• Published 2nd May 2016
  • 25,873 Views, 2,093 Comments

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.

  • ...

PreviousChapters Next
Chapter 3: Mission 0 - Surplus Parts Randomly Stitched Together

Somehow, some way, at some point in the past that Chrysalis couldn’t recall, a changeling had brought back a large blackboard from its infiltration mission. For years it had been used in the chamber where hatchlings learned the basics of being a changeling(18). Now the room had been taken over by Cherry Berry and Occupant, who had gathered a handful of changelings who Chrysalis, for various reasons, considered the best possible candidates for flight crew.(19)

(18) The alphabet was helpfully presented above the chalkboard. “A is for Abduct.” “B is for Bewitch.” “C is for Camouflage.” “D is for Deception, Disguise, Distraction, Diversion, Dissembling, Disinformation, Dispossession, and Dodge.” And so on.

(19) This included Dragonfly and Lucky Cricket. It definitely did not include Skip Town, although Chrysalis was sorely tempted to add him in the hopes that his flight would be strictly one-way.

Occupant held a piece of chalk in his magic while Cherry Berry talked. “Your Majesty,” she began, “what is the single most important thing about building a rocket?”

“Isn’t it obvious?” Chrysalis asked. “The engines. How fast it can go.”

“Write ‘engines,’ please,” Cherry said. While Occupant scratched the word on the board, she continued, “I’m sorry, but that’s completely wrong. Practically everything is more important than the engines. Any other guesses?”

Chrysalis’s normally green eyes momentarily glowed red. “You dare tell the queen of the changelings that she is wrong?” she growled.

The pink earth pony didn’t even flinch. “This isn’t politics, Your Majesty,” she said. “If we make a mistake in planning, some pony or changeling dies. Don’t let your pride get you killed.”

That cooled Chrysalis off. Careful, she thought. She’s right. The planning must be perfect. I must hold my temper and think clearly. But a pony…! “You’re quite right,” she said at last. “You may continue. Do any of you have guesses, my subjects?”

A hole-riddled hoof rose. “Control, Lead Pilot Berry,” said a changeling with somewhat longer than normal wings. “All the speed in the world is no good if you can’t control it.”

“A good guess, Dragonfly,” Cherry Berry replied, “but also wrong. Write it down, Occupant. Control is more important than speed, but it’s still not the most important thing.”

The changeling next to Dragonfly raised his hoof. “Paint job?” he asked.

Occupant, having just finished writing “control” above “engine,” began writing again.

“No, don’t write that one, Occupant,” Cherry Berry groaned. “Why do you say ‘paint job,’ Mr. Cricket?”

“Because we need a really cool paint job, so when the ponies and everybody see our spaceship, they’ll say, ‘Wow, those changelings sure made a really cool spaceship!’”

“And it’s got to be red,” Dragonfly added. “Everypony knows red wagons go faster, so it’s got to be the same for rockets.”

All the other changelings, including Chrysalis, nodded agreement.

“No,” Cherry Berry said. “We can test red rockets and see if they fly faster, but that’s actually less important than the engines. No, the answer I was fishing for was- write this down, Occupant- survivability.” She tapped the chalkboard with a hoof. “The other things don’t make a darn if the pilot doesn’t come out of it alive.”

The changelings’ eyes widened, and slowly they nodded agreement. Occupant carefully wrote the word above the others, in larger letters, and then underlined it for good measure.

“The last round of scientific studies from Ponyville and Griffonstone confirm that, as a general rule, our atmosphere thins out as you go higher,” Cherry Berry continued. “Twilight Sparkle theorizes that at a certain height it fades out completely, leaving only the vacuum of space. That means the cabin of our rocket must be airtight and temperature-controlled to keep the occupants from suffocating or cooking or freezing.”

Occupant obediently began a second list of words with AIR and CLIMATE.

“We don’t know yet how long it will take to fly to the moon,” the earth pony continued. “Even changelings need a little food and water. Ponies like myself need a lot more- and we can’t assume I’m going to be the only pony flying in these things. So we need food and water, and as much as we can fit while keeping the weight of the craft to a minimum.”

“Weight?” Chrysalis asked. “What’s weight got to do with it?”

“I don’t have the math in hand to show you,” Cherry Berry said, “but as a general rule for flying machines, the heavier it is the slower it goes. With rockets that’s even more important, because there won’t be any air to hold up wings to keep the thing flying. Every pound of weight is a bit of fuel we have to burn to get the rocket in the air. Too much weight, and either the rocket never flies at all or else it runs out of fuel too soon and crashes.”

“I see,” Chrysalis nodded. “That guard who kept you in the pod still hasn’t shed enough weight to fly, you know.”

“Moving on,” Cherry sighed. “Next we need a pressure suit. Our astronauts need the suit as a backup system if something puts a hole in the cabin. The suit will also be useful when we need to go outside the cabin during flight.”

“Outside the cabin?” Occupant gasped. “I knew an infiltrator who was posing as a unicorn who had to bail out of an airship to escape capture. He fell like a rock until he remembered to undo his disguise.”

“Write down ‘pressure suit,’ please,” Cherry grumbled. “And yes, outside the cabin. Especially when we land on the moon. Nobody knows if the moon has any air to speak of, not even Princess Luna. We have to assume it hasn’t. If you want to breathe on the moon, you need a space suit. Clear?”

The others nodded.

“And finally,” Cherry continued, “add, ‘landing,’ Occupant. Rockets go very, very fast. And if a rocket is going very, very fast when it hits the ground…” She tapered off, not wanting to say the obvious.

Fortunately Lucky Cricket had no such qualms. “Then whoever’s in the rocket is going to have a very bad day,” he said.

“Yes. Exactly,” Cherry Berry nodded. “Let’s remember that phrase, ‘have a bad day,’ and contemplate just how serious a bad day is when talking about rockets.”

Occupant paused for a second, then wrote in the upper right corner of the chalkboard, “Don’t have a bad day.”

“So, that’s your job,” Cherry Berry finished, nodding to the cluster of changelings. “I want you to imagine your queen in a bulky pressure suit, blown up kind of like a balloon, with a big helmet on. Then build a capsule just large enough for her to sit inside and get in and out, which will keep her alive, hold food and water, and land gently enough for her to walk away. Leave a bit of room for controls and electronics and things, but otherwise make it as small and lightweight as you can.”

“We won’t let you down,” Dragonfly said.

While the other changelings nodded, Chrysalis said, “I trust you don’t intend for me to join the construction crew?”

“No, Your Majesty,” Cherry Berry said. “I need you and your purse to come shopping with me. We need to buy some scientists.”

“Buy scientists?” Chrysalis asked.

“Right. I know enough to know what I don’t know. I don’t know how to build a rocket motor, and I really don’t know how to build pilot controls for a rocket motor. I’m hoping we can buy out the entire minotaur space program- if we can get Warner von Brawn we’ll get his control package too, and what I saw of it was really sweet. But we MUST get Goddard the Griffon, and fast, if we want to get a jump on Twilight Sparkle.”

“Who is this Goddard, anyway?”

“Goddard is the pioneer in rocket technology,” Cherry Berry said. “He’s been advocating for piloted rockets for longer than I’ve been alive, but nopony was interested. Ponies mocked him. Even now only a handful of scientists are paying any attention to him. But if we wait until the griffons get their heads out of their plots, or worse if Twilight Sparkle finds his monographs in her research, we’ll be permanently behind in the race for the moon. We need Goddard and his engines, and we need them both yesterday.”

“Well, it’s going to take a few days regardless,” Chrysalis said. “My subjects, you are dismissed to your tasks. Miss Berry and I have a shopping trip to plan.”

From the Manehattan Times:

Elusive socialite Cool Drink, amateur aviator Cherry Berry and solicitors for the reclusive Gwyneth the Griffon met in Manehattan yesterday to formalize a resolution in conflicting claims between the Changeling Hive of the Badlands and the two noted real estate investors.

Although details of the deal were not made public, it was announced that Cool Drink and Gwyneth would become significant minority investors in Changeling Space Program, Queen Chrysalis’s effort to rehabilitate her species’ reputation through competition in the space race. Towards this end both Cool Drink and Gwyneth pledged to do their utmost to support the CSP through their connections in high society…

“All right,” the very elderly, frail-looking griffon grumbled once Cherry Berry and Chrysalis were inside the door of his ramshackle hut in Griffonstone(20), “now you’re in my house, what do you want?”

“Well, er, Dr. Goddard,” Cherry Berry said, “we’ve come to ask you to be the chief rocket engine designer for the Changeling Space Program.”

(20) This had been no small accomplishment. The only way Goddard the Griffon could have been more of a recluse would have been for him to be as nonexistent as Gwyneth. Fortunately, using Gwyneth’s identity, Chrysalis was able to get several notables in griffon society to write letters of introduction... in exchange for certain favors, the nature of which she did not reveal to the sweet, innocent Cherry Berry. Especially as some of them were not so much favors as withheld blackmail… In any case, even with the letters in hoof it had taken half an hour for the old buzzard to admit the two ponies, even though they had been able to see and hear each other clearly through the gaping hole in his eyrie’s wall.

Large, bulging bird’s eyes stared balefully at the less-than-welcome visitors. “Who put you up to this?” he asked. “It wasn’t funny the last thirty-nine times!”

“This isn’t a prank, Dr. Goddard.”

“Says you. Nobody calls me ‘doctor’ except people wanting to pull my wing!” The griffon limped around his living room, in full rant. “Thirty years I’ve experimented with liquid fueled rocketry! Wrote the book on the subject! Proved every single physicist wrong all the way back to Falling Apple! And do I get respect? Do I get recognition? Do I get government grants and tenure at a major college? No, of course not! What I get is, ‘There goes that dotty Goddard the Griffon, don’t talk to him!’ ‘Study hard and keep your mind out of foolishness, hatchlings, or you’ll end up like old Goddard there.’ ‘Hi there Goddard, nice day for a flight to the stars, say hi to the aliens for us!’ Not a bit of respect, not a bit of gratitude, just mockery and laughter and foolish pranks and-“

"DO YOU WANT THE RECOGNITION YOU DESERVE OR NOT?” Chrysalis had promised to be quiet and let the pony handle the negotiations, but enough was enough. She had to endure whinging of this kind when in disguise; she would not tolerate it while revealed in her true majestic form.

The bellow had the effect of stopping Goddard’s complaints for a moment. But only a moment. “Want it? Of course I want it!” he snapped. “But who’s going to give it to me?”

“I am,” Chrysalis said. “I don’t have a college for you, but I do have paying work. You would be giving orders. Anyone who disrespected you would answer to me. And you would get credit for every successful flight.” She glared with murderous intent at the old bird-lion-thing and added, “But only if you STOP WHINING!”

“Ohh.” Goddard’s tone changed completely. “Well, now someone’s finally come along to give me the credit I deserve, is it? Well, I don’t know. I’ve got a good retirement here, after all. Why should I spend my old age a thousand miles from home working hard, hm?”

“Because-“ Cherry Berry began, but Chrysalis silenced her with a hoof. She recognized this tone of voice, and she knew how to deal with it.

“Besides,” Goddard continued, strolling around his living room in a more casual fashion than before, “I’m expecting a call from the griffon space project any time now. Can’t do it without me, you know-“

A bag full of bits clanked to the floor at Goddard’s feet.

“-first loyalty is to the motherland, after all-“

A second bag joined the first. The drawstrings loosened on impact, allowing a few golden coins to spill on the floor.

“-and of course the expense of moving so far at my time of life-“

A third bag joined the other two.

Goddard barely paused for a breath before, in an entirely different tone of voice, he said, “Per month.”

Chrysalis glanced at Cherry Berry. “Is he really worth it?” she asked.

“Do you want to be on the first flight to the moon,” Cherry asked back, “or the second?”

A fourth bag joined the first three. “Be at the train station in Appleoosa no later than three days from now,” she said. “You’ll find a brand new barn in town. The sign will say ‘Cherry’s Rocket Parts and Odd Jobs.’ There’s already an office with your name on the door. You’ll be doing the hiring, firing and supervision. I want a production schedule for rocket engines in two weeks and the first engines two weeks after that. If you can do that, then you’ll get this much a month, and it’ll be a bargain.”

Neither Cherry nor Chrysalis would have thought the elderly gryphon could move so fast or lift that many bits. Goddard had cleared the floor of the bags and spillage and was out the door in a heartbeat, making a beeline for the one structurally sound building in Griffonstone, the town bank.

“Was that a yes?” Cherry Berry asked.

“It had better-“

Before Chrysalis could continue, the old bird shouted from the street, “WHAT ARE YOU TWO STILL DOING IN MY HOUSE? DON’T YOU KNOW I’VE GOT TO PACK?”

“-never mind,” Chrysalis finished. “I’m sure we’ve got him. But I have agents still in disguise here in Griffonstone. They’ll make sure he leaves, and he’ll be followed all the way to Appleoosa.” She frowned. “I still don’t see why we don’t just build the rockets at the hive. It’d be much more secure.”

“We need the railway to bring metal to the workshop,” Cherry Berry said. “The less we have to cart to the hive, the better. In fact, we may want to move the launch site elsewhere anyway. The hive is just too far from everything to be convenient. We need either rail or water transport for the rockets. The Badlands isn’t going to have either anytime soon.”

“Mmm,” Chrysalis said, not really agreeing. Old habits died hard, and secrecy was a good habit for changelings anyway. “Anyway, let’s go see this von Brawn meathead.”

“You’re how much in debt?” Chrysalis gaped. The numbers on the ledger in front of her were almost entirely red, and the bottom one had too many digits for her liking.

“It cannot be helped,” Warner von Brawn moaned, the three other minotaurs who made up the minotaur space program nodding in agreement. “We could only self-fund our work so far. We had to borrow deeply to build our prototypes, and of course there is no point in controls without rockets, so we built a number of solid-fuel rockets to test them. Of course it took many experiments to find the optimum fuel for those rockets-“

“Long story short,” Chrysalis said, “you blew all the dough before you had anything that would fly.”

von Brawn nodded. “We were still working on an automated guidance system. We are very good with electronics, you know. The best miniaturized audio systems are built here in the Minotaur Islands. We were making excellent design progress with systems using Bullean logic circuits.”

One of the other minotaurs, who had been introduced as George Bull, nodded solemnly.

“With another month or two of research we could develop a fully independent probe, controllable from the ground,” von Brawn continued “We have already developed communications systems for that purpose- magical technology, you see, a combination of scrying and telepresence spells, enchanted on amulets which-“

“You can talk to the rocket?” Chrysalis asked eagerly.

“Not in the manner of, talk to a pilot, no,” von Brawn said. “But Alexander Popoff of the Yakyakistan space program is working on that and expects to have a working system soon. But what we have… we call it telepresence. The enchantment lets the controllers at home see the craft as from outside thanks to a scrying illusion.”

Chrysalis perked up. “Illusion?” she asked. “That might be the first thing I understood about what you’re saying, aside from your being flat broke.”

“We were also working on a second illusion,” von Brawn said, “which would allow us to track craft in flight and plot their course. The difficulty lay in finding a system that could calculate conic sections such as ellipses and parabolas.”

“And now I’m lost again,” Chrysalis admitted.

“All forms of motion in space can be described as a cross-section of a cone,” von Braun said. “What kind of curve it is depends on circumstances.”

“Why? Couldn’t we just point the rocket at the moon and fly straight there?”

“Everything travels in curves in rocket flight, Your Majesty,” Cherry Berry said. “I can’t do the math, but I understand the theory enough to know that.”

“Indeed,” von Brawn nodded. “Just as Coriolis effect shapes the winds that pegasi use to control the weather, so does the motion of Equus, the moon, the sun and the planets shape the paths of things in space. And sometimes we can use this to our advantage. Allow me to illustrate.” He picked up a small ball that had been sitting in the window of the minotaurs’ cluttered workshop. “Watch what happens when I drop this ball.” He did, and it fell to the floor, bouncing twice.

“All right, it fell,” Chrysalis said.

“As all things do,” von Brawn agreed. “Gravity pulls everything towards everything else. Large objects like planets pull harder than small objects like balls, so the ball appears to fall towards the planet. But what happens if I throw it?”

“It still falls,” Chrysalis said. “It might take a little more time to fall, but-“

“Actually, no,” von Brawn said. “Watch again.” He picked up the ball in his fingers and carefully tossed it forward. Cherry Berry noticed that he had put no rising motion into the throw, so the ball began falling immediately. It landed several feet away. “See that the ball, when tossed at low velocity, falls to the ground at about the same rate. Acceleration caused by gravity is a universal constant, or so physicists believe. Of course pegasi and griffons, and I assume changelings, counter this by magic, which allows them to hover.”

“Okay, fine,” Chrysalis said. “But surely if you throw the ball really hard, it will fall slower?”

“Not at all!” von Brawn said. “Imagine that we use a cannon instead. I use a pinch of powder, the ball just barely leaves the barrel and drops. I use a scoop of powder, the ball travels a couple hundred meters. I use a two-pound cartridge, the ball travels half a mile. But if Equus were flat as the ancients thought, and if we kept the barrel level for all firings, then no matter how little or much powder we used to fire it, the balls would always take the same time to hit the ground.”

“Then what’s the point?”

“The point is that Equus is not flat,” von Brawn said, smiling. “It is round. Spherical, as far as we can tell. So it is more like throwing a ball over a hill; if the ball’s momentum carries it over the crest of the hill, it will hit the ground later than a ball tossed only to the top of the hill, right?”

Chrysalis nodded.

“So the secret of space flight, I believe,” von Brawn said, “is to throw the ball so hard that the curve it makes when falling matches the curve of the ground beneath it. The ball keeps falling, and falling, but never fast enough to reach the ground, because the ground always curves away from it. That is what mathematicians call an orbit, and a ship in orbit is more than halfway to anywhere else.” His smile broadened as he added, “Twilight Sparkle’s remarkable thesis presumes that this is how the planets circle our sun. Some calamity in Equus’s past caused our own world to operate differently, requiring magical intervention to maintain-“

Chrysalis rubbed her head. “Okay, I’ve heard enough.” She turned to Cherry Berry. “These people know everything in the world except how to stay within a budget. And they know how to fix the biggest worry I had- communications with the ground. Do you think you can keep them under control?”

“Shoot, no,” Cherry Berry said. “But I’ll put them under Goddard and let him control the purse-strings. If a Griffonstone griffon can’t stop unwanted spending, nopony can.”

“Agreed.” Chrysalis turned to the minotaurs, smiling her own smile. “Gentlebulls,” she said, “do you have any moral objections to being employed by the Changeling Space Agency? Say, for modest wages and the relief of all your outstanding debts?”

“Your Majesty,” von Brawn said, “I don’t care who pays the bills, as long as I get to launch rockets into space. If you can make that happen, I’ll do anything you like- and I’m sure my colleagues agree.”

“Then it’s settled,” Chrysalis nodded. She looked again at the ledger, blanching a bit. The debts would eat up a substantial chunk of the mountain of bits in her throne room. “I suppose I can cover this with our paperclip budget,” she said lightly. “It’s worth it to get a jump on Celestia.”

From the Royal Archives of Canterlot Historical Section, letters exchanged by Twilight Sparkle and Celestia:

Dear Celestia,

I just heard the news! Chrysalis actually hired both Goddard the Griffon and Warner von Brawn! I’m sorry! It’s my fault for not thinking of it myself! I’ve been using both Goddard’s and von Brawn’s papers to develop my own spaceship designs, but I never believed I could actually hire them away from their own space programs! And I never even dreamed Chrysalis of all ponies could get ANYONE to work for her voluntarily!

Do you think Chrysalis is controlling their minds? She can do that, you know. Remember the wedding! If so, isn’t it our responsibility to rescue these notable scientists? All Equestria could be at stake!

Your former student,
Twilight Sparkle

Dearest Twilight,

I don’t think you have any cause to fear for either Goddard or von Brawn. I spoke with von Brawn today while he was changing trains in Canterlot. His head was quite clear, and I detected no mind-altering spells on him. I presume the same is true with Goddard, although I had no opportunity to speak with him.

Please do not blame yourself for not securing their services. You are a most capable student and scientist in your own right, and I am sure you will find a solution to all the problems of spaceflight. The spacesuit designs you and Rarity have produced are most impressive, and your solution of the food stores problem is elegant.

As for Chrysalis, I believe it is more important to give her every chance to prove that her noble intentions are genuine. Even if they are false now, they may become a habit hard for her to break. Any opportunity for lasting peace between pony and changeling should be taken. I suggest you propose an exchange of technology, your suits and life support systems for their engine and guidance systems. Both programs will be stronger for the exchange, especially since, according to your previous letters, the engine system has been your single greatest sticking point. Not that I will tell Chrysalis that!

Regardless of your decision, I trust that you will always do your best and will make Equestria proud. There is no pony I trust more with Equestria’s space program than you.

Yours truly,

“Welcome back, Your Majesty!” Occupant called, waving to Chrysalis. “My, but you got a LOT of mail this time! And Ms. Cherry Berry too!” He lifted up a large sack in both forehooves and, wobbling on his hind legs, half-flew, half-walked towards the returned queen.

Cherry Berry smiled. “I’ll let you catch up on the correspondence, Your Majesty,” she said. “I want to see how the crew’s come with the test capsule.”

“Er, yes, you- wait, get back here!” Chrysalis spun on her heels, only to discover that even flightless earth ponies have a respectable turn of speed when it comes to avoiding paperwork.

“I even got something really important!” Occupant said. “I didn’t even know the Canterlot Royal Astronomical Society knew I was working for the space program!”

Chrysalis turned her attention back to the changeling she privately considered among the least important in her entire hive(21). “They don’t,” she said bluntly. “But they sent a letter addressed to ‘Occupant, Box 1, the Badlands’?”

(21) If she actually thought it through, Chrysalis would probably have ranked Occupant behind Plectrum, the quartermaster who spent one day per week dusting off all the weapons her warriors never actually used, but slightly ahead of Carapace/Heavy Frosting the cook, whose skills were hardly used in the hive and whose chef-sized ego had cost him seven, count them, SEVEN infiltration missions in the past year. In short, not absolutely expendable, but definitely non-vital.

“Occupant, care of Changeling Space Program, Box 1, the Badlands, to be precise,” Occupant said proudly. “They asked me permission to send a representative here to observe our progress and to certify any spaceflight records we may set.” Swaggering a little bit on his hooves, he added, “I exercised my executive privilege in your absence and said yes. The representative should be in Appleoosa tomorrow.”

Chrysalis’s mouth opened wide as she prepared to inform Occupant in no uncertain terms which bug in the hive had all the executive privilege… only for her brain to catch up with the words just before they could escape and cram them right back down her throat. Do you really want to deal with all that paperwork? she asked. He loves the mail. Let him fool with it. Let him SUFFOCATE under it. He’ll probably die happy. “You… you…” It took a lot of effort to wrestle the forthcoming sentence where she wanted it to go, especially since it still wanted to go to a place with red-hot brands, pincers, and a rack. “You… you have done very well in this, Occupant. However, it would be better if you could delay the most important such decisions until I am available to confirm them. We might not be prepared to receive guests by tomorrow.”

“Really?” Occupant said. “But we’ve got tons of empty pods in the dungeons-“

“I mean,” Chrysalis said, still riding a bucking bronco of syntax, “the kind of guests who get to go home afterwards. Without a stay in the pods.”

“Ooooooooh,” Occupant said, nodding sagely. “The special kind of guests.”

“Yes,” Chrysalis said, “I’m so glad you understand.” The words had been subdued, but not yet tamed. They had gone sulky in her throat, and it took a couple of deep breaths to goad them out into the open. “That’s going to be important if you’re going to be our mission planner.”

“Really?” Occupant didn’t jump for joy and dance around like an idiot as Chrysalis had expected. “What would I need to do as a mission planner?”

“Your main job,” Chrysalis said, “will be to represent the space program to the outside world. You’re going to read all my mail in the future and show me only the really important bits- the things which are personal, legal notices, things of that nature.”

“I understand,” Occupant said soberly.

“You’re also going to learn all you can about the prizes being offered for achievements in spaceflight. Not just the Canterlot star-gazers’ prizes, but anything anypony is offering,” Chrysalis said. “But don’t make any commitments until Cherry Berry and myself look at them, understand? I might not want to commit us to certain things, and Cherry Berry will need to make sure whether or not we even CAN do those things. Or should. Understood?”

“Certainly,” Occupant nodded. “It sounds like a lot of work. A lot more than just sitting in the doorway making sure nobody sneaks down our entrance.”

“What can I say?” Chrysalis smirked. “You volunteered for it. That’s one of the consequences of exercising ‘executive privilege.’” Chrysalis bared her fangs in a manner that resembled a smile only by the strictest dictionary sense. “And there are a lot more consequences if you screw up. Clear?”

Occupant backed away from his ruler. “C-c-clear.”

“Clear WHAT?”

“C-c-c-c-clear, Your M-Majesty!”

“That’s better.” Chrysalis pointed at the bag, which Occupant was still half-holding, half-leaning-against. “Have you read any of what’s in that?”

Occupant recovered enough from his intimidation to look faintly offended. “Of course not, Your Majesty!” he insisted. “The post is a proud and sacred trust! It would be wrong for me to read mail addressed to another changeling, and especially mail addressed to you!”

“What about a pony?” Chrysalis asked.

“I don’t know,” Occupant said. “I’d think it would be kind of hard to write on a pony, and who knows how many stamps it would-“

Chrysalis sighed loudly enough to clue Occupant to shut his trap. For one brief, fleeting moment, she thought to herself, a glimpse of unexpected competence, and then it’s gone again. “I meant, what about reading mail addressed to a pony?” she asked.

“Oh, that,” Occupant shrugged. “In that case, it would only be wrong if we got caught.” He paused. “Except for Derpy, because Derpy is a friend to the hive. But I read Double Face’s newspapers a lot, and he never noticed.”

Chrysalis rubbed the base of her horn. It didn’t help the headache at all.(22) “Never mind,” she said. “From now on you read all my mail and forward me only the important things, the things I need to read myself and the things I need to make decisions on or respond to myself.” She gestured at the bag again. “Is there anything in there you know fits that category without your reading it?”

(22) One of the benefits of being an absolute ruler with power of life and death over one’s subjects is, one is not required to listen to their opinions or views on anything. Chrysalis took advantage of this quite a bit, because prolonged conversations with her subjects, like this one, always made her brain hurt and left her depressed.

“Not sure, Your Majesty,” Occupant thought. “I think probably the letter from Twilight Sparkle qualifies, but it’s possible-“

“Twilight Sparkle?!”

“-er, it’s possible she’s just writing to brag,” Occupant said. “And there’s some thick legal envelopes for Gwyneth and Cool Drink, so those-“

“Take them to Beancounter and tell her to file those,” Chrysalis snapped. “I’ve seen them already, it’s copies of the contracts transferring all our land holdings into the space program’s hands! Now give me that letter from-“

A voice shrieked, echoing from mesa to gully, canyon to mountaintop: “IT’S A BUCKING CARDBOARD BOX, YOU FOALS!”

Chrysalis sighed. Apparently Occupant had singlehoofedly used up the entire competence ration for the hive today. “Bring that letter with you and read it on the way,” she said. “Let’s see what our test pilot is upset about.”

Changelings are pony size or slightly larger, with sharp fins and ridges only vaguely resembling pony features, glowing pupilless eyes, and two enormous pointed(23) fangs. In their natural form they tend to speak with a raspy voice when they don’t simply make animalistic hisses to intimidate their victims. They can secrete a range of useful but disgusting forms of goo. They can fly, hover, and use their horns for a range of offensive magic in addition to their shapeshifting talent. To a normal pony they are, at least on first sight, terrifying.

(23) Or, in Occupant’s case, broad, flat and rounded. His fangs made him look about as menacing as a plush toy spider on Nightmare Night. It still embarrassed him.

When Chrysalis found a half dozen changelings, including two of her greatest warriors, cowered into a corner against the mesa wall, being shouted down by a pink, delicate-looking earth pony, she was bemused at the total reversal of the natural order of things. You know, she thought, I actually hate to put things right. I think I’d kill for some popcorn right this second.

And the best part is, I don’t think she’s using the same curse word twice. Chrysalis’s eyebrow rose at one particularly vile one. I didn’t even think anypony in central Equestria knew that one. I only know it because of that time I infiltrated a zebra tribe…

Ah well. All fun must come to an end. “Miss Berry,” she said calmly, “might I ask what my changelings have done, that has you ready to tear them limb from limb?”

“Oh, nothing much,” Cherry Berry said. “Nothing much. They just spent the almost two weeks we were gone building their idea of a space capsule.”

“Well, we thought it was a good one,” Lucky Cricket muttered before Dragonfly knocked him on top of his head to shut him up.

“Oh, it’s good,” Cherry said, the sudden light tone of her voice holding an edge so sharp that, the changelings knew, you’d never feel it until your head fell off your neck. “It’s good all right. It has only one teensy, weensy little flaw. It’s sitting right over there,” she said, pointing to the large open area the changelings had used for their fireworks experiments. “Try and see if you can guess what it is.”

Chrysalis looked. Someone had set a large refrigerator box, reinforced with duck tape, on top of one of the bits of scorched earth. The box had been helpfully embellished by marker with little drawings and labels: Hatch goes here, and, Rungs for climbing in/out, and, Windows? A large piece of fabric and quite a lot of changeling-made rope(24) lay on top of the box, sort of drooping over the corners.

(24) Even most changelings wish they didn’t know how changeling rope is made. Please don’t ask. All you need to know is, it’s very strong and durable.

“I think,” she said, carefully hiding her amusement at playing straight mare, or good cop, whichever, “I think, just possibly, it might be the fact that it’s a cardboard box?”

“OF COURSE IT’S A CARDBOARD BOX!” Cherry Berry shrieked. “These idiots think we can go to space in a, a, a…” Cherry Berry, in the presence of someone who was royalty, her boss, and capable of doing horrible things to her if insulted, was struggling to edit her language. “In THAT!” she shouted, jabbing her hoof at the offending object.

“Hey, it works!” Lucky replied. “It holds air, it’s got pony food for a week, it’s even got a roll of toilet paper! But Dragonfly said a proper toilet would be too heavy, so there’s only a bucket.”

Cherry Berry returned her attention, and her temper, to the construction crew.

“Not helping,” Dragonfly muttered, “not helping at all, Lucky.”

As amusing as this was, Chrysalis decided it was time the pony was put on the defensive. “But I don’t understand,” she said. “I thought you wanted to go into space more than anything else. Why should it matter if you go to space in a cardboard box?”

For just a moment Cherry Berry turned her anger on Chrysalis, but the changeling queen had faced down Celestia herself and won. Noting the lack of a flinch, Cherry Berry brought herself under control. “You’re almost right, Your Majesty,” she said. “I do want to go up. I want it very, very badly. But there is one thing,” she added, pointing to the alleged spaceship again, “one thing I want more than to fly to the moon in that.”

“And that is?”

To get BACK ALIVE from flying to the moon!” Cherry Berry snapped. “And consider, please, that you are the number two pilot in the program! Which means these idiots thought it would be just fine if YOU flew in that, too!”

Ah. In her amusement Chrysalis had overlooked that point. Once taken onboard, it made the whole affair quite a lot less amusing. “Very well,” she said. “But in my changelings’ defense, none of them is an engineer or metalworker, and we have little metal to work with here in any case. They did the best they could, I’m sure.”

“We sure did!” Lucky Cricket said. “We even made a parachute! That way, if the rocket runs out of fuel, it can just drop down nice and gentle, see?”

"We?" Dragonfly muttered, unable to stop herself. "I made that all by myself, thank you!"

“And it’s not like you could have done better,” Chrysalis pointed out. “You’re not an engineer or a metalworker, either.”

Cherry Berry had calmed down. “Fair enough,” she said. “But that’s going to change. All of us, and any changeling who’s ever had any time posing as a builder of any kind- we’re all going to get a crash course in building spaceships. We’re going to have Dr. Goddard and Dr. von Brawn teach us on the job in Appleoosa. And this time not only are we going to build a proper test ship,” she said, “but we’re going to know how every single part in it works. Because we’re going to trust our lives to it, understand?” She pointed yet again at the box. “Would any of you trust your lives to that?”

Chrysalis groaned, knowing what the answer would be.

“Yes!” Lucky Cricket said. All the other changelings except Dragonfly nodded eagerly.

“Would you, now?” Cherry Berry said. “Well, I think you need to see exactly what that means.” She turned to Chrysalis. “It’ll be another few days before the ship with von Brawn’s stock of test engines arrives in Baltimare, right?”

“Don’t remind me,” Chrysalis grumbled. The minotaurs had bench-tested over a dozen solid fuels before committing in an insanely big way to production. To their credit, they’d economized by using old giant trash containers, big round reinforced drums with lids, to build the things. To their debt, they’d made over a hundred of the things. And launched… precisely… zero. Chrysalis and Cherry Berry, along with Warner von Brawn, had brought three back with them by fast(25) transport, while the other minotaurs traveled with the rest of their “Flea-class solid rocket boosters,” as they called them.

Fast, and very expensive. Each engine required its own four-pegasus cart flying back from the Minotaur Isles, plus flatbed train cars on the Friendship Express. Chrysalis had screamed, threatened, haggled, pleaded… and, helpless against the threat of princessly retaliation if she went too far, paid in full.

“But we have the three we brought ahead with us for study and testing,” Cherry Berry said. “Well, these geniuses are going to fly to Appleoosa right now, pick up one, and bring it back here at once. And tomorrow we’re going to do an uncrewed test launch of that death trap,” she continued, snorting at the cardboard box, “and we’re all going to see exactly why YOU DO NOT BUILD THAT!!

“Quite sensible, I’d say,” Chrysalis agreed. “I look forward to the fireworks show.” She turned to Occupant. “You were on the crew as well, or should have been.”

Occupant shrugged. “I didn’t have any better ideas,” he admitted. “And besides, for all I know, it might actually work.” He waved the letter from Twilight Sparkle, which he’d been reading all the time Cherry Berry had vented at the others. “But all things considered, you really, really need to read this.”

“Why?” Chrysalis asked. “What’s in it?”

“Twilight Sparkle wants to trade,” Occupant said. “If I’m reading this right, we have the controls for a ship, and she has the air, water and spacesuits we’ll need inside the ship. If we trade,” he said, crossing his hooves to demonstrate, “then each of us will have all the guts we need for a working ship. And all we’ll need will be a body.”

“Trade? With Twilight Sparkle??” The word NEVER roared at the back of her throat, demanding release. Who did that jumped-up pony peasant think she was?

And the more calculating part of Chrysalis’s mind replied, She’s the pony who’s about to solve half your technical problems for you. Maybe.

“I… yes, you’re right,” she said. “I need to read that letter. And think.” She thought the answer would end up being yes, to be honest, but she didn’t want to admit it.

And in any case, considering what was likely to happen with that cardboard box and one of the brain-bulls’ money sinks, she didn’t want the princess around to gloat at the upcoming humiliation. It’s bad enough, she sighed, that the pony from Canterlot who signs prize checks will probably be here before we’re ready to launch…

The pony’s name was Ad Astra. Her planet-and-star cutie mark fairly floated on her teal-coated flank. Mauve eyes peered out over little square glasses with a no-nonsense attitude. Her dark mane, shot through with gray, was done up in a bun above and behind her horn. Despite the heat of a desert afternoon, she wore a cardigan sweater and showed no signs of discomfort.

Considering that the unicorn was surrounded by practically the entire changeling hive on top of a mesa overlooking the launch site, the no-nonsense attitude and the lack of discomfort confused Chrysalis no end. “Miss Astra,” she asked gently, “were you present during our invasion of Canterlot?”

“Indeed I was,” Ad Astra replied calmly. “Four of your changelings- that one, that one, that one and that one,” she said, pointing with absolute confidence at four faces in the crowd even Chrysalis would have had trouble telling apart, “captured me and were about to stuff me into a cocoon when Princess Cadence and Shining Armor’s spell knocked them away.”

“I… see,” Chrysalis muttered. “And you’re not trembling in fright from the memory?”

“Oh, no,” Ad Astra said. “They were only fulfilling biological imperatives, you know. Changelings must steal love to survive, and ponies respond by swatting them with the magic of true love. It’s all part of nature. Perfectly normal.”

I’m not entirely sure what normal is for ponies, Chrysalis thought to herself, but you aren’t it. “You seem more comfortable with, er, our alternate method of survival than most ponies,” she managed to say.

“My doctoral thesis was on hypothetical development of alien creatures in various environments,” Ad Astra said. “I have been revising my theories ever since. I have a copy of my most recent monograph, with illustrations, if you’d like to see it.” She levitated a sheaf of papers bound with brass brads from her saddlebags and offered it to Chrysalis. Through the calm, businesslike exterior bled a tiny note of enthusiasm. “I was hoping to show it to Princess Twilight Sparkle.”

“You may get the chance later,” Chrysalis said, “but today’s test was strictly for internal observation. It hadn’t been scheduled when you were invited.” She flipped through several pages of very tiny text chock full of very long words… and almost dropped the monograph when she hit the first illustration. “WHAT in or out of Equestria is THAT?

Ad Astra glanced at the page. “Ah, yes. One of my hypothetical intelligent species on a world where creatures of radial symmetry outcompeted the early ancestors of our own bilateral symmetry line.” She pointed a hoof at the figure. “As you see, the design presumes a very wet environment and adaptation for amphibious life. Although true radial symmetry would be lost in favor of binocular vision for depth perception, the splay of the supporting limbs in combination with the larger manipulating limbs clearly shows the ancestry.”

“But- but all those tentacles- around its mouth-“ Chrysalis gasped. “And the scars- oh my sweet Faust, the scars!”

“Radials and even cephalopods in our own oceans can regenerate missing limbs,” Ad Astra said. “And sharks continually replace their own teeth during their long, violent lives. I presumed a similar mechanism, where the species’s continued regeneration of feeding organs would require continual struggle and combat to make room for fresh growth. The species would, as a result, have an appallingly violent nature, possibly subverted through ritual within their own ranks.” The pony said all this with barely a change in tone to her voice. And Chrysalis could faintly sense… admiration?

A pony whose mind can think up nightmares like this, Chrysalis, thought, isn’t going to be afraid of anything my changelings can do. She probably thinks we’re cuddly. “I see,” she said at last. “I think it might be beyond my education, but I’m sure Twilight Sparkle will appreciate it more.” She smiled and enjoyed a brief moment of pure malice as she added, “In fact, I insist that you show it to her at your first opportunity.”

“Thank you for the kind words,” Ad Astra said, accepting the monograph back and restoring it to her saddlebag.

“In any case,” Chrysalis said, “shall we get down to business?” She gestured to Occupant, who sat next to the two of them with a clipboard and pen in his magic.

“Indeed, Your Majesty,” Ad Astra nodded, pulling out more papers from a different saddlebag. “Various benefactors approached the Royal Astronomical Society and asked for us to oversee and adjudicate prizes and awards for each space program as it passes certain benchmarks.” She pulled out four particular documents from the bundle and levitated them to Chrysalis and Occupant. “We also offer limited-time contracts giving space programs exclusive opportunity to achieve certain goals. This is being done to encourage private enterprise to offer their own contracts, making spaceflight a profitable commercial endeavor.”

“I see,” Chrysalis said. She looked at one of the contracts. “What does this mean- ‘successfully collect science data from Equus’?”

“Ah,” Ad Astra nodded. “The conditions of that contract require that the program successfully demonstrate a device that can collect scientific data in space. The results gained on the ground may then be compared with results in flight in various conditions.” She shook her head just a bit as she added, “Unfortunately, the space programs are all focused more on flight systems than scientific data.”

“Oooooh, oh!” Occupant suddenly began hopping on his hooves, his wings fluttering with excitement. “This one! We accept this one right now!” He levitated one of the contracts back to Ad Astra, who glanced at it and nodded.

“First spacecraft launch,” Ad Astra nodded. “A sensible decision. Do you think this test will also escape the atmosphere or achieve orbit?”

“Wait a minute,” Chrysalis said. “This is only an unpiloted test with a dummy control capsule. I’m pretty sure it doesn’t count-“

An earsplitting screech rose from the desert surface, echoing around the area. Chrysalis looked down at the rocket, sitting on its exhaust bell, cardboard capsule glued to its top, parachute carefully placed atop that. A changeling soared above the rocket, flapping its wings so they scraped against one another, while on the ground Cherry Berry bolted for the hive entrance with astonishing speed. “Ah, they’ve set the timer,” Chrysalis said over the screech. “That’s Fiddlewing giving the warning siren.”



In the crowd of thousands and thousands of changelings, a large number of cameras were raised to the ready.

Inside the cardboard space capsule, a wind-up alarm clock ticked down the last few seconds to the alarm setting. The bell rang. The winding key turned, pulling at a string. The string was attached to a tiny chock of wood which prevented a ball-peen hammer from falling on a big, red, candy-like button(26).

(26) Chrysalis had taken one look at it and immediately sent a messenger to the minotaurs ordering them to replace the button with anything else at all. She knew her changelings too well.

The wood worked its way loose, and the hammer fell.

A roar louder than a thousand-hydra operatic chorus rang across the Badlands, making Fiddlewing’s shriek sound like a whisper. Almost instantly the squat metal cylinder left the ground, rising on a plume of fire and smoke. The parachute, which had never been secured, slid off the top of the cardboard box, trailing along beneath the rapidly accelerating rocket.

The parachute canopy fell into the rocket blast, and immediately billowed open under the air pressure. An instant later the cardboard box crumpled like an accordion, flattening itself on the top of the booster.

Despite the parachute dragging beneath it, the rocket continued to climb, straight and true, above the eye level of the crowd on the mesa(27). This continued until the rocket reached a height approximately six hundred meters in the air, at which point the parachute opened fully, yanking the rocket hard from its vertical trajectory.

(27) Who were busy half-blinding one another with flash bulbs, trying to catch the Great Historic Moment So I Can Tell My Hatchlings I Was There That Day.

For the following fifteen seconds the crowd was treated to an acrobatics show the Wonderbolts would have been hard-pressed to top. The rocket tumbled and spun, whirled and bucked, always in a perfect pas de deux with the parachute. Smoke billowed every which way, eventually concealing the rocket in a dirty gray cloud.

And then the roaring stopped. The cameras went still. The changeling crowd grew silent.

Slowly, majestically, the rocket drifted down and out of its own smoke cloud. Above it the crumpled and battered cardboard box rose, holding together more due to glue and duck tape than the remaining strength of the cardboard. Finally, above all, the parachute appeared, evidently undamaged by its trial by fire.

The changeling swarm roared, hissed, and cheered as the test rocket floated down about forty feet to one side of its launch point, the bell burying itself a couple feet into the Badlands sandstone as it landed. The moment the parachute was no longer under tension, something went clank, and the fabric went flying, tumbling downwind in the gentle breeze left behind after the launch.

A moment later, panting for breath, Cherry Berry pulled herself over the lip of the mesa and stumbled over to Chrysalis, Occupant, Ad Astra, and the changeling astronaut corps. “There!” she said at last. “I hope now you see how dangerous that capsule design was! Now do any of you still want to fly in it?”

Half a dozen changeling limbs rose in the air immediately.

“Me next!’

“I call dibs on next!”

“You can’t call dibs! I already called dibs!”

“Well, I call double backsies dibs! So there!”

“I call shotgun!”

“Aw, maaaaan…”

“Did you see?” Dragonfly looked as much smug as excited. “My parachute design worked perfectly! It held up under tremendous pressure and it detached when no longer needed so as not to entangle the ship!”

“Really?” Chrysalis asked. “Why didn’t it open up all the way immediately, then?”

“I wove little breakaway threads into the folds,” Dragonfly said. “I didn’t want the ship to slow down all at once. It’d be just as bad as hitting a brick wall if you did that! But slowing down the chute opening makes it easier on the passenger!”

“You know, that really was a good idea,” Cherry Berry said. “And I agree, the parachute was well constructed. No pony-made ‘chute could withstand that kind of abuse without damage.”

Chrysalis smiled. “Maybe we could sell the thing to the ponies, then. It would make good leverage with Sparkle when we meet.”

“Ah, speaking of money, Your Majesty?” Ad Astra levitated a small piece of paper up at Chrysalis’s face. “Congratulations on both achieving your first milestones and completing your first mission contract.”

“How’s this again?” Chrysalis took the paper in her hooves. It was a check, made out to Changeling Space Program, for a substantial sum of bits- not nearly as much as she’d spent on the minotaurs, but considerably more than the single rocket booster had cost.

“You fulfilled the contract for Equestria’s first space launch,” Ad Astra said. “You also set the first flight records for speed and altitude-“

“Wait wait WAIT!” Cherry Berry was in Ad Astra’s face at once. “You can’t tell ponies about this! This wasn’t a space launch! This was a test! A goof! A catastrophe! An embarrassment to pilots and flyers around the world! It wasn’t even piloted! It was completely uncontrolled! It was-“

“It was more than anypony else has done yet,” Ad Astra interrupted coolly. “And for the purposes of advancing the goal of space flight, that’s all that matters.”

“Not quite,” Chrysalis disagreed. “The check matters quite a bit. For which I thank you. Occupant, do you still have those other contracts?”

“Yes, Your Majesty,” Occupant said. “I recommend we accept the scientific data one- that’s easy- and the orbital one, for the challenge.”

“What are you two talking about?” Cherry Berry asked.

“I’ll explain later,” Chrysalis said. “Why not all three, Occupant?”

“Well, I’m mission planner, right?” Occupant said. “But it’s just me in my hole in the wall by the hive entrance. I don’t think I can keep track of all the things we need to make these happen and add anything else.”

“This is probably wise,” Ad Astra agreed. “And I thank you all for this opportunity. Once word gets out that a contract has been completed successfully, I think you’ll find other contracts shall be offered to you in short order. Whether or not you accept them, of course, is up to you.” She bowed, saying, “If I may be excused, Your Majesty?” Without waiting for dismissal, she backed away and departed, picking her way calmly through the swarm of dancing, cheering, gossiping, celebrating changelings.

Chrysalis watched her leave for a few moments before turning to the space program staff. “Occupant, I need a message sent to Ponyville immediately,” she said. “Please tell Twilight Sparkle that we wish to meet at Cherry’s Rocket Parts to discuss the technology swap she discussed. Tomorrow if at all possible. Write it down, then give it to Dragonfly. Dragonfly, straight there, put it in the princess’s hooves yourself, get acknowledgement and if possible a reply, then straight back, best speed.”

The others stared at her.

“What are you foals staring at me for?” Chrysalis snapped. “Don’t you know we’ve got a spaceship to build? Time’s wasting!”


Mission summary: Test flight characteristics of Mk. 0 Command Pod, RT-5 “Flea” Solid Fuel Booster, and the Mk. 16 Parachute.
Pilot: Unmanned, no probe control system (dummy flight)

Flight duration: 2 minutes, 27 seconds
Maximum speed achieved: 205 m/s
Maximum altitude achieved: 907 meters

Contracts fulfilled: 1

Conclusions from flight: The Flea burns steadily and straight provided the vessel is balanced properly. Lack of throttle control needs to be addressed. Mk 16 Parachute appears capable of withstanding any stress in subsonic flight and temperatures of over five hundred degrees for brief periods of time. Mk. 0 control pod is completely unsuitable for pony or changeling life and requires significant strengthening prior to future launches.


Author's Note:

Well, this one just kept growing and growing and growing, so instead of the no-rocket ground test of the first proper capsule (the Mk. 1), I decided to upgrade the unmanned test flight to the official Mission Zero.

Up until the very recent release of KSP 1.1, this was how everyone's first mission went. The early tutorials showed us how to build this rocket, its most bare-bones flyable ship, but it never mentioned staging. Thus, in construction, the system defaults into triggering both the rocket and the parachute simultaneously. The first time I did it I ended wondering, "How did I even survive that?" By the third time I was wondering, "Why is it DOING that?" Only on the sixth attempt did I even see the parachute in the exhaust, and it took a lot of trial and error to figure out how to split the two tasks into different stages.

So, naturally, it HAD to find its way into this story.

KSP won't ignite the engines of a ship (at least, not in its bare-bones, no-mods form) without either a pilot or a probe computer on the rocket. For the mission play-through I put a non-pilot Kerbal in the seat, launched the rocket, and set back to watch the show.

Next chapter: Twilight Sparkle explains why you can have infinite air and water, but not infinite rocket fuel; and Cherry Berry learns firsthoof how important it is to keep the pointy end aimed at the sky.

PreviousChapters Next