• 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 5: Mission 3: Keep the Pointy End Aimed at the Sky

“We need to move the launch site,” Cherry Berry said, leaning over the conference table.

The other people in the meeting room at Cherry's Rocket Parts all erupted in protest, trying to shout over one another, except for Warner von Brawn, who sat in his oversized chair with his usual equanimity.

Cherry had called a meeting of the senior leaders of the Changeling Space Program- Chrysalis, flight manager Occupant, and scientists Goddard the Griffon and the aforementioned von Brawn- almost as soon as she’d been released from her space capsule. She’d spent the night before the meeting at the rocket design warehouse in Appleoosa, talking in great detail with von Brawn about the next day’s meeting. Thus, he hadn’t been surprised or shocked by the topic of the meeting.(48)

The other three hadn’t had a clue, and they all resented it.

“I am not going to move the site away from my hive!” Chrysalis shouted.

“I just talked the pony post into a third delivery per week!” Occupant wailed. “I don’t want to fill out fifty thousand change of address forms!”

“I can’t pull up stakes now!” Goddard shouted. “I’m right on the brink of a major breakthrough!”

These cogent points, of course, drowned each other out and ended up as a mass of noise until Cherry Berry began beating the conference table with her hoof. When the others finally shut up rather than try to shout over an earth pony hitting a heavy wood tabletop, she said, “I didn’t say I want to move the launch site, I said we NEED to!”

“We certainly do not,” Chrysalis snapped. “We’re miles and miles away from any pony. No neighbors, no obstacles, nothing but clear skies. And besides,” she added, “I need to remain as close to the hive as possible so I can rule my changelings properly.”

“And do you know how hard it was to even get mail service to the hive in the first place?” Occupant snarled. “I’ve fought like a manticore to get more deliveries out our way! And you want me to undo all that effort?”

“And I don’t have time to pack everything up, move somewhere, and start all over from scratch!” Goddard snapped. “I’m just a couple of glitches away from being able to put a stackable fuel tank into production!”

“You’re all wrong,” Cherry Berry replied. After a lot of shouting and hoof-banging, she continued, “You think you have good reasons, but I have better ones! And I’ll explain them if you sit down and LISTEN!”

Slowly, sullenly, the changelings and griffon did so. The minotaur, still completely calm, had never left his chair in the first place.

“Right,” Cherry Berry said. “Now, first things first: the Flea motor doesn’t have the power to get us into space. My flight speed topped out around twice the speed of sound at engine burnout. That isn’t even close to the speed we need to achieve orbit, never mind get to the moon. We need bigger rockets with bigger engines.”

“So we’ll get some,” Chrysalis shrugged.

“It’s over two hundred miles between Appleoosa and the hive!” Cherry Berry replied. “It took four changelings each for the space capsule and each Flea booster to levitate them back to the hive! And we’re going to need bigger engines, bigger fuel tanks, and lots more of them, before we even get out of atmosphere! We need someplace easier to get to if we’re going to build a moon rocket. End of story.”

“Couldn’t we just build our own railroad line?” Chrysalis asked.

“No. We can’t afford it.” Cherry Berry pulled rolls of blueprints out of a saddlebag and spread them out across the conference table. “What we already need to build is expensive enough.”

Chrysalis took one look at the blueprints and went as pale as a changeling can without shifting(49). “What is all this?” she asked. “This looks like you want us to build another hive! Above ground, this time!”

“There may be that many ponies in it before we’re through,” Cherry Berry said, “but no, this is all for the space program.” She pointed to a big rectangular building on the roughly sketched layout of the plans. “A vehicle assembly building, tall enough to assemble a rocket with enough thrust to get in orbit, then to the moon.” She pointed to a cluster of buildings. “Astronaut training facility, including dormitory space.” Another cluster of buildings. “Research and development. This one is low priority, since most of its functions can be run from here.” Another large rectangular building with a runway beside it. “Aeroplane construction hangar and runway. Also low priority, since we’re leaving that entire line of research to Twilight Sparkle and the griffons, but it’ll be useful for me to get around, and visiting pegasi might want to use it.”

She pointed to two tiny buildings near the runway. “Administration offices and mission control,” Cherry Berry said. “Small but absolutely necessary. I’m sure Occupant is tired of working out of a closet, and I’m sure you will want a proper throne room on-site.”

Finally, she tapped two small spots on the right edge of the chart. “And the two most important things; a tracking station so we can maintain communications with what we launch, and the reinforced launch pad, at least two miles away from anything else. That way, if something falls off the rocket, or if it explodes on the pad, nothing else gets damaged.”

“How much does all that cost?” Chrysalis asked.

Cherry pulled a small sheet of paper from the stack of designs. “Buildings above the line are must-have soonest,” she said. “Below the line is low priority.”

Chrysalis looked at the numbers and did a bit of math. “WHAT??” she gasped. “If we build it all- that’s more money than we have! Just your high-priority stuff will clean us out!”

“Actually I think there will be a small margin for operating costs,” Cherry Berry said. "Anyway, we can get more."

“Well, I’m not paying it!” Chrysalis shouted. “There was a time when a changeling could get anything she wanted with some other pony’s money! And you’re asking me to sink everything the hive has into this? We’ll just dig more rooms out of the hive! That’s cheap!”

“No, you won’t.”

Those words came out of the most unexpected mouth in the room. Goddard the Griffon had elevated penny-pinching into art since starting work in the Appleoosa workshop. He continued, “Sure, expanding the base at your hive is cheap now. But there's cheap, and then there's cheap now, expensive later. We’re building barely controlled bombs here.” He pointed to the launchpad on the designs. “If something fails on my current fuel tank design- say, in a stack of four tanks on the rocket- it will be the biggest explosion in Equestria since Tirek’s battle with Twilight Sparkle. On bare desert ground it would leave a crater maybe a dozen meters deep. Anything within a hoofball field’s length would be completely destroyed.”

Goddard looked at the queen and asked, “Do you really want to keep that right next to your front door? Shoot, do you want it being assembled in your kitchen??” He settled back in his chair and added, "Eventually I'll probably move to the new base, when we outgrow this workshop. But you've already outgrown your base, Your Majesty. The launchpad needs to move, for your own safety."

“Which raises another point to consider.” Warner von Brawn leaned forward in his chair. “Cherry Berry’s flight landed only a few kilometers from its launch point, in empty desert. Even then she was in danger, because she couldn’t control where she landed. If she’d hit the side of that mesa instead of the top, Dragonfly would have found herself suddenly promoted to front-line pilot.

“We need a location where there’s nothing downrange of the launchpad except water. We can splash down into water at slightly higher velocities than on land. And as it is, the Flea design is on the very limits of landing tolerances. If we make it any heavier, we risk detonating the residual unburned vapors in the tank, with probable loss of pilot.”

“But she’s sitting right there!” Chrysalis protested. “She came down nice and safe! What’s the problem?”

“A better way to put it,” von Brawn rumbled, “is that we all got away with it. We might not be so lucky in the future. We need a new rocket design, and soon, but more than that we need a more suitable place to launch from.”

“A place far away from anything irreplaceable,” Goddard said.

“Someplace where we can ship in the rocket parts for assembly,” Cherry Berry continued.

“As close to the equator as we can find secure property,” von Brawn added, “to take advantage of Equus’ rotation during launch.”(50)

“Someplace where it’s easier to talk with the outside world,” Occupant added.

Chrysalis glared at her subject. “Et tu… Pedipalp?” she asked.

“Well, I’m sorry,” Occupant said. “I don’t think we should move for the sake of moving. But if moving really makes my work easier, then yes, we should move.”

“Well, we’re NOT!” Chrysalis insisted. “We’ll just make do with smaller rockets! Rockets we can safely assemble and launch at home! We don’t need to make them that much bigger, do we?”

The looks Cherry Berry, Goddard and von Brawn gave the queen weren’t angry. If anything, they were a bit pitying. Chrysalis would have preferred anger.

“My launch got up to five hundred forty meters per second,” Cherry Berry said. “To achieve an orbit of any kind we’re going to need to go six times that fast.”

“Which means a bigger rocket,” von Brawn said.

“A heavier rocket,” added Goddard, “which needs more fuel.”

“Which makes it heavier,” Cherry Berry added, “so it goes slower. And so on. No, Your Majesty, we’re a long way from even orbit, never mind the moon. We’re going to need very big rockets to get there. And it’ll be a lot more expensive, and dangerous, launching them from your hive than it would be to just build from scratch.”

“You’re wrong,” Chrysalis insisted, crouching in her chair. “The rocket’s just inefficient. You can make one that goes faster on less fuel.”

“Eventually, sure,” Goddard said. “But not by that much, and not anytime soon.”

“Or we could wait for Twilight Sparkle,” Cherry Berry said, “and her magic-powered spaceship. I’m sure she’d-“

“Do not complete that sentence,” Chrysalis snarled.

“All right,” Cherry Berry said. “Then here’s the facts. You’re queen of the changelings. If you say no, we can’t force you to move. But you’re also a test pilot. You’re training to be an astronaut. Are you willing to put your life in the same danger mine was in?”

“Of course I am!” Chrysalis insisted. “And I’m going to! As soon as the space capsule’s ready and back on an engine, I’m going up in it!”

“Um,” Occupant muttered, “not the way it is, you’re not, Your Majesty.”

Chrysalis’s eyes turned red. Green light flickered up and down her horn.

Occupant cringed, ducking under his chair. “No, please listen!” he insisted. “We’ve got contracts to leave atmosphere and orbit the planet! Those are our current goals! And our current rocket isn’t going to get anywhere near to either one!”

“THEN FIND ME SOME NEW GOALS!” Chrysalis bellowed. “You want money? Find contracts that I can fulfill using our existing rocket! If you can show me that we’ll get our money back,” she added, sweeping the plans for the new space center off the table with one hoof, “then I’ll build this Tartarus-forsaken dream of yours!” She leaned forward, staring not at Occupant but at Cherry Berry. “But if I don’t fly, neither does anypony else. Clear?”

“I’ll need some money,” whimpered Occupant from under his chair.

Chrysalis hissed(51), her fangs bared as she seldom allowed herself to do.

“Your Majesty, I don’t care!” Occupant shouted back. “I’m only one changeling! You gave me this job but you don’t know what all is in it! I'm not just reading your mail for you! I have to send letters and telegrams to all sorts of ponies! I have to try to figure out what we can and can’t do based only on what I’m told! I have to keep track of you and the other pilots, I have to know where the parts are for the next rocket, I have to make sure all the conditions for our contracts are planned for, I have to run down the mission plans, I have to oversee the training because you and Cherry can’t do it because you’re the ones being trained and there's so much I don't know and don't understand and I am only one changeling!” Sticky, slimy tears were running from the trembling changeling’s eyes. “I need a proper office! I need telegraph service! I need some assistants! I need help and it is going to cost money to get it! I’m sorry, but that’s just how it is!”

As the others watched, Chrysalis’s expression softened. Her eyes ceased glowing, returning to their normal green. Finally she slipped out of her chair, pulled Occupant out from under his, and…

… The three non-changelings’ jaws all dropped. Even von Brawn’s.

The sight of the ruthless queen of the changelings hugging one of her own, stroking its fins and whispering, “I’m sorry,” to it, was one none of the three would have imagined was even possible in the entire universe of all things.

“The last time someling did this in front of you…” Occupant gasped, trying not to sob.

“That changeling was faking it,” Chrysalis said. “He should have known better than to try to fool one of his own kind about emotions. You’re not faking it. You were telling the truth. You wanted the best for me, not for yourself.” She sighed. “And I’m sorry.”

Once Occupant had mostly stopped trembling, Chrysalis stood up. “I launch in six days’ time,” she said. “Cash whatever checks are outstanding from the Astronomical Society and spend it on whatever Occupant needs.” She bent back down to the changeling still seated on its haunches on the floor. “And you will find me at least one contract that will get us money for my flight, won’t you?”

“Yes, my queen,” Occupant said.

And on that excruciatingly melodramatic note the meeting broke up.(52)

“I’ve never seen her so angry,” von Brawn murmured to Cherry Berry after the queen departed.

“Me either,” Cherry said. “She usually looks so… so suave and calm and collected. I’ve never seen her throw a tantrum like that.”

“I don’t understand it, either,” von Brawn said. “By her own admission, she could just get the money, fair means or foul. And we’d likely never know which it was.”

“Maybe there’s another reason,” Cherry Berry shrugged. “Either way, I need to get her back in training. What we had before my flight wasn’t nearly enough.” She paused, then looked at the minotaur. “Do you know any way to simulate six times Equus gravity without, you know, actually launching a rocket?” she asked.

von Brawn considered this. “Actually,” he said, “I think I might.”

Footnotes:

(48) And wouldn’t have been even if he’d been brought in cold. True, what Cherry wanted would be safer and more efficient, but he was perfectly happy anywhere where he and his friends could design rockets and get them launched. He’d been just canny and realistic enough not to tell anyone that, if pushed, he would have paid for permission to work with the CSP. Instead, he and his three colleagues got a pouch of bits each week and a reasonable but not infinite supply of materials to use for their experiments.

(49) Which isn’t very, to be honest. Chitin changes color only reluctantly.

(50) The homeworld of the ponies, changelings, griffons, minotaurs, dragons, yaks, etc. etc. etc. etc., had, millennia before, suffered some catastrophe lost to history. As a result, its rotation was constantly slowing, and the moon’s orbit constantly decaying, at a rate no pony could explain. Each day Celestia and Luna adjusted these motions to put them back where they belonged, more or less. The whole system was explained, in extreme detail and with words that existed almost nowhere else in the common language, in Twilight Sparkle’s thesis. However, Equus still rotated on its axis enough to give any rocket going in the same direction as the rotation a substantial head start on orbital velocity.

(51) The hiss was actually an ancient and traditional Changeling battle cry. It translates something like this: Prepare to meet the god of your choice. If you do not currently have a god, you have less than five seconds to make your final selection.

(52) Appleoosa’s sole plumber was called in later that afternoon to unclog the warehouse’s bathroom sink. The stuff in changeling tears and snot sets very quickly and very, very hard, but Occupant had to clean up somewhere…

“What’s this,” Chrysalis asked, “a carnival ride?”

“This, Your Majesty, is a centrifuge,” von Brawn said. “Normally it’s used in laboratories or in heavy industry to separate parts of mixtures. But in this case,” he said, pointing to the launch chair and control stick attached to the long arm of the thing, “it should give you the sensation of what Miss Berry experienced during her launch.”

“Is that all?” Chrysalis asked. She reached up a hoof and pushed the boom. It moved smoothly, but she could feel the heavy counterweight on the other side of the axle resisting. “I just go round and round for a few seconds and that’s it?”

“After a fashion,” von Brawn admitted. “We have a large number of your changelings observing from above us. At a signal from Miss Berry they will use their magic to set the centrifuge rotating. A gauge will show them how fast you are going, and if my calculations are correct,” he added modestly, “at a certain speed you will experience six times the force of gravity on your body. At which point you will use the stick,” he pointed to the controls, “to perform the maneuvers you practiced in the simulator last week as Miss Berry’s backup pilot.”

“Sounds simple,” Chrysalis said. “Just let me suit up.”

“A word of caution,” von Brawn said. “Once we start, we aren’t stopping until the exercise is done or unless you become unconscious. If this were a real launch, then your shouting at us wouldn’t do any good. Best you become accustomed to this here and now.”

“Please,” Chrysalis chuckled. “I’m not a little hatchling that needs to run to queen-mommy when something goes wrong.”


After Cherry Berry gave the order to start the centrifuge, she watched the exercise with interest, letting Occupant keep an eye on the tachometer.

At first Chrysalis looked confident.

Then she looked uncomfortable.

Then she looked frightened.

Then she looked terrified.

And then the shouting started.

“Abort! Abort! I SAID STOP THIS THING! YOUR QUEEN COMMANDS YOU STOP AT ONCE!”

And:

“STOP! STOP IT! MAKE IT STOP!”

And:

“THAT’S ENOUGH! I GET THE IDEA! NOW STOP THIS STUPID THING!!”

And:

“STOP THIS RIGHT NOW OR I SWEAR I’LL TEAR IT APART MYSELF!”

“Are we up to speed yet?” Cherry asked quietly between Chrysalis’s demands.

“Not even close,” Occupant replied.

“Keep cranking it up, then,” Cherry said.

Before much longer Chrysalis no longer had the free breath to shout. The pressure of the centrifuge’s acceleration was pressing it out of her, crushing her bug body inside her unsealed pressure suit.

The marked point on the tachometer was reached, and Occupant flipped a switch to activate Chrysalis’s controls and begin the simulation.

And, to Cherry Berry’s surprise, Chrysalis performed the simulation without a hitch. With the final maneuver complete, she let her arms flop back in the acceleration chair.

“Cut acceleration,” Cherry Berry said. “Don’t slow her down, just let it spin to a stop on its own.”

The changelings cut off their magic, and the centrifuge began to slow, releasing its pressure on its occupant, allowing her to slump to one side in the chair. Eventually the rotation was slow enough that a feeble trickle of magic from Chrysalis’s horn braked it to a complete stop. Limply, weakly, one hoof rose up and hit the quick-release switch on the flight harness, allowing the queen to flop out of the chair and onto the floor below.

And then Cherry Berry learned that what happens when a changeling is very, very sick looks quite different than the contents of Occupant’s mystery-goo devices.

Chrysalis was still standing over her vomit when Cherry Berry entered the centrifuge chamber. “I hope you enjoyed the show,” the queen hissed, most of the venom in her voice sapped by exhaustion.

Cherry Berry, in her own pressure suit, didn’t respond. Instead she hoisted herself up into the centrifuge’s chair, fastened the flight harness, and reached down to check the simulator controls.

“What are you doing?” Chrysalis asked.

“Preparing for my centrifuge run,” Cherry Berry replied. “This is training, remember? And I’m your backup for this flight. Whatever you do, I do.”

And this way, Cherry Berry thought, since you’re not doing it alone, you won’t be humiliated. Much.(53)

“Yet more evidence that ponies are fools,” Chrysalis moaned. “I’m going to talk to von Brawn. He needs to find some way to make the rocket burn slower, darn it.” She wobbled towards the door, adding “That was too fast for anything.”

Footnote:

(53) Cherry Berry, true to her promise to fly everything first, had tested the centrifuge before Chrysalis had even been told it existed. But more training never hurt.

“I’ve got some contracts!” Occupant said, waving a wad of papers from one hoof as he fluttered into the throne room. “Paying contracts! For money!”

“Well, it certainly took you long enough.” Chrysalis was already in her spacesuit, reading her correspondence before the morning’s simulator tests. “What have you got?”

“It turns out Twilight Sparkle wants more data on the Flea booster,” Occupant said. “She also wants data on our parachute in flight. She’s actually paying us to use them one more time and record specific data!”

Chrysalis smirked. “She’s paying us to advance our own program,” she chortled softly. “How delightful!”

“And there’s one other contract,” Occupant said. “Several mining companies, and a couple of research teams, have asked us to fly over places that pegasi won’t go. I think I’ve found one such site close to the hive, close enough for the Flea to maybe fly by the site before popping the parachute. I think.”

“Fine,” Chrysalis said flatly. “And how much money will this net us?”

Occupant shifted uncomfortably in midair. “If we succeed at everything,” he said, “just about enough to cover my expanded office and build its replacement at the new site.” He cringed, backpedaling in the air. “I’m sorry, but it was the best I could do.”

“If it’s more money than we’re going to spend on the flight,” Chrysalis said, “that’s all I asked of you.” Without another word she walked past the mission controller, leaving the little bucktoothed changeling to stare after her.


“Well,” Occupant said, looking around the small, mostly dark chamber of the hive used for monitoring the rocket flight, “are we ready for launch?”

“I wish we could hear her,” Cherry Berry said, staring up at the illusion of Chrysalis’s grim face, an icon inset in a larger view of the little rocket on the hive’s launchpad.

“My countryman Marked Knee is in the Crystal Empire now, talking with the yak space program,” von Brawn said. “I think he’ll return with good news from Popoff. Of course he’s exchanging our control system for whatever he gets, but it should be a fair trade.”

Occupant’s pupilless eyes widened. “You went behind the queen’s back?” he gasped.

“Given her mood swings of late,” von Brawn replied slowly, “I thought it wiser to ask forgiveness than permission.”

“Probably a smart move,” Cherry Berry said. “Okay, switch the ship to battery power.”

“Roger,” Occupant said, hitting a switch on his console. “Pad clear, go for launch,” he said, and his words were amplified from speakers embedded into the mesa above the hive entrance.

The mission was simple: fly mostly south instead of east for as long as possible, record a crew capsule observation of the target site, and land safely. The hive would capture the information needed from the rocket motor and the parachute.

And now, with the capsule controls gone live, that mission was entirely in the queen’s hooves.

Chrysalis reached up to trigger the rocket ignition.

Nothing happened.

Annoyed, she hit the switch again.

The rocket remained on the pad.

“Oh, this isn’t good,” Occupant murmured, echoing the thoughts of everyone else in the hive’s makeshift control center.

“It must be interference from the testing equipment for the Flea,” von Brawn rumbled. “I think we can still start the motor through that equipment. We’re still go.”

Lucky Cricket burst into the room. “Wow, it’s a good thing I double-checked the rocket!” he said. “Do you know the staging was set up to do that thing with the parachute again? Wouldn’t the queen have been mad if that had happened!”

Cherry Berry couldn’t help gasping at the thought. “Well, you fixed it, right?” she asked.

“Of course I did!” Lucky Cricket said. “Personally I suspect sabotage. Do you know somebody also tried to plug up the rocket exhaust? Wouldn’t have got far if that had been left there!”

Now it was von Brawn’s turn to gasp. “Don’t tell me you removed it!” he bellowed(54).

“You bet I did!” Lucky grinned.

“That was the thrust restrictor I installed myself!” von Brawn protested. “It was meant to slow the acceleration of the ship and help the queen keep it under control!”

Meanwhile, in the viewscreen, Chrysalis had found a couple of other switches, turning them off and back on. Satisfied, smiling grimly, she hit the ignition switch again.

The rocket leaped off the pad like a scalded diamond dog, immediately wobbling back and forth in flight.

“Dear Faust!” von Brawn gasped, checking the projection of the ship’s navigation ball. “She’s forgotten to turn on the stabilization system!”

Chrysalis frantically dove the rocket forward, overcorrecting by a mile. The nose of the capsule, for two vital seconds, pointed downwards. On the navball, the open-barred circle showing the direction of travel drifted out of the blue and into the brown.

The occupants of the control room held their breaths, some watching the rocket, others watching Chrysalis’s blatantly terrified face.

To the relief of all, Chrysalis pulled the rocket out of its shallow dive and onto a southern heading at forty-five degrees pitch, belatedly activating the stabilizers as she did so. The prograde marker lurched firmly back into the blue.

Six seconds had elapsed since launch. Six more seconds later, the Flea engine burned out.

“Maximum velocity five thirty-seven,” von Brawn read from the indicators, switching to map mode on the projectors for a moment. “Estimated apoapsis of trajectory approximately thirty-seven hundred meters. The trajectory looks good for the target zone.”

“She needs to pop the chute while still above two thousand meters for Princess Sparkle’s test,” Occupant said. “It’ll be close.”

The members of the space program watch the projections, helpless, as the silent Chrysalis calmed herself, visibly pulling herself together. She noticed a flashing light above her head. “Target zone entered,” von Brawn said. “Altitude twenty-five hundred and falling.”

Chrysalis jiggled the stick, rolling the craft long enough to see the ground overhead(55). She quickly switched on the flight recorder and said some things very, very rapidly.

“Twenty-two hundred,” von Brawn said.

Chrysalis finished whatever she was saying, shut off the record, and slapped her hoof hard on the switch for the parachute.

“Parachute open at two thousand seventy-four meters,” von Brawn said with relief. “Telemetry shows test equipment onboard has recorded the data the princess requested.”

Silently, filled more with relief than exultation, the occupants of the control room watched the illusion of the spaceship slowly descending on its parachute, of Chrysalis as she visibly realized, for the first time, that the harrowing flight was over.

Three or four changelings in the room took out cameras and took pictures of what would likely be the only time in their lives they’d see their absolute ruler with a wide-eyed goofy grin on her face(56).

As the parachute opened fully, pulling the nose of the capsule up and the window away from the outside world, the goofy smile vanished. Chrysalis squirmed in her seat, trying to see anything out the window aside from desert skies, obviously failing.

Cherry Berry watched as the queen’s hoof reached up and above the controls for the lever that would open the hatch. The queen even leaned up against the flight harness. Then she flinched, gingerly settling herself back into the flight chair and letting her hoof return to the armrests.

“What was that about?” Occupant asked.

“She was going to bail out,” Cherry Berry said. “And she remembered just in time that her wings are bound inside her pressure suit. She can’t fly. If she jumped, she’d kill herself.”

“What? She can’t do that!” Occupant gasped. “I haven’t got my nice new office yet!”

A low chuckle echoed from von Brawn. “Priorities,” he muttered.

The capsule settled down into an arroyo, catching just enough of the bank to flop onto its side and settle flat in the dry river bed.

To make it perfect, the capsule hatch was facing down. It would open just far enough for Chrysalis to extend a pressure suit covered hoof out of the gap and wave it feebly.

Fortunately for all concerned, the recovery changelings were too relieved at their queen’s survival to laugh.

MISSION 3 REPORT

Mission summary: Run specific tests of Flea booster, M16 parachute; fly over and report on possible Badlands mining site 7 km. south of the changeling hive.
Pilot: Chrysalis

Flight duration: 2 minutes, 20 seconds
Maximum speed achieved: 537 m/s
Maximum altitude achieved: 3715 meters
Distance downrange at landing: 9.3 kilometers

Contracts fulfilled: 3
Milestones: none

Conclusions from flight: We have proved three things. First, there are few things more dangerous than well-meaning changelings(57). Second, that we can turn a solid profit on rocket flights. Third, that our Queen is, despite a launch glitch and unforeseen circumstances, able to complete a mission under adverse conditions… without losing her lunch.

MISSION ASSESSMENT: SUCCESSFUL

Footnotes:

(54) It was, Cherry Berry thought, only the second time she’d ever heard him raise his voice about anything… and she couldn’t remember when the first time was.

(55) This time her chitin did a much better job at going white than when she’d looked at the space center construction budget. She didn’t need Dragonfly or anyling else to tell her that when you looked up at ground you were probably having a Bad Day.

(56) To their intense disappointment, none of the pictures developed properly. Several days after Chrysalis’s first flight, several anonymous suggestions appeared on Occupant’s desk asking for the mission control projectors to be adjusted to allow permanent records to be taken. For history and glory, of course.

(57) Given a choice between changelings who intended to do you serious harm and changelings intent on doing something for your own good, your odds of survival were very much better with the bad changelings.

Cherry Berry met Chrysalis at the entrance to the hive. The queen, helmet removed, was obviously wobbly on her hooves and, equally obviously, pretending she wasn’t.

“So,” Cherry Berry said, “now you’ve piloted a flying machine. What do you think?”

“Next time I’ll outfly you,” the queen said simply. She walked past, muttering as she went, “Tomorrow we’ll look for a site for your space center.”

“Really?” Cherry Berry trotted to catch up to the queen. Though Chrysalis was moving slowly, she wasn’t stopping for anything. “Just like that? No more excuses? No more resistance?”

“Shut up, pony,” Chrysalis said, not so much a snap or a growl as a moan. “I’ve had a trying day.”

“A week ago you weren’t going to move for anypony,” Cherry pressed. “Did being in the capsule yourself change your mind?”

“I only break my promises with my victims,” Chrysalis muttered. “I am a bug of my word to my changelings. Leave it at that.”

“No, I don’t think I will,” Cherry said, stepping in front of the queen and forcing her to stop. “Why didn’t you want to move? Are you pregnant? Another batch of changelings on the way?”

Chrysalis stared at the pink pony. She tried a laugh, but the sound just barely made it out of her throat, unrecognizable. “No, I am not pregnant,” she said. “If you must know, I didn’t want Twilight Sparkle looking over my shoulder every moment.”

Cherry blinked. “How’s that?”

“You must have read the newspaper article,” Chrysalis said, having just enough energy to sound a little confused.

“Nope. What article? What newspaper?”

“The Manehattan Times dated the day before your launch- we got it in that day’s mail- announced that Twilight Sparkle was going to build a spaceport on South Cape on Horseshoe Bay. They’re going to name her base Cape Friendship.” She sighed. “The article gave most of the same reasons you had for moving- no innocents under the flight path, easier landing and recovery, rail lines to Baltimare and shipping right up to the pad.” The queen slumped forward on her forehooves. “And I just can’t bear the idea of having my own base close enough to Sparkle’s that they could watch me all the time. I like having it here. It's safe here. It's secret here. There’s absolutely nothing a changeling hates more than knowing it’s being watched.”

“Oh,” Cherry Berry said. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t know.” She leaned forward-

“Hug me and die, pony,” the queen hissed. Apparently she still had a reserve of energy after her adrenalin crash after all.

“Fine, fine,” Cherry Berry shrugged, backing away.

“And just so you know,” the queen continued, “pity tastes like cold unsweetened cereal that’s been left so long in the milk it’s gone soggy and disgusting.”

“I’ll try to remember that,” Cherry Berry said.


The next day, in the hive throne room, Chrysalis, Occupant, Cherry Berry and Double Face(58) pored over maps and deeds, going through the properties possessed by the hive in all its various false fronts and looking for a suitable base site.

A property on Stallion Island, across the bay from Manehattan, was surrounded by houses and apartment buildings, and in any case it was too far north. A site on a tall mountain in the Griffon territories with a flat peak was considered, then rejected as being too dangerous to the pilots in case of premature rocket shutdown. Chrysalis herself had pointed out a property on Horseshoe Bay- on the northern cape, not the southern- but it turned out to be only a couple of acres, far too small for any useful base.

And then came two adjacent and partially entangled properties, absorbing most of a tidal fen at the extreme southeastern edge of Celestia’s realm. The grassy, wet flatland blended into the forested Hayseed Swamps to the northwest, while across a broad tidal inlet rose the thicker forests of the Forbidden Jungles. The property held nothing but an abandoned hayfield about three miles square, connected to a small village in the Swamps by a road running along the only really firm ground anywhere nearby.

“I think this is it,” Cherry Berry said. “There’s enough solid land to build everything- just barely- and the inlet can be dredged for ships to deliver rocket parts.”

“I recognize that place,” Double Face said. “The Royal Guard used it for training one year. Full combat exercises.”(59)

“This village here,” Chrysalis said, pointing to the map. “They’ve left the name off the map. Do you remember it?”

“Sure,” Double Face said. “Not much there, but the food isn’t bad. Place is called Horseton.”

Footnotes:

(58) Who, despite less-than-subtle hints from Chrysalis, had not left. His shackles had been removed, he'd received his Royal Guard severance pay of two weeks dated from receipt of his one and only coded “all safe” message, and free transport to Appleoosa had been offered, and offered again each day. The only reason Chrysalis hadn’t propelled the freeloader bodily out the hive door was that Carapace the cook had taken the pony to heart as “the only one around except maybe Cherry Berry who appreciates my art.”

(59) In case there was doubt in anybody’s mind, the swamp won. The Guard took over fifty percent casualties in three days before training was called off.

Author's Note:

Well, that was relatively quick.

Yes, I went for the cheap drama. I wasn't expecting to, but the needs of story and playthrough meant I had to upgrade Mission Control in KSP so I could take more than two mission contracts at a time. Thus Occupant had his moment in the crosshairs of Chrysalis's temper, and his breakdown gets her to back down just enough. All because I wanted more contract slots.

There's an animation on YouTube of kerbals using a centrifuge, just as the early astronauts did (and, I presume, modern ones still do). It's not part of the game, but quite frankly I wanted to give Chrysalis a bit of a hard time. This was definitely her chapter for that.

The game fly-through was a bit glitchy. I don't know why, but the normal staging process wouldn't let me activate the engines the usual way. I had to right-click the engine for a manual start, which meant the first time my hand wasn't on the steering controls. The second time I forgot to put the stabilizers on, had the brief dipty-do mentioned in the story above, and then leveled off at far too shallow an angle. I never got above two thousand meters, and thus didn't complete the parachute test contract. The third attempt I got everything right and completed all three contracts on the single flight.

There is an official map of Equestria. The first version was given out as a promotional freebie by Hasbro. As of season 5 an expanded version, which includes Starlight's Village, Griffonstone, the Forbidden Jungles where Ahuizotl lurks, Yakyakistan, etc., is in the first few pages of the book Art of Equestria, which I carry in my day job as a convention vendor. (Prance, Germaney, Saddle Arabia, and Mareitania aren't marked anywhere on the map. The Badlands is named, but not the changeling hive specifically.)

I bring the map up to mention; although there are vague similarities to North America, there's neither a Gulf of Mexico nor a Florida peninsula. The southern cape of Horseshoe Bay is a proper peninsula, but the bay is more an analogue of Chesapeake Bay, with Baltimare near its northernmost edge. Nor, incidentally, is there a Horseton marked as such on the map... but the Hayseed Swamps is where cajun ponies eat apple pies delivered past a certain chimaera. And I grew up here in Southeast Texas and have visited the Johnston Space Center several times, the first time as a little kid back when civilians could still mostly wander the campus at will. (Today you're restricted to the theme park trolley.) It is damp, and the center was built on muddy, marshy land very close to Galveston/Trinity Bay. I figure the edge of the Hayseed Swamps is a good enough fit.

And of course this means, if I screw up in a playthrough in a non-fatal way (I will not kill off the two main characters, live with it), I will have no shame in using the line, "Horseton, we have a problem."

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