t care, because those days were over and changelings wouldn’t have to do things like that anymore.”

“My sister is rather certain the hives are still kidnapping ponies for brief periods,” Luna put in.

Honey Dear shrugged. “They always come back, don’t they? The maid said that before the truce they only kept ponies who wouldn’t be missed.”

“Like Double Face?” Garriot said, which produced a quick chuckle around the table. The ex-guardspony and current public relations worker had been a joke around the space center for months. Even Mr. Drizzle had agreed that permanent banishment to a changeling hive couldn’t happen to a more deserving pony(293).

“Anyway, one of the first things Chrysalis did when she announced the space program was to release and return all her prisoners,” Honey Dear continued. “The maid tells me there’s not a single pony held captive at the hive now, but the changelings are eating better than they’ve ever done before.”

“You know,” Stock Ticker said slowly, “you might well have a point. I always thought that Chrysalis’s words about a better life for changelings, earning love rather than stealing it, and so forth was just so much PR twaddle. We hear that sort of thing in Manehattan all the time. But if your maid was telling the truth…”

“The maid,” Luna cut in, “who by her own admission was an infiltrator and spy. And thus among the best actors and liars the hive has to offer.”

But as she said it, Luna squirmed a bit, because the story fit neatly, oh so neatly, in among dozens of identical stories she’d heard from every changeling she’d spoken to. Smart or stupid, sneaky or blatant, busy or idle, they all said more or less the same thing: things are better now, and we don’t want to go back to the old way. Some of them had more specific reasons- I do it for the hive, I do it for the queen, I do it for the goodies, I do it because I like it- but Luna hadn’t been able to sense a single ulterior motive. Not a lie, not an omission, nothing at all.

She’d even gone to extremes to present herself as a suicidal (or equicidal) idiot in order to smoke out plots against Equestria. She’d proposed, apparently from ignorance, one scenario after another in which rockets could be used as weapons, rocket fuel as secret poisons, the new artificial satellites as spy platforms or mind-control spell relays. The responses had ranged from nostalgia (“Wish we’d thought of that in the bad old days!”) to incredulousness (“Why would we blow up our food supply??”) to outrage (“What kind of monster would even THINK of that??”). She’d expected that last reaction from the ponies and griffons and minotaurs she interviewed… but she’d never expected changelings to react the same way.

And even the changelings who still saw ponies as nothing more than livestock- a majority of the staff, Luna thought, but she was no longer so sure- said it plainly and simply: This way works better. If it was still the bad old days, then those might be ideas, but why risk wasting food when you can have a limitless supply?

Apparently all Luna had accomplished, aside from making a foal of herself, was to give the changelings some very dangerous ideas if and when the truce broke down. It didn’t comfort her at all to know that Chrysalis and her followers worked hard to prevent any of those ideas from actually happening. She still didn’t know Chrysalis’s actual scheme, and-

“Myself, I’m having the tofu curry.”

“Isn’t that kind of risky after what happened to Mrs. Drizzle?”

“I just think she wasn’t used to spicy food. What about you, Princess?”

“Pardon?” The conversation had gone ahead without Luna- far, far ahead.

“Have you picked the menu for your flight yet?” Garriot asked.

“Er… I haven’t given it any thought,” Luna said. She’d been so focused on her investigations (and her normal duties, and her utterly insufficient sleep, and the lessons she more or less daydreamed her way through) that she had given not a single thought to the possibility that she might actually take her flight into space.

Now that possibility sank in, put down roots, and extended a broad canopy of leaves, each a tiny horrible little idea that added up to utter terror.

By my sister’s shining white flanks, she thought, I’m going to be shot into space in a tin can on a giant bomb. I’m going to ride a plume full of highly toxic chemicals into a weightless, airless void, from which I shall return in an unsteerable fireball at a speed of tens of thousands of miles an hour.

With a sadistic, vengeful, and possibly insane changeling queen controlling it all.

This is actually going to happen next week.

Luna’s head spun, and only by sheer willpower did she prevent herself from fainting. She couldn’t show weakness before her ponies, and even less in front of those stinking changelings. “If you will excuse me,” she said carefully, “I have many things to do today.”

Which she did, of course. Doubtless she did. If she could only think of them, or indeed anything else aside from Chrysalis’s malevolent grin and mad cackle as she flew the two of them to a fiery airborne demise.

I must find some way to avoid flying with Chrysalis, she thought, no matter the cost.

Footnotes:

(292) The general spoken consensus: Mr. Drizzle was a whiner, Mrs. Drizzle had the patience of a saint, and it didn’t matter how afraid Billy Bobtail and Rooster Tail were, anypony who tried to open a hatch into vacuum deserved a venomous bite on the neck to calm them down. The unspoken but unanimous consensus: Boy, I hope my flight isn’t as bad as either of those were.

(293) A sentiment Double Face firmly agreed with, but for different reasons. Chrysalis was still trying to figure out a way to get the useless load to leave without causing trouble with Celestia. Seven different attempts had been thwarted by Double Face’s own ingenuity, Celestia’s quiet bureaucratic machinations, or simple unforeseen circumstances.

MISSION 18 REPORT

Mission summary: Take two tourists to orbit and return them safely; test Thuds during ignition on pad; test heat shield on splashdown after flight

Pilot: Cherry Berry
Crew: Honey Dear (tourist), Fair Dues (tourist)
Flight duration: 4 hrs. 45 min.

Contracts fulfilled: 3
Milestones: none

Conclusions from flight: Over half the planet is covered by water. How could we MISS WATER?? At least the passengers got to stay overnight in Los Pegasus. On the other hand, one particular casino owner is NOT happy with us…

MISSION ASSESSMENT: PARTIALLY SUCCESSFUL



MISSION 19 REPORT

Mission summary: Take two tourists to orbit and return them safely; test heat shield on splashdown after flight

Pilot: Chrysalis
Crew: Stock Ticker, Garriot the Griffon (tourists)
Flight duration: 4 hrs. 11 min.

Contracts fulfilled: 2
Milestones: none

Conclusions from flight: We missed the water again. Also, we owe Appleoosa a new clock tower.

MISSION ASSESSMENT: PARTIALLY SUCCESSFUL

CSP-20 T minus 00:00:02:00 and holding

Occupant stood at the flight controller’s console, back in his spotless white vest, looking more confident than he’d done since the Stayputnik fiasco… or, so far as Chrysalis could remember, since ever. Was it four routine, mostly uneventful missions? Was it experience from his own flight? Who knew? “Final go / no go for launch,” he said matter-of-factly. “Booster?”

Goddard the Griffon said, “Go, Flight.”

“Systems?”

Warner von Brawn said, “We are go.”

“Tracking?”

George Bull: “Go, Flight.”

“Recovery?”

Stinger Charlie: “Standing by, Flight Manager.”

“Landing systems?”

Dragonfly: “Go, Flight.”

“Weather?”

Crawley, with Eye Wall standing next to him glaring: “Go, Flight.”

“Capcomm?”

“Go, Flight,” Chrysalis said on cue. The telepresence spell worked just fine, and she could see both Cherry Berry’s and Luna’s faces in little frames within the lower right edge of the larger magical view of the rocket. She especially liked looking at Luna’s face, struggling not to show the rapidly building anxiety and confusion. It was almost as good as the princess’s face when she’d been told that Cherry Berry would be her pilot.

Of course Chrysalis never had any intention of flying Luna’s mission. If anything happened the ponies would call it an assassination attempt- never mind that it would be a murder-suicide. How stupid did the ponies think she was? She wanted Luna gone, immediately, and she wanted the restriction lifted on the moon, sooner. The only person who wanted to be in that ship less than Chrysalis was likely Luna herself.

For a month Chrysalis had been worried she’d let something slip- that Luna had spied on her dreams, or that some careless word would lead her to Chrysalis’s true plan. But she’d never given her true reason for founding the CSP to any other living creature, never written it down, never done anything incriminating. When ordered to tell the truth, her changelings and employees had obeyed in all innocence. A competent investigator would have found nothing. Princess Luna discovered even less.

Now it was over, it was gloriously over, and the anxious alicorn stuffed into the passenger pod under the capsule was a sight Chrysalis hoped to treasure for all eternity. You’re going for a ride, my little pony, she thought. Have fun! And don’t come back!

“All controllers, this is Flight,” Occupant said, “we are go for launch. Timekeeper, restart the countdown clock at T minus two minutes.”

“Countdown clock restarted.”

“Disconnect all fuel lines.”

“Ground crew disconnecting lines.”

“Switch to internal power.”

“Rocket on internal power!!” Marked Knee reported. “Solar cells recharging batteries at specifications!!”

“Capcomm, control test, please.”

“Twenty, Horseton,” Chrysalis said, “control test sequence.”

This consisted of a complicated waggle of the flight stick so that Mission Control could watch the first stage engine and the maneuvering fins flex in response. “Control test sequence complete,” von Brawn reported, “all functions normal.”

“T minus one minute.”

The high-pitched shriek of Fiddlewing’s wings rang over the telepresence spell and echoed through the walls of Mission Control. The ground crew changelings fled the area.

On the screen, Luna’s mouth moved, but no sound came out. Cherry Berry responded, “Yes, Princess. That was just the all-clear warning. We’re about to launch.”

“T minus forty seconds.”

The princess grit her teeth, obviously nervous, looking around her for the exits. Too bad, Chrysalis thought. You want to know what we do here? You’re about to find out first-hoof.

On the screen, Luna raised a hoof and asked a question. “I’m sorry, Princess,” Cherry said, “but you’ll have to wait until we reach orbit.”

“T minus twenty seconds.”

Luna said something else, a bit more urgently.

“Launch in ten… nine… eight…”

Cherry Berry’s voice replied to her passenger, “If it’s that bad, your spacesuit’s designed to handle it. Excuse me.”

“Three… two… one…”

Chrysalis had to imagine the sound of an alicorn princess of Equestria shrieking like a little filly, but the sight of Luna’s face as the rocket left the ground was better than anything she could have imagined. And from the sound of clicking camera shutters from the press gallery, that face would be all over the front pages of newspapers across the continent come morning.

She wondered how many of them would dare to print what Luna was asking about just before ignition.


Cherry Berry watched the fuel gauge trickle down to nothing in the second stage. The ascent had gone totally by the numbers(294), and only a little of the third-stage fuel would be required to complete orbital insertion. There wouldn’t be enough left for a lunar fly-by, but she could do practically anything in close or even high orbit of Equus she wanted…

… or which her Very Important Princess desired.

“Brace yourself, Princess,” she called over the comms to Luna, “we’re coming up on another stage separation.”

No response. After the initial terrified shrieks, Luna had spoken only two words during the flight up, and those only in response to Cherry’s asking if she was all right. She hadn’t minded; after past experience with tourists, she was pleased to fly a mission with no distracting conversation or demands for service. But (she thought, as the second stage burned out, and as she hit the staging button to dump the empty stage and ignite the final engine) once they hit orbit that had to change. Luna had to have a good time on this flight, or else…

… well, she just had to have a good time. There was no or else. Killjoy was not an option.

“Confirm third stage activation,” she called down to the space center hundreds of miles behind and below. “Coming up on orbital circularization.”

“Roger third stage,” Chrysalis’s voice replied in her headphones. “Stand by for MECO.”

The displays had been upgraded somewhat since the first Flea-hop flights. Cherry could now see the projected orbit in a little screen to the right of the nav-ball, could find the projected periapsis as it rose out of the wire-mesh globe which was the computer’s idea of Equus. With a flicker of motion the markers for periapsis and apoapsis flipped, and just as Chrysalis said, “MECO!” Cherry Berry’s hoof came down on the throttle, cutting off the engines.

“MECO,” Cherry said. “Confirm main engine cut-off at five minutes forty-eight seconds.”

“Confirmed MECO,” Chrysalis replied, voice in full I-am-more-rocket-pony-than-you professional mode. “You are go for orbital operations. Orbit’s looking nice and stable.”

“Twenty copies,” Cherry Berry replied.

“Twenty copies of what?”

That was Princess Luna’s voice. Cherry Berry could hear both Mission Control and the passenger cabin, but the ground couldn’t hear Luna until and unless Cherry Berry hit a certain switch. Rather than hit that switch, she flicked another that turned off outgoing comms altogether, allowing the crew privacy for a moment. “It means I understand what Mission Control says,” she said. “It comes from telegraphs. After any telegraph message the pony at the receiving end has to report that he’s written down the message correctly. If the message is clear, she sends back, ‘copy,’ see? So I say, ‘Mission Twenty copies,’ because this ship is Mission Twenty.”

“But these headsets aren’t telegraphic,” Luna protested.

“No, but semaphore and telegraphy were the first non-magic long-distance communications systems,” Cherry said. “So as we create new telecommunications, by magic or electronics, the words and traditions stay with us.”

“If you say so,” Luna said uncertainly. “So… we appear to be in space now.”

“Er, yes,” Cherry Berry said uncertainly. “You’re welcome to unbuckle your belts and float around the cabin if you like.”

“I’d rather not,” Luna replied bluntly. “It feels like I’m in the dream world, but I have no control over anything.”

“Um, Princess?” The panic-now-avoid-the-rush-it’s-Ponyville-tradition part of Cherry Berry made a play for ascendancy, and she had to take a deep breath to keep the steely-eyed-missile-mare part of herself in charge. “Please don’t cast spells in the spacecraft. The hull isn’t rated for alicorn-strength magic.”

“I wasn’t… er… I mean, I copy,” Luna said, sounding much more timid than Cherry had expected. “I believe I shall just sit here and look out the windows.”

“Um… okay.” Cherry squirmed a little, then added, “Your in-flight meal is in the cabinet, and the utensils are in the table in front of you. Do you remember the training on how to prepare it?”

“Yes, thank you,” Luna said softly, “but I don’t think I’m hungry just yet.”

Cherry sighed under her breath, trying not to let Luna hear.(295) Even with the case of air sickness, meals had been a fun part of every tourist’s flight. Playing with food in free-fall never failed to turn the passengers into little foals and fillies. But if Luna didn’t want to play in space, didn’t want to try things…

… didn’t want to be here at all, so far as Cherry could tell…

… then this was going to be a bad flight.

And then, out the tiny window in the capsule hatch, Cherry spotted a glimpse of something. The moon. The ship was soaring around the curve of the world, and there tucked neatly behind the night side of the planet was the little shining gray disc.

Yes, Cherry thought, that’ll do nicely. “Make yourself at home, Princess,” she said. “I have a bit of routine to take care of with Mission Control, and then I think I’ll have something extra special for you.”

Footnotes:

(294) In the sense that the ascent to space had been completely uneventful. In the sense of being normal for a CSP flight, definitely not. Part of Cherry Berry, the Ponyville-bred part of her that could be triggered into blind panic by a bunny stampede, fully expected the usual near-disaster any second now, even after the previous tourist flights.

(295) She would have slumped on the flight couch, but slumping requires gravity.

Luna slumped forward as much as lack of gravity and surplus of seat belts would allow and stared listlessly out the window.

Now that she looked back on it, the flight up hadn’t really been all that bad. True, there were all sorts of dangers, as the members of the Changeling Space Program had drilled into her head, but Luna had faced dangerous things before. Indeed, she was a dangerous thing. The only truly frightening thing about the flight had been her powerlessness, her inability to do anything if something did go horribly wrong. She didn’t like not being in control; it reminded her too much of the worst parts of being the Nightmare.

But no, once you disregarded the inner demons, the flight had been merely unpleasant. She’d endured being stuffed into a space suit, then getting stuffed even more roughly through two hatchways barely large enough to admit her princessly proportions, being strapped into a chair in a chamber smaller than a private railway carriage, and finally getting crushed into the chair as if riding in a sky chariot pulled by a team of pegasi who had just taken a notion to chase a cyclone.

All in all, it could have been worse. At least nopony was asking her to smile for the entire trip(296).

But, now that she was up, she could think of little else except coming down again. She wasn’t really afraid of space, or of heights, or even the instant death that awaited her if she punched out one of the thick reinforced windows. She just… wasn’t interested. Ever since the day she earned her cutie mark she’d seen the sky as her canvas, the moon and the tiny moving stars as paints to bring out one work of beauty after another. Seeing it as a place… took the joy out of it for her.

Twilight, she thought, will be terribly disappointed in me, that after all this bother I still don’t share her enthusiasm.

But Twilight and her friends could go to space all they wanted. They could even go to the moon if they liked- it wasn’t as if they could do anything to it.

Chrysalis and her little creatures- engaging, personable creatures they might have turned out to be(297), but still the enemies of all ponykind and never forget it- another matter altogether. Luna wanted them nowhere near her moon or her stars or her anything. She’d spent a month trying to find a justification, any justification, for grounding their entire program, and she’d ended up with nothing that would hold weight. Certainly nothing that wouldn’t make her sister sigh and shake her head in that disappointed way that made Luna want to buck trees into splinters.

Oh, there were certainly dangers involved in space flight that Luna could use to stop it… but everything she’d found would apply just as much to Twilight’s efforts as to Chrysalis. If anything, the changelings, with their minotaur, griffon and pony members, acted more professional than Twilight’s staff- not that she would ever tell Twilight that, or anypony else. They had given her no cause- absolutely none- to yank the reins and stop the carriage in its tracks.

I don’t know how she’ll do it, she thought, staring out at the starry twilight sky of space without really seeing it, but somehow Chrysalis is going to conquer Equestria through space flight. And when she does, it will be my fault for not stopping her when I had the chance.

She’d never been able to question Chrysalis personally. Only once, once in the whole month, had Luna seen the changeling queen when she wasn’t busy training or administering her subjects. And that one occasion… that poor deluded changeling in the centrifuge… well, it hadn’t been the right time for questions then. And the right time had never come, and now she likely would never find the right time. For all the questions she’d asked, all the corners she’d nosed into and all the cracks she’d prodded, she’d never been able to ask the most important questions of the most important pony.

Celestia was right, she thought, sighing to herself. I have bungled this terribly. And all Equestria shall pay for my incompetence.

Something moved in front of her nose, and Luna blinked. No, it wasn’t in front of her nose- it was outside. The stars were moving outside the window. “Miss Berry,” she said, “is there something I should know?” No response. “Miss Berry? Is everything all right up there? Ah, over? Is that right, over?”

“Just a moment, princess!” Cherry Berry’s cheerful voice replied. “I wanted to show you something, now that we’re coming into the night side of the planet.”

“That’s not really necessary, my little pony,” Luna began.

“It’s no trouble, princess!” Cherry interrupted. “You should be able to see it now!”

And Luna did see it.

It was the moon. Her moon.

It’s small. It’s so very, very small. How could it be so small?

Because space is so very big, she realized. Up here absolutely everything is small.

This thought led to another, and another. “Cherry Berry?” she asked. “Is it possible to take this ship higher?”

“Why, of course, princess,” Cherry Berry replied. “Quite a lot higher, if you like.”

“I would like it, yes please,” Luna answered. “There’s something I want a better look at.”

“All right!” Cherry replied cheerfully. “I’m afraid we’ll have to wait a while to do it, though. If we want to go higher here, we have to make the burn on the day side of the planet. If I burned now we’d just mess up our orbit and not get any closer to the moon.”

“I understand,” Luna lied. “I can be patient.”

“You know,” Cherry Berry’s voice suggested unsubtly, “while we’re waiting for the right time to burn, you could have that meal you’ve been skipping. The meal you picked out, which Heavy Frosting made especially for you.”

Luna suppressed a snort. The head chef at CSP had never appeared to her as anything other than a grouchy-looking Trottingham pony, but she’d heard the other changelings talking about him. Half the time they called him Heavy Frosting, the other half Carapace. She hadn’t been fooled.(298) “I’m sure he did,” was all she actually said.

A sigh echoed through Luna’s headphones. “Princess Luna,” Cherry said, “I can’t eat until you eat(299), and there are cherries calling my name in the cabinet.”

“Oh.” Luna couldn’t slump, but she found she could scrunch herself down in her chair a bit. “I’m very sorry. Why don’t we both have lunch, then?”

“Royalty first.”

“As you wish.” Suppressing another sigh, Luna used her magic to open the food cabinet and float one of the in-flight meals towards her(300). She had to admit, she hadn’t been poisoned in a month of living at the space center, Mrs. Drizzle’s flight notwithstanding. She’d seldom tasted the food except for her cocoa, usually being too tired or preoccupied to know what went into her mouth, but nothing had ever bit her back.

The process of eating took about a minute to work out, but after that it was all business. For a pony who has spent centuries spending every night in the malleable realm of pony dreams, playing with mere weightlessness was… well… small potatoes.

Darn, she thought, I should have asked for potatoes. Mashed. With butter and cream. They’d be less messy to get out of a tube than this alfalfa...

Footnotes:

(296) Luna had completely forgotten about the telepresence spell and the fact that all the press of Equestria would be able to see her face every moment of the entire flight. It would take quite an hour of coaxing by Celestia to get her to leave her room again after she saw the front pages of the next day’s newspapers.

(297) Nice, personable, and highly skilled in psychological warfare. The changelings had labeled the food compartment FOOD, and there was a FIRST AID cabinet, an EMERGENCY cabinet, and even a SNACKS cabinet. However, half the cabinets were empty, and some wag among the changeling ground crew had labelled those as well: AIR, TURTLE TEETH, UNICORN FEATHERS, and in a more savage vein HOPES AND DREAMS, PROMISES, PONY GOODWILL, CHANGELING FUTURE, and GOOD FAITH. Luna was pretty sure Cherry Berry had no idea about the labels, and the princess was too embarrassed to bring up the subject.

(298) Carapace hadn’t been trying to fool Luna or anypony else. He’d never given a buck about keeping his cover identity ever since the first day he’d discovered that cave moss soup wasn’t the only thing a changeling could eat- an attitude which contributed heavily to his poor track record as an infiltrator. He used his preferred pony disguise around the tourists to create a more relaxing atmosphere; the food would taste better if they thought it was prepared and served by a pony instead of a changeling. For all he cared they could have called him John Jacob Jingleharness Schmitt, so long as they appreciated his art.

(299) A blatant lie born out of desperation; under no circumstances would Cherry let protocol stand between her and cherries when she was hungry. She’d simply had other things on her mind and, prompted by a grumbly tummy, decided to fib a bit in the hopes that guilt might succeed where cajolery hadn’t.

(300) Egg salad wrap with watercress, alfalfa sprouts vinagrette, and banana moon pie. The instant hot cocoa was the only disappointment; it tasted like dirty water, and it had no marshmallows, either modern or ancient.

“Twenty, Horseton.”

“Go ahead, Horseton,” Cherry replied to Chrysalis’s calm voice.

“Tracking shows you five minutes from apoapsis,” Chrysalis said. “At highest point you will be roughly twice as high above the surface of Equus as Mission Thirteen’s record.”

Cherry allowed herself a moment of pride, followed by a bit of perspective. That left the ship only a distance of about two planetary diameters up, in a decidedly egg-shaped orbit, with periapsis scraping the upper fringes of the atmosphere. “Twenty copies,” she said.

“If you want to re-enter on this orbit,” Chrysalis continued, “our best guess is a burn about twenty-five minutes after apoapsis will bring you down in the Griffon Sea about sunset local time. Extending the mission for another orbit would shift the landing site to the South Luna Sea in order to keep the landing zone in daylight.”

“Copy, Horseton,” Cherry Berry said. “That decision will be up to the passenger.”

“Copy, Twenty.” A tiny bit of grumpiness crept into Chrysalis’s faux professional manner.

“Horseton, send me up the burn details for the Griffon Sea landing zone,” Cherry said. “I’ll see what our passenger wants. Over and out.” Cutting the outgoing channel, Cherry switched to the in-ship channel and said, “Princess, I’m steering the ship so you can look at the moon again. To be honest, it really doesn’t look any bigger to me. It’s still really far away.”

“Thank you, my little pony,” Luna replied, “but that wasn’t actually what I wanted to look at. I wanted to look at what’s out the other window.”

“Princess?” Cherry Berry cocked her head in confusion. “I’m sorry, but the night side of Equus is out the other window, isn’t it? It’s all dark. You can’t even see the whole thing. There’s a few towns with streetlights, some fires, a couple of thunderstorms, and a lot of black. Nothing else.”

“I think you’re mistaken, Cherry Berry,” Luna said gently. “For me everything else is there.”

Cherry Berry shook her head. The way the ship had been assembled, the passenger windows and the capsule windows didn’t line up. If either the tiny nose window or the slightly larger hatch window were turned to face the planet, the passenger compartment would face empty space. “I don’t understand,” she said at last.

“The ponies I protect are down there,” Luna replied. “The ponies and griffons and diamond dogs and yaks and deer and parrots and minotaurs and all the many other speaking people of Equus. I guard their dreams and do my best to defend them against unseen threats. A thousand years ago, in my bitterness and pride, I betrayed that responsibility.” Cherry’s headphones went silent for a few leaden seconds before Luna added, “I shall never allow that to happen again. Not if I can help it. That’s why I’m here at all. Not the moon.”

“Oh.” It was Cherry Berry’s turn to leave the channel silent for several very heavy moments. “We, um… we all thought you were just having a snit about the moon at first. And then we thought you just hated changelings.”

“To be fair, I do hate Chrysalis,” Luna said quietly. “And though many of the changelings I’ve met this past month are quite… engaging… they are still monsters. They still prey on my little ponies. Ponies like you, Cherry Berry.”

“Mmm, yeah,” Cherry Berry admitted. “But they’re trying to be better. They’re hoping they can be better. They want a fresh start like… um... “

Luna’s chuckle had a bit of an edge to it. “Like myself? Yes, I know,” she said. “Celestia and I do not see eye to eye on this subject, but I am the very last pony who should ever argue that a monster does not deserve a second chance. I owe all I have to mercy, even if I have such trouble in granting mercy to others.”

“I think you did an okay job,” Cherry replied. “You were always polite and respectful to the staff. Even the ones who aren’t… um… all that… reformed,” she finished awkwardly.

This time Luna’s chuckle was a bit more genuine. “I actually liked them the best of all,” she said. “I understood them. They were surprisingly honest and simple. I could understand a changeling talking about delicious pony love a lot more easily than a changeling who… well, for example, a changeling who talks about nothing except what’s in the latest mail-order catalogue.”

“You mean,” Cherry Berry asked, unable to keep a smile off her face, “changelings who are as different and confusing as, say, an earth pony obsessed with flying?”

“Perhaps.” A long pause, and then Luna asked what most of CSP’s changelings called That Question. “Why do you work with Chrysalis, Cherry Berry? I know why you began, but you must know Twilight would love to have you on her staff now. As would any of the other space programs. Is beating her to the moon so important to you?”

“Me? No!” Cherry Berry made a warding gesture with her hooves, only belatedly realizing that Luna couldn’t see it. “Um, beating Twilight to the moon is Chryssy’s thing, not mine.”

“Then why do you fly these rockets?” Luna pressed. “Is it for the stars? Or is it for the fame you get back home? Do you seek to prove the worth of earth ponies? Or changelings?”

Cherry didn’t need more than a moment’s thought. “I fly to fly,” she said simply. “The destination isn’t important. I take my balloon up, or my helicopter, or my aeroplane, and spend hours just drifting or soaring across the skies. Moments like this, right now,” she said, making yet another gesture Luna couldn’t see through the bulkhead, “feeling the freedom from the ground and everything like this… this is why I fly.”

“But you could do it for anypony,” Luna said. “Why Chrysalis?”

“Because Chrysalis was the first to believe that an earth pony could do it,” Cherry said. “Because even when my friends turned me away, an enemy was desperate enough to bet all the chips on a weirdo who knew other weirdoes.” After a chuckle, she added, “We weirdoes gotta stick together, y’know?”

The sigh that echoed back over Cherry’s headset mixed resignation with profound understanding. “Yes, we do,” Luna said. “But I still don’t understand why you trust Chrysalis.”

“I don’t trust Chrysalis,” Cherry replied quickly. “Not in that way, at least. I know she’s got some scheme planned somehow. And I know I’m a silly earth pony who’ll never see it coming when it comes. But,” she added, “I can trust her to do everything necessary to get up to the sudden and inevitable betrayal. And when she makes her move, I’ll be right beside her, in as good a position as anypony to stop it.” After a moment she added, “If it gets that far, that is. She might change her mind.”

“Really?” Cherry could hear Luna’s voice trying to lean through the earphones like an eager pony leaning over a dining table for the hot gossip. “Tell me about her, then. What makes you think she might change?”

“Well….” Cherry took a moment to compose her thoughts. “Well, you first look at Chrysalis, and you see an insincere manipulator or petty tyrant, right? And most of the time that’s what’s there. She’s really selfish. She sees everypony else as things, even her changelings- tools, possessions, enemies, food. That’s what everypony thinks of her, and they’re not wrong. But…”

Cherry tried to lean back against the flight couch and succeeded only in pushing her hips and back legs up into the control console. “The thing is, I’ve seen glimpses,” she said. “She’s a very lonely bug, I think. Lonely and afraid of so much. Afraid of ponies. Afraid of looking weak. Afraid of everything, really. She has this weird sort of love for her subjects, a kind of... possessive… thingy. Definitely not unconditional, and twisted by any pony standard, but she does love her subjects. So long as they remain hers, that is.”

“I don’t see much hope in that,” Luna replied.

“I see a lot of hope,” Cherry said firmly. “Chryssy wants to be the big bad boss bug, right? Because that way nopony can hurt her. That’s all she knows, right? But look at the past year.” She made another hoof gesture, not caring that only she could see. “Changelings are hated and feared less and less. Some ponies are beginning to treat them as heroes and celebrities- especially Chrysalis. Not that any pony in their right mind would pick her over you and Celestia to rule the land. But for the first time in her life she’s getting respect and even affection. She. Chrysalis the changeling. Not whichever pony she’s disguised as. And maybe… maybe that will change her.”

“You sound like my sister,” Luna muttered. “So you think she can be reformed? Like Discord? Like… myself?”

“Mmm… I’m saying it’s possible. She’s been really angry and afraid for a really long time. She might be a lost cause. But then again,” Cherry finished, “she might not.”

“And that’s why you fly for Chrysalis?”

“I told you, I fly to fly,” Cherry said. “If this was about giving Chrysalis a friendship lesson, no flying involved, I’d let Twilight and her friends handle it and gallop back to Ponyville tonight. But… well… I’ve come to like her a little, I guess.” Cherry thought back to a hundred little moments between the two of them and said, “She’s evil, manipulative, and a pain in the flank to work with a lot of the time… but she’s really fascinating to watch. And there are those moments when the not-totally-evil part of herself shows through for just a second. So I think I’ll stick with her a while longer. Not because I’m hers, because I’m not. But because… because I want to see.”

There followed a long, but not unpleasant, quiet time, as the spacecraft drifted through and past the highest point in its trajectory around the night-clad world below.

“You’ve given me much to think about,” Luna said at last. “And when I talk about this with my sister, no doubt she will smile her little smile and most definitely not tell me she was right all along.” This last part came out in a grumble, and Luna cleared her throat to remove it before continuing, “But after listening to you, I’ve decided that space flight is in good hooves.”

“Chrysalis’s excepted, of course?” Cherry put in.

“Of course,” Luna replied, amused. “But rest assured, within a day of my returning to Canterlot, I shall announce an end to the moratorium on flights to my moon. I shall, of course,” she added, “not promote tourist flights. The dangers aside, if I have that sort of money to spend I could vacation in much more comfortable surroundings.”

Cherry giggled. “Chrysalis won’t be bothered by that,” she said. “She’s regretted signing up any tourists, never mind all of you. She wants to get back to proper flying.”

“Really? Perhaps I should change my mind,” Luna said, even more amused. “But seriously, there is one other thing. Did Chrysalis tell you what the price of my flight was?”

“I don’t think so,” Cherry replied. “Just that we’d be allowed to go to the moon.”

“How would you like to go someplace else first?”

Cherry Berry blinked. “Um, Bucephalous is way further away than the moon,” she said. “And Twilight says that-”

“I meant,” Luna overrode the pilot’s words with a slight raise of her voice, “that I have brought one of my little stars much closer to Equus. As close as I dare bring it. You’ve seen it a couple of times. In fact,” she drawled in a speculative tone, “I believe you might be able to see it ahead of the ship now, a tiny shining thing just bigger than a dot.”

Cherry rolled the ship to put the hatch window ahead of them in flight, the tiny nosecone windows not allowing for a wide enough field of view to spot anything not directly in front of the ship. There, not far above Equus’s curved horizon, lay a brilliant star, much brighter and steadier than any of its neighbors. It seemed slightly… lumpy…

“I named that one Little Mouse when I was much younger,” Luna continued. “Or in ancient Equestrian, Minmus. It currently circles the world about three times as far away as the moon. It is a new world, if a tiny one.” After a brief dramatic pause, Luna added, “And as I promised Chrysalis, I am giving her space program- your space program- exclusive rights to the first landing upon it.”

Cherry’s breath caught in her throat. “Exclusive- first- landing-”

“My guard said Chrysalis accused me of wanting to delay her landing on my moon. That wasn’t my intent, but it certainly won’t sadden me. Nor Twilight, I suspect.”

“You know Twilight’s going to beg you for her own little star to land on?” Cherry said.

“She can visit Minmus after you’ve had your visit,” Luna replied. “One of my little stars is enough for science. And speaking of enough,” she added, unable to restrain a yawn, “I should like to return home now, please. As expeditiously as possible. I’ve been awake nearly twenty-four hours now.”

“I can arrange that,” Cherry Berry replied. “Deorbit burn in… about… fourteen minutes.”

Mission Twenty re-entered the atmosphere at a faster speed than any spacecraft before. Ponies saw the fireball from Tall Tale to Dodge Junction and beyond. The roar of re-entry within the ship, and the rattling and groaning of the ship’s fabric as Cherry Berry brought it down, were equally impressive.

Princess Luna slept through the whole thing. When the retrieval crew found the capsule off the southern griffon coast a bit after sunset, she was still sound asleep, dreaming dreams in which the knobs of Chrysalis’s crown had been replaced with hearts and, for some reason, she, Luna, and Nightmare Moon were all in the same bowling league.

When she related the dream two days later over Celestia’s breakfast, her big sister snorted milk through her nose.

MISSION 20 REPORT

Mission summary: Take a VIP to orbit and return her safely; test heat shield on splashdown after flight

Pilot: Cherry Berry
Crew: Luna (tourist)
Flight duration: 9 hrs. 37 min.

Contracts fulfilled: 2
Milestones: none

Conclusions from flight: Something new is on the horizon. Literally.

MISSION ASSESSMENT: DEFINITELY SUCCESSFUL


Three days after the retrieval of Mission Twenty, the galleries of Mission Control were once more packed with reporters, cameraponies, and VIPs. The most prominent VIP of them all, however, stood on the floor of Mission Control. As much as she wanted to stay in Canterlot, Luna felt she had to witness the end of her misadventure in investigation.

On the giant projection on the front wall of Mission Control, the little robot space probe Mission R2, or as Pinkie Pie insisted on calling it, “Prototype Probey-dobey,” hung under a gigantic grey ball of rock, covered in craters. The probe had been in almost perfect position two days earlier for a minor orbital correction to fling it past the moon, and this time Luna had not moved the moon away. The flyby had already been confirmed, and the check from the Royal Astronomical society lay on the floor two feet to Luna’s right, under the hoof of Chrysalis herself.

But that wasn’t the end of the mission. Oh, no. The mission as planned included temperature scans of the surface as a bonus objective. With massive amounts of extra fuel and a trajectory going almost perfectly beneath the moon’s south pole, Mission R2 was going to attempt an orbit- the first ever orbit of an artificial satellite around an object other than Equus.

And the final orbit would hug Luna’s beloved moon like a saddle tightened to the last notch.

“Stand by for engine ignition,” Occupant said.

“Standing by,” Dragonfly hissed back, her hooves hovering over the remote control panel.

“Trajectory, give us the cue when ready.”

“Full throttle burn of forty-seven seconds,” replied George Bull, “in five… four… three… two… ONE!”

“Ignition!” Dragonfly shouted, setting throttle to full. Just over a second later the projection lit up as a thin plume of plasma erupted from the rear of Mission R2, slowing the tiny ship down.

“Trajectory projects closed orbit,” George Bull continued. "Initial orbit with periapsis of forty-two kilometers. Two additional burns required for a polar orbit of twenty-nine kilometers with eccentricity of one percent.”

Applause filled the control room as the burn ran to its scheduled completion. Under cover of the noise, Luna leaned over to Chrysalis and said, “If I could have found any reason to prevent this, I would have.”

“I know,” Chrysalis replied. “But you couldn’t. Because there isn’t one.”

“You have a sinister plan.”

“Thousands,” Chrysalis agreed. “And when I find one that is both sinister and not suicidal, you’ll find out first-hoof. Believe me.”

Luna nodded, as if the two were discussing the mission instead of baring teeth like diamond dogs disputing pack leadership. “I know you won’t tell me why you’re doing all this.”

“Read the newspapers,” Chrysalis said. “Watch the newsreels. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.”

“I just want to tell you one thing,” Luna said quietly. “If anything happens to any of my ponies under your care, especially Cherry Berry, I will return this facility to the swamp whence it came.”

“I’d be a fool to let anything happen to my chief pilot,” Chrysalis hissed. “I intend to take very good care of my pony, I assure you.”

Luna raised an eyebrow. “My pony?” she asked.

Chrysalis’s poise collapsed. She spluttered. She shuffled her forehooves. Finally, after swiping the check up and tucking it under a wing, she said, “Well! I believe it’s just about time for the press conference! So good having you with us, Princess! Have a speedy trip home!” This said, she retreated in somewhat less than good order, leaving Luna to ponder the meaning of a single adjective.

Cherry Berry walked up to her. “Are you going to join us?” she asked. “I’m sure the reporters would love to ask you questions.”

“Yes, I know,” Luna sighed. “The same ones all over again, beginning with, ‘How do you feel about flights to the moon?’” She shook her head. “No, I believe I shall disappear while everypony is looking at you.”

“Oh. Well, have a safe trip!” Cherry Berry smiled. “I’ll see you in Canterlot next week for Twilight’s big friendship festival!”

“I thought you’d be busy with your flight to my little Minmus,” Luna said.

“Nah,” Cherry said. “There’s too much work to do. All the other space programs are demanding rocket parts, and we’ve barely got enough for ourselves. We need to design a lander. We need to test a rocket that can make it to Minmus and back. We won’t be ready to go for weeks, maybe months. I can spare a day or two to go hear Songbird Seranade!”

“Well,” Luna said, smiling, “I suspect I shall be busy, but perhaps we shall meet at the festival.” She stood, stretched, and added, “After the month I’ve had, I believe I could use a nice, uneventful party.”

MISSION R2 EXTENDED REPORT

Mission summary: Lunar flyby, temperature scans

Pilot: Probodobodyne OKTO (Dragonfly)
Flight duration: About four moons and counting

Contracts fulfilled: 2
Milestones: First flyby of the moon, first orbit of the moon, first scientific data from the moon

Conclusions from flight: Well, it’s about time!

MISSION ASSESSMENT: DELAYED SUCCESS IS STILL SUCCESS

Author's Note:

If I'd thought about it, I could have offered the tourist roles to Patreon donors. Unfortunately I didn't think of it until I'd already written their scenes, and having done I didn't want to do it all over. Sorry, everybody. (And sorry, transmission bill I badly need to pay for...)

Yes, Minmus. Minmus is the reason I had this detour with Luna.

When one of the readers first suggested Minmus, I said it probably wouldn't happen, because there's nothing in MLP that indicates Equestria has a second moon. But remember that Luna is referred to, multiple times, as crafting the night sky in some fashion. This can only happen in a Copernican-model universe if Equus has a cloud of highly reflective asteroids around it- little things that look enough like stars to be taken for stars. It occurred to me one day that Minmus, as it is in KSP, is a perfect candidate for such an object...

... and, of course, I wanted practice on Minmus before trying to land on the Moon. I used a sandbox game to test my planned end-of-story rocket and... mistakes were made.

So here we have Luna, and sadly she doesn't come off well here. She means well, but she's obviously not a people mare.

And if anything, hydrazine and hydrogen tetraoxide are if anything much more dangerous than I make them in the footnotes. A tiny bit of hydrazine will cause chemical burns through clothes; a small amount is lethal. Reason? The more reactive a substance is, the more energy it releases when it oxidizes. But anything with energy like that also reacts with practically anything else- including (especially) organic molecules like, oh, human skin and human blood and so on. And hydrogen tetraoxide in high concentrations will, to quote the movie Spacecamp, "dry-clean your lungs." LO2 and LH2 are dangerous because you have to get both really really cold to keep them liquid- as in instant-tissue-destruction-on-contact cold. About the only non-dangerous liquid rocket fuel used in mass production is ethyl alcohol- which was a problem for the Nazi V2 project, because the workers kept stealing rocket fuel to drink.

Believe it or not, the Nazis and Russians both experimented with fluorine compounds as rocket fuel. The problem with that is, fluorine is too reactive. You want rocket fuel that goes bang when you tell it to and not before. You definitely don't want rocket fuel that eats through the fuel tanks while you watch. (And if you're foolish enough to use fluorine-based rocket fuel, I hope you at least have the wisdom to watch from several miles' safe distance.)

There will be an interlude chapter about the most interesting bit of Mission 15. Yes, Occupant got to go to space, and he'll likely go again when the time is right.

The next full chapter will describe what happened over Chrysalis's cold petrified body. No, I'm not writing up the invasion of the Storm King's forces of Horseton. Suffice to say they did, and they won, and then... other things happened... and then, when the princesses of Equestria finally got round to de-rocking Chrysalis, Cherry Berry gets to tell her what she missed. But that'll be some time from now, as I have other things that need doing in the near term. Until then!

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