Changeling Space Program

by Kris Overstreet

First published

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.

It turns out that the magical land of Equestria is not a flat plane covered by a bowl of stars after all. This is big news to Queen Chrysalis. If the moon is actually a place, then she can travel there, claim its magical energies, and finally get revenge on Celestia, Twilight Sparkle, and everypony else.

Of course, there are problems. One problem is that everypony else is also rushing to get into space. Another problem is that Chrysalis really has no idea how to do it. Fortunately a certain earth pony with a taste for cherries is willing to help... provided she gets to fly the ship, and provided Chrysalis keeps the space program honest and open and legal.

Together, Chrysalis, Cherry Berry, and a horde of brave-but-dumb changelings will make world history... or, more likely, they'll make a lot of really big explosions.

Inspired by Kerbal Space Program. Current cover art by Jason Meador aka texasuberalles.

TVTropes page here! Thanks to GymQuirk for making it!

Old cover art (and Changeling flag) here:

http://nishi199.deviantart.com/art/Changeling-Swarm-Flag-413227759

1-21-2017 Included in The Goodfic Bin's High Quality Fics! Thanks! Review here: https://www.fimfiction.net/group/206510/the-goodfic-bin/thread/173558/submissions-folder-decision-thread-v2#comment/5750494

[img]http://s13.postimg.org/5a2dthj87/Giz_Vyc0.png[/img]

Chapter 1: How Hard Could It Be?

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Changeling Space Program
by Kris Overstreet

Chapter 1: How Hard Could It Be?

In the depths of the Badlands, where few ponies ventured and even fewer ponies wanted to, there stood a single, lonely mailbox on a post next to the entrance of a nondescript-looking cave. The box had no name; merely a number, and that number was a single digit.

Some mailponies might have questioned why tens of thousands of different names might appear on the letters delivered to that box over the years, but none of those ponies would have agreed to a mail route that required hundreds of miles of flight from the closest post office in Appleoosa. In fact, only one pony- a special contractor, not really a proper member of the Equestrian Postal Service at all- was willing to fly the route once per week.

This was just as well, because it meant that Derpy Hooves, good-natured and less prone to panicky fear than most ponies, became the one pony in Equestria who could turn up at the entrance to Queen Chrysalis’s hive and not be immediately captured and cocooned. In fact, the guard at the entrance to the hive had long stopped using his disguise around her, and on this particular day he waved at her as she descended to Occupant, Box One, The Badlands with a middling-full saddlebag of mail.

“Hi, Derpy!” Occupant called up to her. (His given name was Pedipalp, for the large flat fangs that became buck teeth in every disguise he attempted. He’d always hated the name, and the day the queen granted his petition for the name change remained the happiest day of his life. He had a certain slightly-confused but cheerful pegasus to thank for that.) “What have you got for me today?”

“A big bunch of the usual,” Derpy smiled, landing and pulling a thick bundle of junk mail from the saddlebag. “Also a few things for your friends… another bill collector notice for Skip Town, some legal papers and a thank-you note for Ms. Cool Drink, a letter for Gwyneth the Griffon…” The more important letters flopped onto the sandy ground as Derpy fished out a bundle of newspapers from the bottom of the saddlebag. “And Mr. Double Face’s copies of the Canterlot Herald and the Manehattan Times.”

Occupant looked up from his beloved bundle of junk mail. He lived for the weekly junk mail; it made him feel, for a little while, like the most important changeling in the hive instead of one good for not much else other than lookout duty. But Queen Chrysalis always wanted the newspapers immediately. He would have to put off looking with longing at the Elements of Harmony Commemorative Chess Set (1), customized checkbooks with pictures of kittens, puppies, and parasprites, and the newest furniture listings from the rent-to-own outlet in Dodge Junction.

“Thanks, Derpy,” he said, picking up the dropped letters and gripping them in one perforated hoof along with the letters. “Could you wait a few minutes while I make sure my friends don’t have anything going out today?”

“Sure,” Derpy said, smiling her happy smile. “Do you need any more stamps today?”

“I think we’re good for now,” Occupant said. Which was true. He’d never bought stamps from Derpy, or from anypony. Changelings almost never had to buy anything, not when they could use other ponies’ bits or just sneak off with whatever they wanted. “But Heavy Frosting made a basket of muffins for you, if you want some.”

Derpy Hooves’ eyes widened and almost focused. “Thornberry again?” she asked. “I love thornberry muffins!”

“No, it’s prickly pear this time,” Occupant replied. “The first ripe fruits of the season, you see.” He reached into the cupola carved just inside the cave entrance and brought out the basket. Carapace, who had spent years prior to the failed Canterlot invasion in deep cover as the pastry chef Heavy Frosting, was one of the very few changelings who could cook… but he could really cook. “Let me know what you think, okay?”

As Derpy opened the basket and took out the first, still-warm muffin, Occupant rushed down the cave into the heart of the hive. The more quickly he delivered the newspapers, the more quickly he could read about how his two bits a month could help starving children in Yakyakistan…

Footnotes:

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In the innermost depths of the hive, Queen Chrysalis sulked. She was not a happy changeling. She couldn’t tell for certain whether she was bored, depressed, or frustrated, but she was certainly not pleased, intrigued, enthused, content, cheerful, chipper, carefree, or any other emotions she could think of that began with C. And “happy” was so far down the list that she’d have to send a diamond dog digging halfway to Mareitania to find it.

I should be in Canterlot, she thought, ruling my new domain. I didn’t make any mistakes. I played those ponies like violins. I broke up the Elements of Harmony as nice and neat as you please. I came this close to getting that Twilight Sparkle to kill Cadance for me, and I had a backup plan in place if they escaped. And when even that failed, which I could not have prevented, I was still able to stall for time and weaken Shining Armor until my changelings broke down his precious shield. I even had Celestia herself down for the count. Nothing should have been able to stop me.

One moment I’m on top of the world, with Equestria’s last line of defense about to be swarmed over, literally, by my warriors, and one second later we all get a painful one-way ticket back to the Badlands.

Nobody told me that love magic could supercharge a shield spell strong enough to do that. Who COULD have known? It’s the kind of thing that you’d see in one of those awful Daring Do pulp books, like when she escaped from the tidal vent Ahuizotl had caged her in because a balancing boulder that had sat undisturbed for thousands of years chose that exact moment to topple in just the right direction to break the cage sealing her in and letting her-

Chrysalis rubbed the base of her horn. She’d been reading far too many bad pony fiction books lately, for lack of anything better to do.

The changeling giving her infiltration report paused, noticing the queen’s discomfort, but continued with a wave of the royal hoof. Chrysalis was only half-listening anyway. After the failed invasion the hive had had to go back to subsistence raiding and infiltration. It said a lot about her skills as a monarch, Chrysalis thought, that within a few months the hive was doing modestly better than it had been before the invasion… which was still a borderline existence, but there was a little bit of margin and a few luxuries. The changeling network had cautiously extended itself across Equestria, careful to keep its disruptions to a minimum, never doing anything egregious enough to cause the ponies to come looking for them.

But even this long after the invasion, Chrysalis kept well away from both Canterlot and Ponyville. She was not ready for a rematch with Celestia or Luna, and as much as she wanted revenge against Equestria’s newest princess she wasn’t ready to risk open war for personal gratification… not, at least, until she had a foolproof plan.

Unfortunately, she hadn’t come up with a foolproof plan. In fact, she couldn’t even think of a functional plan. She’d had a thousand ideas, and she’d thought of ten thousand ways for them to fail catastrophically. At this point she’d filed and numbered them, and every day she would take a hundred or so out of the files, look them over, and try to find some way to upgrade them to Not Suicidally Stupid. And then she would go read another pulp novel to take her mind off how depressing it was.

“… and after I staged the fight with her, I went to the bar and pretended to get broken-hearted drunk. After establishing that I staggered out and vanished into an alleyway. I then removed my victim from the cocoon, made it look like he’d just been mugged, and circled around the neighborhood, coming back disguised as a patrol cop who just happened to ‘find’ our poor, confused, hungover victim. I escorted him home to his wife, topped off my reserves on their overflow makeup love, and left before they could ask my name. I then used the Double Face disguise and my victim’s bits to buy a ticket to Dodge, and from there back home.”

Queen Chrysalis, still brooding on how dreary was her lot, let the silence stretch to an awkward length before she realized the report was complete. “Oh! Um, yes, very well done, Widower. Take tomorrow off, then use Double Face to take train to Rainbow Falls. It’s not trade time, but see if there’s anything unusual among the permanent traders there.”

Behind her someone cleared his throat.

“Oh, yes,” she muttered, “and pick up some more pencils while you’re at it. We’re running low.”

“Please,” said the handsome unicorn stallion chained to the wall, a heavy-duty magic restraining ring clamped around his horn. The changeling hive kept about a hundred or so ponies in cocoons full time, not counting victims who had to be returned to the wild lest others begin looking for them. Double Face was the only pony within the hive not cocooned, because (so far as Chrysalis could tell) the pony had no love for anypony or anything. He was, in changeling terms, a dry well. Seeing no point in wasting a perfectly good cocoon, Chrysalis had chained him up instead.

Double Face had been a prisoner since about a month after the invasion, and he’d taken fairly well to it. He never complained about the food. He was invariably polite and even-tempered, and he knew when to make conversation and when not to disturb Chrysalis’s brooding. His only request was the crossword puzzles from Equestria’s leading newspapers as a way of relieving the boredom. Since the puzzles usually had prizes associated with them, he also asked that they be mailed back, which Chrysalis allowed.

She was certain Double Face was a spy sent by Celestia, but neither she nor any changeling had been able to find any coded messages in the crossword puzzles. Possibly the puzzles allowed him to receive messages, but he wasn’t sending any out. So he wasn’t doing Celestia any good… and his face, a face nopony would miss, that nopony was really looking for, allowed Chrysalis to send her subjects all over Equestria. So… why?(2)

The clatter of gold interrupted her chain of thought. (Chain? More like a Hearth’s Warming toy train set, Chrysalis thought. My mind forever going round in circles.) Widower had dumped the remaining contents of her last victim’s wallet on the bit pile, as was customary, before departing.

It was a very, very large pile of bits.(3) Changelings almost never spent their own money, after all.

Occupant brushed past Widower in the doorway to Chrysalis’s chamber. “My Queen! My Queen!” he chirped eagerly, bouncing up to the throne. “The mail’s here! Here are the newspapers!” He dumped the papers and letters at the foot of the throne, hopping back and forth, eager to get back to his dreary, unimaginative little drone life.

“Thank you,” Chrysalis said listlessly. “The letters are on the table by the door. Please pick them up as you leave.”

“Yes, my Queen!” Occupant chirped, leaving about twice as quickly as he had arrived. Please, Chrysalis thought, please let him not send off for another book club membership…

“May I?” Double Face asked politely, rattling his chains in the vague direction of the newspapers.

Chrysalis shrugged, levitated the week’s worth of the Manehattan Times over to her prisoner, and then looked over the handful of letters. Legal papers for Ms. Cool Drink; one of her personal aliases had just had her land grant approved for the mesa that rose above the changeling hive. Cool Drink, who depending on need hailed from Dodge, Las Pegasus or the south shore of Horseshoe Bay, had made occasional appearances in Manehattan and Baltimare to claim plots of Badlands property for “future mining interests.” In exchange for help with this effort, she had done various favors, mostly involving providing inside information, for influential ponies, and one such had sent a gracious thank-you note.

Ms. Cool Drink was in a low-level bidding war for various properties, not just in the Badlands, with Gwyneth the Griffon, another of Chrysalis’s disguises. Gwyneth’s letter was an apology from a griffon-realm solicitor for failing in the most recent conflict between the two. Of course, if you combined the two false personas’ land grants over the past six months, you would find that three-quarters of the land within a twenty mile radius around the hive was now owned outright by the two jointly.(4) All the better, Chrysalis reasoned, to keep outsiders far away.

And then there was the envelope stamped FINAL NOTICE LEGAL ACTION PENDING. Skip Town, or Honey Locust as his given name was, had not paid attention to past lectures on the importance of not leaving unfinished business behind. Worse yet, he’d used the hive’s address for his cover identity without permission, a major no-no. Perhaps a prolonged stint at digging duty, expanding the hive the hard way, would teach-

“Oh, I say,” Double Face muttered, “this is most interesting.”

“What is?” Chrysalis asked. Not that she cared what the probably-a-spy pony found interesting, but if it took her mind of the tedium of daily routine that was fine with her.

“Seems a large chunk of what I was taught in boarding school has just gone by the boards,” the unicorn replied. “The entire nature of the universe turned upside-down and inside-out. Science these days, you know. Next they’ll invent trains that don’t need tracks and ways for earth ponies to cast unicorn spells.”

“Thrilling,” Chrysalis drawled sarcastically. “But what’s the specific change you’re talking about?”

“Quoting from day before yesterday’s Times,” Double Face began, continuing in the usual sing-song I-am-reading-a-thing-aloud voice, “Princess Twilight Sparkle’s recent release of a groundbreaking scientific thesis has the entire astronomical community in uproar. In her thesis Twilight Sparkle, recently crowned Princess of Friendship by-

“You can skip that stuff,” Chrysalis hissed.

“Er… blah blah blah, she, um, stated that, contrary to the theories of Clover the Clever, the world is not a flat circle enclosed by a vault of heavens from which the stars hang and along which the sun and moon are guided by the princesses Celestia and Luna who, um, more blah blah I’m afraid. Paragraph. Rather, according to the, um, blah blah Sparkle, the world we know is a spherical planet floating in a presumably airless void, through which meteors, comets, other planets and stars fly, and through which the sun and moon are nudged through the immense power and particular cutie mark talents of Celblahblah and Lublah.”

“Don’t make a joke of it,” Chrysalis muttered. “You’re not that funny.”

“Pardon, Your Majesty. Paragraph. Princess Luna, in a special interview with this Times reporter, confirmed the accuracy of Twilight Sparkle’s findings. When asked why she never corrected Clover the Clever, Luna replied, ‘Because she never asked us.’ Paragraph. Twilight Sparkle’s thesis goes on to say that the moon and planets are not merely spheres in the sky but other worlds, and that it might be possible in the future for ponies to visit those worlds. Princess Luna, the only known pony to have visited another world, reported that she was magically imprisoned within the moon’s fabric and never actually set hoof on the moon’s surface, and that when it comes to being the first mare on the moon, quote, ‘We do not count.’”

“She slept through an invasion of the capitol,” Chrysalis grumbled. “You better believe she doesn’t count.”

“Paragraph. This speculation in Twilight Sparkle’s otherwise excellently documented and defended thesis has raised the hopes of visionaries to make the dreams of science fiction fairy tales into reality. Already multiple companies are organizing from Cloudsdale to the Crystal Empire, competing to put the first pony into outer space. Paragraph. When asked about this frenzy, Twilight Sparkle said, ‘Who knows what wonders and treasures await us on other worlds? I can’t wait to see what we find on the moon, or Bucephalus, or elsewhere in the skies.’”

The newspaper rustled. “Pardon,” Double Face muttered, “the rest of the article’s on an inside page… oh bother, I’m afraid the rest of it is nothing but the blah-blah you don’t want to hear.”

Something began tapping like a woodpecker on a door inside Chrysalis’s mind. She got out of her throne and walked over to Double Face’s semi-comfortable corner. “Let me see that paper,” she commanded, plucking it off his desk with her magic. It took a moment for her to find the quote again, and once she did, she stared at it for a full minute or more.

Who knows what wonders and treasures await us on other worlds?

I can’t wait to see what we find on the moon…

Never in her long life had Chrysalis seriously thought of the moon as a place a pony (or changeling) could go. It was a thing, an object of immense magical power, which until recently had served as a mystic prison for a spirit of wrath…

… I have got to stop reading those horrible novels, she thought to herself.

But if someone could go to the moon, touch the moon… claim the moon… then they could claim its power.

And with that power… well, it would knock little Luna out of the fight, at least, and it would let her fight Celestia with a major advantage, even without a geeky dweeby meatheaded romantic like Shining Armor to draw on for extra power.

And what about the magic power stored in the other planets, even in the meteors that lit up the skies now and again? There was untold might up there for the taking, enough to conquer Equestria. No, enough to conquer the world.

And all I have to do is… get there first.

Chrysalis thought it over very carefully. The danger, of course, would be that the princesses would sabotage her efforts before she was successful. Precautions would have to be taken to keep her efforts secret, or else the ponies would attack…

… wait a minute. Maybe not. These were ponies, after all. The namby-pamby peaceniks in Canterlot would only attack the hive if they thought the changelings were attacking again. Which we are, Chrysalis admitted, but not directly. So long as I’m declaring my peaceful intent to explore space, they’ll either have to leave me alone or admit that their whole ‘friendship is magic’ mantra is a lie. Which they’ll never do.

And if they sabotage me? Then I can reveal their plot, play the innocent victim, and force them to back down. And the beauty is, I won’t need to sabotage them. They’ll be too concerned for the safety of their precious ponies, so they’ll be slow and careful… while I, with my mighty indestructible changelings, can plow right ahead. So I lose nothing this time by taking the high road.

So long as I do everything in the open… well, everything related to going to the moon, anyway… I’m untouchable.

It’s the perfect plan.

“GUARDS!” she shouted, startling Double Face into falling backwards against the cavern wall. “Call together the hive! The time has come to come out into the open once more!” Chrysalis laughed loudly, wickedly, eagerly. “We’re going to SPACE!”

“Excuse me,” a soft voice asked unnoticed behind her. “If you’re done with the newspaper, might I have it back, please?”

Footnotes:
(2) Since Double Face is generally unimportant to the rest of the story, the truth may be told; he was a very minor functionary in the Royal Guard who went looking for, and found, the changeling hive in direct violation of standing orders. He knows full well that he’ll be sacked for insubordination the moment he sets foot in Canterlot once more, so he’s content to remain imprisoned, getting free room and board, letting his back pay build up until he’s rescued or released or whatever. The crossword puzzles are a way of sending out messages, but after the first simple message- “Captured, treated well, situation not urgent”- he has sent no codes or information of any kind. He has, however, won a skateboard, a bespoke suit at a Canterlot fashion shop, and a set of silver hay forks.

(3) A fact which had occupied Double Face’s mind briefly, before he decided that he had a soft thing going and didn’t want to risk it by trying to escape a deep, dark cave lit only by glowing green blob things and the occasional torch, then crossing over a hundred miles of desert with tens of thousands of angry changelings in hot pursuit, loaded down with his own body weight in cash. He limited his interest in the mound of money to the occasional conversation with Chrysalis about fun ways of spending it. These conversations were usually one-sided.

(4) And the beauty of it was, between some quid pro quo here, some sweet talking there, and the occasional, sparing use of mind control when all else failed, Chrysalis hadn’t spent one red cent on the whole affair. Almost all the Badlands claims were free from the Canterlot bureaucracy to encourage future settlement. The other properties were likewise cheap as free, including safehouses in several pony towns, a mostly vertical plot of land in the town of Griffonstone, and several very large and partially submerged land claims near where the Hayseed Swamps began to blend into the Forbidden Jungles.

Chapter 2: My Name's Not Jebediah

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Changeling Space Program
by Kris Overstreet

Chapter 2: My Name’s Not Jebediah

Excerpt from the Canterlot Herald:

… In her proclamation, Queen Chrysalis digressed to criticize what she called the corrupt dealings of ponies who dared to lay claim to the ancestral home of the Changeling race. “We shall not be evicted by real estate swindlers,” she wrote. “Such contemptible creatures as Cool Drink and Gwyneth and their ilk shall not be tolerated, should they try to exercise the worthless bits of paper they call deeds.”

Solicitors for the reclusive social butterfly Cool Drink and the wealthy eccentric Gwyneth the Griffon expressed their wish to come to a mutually acceptable compromise with the changelings, noting their intention to defend their clients’ claims and pointing out that neither Equestria nor any other kingdom recognized the sovereignty of the Changeling nation.

Chrysalis went on to claim that the motivation for the changeling’s entry into the new “race for space” was love. “We shall demonstrate to the world the fearless nature, heroic quality, and indestructible spirit of the changeling people,” she wrote. “We have never been content to sneak the love we need like beggars or thieves, and this glorious enterprise, which carries the hopes and dreams of the entire world, is our first chance to earn what is rightfully ours- the love, admiration and respect of all other peoples.”

While our leaders in the palace reacted with suspicion, the noble and wise Princess Celestia set a positive tone by declaring, “We shall take the words of the changeling queen as genuine, in the hopes that the ancient fear, hatred and suspicion between changelings and ponies can be brought to an end. Towards this goal we encourage our ponies to cooperate with such reasonable legal requests as the changelings may put forward, to exchange scientific knowledge with them, and to do business with them on the same terms as would be given to the griffons, the minotaurs, the dragons, the yaks, the deer, and the other nations of our world.”

A week passed after the proclamation, eventfully.

This was a terrible plan, Chrysalis thought.

In the course of seven days the changelings had learned a lot about flying to the moon- as, for that matter, had the ponies and dragons and griffons. Unfortunately the main thing all of them had learned was that none of them really knew how to do it.

Chrysalis had shared her servants’ findings with the other races, although it required almost a day’s turnaround to the Appleoosa telegraph station to send out results and receive replies. She was sure the others thought she was holding back, and even more sure that everyone except the ponies was holding back from her. And she’d considered it, or even feeding them all false information. After the first day’s bungling, though, she decided to send everything and then some. The worst that could happen, after all, was that the other space programs would repeat the same horrible bungles her changelings had made.

The shared data produced quite a bit of otherwise useful information in the series of How Not to Do It results. Changelings could achieve higher altitudes in free flight and go higher without an oxygen supply than any other race. Unfortunately they were slightly slower than any other flying race when not disguised, and the fastest changeling was no match in the air for the fastest pegasus or dragon. In either case, at altitudes where the rapidly thinning air simply would not allow even a changeling to breathe, the moon appeared no closer.

The changelings didn’t have oxygen masks or pressure suits in inventory (they had a single scuba system, but no way of refilling the tank). One pegasus(5) with an oxygen mask had managed to climb twice as high as a thunderhead before getting what was described as an inverse case of the bends. That pegasus was now in the hospital but expected to recover. Another pegasus(6) had tried a full pressure suit and hadn’t been able to get off the ground.

So, at the greatest extreme of natural or magical flight, Equestrians could achieve maybe fifteen miles or so of altitude.

According to the princesses and astronomers and mathematicians, that left a mere 249,985 miles to go, give or take ten thousand.

The ponies and griffins had experimented with flying machines. Airships couldn’t even fly as high as unaided pegasi. The handful of heavier-than-air craft in existence likewise fell behind natural achievement. Rumors were that a group of minotaurs were working on an entirely new flying machine, but as the smallest group with a space program it was doubtful they could build whatever it was they were designing.

Magic wasn’t much more help. Teleportation could only be done either line-of-sight with a good view of one’s destination or to someplace you’d already been. Magic mirror portals could potentially link two far-distant destinations, but the trick of making new magic mirrors had been lost, and anyway you still had to get the other mirror to your destination in the first place. Furthermore, it took exponentially more power the farther you tried to teleport. Chrysalis couldn’t teleport more than half a mile on her best day. None of the princesses could teleport more than a couple of miles(7). Nightmare Moon’s famous trip had been entirely unintentional and performed through the power of the Elements of Harmony, which were not available at the moment.

All of these options, which Chrysalis mentally dubbed the “sane options,” had been played out in the course of a week by the other space agencies. Her subjects, on the other hand, had attempted a series of experiments which Chrysalis called either the “insanely stupid” or “idiotically insane” options, depending on her mood after the inevitable splat.

Experiment #1: Really big slingshot. Twenty changelings tested. Longest flight: about four hundred meters. Injuries: broken limbs and wings, concussions. Most wanted another ride.(8)

Experiment #2: Two changelings in flight pushing a third changeling to high speeds. Three changelings tested, at altitude. No injuries, but no great improvement on performance, either.

Experiment #2A: Four changelings in flight pushing a fifth to high speeds. No injuries, and a brief but measurable improvement.

Experiment #2B: Four changelings on the ground pushing a fifth in flight to higher speed by magic. No injuries, and a significant, but temporary, improvement in speed.

Experiment #2C: Twenty changelings on the ground. Another changeling (Dragonfly, the hive’s fastest flyer) flies overhead, and the twenty changelings push simultaneously by magic. Dragonfly ended up out of action for weeks in a body cast. She reported (when she finally regained consciousness) that she blacked out as soon as the mass spell touched her, and that she regretted missing the flight, which the changelings on the ground reported as “awesome but short.”

Experiment #3: Twenty changelings in a line on the ground. As changeling #21 (Occupant) came running at the line, each changeling would use its magic to fling the runner overhead and behind, each time boosting speed by a controlled amount. The last changeling would push up instead of backwards, sending Occupant skyward at high velocity. One test. Stinger Charlie reported Occupant’s momentum was so great that he couldn’t steer it at all, and thus he went splat into a canyon wall instead of into the clouds. Injuries: four cases of horn strain, a broken limb, a concussion, and a severe case of disappointment that, of all the things Occupant had broken, his buck fangs weren’t on the list.

Experiment #3A: The same as before, but fifty changelings, and airborne. One experiment, which ended with a black-and-purple sonic rainboom and the complete disappearance of test flier Lucky Cricket. Lucky reported in two days later, having landed unharmed in the pool at a casino resort near Los Pegasus. Lucky enjoyed his stay in Los Pegasus and would have remained there, had the pony authorities not insisted he go home.(9) In addition to realizing that Lucky’s supersonic flight had been completely unsteerable and therefore useless, Chrysalis had realized that some method of remote communications would be required. As it stood, if she got into trouble midflight, nopony would hear about it… ever.

Experiment #4: Combining all prior experiments. Getting the slingshot into the air was less difficult than expected. Hurling it, its controllers, and its passenger forward had been difficult but doable. Unfortunately, what happened thereafter could only be described as “airborne bowling for changelings.” Abundant injuries. Noling wanted a second ride.

Experiment #5: Occupant, remembering something from the Canterlot invasion, had snuck out of the infirmary and taken train to Ponyville, where he politely asked a certain pony to fire him out of a cannon. The experiment resulted in severe but probably temporary hearing loss and no real gains over previous experiments.(10)

At this point Chrysalis had called a temporary end to the experiments until she could think of a better method. That had been yesterday, and today she was beginning to think she would need just as many file cabinets for Bad Moon Flight Ideas as she did for Bad World Conquest Ideas. The moon was there, each night, up in the sky. Logically it should be possible to fly to it… but why wasn’t anything working?

Chrysalis’s brooding was interrupted by movement from the doorway to her throne chamber. Occupant stood in the doorway, and a second shadow stood just behind him in the hallway. “EXCUSE ME, MY QUEEN!” he shouted.

“You don’t have to shout,” Chrysalis replied.

“WHAT’S THAT, MY QUEEN?” Occupant asked. “I CAN’T QUITE HEAR YOU.”

“I SAID, YOU DON’T HAVE TO SHOUT, YOU IDIOT!” Chrysalis roared. “I’M NOT THE ONE WHO’S DEAF!”

“SORRY!” Occupant replied cheerfully, not lowering his volume one iota. Behind her, Chrysalis could hear Double Face groaning as he set down his pencil. “BUT YOU SEE, THIS PONY TURNED UP AT THE DOOR. HER NAME’S JEBEDIAH OR SOMETHING.”

“It’s not Jebediah!” a very female voice snapped. “I told you before, it’s Cherry Berry!”

“THAT’S WHAT I SAID, JEBEDIAH!” Occupant nodded agreeably at the shadow behind him. “ANYWAY, JEBEDIAH SAYS SHE WANTS TO JOIN OUR SPACE PROGRAM!”

“What?” Chrysalis could have thought of a dozen different reasons for a pony to visit the hive now that the changelings were openly competing in the space program(11), but that wasn’t anything she’d ever have imagined. Ponies did not voluntarily join changelings.(12) “Guard, to me!” she called out.

Two guards squeezed past Occupant and the visitor and knelt before her.

“Bring in the pony… visitor,” Chrysalis said. “Then escort Occupant back to his duties at the entrance. And please,” she groaned, “don’t let him try to hold a conversation with you.”

The guards saluted, and as one gently but firmly guided the half-deaf shouty changeling away, the other pushed the pony into the chamber with much less solicitude. “Hey!” she complained, giving the guard a nasty look as she recovered her balance. “You didn’t have to do that!”

Chrysalis took the moment to look the pony over. Pink coat, blonde mane and tail with a bit of curl to both, earth pony. She wore a leather helmet with chinstrap undone, a pair of goggles pushed up out of the way of her eyes. “Hi!” she said, glare giving way to cheerfulness. “I’m your new test pilot!”

Queens do not let their jaw drop slackly when surprised, but it took Chrysalis a will of steel to prevent it. “You’re my what?” she asked.

“Cherry Berry, aviatrix extraordinary,” the pony introduced herself. Oh, yes; now Chrysalis noted the cherry cutie mark. “Ever since this whole space race started, I’ve wanted to take my place as a test pilot! If you’re looking for someone to risk life and limb, I’m your pony!”

“Yes, about that,” Chrysalis drawled. “Why don’t you work for the pony space program? Surely they need all the ponies they can get.”

“Twilight Sparkle said I couldn’t fly,” Cherry Berry said.

Chrysalis shook out her wings momentarily. “Well, you can’t.”

“I can fly machines just fine,” Cherry Berry insisted. “Nopony’s going to fly to the moon under their own power. And I have hundreds of hours in balloon, helicopter, and aeroplane operations- more than anypony except the top airship luxury liner pilots.” She sighed and slumped as she continued, “But Twilight says the pilots need to be pegasi because of their instinctual knowledge of flight theory and their quick reflexes. And the Canterlot unicorns are monopolizing the technical side of things. The only job she’d offer me was ground crew.” She shook her head. “And that’s important, it’s really important, but…”

“But you want to fly,” Chrysalis said. “So, of all the other races, you chose the one most hostile to your own.”

“Um…” Cherry Berry shuffled on her hooves. “Actually, you weren’t my first choice.”

“Ah, that makes more sense,” Chrysalis nodded. “I was your very last choice, wasn’t I?”

Cherry nodded. “The griffins aren’t willing to spend the money for proper equipment, and they’re still convinced they can make it work under wing power. That’s stupid. The dragons won’t even talk to me. And the minotaurs… well, Warner von Brawn has a really good idea, but there’s no way he can raise the funds to do it on his own. I think he’s going to take his proposals to Celestia and Twilight before much longer.”

Chrysalis raised her eyebrows. “That’s a lot of traveling in only a few days, little pony.”

“I’m a pilot,” Cherry shrugged. “I left my aeroplane topside. I don’t suppose you could have one of your changelings recharge the engine? I don’t think it’s got enough charge to get even back to Appleoosa, and they’re almost all earth ponies there anyway.”

“So,” Chrysalis said slowly, “you make the rounds of four different space agencies before coming to me, all in the course of a week or less, and the only thing you want is to be the pony who flies to the moon. Do I have that clear?”

“That’s right.”

Chrysalis gave the situation a whole two seconds’ consideration before coming to the only logical conclusion.

“Pod her,” she said to the guard.

Footnotes:

(5) Rainbow Dash, naturally.

(6) Fluttershy. Had Chrysalis ever bothered to find this out, she might have demanded the ponies redo the test, but the outcome likely would have been the same.

(7) Or so they claimed, but Chrysalis knew they were lying about this. They wanted her to underestimate their power. She wasn’t going to be fooled.

(8) If anything will make you blasé about the prospect of ending a thrilling ride through the air by a sudden splat on the hard, rocky desert floor, it is having experienced just such a thing before and lived. Every changeling alive had had this experience, Chrysalis included, courtesy of the Power of Love.(17)

(9) Fourteen hours after arriving the hotel had presented a bill to Lucky Cricket for eight hundred bits. Lucky had taken the fifty complimentary casino chips and, through methods unexplained, parlayed them into a ten percent ownership stake in the resort by midnight that night. The next morning Lucky became the very first changeling to be photographed in his natural state and added to the list of Ponies No Longer Allowed in Los Pegasus Casinos. He returned to Appleoosa by train in a private car full of souvenirs, with privileged stock certificates in hoof and proposals for a changeling casino resort, which Chrysalis filed for possible future action.

(10) As Occupant reported, very, very loudly.

(11) Three of which involved Skip Town and his bad debts, and another involved Occupant sending off for eleven vinyl records for a penny, with only six albums required to purchase at full price in the following year.

(12) Chrysalis could control pony minds with an effort of will and work, but she couldn’t read them. Otherwise one look at Double Face’s thoughts would have shown her how wrong she was about this point.

Written exchange between Chrysalis, Queen of the Changelings, and Celestia, Princess Diarch of Equestria:

We have apprehended a pony who sought access to our space program through laughably false pretenses. This earth pony, who claimed to be called Cherry Berry, gave as her cover story the absurd premise that she was a pilot of flying machines who, having been turned down by all other space projects, had come to the changelings to fly. Although we changelings are no longer seeking to subvert Equestria by infiltration and deceit(13), we can scarcely pretend that no tension or animosity exists between our species at this time. Any pony volunteering to live among changelings for any reason would be suspect. A flightless earth pony coming to the hive and demanding to become our head test pilot is either lying or deranged. In either case such a pony requires detention until some settlement can be reached regarding her final disposal.

As a gesture of goodwill I pledge not to execute her outright, as would have been my right and duty under prior conditions. Instead I formally charge her with espionage and request negotiation for suitable punishment to deter future efforts before her repatriation to your realm. Such treatment as you would give to one of my subjects, caught in the act of imitating a member of your guard or a minor courtier, would be acceptable to me.

To clarify the identity of the pony: female of young maturity, pink coat, blonde mane, cutie mark of a cluster of cherries. Speaks with a central Equestrian accent, presumably lower Canterlot or Ponyville districts. No noticeable scars or unusual features.

Signed,
Chrysalis, Queen of the Changelings

My very dear Chrysalis,

Cherry Berry is exactly as she says she is. My dear Twilight Sparkle verifies that she did indeed apply for the Equestrian Space Agency, only to be turned down due to lack of openings in the pilot program. She also confirms her long experience with all sorts of flying craft, her basic understanding of flight theory, etc. I am also informed that Cherry Berry is the first earth pony licensed for solo flight in and around the environs of Cloudsdale.

Since we are, of course, all sharing our scientific data freely with one another, I have no interest in sending a spy into your hive. Even had I the interest, I could never justify putting my little ponies into such terrible danger. I would simply have come myself in disguise, or sent Luna in my stead. I hope you will take my words for truth and treat Ms. Berry kindly, either releasing her into the custody of her kin in Dodge Junction or allowing her to participate in your space exploration efforts.

Finally, had I caught one of your changelings as you describe, I would treat it thus: I should give it a cell next to a kindergarten full of happy foals and fillies, allow it to eat its fill of love and joy, and pay it regular visits for tea and polite conversation. I would provide its more reasonable requests for comfort and entertainment, and once I was certain that no danger would befall my little ponies, I would offer it release into the wilds or wherever it wished to go. If it wished to remain, I would accommodate it with the warmest hospitality.(14) I hope you haven’t got any pony children in your custody, but I trust the general intent is clear.

Please treat my little pony kindly, so we may see the truth behind your words of goodwill.

With love,
Princess Celestia

P. S. Have you seen a pony by the name of Double Face? He’s a white unicorn with a drama-mask cutie mark. My current captain of the guard wishes me to tell you that we don’t particularly want him back; we just want to know where to mail his severance check. – C.

Another week passed, also eventfully. The changelings, seeing Cherry Berry’s flying machine, had wanted to use it for their experiments, but Chrysalis had forbidden it. Celestia might want the thing back, and if so she would want it back in one piece. If her changelings started toying with it, she’d likely end up returning it in a large sack. Or possibly several sacks.

The device- the “aeroplane” as Cherry Berry had called it- still gave the changelings all sorts of new ideas. These were implemented with whatever scraps and odds-and-ends could be scavenged from nearby, held together with optimism and various forms of changeling goo.

The results of these experiments kept the hive’s infirmary very busy until Celestia’s written response arrived from Canterlot. (Not least, the chief medical bug was kept hopping delivering headache pills to the queen every time she debriefed another test pilot.)

Finally Celestia’s letter arrived, and after spending a day getting over the impotent rage she felt from reading it, Chrysalis came to a new decision.


The pod was distinctly off color. It should have been a healthy green; instead it had gone some kind of murky purple. That said, the pony hadn’t been harmed, sleeping with a large grin on its face until it was dragged through the cocoon’s membrane and out into the open air of the little cell in the depths of the hive.

“Owww,” Cherry Berry moaned, staggering on her hooves, choking and coughing up bits of the fluid that contained prisoners within the pods. “Ooooh, my head.”

“Hibernation hangover,” the guard said matter-of-factly. “It passes off soon. You probably won’t be hungry for a while, though.”

“I was having a beautiful dream!” Cherry groaned. “I was having the loveliest dream in the world, and you woke me up!” (15)

“Changeling cocoons are designed to give prisoners the illusion of their greatest love,” the guard said. “Waste not, want not.”

“Really?” Caught between horror and curiosity, Cherry Berry chose curiosity. “So…er… did I feed you well, then?”

“I wasn’t your guard,” the guard said, pointing to a lump in the corner. “She was.”

Cherry Berry decided she could have lived a long, happy life without seeing a nearly spherical changeling. It looked at her, gave a little wave with a hoof, and burped.

“Anyway, Her Majesty wants to talk to you,” the guard continued. “Are you feeling up to it?”

Cherry Berry took a deep breath, pushed her flight helmet a little bit forward on her head (ignoring its lingering stickiness), and set her jaw. “Lead the way,” she said.

Footnotes:
(13) You simply can’t function as an absolute ruler if you flinch at putting blatant lies in writing.

(14) Scrawled in the margin of the original, in Chrysalis’s pen: “Of course she would, the little (expletive).”

(15) Cherry Berry’s dream: she stepped foot out of a standard science fiction rocket ship balanced on its fins, wearing a spacesuit with a goldfish-bowl helmet. To her delight she discovered that the moon she’d just landed on was actually an immense cherry pit. Suddenly the celestial seed was hurled across the solar system into the depths of a giant green planet, from which sprouted, all at once, a cherry tree bigger than all Equus. And then Cherry Berry, in her airplane, flew around and around the giant tree’s trunk, catching cherries in her mouth as they fell gently from the world-tree’s eternally loaded branches.

Chrysalis greeted the pony with a wave of a scroll in her direction. “I’ve finally heard back from your princess,” she said. “If I am to trust her, then you are who you say you are.”

“Well, yeah,” Cherry Berry snorted. “Why would I lie?”

“I could spend a week giving possible reasons,” Chrysalis said. “However, my time is more valuable. Let us say, for argument’s sake, that you are not a spy. You might still be a madpony too dangerous to be left loose. That is what this interview is to decide.”

Cherry Berry shrugged. “You’re not the first to think that,” she said. “Fire away.”

“First, let us ask a simple question,” Chrysalis said. “By what means did you plan on reaching the moon?”

“Controlled ballistic flight within a rocket ship,” Cherry Berry said simply. “You know, like in the Buck Ranger books?”

“No, I don’t know,” answered Chrysalis.(16)

“Well, basically you build a rocket ship, like a big firework you can ride along inside,” Cherry Berry said. “Only it doesn’t explode when it gets to the top. Goddard the Griffon was doing some work on making it reality, but nopony would give him the money to do more than make tiny experimental rockets. And Warner von Brawn has ideas on how to make it work, but there’s just so few minotaurs, he can’t get the funding for full-scale testing.” She shrugged and added, “Twilight Sparkle thinks she can make the concept function through concentrated magic, but she hadn’t done any tests as of the day I came here.” She looked around and added, “What day is it, anyway?”

Chrysalis’s jaw had dropped, royal reserve be damned. Her eyes stretched wide as dinner-plates. “Let me get this straight,” she said very carefully. “You say that, if you want to fly to the moon, you climb inside a giant firework, light the fuse, and somehow steer the thing until you get to the moon? And hope it doesn’t blow up?”

“You make sure it doesn’t blow up,” Cherry Berry said firmly. “And the rocket ship would be a lot more complex than a firework. But that’s the general idea, yes. I can show you the basic equations for how it would work, if you have a chalkboard.”

Chrysalis shook her head. “Back in the pod,” she said.

Footnote:

(16) Chrysalis’s hobby of reading cheap, bad books had avoided the entire sci-fi genre. It was a tiny niche market even among ponies, but with changeling minds- well, with Chrysalis anyway- the concepts simply didn’t click. Magic-less alien creatures invading Equestria? Machines that walked and talked? It was just too wild for her to follow.

Another week passed, explosively. Chrysalis had put the guard who had escorted Cherry Berry into his own pod for gossiping. What kind of nincompoop would think it a good idea to suggest fireworks as a flight vehicle to her changelings?

Right. Another one of her changelings. I am surrounded by MORONS, she thought.

When she went herself to release Cherry Berry, she found the cocoon had turned a deep but vibrant red. A little bit of ooze seeped around the edges of the membrane. It smelled of sweet, sticky cherry juice.

I think I’m as insane as my subjects, Chrysalis thought, but the time has come to admit the truth: I don’t know what I’m doing. It’s time to bring in somepony who does, even if she is completely cracked. She reached into the pod with her magic and gently pulled the pony out, setting her carefully on wobbly hooves.

“You know,” Cherry said between coughing up bits of pod goo, “if it wasn’t for the hangover… and the whole creepy-emotion-draining-bugs-who-kidnap-and-replace-all-your-friends thing… you could run a spa and make big money, selling ponies time in those pods.”

Chrysalis mentally filed this idea away for future exploration.

“So, what do you want to ask me now?” Cherry Berry grumbled. “That was a really long dream, so whatever I know about the other space programs is pretty much out of date by now.”

Chrysalis sighed. It took an effort of will to even speak the words. “I want you to take over our space program,” she said.

“What.”

“We need somepony who has ideas on how a trip to the moon can work,” Chrysalis pressed on. “I want to be the first being from Equus to set hoof on the moon, but I don’t have a clue how to do it. And my subjects have even less idea. Though they seem bent on bashing, splatting, or blowing themselves up trying.” She jabbed a hoof at Cherry Berry. “Your notions sound insane, but at least you have them. And they can’t be more idiotic than what my subjects have tried.”

“Really,” Cherry Berry said flatly. “This is a bit of a turnaround.”

“I am not going to beg,” Chrysalis said. “You came here asking to be a pilot. It took me two weeks, but I’m finally willing to accept your offer. I’m even willing to put the whole program in your hooves. Take it or leave it.”

Cherry Berry considered this for a few moments. “You know,” she said at last, “that was a really wonderful dream I was having in that pod. I wouldn’t mind going right back to it.”

“You… you’re rejecting my offer?” Chrysalis gasped. “But I thought-“

“Let’s just say,” Cherry Berry said, “that being imprisoned for two weeks without trial or hearing doesn’t encourage me to want to work with the pony who ordered it done. No matter how nice the dreams were.”

“But… but… but we need you!” Chrysalis insisted. “We’ve come so far already! We can provide so much for you!” No, calm down, she reminded herself. Queens do not grovel. “At least look and see what we’ve done so far before you make your decision.”

Cherry Berry cocked an eye at the changeling queen dubiously, then shrugged. “Fine,” she said. “It can’t hurt, anyway.”

From the Canterlot Royal Astronomical Society:

BE IT KNOWN TO ALL:

That through the generous donation of various anonymous contributors, the Canterlot Royal Astronomical Society has assembled a fund which shall be used for prizes to be awarded to those who advance the nascent science of interplanetary flight.

Prizes shall be awarded to those who exceed records for altitude, distance and speed, for those who achieve notable firsts in the history of Equus such as orbiting our homeworld, and for those who complete specific tasks within a certain period of time.

It is to be hoped that these prizes, which range in tens or even hundreds of thousands of bits, shall encourage the various space agencies to follow through on their plans to launch astronauts and return them safely home.

The list of prizes available shall be added to as funding permits and as spaceflight technologies expand the imaginations of our various peoples…

“You did WHAT?”

Chrysalis heard a lot of that as Cherry Berry read the transcripts of her post-experiment debriefings. Other favorite phrases: “What were you THINKING?” And, “Who thought THAT was going to end well?” And, “Are you ponies out of your MINDS?”

Words failed her utterly when she inspected the changeling astronaut corps, who at that point were to the last bug housed in the infirmary. Half of them were in pods to accelerate healing. The other half had casts, slings and bandages on at least two body parts each, but they all also had big grins on their faces. Cherry Berry’s face darkened at the phrases they repeated as their queen passed by: “When can we do it again?” “Your Majesty, I’ve got a great idea!” “Don’t worry, Your Majesty, I know exactly what I did wrong! Next time it’ll WORK!”

And then Cherry Berry was taken outside to see the next prototype space vehicle under construction on what, based on the large, widely scattered scorch marks from explosions, was the launch pad. The construction crew, half a dozen eager changelings, stood at attention while Cherry Berry looked the… thing… up and down.

“It’s a lawn chair glued to the top of a trash bin stuffed full of fireworks,” Cherry Berry said. “It is a cheap, half-rusted LAWN CHAIR glued on top of a BOMB! WHAT were you THINKING? WERE you thinking??”

"Hey, we added a seat belt," the lead groundsbug said. "Safety first!"

Chrysalis sighed. “You may have noticed,” she said quietly, “that my subjects, though faithful and strong and brave, aren’t terribly bright.”

“Would you get on that thing?” Cherry Berry asked, pointing to the device. “Would you put your royal flank in that chair for even a moment, even if you had no intention to launch the thing?”

“Not on a bet,” Chrysalis admitted. “Not even to eat the last slice of cake in all Equestria while Celestia watched.”

“But you expect ME to do it?”

“No,” Chrysalis said. “I expect you to take over this mess, get my subjects pointed in the right direction, and find a way to send me to the moon safely.” She gestured at the ground crew, who were a little bit disappointed that their work had been found wanting. “They’re eager to do this. They’ll do anything. That’s the problem. If you can show them the RIGHT thing to do, then you’ll turn our biggest weakness into our biggest strength.”

Cherry Berry stood and thought this over for over a minute. “To be clear,” she said at last, “what is your primary goal for this program? What’s the one thing you want it to do?”

“I want,” Chrysalis said, “to be the first on the surface of the Moon. Second place is no good. I have to get there before anypony else. That’s the goal.”

Cherry Berry nodded. “Fine,” she said. “Then here are my conditions. First, you learn to fly. If you want to go to the moon you have to become a pilot first. That means training and learning, under my supervision.”

Chrysalis nodded. “Provided sufficient respect is shown to my rank, that is acceptable.”

“Second,” Cherry Berry said, “I have absolute authority over the space program. I make the decisions. And all those decisions will move this program towards the final goal of sending you to the moon and bringing you back safely.”

Chrysalis bristled. “I’m not going to let you unseat me as ruler of my own hive, pony.”

“I don’t care about your politics. I don’t even care if you’re still kidnapping ponies and sucking them dry of love, or whatever you do- well, that’s a lie, I do care, but not enough to try to make you stop it,” Cherry Berry said. “But on all matters directly related to space, I’m in charge. And you back me up every step of the way, or nothing flies.”

Chrysalis considered the point. She disliked giving an outsider absolute authority on anything… but… well, she’d admitted that she didn’t know what she was doing. And she could always renege on the terms whenever she felt like it, anyway. “Within those limits, your terms are acceptable,” she said reluctantly.

“You fly in nothing at all until I’ve test-flown it first,” Cherry Berry said.

“Of course,” Chrysalis agreed.

“And you provide the money,” Cherry Berry concluded. “Because we’re going to need to spend a LOT of money.”

Chrysalis choked. “Spend money?” she gasped. “Changelings have no need for money!”

“Well, now you do,” Cherry Berry said. “We need either Warner von Brawn or Goddard the Griffon, preferably both. We need technicians to build the vehicles- I know the theory, but I don’t know anything about electronics or magical engineering or metalworking, and we’re going to need those skills and more. We’re going to need a proper airfield and vehicle assembly facility built, which means we’ll need the land for that. And if you try kidnapping or stealing to make that happen, I’m out. Just because I want something more than anything, doesn’t mean I’m willing to do anything to get it.”

That last bit of logic made no sense to Chrysalis whatever; if you want something, why not do anything necessary to get it? But mass kidnapping of skilled workers would, indeed, trigger a war with Celestia which would make the moon impossible. “Fine,” she said at last. “At least we have a lot of money just lying around.”

“Good,” Cherry Berry said. “You’re going to need it, and probably more besides.”

“Do you have any more conditions?” Chrysalis asked.

“No,” the earth pony replied, shrugging. “That’s the bare minimum I need to make this work. Anything else that comes up, we can discuss then.”

“Then we are agreed,” Chrysalis nodded. “Welcome to the Changeling Space Program, Cherry Berry.”

The two formally shook hooves.

“Oh, there you are, Your Majesty.” Occupant trotted up to the group by the launch vehicle, a bundle of mail tucked under one hoof. “Mail call. Got a letter for Double Face if he’s still around.” He noticed the pony and turned to face her. “Oh, hi, Jebediah!”

“IT’S CHERRY BERRY!” both Cherry and Chrysalis shouted.

“Ow!” Occupant said, rubbing his ear ridges. “No need to shout. I can hear you just fine.”

Footnote to a footnote:

(17) And, according to Chrysalis, the power of unfair cheating pony magic.

Chapter 3: Mission 0 - Surplus Parts Randomly Stitched Together

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Changeling Space Program
by Kris Overstreet
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)

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…

Footnotes:

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

“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.”

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.”

Footnote:

(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.

“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,
Celestia

“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’?”

“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?”

“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.”

Footnotes:

(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.

(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.

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.

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.

“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.

“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 unmanned 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…

Footnotes:

(23) Or, in Occupant’s case, broad, flat and rounded. Thanks to those he looked about as menacing as a plush toy spider on Nightmare Night. It still embarrassed him.

(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, very strong and durable.

(25) 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, pleased… and, helpless against the threat of princessly retaliation if she went too far, paid in full.

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… only to almost drop 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.”

“WHAT?”

“I SAID IT’S ABOUT TO LAUNCH!”

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).

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.

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 to 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 0 REPORT

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.

MISSION ASSESSMENT: SUCCESSFUL

Footnotes:

(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.

(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.

Chapter 4: Missions 1 and 2: Trashcan Full of Boom

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Excerpt from the Appleoosa Territorial Booster:

EXTRA! PRINCESS TWILIGHT SPARKLE TO HOLD TOP LEVEL SUMMIT WITH QUEEN CHRYSALIS IN APPLEOOSA!

Issues of Grave Import to be Addressed

Sherriff Silver Star Calls for Calm

PONYVILLE- Sources from the inner circle of advisors to Princess Twilight Sparkle have informed us that the Princess will arrive on the morning train to enter into negotiations with the infamous queen of the changelings, Chrysalis.

While Appleoosa has suffered in recent weeks from repeat and open visits by Chrysalis’s subjects, heretofore edicts from Canterlot have instructed our civic government to treat them as any peaceful visitor to our young but vibrant community. As a result, our settlers have grown rapidly more unsettled as the prospect of a quiet changeling invasion becomes more real.

While our mayor has pledged to bring to the princess’s attention the danger to Princess Celestia’s loyal subjects, Sheriff Silver Star has asked the people to remain calm and extend our renowned Appleoosan hospitality even to such creatures as the changelings. We at the Booster can only hope that Princess Twilight Sparkle’s negotiations will finally keep the changelings out of our fair city. Civilization in this wilderness can only come with a changeling-free environment.


The crowd of Appleoosans stood watching the tiny, dusty train station in Appleoosa with undisguised hatred. The enemy herself, Queen Chrysalis, had taken in recent weeks to coming to and from the town as if she owned the place. Now she stood there, alone and unguarded on the train platform, awaiting the arrival of the Friendship Express.

Silver Star swished his mustache nervously. He wanted nothing more than a nice, peaceful life, and so long as the changelings who had come and gone through his town made no trouble, well he had no trouble with them. The same couldn’t be said of his fellow townspeople, though. And the looks they were giving the lone changeling on the platform worried him.

“That train had better not be late,” he muttered to himself.

“What train is that, Sheriff?”

Silver Star turned to look behind him, then relaxed as the tall, slender, elegant mare strolled up to him. “Oh, good morning, Ms. Cool Drink,” he said. “How’s Dodge treating you these days?(28) What brings you into town?”

“Why, Miss Berry’s new enterprise,” Cool Drink drawled, gesturing casually towards the tall, brand-new warehouse next to the tracks. “It seems that the only way I can make a profit of my Badlands investments is to accept a portion of the changelings’ enterprises.” She shook her head in disappointment. “Really, what’s this country coming to?”

“Nothing bad, I hope,” Silver Star replied. “Princess Twilight Sparkle is supposed to be here any minute for a meeting with Chrysalis herself. That’s her on the platform.”

“Really?” Cool Drink replied. “You know, I’ve dealt with her through my lawyers, but I’ve never set eyes on her in person. Perhaps I should go introduce myself.”

“Ma’am, if it’s all the same to you, I’d as soon you didn’t,” Silver Star replied. “The townspeople been kinda nervous for weeks now about th’ truce with th’ changelings. And right now if they saw a lovely filly like yourself talkin’ with any changeling, never mind th’ queen of ‘em all, I don’t wanna think about what they might do.”

“I understand, Sheriff,” Cool Drink nodded. “Maybe I’ll meet her another time. Meantime, I’m supposed to meet an old griffon and four minotaurs. Do you know if they’re here?”

“That old buzzard Goddard hasn’t come out of that barn since he got here,” Silver Star said, jerking his hoof at “Cherry’s Rocket Parts.” “Dr. von Brawn arrived a few days ago, and his friends got in on the afternoon train. I saw them walk over there from the saloon this mornin’.”

“Thank you ever so much,” Cool Drink said.

“Aw, it ain’t nothin’, Miss-“ A train whistle squealed up the line. “Aw, hay! There’s the Princess’s train! Pardon me, Miss Cool Drink, but I have to perform my duties.”

“Quite all right, Sheriff,” Cool Drink replied. “And thank you for doing such an evenhanded job. It must be very difficult right now.”

“Thank you, it is,” Silver Star said simply. “Excuse me.” With a last duck of his head he trotted to the station, one hoof holding his white hat on his head.

Cool Drink watched, keeping her distance, as the sheriff joined the mayor near- but not too near- to Queen Chrysalis on the train platform. The train’s brakes squealed, the car couplings rattled and banged, and the train gradually came to a stop with the last passenger car directly facing the platform. As soon as the train stopped, the boxcars towards the front of the train were opened, and workers began shifting bundles of sheet metal and piping from the cars into the open doors of Cherry’s warehouse.

The passenger cars opened, and two of Celestia’s royal guards stepped out, flanking the doorway. A moment later Twilight Sparkle stepped out, followed by a pink earth pony with poofy pink hair and a yellow pegasus with long pink hair that threatened to cover her face.

“Greetings, Princess Twilight Sparkle,” Chrysalis said, nodding her head to the purple alicorn as one equal to another.

“Welcome to Equestria, Queen Chrysalis,” Twilight Sparkle replied, her voice a bit deep and hoarse. “I’m glad to see you visit us peacefully for a change.”

“Indeed, it is a novelty, isn’t it?” Chrysalis said, smiling.

“Ah, welcome, Princess Twilight,” the mayor said, cutting off Chrysalis and bowing and scraping at Twilight’s hooves. “Thank y’all SO much for choosin’ our lovely town for this important international summit-“

“Please, Mr. Mayor,” Twilight said, “I’ve got a cold and my voice is going out. If the queen and I could just go someplace private so we can talk quickly?”

“No rush,” Chrysalis purred. “We have so very much that needs negotiation.”

Cool Drink watched with bemusement as queen and princess were carefully steered towards the town hall with its recently rebuilt clock tower. She noted, idly, the orange earth pony with the cowboy hat organizing the unloading of the cargo from the train. She particularly noticed a purple-maned white unicorn carrying a large trunk in her magic while, behind her, two ponies in coveralls and caps followed her into the warehouse. Nodding to herself, she walked most casually across Appleoosa’s sole street to the warehouse, opening the door and shutting it behind her.

The instant the door off all sight by the outside world, green flame bathed the statuesque unicorn mare. When the flame died it left behind Queen Chrysalis, who chuckled quietly to herself, satisfied by a well executed stratagem.

The door at the other end of the hallway opened, and the white unicorn and the two ponies in coveralls stepped in. In moments the coveralls and caps lay on the floor, and a light blue pegasus and lavender alicorn stretched their wings. “Don’t get used to me saying this,” Twilight Sparkle said, “but thank you, Queen Chrysalis. You were right, and I was wrong. This time.”

“You’re quite welcome, of course,” Chrysalis replied. She’d anticipated that news of their conference would leak, and that petty politicians and anxious ponies would hijack the Princess of (ha!) Friendship, preventing any work from getting done on space things. And quite frankly Chrysalis wouldn’t have spoken a word to Twilight Sparkle willingly on any other subject, at least not until the little princess was helplessly encased in gel and had exhausted all variants of, “You’ll never get away with this!”

So, while she entered town disguised as Cool Drink (an identity which was no business of Twilight Sparkle’s), she’d sent Dragonfly ahead to pose as herself. Having used the most intelligent space-program changeling already, she’d had to deploy her third most intelligent space-program changeling, Lucky Cricket, to briefly take the role of Twilight Sparkle.(29)

As if reading her own momentary reflections on a plan well come together, the rainbow-maned pegasus grumbled, “Yeah, about that. What’s the idea of sending a male changeling to imitate Twilight?”

“A changeling can imitate either gender flawlessly, at least physically so,” Chrysalis said. “Unfortunately, I had no changeling who could imitate the princess’s voice at all, or hold up her end of a prolonged technical conversation. So I chose a changeling who is good at improvising, who plays sick well, and above all is extremely lucky.” She shrugged and added, “I knew it would work so long as the time exposed to outsiders was reduced to the absolute minimum.”

“So what happens now?” Twilight Sparkle asked.

“In about half an hour the changeling replacing you collapses of illness,” Chrysalis said. “We’ve replaced Doctor Sawbones McColt for the day- a temporary measure, and he will be set free by sunset.(30) Our imposter will certify the princess as suffering from a twenty-four hour flu, insist on quarantine in the saloon for the rest of the day, and cover while our imposters disappear. Tomorrow morning we reappear in public, have the negotiations neither one of us want to, only agree on more negotiations another time, and part ways.” Chrysalis smiled, not realizing the smile was halfway to genuine and non-threatening. “Which leaves us all day today to exchange knowledge and work out the glitches in our respective systems, without interruptions or side-tracks.”

“A likely story,” the white unicorn protested. “And what’s to stop you from vanishing with all of us and returning to your hive with three valuable hostages?”

Chrysalis affected a look of shock. “Me do such a sneaky, underhanded thing?” she asked. “Why, I would never do such a thing like that! I’ve turned over a new leaf, after all.”

Alicorn and unicorn glared at her. The pegasus snorted derisively.

“And if you don’t believe that,” Chrysalis continued, “you have three friends who, at my own suggestion I might add, are never setting foot inside any building where they know changelings are present, all of whom know exactly where you are. As do your two royal guards, who I have had no opportunity to subvert or replace.”(31) Chrysalis frowned and added, “And such a thing would thus be instantly known and result in immediate war with Celestia and Luna, a war I am in no condition to fight at the moment.”

“Yeah, I’ll buy that last one,” the blue pegasus replied. “So where are the other eggheads?”

“In the conference room.” Chrysalis pointed to the only door on the side of the hallway away from the railroad tracks. Four doors lined the other side of the hallway, leading to smaller offices.(32)

Footnotes:

(28) When in Appleoosa, Cool Drink was from a homestead near Dodge Junction. When in Dodge, Cool Drink had a spread near Appleoosa. She’d used the identity for over four years, and so far as she knew, nopony in either town had compared notes with anypony from the other. It only reinforced her low opinion of pony gullibility.

(ha!) This is not a footnote marker, and shame on you for following it anyway.

(29) Occupant, the second most intelligent non-royal changeling in the space program, was disqualified on the grounds that at least a few ponies would have had a double-take moment upon seeing a profoundly buck-toothed Twilight Sparkle.

(30) A lie, but not for the usual reason. The fact was that there had never been a pony named Sawbones McColt. Keratin had been a holdover from Chrysalis’s mother’s rule, and it had suited both queen and subject fine to put distance between one another. “Bones” had become a doctor first in the hills near Smoky Mountain, then briefly in Ponyville, and finally in Appleoosa, being one of the town’s founders. Chrysalis still gave him orders on occasion, but she’d left him completely out of the Canterlot invasion, not knowing which side he’d take. He still kept the hive’s secrets, and for this operation that was all that mattered.

(31) All true, and in Chrysalis’s opinion lamentably so. True, avoiding both Canterlot and Ponyville had been the right tactical decisions in the wake of the invasion, but Chrysalis regretted not even making the attempt to get a changeling into the guard.

(32) Labelled, from front to rear of the hallway: Reception (the secretary’s desk, and waiting area, basically), CEO Cherry Berry, Chief of Research Warner von Brawn, Chief of Operations Dr. Goddard T. Griffon. (That last notable slept in his office and used the worker sanitary facilities for showering- all the more reason to keep visitors out of any of the individual offices.)

Inside the conference room, seated at a large table and surrounded by chalkboards and corkboards half-covered with papers, sat Cherry Berry, Goddard, and the four members of the former minotaur space effort. Introductions were given all around, and after a couple minutes of Twilight Sparkle in full fangirl mode over Goddard and von Brawn(33), the group settled down to thrash out the day’s agenda.

Chrysalis put off Twilight Sparkle’s suggestion that the changeling program lead with its technology in the morning, with the pony program exchanging its discoveries after the lunch break, by pointing out that one of the important changelings was not present. Dragonfly, in addition to being the number three pilot-designate, was the changeling program’s materials specialist, and thus the issues associated with that, mainly pressure suits and ship survivability systems, would have to wait until her duties were complete.(34)

This took the conversation to spaceship design. Cherry Berry admitted that the changelings were lacking in that department, their first control pod having failed miserably in their first rocket launch. von Brawn disagreed, pointing out that they had gained just as much data from the failure as they would have from a success. When Twilight Sparkle called it silly to perform a test you knew would fail, Chrysalis pulled out the still uncashed check from the Royal Astronomical Society and spent a minute or so mocking the “second place” space program.

Once Cherry Berry and Goddard got things back on track, conversation turned to engines. von Brawn provided the data from the first test launch and pointed out that, although further refinement of the delivery system would make the solid-fuel rocket a reliable booster, the existing engines didn’t have sufficient thrust or control to reach space safely, let alone return. Goddard then showed a model of his throttle-capable prototype engine and the chemical composition of his fuel-and-oxidizer system. “I have also developed a single-chemical fuel,” he said, “but it’s far less efficient for thrust. It might be more suitable for fine maneuvering thrusters, and I’m working on designs for that, but for main thrust the two-chemical system is the way to go.”

Twilight Sparkle brought forward her own paperwork. “I’ve been working on a propulsion system that converts mana directly into thrust,” she said. “Unfortunately, although I get positive thrusts in bench tests, it’s nowhere near sufficient to lift even the smallest rocket off the ground. I haven’t given up on development, though.”

Chrysalis and Goddard almost fought over Twilight’s paperwork, and eventually the two ended up looking over each other’s shoulders. The three of them, with occasional input from von Brawn and one of his associates, discussed Twilight’s proposed magic thruster for about half an hour(35). At the end, Cherry Berry, who had barely followed the gist of the conversation, said, “What’s the charge limit on this thruster?”

“By itself, about five thaums,” Twilight said. “But if a thruster is close enough to an Equestrian- any of us- then our natural magic will gradually recharge the system.” She sighed. “Unfortunately you pretty much have to be wearing it to get the recharge effect. So any ship using the system would have a limited supply.”

“So what you’ve invented here, Twilight,” Cherry Berry said, “is the engine for a pony maneuvering system in free-fall, I think.” She walked over to a chalkboard, picked up a piece of chalk in her teeth, and sketched out a rough picture of a pony with a fishbowl helmet wearing a backpack. “The astronaut wears the backpack when outside the vehicle,” she said after dropping the chalk. “With training it would make the astronaut in their spacesuit a very small spacecraft in its own right.”

Twilight’s magic picked up the chalk and refined Cherry’s sketch slightly. “That’s an interesting idea,” she said. “It would certainly be better than the tether system I was considering. A pony could get tangled in the rope.”

“Yeah, I kept telling you that every time you suggested it!” Rainbow Dash said. She hadn’t bothered looking at the paperwork, but she found Cherry’s sketch very interesting. “I like this a lot better,” she pointed out, “but it means we’ll have to teach the pilots how to fly all over again.”

“I think we’re coming to realize that we have to train up from scratch anyway,” Cherry said. Rainbow Dash shot her a nakedly hostile glare, then settled back into her chair, apparently to return to her daydreaming.

“It is still an intriguing concept,” von Brawn rumbled. “It is unfortunate that it cannot be recharged from the natural aether. The single largest stumbling block to interplanetary exploration, as I see it, is the extreme limitation of how many resources we can put into the spacecraft for each launch. Each mission must be completed with only what is on the ship at the start, and the more that is put on the ship, the less able it is to fly.”

“I think I’ve stumbled on a way to help with that.” Twilight Sparkle brought out a second sheaf of papers from her saddlebag. “I also did a little experimenting based on Dr. Goddard’s monographs. Unfortunately, since we’re focusing on developing a fully reusable vehicle, my calculations showed that we couldn’t store more fuel for more than a very brief and probably terminal flight using our current design. But then I tried combining the mana engine research with the fuel systems. My idea was to allow the engines to summon fuel directly from a tank back at base.”

Two crystals, one small gemstone and a much larger crystal shard, joined Twilight’s second monograph at the table. Chrysalis’s attention was riveted to the runes and etheric lines carefully engraved within both crystals. “This… this is most interesting,” she said at length. “The larger crystal not only teleports the material in a closed beam to the smaller, but it provides the mana to operate both. Have any tests been done to determine the system’s maximum range?”

“No appreciable difficulty from Los Pegasus to Manehattan,” Twilight shrugged. “That’s as far as I’ve been able to test, but across a continent isn’t bad.”

“Most intriguing indeed,” von Brawn said. “This solves all our scarcity issues.”

“No it doesn’t,” Twilight said. “My first test was with simple water. That worked perfectly. My second test was with an alcohol-based test fuel.”

“I remember that one,” Rainbow Dash chuckled. “That was cool. Not often you see a flame that blue.”

“Further tests revealed that the teleportation matrix disrupts carbon bonds,” Twilight said. “Er… violently. And not just rocket fuel. Pinkie Pie tried using it to send cupcakes into the rocket.”

“That wasn’t so cool,” Rainbow Dash muttered. “We all had to help clean what looked and smelled like puke out of our test ship.”

“The problem must be fixable,” Chrysalis muttered. “Have you tried a polarizing filter in the transmission wavelength matrix? That might inhibit any destabilizing factors in mid-transmission.”

“We’re still working on it,” Twilight said. “But that’s not the important thing for today. The important thing is, this,” she pointed to the crystals, “works just fine for water and oxygen.”

“So?” Chrysalis asked.

“So?” Cherry Berry asked. “Remember the most important thing about a rocket?”

“Yes. Survivability.”

“And this,” Cherry Berry said, pointing herself at the crystals, “solves three very big problems we have with survivability. Air, water and food.”

“Now you’ve lost me,” Twilight protested. “Where does food come into this?”

“Dehydrated food plus hot water equals a meal,” Cherry said. "And dehydrated food weighs maybe a tenth as much as regular rations and can be stored in much smaller space, without refrigeration.” She shrugged and added, “We won’t like the taste or texture, but with this we can breathe, drink and eat for maybe months at a time from the contents of a tiny space capsule.”

This excited all the scientists, who immediately adjourned to the chalkboards to sketch out calculations and rough designs for implementing the system. Rarity tried to butt in here and there, attempting to add fashionable flourishes to the stick-drawings tucked between columns of equations, with little success. Chrysalis, whose scientific knowledge was strictly limited to magic, was left alone to closely study the crystals(36).

Cherry Berry was completely failing to get a word in edgewise with the boffins when she felt a hoof on her shoulder. She looked back to see Rainbow Dash’s furious face. “How could you?” the pegasus asked.

“How could I what?” Cherry Berry asked.

“You know what!” Rainbow Dash walked around Cherry, cutting her off from where Goddard and von Brawn were fighting over a piece of chalk. “You turned your back on Equestria and went off to join the enemy!”

“You know I can hear you, right?” Chrysalis said calmly, still closely examining the enchanted crystals.

“I did not join the enemy!” Cherry Berry insisted. “I applied for a job with a neutral power, thank you very much!” When Rainbow Dash snorted at this, she added, “A job, I might point out, I was turned down for by my own friends, who I asked FIRST!”

“Yeah, and I know you were disappointed by that,” Rainbow Dash said. “But I can’t believe I taught you as much as any earth pony can ever know about flying just so you could take it all to those evil changelings!”

“I’m sitting right here,” Chrysalis reminded the two ponies.

“Well, you certainly didn’t teach me all that stuff just so I could haul a cart around an airfield all day!” Cherry Berry retorted. “I hauled carts, babysat foals and fillies, picked up garbage, and did all sorts of things for years just so I could fly, and then you and Twilight expect me to keep hauling carts and picking up garbage with no hope of flying?”

Rainbow Dash looked a little uncomfortable. “Look, I understand how much you want to fly-“

“I really doubt that, Ms. Best Young Flyer!” Cherry Berry snapped.

“But you could have gone to the Crystal Empire-“

“I did.”

“Or to the griffons-“

“I did.”

“Or to, I don’t know, ANYPONY,” Rainbow Dash insisted, pushing through Cherry Berry’s objections, “before you signed on to work for this double-crossing love-sucking monster!” She jabbed a hoof at Chrysalis, who only now looked up from her study of the crystals.

“Well,” the queen said lightly, “I know one pony who’s not going to be asked to be a bridesmaid at my next wedding.” Setting the crystals on the table, she raised her voice slightly. “Sparkle? I think we should adjourn for lunch. We could send our test pilots out to pick up food.” She smiled at the two ponies and added, “It will give them time to catch up on old times, I’m sure.”

“That’s not a bad idea,” Twilight agreed. “Hopefully we can get Dragonfly in here while we’re eating.”

Rainbow Dash let Cherry Berry go for the moment, focusing her entire attention on Chrysalis. “Just remember,” she said, “I’m watching you. From the skies.”

“That’s nice,” Chrysalis replied. “Just remember to keep looking up. And follow the trail of smoke,” she added, raising her voice to catch Rainbow Dash as she walked out the door.

Twilight looked at von Brawn. “I’m very sorry about that,” she said. “I’ll speak to Dash later about her behavior.”

von Brawn shrugged. “Politics,” he said flatly. “I don’t concern myself with it. So long as my rockets go up, who cares? Not my department.”

Footnotes:

(33) Which embarrassed von Brawn quite a bit, but satisfied Goddard to a T. The elderly griffon, delighted at his first honest flattery in ages, warmed to the princess at once, and to Chrysalis’s private amazement remained (mostly) pleasant and positive to everyone for the entire day. Looking back, she found herself grateful to frightening levels that Cherry Berry had insisted on recruiting the old buzzard as the top priority.

(34) Chrysalis hadn’t told the scientists about the Princess Shuffle plan, and the ponies assumed she had, so no questions were raised about what duties Dragonfly had. Not that she thought she couldn’t calm the scientists if they’d objected, but better to keep them in ignorance if possible and avoid the objections.

(35) Twilight Sparkle spent more time translating rocket-into-layman for Chrysalis and magic-into-layman for Goddard than she did actually explaining her creation. The other ponies in the room, of course, remained completely lost the entire time. Rainbow Dash was snoring in her chair after the first ninety seconds.

(36) The more she studied them, the more intrigued she became. She thought of the Dumb Idea file cabinets back in the hive, and without even trying she could think of twenty-six ideas which this one device would move out of the the Really Stupid category and into Potentially Usable. Not that it would perfect any of them, but oh, the possibilities… and that trusting, naive Twilight Sparkle probably didn’t see any of them…

After lunch, with the arrival of Dragonfly, discussion turned first to her parachute design, which even Rainbow Dash admitted was impressive, especially considering the fabric base for the thing resembled a patchwork quilt rather than a single, smooth sheet. Rarity, taken by the substances used to reinforce the canopy and to make the ropes, swiftly turned the conversation to spacesuits, bringing out her designs and pointing out where Dragonfly’s materials would assist in keeping the suit both airtight and puncture-resistant. Cherry Berry and Rainbow Dash joined the conversation, pointing out potential issues with comfort and range of movement and keeping both makers on task.

While the spacesuit discussion took over one end of the conference room, Twilight and the boffins took over the other end, discussing the minotaurs’ tracking and guidance systems. For once Chrysalis held up her end of the conversation when it came to the magical illusion displays, pointing out potential glitches and apparent motion with the telepresence illusion’s point of view and suggesting refinements to how the system displayed trajectories and orbits. Twilight Sparkle pointed out the decay rate of magical detection, proposing that special tracking stations be built to make it easier to find the desired objects and follow them accurately at long distances. Even Goddard couldn’t follow the new logic-based math used by the minotaurs, limiting himself to a soft snarky comment about how fitting it was that a cloven-hoofed creature could only count to two.(37)

Eventually the two groups reunited for the final item of discussion, von Brawn’s proposed control system. First von Brawn demonstrated his “reaction wheel,” a modified gyroscope which would transform electricity into rotation and thus, with care and patience, allow a ship to rotate through all three axes. “Of course,” he said, “inertia is still an issue. Reaction wheels are effective according to the ratio of their size to the mass and length of the ship overall. For atmospheric flight some control surfaces will still be desirable, at least for now.”

The test model was nothing more than the reaction wheel system itself, mounted on gimbals. Using only the small flashlight batteries of the device and a handheld remote control, von Brawn demonstrated his ability to turn the assembly left, right, three hundred sixty degrees around, and even upside down, holding the device in place against gravity for half a minute before powering down the wheel and allowing the gimbals to flop back down.

“No magic,” Twilight Sparkle said, awed.

“No wings, no flapping,” Rainbow Dash added, equally impressed.

“No thrust of any kind involved,” Cherry Berry agreed.

From this signal success von Brawn advanced to the center of what he called the “pilot interface.” At the center of the various gauges lay a large blue ball. “This is an advancement over the artificial horizon used by airships and the most advanced experimental aeroplanes,” von Brawn said. “Since a spaceship goes where there is no horizon, this ball is designed for full spherical rotation without gimbal restriction.”

He flicked a switch, and a strange symbol, a circle with three lines sticking out at right angles to one another, appeared on it. “We can also project markers showing references for the ship’s motion. This one is the prograde marker- in short, it shows the direction the ship’s actually moving in at the moment. At least during launch you want to keep this marker in the blue zone and out of the brown. That means the pointy end of the rocket is aimed at the sky.”

“Really?” Chrysalis asked. “What does it mean if you have that marker in the brown?”

von Brawn paused before replying, “It means your ship is pointed down. At the ground. Or, at least, towards whatever mass you’re orbiting.”

“And when your rocket is pointed down,” Cherry Berry said, a note of warning in her voice, “it means you are having a very Bad Day.”

“And will not be going to space today,” Dragonfly finished.(38)

Chrysalis took the point, settled back in her chair, and resolved herself to attentive silence.

von Brawn demonstrated the other features of the system- the digital velocity display, the gauge for speed of ascent and descent, the throttle control and indicator, the automatic systems staging list- “Literally changeable on the fly if the pilot discovers she needs a particular system activated sooner than later,” he pointed out- and, finally, a small black box he referred to as the Stability Assist System. “It’s not quite a true autopilot,” he said. “Its purpose is to gradually damp out motion outside the ship’s current trajectory to keep it going straight. Unfortunately, it’s very stupid, so it has a tendency to overcorrect, oscillate, and burn a lot of electric charge in the process. Pilots will need to be trained to use it as an assistant, not a substitute.”

Finally, once it was clear that von Brawn and his friends had completed their demonstration, Chrysalis said, “And this is what you spent all that time and money crafting?”

“Goodness, no!” von Brawn said. “We really had this all knocked out within a week. Except for the SAS, this is mostly existing technology applied in a novel way. No, our main efforts were devoted to creating a fully autonomous automated pilot. Since the four of us,” he gestured at his almost identically large, muscular and heavy brethren, “are simply too large to be pilots, and we couldn’t find a goat willing to fly on our behalf.”

“And we are making progress on that front,” George Bull added. “Much more slowly with our current funding and priority restrictions, though.” He shot a look of resentment at Dr. Goddard, who pretended not to notice.

“That’s amazing!” Twilight Sparkle exclaimed. “This is a simple yet efficient-“

“Oh, wait, no,” von Brawn said, waving off the praise. “This is only the piloting system. There will still be a host of switches and controls unique to each spacecraft. Please don’t refer to any spacecraft control system as simple. There’s no such thing, not for such a dangerous enterprise.”

“And speaking of enterprises,” Chrysalis purred, “why don’t the rest of you go find some dinner?(39) The princess and I have some negotiations to conclude, since we’ll be too busy with meaningless drivel tomorrow to take care of it then.” As the others began to file out the door, Chrysalis added, “No, Miss Dash, you should remain. How else can you keep your eyes on me?”

Footnotes:

(37) Though Twilight Sparkle was picking up concepts towards the end of the discussion, and asked George Bull to send her his monograph on logical expression.

(38) Chrysalis enjoyed being queen of the hive and had no interest in naming a successor and training her for the sudden yet inevitable betrayal and overthrow. But after witnessing Dragonfly be competent on a regular basis, she was beginning to wonder if she had any royal jelly stored away somewhere…

(39) Chrysalis wasn’t in the least hungry, herself. Between the ponies, the griffon and the minotaurs, and the love of flying, the love of science, and the love of making things, she’d been snacking all through the meetings. If this kept up, she thought, she’d end up like that guard, Neighing Mantis, who had hogged Cherry Berry’s flying-cherries dream all to herself for a solid week. (The guard commander told her Mantis would be able to resume guard duties after another week of crash dieting.)

The negotiations were brief and, surprisingly to at least one side, entirely in good faith.

Assembled parachutes with protective covers and an electric deployment system, plus raw changeling materials, in exchange for pressure suits. Rarity would take measurements for Cherry Berry, Dragonfly and Chrysalis before the ponies returned to Ponyville. This was settled quickly, as both sides required the other side’s aid to make these systems work.

von Brawn’s control systems in exchange for Twilight Sparkle’s ether thrusters and air-water supply crystals. Again, settled quickly, because each side thought the other’s innovative system was equally ground-breaking.

When it came to engines and space vessels, however, negotiations dragged out and eventually broke down. Twilight Sparkle wasn’t willing to give up on her idea of a fully-functioning magic-powered spaceship. Chrysalis, for her part, didn’t want to adopt the pony ship design sight unseen.

On the final point, each side exchanging pilots in order to standardize astronaut training, there simply wasn’t enough trust between the sides to do anything more than mention the idea and “take it under consideration.”

After dinner, in the darkness of night, Twilight and Chrysalis replaced their imposters, and the next day they played out their scripted public negotiations… up to a point. As the ponies of Appleoosa gathered to see the princess off (regretfully) and bid farewell to the queen (forever, they hoped), Twilight Sparkle went distinctly off-script.

“We have many reasons to distrust the changelings,” Twilight Sparkle said, “especially after the battle in Canterlot. But as my teacher Princess Celestia reminded me, everypony deserves a second chance to make up for past mistakes. I’ve made many mistakes in my life, as has she. And yet our friends forgave us, because that’s what ponies do.

“So when I hear ponies saying bad things about the changelings, when they’re trying to work with ponies and make up for their past misdeeds, I’m really disappointed,” she continued. “They tried to conquer Equestria, and we won’t forget that anytime soon. But we must also remember that we are ponies. We believe in friendship and harmony… and forgiveness. Each of you have made mistakes. Each of you will make mistakes in the future. And if you want to be given the chance to fix those mistakes, you have to be willing to give the same chance to other ponies… even changelings.”

Twilight Sparkle’s eyes swept the crowd, whose anger had begun to give way to shame. “So I don’t want to hear any more ‘throw out the changeling’ talk,” she concluded. “No more talk about traitors to ponykind. If the changelings betray their word we will deal with that then- but not before.” She stomped a hoof on the train platform and shouted, “So start acting like ponies for a change! And give them a chance!” With that the princess turned and walked into the train, followed by her two guards(40) and the rest of her friends… except for one.

The yellow pegasus with the long pink hair- Fluttershy, Chrysalis recalled the name- stopped just before boarding the train to whisper(41), “I had to talk her into that last part,” she said. “Twilight still hasn’t forgiven you for what you did to her, or what you did to Princess Cadence. But she’s willing to try anyway. She’s giving you a second chance, just like she did with Discord and Starlight Glimmer.” Then the shy, retiring pegasus locked eyes with the ruthless changeling queen, and for an eternal moment two gentle eyes pierced to the bottom of Chrysalis’s ragged, perforated soul.

“Don’t blow it,” the Stare whispered.

When Chrysalis recovered, the train doors had shut and the Friendship Express’s whistle was blowing. As she stumbled back from the departing train, she almost bumped into Sheriff Silver Star, who held a hoof out to her. “Good evenin’, Your Queenieness,” he drawled. “In th’ spirit of Princess Twilight’s words, I’d be right honored if you’d join me for dinner at th’ saloon.”

“Er… certainly,” Chrysalis answered, still off-balance. For the first time in, well, ever, she felt a tiny sliver of guilt, and the emotion was foreign to her except as a liquorice-like taint on the love of married ponies she’d seduced.

“I’ll see you at eight, then,” the sheriff said. In a lower voice he added, “I’m looking forward to talking with you about a mare named Cool Drink. I have a cousin in Dodge, you see, who wrote me asking how Cool Drink was doing on her Appleoosan ranch. Seein’ as you do business with her of late, I figured you’d be best placed to answer a few questions.”

A shiver went down Chrysalis’s spine. Drat, she thought. Where can I steal a small but respectable farm house from… overnight?

Footnotes:

(40) Who Chrysalis still hadn’t replaced with infiltrators, darn it. And she had tried the previous night. Unfortunately Twilight Sparkle seemed to have found the only two royal guards in Celestia’s service who were immune to the temptations of pie. They’d accepted her gift, boxed it up, and had it put aboard the train for the ride home. By which time, worse luck, the fast-decaying, untrackable sleeping draught baked into the pie would have broken down into nothing more than a faint aftertaste of grape. Curses, foiled again.

(41) Actually Fluttershy was speaking in her normal voice, but that’s softer than most other ponies’ whispers anyway.

Before Chrysalis’s date with the sheriff, she called Cherry Berry, von Brawn, and Goddard into a final, private meeting. “I want your opinions on what we accomplished,” she said to open the meeting. “Now.”

“The good news,” Cherry Berry said, “is once we get the parts exchanged, we have everything we need for a control pod… except the pod itself.”

“Warner and I have a rough design already,” Goddard replied. “We need to measure Chrys- er, Your Majesty- in her pressure suit, but with a crash program and enough hands, we can go from scratch to a training pod in seventy-two hours.”

“And we can assemble a training simulator tomorrow,” von Brawn added, “as soon as you tell us where to put it. We can use the test equipment for that.”

“Better to do as much training as possible in the actual ship,” Cherry Berry insisted. “Anyway, the bad news is, once we trade components, the Equestria program will be directly even with us. And although you two gentlemen are rocket geniuses,” she nodded at Goddard and von Brawn, “Twilight Sparkle is an everything-genius, and she’s got at least three other geniuses working for her. All respect, Your Majesty,” she shrugged at Chrysalis, “but you’re not a genius, and neither am I. So we’re going to be on the back hoof if we don’t move faster than her.”

“Heh. That won’t be hard,” Goddard said.

“What’s that mean?” Chrysalis asked.

“That princess is a sweet girl,” Goddard said. “Intelligent, respectful. I like her. But she’s got her heart set on starting out with the perfect space ship. And her idea is years away from being workable. I doubt it will ever be workable. There’s one big flaw…” The griffon trailed off, leaning back in his chair and almost closing his eyes in thought.

“What?” Chrysalis asked. “What flaw?”

Slowly Goddard shook his head. “No,” he said, “I had better save that for now. I might be wrong. I need to do some tests, and I need data from at least one proper Flea launch to be certain.” He grunted and added, “And besides, I have to focus on my liquid-fuels work. I’m still working on a modular fuel tank system that not even a changeling can muck up.”

“Ouch. Good luck,” Cherry Berry said with feeling.(42)

“But I will say,” Goddard added with a twinkle in his eagle eye, “that if my idea is right, then we might be in a position to make a major jump ahead of Twilight Sparkle’s effort. As for the yaks, the Crystal Empire, the griffons, the whoever else, that I can’t tell you.”

“Can we rely on that?” Chrysalis asked.

“Absolutely not,” Goddard said. “That’s why I’m not saying why I think that. Until I know more, I figure we have to assume that the princess’s obsession with perfection is our only advantage. She wants the best? Then we get ahead of her by accepting Good Enough.”

“Just so we’re clear,” Cherry Berry said sternly, “in this case ‘good enough’ means ‘live healthy pilot at the end of the flight.”

“Agreed,” Chrysalis nodded. “Tomorrow we bring the rest of the space program staff here and focus on building the first test ship. And Cherry Berry will supervise,” she added with a grin, “since, after all, she’s going to be the first pony inside it.”

Footnote:

(42) Chrysalis would have been sorely tempted to do something painful to the pink earth pony for that remark, if she hadn’t agreed with it one hundred percent. She knew better than anypony how nearly impossible it was to changeling-proof anything.

Cherry Berry stormed into the tiny cubbyhole at the changeling hive’s entrance where Occupant had established his office. The little hole, once stuffed with junk mail of all kinds, had been cleared out and was now stuffed with letters to and from news media, purchase orders and receipts, reports, memos, and correspondence of every kind. “WHAT,” the pony shouted, pulling a piece of paper out of a saddlebag and shaking it in Occupant’s face, “WHAT is THIS?”

“Mission One’s specs and procedures list,” Occupant said simply. “I had it printed in Equestrian. Do you not read Equestrian? I think I can translate it into-“

“I can read it just fine,” Cherry Berry insisted. “Especially the part where it says Mission Pilot Queen Chrysalis!” She shook the paper again until her hoof came free and it fluttered to the floor. “The deal is, she flies NOTHING until I’ve flown it first! That’s not just my vanity, that’s for HER SAFETY, darn it!”

“But Mission One isn’t going to be a flight,” Occupant said. “Read the whole procedures list. There’s no launch.”

Cherry Berry’s eyes widened. She flipped the paper on the floor over and read it carefully. Sure enough, the test was listed as capsule-only, no engine. “Why?” she said at last.

Occupant shape-shifted into a griffon form(43) and held up the talons of one hand. “We have a contract to ground-test scientific equipment,” he said, counting off one talon. “We need to make sure someling as large as our queen can fit comfortably in the ship, get in and out of the hatch, and walk around in the suit while it’s inflated.” A second talon ticked down. “And if any of that goes wrong, we don’t want a live rocket under the capsule when it does, or else someling might have a Bad Day.” He ticked off the third and final talon.

Cherry Berry considered this. “I’m sorry,” she said quietly. “I shouldn’t have shouted at you. You’ve really thought about this.”

“I know!” Occupant exclaimed, dropping the griffon disguise with a flash of green fire. “And it was SO HARD!” He reached over behind one huge stack of paperwork and pulled up a large canister with rounded ends. “I even took the time to design the scientific equipment myself!”

Cherry Berry awkwardly accepted the large canister, which was almost as large as she was. She set it on the floor, looking it over. Noticing a latch and lid along one side, she opened it with a hoof and looked inside.

“Occupant,” she said carefully, “this is a can that some changeling has been very sick into.”

“It’s goo!” Occupant insisted. “It’s very versatile! It has many unique scientific traits!”

Cherry looked in the container again, and wished she hadn’t. “Like what?”

“Er….. it’s green!” Occupant said.

“And?”

“Um… it’s gooey!”

“Aaaand?”

“And it’s the only thing we could get,” Occupant admitted. “I’m just a bug that likes to read, not a rocket scientist. That’s what I could make two of to put on the capsule for tomorrow. We can at least observe it, see what it does in different places, and figure out what that means about those different places, right? That should be good enough to complete the contract and move on.”

Cherry Berry grunted. “Fine,” she said. “I just hope Chrysalis appreciates the honor.”

Footnote:

(43) The author dares you to imagine a griffon beak with buck teeth and not laugh out loud.

Chrysalis didn’t appreciate it at all.

Step zero: be packed like hay-hash in a can into her brand-new suit, activate the air systems, and then be stuffed even more into the one-mare capsule. The thing looked a bit like a metal gumdrop, or a bell minus the handle. The two “mystery goo” pods on either side of the hatch(44) made the thing look like some kind of weird Everfree Forest mouse-monster-thing. Then, once this was done, ride along helplessly as the capsule was carefully transported by a changeling crew to the launch pad.

All this trouble, she grumbled, for a ship which isn’t going anywhere.

The capsule settled onto the ground, and the pod’s mission clock started running.

Step one: record crew report of current conditions. Fine.

Chrysalis keyed on the cockpit recorder. Unfortunately the thing could hold only one report at a time, and although it was just possible to swap recording crystals, it was extremely difficult, and effectively impossible while sitting in the pilot’s chair. “Er… Changeling Space Program Mission One, pilot officer Chrysalis recording,” she said awkwardly. Faust, I sound stupid, she thought, but this is for history, so I can’t buck this up! “The capsule is… well… actually a lot roomier inside than I’d expected,” she said. “All switches are within hoof’s reach. The pilot’s seat and spacesuit backpack are digging into my wings a bit, but not uncomfortably so.

“Loading into the hatch was awkward but doable,” she continued. “In a minute I’m going to climb out of the hatch, perform what Doctor von Brawn calls an ‘extra vehicular activity,’ which I don’t understand because it’s not like we have an extra vehicle, but I guess it’s a scientist thing.” Oh drat, I forgot I was recording. I can’t erase it without starting over, so let’s go on. But drat!! “I can see blue skies through the hatch window… that’s about all I can see. It’s a little disappointing, especially since it’s not at all pointed in the direction this thing would be going if I were actually flying. I guess we’ll be entirely dependent on the instruments to keep this thing going where we want it to.

“And… and… that’s all I can think of, really,” Chrysalis said. “Everything inside the capsule seems to be working fine, I’ve got power and air pressure and, well, everything’s good. So… yeah. CSP Mission One, Chrysalis signing off.” She cut off the recorder. I sound like such an idiot, she thought. Maybe I could erase it and do it over anyway?

Do you really think it’d go any better?

No.

Right. Onward.

Step two: Observe Mystery Goo canister 1. If it malfunctions, observe backup canister.

Chrysalis flipped the switch. The canister opened, and a camera took a picture of the contents, showing it to Chrysalis within the capsule.

Hm. It’s goo. Next?

Step three: E.V.A. Go outside, take a walk, take a report, get back into the capsule.

Chrysalis opened the hatch and climbed out, clinging first to the inside and then to the outside of the hatch as it closed behind her. Once the latch shut with a surprisingly hard thud, she carefully stepped down the two rungs to the launchpad surface, let go, and dropped to all four hooves.

“Suit recorder system test, CSP Mission One, Chrysalis.” She looked around, walking as fast as the suit would allow her(45). “Look,” she said, “I don’t really think a spacesuit was necessary to get here, was it? I can see the hive entrance from here, for goodness’s sake! Chrysalis out.” The earpiece in her suit beeped the tone for a successful recording.

Fine, she thought, now to get back into the pod.

As she stepped up to the hatch, she suddenly thought: You know, I could swap out the recording crystals and record a new report. Nopony would know, right?

Hanging half-in, half-out of the hatch was a little precarious, but it let her grab the recording data and slot a fresh crystal into place.

Once back in the seat, she keyed on the recorder. “Changeling Space Program Mission One, pilot officer Chrysalis… er… um…”

Her mind went completely blank.

“I… er… oh, buck it,” she said, and killed the recording.

MISSION 1 REPORT

Mission summary: Test function of Capsule Mk. 1, standard pressure suit, Mystery Goo container
Pilot: Queen Chrysalis

Flight duration: 2 minutes, 27 seconds
Maximum speed achieved: 0 m/s
Maximum altitude achieved: 0 meters

Contracts fulfilled: 1
Milestones: first scientific experiment, first EVA test

Conclusions from flight: We’ve got a ship, we’ve got science, we’ve got a spacesuit. Let’s launch this filly and see what happens!

MISSION ASSESSMENT: SUCCESSFUL

Footnotes:

(44) Occupant had heard that balance was important. Actually, what he’d heard was that a balanced diet was important, so he ended up being absolutely right for a really stupid reason, but the being right bit still counted.

(45) Which wasn't very. To put it bluntly, Chrysalis waddled. She swayed back and forth like a sailor who'd drunk all the grog on the ship just before the hurricane hit. The suit simply wouldn't let her keep her legs close to each other, much less allow her the slow, graceful stride she'd spent years cultivating. And the worst part was, on her orders, no fewer than five of her changelings were photographing the whole thing.

“There!” Chrysalis gasped as she finally got her helmet off. “The capsule works. We know the parachute and the rocket work. Let’s put them all together and just go, already!”

Cherry Berry shook her head. “A week from now,” she said, “and not sooner. We need to train on the controls. I don’t know what I’m doing behind that stick, and neither do you or Dragonfly yet. So we all three spend the next week in simulations in and out of that pod, under Dr. von Brawn’s supervision, until we have the controls down pat. And the terminology. And as much as we can cram into a week.”

“But that Sparkle-“

“Twilight Sparkle is doing the exact same thing with Rainbow Dash and Fluttershy,” Cherry Berry said. “And probably a lot more of it. A week is cutting a lot of corners, believe me. We ought to be doing a lot of tests to make sure we’re even fit to fly.”

Chrysalis checked the urge to continue arguing. Remember, she thought, this is possibly the one being on all Equus that wants to do this more than you do. And she says wait. “Is that the deal?” she asked.

“That’s the deal,” Cherry Berry said. “We have to do at least this.”

“One week,” Chrysalis grumbled. “And then you take the glory.”

“Look on the bright side,” Cherry Berry said. “If I so much as get a sniffle, it’ll be you instead. No pony rides up unless they’re perfectly healthy.”

Chrysalis contemplated various ways she could infect her chief test pilot with ponypox over the coming seven days. Not that she would do it… but it was so very, very tempting.


A week passed, half utter boredom in classrooms, half total frustration in the simulator and in capsule tests.

And then, almost before she realized it, Cherry Berry felt the rocket underneath her back settle onto the surface of the launchpad, and the flutter of wings as the changelings who had levitated the rocket into place evacuated.

I am so not ready, Cherry Berry thought to herself, but I’m going to do this anyway.

The mission was simple: get the rocket into the air, test its maneuverability by steering it as close to due east downrange as possible, pop the parachute as soon as safe, and land the beast. Check one mystery goo canister while under thrust, the other after landing.

Underneath her was as simple a rocket as could be imagined; a single Flea booster, like the hilariously terrifying first launch. Above her, on the nose of the capsule, the parachute system. If the electronic release system didn’t work… very bad day.

It’ll work.

Between her hooves, the flight stick. Around her, a host of switches, mostly dead for lack of systems to connect them to on this flight. The navigation ball, dubbed the “8-ball” by Goddard in a moment of humor, showed all blue, pointing straight up.

OK. Time to do this.

Cherry Berry engaged the stability system, set throttle to full(46), and triggered the first stage- the booster.

Almighty Faust Herself put Her world-carving hoof on Cherry Berry’s chest and tried Her best to push the earth pony pilot clear through the seat.

Cherry Berry struggled to reach the controls. Must… activate… mystery goo… She just managed to reach the switch, triggering the canister open. She couldn’t rest; the rocket was still going straight up. Push… over… east! The reaction wheels whined, and despite the rocket roaring like an angry centaur the little craft pushed right over, thrusting first thirty degrees east, then forty-five, then fifty.

And then, scarcely ten seconds after liftoff, the rocket burned out. The pod still shook and bucked under intense air strain. Cherry glanced at the speed readout…

Over five hundred meters a second!

Twice as fast as a sonic rainboom!

And the ship is still going up!

Even as she thought these things, the ship steadied in its flight. The speed dropped off rapidly in the air; without thrust or magic the rocket couldn’t remain supersonic. With a boom the little rocket dropped back below the sound barrier, having left (sadly) no trail of magic behind it. But it was still going up…

The light for the parachute went green. According to mission specs, which she had insisted on during a conversation with Occupant, she was supposed to test the parachute as soon as possible. But… I want to see how high and far this bird will go, she thought.

She watched the altimeter climb. Thirty-seven hundred meters. Four thousand. Forty-five hundred. Five thousand and slowing. Fifty-three hundred and creeping. Fifty-five hundred, and the counter seemed to strain for every last digit.

Five-five-two-zero for about half a second… and then the numbers began rolling back, much quicker than they’d rolled forwards. The rocket was still going over a hundred sixty meters per second, and that number was beginning to climb again.

Can’t risk possibly going supersonic again on descent. Don’t know enough about the flight dynamics yet.

Parachute… NOW.

The chute deployed, and Cherry Berry felt the sudden jerk as the ship immediately slowed from one sixty-some meters per second to one twenty-some meters per second. Dragonfly and Goddard had adjusted the parachute to only partially open until the ship dropped below a thousand meters, but that was fine. So long as speed held below two hundred, she was safe as houses in the pod.

She had been aloft scarcely more than a minute.

Oh wait! she thought. Recording! I have to make the crew recording! “CSP Mission Two, chief pilot Cherry Berry recording,” she said. “I have just released the parachute after a very, er, educational first flight. I recommend that we put limiters on the solid rockets in the future to moderate burn and to reduce the acceleration forces on passengers. The readouts registered a maximum of seven times normal gravity during ascent. Prolonged exposure to that level of acceleration could lead to blackouts and loss of control, so that problem seriously needs be addressed.

“I can see some mesas outside my cabin window now… I’m afraid I’ve lost track of the hive, so I really don’t know what’s under me…”

Oh shoot. I really DON’T know what’s under me. I could be coming down on uneven ground, which would leave me rolling down the slope, possibly breaking up…

And if I am, I am. Can’t do anything about it now. Something else that needs to be addressed, though.

“Anyway, Dr. von Brawn’s control system works perfectly. Symbols for prograde and retrograde vector lit up as designed, and-“

For a moment Faust’s mighty hoof gave Cherry Berry another gentle caress.

“I… the parachute’s just finished opening,” Cherry Berry gasped as the ship decelerated to a leisurely seven meters per second(47). “Four hundred seventy meters and descending. Chute shows all green, so that’s a successful test. I’m about to be busy with landing and closeout procedures, so this is Cherry Berry, Changeling Space Program Mission Two, signing off.”

Twenty seconds after Cherry switched off the recorder, the still-hot bell of the rocket booster hit the top of a thankfully flat, mostly smooth mesa. The parachute fell slack, detached automatically, and drifted off to the ground. Cherry Berry triggered the second mystery goo canister, took its report, and then lay back in the pilots chair and breathed her first deep, deep breath of relief.

I think… I think we can actually do this.

Something banged on the side of the capsule. A changeling (48)peered in through the hatch’s window, smiled, and waved.

MISSION 2 REPORT

Mission summary: Test control systems and parachute system in flight; gather data from flight
Pilot: Cherry Berry

Flight duration: 3 minutes, 10 seconds
Maximum speed achieved: 540 m/s
Maximum altitude achieved: 5520 meters
Distance downrange at landing: 5.7 kilometers

Contracts fulfilled: 0
Milestones: none

Conclusions from flight: That… was… educational…

MISSION ASSESSMENT: SUCCESSFUL


Footnotes:

(46) Not that it mattered; the solid fuel had only one throttle setting, and that was Go.

(47) Still fast enough to potentially injure a pony, but the pilot seat in the capsule was specifically designed to absorb landings of anywhere up to ten meters per second. Beyond that, von Brawn had said, no promises at all except, probably, pain.

(48) Lucky Cricket. All the non-pilot Changeling Space Program changelings had drawn straws to cover the eight compass points for ship retrieval, just in case the control systems went wrong. Lucky had drawn due east.

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

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“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(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.

Chapter 6: Missions 4 and 5: Pieces Found Rattling About

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Changeling Space Program
by Kris Overstreet
Chapter 6: Missions 4 and 5: Pieces Found Rattling About

“I’m bored,” Chrysalis grumbled.

Construction of the new changeling space center near Horseton rushed ahead, with a mixture of skilled workers (mostly ponies from Manehattan) and unskilled and apprentice labor (changelings, mostly but not entirely in disguise)(60) working round the clock at overtime pay to get the most vital facilities built- the launch pad, the vehicle assembly building, the astronaut center, and the tracking station. Mission Control and the administration building, for the moment, were prefab buildings on skids, shipped whole from Baltimare. The end of the old farm road leading to the site had been widened and flattened just enough that Cherry Berry’s aeroplane could take off and land(61), and the hangar was nothing more than a staked-off area of land marked for eventual construction.

Unfortunately, it had rushed ahead for three weeks, and the VAB- basically a giant metal barn with immense doors and a large adjacent storage area and workshop- wouldn’t be even minimally operational for another five weeks(62). The launch pad was ready- it was nothing more than a heavily compacted and smoothed gravel mound, really, capable of withstanding (according to the engineers) up to eighteen tons of total weight before subsidence became an issue.(63) Everything else was, well, skeletal.

As a consequence, while Occupant had departed the hive to begin rerouting all official space program correspondence to the new site(64), the rest of the Changeling Space Program was split between the hive and Appleoosa, working on various tasks. Chrysalis had taken the opportunity to catch up on hive administration, including maintaining the network of infiltrators which were still the main source of concentrated love to feed the hive.

That, plus the ongoing astronaut training, had kept her fully occupied for about a week. After that, the queen had time on her hooves, most of which she used to annoy (65) Cherry Berry. Cherry, being CEO of the “Cherry’s Rocket Parts” false-front company in Appleoosa, chief of the space program, and overall supervisor of the space center construction program, didn’t have enough hours in the day(66). In fact, she was beginning to learn what it had been like for Chrysalis dealing with Double Face’s attempts at conversation for months and months.

“We need a mission,” Chrysalis said, while Cherry Berry was busy looking over paperwork. “Twilight Sparkle has had a mission. She’s catching up to us.”

This was true. The launch of the Equestrian Space Agency’s first flight had only made Chrysalis even more annoying. Rainbow Dash had flown a rocket build almost entirely from CSP components, with the addition of a small version of Twilight Sparkle’s experimental magic rocket thruster. The ship had only exceeded the altitude and speed records set by Cherry Berry’s flight by small amounts… but that had been enough to give the princess and her friends bragging rights while also giving Chrysalis a major flea in her tail.

“We’ll jump ahead when the new space center comes online,” Cherry Berry muttered. “Until then there’s no point wasting resources on useless flights.”

“It won’t be a useless flight,” Chrysalis insisted. “We need more contracts. We’re running short on money.”

That wasn’t strictly true, since a substantial sum now resided in various banks in the names of the Changeling Space Program and Cherry’s Rocket Parts and Odd Jobs.(67) But the giant pile of bits which had taken up a large portion of the hive’s throne room had shrunk to a small, scattered pool, only rarely supplemented by the results of a returning infiltrator’s petty theft. The changelings, who normally spent little or nothing, were now spending money like water.

“We’ll have enough of a reserve to resume launches once we can use all the new components Goddard and von Brawn are building now,” Cherry said, for the eighth time that week. “But those all require the VAB to put together. And there’s no point making any more little Flea jumps. That’s why we’re selling the surplus Flea motors to any other space program that wants them, like Twilight Sparkle.”

And they were beginning to buy. Princess Cadance of the Crystal Empire had taken her own Flea flight, as had Leonid the yak, Gordo the griffon, and Fireball(68) the dragon. Only Cadance had taken as smooth a flight as Chrysalis’s nail-biter, but all were preparing for a second go… and all continued work on their own ship designs, even if they were buying internal components from the Appleoosa workshop.

“There must still be ways to use the Flea,” Chrysalis said. “We can launch those without the big barn, right? And the new launchpad is fully usable. Why do we have to limit ourselves to one engine? Can’t we use two?”

“No, we can’t,” Cherry Berry grumbled. “Because we’d have to mount the lower engine right on the bell of the upper engine, because we’ve got no other way to do it just now. And if we do that, the whole rocket weighs more than our parachute system can accommodate, which means no matter how well it flies it can’t land safely.”

“Well, add another parachute,” Chrysalis said.

“We can’t. The parachute has to go on top of the rocket. And a rocket only has one top.”

“Really?” One of the more important work invoices levitated out of Cherry Berry’s reach. Chrysalis took it, plus a quill pen and inkwell, and began sketching out a rocket design. “From where I sit,” she said smugly, “this rocket can have three tops.”

Cherry Berry, grumbling to herself, left the rest of her paperwork and walked over to Chrysalis’s throne. Swiping the invoice out of the air, she looked at the design.

“Three engines,” Cherry Berry said. “Two new engines strapped onto the original. And parachute pods on the capsule and on each outboard engine.”

“Yet another example of the same flawless genius that lets me continue ruling this hive,” Chrysalis remarked smugly.

Cherry Berry looked again at the disturbing squared-off tops of the Flea’s cylindrical casings, at how the parachute pods sketched on each were far, far larger than the one on the capsule. “This looks dangerous as Tartarus,” she said.

“Have von Brawn put those thrust limiters on all the engines,” Chrysalis said. “And this time make sure noling takes them off.”

Cherry Berry looked at Chrysalis. “If we do this,” she said at last, “I test this design first. And you only get a flight in it with my approval. Clear?”

“That is our standard agreement,” Chrysalis nodded.

Cherry Berry sighed. “Right. If it’ll shut you up. I’ll talk with von Brawn and make sure it can be done without blowing up on the pad. Then I’ll ask Occupant for whatever contracts he thinks we can complete with the new design. If I’m lucky I’ll be back here in two days for a week of mission sims with you as my backup.”

“I’m looking forward to it,” Chrysalis purred.

Footnotes:

(60) Which fooled none of the Manehattanites. They knew, of course, that every green worker nopony knew was a changeling, and that you were only really safe with the ponies you knew personally. Which amused the changeling known as Gandy Dancer, who had taken the identity of a railroad worker turned high-iron pony who, tragically, had managed to overestimate his balancing skills. That had been several years before, and thanks to a bit of luck, fudging with hospital records, and feigning amnesia to the late pony’s friends and family, nopony had caught on that there might be a reason the earth pony who had taken one fall had no fear of a second fall- well, a reason beside Gandy’s joke, “Might be because I don’t remember the first one.”

(61) And, according to Cherry Berry, only barely. Anything heavier or faster than her biplane, she said, hadn’t a prayer. She’d been sorely tempted to declare it fit only for her helicopter, but the helicopter didn’t have enough airspeed for her commuting needs.

(62) The actual work could have been done in three weeks with clear weather, but the regional weather manager declared that her schedule would go forward, spaceships or no spaceships, or else they could enjoy a nice little hurricane from all the backed-up rain and wind a few weeks down the road. The engineers said the buildings could withstand any hurricane… but they didn’t say that to Eye Wall, for fear she would take it as a challenge.

(63) On the other hand, they were very keen to point out that this was still land in a swamp on the ocean shore they were dealing with, and that they were absolutely unwilling to guarantee eighteen tons plus one milligram.

(64) Leaving Chrysalis to order Double Face to fetch the hive’s mail. At least the unwanted horse guest could be useful for something, small as it was.

(65) Not to say “bug”.

(66) And, too frequently, not enough magic charge in her aeroplane’s engine. Getting a changeling or unicorn to refill the mana batteries was a chore that often left her stranded someplace a day or more, leaving all the more to catch up with when she got to her next stop on the Hive-Appleoosa-Horseton circuit.

(67) The “odd jobs” part of the front company’s name brought in more bits than expected. Appleoosa, being a frontier town on the grow, had a chronic labor shortage. The Appleoosan ponies still disliked the changelings, but they were willing to hire them for day labor… and the changelings, for their general deficiency of independent thought, were among the most dedicated workers in all Equestria. As a result Goddard the Griffon now complained about his own labor shortage, with so many workers out on day-jobs for their growing repeat-customer base.

(68) Alas, all too aptly named, since he had nosed over straight off the pad, plowed Mission XL-1 into a sheer rock face, and detonated the rocket booster in a spectacular ball of fire and smoke. Being a dragon, he survived. Being a small, young dragon, he did not survive uninjured. Being a dragon of any size who’d just failed at something, he survived very, very unhappy.


The command pod had one minor new addition; the telepresence illusion now carried sound, and sound could be transmitted along the magic link in the other direction. The link couldn’t send recordings or take them, though, so the radio system being adapted from Yakyakistan’s boffin Alexander Popoff’s designs would eventually be necessary.

But for now Chrysalis could sit in the portable building which was the Horseton Space Center’s mission control room, wear a minotaur-made headset and microphone, and be the one pony in the room allowed to speak directly with the spacecraft(69). “Final systems check in progress,” she said. “Stand by for go/no go on launch.”

“CSP Mission Four standing by,” Cherry Berry said, voice flat, calm and professional.

Chrysalis suppressed the urge to hiss. The pony is doing the right thing, she thought to herself. You want servants who stay calm and professional in difficult situations. Stop being so angry.

The problem was, Chrysalis was only partly angry at Cherry Berry. Mostly she was jealous of the pony and angry at herself.

On her first flight, Cherry Berry had remained cool and confident, smiling most of the short flight (except for the brutal acceleration at the start). Which was good and proper.

Chrysalis… had not.

She knew she had not.

And although she also knew no changeling would ever talk about it to her face, she also knew every single changeling in the hive knew she’d been afraid, frantic, even at one point panicked.

Oh, she’d pulled it together. She’d finished the mission, achieving all tasks on the list. But she’d showed weakness.

The day you show weakness to your subjects, her mother had said, is the day the end of your rule begins. Just as when I show weakness, you will begin your plans to overthrow me, my daughter. That is the way it is, and the way it should be, for the good of the hive.

And it had been true, every bit of it. And although Chrysalis had no royal daughter among her hive at present, the moment of weakness crippled her.

She had to redeem herself. She had to get back in that ship and show everyone, changeling, pony, minotaur, griffon, whatever, that she had the right stuff to be a pilot, just like the stupid, optimistic pink earth pony.

She’d heard one of von Brawn’s fellow minotaur scientists refer to Cherry Berry as “the steel-eyed missile mare.” Chrysalis wanted, needed, to prove that she also was a steel-eyed missile mare. Otherwise she’d always be remembered as the cowardly queen stupid enough to almost jump out of a perfectly good capsule.

Meanwhile Occupant, rushing around the cramped little room from desk to desk, checked with his staff and von Brawn to make sure everything was ready to fly.

“Engines?”

von Brawn. “Go, Flight Manager.”

“Tracking?”

George Bull. “Go, Flight Manager.”

“Recovery?”

Lucky Cricket. “Go, Flight Manager.”

“Weather?”

Crawley, the changeling liaison with the Hayseed Swamp regional pegasus weather office. “Go, Flight Manager.”

“Parachutes?”

Dragonfly. “Go, Flight Manager.”

“Capsule communications… Your Majesty?”

“Go, already,” Chrysalis grumbled.

“Final review of mission tasks.”

“Mission Four, this is Horseton,” Chrysalis said, forcing her voice to a calm, matter-of-fact, not-totally-impatient-to-get-this-over-with tone. “Verify checklist of flight tasks.”

“Test stability and performance of new rocket design,” Cherry Berry repeated. “Visual inspection and reports on Nerd’s Reef just offshore and open sea coordinates JJ1-512. Check Mystery Goo containers in-flight and after splashdown.”

“Roger, Mission Four, checklist verified,” Chrysalis said. “Verify switchover to internal capsule power and control.”

Another of Occupant’s assistants flicked a switch at his desk.

“Confirmed on battery power,” Cherry Berry said. “All systems green.”

“Roger, Mission Four, stand by.” Chrysalis muted her microphone and said, “All go for flight.”

“Thank you, Your Majesty,” Occupant said.

There was a long, frozen silence.

“Occupant,” Chrysalis hissed, “in this room you are the one in charge. Not me. You have to give the final order for launch.”

“Oh!” Occupant gasped, stumbling on his hooves. “Um… okay! Er… how do I do that?”

Chrysalis sighed. “’Capsule communicator, signal go for launch.’”

“Yeah. Do that. Um, please, Your Majesty.”

Chrysalis shook her head, took a moment to make sure her voice was steady, and said, “Mission Four, you are go for launch. Activate first stage when ready.”

“Mission Four confirms go for launch,” Cherry Berry said. She reached up and pushed the switch to ignite the three solid rocket engines.

Chrysalis watched with envy as, at a slower rate than prior launches, the rocket lifted off the pad. Although these engines had been modified to burn slower and longer by von Brawn’s boffins, the acceleration meter on the navigation ball still indicated four times normal gravity. Despite that, Cherry Berry’s face barely changed, still wearing that confident, happy smile(70).

“Ship is somewhat resistant to reaction wheel guidance,” Cherry Berry said carefully. A light came on over her head. “Telemetry shows entering airspace above first target zone.” She hit another switch. “Nerd’s Reef appears to be a large mudbank,” she said quickly, “vaguely shaped like a unicorn reading a book. I see a couple of schools of fish swarming here and there in the shallow water. Resources appear negligible. I’m going to leave the recorder on for the next site. Coming up on engine cutoff.”

Chrysalis looked at the fuel readout on the telepresence illusion; sure enough, the bars were shrinking to nothing.

“Gravity pressure seems to be easing,” Cherry Berry said. “I wonder if the engines are losing thrust as- OOF!”

For a couple of seconds Cherry Berry’s expression changed to surprise and pain. Chrysalis noted that the acceleration meter, which had drifted down to two times gravity, jumped up to a whopping eight gravities for about three seconds and then, slowly, drifted back down below five.

“Ow… I’m all right,” Cherry Berry said over the illusion. “As soon as thrust ceased, the ship decelerated hard. Really hard. Like I plowed through a brick wall. I’m not going to make it to the second zone. Airspeed is dropping like a brick, and I will be too in just a moment. I’m going to pop the first mystery goo can now. I’ll hold off activating the parachutes as long as possible, in case I’m wrong about falling short of the final target zone.”

Chrysalis forced herself to stop grinding her fangs together. The pony had just had a very rude surprise, probably a fright, and her voice was level except for the slight grunt as she forced the air in and out of her lungs to speak.

“Beginning descent,” Cherry Berry continued, breathing easier. “Airspeed below one hundred meters per second. It’s almost like I already popped the chutes. The drag on this design must be immense from those flat-topped boosters. Airspeed’s back over one hundred again. Dropping below two thousand meters. Retrograde marker’s almost on top of the nav ball. Popping chutes now. Sorry, Flight, but no joy on the second survey.”

Chrysalis forced herself to reply, “Mission control confirms negative on target zone. Recovery team en route.”

A minute later the rocket splashed down peacefully in the ocean.

“Performance is actually poorer across the board than with a single engine,” von Brawn rumbled from his desk. “Longer burn time and greater power were more than offset by air resistance. This deserves more study.”

“How long until my turn in it?” Chrysalis asked.

von Brawn looked at the changeling queen. “Your turn?” he asked incredulously.

MISSION 4 REPORT

Mission summary: Test flight dynamics of multiple-Flea configuration; fly over and observe underwater formations near new launch site; collect scientific data
Pilot: Cherry Berry

Flight duration: 2 minutes 49 seconds
Maximum speed achieved: 409 m/s
Maximum altitude achieved: 4018 m
Distance downrange at landing: 7.6 km

Contracts fulfilled: 1
Milestones: none

Conclusions from flight: Who is this paying us so much to do things a pegasus with a camera could do better? Anyway, we didn’t fly far enough to get both contracts. This design has flight characteristics slightly worse than the average brick. Until we either figure out how to streamline the boosters or get rid of them completely, this ship configuration is a lost cause.

MISSION ASSESSMENT: MINIMALLY SUCCESSFUL

Footnotes:

(69) Cherry Berry had insisted on this as standard procedure the day von Brawn had revealed the upgrade. She’d had one too many leadership meetings within the space program, and one too many shouting matches, not to insist on clear, simple communications between mission control and the ship. That meant one voice each way, and only one voice each way. Whatever Mission Control had to say, it would be said by the backup pilot for whoever was on the pad. Occupant had backed her up on it, mostly to make sure it wouldn’t be him on the mike instead.

(70) Considerably stretched out by acceleration forces, but still recognizable.

“No,” Cherry Berry said.

“This is a violation of our agreement,” Chrysalis insisted. “You fly it, then I fly it. That was the deal.”

“No,” Cherry Berry said, a little more firmly. She was working her way out of her spacesuit. Outside, the recovery team was carefully levitating the still-dripping spaceship back to earth next to the under-construction VAB, where the capsule would be reconditioned and all other reusable parts dismantled and put into storage until needed.

“We still have to fulfill that loose contract,” Chrysalis continued. “It looks bad if we don’t finish what we start.”

“Absolutely no!” Cherry Berry snapped, eyes wide, teeth bared in a pose that would do a changeling warrior proud(71). “Eight gees, Chrysalis! When you have a sudden deceleration that powerful without the aid of parachutes it means that something is horribly wrong, do you understand? I didn’t successfully fly that ship. I got away with it. Next time I might not be so lucky. I’m not approving any more flights for that deathtrap design until we understand why it’s doing that. No. More. Flea. Flights. Period.”

“But-“

“And because I want you to continue breathing, with all your legs unbroken(72), I will not change my mind on this. The. Answer. Is. No.”

Chrysalis fell silent. This was not going how she had expected. For one thing, the expendable lackey of an absolute monarch had just said No, expecting she could make it stick…

… well, except the pony was not so much expendable as irreplaceable, and she almost certainly could make it stick. But even that was awful enough.

“As soon as I can get away,” Cherry Berry continued, kicking her last hind leg out of her suit, “I’m going north to Cape Friendship. Twilight needs to know the danger of the design. She might even have a way of finding out what makes it do that.”

“Oh-“ Chrysalis practically had to bite her lip. Oh reeeeally? was a thing you said when you wanted your enemy to know you didn’t believe them, or that you were up to something. “Fine,” she completed flatly, very carefully slumping forward in a royal sulk(73).

“Look,” Cherry said in exasperation, “why don’t you go visit Goddard? I know he’s finally got the new engines and fuel tanks in production. He won’t show them to me because we can’t use them yet, but you sign his paycheck. Maybe he’ll listen to you.”

“Maybe I will.” Careful, just the right amount of whine, Slump back on your haunches like you’re punishing the world with your butt. Bad world, how dare you disappoint me. Is she buying it? Oh yes. Swallowed hook, line and sinker.

I’m going to fly, pony. I can’t afford to get rid of you, but you certainly can’t afford to get rid of me.

And if I can’t get permission, even in my own space program, then I’ll settle for forgiveness.

Footnotes:

(71) And which, once, had scared six changelings gooless, although to be fair half of that fear came from the berserker battle cry, “IT’S A CARDBOARD BOX!”

(72) This phrase, coincidentally, was one of the sweetest endearments in changeling culture, right up there with “I probably won’t throw you to the mob if we’re discovered,” or, “I’d hate to chuck you in a pod just to get the promotion- I’d still do it, but I’d feel terrible afterwards.” The simple “I love you” never caught on in changeling circles, mainly because although changelings can sense each others’ love, they can’t eat it.

(73) A pose taught her by her mother, many years before. It had been a hard lesson; Chrysalis as a larva had been a cheerful and optimistic child, and it had taken a lot of years ruling the hive herself to learn the disappointment needed for a truly regal bout of self-pity.

“Occupant! How’s my favorite underling in the whole wide world?”(74) Chrysalis strolled into the converted closet Occupant used for a private office in the mission control shack. “You know, this really will not do,” she continued, trying to find some way to bring her hindquarters into the room so she could shut the door. Unfortunately Occupant’s desk, mostly buried under snow drifts of paperwork, blocked her way. “You need a proper office. You need a proper mission control, really. And all this,” she said, gesturing to the paperwork. “Don’t we have changelings in the administration building to take care of this now?”

“Er, um, I still have to look it all over myself,” Occupant said. “Remember, my first task is still deciding what you do or don’t need to see. As you ordered, my queen.”

“Well, we really must do better for you, my dear,” Chrysalis purred. “I never dreamed you would be this good at these tasks, back when you were a mere door guard.”

“Er, I kind of still am a door guard,” Occupant said. “If someone wants to get to you, at least when it comes to the space program, they have to get past me.”

“And I appreciate that, really I do,” Chrysalis said. “I appreciate it so much that I really want to speed up construction of your permanent administration and mission control buildings.” She sighed dramatically. “It’s such a pity we haven’t the ready cash.”

“Er, well, yes,” Occupant said. “In fact we might have to give back the advance plus a penalty on the survey contract if we have any delays on VAB construction.” He shook his head. “I’m sorry, my queen. I shouldn’t have accepted that contract in the first place, except I thought we could get a rocket that far.”

“I think we still can,” Chrysalis said. “It’s just a matter of tweaking what we have. Cherry was so close on this last flight…”

“Hm… not very,” Occupant said uncertainly.(75)

“Oh yes, quite close,” Chrysalis added. “And I think I can come up- hello?” In her efforts to squeeze into the room, Chrysalis’s forehoof had come to rest on Occupant's desk, triggering a minor avalanche of documents. One such had the big red and green logo for Cherry’s Rocket Parts… and a format that looked like… a contract. “What’s this?”

One look at Occupant’s face, especially the discomfited twist to his buck fangs, told Chrysalis all she wanted to know. This was one of the documents Occupant had decided she needed to not see.

She read it. It made for interesting, if brief, reading, particularly the substantial amount of bits being offered for what looked like a trivial task.

“Cherry Berry is actually paying us for something?” she asked Occupant.

“Er… you see…” Each word came out of Occupant’s voice like they were being winched out of deep mud. “We set up the front company so we could have a workshop in Appleoosa and sell surplus parts, yes? Well, Miss Berry decided this was a way to transfer funds back into the space program directly… if we really needed it, that is.” He gestured to the form. “Dr. Goddard found the form and wrote out the contract. We were busy with Mission Four at the time, so Miss Berry hasn’t seen it yet.”

“But,” Chrysalis pointed out, “Goddard’s in charge of the workshop budget, isn’t he? He can sign off on things like this. In fact, he did.”

“Er… I expect Cherry Berry would want to un-sign-off on it,” he said. “But Dr. Goddard really wants to know what happens to the engine in a water landing.” His wings twitched uncomfortably. “I was holding it until she had time to look at it.”

“Well, as it happens,” Chrysalis said, “she’s just left for a conference with our rival space agencies. Which leaves me, as the queen, back in charge, yes?”

“Er… um…” Fealty and responsibility were at war within the little bucktoothed changeling.

“And look on the bright side,” Chrysalis added, “this, plus the money from that survey contract, will be enough to hire more workers to get started on the new mission control.”

“But,” Occupant’s conscience said, in a final appeal to authority, “I’m pretty sure Cherry Berry needs to sign off on this!”

Chrysalis saw the quill and inkwell rising out of the papers like a tree through a heavy snowdrift. “She’s not here now, is she?” she asked. “I am. And I’m still the queen, yes?”

“Yes, my queen,” Occupant sighed, defeated.

“Then let’s do it,” Chrysalis said, signing the contract. “Today if possible.”

Footnotes:

(74) This was less of a lie than it used to be. Chrysalis honestly did appreciate Occupant’s absolute loyalty- which she was about to trade on shamelessly. More important, she approved of Occupant’s diligence, enthusiasm, and (a rare trait among her subjects) a vague recognition of the limits of his own competence. He had taken on responsibility surprisingly well, and Chrysalis was about to complement his performance by completely abusing it.

(75) That was another quality Chrysalis appreciated- that Occupant told her what she needed to hear rather than what she wanted to hear. Of course, she only appreciated it after the fact; at the time it usually made her furious.

“… and once I could breathe properly again I’d lost most of my forward momentum and began dropping back down,” Cherry Berry told Twilight Sparkle. “If our centrifuge can take it, I’m going to begin deceleration training to see if we can do some sort of exercise to prevent injury or blackouts the next time it happens.”

“I have to say,” Twilight Sparkle said, “I’m not a bit surprised. Didn’t you run this design through a wind tunnel?”

“Do I look like a pegasus?” Cherry Berry asked. “I know the Wonderbolts use them for training and examinations, but I’ve never seen one.”

“I built a mechanical one here for our project,” Twilight Sparkle said. “Your capsule tests out okay with your parachute pod on it, but a lot worse with it off. And your Flea booster by itself is horrible- it wants to turn on its side at high aerodynamic buffering.”

“I’d love to see it,” Cherry Berry remarked. “It sounds like an indispensable piece of equipment for our own program.”

“I’d be glad to show you!” Twilight replied. “After all, this is about saving pony lives!” After a very long hesitation, she added in a most uncertain tone of voice, “And… changeling lives too, I guess.”

As they walked, Cherry Berry gave a long look at Twilight’s magic rocket ship. The hull, at least, had been finished for engine tests.

Dr. Goddard would have mocked it contemptuously. Dr. von Brawn would have questioned its suitability in quiet but firm tones. Chrysalis would have laughed at pony weakness. But to a pony’s eyes, the big pink vehicle with the big pointy nose and three enormous curled fins was simply perfect, right down to the broad hatch in the side and the row of heart-shaped windows.

In the top of her head, Cherry Berry knew the design was impractical. The rest of her, though, loved it to bits and wanted a ride in it.

The thing would seat seven according to Twilight Sparkle, with three-quarters of the interior used for passenger and cargo space. So far, sadly, the closest it had come to flight was a test on scales, where the vertical take-off thrusters had only been enough to negate one-quarter of the ship’s weight.

Still, Cherry thought wistfully, I bet it does great in a wind tunnel.

We have got to get those new engines. Fast.


“This is the engine Goddard wants tested?” Chrysalis asked Warner von Brawn, who had lingered overnight at the new base before returning to Appleoosa by boat and then train.

Chrysalis had expected to find another big drum with a bell on bottom in the VAB’s storage room, like the Flea. This thing had the bell, but it had no drum- just a bunch of fancy plumbing and electric motors. Chrysalis had a vague idea what about half of the things were for, but since Goddard had been closed-beaked about his work until it was ready, she hadn’t seen the final product.

One thing for certain; her first plan of just hooking two Fleas on the sides of the “Swivel” liquid fuel motor had just tasted the rainbow(76).

“Sometimes I don’t know what my colleague is thinking,” von Brawn said. “At the least he could have provided one fuel tank and a little fuel. But no. He sent us just the motor and no way to actually fire it.”

“Can’t we just put a Flea on top of it?” Chrysalis asked.

“Fuel mismatch. The Flea motor would destroy the Swivel.”

Chrysalis shrugged. “Can you put a shell or something around it?” she asked. “Something we could hook four Fleas to.”

von Brawn shook his head. “You’re talking about a faring,” he said. “In theory we could, but with the materials we have on hand, we’d need something to anchor the bottom seam of the faring to. Otherwise the whole thing would crumple under the force of the engines.”

Chrysalis noticed the remaining on-hand stockpile of a dozen Flea motors(77). “Is the capsule reconditioned?” she asked.

“Yes,” von Brawn said. “We were actually going to put it in storage.”

Concentrating her magic, Chrysalis carefully lifted one Flea after another. Once five engines formed an X on the storage room floor, she pointed to it. “We secure those together,” she said, “put the Swivel on top of that, and the capsule on top of that. Parachutes on the capsule and the four outrigger engines.”

von Brawn looked contemplatively at the design. “Interesting theory,” he said.

“That was more an order than a theory, Doctor,” Chrysalis said.

von Brawn’s look grew much less contemplative and more appalled. “You’re not going to fly such a beast!” he gasped. “We saw the problems with only three Fleas! With five-“

“We won’t run all five at once,” Chrysalis said. “We run two first for a slow acceleration to altitude, then the remaining three once I’m up in thinner air. If we keep it slow enough, the ship should avoid the worst of the turbulence, right?”

“In… theory…” von Brawn’s voice drawled out in deep thought.

“And it’ll be fascinating to see how it works, won’t it?” Chrysalis asked.

“Yesssss,” von Brawn nodded. “Yes, it could be made to work, in theory.”

“Then let’s get it done,” Chrysalis said. “The sooner we get this test in, the sooner Goddard gets his results and the sooner we get to retire the Fleas.”

As von Brawn began giving orders to the changelings in the storeroom, Chrysalis rushed out to get into her pressure suit. The best thing about that, she thought, is I never had to use mind control once. von Brawn did it to himself.

Which is the best form of mind control.

Footnotes:

(76) A recent slang phrase among monsters, criminals, and in general those who might expect to be opposed by Equestria’s most famous heroes. It replaced the older “blown to Tartarus.”

(77) Despite aggressive salesmanship, over fifty more remained in a warehouse on the outskirts of Baltimare. If the citizens of Baltimare had known better what that warehouse held, they likely would have ordered the warehouse condemned.

The late afternoon sun shone on the laminated wings of Cherry Berry’s biplane as it approached the makeshift Horseton Space Center airstrip. The tour of Twilight’s scientific research facility, including and especially its wind tunnel, had been inspiring. There was so much the changeling program needed to be doing that they weren’t. She couldn’t wait to tell Dr. von Brawn and Dr. Goddard all about it… except she had to, because she had to finish up the wrap-up from Mission Four before she could return to Appleoosa.

She banked for final approach, leveled off… and noticed something to her left.

There was a thing on the launchpad.

She didn’t know which startled her more- the fact that there was anything at all on a lauchpad that should definitely have been empty, or the thing itself. It looked like somepony had tried to make a throwing dart out of Flea motors.

Oh Faust. Somepony DID do just that. And I know who. The changeling ground crew clearing the pad at maximum speed confirms it.

Despite her rapidly growing anxiety, Cherry Berry set down the aeroplane with her usual care, because some things you simply didn’t rush if you wanted to stay out of hospitals. The moment she bounced to a stop on the runway and had the brakes engaged and engine off, she bounded out of the cockpit and galloped for mission control.

Sure enough, there was Occupant going down the last go-no-go checklist with his assistants. She shot the ugliest look at him she could manage, then gave another one to von Brawn, who watched the illusion projector with interest. There was the thing on the pad; there was the nav-ball, the altimeter, the staging list, and there was Chrysalis, neutral-faced, calm, checking her controls in the most ostentatiously professional manner Cherry Berry’s red-tinted imagination could conjure.

Occupant cringed, but didn’t stop. “Capsule communications, final review of mission tasks.”

Cherry Berry glared at Dragonfly, who should have been monitoring consumables and parachutes. She reached up a hoof. Dragonfly sheepishly levitated the headset off her head. “She is our queen,” she said quietly.

“Not blaming you,” Cherry Berry said shortly, keying on the mike. “Mission… Five, Horseton. Verify checklist of flight tasks.” Calm. Professional. You did not shout during flight prep. You did nothing to unsettle the mental state of the pilot. Flying a machine was something you did with caution and respect. Anger, fear, panic- they killed as surely as a dead engine or a broken wing. And if you felt those things, you did not let it show, because those emotions multiplied in a group until they ran like a wildfire out of control.

Chrysalis was good, the professional, not-about-to-buck-a-changeling-upside-the-head part of Cherry Berry’s mind said to the rest of it. Not a flinch when she recognized my voice. “Mission tasks; test phased burn of multiple rockets; complete unfinished survey of offshore target zone; perform test on Swivel liquid fuel engine when submerged.”

A piece of paper hung in front of Cherry Berry’s eyes, held there by changeling magic- Dragonfly’s to be exact. “Er… roger, Mission Five. Checklist verified. Verify switchover to internal power.”

“Mission Five confirms switchover to internal power. All systems go. Standing by.” Calm, smooth, completely in control.

“Mission Five, Horseton…” Cherry Berry paused. The way we have this set up, she thought, I can’t actually order a mission scrub. The launch button is on Chrysalis’s end, not mine. And whatever I do now sets a precedent… so what do I do?

“Standing by, Horseton.” Not even a sliver of sneer or derision in that voice. Flat, professional… Cherry was beginning to hate those adjectives.

“I have to strongly recommend scrubbing mission on grounds of crew safety concerns,” Cherry Berry said. “Mission Five is a completely untested configuration with characteristics close to a discarded design. Wind tunnel tests done this afternoon at Cape Friendship-” there, that ought to get a rise out of her, Cherry thought- “-verify that at any speeds close to the sonic barrier air resistance renders a bare-topped Flea highly inefficient and almost uncontrollable. Please respond, over.”

“Horseton, Mission Five,” Chrysalis replied. “This flight was my decision and under my authority. The responsibility lies with me. It is my estimation that this flight can be conducted safely and successfully, and that your concerns have been accounted for.”

Cherry Berry shot a look at von Brawn, who shrugged. Big help, doctor.

So… decision time. I can confront Chrysalis now, force one or the other of us to back down. And that probably ends the space program. Or I can back down and probably let Chrysalis kill herself. Which would definitely end the space program and possibly the changeling race.

All eyes in the mission control now stared at the pink earth pony, aeroplane flight helmet still on her head, goggles down.

“Roger, Mission Five,” Cherry said. “You… you are all go for flight. Activate first stage when ready.”

“Mission Five copies go for launch,” Chrysalis remarked. “Stand by.”

And now, for just a moment, the beings in mission control could see Chrysalis’s control waver, as she took several deep breaths, slow, in and out, preparing herself for the launch.

“Thank you,” Occupant murmured to Cherry Berry. “But I thought you were going to scrub the launch the moment you came in the door.”

“I can’t stop her now,” Cherry said. “If I tried it’d wreck the program. We’re still such a long way away from our goal… and besides,” she added, “if it was her in this chair and me in that chair, I’d want to launch too, and forget the danger at this point.” She shook her head. "I hope I'd have more sense than-"

And then the engines fired- or, at least, two of them. The ugly thing rose off the pad on two plumes of smoke, rising at a much slower rate than previous launches. More weight, Cherry thought, and reduced thrust. Side effect; only a little over two gravities at launch.

The rocket nosed over to a forty-five degree angle of ascent, carefully trimming the flight for the target zone Mission Four had missed. Chrysalis’s handling of the ship was a bit awkward, and the ship tried to dip closer to the horizon, but the changeling queen fought it back to the desired angle…

… but not, Cherry noted, the desired trajectory.

“Prograde vector is too shallow,” von Brawn rumbled. “Reducing thrust to keep the flight subsonic-“

At sixteen hundred meters altitude the first two Flea motors burned out. With barely a pause Chrysalis triggered the remaining three engines, and the flying dart leaped forward…

… and down.

“Too much thrust,” von Brawn said. “She’s approaching the sonic barrier. She needs to pull up.”

The projected illusion also included readouts for amount of pitch, yaw and roll being used by the ship’s controls. Cherry looked and noticed, to her growing horror, that both pitch and yaw were maxed out. Chrysalis was holding down the controls as hard as she could, trying to get the rocket’s nose up… and failing. In fact, on the projection, Cherry could clearly see the nose creeping downwards.

The prograde marker had drifted almost to the blue-brown dividing line on the nav-ball.

“Mission Five, Horseton,” Cherry said, forcing herself to keep her voice level while speaking quickly. “Drag is pulling your nose down. Can you abort?”

“Negative, Horseton.” Chrysalis actually sounded a little bored. That had to be acting. “I am maintaining attitude. No need for abort.”

And, Cherry Berry belatedly thought, no way to abort in any case. The parachutes would be ripped apart if triggered too close to the speed of sound, and the engines couldn’t be shut off.

And then, mercifully, the engines did shut off, burning out at a bit over twenty-three hundred meters altitude. And, just like Cherry Berry’s flight, Chrysalis’s ugly dart hit the sonic wall and, without further thrust, got shoved back, losing half its speed in about two seconds.

In those two seconds the ship climbed about four more meters… and then nosed down even more, falling very quickly for the ocean below, capsule first.

“Five, Horseton,” Cherry Berry said, “parachutes show green, deploy parachutes.”

Chrysalis, staring intently at something on her own controls, did not respond.

“Sixteen hundred and falling,” von Brawn rumbled. “She has to open at one thousand or…”

The seconds ticked by, as Chrysalis’s hoof reached forward out of frame of the illusion, reaching for the parachute release, hesitating…

… and at nine hundred meters, finally pressing the switch.

Five parachutes released. Seconds stretched as the ship continued to fall, the parachutes slowly pulling the ship back upright, catching the breeze, and then finally, finally opening completely at two hundred seventy meters elevation. By two hundred forty the speed of descent, which had reached one hundred fifty meters per second, had dropped to a most leisurely five and a half.

“Horseton, Mission Five,” Chrysalis said calmly. “No joy on survey zone. Close but not close enough. Standing by for splashdown and Swivel test.”

Cherry Berry switched off her mike. “Will it float?” she asked.

“Five empty boosters? Of course it’ll float,” von Brawn said casually. “You know, this flight has given me all sorts of ideas for new systems…” He had a pencil in one mighty minotaur hand and paper in the other, scribbling notes at a fantastic pace.

On the illusion, the rocket splashed down, released all its parachutes, and promptly rolled onto its side in the water.

“You said it would float!” Cherry gasped.

“I never said it would stand up,” von Brawn replied, not looking up from his notes.

“Splashdown,” Chrysalis reported from the screen. “Executing test of the Swivel rocket system.” Even as the capsule end of the spacecraft began to dip below the surface of the water, sparks flew from the long casing that linked pod with engines. The sparks ceased as the spaceship completed its turn-turtle in the water.

On the projection, Chrysalis looked out with half-lidded eyes, apparently bored by her mane hanging towards the top of her helmet. “Test sequence completed,” Chrysalis reported. “Closing out Mission Five in stable condition, no leaks in pod, awaiting recovery.” And now, finally, a tiny bit of emotion crept into her voice; annoyance. “No rush.”

MISSION 5 REPORT

Mission summary: Fly over and observe underwater formations near new launch site (leftover from previous mission); observe characteristics of new “Swivel” liquid engine when submerged.
Pilot: Chrysalis

Flight duration: 1 min. 55 sec.
Maximum speed achieved: 319 m/s
Maximum altitude achieved: 2384 m
Distance downrange at landing: 10.5 km

Contracts fulfilled: 1
Milestones: New land distance record

Conclusions from flight: If anything has demonstrated the uselessness and danger of the Flea as a main propulsion system, this is it. We weren’t even close to our target drop zone. The only part of this flight that worked well, aside from the pilot not dying, was the Swivel engine function test. No more flights until we get better engines!

MISSION ASSESSMENT: FAILURE


The recovery team had had to call for reinforcements from the base, very nearly all the changelings on site. Eventually, with an effort that left them exhausted after the twenty-one kilometer round trip, the Thing sat on dry land beside the VAB’s storage wing, and Chrysalis stood next to it, helmet off, demonstrating her calmness and control for all to see.

Cherry Berry was doing her best as she came out of the mission control shack, but every changeling could feel the rage boiling off of her even if, outwardly, she schooled her face to mild annoyance, her walk to a slow, casual pace. She waited until she was close enough for polite conversation to speak. “Changelings and gentlemares,” she said, “might Queen Chrysalis and I have a moment of privacy?”

The changelings, tuned in like no other species on Equus to empathic senses, heard this as: Clear out or I will tear your heads off. They all complied without argument.

Once out of earshot of the others, Cherry said, “Fine. You got your way. You got your flight. You burned five Fleas we could have sold. And you almost killed yourself four times over,” Cherry Berry drew a line in the dirt. “Engine overheating could have caused an explosion, since your design left little room for the central engine to lose excess heat.”

A second line next to the first. “Your angle of flight left you dangerously low at final burnout, leaving you in danger of hitting the water while under power or before the parachutes could deploy.”

A third line joined the other two. “You waited too long to open the parachutes, risking their not opening in time to slow you for splashdown.”

A fourth line finished the group. “And finally, the parachute configuration could have entangled, collapsing the chutes, leaving you to fall to the water below.”

Cherry Berry, putting her hoof back down, glared up at Chrysalis. “What do you have to say for yourself?”

“I say,” Chrysalis said, unflappable in victory, “that I broke a new land distance record. The ten-kilometer benchmark means we can expect a check from the Royal Astronomical Society in the near future.” A tiny smile crept onto her face as she added, “And if I’d had ten seconds more thrust, I could have pulled that nose up.”

Having said her piece, she walked past Cherry Berry. “I’m going to the admin building to undress,” she said without looking back. “I’d prefer to be alone for that.”

Cherry Berry couldn’t hold in her anger. “RRRGH!” she growled. “Is this about proving you’re a pilot? Is that it? Well, you’re a pilot!” She stamped a hoof in impotent rage. “You’re a bucking pilot! Now quit trying to prove it!”

Chrysalis paused in her walk. “Damn straight I am,” she said. And then she resumed her walk, calm, cool, collected, opening the admin building door with her magic, stepping into the portable building, and closing it behind her.

Only alone among the deserted desks, with the door locked, did she allow herself to slowly flop over onto her side.

A few seconds later she curled up into a fetal ball as the shakes began.

The doorknob rattled. A moment later a key slid into the knob, unlocked the door, and opened it. “Your Majesty,” Occupant said, “I brought you the after-mission report forms-“

Chrysalis raised her head from the floor and gave a savage hiss.

“Celestia- no, Luna- Faust- I mean I’ll come back later!” The door slammed shut, and the rapid hum of frantically beating changeling wings rapidly diminished to silence.

With a flicker of green magic Chrysalis locked the door again and returned to her long overdue attack of nerves.

Chapter 7: Missions 6, 7 and 8: Exemplary Geniuses Making a Big Mess

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Changeling Space Program
by Kris Overstreet
Chapter 7: Missions 6, 7, 8: Exemplary Geniuses Making a Big Mess

Warner von Brawn, Cherry Berry and Chrysalis sat in a row in the press-VIP balcony overlooking Cape Friendship’s mission control room, each thinking the same thing: I covet my neighbor’s Mission Control building.

Compared to the plush pony digs, the Changeling Space Program’s mission control facility was a shack- literally a portable shack on skids. True to her promise, Chrysalis had released funds for construction on the Changeling Space Program’s new permanent mission control ahead of schedule, but it wouldn’t be finished for at least a month. Even when it was finally finished, it wouldn’t be nearly as nice as the warm, comfortable, well-lit control room with its large visitor’s gallery.(78) Instead of desks thrown together at random, there were neat rows of workstations, each pony having their own personal illusion projection tweaked to focus on their particular jobs.(79)

The working environment likewise made all three CSP leaders present- Cherry Berry, Chrysalis, Warner von Brawn- jealous. Unlike the sometimes fractious, more often professional-acquaintances-nothing-more attitude at CSP, the ponies of the Equestria Space Agency were all friends, and mostly very close friends. Necessity had forced the ponies to adopt a system somewhat similar to CSP’s, but the goodwill all around made many of the particulars very different indeed.

Compared to this, the current working relationship at CSP seemed…

Fraught.

It was an unusual, seldom-used word that never meant anything good, but Cherry Berry thought it fit the mood in the Changeling Space Program after Chrysalis’s almost disastrous flight.

She couldn’t figure out what the mood was fraught with. Anything fraught had to be fraught with something. You couldn’t just be fraught. Maybe you could be fraught with fraughtedness, but Cherry didn’t think that was it.

After the event, opinion of Queen Chrysalis’s flight split into two camps. The non-changelings thought it had been a reckless fit of vanity, and that was all. The changelings, on the other hand, couldn’t stop chittering about how brave and calm their queen was in the face of almost certain death. The fact that she’d put herself in a position of almost certain death didn’t bother them at all. That was a changeling’s life. That was a queen changeling’s job description, in fact.

But if Chrysalis noticed that her subjects regarded her with a little more affection and loyalty, she didn’t show it. In fact, for a couple of weeks after that flight, she didn’t show much of anything. She stayed in the same professional-pilot mode all the time. To Cherry’s mind that wasn’t healthy. Pilots needed to be able to relax.

Cherry Berry had originally intended to discipline her rebellious boss by assigning extra simulations and training. That fell apart when Chrysalis beat her to it, demanding more training and more intense simulations. For two weeks thereafter the queen threw herself into the work of becoming an astronaut like she’d never done before. Her demands for drop training of the space capsule, more time in the centrifuge, and other physical challenges pushed what even Cherry, flight obsessed as she was, considered the limits of sanity.

Finally, after noticing the holes in Chrysalis’s legs growing larger from lack of feeding, Cherry Berry used the upcoming transfer of training equipment from the hive to the space center as an excuse to declare a moratorium on all training. She then browbeat the queen into going out and doing whatever she needed to do to feed herself back up to training weight. Chrysalis disappeared for a week, during which reclusive wealthy socialite Cool Drink appeared in Los Pegasus and provided the tabloid press with enough material for weeks of supermarket reading.

And then Chrysalis turned up at the new space center in Horseton, personally supervising the assembly of the simulators, checking off the final stages of construction on the vehicle assembly building and tracking centers, and working off whatever weight she’d managed to gain from the shallow love of Los Pegasus’s elite.

She’d even begun actually studying the chemistry behind the rocket engines. That shocked Cherry worse than anything else. Chrysalis hated the scientific details of the space program. Learning from a book bored her to tears. (That is, any book that didn't have Daring Do or a mare with her blouse half ripped off on the cover.)

And then, just when Cherry was seriously beginning to worry about a royal nervous breakdown, the invitation from Twilight Sparkle to the Equestrian Space Agency’s next launch arrived. That took everypony’s mind off the previous flight and Chrysalis’s mental state, to Cherry Berry’s intense relief.

Now, in the comfort of the padded chair with a pegasus-eye view of the upcoming launch, she pulled a small basket of cherries out of her saddlebag and settled back to enjoy the show. I’ve had a tense month, she thought. Now I am going to relax, and no temperamental changeling queen is going to ruin it for me.

Meanwhile, next to her, the changeling queen in question sat stoically on her chair and tried to pretend she wasn’t jealous of the currently absent pony princess and her friends.

“Dash, you all right in there?” Applejack served as both mission planner and capsule communicator, although the ponies had not yet seen the need for strict control of the communications channel through the telepresence spell between pilot and ground.(80)

“Yeah, of course I’m all right,” Rainbow Dash said from the cockpit. “Are we ready to light this thing yet?”

“Hold on there,” Applejack said. “We’re waitin’ on confirmation of th’ retrieval team bein’ in position.”

“Well, tell ‘em to hurry up!” Dash replied. “I’m ready to be awesome!”

Good-natured laughter rang around the mission control room, of a kind which never happened at CSP.

A pony sat down next to Chrysalis. The changeling queen glanced over to see Twilight Sparkle, Princess of Friendship and head of the ESA, letting out a sigh of relief. “I finally got the press set up on the roof,” she said. “You’d think an hour doing nothing but taking photos of the two of us would be enough.”

“Pony world problems,” Chrysalis muttered.(81)

“By the way,” Twilight murmured, “thank you for recommending me to Ad Astra.” She gestured to the Canterlot Royal Astronomical Society observer, who had taken a seat in the back row of the mission control workstations. “I found her counterfactual scenarios interesting.” After a pause she continued, voice unchanged, “I would have found them more interesting without the illustrations.”

“Once seen, never forgotten,” Chrysalis agreed.

“Luna is beginning to complain,” Twilight added, her tone taking just the slightest measure of accusation, “about all the magical cockroach monsters she’s had to remove from my nightmares.”

“So, what are your contracts for this mission?” Chrysalis asked innocently.

“Hm? Oh, no contracts,” Twilight said. “This is a purely experimental flight. We’re reproducing CSP’s Mission Four with hemispherical nose cones added to the outboard Flea engines.” Now her voice oozed smugness. “A development made possible by the wind tunnel in our expanded research and development department, headed by my student Starlight Glimmer.”

“I’m sure Dr. von Brawn’s assistants-“

“Partners,” von Brawn rumbled, not sounding particularly offended.

“-and my changelings will enjoy seeing it on the tour,” Chrysalis continued. “But toys aren’t everything, my dear.” Chrysalis had expected a game of one-upsmareship with the princess, and she had come with a full arsenal. “We’ve just finished construction on our tracking station and our vehicle assembly building, so in the next week or two we’ll begin test launches of several new engine systems. Doctor, the briefing materials?”

Von Brawn reached into Cherry Berry’s saddlebags(82) and pulled out a small binder, which he offered to the princess. Twilight took it with her magic, opened it, and flipped past the abstract to the illustrations. “Two liquid fuel systems?” she asked.

“Goddard the Griffon’s first fruits,” Chrysalis replied. “His ‘Reliant’ design is his first full-size production engine. The ‘Swivel’ has a bit less thrust and weighs more, but it can be steered, providing for greater maneuverability in flight.”

Twilight turned a page. “And these must be the fuel tanks?”

“Two different sizes depending on your needs,” Chrysalis agreed. “All perfectly interlocking for simple assembly, using a fuel-oxidant dual-liquid propellant.”(83)

“This is fascinating!” Twilight Sparkle gasped. “If these numbers are correct, even the less powerful of these two engines produces more thrust than the Flea!”

“The Flea,” von Brawn rumbled, “was never meant to be anything more than a disposable(84) engine to be used only for brief flight tests. Dr. Goddard’s engines can be provided with as much or as little fuel as one wishes and can be throttled up or down- their speed and fuel consumption controlled, as is impossible with solid fuel motors.”

“Fascinating,” Twilight Sparkle repeated.

“We’re also working on larger solid rockets to use as boosters,” von Brawn said, “much like the two outboard engines on your current launch. One is already in production, and another-“

“Shh!” Cherry Berry spoke up, nudging the changeling queen on one side and the minotaur on the other. “Soarin’ just flew in! The Wonderbolts must finally be in position.” She tossed her empty carton of cherries and pulled another carton out of her saddlebag. “Looks like we’re about to have a show!”

“And I suppose my subjects are going to miss it,” Chrysalis muttered.

“I’m sure they’re enjoying their tour with Fluttershy,” Twilight Sparkle remarked coldly.

Footnotes:

(78) For one thing, the CSP mission control didn’t have a visitor’s gallery at all. It took Cherry Berry hours to convince Chrysalis that she needed someplace to put VIPs, Twilight Sparkle for example, when they returned the visits CSP personnel had taken to shamelessly spy on the other space programs.

(79) CSP used a jumble of tables and desks, all sharing the single huge telepresence display, and mainly working with paper and pencil. Occupant in particular was complaining about the effect pencil shavings had on his stomach.

(80) Although loud simultaneous shouting arguments were not unknown among ponies, they were nothing like as common as among changelings, never mind the multi-species CSP. In the absence of a queen to tell them to cut it out, changeling arguments could last all day, mutate from one dispute to another, and totally switch arguing positions in the process. This common experience gives changelings in general a profound insight into the value of peace and quiet.

(81) Despite the program’s achievements, the Equestrian press had chosen not to pay a visit to either the hive or the still-under-construction Horseton Space Center… except for the Manehattan Weekly Supermarket Snoop, whose reporter had been stuck in a pod and mailed back to Manehattan labeled RETURN TO SENDER, DELIVERY REFUSED. The writer, once released by her editor, had written an article about her visit entitled SEVEN SURE-FIRE WAYS TO MAKE YOURSELF UNAPPETIZING TO CHANGELINGS.

(82) He had to dig under several baskets of cherries to get to them. Cherry intended to do absolutely nothing except watch the flight, and she had come prepared with her favorite snack.

(83) Chrysalis had memorized the terms in training. She'd only learned what they actually meant in the previous week or so. Still, she could rattle the words off on command, and that was what counted now.

(84) Chrysalis reflected, not for the first time, how difficult it was proving to dispose of the vast number of engines the minotaurs had built before she bought them out. Another couple of months might do it, at current sales and consumption rates. And the engines which had come home were being reconditioned and refueled for reuse or resale, so more than likely they’d never run out.

The Equestrian Space Agency had been shocked, not to say appalled, when they received Changeling Space Program’s RSVP for one hundred and fourteen guest passes. The number of non-changeling members of the CSA was well known, so very elementary math showed the vast majority of the passes would be for changelings.

But ESA had announced the flight, and they couldn't say no now. CSP’s construction workers were due a couple of days off, partly due to the highest-priority buildings having been completed, partly due to the three solid days of rain that Eye Wall had insisted on bringing to the Muck Lake(85) area. Given the combination of factors, Chrysalis had decided to give the changelings working at the space center a break, chartering a barge to carry every single employee north to Baltimare. They arrived in the evening, giving the citizens of the fair city on the bay a night they would never forget.

The world had seen changeling infiltration, changeling subversion and changeling invasion, but ponies simply didn’t know how to deal with changeling tourists.(86) In the battle which followed many a roll of film was shot, many restaurants and theaters were conquered, and the casualty list filled the floors of the harbor’s watering holes.

Baltimare survived the night with only a couple of minor legal entanglements(87), and the next morning all of the changelings arrived at Cape Friendship, a considerable majority of them wearing I HEART BALTIMARE shirts or caps,(88) all with fresh rolls of film in their cameras. In their wake came dozens of reporter ponies plus a newsgriffon, some following up on “Changeling Gras”, some having heard of the meeting between Queen Chrysalis and Princess Twilight Sparkle, and some just showing up for the launch without having heard of the one hundred and fourteen surplus visitors.

Chrysalis and Twilight, wanting to be able to speak to one another on business at some point during the day, sent most of the changelings, plus three minotaurs, on a tour of the ESA facility led by backup pilot Fluttershy(89). The tour had been most successful, from mission control to Astronaut Village to the vast recovery-airship hangar to the tracking station.

And then came the research and development facilities, which Fluttershy had expected would be the most uninteresting to the changelings. The three minotaurs, having their own labs, only asked a few questions which Fluttershy couldn’t answer before observing in silence. The changelings, however, poked and prodded at almost everything, asking question after question until Fluttershy was ready to scream.

It was Dragonfly who first noticed The Thing.

“What’s that?” she asked, pointing to a large glass-walled chamber with a large control panel in front.

“Oh, that’s our wind tunnel,” Fluttershy said. “Using those controls we create strong winds that create the conditions of high-speed flight. By using models of our ships and smoke streams, we can see how air currents affect our spaceships and adjust our designs to make them more aerodynamic.”

One changeling raised its hoof. “What’s aerodynamic?” he asked.

“Able to fly better,” Fluttershy said.

Stinger Charlie nudged Dragonfly. “I’m more aerodynamic than you,” he said.

“You know you’re not,” Dragonfly snapped.

“Am too,” Stinger Charlie said.

“Which one of us is a pilot,” Dragonfly hissed, “and which one is ground crew and recovery team?”

“Which one of us,” Stinger Charlie snapped back, “is a pilot who’s never flown a rocket yet?”

Dragonfly’s eyes narrowed. “Right, that’s it,” she said. “I’ll show you who’s more aerodynamic. Miss Fluttershy, how do you work this thing?”

“Er,” Fluttershy mumbled in a very definite way. “I, um, don’t think we should play with the wind tunnel… if you don’t mind…”

“Actually,” one of the minotaurs, George Cowley, interrupted, “I should be extremely interested to see this machine in action. Would it do any harm to changelings?”

“Well, not at relatively low speeds,” Fluttershy admitted, “so long as the wind strength never goes higher than terminal velocity.”

“Ah, yes,” Cowley nodded sagely. “A wind stronger than the air pressure of terminal velocity would slam the changeling into a wall, wouldn’t it? Very well,” he said, looking at the controls, “I see no reason why we could not give it a try.”

“Um… I don’t know about this…” Fluttershy muttered, shifting uncomfortably on her hooves.

Footnotes:

(85) The name the villagers of Horseton gave the tidal inlet that ran next to the rapidly arising space center.

(86) And thanks to paychecks from Chrysalis and a bit of generosity from casino part-owner Lucky Cricket, the changeling tourists had come bearing money and an inclination to spend it. This made the mental adjustment in pony merchants’ minds considerably smoother than it might have been otherwise, particularly when it was discovered that your average changeling has much less spending discipline than your average pony.

(87) Chrysalis was not amused by the changelings who claimed their capture of a newlywed couple was merely for sport. Even less amused was Twilight Sparkle, who explained with more patience than was probably justified that Equestrian laws on kidnapping did not include exceptions for “catch and release.”

(88) One very fast-moving souvenir vendor had managed to get I CHANGELING BALTIMARE in print in time for some of the CSP workers to snag that as well. Dragonfly wore I HEART on a cap and I CHANGELING on a shirt. However, the vendor ended up selling a lot more of his new design to Baltimare natives than to any changelings.

(89) Who told them they would only get to visit the gift shop if they were very, very good for the rest of the tour.

“… and we have splashdown! Splashdown at nine point nine kilometers downrange!”

The ponies in mission control cheered and danced around as if they’d all drawn the winning number in a Los Pegasus lottery. Chrysalis snorted. “Unprofessional,” she muttered.

“Oh, lighten up,” Cherry Berry grinned. “We’re ponies. We do things like that.”

“Don’t remind me.” Chrysalis turned her attention to Twilight Sparkle, who was scribbling like mad on a notepad. The pencil held in her magic danced down one page (flip) and up the other (flip).

“Hey, guys!” Rainbow Dash’s voice called over the illusion. “Capsule’s secure here. Ya wanna tell me how I did?”

“Max’mum velocity five ought seven meters a’second,” Big MacIntosh replied. “Altitude topped out at fifty-one hundred forty-two meters.”

“Hey, yeah!” Rainbow Dash laughed. “And almost ten kilometers downrange! That makes me twenty percent better than Cherry Berry!”

“Rainbow Dash, don’t you be like that!” Applejack replied. “Stick to yer own knittin’ an’ don’t mind what other ponies are doin’!”

Up in the visitor’s balcony Chrysalis leaned over to mutter to Cherry Berry, “Doesn’t that upset you? Her, gloating over her victory?”

“Our race is to the moon,” Cherry Berry said, not bothering to mutter. “We’re going to take back the lead as soon as these new engines come into play.”

Chrysalis noticed Twilight Sparkle’s scribbling accelerate slightly, but said nothing.

Back on the illusion, Rainbow Dash said, “Hey, Spitfire’s hooking up the lift cable now. Gotta go, see you back at base in fifteen!” Almost as soon as she spoke, the illusion flickered and died as the capsule shut down.

“Why don’t we go congratulate Rainbow Dash?” Cherry Berry asked. “That flight was almost perfect!”

Chrysalis shrugged and nodded agreement(90).

“For my part,” von Brawn said, “I shall investigate the vehicle assembly building. I might pick up more inspiration for new rocket designs.”

“Very well, Doctor.” Twilight’s smile as she turned her attention to the other two guests seemed, to Chrysalis’s eyes, a little forced. “Shall we go to the yard?” she asked, gesturing to the door with one hoof.

Of course Fluttershy chose that moment to barge into the door, screaming, “Twilight! Twilight!” before stopping and freezing at all the faces turned her way. “Er… um… I… have a minor… a teensy weensy little issue with the… er… thingy,” she whispered, trailing off to nothing under Chrysalis’s gaze.

The changeling queen sighed. “Have my subjects done something foolish again?” she asked.

“Oh, no!” Fluttershy denied. Then, “Well, maybe. Yes. But just a little.”

“Because of course they did,” Chrysalis grumbled.(91) “Your Highness, would you like me to accompany you?”

“I’m sure this is nothing that can’t be straightened out,” Twilight Sparkle said, her smile containing a definite grit-teeth component. “You and Cherry Berry go say hello to Rainbow Dash, and I’ll straighten this out myself.”

As Chrysalis and Cherry Berry watched Fluttershy and Twilight Sparkle leave, Cherry asked, “Why didn’t Twilight want you with her? Doesn’t she need you to give orders to the others?”

“If she has any good sense,” Chrysalis muttered, “she senses a trap. She thinks she can handle a hundred changelings, but not if I’m in the fight myself.” She shrugged. “Bad Idea #717; False Peace Negotiations Kidnapping. I could make it work up until the point I had Sparkle in a pod, but that leaves three very angry alicorns unaccounted for. A tactically deficient(92) position, I’m sure you’ll agree.”

Cherry Berry considered this, then shrugged. “So long as you think she can handle it,” Cherry said. “Let’s go see the capsule retrieval.”

Footnotes:

(90) Chrysalis didn’t feel like breaking her Professional Pilot façade. Also, whining, “Do I haaave to?” is not a thing a powerful changeling queen does, as her late mother had reminded her time and time again.

(91) Not every changeling can be a successful infiltrator, and CSP’s staff were mainly drawn from those who weren’t, but even so Chrysalis believed that being out in the open caused her subjects to lose the little discretion they ever had. Yet another reason, she believed, that secrecy was better for changelingkind, at least until she succeeded in her conquest of the ponies.

(92) “tactically deficient,” adj. Describing a position you’ve put yourself in by choice, from which there is no possible happy outcome. Synonyms: “doomed,” “totally bucked,” and “it seemed like a good idea at the time.”

The first thing Twilight noticed was the lone changeling sitting at a table with a stack of books. The changeling was reading, with every sign of enjoyment, Elementary Principles of Non-Magical Physics. As Fluttershy and Twilight stared, the changeling slowly turned a page, oblivious to their presence.

This was remarkable only partly for the inherent discontinuity of a changeling reading books(93). What made the tableau truly compelling was how the changeling, lost in a young readers’ textbook, completely ignored the commotion in the room next door.

The roaring wind noises and the happy chittering and laughter of changelings required quite a lot of ignoring.

Fluttershy led Twilight into the wind tunnel chamber. Most of the changelings were standing in single file, eagerly waiting their own turn in the chamber. Cowley the minotaur had found out how to switch the tunnel from horizontal to vertical blow and had generated a massive updraft, inside which about a dozen changelings tumbled, hovered, and roughhorsed with obvious glee. A group of changelings assisted those exiting the chamber, some of whom were a bit motion-sick as they readjusted to the outside. Dragonfly, Stinger Charlie, and a few of the strongest flyers among the changelings had taken printouts of their own time in the chamber and were comparing notes, each defending particular qualities of their bodies which made their particular flying styles better.

And then there was the one responsible changeling in the room, Occupant, who far from stopping the madness was quite cheerfully metering the line, letting one changeling into the wind tunnel as another tumbled out.(94)

“I tried to tell them to stop,” Fluttershy whimpered. “I asked most politely. But they were having so much fun, and… well…”

“I understand,” Twilight said, walking over to the responsible changeling(95), intent on bringing the shenanigans to an end. Scientific equipment was not meant to be used as a toy, no matter how good it was at keeping lots of changelings out of more serious trouble.

And just as Occupant noticed her, his ear-fins drooping sadly, something in the back of Twilight Sparkle’s brain made her pause.

She shifted her right wing, where she held the briefing binder on upcoming CSP rocket technology, with its wonderful rockets and things and stuff that all required testing.

And then Twilight Sparkle had an Idea.

An awful idea.

Twilight Sparkle had a WONDERFUL awful idea.

“Aww,” Occupant moaned, “I kind of expected Uncle Pointy would make a lousy scout.”

The changeling at the front of the line sighed, “Does this mean we don’t get to visit the gift shop?”

“Actually,” Twilight Sparkle drawled, choosing her words carefully, “I just came to remind you that the gift shop will be closing soon, so you need to get over there to get your souvenirs.”

“YAAAAAAY!” Dozens of changelings flocked next to a startled Fluttershy.

“Now, Fluttershy will take everypony to the gift shop,” Twilight continued, “while I talk with Mr. Occupant about maybe… just maybe… getting you all a wind tunnel of your own?”

“YAAAAAAY!!!”

With cheering and shouting and laughter the crowd of changelings gradually exited the wind tunnel room, with Cowley shutting down the wind tunnel and shooing out the last few lingering changelings. Trailing along behind, holding a book in one hoof while carrying the others in his magic, Uncle Pointy the changeling scout followed.

“Do you really mean it?” Occupant asked. “A wind tunnel of our very own?”

“Sure!” Twilight Sparkle said, smiling in a most friendly fashion. “All you have to do is perform a few special tests…”

Footnotes:

(93) This is unfair to changelings, most of whom are literate and many of whom enjoy the occasional good book. Just because they are magical monsters dedicated to world conquest and draining emotions out of victims does not mean they are all mindless, uncultured brutes. Their love of professional pegasus wrestling should not be held against them, as they follow the sport “only for the story.”

(94) Occupant has been the test changeling, had taken a good long turn while Cowley learned the controls, and was content to keep things orderly so that everyling could have a turn in the Fun Machine.

(95) Twilight was SO grateful for Occupant’s buck teeth. She didn’t want to admit that all changelings looked the same to her. Yes, they tried to conquer Canterlot, ruin her brother’s wedding, and kill her friends, but that didn’t excuse a pony being speciesist.

“…so the secret,” Rainbow Dash said, thoroughly enjoying the attention of the press and particularly of Chrysalis and Cherry Berry, “is not to try to make any hard turns. You have to think ahead in rocket flight and make only little, careful adjustments. If you try to make a hard turn when you’re going that fast you’re only going to lose control. Little adjustments, that’s the key.”

“I’ve noticed the exact same thing,” Cherry Berry agreed. “But it’s not just about little adjustments. You have to get it in your head that you can’t make hard turns in a rocket. It’s all about carried momentum. You can’t make a tight turn without slowing down, and if you do slow down you’ve wasted the fuel you used to get that fast.”

Rainbow Dash spared a half-second glare for Cherry Berry before continuing, “That’s right. You really have to think ahead if you want to fly a rocket.”

Twilight Sparkle walked up to the group of reporters surrounding the pilots. Occupant trailed along behind, looking considerably worried. “Thanks for coming, everypony,” she said, “but I’m afraid we need Dashie for her mission debriefing, and we need to get to work reconditioning the rocket, so it’s time for you all to go.”

This announcement was greeted with the usual grumbling by the press corps, which always wants a few minutes longer for a celebrity to hopefully say something embarrassing.

“But before you go, I have an announcement,” Twilight Sparkle continued. “I’ve been speaking with Mr. Occupant, the changeling who plans the missions for the Changeling Space Program, and he’s agreed to launch a special test rocket for ESA a week from tomorrow!”

“WHAT??”

Every eye turned to Chrysalis. Two dozen pencils hovered or waggled at the ready over blank notebook pages.

The changeling queen, political survival sense kicking into high gear, continued with barely a pause, “Your Highness, we had intended to wait for the regional weather schedule to be confirmed before making the announcement! We don’t want to inconvenience the busy, hardworking weatherponies, after all!”

“Oh, you’re totally right!” Twilight Sparkle replied. “I’ll have to talk it over with the pony in charge there and adjust the schedule to make sure launch day is clear.”

“Er… we’ll want two days clear, actually,” Chrysalis improvised. Eye Wall would grudgingly agree to a one-day change in schedule, but surely never two, the stubborn, overbearing… “You never know when a technical glitch can tie things up for hours.”

“Oh, I agree!” Twilight Sparkle nodded. “I’m sure it’ll be no trouble. I’ll take care of it personally.”

Chrysalis glared at Occupant, who wouldn’t return her gaze. “Then I shall see you in eight days,” she said, accepting defeat. “Meanwhile, my staff must return to Baltimare for the evening. We have to take ship back to our space center early in the morning, after all.”

“Actually-“

Chrysalis plowed forward over Twilight Sparkle’s objections. “I’m sure you’ve arranged for the merchants of Baltimare to show us more of their world-renowned hospitality,” she said, “which of course we shall return to those ponies joining us at the special launch. Surely Mr. Occupant reminded you of that during your… negotiations?”

Occupant looked like he wanted to bury himself. At that moment Chrysalis would have been delighted to help with the digging.

“Er… sure he did!” Twilight replied. Chrysalis noticed the alicorn beginning to sweat, holding her smile in place by force of will.

Suffer, pony, Chrysalis thought. You’re much less experienced at this kind of negotiation than I am. You only win this round because you got to someone even less experienced who I can’t publicly undermine.

But when I get you in private, Occupant…

“Excuse me.” Cherry Berry spoke up, breaking the tense tableau. “But as the pony who will fly this special launch, I need to take Occupant aside and discuss the mission goals and procedures.” The earth pony, Chrysalis noted, had an advantage; as a pilot with serious business ahead, rather than a political figure, she didn’t have to keep smiling. And she wasn’t even trying to.

In fact, Chrysalis thought, based on that glare she might actually be angrier with my little changeling than I am. I might need to go along and protect him…

… at least to make sure there are enough pieces of him left for me to have my own turn at him.


“You agreed to WHAT?”

“I’m sorry! I’m sorry!” Occupant bowed deeply before Cherry Berry(96). “I didn’t have a choice!”

“You didn’t have the authority!” Cherry Berry growled. “You do NOT get to accept missions without Chrysalis or myself signing off on it first!”

“I know, I know!” Occupant whimpered. “But if I said no, I’d have to tell the others that I said no to them getting a brand new Fun Machine!”

“What,” Chrysalis asked archly, “is a ‘fun machine’?”

Bit by bit Occupant managed to explain the wind tunnel and the changeling shenanigans involved. By the time he was done, Chrysalis had almost come around to his side. True, he shouldn’t have signed the contract, but he didn’t have the stature of a queen to ignore the strong desires of the hive.

Indeed, she noted as Fluttershy led the souvenir-laden(97) changeling tour towards them, even a queen defies the wishes of the hive at her own peril. Which is why I insisted on the second night in Baltimare, and why I don’t expect a copper back of all those bits I doled out as mad-money.

And the wishes of the hive were blatantly clear, since at least a quarter of the hundred-odd changelings were singing a happy little song: “We’re gonna get a fun machine, we’re gonna get a fun machine…”

“How expensive is a wind tunnel,” Chrysalis asked, “if you paid cash instead of trade?”

“Very expensive,” Cherry Berry replied. “I’ve never heard of one outside of Cloudsdale, Canterlot, or the Wonderbolts training camp before.”

“Oh,” Chrysalis grumbled. “Wonderful.”

Footnotes:

(96) Technically this was lese majeste, bowing to a common pony in the presence of his rightful queen, but Chrysalis was willing to let it slide. For one thing, she had put Cherry Berry in overall charge of the program. For another… she didn’t want to be on the wrong end of that glare herself. The gentle, happy-go-lucky pony could be terrifying when someone got between her and cherries, or between her and a safe flight.

(97) When Filthy Rich saw the sales totals from his licensed gift shop for the day, he would be delighted. Most notably, Uncle Pointy had quietly purchased one of each book on the gift shop shelves, including the newly released “Daring Do and the Crystal Comet,” written by Reserve Pilot A. K. Yearling, ESA.

Looking back, all involved were grateful that none of them had uttered the words, “How hard can it be?” The answer, as it turned out when they examined the contracts, was, “very.”

The main contract was subdivided into three separate contracts with a codicil. The separate contracts, in more or less order, were: (1) Fly a parachute up to between 4,000 and 7,000 meters, at a speed between 130 and 210 meters per second; (2) Fly a Flea booster up, holding between 460 and 540 meters per second between 12,000 and 18,000 meters; and (3) fire one of the new Hammer boosters at 16,000 meters at a minimum starting velocity of 440 meters per second. The codicil required that all three tests be performed on the same rocket, on a certain date, said rocket also to include both a Reliant and a Swivel liquid-fuel engine. The individual contracts were still valid after the date, but if any of the tests failed, or if the changelings simply didn’t launch, Twilight Sparkle would have the right to reclaim the wind tunnel plus a very substantial penalty payment.

Chrysalis and Occupant both did the math, and then they called George Bull in to check their sums. Looking at the final sum, Chrysalis said, “This could break us, you know.”

“I’m trying not to think about that,” Cherry Berry said, looking at the same numbers. “This is like a win-win for Twilight, if you think she’s evil enough to want to bankrupt us.”

“She might be,” Chrysalis said, “but she’s not competent enough. I think she just saw a way to get us to do a test flight for her, and she got carried away with herself.”

“Going three times as high as we’ve ever gone before is a bit more than just carried away!” Cherry Berry said.

“Depends on whether the buzzard’s new engines perform as advertised,” Chrysalis replied.

And if failing the flight didn’t break the Changeling Hive, the rush to get some minimum level of hospitality in place for the press and pony dignitaries might. Horseton’s hotel rooms were confined to the upper story of the general store(98). The space program was still working out of the temporary shack. There was no gift shop or anything even remotely resembling entertainment for visitors. All these things had to be remedied in less than a week.

Fortunately for them, as Chrysalis pointed out, the changelings had a major advantage: overwhelming free labor. Three hundred more changelings were temporarily transferred from the hive to join the now semi-skilled construction changelings on-site.(99) Top priority was given to expanding and finishing the new mission control building, with the temporary building to be converted into the new gift shop. Second priority would go to getting the astronaut training center far enough along to allow ponies to use it as a temporary hotel. Workers and building materials were pulled off the research center, the administration building, and the hangar.

Reserve funds were tapped to buy additional building materials, which arrived on the same barges that brought a new capsule, six Hammers, three Reliants, three Swivels, and a couple dozen fuel tanks, plus one other development that Goddard and von Brawn had been cooking up together… which, Goddard explained at a meeting after he arrived at the space center, might be enough by itself to achieve the mission goals.

“What is it?” Chrysalis asked, looking at the picture of a metal ring taped to the chalkboard in the astronaut facility’s briefing room.

“This is a decoupler,” von Brawn said. “Goddard has tested the concept and found it sound, and I contracted some friends back home in the mining business to manufacture them.”

“Great. What’s a decoupler?” Chrysalis asked.

“It’s an explosive charge,” Goddard answered simply, “that separates part of the rocket from the rest of it, allowing the pilot to dump useless weight and thus fly higher and faster.”

“But there isn’t any useless weight on a rocket,” Cherry Berry said. “We make sure of that.”

“Do we?” Goddard asked. For once the old griffon seemed to smile, just a little. “Do you remember Chrysalis’s most recent flight? We staged the engines separately, trying to extend the flight time.”

“Which worked,” Chrysalis said, “even if little else did.”

“But your rocket still had to haul two burned-out engines,” Goddard said. “You could have saved about a ton of weight if you could have dropped those pods before lighting the other engines.”

“Making the rocket lighter,” Cherry Berry nodded, “which would make the thrust more efficient. Yes, I can see it.”

“And what happens to the parts that drop?” Chrysalis asked.

“What happens when anything gets dropped? It falls,” Goddard said, the smile vanishing under the influence of a Stupid Question. “And presumably goes splash or boom depending on what’s beneath it.”

“You can’t do that!” Cherry and Chrysalis said in the same breath.

“What if it drops on someone?” Cherry asked.

“How can we reuse or resell it if it breaks into a million pieces?” Chrysalis asked.

“Better them than you,” Goddard snapped, “to both of you! Once a rocket burns out, it’s useless! We can’t refuel them on the fly, they weigh down the craft and slow it down- why not get rid of it?”

“Because it costs money, that’s why!” Chrysalis shouted back.

“I know it does!” Goddard returned glare for glare. “But I’ve done the math, and that’s just what you’ll have to spend to get into space! Besides, there’s a hard limit to what we can bring down under parachutes anyway!”

“That’s what you think!” Chrysalis replied. “Dragonfly designed a new parachute that we can stick on the sides of things! Now we can put all the parachutes in the world on a ship-“

“And all that unnecessary weight slows us down!” Goddard snapped. “Detaching the used fuel tanks and engines is the only way we can reduce our fuel consumption and gain delta-V.”

“What’s delta-V?” Chrysalis asked.

Goddard looked at Cherry Berry. “Didn’t you teach this in your astronaut training?”

Cherry shrugged. “Calculating delta-V requires calculus,” she said. “I just barely got to algebra in school.”

Goddard sighed the universal sigh of all scientists being forced to explain things to the innumerate. “Delta-V is a mathematics term,” he said. “Delta being the fourth letter of the ancient minotauran alphabet, symbolizing change, and v for velocity. Two symbols.”

“Leave it to scientists,” Chrysalis grumbled, “to make up a new word for speed.”

“Acceleration,” Goddard corrected her automatically. He grabbed a piece of chalk in his talons and sketched out some equations on the chalkboard. “Since neither of you knows calculus(100), I’ll avoid differentials. But you probably know that the heavier something is, and the faster it’s going, the harder it hits, right?” He pointed to the first equation: F=ma. “Force equals mass multiplied by acceleration. Right?”

“Of course,” Chrysalis acknowledged.

“But we can tweak this equation to define acceleration,” Goddard continued, pointing to the second equation: a=F/m. “Acceleration equals force divided by mass. Do I need to explain how I got here?”

“We had this much in Cherry’s pilot training,” Chrysalis said. “We also had these line drawings to show how thrusts in X and Y direction added up to going in direction Z.”

“Unfortunately that’s as far as I could go,” Cherry admitted. “I was focusing on vocabulary and theory more than math anyway.”

“I’ll keep it simple,” Goddard grumbled. “So what happens when, for example, we apply a force of ten to a mass of five. Acceleration equals two, right?” The third equation: 2 = 10 / 5.

“I see it, yes.”

“But what if we apply the same force to something with a mass of only two?” Goddard rubbed out the first number and replaced the third, leaving: __ = 10 / 2.

“Ten divided by two is five,” Chrysalis said.

“Which is a lot more than two,” Goddard finished. “This is why your acceleration goes slightly up the longer your rocket burns; as you use up fuel the ship becomes a little lighter, so you get more acceleration out of your force.” He began sketching out a long equation. “This will be a long one,” he muttered as he sketched, “and bear in mind I’m simplifying down enough for that idiot Occupant to understand, never mind a queen. The actual result requires enough math that von Brawn’s crew invented a machine to do it for them.” Under his breath he grumbled, “And they always beg for more money to build a better one, Faust help us.”

“The cost of advancing technology,” von Brawn said, unruffled by Goddard’s complaint.

The final result was actually two equations:

a = (f1/m1) + (f2/m2) + (f3/m3)
? = (18 / 9) + (18 / 9) + (9 / 9).

“Now,” Goddard said, “let’s ignore the aerodynamic problems of your last flight. Five Fleas on your rocket, yes? So let’s say you launch burning two, then burning two more, and then burning the final one last. All the motors stay attached. That means the mass is constant for all three burns. Do you see it?”

“You’re not accounting for the fuel burning up and lightening the ship,” Chrysalis pointed out.

“I told you I’m simplifying,” Goddard snapped. “The chalkboard’s only so big. Anyway, we do the math and get…” He sketched out under the second equation: 2 + 2 + 1 = 5. “A total acceleration of five.”

“Five whats?”

“Just five. Simplifying.” Goddard paused to clear chalk out of his claw. “But,” he continued, using his tail to brush away the last line of math, “what if you dropped two engines each time you hit burnout? And say that two engines equals one-third of the ship’s starting mass.”

He rubbed out the nines in the second equation and rewrote it:

? = (18 / 9) + (18 / 6) + (9 / 3).

“At each stage after the first,” Goddard pointed out, “the ship is lighter, so the same force produces much more acceleration.”

He completed the math: 2 + 3 + 3 = 8.

“Instead of five, we now have eight,” Goddard said. “A sixty percent improvement in acceleration. Imagine your last ship going sixty percent faster, higher, farther.”

Chrysalis’s face went a bit pale. “I’d rather not,” she said.

Goddard chuckled. “Fair enough. But do you see my point? More flight for less fuel. And that,” he pointed one final time to the griffon-scratches on the chalkboard, “is what the decouplers can do for us.” He smiled slightly once more as he added, “To tell the truth, I’m expecting gains of a lot more than sixty percent.”

“It’s an expensive sixty percent if we can’t recover the parts,” Chrysalis said.

“How much are you willing to spend for the moon?” Cherry asked pointedly.

“The question is,” Chrysalis said, standing up and bringing the meeting to an end, “will I spend everything and not get to the moon because my subjects fell in love with a glorified ceiling fan?”

Footnotes:

(98) All three of them. It was easy to pick out the general store in Horseton. It was the only building in the village with more than one floor.

(99) The newcomers were told about the Fun Machine, shown photos taken during the tour of Cape Friendship, and plied with descriptions of how wonderful it was to play on the wind, effortless, weightless, with no danger of going splat. The newcomers were quickly won over to the cause, and as the work hours grew long and tempers short, the motto, “Do it for the Fun Machine,” put everyling back on track.

(100) The author had differentials very briefly his last semester in high school, barely got through the lesson, and has completely forgotten how to work them since. Furthermore, he doesn’t feel like working out how to present differential equations in a text format like this one, so he is grateful to Goddard for dumbing it down enough to demonstrate the principle while yielding no actual useful numbers for flight.

Work went forward. Cherry Berry and Chrysalis tried to squeeze flight training in between interruptions for one reason after another. Blueprints needed correction. Goods for the gift shop needed purchasing(101). The carpet for the astronaut quarters spontaneously combusted on the docks. One thing after another called Cherry, Chrysalis or both away from simulations, woke them up from sleep, postponed meals.

And then there was the rocket design.

“We only need to bring the Fleas up to altitude for Princess Twilight Sparkle’s test,” von Brawn said in his briefing. “Nothing in her brief says they can’t be fired before then, so we’ll light them up for initial thrust along with the first stage engine. That will be a Swivel for extra control. The first stage should be enough at least to get enough momentum to carry the ship to altitude for the parachute check.”

Von Brawn pointed to a sketch of the proposed design. “We decouple the first stage once its fuel is exhausted and ignite the second stage, also a Swivel, which should carry the ship up to altitude for the Flea and Hammer tests. Once the Hammers light, the ship will be under tremendous acceleration, probably with reduced control as we’ve experienced in the past. For that reason I’ve added fins to the first and second stages to keep the ship going straight.

“Once the Hammers burn out,” von Brawn continued, “we decouple and ignite the Reliant final stage, which will have just enough fuel to lengthen and flatten our trajectory. At the end of this burn the ship should be very high and fast in the atmosphere, bringing into play an issue we’ve not addressed before… atmospheric friction.” Von Brawn tapped the base of the capsule. “Thanks to the changelings working for us in Appleoosa, we’ve developed a special ablative material which gradually cooks off under heat, keeping whatever’s behind it relatively cool. We’ve built shields coated with this material, and one such will be on the base of the capsule, to be uncovered by the final decoupler.”

Von Brawn addressed the other CSP leaders gravely. “All of this presumes a perfectly nominal flight,” he said. “This test flight pushes the very limits of theoretical possibility of our new technology, if it does not exceed them altogether. I cannot stress enough that any pilot error or malfunction will lead to failure of one or more of our mission goals.”

In the moment of silence that followed, Chrysalis put a hoof on Cherry Berry’s back. “Well, it’s a good thing we have the single best pilot in any space program on Equus,” she said boldly. “If anypony can do it, Cherry Berry can!”

“Sure,” Cherry Berry agreed, her voice cracking as she said it. “No pressure.”

The rocket’s final design set, the orders were given to the rocket assembly crew, and everyone moved on to the next emergency of the moment. No further thought was given to the rocket; von Brawn, Goddard, Occupant, Cherry Berry and Chrysalis all found themselves busy all hours of the day and night.

Thus, on the day before the launch, when a royal barge carrying three large white objects, obviously rocket components, pulled up to the space center’s dock, already frayed nerves frayed just a little bit more. The barge belonged to Twilight Sparkle, who had arrived unannounced, practically unescorted, and a full day early.

Chrysalis and Cherry Berry had agreed on a script for the meeting, for when the reporters were present. The script went roughly thus: Welcome, Princess Twilight Sparkle, to Horseton Space Center. Two months ago this was swampland used only for growing hay and fishing. Today we are well on the way to having the finest state-of-the-art space center on the planet. We are most pleased to show you our facilities under construction and offer you the hospitality of our newly finished astronaut training center. Would you like to see our gift shop?

The combination of short sleep, shorter nerves, and Twilight’s unannounced arrival did not so much throw out the script as use it to line the cage underneath some pony’s pet salamander.(102)

What actually happened was, before Twilight could do more than begin her own greeting, Cherry Berry pointed a hoof at the barge’s cargo and shouted in a voice full of barely controlled rage, “WHAT are THOSE?”

“Oh, those are my newest development!” Twilight half-jumped, half-glided back onto the barge, using her magic to lift and turn one of the big white drums. Doors opened, revealing a host of thingamabobs and doohickeys. “I call it the Science Jr.! It’s a remarkable advancement on your ingenious mystery goo! It performs several materials experiments at once, automatically, and then keeps them secure for return to surface!”

“Brilliant,” Cherry Berry snapped. “We’ll take some. Talk with Occupant about the details. But why did you bring three? You didn’t need three to show us.”

“Well, the thing is,” Twilight Sparkle said, grinning eagerly and apparently with no recognition of just how angry Cherry Berry was, “since you’re already launching a rocket for me tomorrow, I was thinking we could just add these to it. You know, get more done at the same time.”

“No,” Cherry Berry said. It wasn’t a growl, but it carried the same tone of concentrated back-off that an ursa minor (or even major) might have at its disposal.

Chrysalis took two careful steps away from her lead test pilot and silently prayed the barge had no cardboard boxes on board.

“Why not?” Twilight asked. “It’ll save time, and they’re lightweight- only a quarter-ton each- it’ll just need a bit more-“

“I SAID NO!!!” Without the advantage of wings the earth pony was suddenly up in the princess’s face, prodding a hoof into her chest. “I’m already going to risk my life in an overloaded rocket full of components never before tested in flight! We’re already running the ragged edge of disaster to meet your contract! We don’t even know if it’s possible for ANYPONY to achieve your demands! You’re in a position to kill this entire program if anything goes wrong tomorrow! And you come in here asking us to PUT MORE THINGS ON THE ROCKET? To make it even heavier? More complicated? More DANGEROUS??

Green light surrounded Cherry Berry as Chrysalis pulled her lead pilot off of Twilight before things grew any worse. “Please forgive Cherry,” the changeling queen said smoothly. “We’ve been short of sleep lately, making sure everything’s ready for your test tomorrow.”

“But…” Twilight had lost her manic eagerness. It had fled from the raw fury of Cherry’s rant, leaving behind only hurt and bewilderment. “But it’s not like that at all,” she said. “I never meant to… I just wanted-“

“And I’m sure you’ll get what you wanted tomorrow,” Chrysalis finished. “But I think Cherry needs a meal, rest, and quiet. After all, she has a big day tomorrow.”

Cherry Berry, still held aloft in Chrysalis’s magic, said nothing, continuing to glare at the purple princess with fire in her eyes and righteous umbrage in her heart.

“Er… yes,” Twilight Sparkle said at last. “I suppose you’re all under a lot of pressure. I should have considered that. My apologies.” She gestured a wing to the three Science Jr's. “I’ll have the captain sail these back.”

“No, we’ll take them,” Chrysalis agreed. “We’ll put them to good use. But not on the next flight. We already have a full mission profile for that one.” Setting Cherry Berry down behind her she gestured towards the complex and said, as if the script had come off as planned, “Would you like to see our gift shop?”

Footnotes:

(101) Chrysalis had to reject a group of changelings who volunteered to be sold as “Life Size Cuddly Changeling Plushies- Scare the Monster in Your Closet Away with Brave Astro-Changelings!” That was in the File Cabinets of Stupid, #86: The Hoof That Rocks the Cradle, Variant 3.

(102) By which we do not mean newt. We mean that the paper the speech was written on would in short order be a mixture of ashes and much filthier substances, beyond all reconstitution into anything useful. Salamanders, unlike lazy unicorns, do not enjoy crossword puzzles.

The night before launch, the leaders of CSP and Twilight Sparkle were all sound asleep in the just-barely-finished astronaut quarters. The reporters, ESA observers, and others would arrive early in the morning, with launch scheduled for roughly midday. The paint was still drying inside the new Mission Control building, Occupant’s office still unfinished, the VIP balcony seats borrowed from every front porch in Horseton.(103) The only building finished in the research complex now housed the brand-new wind tunnel, which had arrived on the same barge as Twilight Sparkle and her three flying labs.(104)

With the big day in the morning, the entire space center was asleep, except for the rocket assembly crew, who had run into a major problem.

“How much does it weigh again?”

“Twenty-one tons,”

“Shoot.” Lucky Cricket paced the floor of the VAB, looking up at the many rocket components being held in place by over thirty changelings and their magic. Thirty more changelings, all trained and by now practiced in rocket assembly, waited for the word to be given before fixing the pieces in place. “We’re overweight. Badly overweight. Three tons over the maximum capacity of the launchpad.”

“But the brain-bull says we need all of it!” said Plastron, the changeling who had been put in charge of Health and Safety(105).

“Well, the launch pad won’t hold all of it!” Lucky Cricket insisted. “How can we lighten this thing?” He looked at the mission checklist. “Let’s begin with the final stage. That’s just to show we had the engine, really. It has so little fuel to begin with. Let’s cut that in half- only half-fill the tanks.”

“That doesn’t save us much,” Plastron noted.

“Right, right. We need everything in the other liquid tanks,” Lucky Cricket mumbled. “And we need the Fleas for extra thrust at the start. But the Hammers are only there for testing. Once they’re lit, the mission-critical tasks are over, and who cares where we go then?” He looked at the two big solid fuel boosters hovering overhead. “How much fuel can we remove from those without calling in von Brawn?”

“About a quarter, I think,” Plastron said. “That’s if they’re packed the same way a Flea is.”

“Right. Do it.”

The parts were lowered, the lifting changelings were given a break, and an hour was spent very carefully removing and storing solid rocket fuel.

“How much now?” Lucky Cricket asked, once the pieces were all lifted back into place.

“Still over by about half a ton,” Plastron said.

“Darn.” Lucky Cricket wasn’t an officer. He was First Alternate Pilot, which meant he had a little of the training, but no simulations, and certainly no hope of being on a flight unless something really horrible happened(106). Normally he wouldn’t even have a clipboard on his hoof; von Brawn or Cherry Berry would be holding it, giving the orders, making the decisions.

But they were all sound asleep, dead to the world, with the CSP’s most important launch to date the next day. None of them were available, not even Dragonfly, who was tasked with escorting the reporters.

Circumstances had conspired to leave Lucky Cricket in charge, which meant he had to make a decision. Something had to go, but what?

He looked at the mission checklist again. “What are those round things?” he asked. “There’s nothing in the mission about those round things.”

The four half-sphere things, two each sitting atop the Hammers and Fleas, floated up slightly, each controlled by only one changeling. “They’re hollow,” one of them said. “Dunno what they are. I think they’re just there to make the ship look pretty.”

Lucky Cricket looked at the top of one, with the sky-blue circle around the tiny white cone in the center. “Do they do anything at all?” he asked.

“They’re just hollow metal spheres,” the lifter changeling replied.

“If they don’t do anything and they take up weight,” Lucky Cricket said, “lose ‘em.”

The spheres were floated over to a corner and set down. The Hammers and Fleas floated in air, their flat tops starkly naked.

“How much now?”

“Seventeen point nine five tons,” Plastron replied.

“Thank Faust,” Lucky sighed. “At least this way we keep the fins.”

Footnotes:

(103) The ponies of Horseton believe that the occasional splinter builds character and that having one leg slightly shorter than the others just makes a chair more fun. At least, that’s what they say whenever the subject comes up of replacing the rickety, half-rotten thing on the porch with a new chair.

(104) The portable building formerly used for mission control had been converted into a combination gift shop and snack bar, run with an iron hoof by Heavy Frosting. Prominent among the T-shirt and ball cap racks was the legend, “I RODE THE FUN MACHINE AT CSP HORSETON SPACE CENTER.” Meanwhile, a speedboat was rushing through the night from Manehattan with a supply of helmets and padded jumpsuits to allow ponies to experience the glory of free-fall in air conditioned comfort.

(105) Which is to say, he was considered just responsible enough to be in charge of something, but far too incompetent to be in charge of anything important, at least by changeling standards. Thus, although he was an officer by title, he was not actually in charge in the VAB on this particular night or any other.

(106) Consider how lucky Mr. Cricket has been in the past, and then consider how significant it is that, heretofore, the horrible thing which would put him on the pilot roster has not yet happened. Obviously whatever spirit of fortune looked after this particular changeling had taken one look at a rocket, said, “Not MY boy,” and saw to the continuing good health of the regular pilots.

Morning came.

A full night’s rest had improved Cherry Berry’s mood, but only so much. Her apology to Twilight Sparkle was mumbling and sullen, though Twilight gladly accepted it and waved off any offense for the previous day’s rant. She managed to put on enough of a smile to pose in her pressure suit for the dozens of photographers and reporters who flocked in from Horseton or by boat after breakfast. The smile fled when she greeted Rainbow Dash at the docks, along with the rest of the core Equestrian space program leadership. For whatever reason Dash was still holding a grudge over Cherry Berry’s defection, and the earth pony hadn’t the energy to try to warm her up.

Photographs went on interminably, dragging well through the morning. It eventually took a score of changeling guards looking quietly menacing to get the reporters off to their special perch for the launch, allowing the royalty and the pilots to move to the VAB.

It was a short walk past the storage warehouse into the main assembly floor, but it stopped cold as soon as Chrysalis, leading the way, froze in the doorway.

“Hey, move over,” Cherry Berry grumbled, trying to push past. “I’ve got a ship to fly.” When the queen didn’t move, she put both forehooves on the queen’s rump and shoved. The queen said nothing, allowing herself to be pushed out of the way.

Then Cherry Berry saw what Chrysalis had seen, and she froze for a moment too.

The rocket rose from the VAB floor, precariously balanced on the bell of its first stage rocket like a minotaur muscle builder with size two hooves. The assembly crew, Lucky Cricket in the lead, stood by the rocket, ready to magically lift it and carry it the two miles out to the launchpad.

The vital aerodynamic nosecones were, as a Canterlot noble might say, conspicuous in their absence.

Recovering from her shock, Cherry Berry stomped across the building floor to Lucky Cricket. “Where are my aerodynamic nosecones?” she demanded.

“The what?” Lucky Cricket asked.

“I think she means the round things,” one of the other changelings said.

“Yes, the round things,” Cherry Berry acknowledged. “What did you do with them?”

“We put them back in storage,” Lucky Cricket said.

Cherry Berry’s purple-gray eyes turned red for a moment. She closed them, took several deep breaths, and continued, “And why did you do that, please?”

“The rocket was too heavy,” Lucky said. “Too much weight for the pad. We had to trim everything that wasn’t mission critical.” He gestured to the assembled rocket awaiting its pilot. “As it is, this rocket just barely comes in under the line.”

Cherry Berry’s rage faded, replaced by an all too familiar sensation. With few exceptions, panicky fear is a familiar thing among ponies, and although Cherry thought she had learned to control it, it was grabbing at her throat as she considered all the very, very bad things about this situation.

Hooves rang across the floor behind her. “Are you all right?” Chrysalis asked.

“There’s no way this rocket will make it,” Cherry Berry whispered.

“I know,” Chrysalis whispered back.

“We can’t spare time to redesign it from scratch,”

“I know that, too.”

“We’re bucked.”

“I know.”

“Think of something.”

“I’m trying!” Chrysalis’s whisper had become a hiss. “You’re the smart one, you think of something!”

“My job is flying these ships.” Cherry Berry’s reply would have done a changeling proud. “Being sneaky and underhanded is your department!”

“Are you ponies nuts?” Rainbow Dash had pushed past Twilight Sparkle to fly up to the rocket for her own inspection. Now she dropped down to the others. “You can’t let her fly this!” she shouted at Chrysalis. “It’s murder!” She turned her gaze to Cherry Berry. “It’s suicide!”

Inside Cherry Berry, pride roared up from her soul, smothered her fear, and drove it back to the shadows to whimper impotently. “Watch me,” she said. “Put me in, boys.”

“Wait,” Chrysalis said, as the changelings began to lift Cherry from the ground. The lift paused, leaving Cherry on her back, neck turned to face the changeling queen eye to eye. “Remember this, pony,” she said bluntly. “Don’t mess this up. You are not allowed to mess this up. Nopony wants a Bad Day.”

Cherry Berry, in full Professional Calm Pilot mode, nodded her head, then waved her hoof. The changelings lifted her up to the capsule, opening the hatch, sliding her in, securing the hatch tightly behind her.

“Wait, Chrysalis,” Twilight Sparkle protested, finally joining the others on the floor, “let her go! I’ll give you the wind tunnel free! You don’t have to do this!”

“On the contrary, princess,” Chrysalis hissed. “We do have to do this. You made sure this launch was announced to the world. You arranged it so that my own changelings won’t let me back down. Every pony and changeling outside this building expects a launch today. And if we don’t launch your tests, we will lose all credibility as a space program.” She stomped a hoof, adding, “Even if we try and fail, we’ll be better off than if we gave up completely!”

The queen’s green eyes looked more reptilian and unforgiving than Twilight could ever remember seeing them, as they pinned her in place. “I want you to remember this,” Chrysalis continued, “the next time you have the clever idea to try to maneuver someone else into doing something. And also remember this.” She leaned forward, horn almost touching horn, to hiss, “I already have ample reason to want revenge on you, Sparkle. If this flight costs me my top pilot, I will merely add it to the list!

And then Chrysalis walked past Twilight, heading back towards the door. “Smiles, everyone!” she called out, sounding cheerful. “It’s a beautiful day for a launch!”

Behind her she could just hear two ponies talking.

“Are you gonna let her push you around like that?”

“I really didn’t mean for this to happen, Dash… I just hope nothing bad happens…”


For the first time in forever, Cherry Berry didn’t want to fly.

“Mission Six, this is Horseton,” Chrysalis’s voice echoed through Cherry Berry’s helmet. “Final systems check in progress,” she said. “Stand by for go/no go on launch.”

“Mission Six standing by,” Cherry Berry said. Yeah, she added mentally, standing by. Lying on my back on top of ten separate bombs welded together in a unit which is going to do its best to kill me.

Thanks a lot, Twilight Sparkle. If I live to see you again I’m going to remind you how the road to Tartarus is paved with good intentions.

I’m riding in a ship with the same or worse aerodynamics as Mission Five with at least four times the total thrust. If something goes wrong I’ll be going fast enough to leave a crater in the ocean. If seaponies exist, they’ll be impressed by the boom.

“Mission Six, Horseton,” Chrysalis said again, breaking Cherry Berry’s morbid thoughts. “Verify checklist of flight tasks.”

Cherry Berry glanced at the chart clamped to one wall of the capsule. “Maintain velocity between one-thirty and two-ten em pee ess between four thousand and seven thousand meters altitude for parachute systems check,” she said. “Hold velocity between four hundred sixty and five hundred sixty em pee ess beginning at twelve thousand meters for Flea systems check. Test-fire Hammer booster engines at sixteen thousand meters. Evaluate efficiency and usefulness of Swivel and Reliant liquid engines. Visual inspection and reports on open sea coordinates JJ1-512, third attempt.”

Oh, and also, don’t die. That one’s important too.

“Roger, Mission Six, checklist verified,” Chrysalis said. “Verify switchover to internal capsule power and control.”

The capsule’s internal lights came on. The navigation ball lit up, the prograde and retrograde markers dancing for a moment on the ball’s surface before vanishing. The reaction wheels beneath her spun to life with a quiet whirr. “Confirmed on battery power,” Cherry Berry said. “All systems green.”

“Roger, Mission Six, stand by.”

Cherry Berry forced herself to breathe through her nose, even smiling a little bit. It’s okay, she thought. I am a top pilot. No matter how compromised this thing is, I can bring it home. If all else fails I can abort- the decouplers will let me cut the capsule away and abandon the rest of the rocket. But I’m not going to do that, because even if there’s no way in the world I can meet all the mission goals, I will still fly and land this better than anypony else could even dream of.

“Mission Six.” Chrysalis’s voice seemed to burst with confidence. “You are go for launch. Activate first stage when ready, and sweet flying.”

“Mission Six confirms go for launch,” Cherry Berry said. She knew the confidence was totally faked, but hearing it made her feel better.

She checked the staging list one more time. She set throttle to fifty percent, activated the SAS, took the flight stick under one hoof, and hit the launch switch with the other.

With the two Fleas and the Swivel firing, the rocket should have leaped off the pad. It didn’t. Cherry Berry felt the acceleration, but she’d felt more gees in her biplane in a tight turn. A glance at the speed readout above the nav ball confirmed her fears; the ship was struggling to reach a hundred meters per second in the time that previous Flea flights hit two hundred. She throttled the rocket’s liquid engine up to maximum, which helped only a little.

And all the time, as she nosed the rocket down slowly and carefully eastwards, the ship fought her. The Swivel helped, but the fins seemed to be fighting one another, producing a small roll that made steering even more difficult. The rocket shuddered as it pushed through one hundred fifty meters per second, engines roaring.

And then the Fleas burned out, exhausted, and Cherry Berry felt herself jerk forward just a bit in her harness. Aerodynamics were marginally worse this time, since none of the four solid fuel boosters even had parachutes to make a mini-nosecone. Speed fell off from one-sixty to one-twenty meters per second, where it held despite the Swivel’s being maxed out.

When the first stage’s fuel ran out, the ship had only gained fourteen hundred meters of altitude. Cherry Berry immediately hit the staging switch, feeling the soft kick of the decoupler as it severed the bolts holding the bottom fuel tank on. Immediately the slow roll stopped as the two sets of fins stopped fighting one another. She waited for the green light to indicate the second stage engine was clear of its faring, and as soon as it winked on, she triggered it, igniting another Swivel with twice as much fuel as the first.

“Second stage active,” she said, the first words she’d been able to spare since launch. “Swivel engines are responsive to both pilot and SAS controls. Impossible to judge acceleration due to aerodynamic and mission constraints.” She glanced down at the speed readout; it was climbing again, passing one-eighty slowly but inexorably.

If this mission wasn’t bucked up from the word go I’d ride this out at full throttle, she thought, but I need to hold down the speed. She slowly throttled down to about two-thirds power, which held the ship at just over two hundred meters per second. As the ship crawled upwards past three thousand meters, as the fuel readouts for the second stage shrank visibly, rapidly, like a shortcake in the presence of Pinkie Pie, she thought to herself, Of course, this thing might not even make four thousand meters in the first place.

The rocket shuddered, bucked and swayed, and Cherry did her best to hold it at sixty degrees attitude, bearing ninety degrees east. Slowly, gradually, it crawled to thirty-eight, thirty-nine… four thousand meters. As soon as the digit 4 ticked over on the altimeter, Cherry hit the switch for Twilight Sparkle’s systems test(107). When it flashed green, she said, “Parachute test successful; throttling up full burn.”

Once she did so, she glanced at the fuel remaining. Only a sliver remained on the gauge.

“Report no joy on Hammer and Flea tests,” she said, “repeat Hammer and Flea tests are scrubbed. No way I can achieve target altitudes on fuel remaining.” She reached a hoof to the staging switch, holding it above the button as she added, “Preparing to ignite Hammer boosters to extend flight to target survey zone.”

A moment later the second stage burned out. Immediately, without the control provided by the Swivel’s thrust, the ship’s nose began to dip and the craft to slow.

“Roger, Mission Six,” Chrysalis replied. “Copy no go on booster tests, go for extended flight.”

When Cherry activated the boosters, the ride became really interesting.

Under the thrust of the two heavy boosters the ship accelerated hard straight into the sound barrier. The turbulence pulled the rocket’s nose down like a millstone, and Cherry’s efforts with the stick didn’t quite counter the force. The ship shook, bucked, and began rolling again, worse than the cheap coin-operated chariot machine Cherry had seen as a little child on a visit to Fillydelphia.

Only this time there wasn’t a loving aunt standing by with another nickel.

And then, while she was wrestling with the stick to try to keep the ship going in only one direction, ANY one direction, the amber light flashed indicating entry of the target zone. She spared a sliver of attention to hit the switch for the flight recorder, look out the window, and say, “Target zone JJ1-512 appears to be deep, featureless water, somewhat muddy. No apparent features visible at this time. Estimated resources negligible.” She punched the switch again, noticed the ship was now well into a shallow dive, and turned her full attention to regaining control.

And then, mere seconds after completing her survey recording, to her blessed relief, the Hammers burned out. The ship immediately decelerated hard, almost five gravities pulling Cherry Berry forward in her harness. She hit the staging button, releasing the dead-weight, non-aerodynamic second stage with all its attached boosters, and immediately the deceleration eased. She was still going well over two hundred sixty meters per second. Good.

Still losing altitude, though. Bad.

I have maybe half a minute to save this thing. Nose up. Good. Reaction wheels very efficient with only the Reliant and its little tank. Attitude ninety by sixty. All right. Third stage ignite!

The moment the final liquid-fuel engine lit, the remaining spacecraft did a complete backflip. For half a second Cherry Berry was in an uncontrolled tumble. In another second she countered it, then realized to her horror that the nav-ball showed her pointed directly at the retrograde marker. The rocket was slowing her down, and hard.

And then, before she could correct the mistake, the fuel ran out, far too early. There should have been at least ten seconds at full throttle. Instead, maybe five, and all absolutely wasted.

Okay, Cherry thought, take stock of the situation. No fuel. No more engines. Air speed sixty-two meters per second, beginning to climb as I fall. Altitude thirty-four hundred meters, dropping slowly.

You know, I’m going to get away with this one.

“Horseton, this is Mission Six,” Cherry Berry said, relaxing for the first time. “Reliant proved uncontrollable in low altitude without fins. On the other hand, I believe the total weight of this craft is now less than that of Mission One, so I’m going to try to bring this engine back intact. Triggering parachute now.”

She hit the manual parachute deploy switch, felt the parachute begin pulling up on the nose of the capsule, and relaxed in her seat.

I’m alive, she thought. I’m alive, I managed to complete one of Twilight’s mission contracts, and I’m going to live to try this again.

And I WILL try this again, because I want a chance to do it properly, darn it.

MISSION 6 REPORT

Mission summary: SURVIVE; test performance of prototype in-line decoupler systems; attempt visual survey of target area (holdover from prior missions); in-flight specific tests of “Hammer” booster, “Reliant” and “Swivel” liquid fuel rockets, “Flea” as booster, and M16 parachute

Pilot: Cherry Berry

Flight duration: 2 min. 30 sec.
Maximum speed achieved: 383 m/s
Maximum altitude achieved: 4385 m
Distance downrange at landing: 18 km

Contracts fulfilled: 2
Milestones: New land distance record (insufficient for benchmark)

Conclusions from flight: We got too ambitious, but I think I know where we went wrong. We’re doing this again, properly this time- and with nosecones for the boosters.

MISSION ASSESSMENT: MARGINAL FAILURE

Footnote:

(107) The command pod manufactured and sold by Cherry’s Rocket Parts and Odd Jobs, Inc. had a number of electric switches which could be assigned to mission-specific devices and tests. For this one, Cherry had specified that the switch designated for the parachute systems test be the one farthest away from the actual parachute release switch.

“Tracking records splashdown at eighteen kilometers downrange from launch,” von Brawn said from his station.

“Longest surface distance of any launch to date,” Ad Astra noted, “but not sufficient for a benchmark award.”

As the projected illusion showed the parachute drifting away from the capsule and engine bobbing on the ocean’s surface, the ponies from ESA and the press cheered and stomped their hooves. None of the changelings on the floor joined them, nor did von Brawn. All of them were silently aware that something had been screwed up badly, and as a consequence they had narrowly avoided a Bad Day for the third straight flight.

“Awesome! Way to hold her, Cherry Berry!” Rainbow Dash shouted.

“I must say,” Rarity added, “poor show, whoever designed that rocket. Not only was it horribly lopsided, and not in an avant-garde manner I might add, but it put that poor pony in horrible danger!” She turned to Twilight Sparkle, whose face had gone slightly green from the launch and had only become more so as the flight continued. “Don’t you agree, Twilight darling?”

“I’d rather not talk about it,” the princess said in a voice more suited to Fluttershy.

Chrysalis, taking off her headset, decided this was the time to act. She’d had just enough time to figure out how to remedy the inevitable failure(108), and the plan had come together not long after Cherry’s parachute opened.

“Good work, my faithful subjects, Dr. von Brawn, Dr. Goddard,” she said. “Remember, please that every launch that fulfills at least one mission goal and lands safely is a success. We’re still in the infancy of rocket flight, after all. And on that note, Princess Twilight Sparkle, ponies of the Equestria Space Agency, and our most honored guests from the press,” she added, raising her voice, “I invite you to our gift shop, where the notable chef Heavy Frosting has prepared refreshments. Unfortunately your guide Dragonfly will not be able to join you,” she continued, her speech beginning to take on elements of the Royal Canterlot Voice, “as we have to prepare her for the second launch of the day.”

Consternation erupted from the gallery.

“Yes, I know,” Chrysalis replied, “you weren’t notified of the second launch. It was quite unexpected even to us. But when Princess Twilight Sparkle brought us three examples of the latest untested scientific device from her own labs, we decided the opportunity to test them, before the press, before all the peoples of Equestria if you will, was too good to pass up.” She smiled the most winning smile any changeling could muster(109) and added, “Which, incidentally, will also be Dragonfly’s very first flight as a pilot. It’s an event very important to all of us.”

The consternation changed to the usual melee of reporters shouting questions over one another. That suited Chrysalis fine, as she had no intention of answering any.

“Doctor von Brawn, if you could see fit to escort the Princess and her party to the gift shop for our late lunch? Doctor Goddard, Occupant, Dragonfly, please join me in the astronaut center at once.” With that Chrysalis walked out of the mission control center, never looking back, confident that she would be obeyed in all things.

Faust, I hope this works, she thought to herself.

Five minutes later, alone in the astronaut complex, Chrysalis, Goddard, Occupant and Dragonfly huddled. “All right,” Chrysalis said, “we need a rocket that can fly all three of those grade-school science projects and land safely. We need to not use anything that we’d need to rebuild the rocket we just launched, because we’re going to try again first thing in the morning on that. And we need any money-making contracts we can accept right now, because any further failure and this program is sunk, and likely the hive with it.” She looked at all three of the others. “So unless you’re looking forward to a life selling pencils from a tin cup on the Canterlot streets, let’s make this happen. We have maybe an hour to plan, and we have to launch before sunset.”

“Wait a minute,” Goddard grumbled. “We’ve never done two flights in one day. We’ve never even considered it. What’s the rush?”

“We’re stalling for time!” Chrysalis snapped. “I want to hold the princess and the press here overnight, to give us enough time for a second try at her contract. Fixing the problems with the Mission Six rocket will take time, so we need some other launch. It’s the only thing that will keep them from going home as soon as they’ve eaten.”

Goddard nodded. “Okay, I’ll buy that,” he said. “And with the second capsule we could maybe do it. But we’ve only got one Swivel and two Reliants left. We can’t replicate Mission Six exactly.”

“The redesign will be von Brawn’s job,” Chrysalis said. “His and Cherry Berry’s, when the recovery team gets back with her. Your job is Mission Seven. One capsule with parachute, all three Science Jr. pods with sufficient parachutes to bring them down safely, and engines enough to get them off the pad, just offshore into the water, and down.”

“Grm,” Goddard grunted. “Sounds like the Fleas get one more outing as a main engine after all. We still have over a dozen of them on-site.”

“We also have the Terrier,” Occupant spoke up for the first time. “You put in a paid request for a splashdown test.”

Chrysalis’s ear-fins perked up. “A contract?” she asked. “Can Cherry’s Rocket Parts afford the payoff right now? Because we might really need it.”

“We can take it off what the program owes us for the Swivels and Reliants,” Goddard replied. “You haven’t written that check yet.”

“You’d better hope I’m in a position to do so after tomorrow,” Chrysalis noted. “Fine. So we use that engine?”

Goddard snorted. “Not a chance!” he barked. “I designed that engine to be a slow-burn, high-efficiency orbital transfer engine. On the ground it won’t even lift its own weight!”

“But we can still test it,” Chrysalis said. “How many decouplers do we still have?”

“Seven,” Goddard replied. “With more already on the way from the minotaur islands, including lateral decouplers that’ll let us dump boosters without losing the main stage.”

“Good. We only need one.” Chrysalis walked to a chalkboard and, using chalk held in her magic, sketched out a design very similar to her Mission Five ship. “Five Fleas fire simultaneously at launch,” she said. “The weight of the Terrier and the Science Jr's. will offset thrust enough to keep the thing controllable enough.” She looked at Dragonfly. “You’ve missed a lot of simulator time, I know,” she said, “but your mission is very simple. All you have to do get the rocket over water and high enough to pop the chutes. That’s it. You can do it.”

Dragonfly, who was still in shock from the news that she was going to fly, nodded.

“Occupant,” Chrysalis continued, “is there anything else- anything simple and doable that doesn’t require more rockets- that we can do to earn money?”

Occupant nodded. “The mining company that made the decouplers also sent these sort of clamp things,” he said. “They suggested that we could use them to hold the rocket upright and in place prior to launch. They want us to test them to see if they unclamp properly.”

“Good. Make it happen.” Chrysalis looked around. “Doctor, go to the VAB and get that rocket built. Fast. With ALL the parachutes. Occupant, get those contracts signed and telegraphed now. Dragonfly, let’s get you suited up. I need to get back to our guests as soon as possible.”

Footnotes:

(108) Presuming Cherry Berry and the capsule returned in one piece each, that is. Nothing Chrysalis could think of could redeem a truly Bad Day.

(109) It was an improvement over Wicked Laugh Smile and Pleasure at Your Pain Smile, but no changeling, not even Chrysalis, would so much as win Miss Congeniality in their natural form. Not without bribing or threatening the judges, anyway.

Well-fed but still bewildered ponies (and griffon) returned to Mission Control, where the changeling crew was caught between finishing reports on Mission Six and beginning fresh worksheets for the unexpected Mission Seven. They were joined a few minutes later by Chrysalis, who brought Dragonfly in wearing her pressure suit and helmet. “Gentleponies of the press,” the queen said smoothly, “before the launch we wanted to give you the opportunity to meet Dragonfly. In the late invasion, you may be interested to know, she was one of my leading warriors, successfully subduing a number of Royal Guard pegasi while fulfilling her duty to the hive which is both her country and her family.”

This speech won no admirers with the ponies, many of whom either lived in or had relatives in Canterlot, but they wrote down the information in their notepads anyway.

“Dragonfly is extremely brave and loyal, and more important, she is intelligent,” Chrysalis continued. “In addition to her training as a pilot(110), Dragonfly is our chief materials researcher. She personally designed the parachute systems which are currently used by almost all the space programs of Equus. She is a bug of many talents, and I am proud to have her as one of my hive.”

This accolade won a bit more approval than the war-hero bit, and Chrysalis could feel the greater enthusiasm in the pencil strokes she heard.

“Now please bear in mind that twenty-four hours ago Dragonfly didn’t know she was going to fly today,” Chrysalis said, neatly bypassing the fact that the same was true for one hour ago. “But we’re giving her a short, simple flight to give her experience, and we have full confidence that her training, intelligence and skill will bring nothing but success. Now, while you’re asking her your questions, I need to go check on preparations for launch.” Ducking her head in respect to the press, and making sure to note that said press were between Twilight Sparkle and the exits, she left Dragonfly to the nonexistent mercies of journalism and stepped back outside.

This, as it turned out, was perfect timing. Cherry Berry’s capsule had just returned, and the pink earth pony had already climbed out of the hatch and doffed her helmet. “That,” she said bitterly, “was every bit as bad as I expected and almost as bad as I feared.” Shaking out her yellow mane, she added, “Where do we stand?”

“I’m avoiding Twilight Sparkle,” Chrysalis said. “So long as she never gets me alone and away from the press, she can’t call in the failure penalty. Not that I expect her to, but she could still cancel the contract without fault, and that would be almost as bad. The plan is to keep the press busy with a second launch so they have to sleep over tonight. That gives us time to recondition the capsule,” she said, pointing at the still-damp ship Cherry had just emerged from, “and put together a second attempt to launch at dawn, before the reporters can leave.”

“With the nosecones,” Cherry Berry said.

“With the nosecones,” Chrysalis agreed. “And with a substantially different design. My reasoning is, we made a good faith effort to meet the conditions of the contract with your launch. If we can actually complete the mission goals on the follow-up, in front of witnesses, we look like winners instead of losers, and the program survives to fly another day.”

“That sounds… a lot less sneaky than I was expecting, to be honest,” Cherry Berry admitted. “I thought you would either mind-control somepony or else just write off the program as a failed plan and go back to plotting conquest.”

Chrysalis shook her head. “I thought about that weeks ago, pony. It can’t be done. Changelings are in the open now. By Faust, both Celestia and Cadence have my home address! More and more of my infiltrators are revealing themselves, because they feel there’s nothing to fear anymore.” She stamped her hoof, continuing, “If this program collapses, the hive will have to evacuate our home and vanish even more completely than before- with no resources in reserve- or else dissolve and become totally dependent on whatever charity you ponies will spare us. All our assets are now tied up in this effort.” She stared at Cherry Berry, transmitting as much sheer determination as she could into the pony’s non-changeling senses. “For us it is literally the moon or bust now.”

Cherry Berry gave Chrysalis a flat stare back. “Forgive me if I don’t take you wholly at your word,” she said dryly.

Chrysalis’s mouth turned up at the corner. “You might actually be learning something, pony,” she said quietly. “Anyway, I need you to get in conference with von Brawn as soon as you can. Goddard will take his position in Mission Control. The two of you have to get to work on the re-do rocket the instant we get Mission Seven on the pad.”

“Roger,” Cherry Berry nodded. “But first I’m going to get out of this suit.” She walked away, adding, “And if I get any chance at all, I want a word with Rarity. The bathroom features in this stupid suit are totally insufficient!”

Footnote:

(110) More often instead of her training as a pilot. Dragonfly had been a backup, and her work with Goddard the Griffon on materials studies and applications, especially her parachutes, often took priority. Also, she was one of the few changelings Chrysalis could trust not to mess everything up if left unsupervised, which made her indispensable as a supervisor when none of the top leaders could spare time.

Dragonfly sat in the brand-new capsule, breathing deep sighs of relief. She was well away from those reporters with their horrible prying questions and their staring eyes. Now she was stuck in a full-body suit without wingholes, strapped inside a metal box on top of several devices which, if anything went wrong, could explode and turn her body into the finest ash on the wind in an instant. If everything went right, they could just send her hurtling into the water or soil fast enough to make her into a changeling waffle(111).

So, perfectly safe.

“Mission Seven, Horseton,” Chrysalis’s voice echoed through her helmet, the calm, soothing sound of the queen making her even more relaxed. “Verify list of mission goals.”

Oh, right, those. Dragonfly felt a little nervous about them. In every mission up until now the mission goals had been carefully printed on a checklist in bold ink and clamped on a special mount in the capsule. This time the list was hastily scribbled in pencil, hard to read, and taped next to the capsule window.

Still, she could read them, and she could definitely use the reminder. “Control test of first Science Jr. on pad,” she said. “Test release of TT18-A Launch Stability Enhancer. Launch. Activate second Science Jr. pod in flight. Splashdown. Activate third Science Jr. pod in the water. Perform systems test on Terrier liquid fuel motor while submerged.”

“Roger, Mission Seven,” Chrysalis replied. “Stand by for go-no go on launch.”

“Mission Seven copies, standing by,” Dragonfly replied, settling back and putting her suit-covered hoof on the flight stick. She’d handled the stick in simulations, if all too seldom. She’d put in a couple of runs in the centrifuge. She knew prograde from retrograde. And yet, sitting in the seat, she wasn’t quite sure that she knew enough to do it right.

But she knew she certainly wanted to try.

“Mission Seven, Horseton; activate first science module.”

Dragonfly skimmed the control panel; that would be one of the multiple-use switches, so… ah, there it was, with “SJ1” on a piece of masking tape to label it. She pushed the button, watching the light turn green. “Science Jr. One activated, experiments complete,” she said.

“Roger, Seven, Horseton confirms. Release launch stability clamps.”

One of the multi-purpose switches had been labeled CLAMPS. Dragonfly hit the switch, felt a soft thump through the rocket, heard the two swing arms fall away from the rocket and bounce on their towers. “Clamps released.”

“Roger, Mission Seven,” Chrysalis repeated. “You are go for launch, repeat go for launch. Fire first stage when-“

Dragonfly didn’t wait for her queen to finish. She was going to fly NOW.

Five Flea engines kicked in simultaneously. There hadn’t been time to fit thrust restrictors on the engines, and Dragonfly thrilled at the sensation of being crushed back in her seat by sheer acceleration. The mass of the rest of the ship, even the uncapped flat tops of the engines, wasn’t slowing the ship down at all against that much thrust.

Her left forehoof reached for the second Science Jr. switch while her right hoof tried to steer the rapidly accelerating ship. She did neither very well, but after a couple of misses she managed to activate the second experiment. “Science Jr. Two activated,” she said, shouting to get her words out of her heavy, heavy chest. “Attempting pitch to-“

The rocket gave a shudder as it broke through the sound barrier, mere seconds after liftoff. The ship pushed back against her, pointing straight up despite her effort to correct it. “Negative on pitch,” she said. “Ship not responding to control.”

“Horseton copies,” Chrysalis replied. “Keep trying. You should regain control after engine burnout.”

A few seconds later, the engines did just that, and Dragonfly found herself pushed almost out of her seat by deceleration, as hard or even harder than she’d been crushed by acceleration. “Burnout,” she reported unnecessarily. “I guess the ride’s over, huh?”

“Decouple!” Chrysalis said, her voice taking an ounce of urgency for the first time. “Dump the Fleas, they’re slowing you down!”

“Oh, right!” The decoupler hadn’t been in any training she’d had. She hit the staging switch, and she felt the kick of the explosive charge. And the deceleration slowed only slightly. In her seconds of hesitation, her air speed had dropped from over five hundred meters per second to a little over one hundred… and as she watched, it dropped below that. In a few seconds she’d be coming back down.

“Activate second stage, Seven,” Chrysalis continued. “Set throttle to half power and thrust attitude forty-five by ninety.”

“Okay… I mean, copy, Horseton,” Dragonfly said. She set throttle, pointed the ship with the reaction wheels, and lit the engine…

… and felt nothing.

But the ship had stopped decelerating, holding at eighty-six meters per second. “Horseton, Mission Seven,” she said. “Full control restored. Any-“

Even at almost six thousand meters altitude she could hear the soft boom of the first stage hitting the ground.

“Just keep her steady for a minute, Seven,” Chrysalis replied. “You’re doing well. Your trajectory is moving out over water. All is go.”

“Roger, Horseton,” Dragonfly said. “Mission Seven copies all go.” She sat back, watching as the altimeter crawled up a few more meters and then slowly, gradually, began counting back down again. This part wasn’t difficult. In fact it was kind of boring. She had more interesting flights than this on her own wings, crossing the Badlands between the hive and Appleoosa.

“All right, Seven, this is Horseton,” Chrysalis said. “Cut throttle. We still want fuel in the tank for the splashdown test.”

Dragonfly checked the gauge; half the tank left. “Roger, Horseton,” she said, throttling down, “throttle set to zero.”

“Horseton confirms throttle back,” Chrysalis replied. “You’re over deep water now; you are go to deploy parachutes.”

Dragonfly was reluctant. She could feel the ship descending faster, and she liked the fluttery feeling it gave her barrel. On the other hand, she knew better than anyling what might happen if she waited too long. After all, she oversaw the construction of all five parachutes on the craft herself. “Deploying parachutes,” she said, unable to keep the disappointment out of her voice.

Five canopies rippled up from the ship, pulling and yanking it back and forth in a hard rocking motion. Then, as the canopies opened fully, the ship braked hard one last time, slowing from over a hundred meters per second down to only four and a bit.

“Well, that was fun,” Dragonfly said to herself.

“We can all hear you down here, Seven,” Chrysalis chided her.

Dragonfly didn’t care. She lay back, legs limp, and lolled.

I’m bored again, she thought. We need something to do for the boring bits.

I wonder if I can get some snacks in the ship next time?

The light of the setting sun flickered back and forth past the parachute ropes, through the window and into the capsule.

MISSION 7 REPORT

Mission summary: Collect science from Science Jr. on pad, in flight, and in water; test TT18-A Launch Stability Enhancer on pad; test radial parachutes; test Terrier motor in water

Pilot: Dragonfly

Flight duration: 4 min. 46 sec.
Maximum speed achieved: 514 m/s
Maximum altitude achieved: 6447 m
Distance downrange at landing: 5.7 km

Contracts fulfilled: 3
Milestones: none

Conclusions from flight: That could have gone better, but we knew the design was bad going in. It did what we needed to do, and Dragonfly got experience which will serve her well in future flights. On the other hand, we’re going to need to repair the launch pad after this…

MISSION ASSESSMENT: TOTALLY SUCCESSFUL (for once)

Footnote:

(111) Because pancakes don’t have holes.

“How’s it coming?”

Chrysalis walked over to where Cherry Berry stood on the floor of the VAB, watching the changlings bringing in components for the rocket which would be Mission Eight.

“Well enough,” Cherry Berry admitted. “von Brawn and I think we’ve figured out how to- HEY YOU!” The pink pony galloped across the floor, to where a changeling had been merrily rolling a T-100 fuel tank like a foal rolling an old barrel hoop. “What do you think you’re doing?? Fuel tanks are not toys!”

“But, Ms. Berry!” the changeling whined, “it’s perfectly safe! They hardly ever explode!”

“HARDLY ever?!?”

The changeling pointed far up one wall of the VAB. Some changelings had, evidently, mounted a giant basketball hoop. The backboard was severely scorched and cracked almost in half.

“You… have you... you have… no, I don’t want to know,” Cherry Berry said, shaking her head. “This is delicate equipment. You treat it with respect. Our lives could depend on it, understand?” she snapped, staring right into the changeling’s glowing teal eyes.

“Yes, ma’am!”

“Now take this back to storage and get a new one. And CARRY it. No rolling!”

“Awww,” the changeling whined. “That’s boring. And it takes so much work!”

“Have you never heard of a CART?” Cherry Berry snapped. “Get to it!”

The changeling trudged off with his burden, while Cherry Berry walked back over to Chrysalis. “They’re like children, I swear it,” she muttered. “They need watching every minute, and they have all the self-preservation instincts of a head of lettuce in a Manehattan all-you-can-eat buffet.”

“Said the pony who walked up to a changeling hive and demanded to be let in,” Chrysalis replied.

“That was different. What about you? Do we still have a contract?”

“Well, I’ve successfully avoided Twilight Sparkle-“

Violet light flashed above them, and a profoundly annoyed voice shouted, “THERE you are!”

“-until now,” Chrysalis said. “I kept her busy as long as I could.”

“You certainly did!” Twilight Sparkle grumbled, hovering overhead on spread wings. “Your changeling chef feeding us and pressing me to take thirds(112), that second launch you obviously threw together at the last minute, the interviews, having Dr. Goddard bury me in data, dinner, more thirds- I had to wait until my friends were in their quarters for the night before I could get away!”

“I could have knocked you out and put you in a pod for the duration,” Chrysalis replied coolly. “How do you like the reformed me? Isn’t this nicer?”

Twilight growled with frustration, letting herself settle to the floor. “None of it would have been necessary if you’d just let me talk to you for five minutes!” she said. “I’m calling off the contract. The wind tunnel is yours. No penalties, no payments, and no ponies or changelings maybe riding to fiery deaths for a stupid experiment. You win, all right?”

Chrysalis raised an eyebrow. She didn’t really know how to respond to that. Yes, this was a victory, no mistake about that. Here and now she could probably make that detestable meddling pony grovel at her hooves, and she’d still have the moral high ground. But… but… but…

“As much as I would love to accept your offer,” she finally said, “I’m afraid I can’t.”

“What? Why not?” Twilight asked.

“Do you remember what I said earlier, just before Mission Six launched?” Chrysalis said. “You put me in a position where I had to accept your contract. You thought it was a sweet win-win; you get your test data, or else I get egg on my face, yes? But you didn’t think through the consequences of your actions. You didn’t realize just how close to the edge your challenge took my space program. And, above all, you underestimated just how important our reputation is to us.”

“What reputation?” Twilight Sparkle asked. “You’re changelings.”

“Twilight, that’s the whole problem,” Cherry Berry butted in. “The Changeling Space Program is an enormously expensive exercise in public relations. When we started, changelings had a reputation as evil sneaky monsters.”

“Which we are,” Chrysalis admitted casually.

“Not helping. Anyway, by demonstrating their bravery and ingenuity, the changelings hope to gain respect and acceptance among ponies, right? But you gave this program a challenge that we weren’t ready to meet. And you did it in such a public way that we couldn’t shrug it off.” Cherry pointed towards the hallway to the front doors and said, “When those reporters go home in the morning, do you know what the headline will be on every story?”

“No, what?” Twilight asked.

Changelings Fail Princess’s Challenge will be one,” Cherry Berry continued. “With an editorial, probably titled, Changeling Dreams Swatted Down By Reality.

“Too positive a spin, pony,” Chrysalis added. “Try, Is CSP a Front for Changeling Infiltration? Or even better, CSP a Fraud- Rockets Going Nowhere. Or, best of all, They’re Not Just Monsters, They’re Incompetent Monsters.

“Instead of respect, the changelings will get scorn and derision,” Cherry Berry continued. “Instead of love, they get contempt. They can’t eat contempt. Even if you gave us a million bits in the morning so we could buy all the rocket stuff we ever wanted, our program couldn’t recover from that kind of press.” She frowned sadly. “Chrysalis would have to find some other way to feed her people, and I’d be out of a job.”

“And although my children are backstabbing, sneaky, evil monsters,” Chrysalis said, “we have our pride. That’s why we’re building that.” Chrysalis pointed to the rocket components coming together on the VAB floor. “Mission Eight launches as soon as we can get those reporters up in the morning. This time with the nosecones.”

“Why?” Twilight Sparkle asked.

“As I said, pride,” Chrysalis said. “We accepted a challenge. We intend to accomplish it. And we want to be seen accomplishing it. Without charity from a pony princess who feels sorry for us because we couldn’t do what she asked of us.”

“Oh,” Twilight said in a small voice. Her ears drooped, and she stared at her hooves.

Oh Faust, Chrysalis thought, I’m actually feeling sorry for the accursed meddler. She looks like me when mother thwarted my first coup attempt. Not that I will admit it to anypony.

Cherry Berry put a hoof on Twilight’s shoulder. “Twilight, it’s okay,” she said. “This is our choice. We know you didn’t really mean to put us in danger.”

Really? My dear pony pilot, it was you who said this might all be a plot to destroy us.

“But from now on,” Cherry Berry said, “no more clever tricks, okay? No more playing on the changelings’ whims, or using the press as a club. If you want us to perform an experiment for you, ask, and we’ll see if it’s safe enough for us to try.”

“Yes,” Chrysalis said. “Leave the clever stratagems to Celestia. She’s much better at it than you are.”

Cherry Berry ignored the interruption. “And we’ll deal honestly with you in return.” She glanced up and said, much less gently than before, “WON’T we, Chrysalis?”

Chrysalis couldn’t meet either pony’s gaze, but she did choke out the word, “Yes.” It tasted filthy.

“Now go get some sleep,” Cherry Berry said. “We want you rested for our launch in the morning, and you’ll have to be up before dawn.”

“Are you sure I can’t persuade you to stop?” Twilight asked. “You don’t even have a launch pad right now! Those Fleas crashing down on it wrecked the place!”

“We’re fixing that,” Cherry Berry reassured her. “I won’t say tomorrow's launch won’t be dangerous. All powered flight is dangerous, especially rockets. But tomorrow’s launch will be a managed risk. We’re not going to push it again like we did today.”

“If you say so,” Twilight said. “But please be careful.” She looked as if she might say something more, and then she walked away, wings furled, looking sad and thoughtful.

“There goes a pony who deserves a rough night’s sleep,” Chrysalis murmured once she thought the princess was out of earshot.

“Oh, be gracious for once,” Cherry Berry chided. “She did let us off the hook for everything except the press.”

“The press,” Chrysalis added angrily, “and self-respect.” She pointed at the rocket parts. “Will that be ready in time?”

“Just,” Cherry Berry sighed. “One of us will have to stay up and make sure it gets done right, though.” She shuffled her hooves. “Which brings up a point. Our agreement says I fly all new designs first, right?”

“And?”

“And, last time you decided you wanted a turn even when I said it was too dangerous.” Cherry Berry continued to fidget. “And we really can’t afford another scene like that tomorrow, in front of the press. So… do you want to fly this mission?”

Chrysalis looked around the room. Cherry Berry hadn’t noticed, but although the changelings around them were working, most of them had their eyes, and no doubt their ears, glued to them. She stepped as close to the pony as she could and whispered, “I wish you hadn’t asked me that.”

“Why?” Cherry Berry asked aloud.

“Shh.” Chrysalis continued to whisper. “Pride is why, pony. If you had said nothing I would have honored our agreement without a word and let you fly tomorrow. But now that you’ve asked,” she sighed, “I have to accept. If I didn’t, I’d be admitting I was weak.” She locked eyes with Cherry Berry and added, “And weakness in a changeling is fatal.”

How much am I willing to tell this pony? Chrysalis wondered. Do I tell her that after my last flight the idea of getting back into that capsule terrifies the fear pellets right out of me? That I’ve been training like a madmare because I want to stop being afraid, because I know eventually I have to get back in there and perform just as well as she does?

Would she even understand? She’s a pony, and she’s obsessed with flying. She’s never worried that a pony army would find her home and wipe them out. She’s never seen what happens when two hives meet, or when it’s time for an old queen to yield to new blood. To her this is a dream, a fantasy come true. To me it’s a means to an end, that one day everypony will fear us, instead of us fearing everypony.

But… she’s the only creature I could trust. Not Dragonfly. Certainly not Sparkle or any of her ponies. But she’s been in that little box too, and she knows what it feels like to be moments from what we won’t admit is certain death and instead call a Bad Day. Who else could I speak to, who knows what I’m talking about, who wouldn’t use it for their own advantage?

Maybe I’ll tell her someday. But not now, and definitely not here.

“So I’ll be flying tomorrow,” Chrysalis said loudly. “Go find Occupant. I signed off on a couple more aerial surveys just in case we ended up still on the hook for that penalty payment. I’ll watch things here while you two work out the mission plan. Then get back here so I can get some sleep.” The queen smiled her small, almost honest smile. “I’ve got a busy day tomorrow.”

Far overhead, two changelings perched on the VAB’s winch rails. “The queen’s getting soft,” the first one said.

“Shut up,” the second one said, cuffing the first lightly across the horn. “The queen just got us the Fun Machine. The queen’s going to fly the mission tomorrow. And the queen’s gonna walk on the moon.” He looked back down at the floor, adding, “If that’s soft, then I like soft. Soft is comfy.”

Footnote:

(112) To be honest, this wasn’t difficult.

In the twilight before dawn, the Mission Eight rocket settled onto what was left of the launch pad.

The changelings had removed the wreckage of the experimental launch clamps and the fallen Flea boosters, all of which was smashed beyond any reuse. This left several pits and holes in the launch pad’s surface, which was smoothed out and packed down as well as could be managed by a crew of tired changelings in the dark. Despite that effort, it took three lifts and drops before the assembly crew found a remaining patch of pad surface level enough to hold the rocket without it tipping over. Therefore the entire crew would remain on-site until Fiddlewing gave the final all-clear signal, because who knew?

This would be the last flight on the current launch pad, win or lose. They needed a stronger pad, one which could absorb stronger thrust, hold more weight, stand up better to things dropping from the sky. That would take weeks, again. All the more reason to make this launch count.

The new design was four-tenths of a ton lighter than Mission Six had been. Although there was only one Hammer now, replacing the second stage, there were three Fleas instead of two, all of which now wore the rounded nosecones. All the fuel tanks were full to the limit. The first stage liquid rocket was a Reliant, a quarter-ton lighter than the Swivel. On paper, the ship should fly better and farther than Mission Six by far… but on paper, before the changelings had got their hooves on it, Mission Six shouldn’t have been the clusterbuck it turned out to be.

Cherry Berry accepted her third cup of coffee from Occupant. Neither of them had slept all night. Projected on the wall in front of them was Mission Eight, its trajectory map, its gauges, and a view of Chrysalis, who appeared to read the new Daring Do book(113) with no concern. Around them the mission control staff were dragging themselves to their positions, obviously short of sleep and very, very confused.

The confusion increased once the press corps was escorted in. “Mission Eight, Horseton,” Cherry Berry said into her headset, “smile and wave to the press, please.”

Cherry had expected to enjoy seeing the queen flinch, toss her book anywhere out of sight of the illusion, and put on a smiling confident face. Instead Chrysalis looked up, gave the illusion an if-I-must look, and carefully tucked the book into netting next to the flight seat. “Good morning, Equestria,” the queen said. “I’m sorry to have awakened you so early, but I felt a nice early morning flight would get all our blood pumping.”

There were one or two chuckles, but nothing more. The press had been awakened an hour before with no explanation, chivvied to a full-service breakfast, plied with extra coffee and tea, and then herded politely but firmly to mission control. Half of them looked rumpled, and four of them wore I RODE THE FUN MACHINE shirts.(114)

“Roger, Mission Eight,” Cherry Berry replied. “I’m sure we could all use the excitement this early in the morning. Let’s jump ahead in procedure and verify the mission goals checklist.”

“Mission Eight copies, Horseton,” Chrysalis agreed. “Aerial observation of target zone alpha. Hold velocity between four hundred sixty and five hundred sixty em pee ess beginning at twelve thousand meters for Flea systems check. Test-fire Hammer booster engines at sixteen thousand meters. Evaluate efficiency and usefulness of nosecones. Aerial observation of target zone beta. Get a nice suntan on the beach in Maneaco.”

This last item drew a few more chuckles. “Eight, I’m fairly sure that last item’s not on the checklist,” Cherry Berry drawled.

“It isn’t? Wait a moment, I know there’s a pencil here somewhere…” Chrysalis made a pantomime of reaching around the capsule for a mislaid pencil, raising more laughter.

“Mission Eight, Horseton copies mission checklist, with addendum,” Cherry Berry said. “Stand by for go-no go check.”

“Roger, Horseton,” Chrysalis replied, “Mission Eight standing by.”

Cherry Berry removed her headset, resting her forehooves on her workstation and turning to address the press, who had been joined by Twilight Sparkle’s friends. “I’m sorry we woke you up this early,” she said, “but we didn’t want to let you leave without giving Twilight Sparkle’s mission one more try. Even when the Changeling Space Program fails the first time, we keep trying until we succeed.” She nodded to Twilight Sparkle, whose face retained the worry from the previous day. “And we want all of Equestria to know we don’t give up.”

The changelings around her cheered their agreement. von Brawn, who looked just as alert and calm as ever, merely nodded his approval.

“All right,” Cherry Berry said, turning to Occupant. “Flight manager, I yield you the floor.”

Occupant yawned, showing off his embarrassing buck fangs (115). “Right,” he said. “Um, Lucky, this one’s going to be a long flight, and we don’t know how long. Recovery team needs to stand by for orders, right?”

“Copy, Flight,” Lucky Cricket nodded.

“Dr. von Brawn, rocket status?”

“Solid fuel stable, liquid fuel and oxidizer tanks full and stable,” von Brawn replied.

“Crawley, weather schedule?”

Crawley checked his paperwork. “Eye Wall agreed to clear skies through midday in case of launch postponement,” he said. “Clouds building towards evening with scheduled light showers overnight through tomorrow. Thirty percent chance of feral storms blowing up on the evening sea breeze.” He checked a few devices on the wall and added, “Currently fair skies, sixty-seven degrees Marenheit, negligible wind.” As he spoke, light shone through the windows in the top of the mission control room, and the illusory rocket on the wall brightened. Celestia had just raised the sun(116). “Make that sunny and sixty-seven degrees. All conditions go for launch.”

Occupant nodded satisfaction. “Parachute?”

“Packed it myself,” Dragonfly said. “Switches and release charges checked out.”

“Right. Anyling have issues to bring up?” Occupant asked.

Up in the gallery, Twilight Sparkle began to raise her hoof, then reluctantly put it down again.

“Okay, then. Final go or no go. Engines?”

“Go, Flight.”

“Tracking?”

George Bull looked up from his tracking computer. “Go, Flight Manager.”

“Recovery?”

“Standing by, Flight Manager.”

“Weather?”

“Go, Flight.”

“Parachutes?”

“Go, Flight.”

“Capsule communications?”

“Go, Flight,” Cherry Berry noted.

“Verify switchover to internal power.”

As Stinger Charlie activated the rocket’s electrical system, Cherry Berry said, “Mission Eight, Horseton, verify internal capsule power.”

“Confirmed on battery power,” Chrysalis said. “Controls active. All systems green.”

“Roger, Mission Eight, stand by.”

Occupant nodded. “Three launches in less than twenty-four hours,” he said. “Whatever else happens, that’s an accomplishment, everyone. Cap-com, report Mission Eight is go for launch.”

“Roger, Flight. Mission Eight, you are go for launch, repeat you are go for launch. Activate first stage when ready.”

“Mission Eight confirms go for launch,” Chrysalis said. All eyes in the mission control watched as she took a deep breath, set her jaw, and reached down for the staging button.

The first stage and the three Flea boosters roared to life, and slowly, almost majestically, Mission Eight lifted off the launch pad.

“Mission Eight aloft and the clock is running,” Chrysalis reported. “Attempting maneuver for target zone alpha.” On the projection the ponies and changelings in Mission Control could see the rocket begin to tilt, rapidly building up speed as it rose higher and higher.

And then… the tilt stopped. Cherry Berry looked down at the projected navigation ball… which was doing odd things. Instead of tilting south-by-southwest as required for the first aerial survey, the ship was… sliding sideways a bit in trajectory.

“Ship controls are sluggish,” Chrysalis reported. “I think the reaction wheels are just overwhelmed by the mass of the ship and current velocity.” A few moments later she added, “I’m beginning to get a bit of roll here. It increases the more I try to push for the horizon. I’m going to quit while I’m ahead and hold the ship steady. I think we’ll make the first target zone, but probable scrub on the second one.”

“Roger, Mission Eight,” Cherry Berry said. “Horseton copies.” She switched off her mike. “Doctor, answers?”

“Top-heavy ship, fins not perfectly aligned, or not enough of them,” von Brawn said. "It should handle better if she gets above the thickest part of the atmosphere.”

At that point the Fleas burned out, and Cherry Berry watched as Chrysalis pushed the throttle to full. The first stage continued to burn, and slowly, slowly, the rocket’s speed continued to rise, accelerating past three hundred meters per second as the rocket passed eight thousand meters altitude.

“Eight, Horseton,” Cherry said, switching her mike back on. “I just want to let you know you’re currently flying higher than any known living creature has ever done before.”

“Copy, Horseton,” Chrysalis replied calmly. “Are you monitoring my airspeed?”

“We sure are, Eight,” Cherry replied. Three hundred forty now at ten thousand meters.

“It’s going to be close,” Chrysalis said, “but I’m watching my fuel consumption, and it looks like I’m going to be a little bit short of minimum speed for the Hammer test at first stage cutoff.”

Cherry Berry shot glances to Occupant, von Brawn, and Bull, all of whom nodded. “We concur,” Cherry said reluctantly. “Hold off on second stage ignition until sixteen thousand anyway. The test might still come off.”

“Mission Eight copies second stage activation at sixteen thousand,” Chrysalis replied. A moment later she added, “By the way, I found that pencil.”

This raised a bit of laughter, if nervous laughter. Cherry Berry smiled, and continued to smile as Chrysalis entered the first target zone and recorded her survey of, apparently, more open water. One contract complete, she thought. Even with one failed, this flight is running smoother than any we’ve had yet.

Please let it keep up.

Just as Chrysalis finished recording her report, the Reliant first stage cut off. “First stage cutoff at fourteen point six kilometers,” the queen said. “Velocity reading four hundred thirty and falling slowly. First stage jettisoned. Preparing for second stage ignition and adjusting attitude for target zone beta.” On the illusion, the rocket turned ever so slowly. “Controls still sluggish,” she said. “Probably won’t finish the turn before sixteen thousand.”

“Horseton copies, Mission Eight,” Cherry Berry replied. “No joy on target beta. Focus on maintaining control.”

“Fifteen-five,” Chrysalis reported. “Second stage ignition… mark!” She hit the staging button again, and as smoke billowed into the thin air below the rocket on the projection, the speed indicator on the nav-ball climbed rapidly. “Report red light on both Hammer and Flea tests, repeat no joy on either Hammer or Flea.”

“Horseton copies, Mission Eight, stand by,” Cherry Berry said. She cut off her mike and said, “I know for a fact we were within parameters for the Flea test! Below eighteen thousand, faster than four-sixty! What gives?”

Up in the gallery, Twilight Sparkle slapped her head. “Stupid!” she shouted. “I'm so stupid! The spell I used for the test assumes a Flea has a full fuel load! It won’t recognize a used booster as a Flea! I should have told you!”

Cherry Berry joined much of the press corps in groaning. She turned on her mike and said, “Mission Eight, Horseton; seems we voided the Flea test by actually using the Flea. It needed to come up unburned, over.”

“Now she tells us,” Chrysalis grumbled. “Second stage burnout at nine hundred thirty meters per second. Jettisoning second stage…” Under her voice, but still audible for the rest of the room, she added, “… for all the good it did us…”

“Cheer up, Eight,” Cherry Berry said, “you still get to enjoy your vacation in Maneaco.”

This time nopony laughed.

“Roger, Horseton,” Chrysalis said. “Adjusting attitude. I’m going to use the third stage to lengthen my trajectory. I’ve been burning pretty close to vertical and need more deceleration time.”

“Roger, Eight, Horseton copies.” Cherry Berry switched off the microphone as she saw both von Brawn and Bull shaking their heads frantically. von Brawn had lost his cool, Cherry noted; very bad sign. “What’s wrong, guys?”

“Tell her not to do it!” Bulls shouted. “She needs that fuel for active braking! She hasn’t got enough-“

“Look at the map!” von Brawn interrupted, pointing to the projection of the trajectory plot. Cherry Berry had never really given it a thought, since up until now the flights had all been short and close to home. The blue line this time, however, wasn’t short. It was very, very tall, and bent almost like a hairpin, going almost straight up and straight down.

And as she watched, the hairpin gradually spread out… but at the same time, the peak of the bend rose higher.

“Stop her! NOW!” von Brawn said.

Cherry Berry switch the mike back on. “Mission Eight, this is Horseton-“

“Stand by, Horseton,” Chrysalis said. A moment later, she added, “Third stage cutoff. All done. Does that get me to Maneaco today?”

von Brawn made a grit-toothed face, obviously wanting to scream, obviously unwilling to do so in Mission Control in public. He merely pointed again at the top of the trajectory arc, where a number glowed next to the apoapsis marker.

“Negative on Maneaco, Eight,” Cherry Berry drawled, realizing for the first time what the number meant. “I’m afraid you’re going to have to settle for outer space.”

On the projection, Chrysalis blinked, eyes going wide. “Horseton, Eight; I didn’t copy that last, could you repeat?”

“Our trajectory shows your ship reaching maximum altitude outside of atmosphere,” Cherry Berry said. “In a couple of minutes you’re going to be the first changeling in outer space.”

“Oh.” Chrysalis looked around the cabin, noticing a pencil floating, without magic, in front of her helmet. “Could you verify that, please, Horseton? I feel like I’m falling.”

“Zero gravity,” von Brawn rumbled, back in control of himself. “Free fall. We need a conference, Flight, could you have her stand by?”

Occupant nodded, and Cherry said, “You’re still going up, Eight. Enjoy the ride and stand by; we’ll have a couple of tasks for you in a moment.”

“Roger, Horseton, Mission Eight copies standing by.”

On the projector, the bell of the third-stage Reliant engine slowly cooled, red fading to black, as the little spaceship soared towards a soot-black sky.

Cherry Berry cut the mike, removed her headset, and trotted down to the bottom of the control room floor, where von Brawn and Bull stood in which the changelings had begun to call “the bullpen.”(117) Occupant joined them a moment later. Ignoring the photos from the press gallery, Cherry asked, “All right, where do we stand?”

Bull pointed to the trajectory chart. “This isn’t exactly where she’ll come down,” he said, “but it’s close. We need to get recovery en route immediately, and we need to contact both pegasus and griffon weather control teams and make sure those skies stay clear. If she comes down safely, we don’t want the capsule sunk by a storm.”

“Yes, sir,” Occupant said, fluttering back up to his own station to give the orders.

“The problem is, she might not come down safely,” von Brawn said. “We should have planned for this, and we didn’t. She needed to reduce her speed, pointing the craft down instead of up for her trajectory adjustment burn. As it stands, her trajectory is flatter, but not flat enough. For the final ten thousand meters she'll be close to vertical, and she’s almost four hundred meters per second faster than she should be.”

“Agreed,” Bull replied. “Reaching space is a nice milestone, but only if the pilot comes back alive. She’s returning very steep. The only good news is, she’s coming in above water. For a ground landing, I wouldn’t give tuppence for her chances.”

“Right,” Cherry Berry said. “What can we do to make it better?”

“Not much,” von Brawn admitted. “Bringing back the third stage is out. We need the capsule as light as possible. The lighter it is, the faster the atmosphere will slow it down. Then we need her to get the craft on retrograde attitude and keep it there. Thankfully we put the ablative shield on for Mission Six and didn’t remove it in the reconditioning process. We’re going to need it now.”

“Anything else?” Cherry Berry asked.

von Brawn shook his head. “Ask Twilight Sparkle if she could teleport our pilot out, maybe? No, Miss Berry,” he sighed, “at this point it’s entirely in Queen Chrysalis’s hooves.”

Footnotes:

(113) Chrysalis later said the book was the worst Daring Do adventure ever, with the crystal aliens turning out to be agents of Dr. Caballeron being “the biggest cop-out ever” and the lack of an actual space flight to a comet being “blatant false advertising.” She did approve of the two death traps in the story, though, calling them “ingenious, I wish I’d thought of them.” She admitted, when asked, that the parts about rockets were sound enough, but not all that interesting.

(114) Three of them actually had, including the griffon, and it would feature prominently in her writeup of events, enhancing a small but steady tourist trade for CSP. The fourth pony, a photographer for the Manehattan Times, had bought the shirt solely because he hadn’t brought a change of clothes and didn’t want to look like, for example, the little kid from Ponyville’s Free Foal Press. The honor of Equestria’s leading newspaper was at stake, after all.

(115) And because the press has no shame, three cameras went off at that precise moment, and his photo was part of the special supplemental section that later ran in the Canterlot Herald, the Manehattan Times, and the Crystal Empire Post-Dispatch. Reader reaction split between “how dare this paper frighten young fillies” and “how incredibly cute, I never knew changelings could be that adorable.”

(116) Technically it was the planet that moved and not the sun, but it was still an impressive feat of magic, and habits of thought die hard. Celestia likely would continue to “raise the sun” for centuries to come, and anypony who tried to correct this would be justly accused of nitpicking.

(117) If the front row of the mission control desks had been run by changelings, it might have been called the Pit or the Hole, but the two minotaurs dominated it both physically and intellectually, so no other name seemed fitting.

“Wow,” Chrysalis muttered. “Horseton, Eight; I just want to report that the controls are really responsive without any rocket attached. Too responsive. Much twitchier than in any simulations we’ve done. I just want to point that out, over.”

“Horseton copies, Eight,” Cherry Berry’s voice replied calmly. “Do your best. Aps in thirty seconds, over.”

“Mission Eight copies.” Chrysalis tweaked the roll slightly, bringing Equus into view of the little hatch window. A window not much bigger than my hoof, she thought, and I can see everything from Manehattan down to Scorchero in it, and halfway to the Everfree Forest.

She let the craft continue to roll, and the planet fell away, replaced by black sky, and as the window fell into shadow away from the sun, a host of stars.

“I have to say it’s beautiful up here,” she said aloud. “Really beautiful. I can pick out Luna’s little stars separate from the planets and distant stars. The Milky Way… I’ve never seen it this clearly before, not even in the Badlands. And the stars are solid. They don’t sparkle. They just shine in all the colors of the rainbow.”

The craft rotated, bringing the night side of Equus into view. “I’m looking at western Equestria now,” Chrysalis said. “The atmosphere makes a kind of rainbow with the colors of sunset. It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen before, and I’ve been around a good long while.”

Chrysalis stared out the little window, ignoring the pencil floating loose around the cabin. “It’s just so amazing up here,” she said. “I don’t know how to describe it except in terms of emotions. Everything up here tastes of joy and laughter.” She chuckled to herself. “I’m fifty miles and more above the closest pony, and up here I feel surrounded by joy and laughter. Someone tell Rarity that we need to let out the pressure suits. Changelings up here are going to get fat.”

“Eight, Horseton,” Cherry Berry replied, “she hears you and says she’ll make you an appointment when you get back. For now, though, you’re past apoapsis, and we need to get you on retrograde attitude for atmospheric reentry.”

Chrysalis sighed. “Copy, Horseton,” she said. “I hope I get to spend more time up here. Unexpected snacking aside, it’s truly beautiful. And so relaxing.”

“Can’t wait to get up there myself,” Cherry Berry admitted.

Chrysalis adjusted herself back in her flight seat and took the flight stick in her hooves. It took a bit of rocking back and forth; even with the lightest touch, the ship moved past the retrograde marker on the nav-ball. Finally she got the retrograde marker almost centered. “Attitude full retrograde,” she said. “Look out, Equus, I’m coming home butt first.”

A choked sound echoed through Chrysalis’s headset. Finally Cherry Berry’s voice managed, “Mission Eight, we can all hear everything you’re saying.”

For a moment Chrysalis flushed with embarrassment. Then decades of training and practice kicked in. “I’m a queen,” she said simply. “I can say whatever I want. Let princesses be dignified.” Pause. “Booger.”

Giggles echoed through her helmet. Gotcha, she thought.

She glanced down at her controls, noticing her speed. “I’m picking up a bit of speed,” she said. “I must really be dropping. Twelve hundred meters per second and rising.”

“Copy, Eight,” Cherry Berry said. “According to tracking you maxed out at thirteen hundred sixty going up; you’ll go at least that fast coming back down.”

“Copy, Horseton,” Chrysalis replied. “I’m feeling a little bumping now; I must be back in atmosphere.” The sensation in the cockpit wasn’t exactly bumping, so much as the faintest of nudges, as forces formerly absent were returning.

“Affirmative, Eight,” Cherry said. “Maintain retrograde attitude and stand by.”

Chrysalis lay back, hooves on the flight stick, eyes on the nav ball, making the lightest of touches now and then. For a minute or two nothing much happened, except that the faint nudges began to build towards a vibration, nothing like as ferocious as liftoff, but vastly removed from the tranquility of moments before.

A flicker of redness rushed past the window. “Horseton, Eight,” she said.

“Go ahead, Eight,” Cherry Berry answered.

“I’m seeing… little streamers of red light,” Chrysalis reported. “Or is that flame?”

“Roger, Eight, and yes it is flame,” Cherry repeated. “The air is thick enough, and you’re going fast enough, to heat up the atmosphere around you. The ablator shield should prevent the heat from building up in your ship, over.”

“Mission Eight copies,” Chrysalis replied calmly. She didn’t remember the bit about coming down surrounded by a fireball being covered in either training or classes. But then, nopony had planned on Mission Eight making it to space, even for a few minutes.

The flames increased rapidly, a roar beginning to fill the cabin. “Gravity’s coming back…” Chrysalis grunted as the ship began to decelerate. “Just a touch, but it’s there. Speed thirteen twelve at twenty-two thousand meters.”

“Horseton copies,” Cherry said.

The sensation of weight increased little by little as flames roared past the capsule. “Speed twelve seventy-five at nineteen thousand meters,” she said.

“Horseton copies.”

A moment later Chrysalis said, “Speed twelve-ten at sixteen thousand, Horseton is there something you should be telling- oof!” The capsule had just shoved her hard in the back, and was still shoving hard.

“Mission Eight, Horseton, we didn’t copy that last,” Cherry Berry said.

“Just started… slowing down… really fast,” Chrysalis groaned. “Two gees. Unexpected. Dropping below ten thousand, still well over nine hundred.”

“Wait until parachutes green-light before deploying,” Cherry Berry warned.

“Mission Eight copies, deploy parachutes only on green light,” Chrysalis replied. “Gees easing up… three hundred fifty at five thousand meters altitude.” The flames were long gone, and the black of space was replaced by clear blue skies outside the window. “Three hundred at four thousand meters… two ninety… two eighty… two seventy.”

The parachute switch lights turned from red to yellow, and Chrysalis’s left hoof hovered over them. “Standing by…” At two hundred sixty-two meters per second the switch went green, and her hoof stabbed forward. “Parachutes deployed!” she shouted triumphantly.

About a quarter mile off Nuzzle Island in the Marehamas, what looked like a slightly scorched gray gumdrop drifted down under a parachute, splashing into the water. A mother and daughter, ponies vacationing from Baltimare(118), watched with interest as the parachute collapsed atop it, then drifted away on the water.

To their surprise, a door opened on the side of the gumdrop. Something in an orange suit crawled out, hugging the side as it closed the hatch behind it. One hoof slipped, and the thing slid into the water, splashing frantically for a few seconds, then calming down as it realized that it wasn’t actually sinking.

Green magic enveloped the metal gumdrop. Very, very slowly the thing rose into the air, then began floating towards the beach, led by the strange thing in the orange suit. Mare and filly watched with growing curiosity and concern as the thing in the suit swam, then touched bottom, then walked through the low surf, rising up from the water like a creature out of a bad movie.(119)

The metal pod set down on the beach, and the magic shifted from it to the helmet, twisting it, unlocking it, removing it. The thing inside took a deep breath of salt air and shook out its lank green mane.

“Stay back, Checkers,” the mother said, putting herself between her daughter and the monster. “I’ll protect you.”

“Peace, peace!” the monster said, raising a hoof still encased in the damp orange suit. “I’m a friend! A friend! I come from Equestria! Where’s the nearest telegraph office?”

The filly peeked out from between her mother’s legs. “Ma’am, did you come from outer space?” she asked.

“As a matter of fact,” Queen Chrysalis said, smiling triumphantly, “I did!!”

Footnotes:

(118) Having made a small fortune in just two days from the changeling tourist invasion, the family had taken a Marehaman vacation to soothe their nerves. They had money to spare, and it was the off-season. At the moment Daddy was off by the cabana bar getting himself quite profoundly soothed. Mommy was not looking forward to dragging his unconscious flank back to the hotel again that evening.

(119) Specifically, Teenage Cavehorse, directed by Bit I. Gottem, 989 CR. Why there was a monster with a spacesuit helmet atop a gorilla-suit body in a movie about cavehorses was never explained. Not many cared. When you went to a theater showing a movie with a title like that, watching the film was the last thing on the agenda.

MISSION 8 REPORT

Mission summary: Test flight dynamics of booster aerodynamic nosecones; fulfill outstanding contracts for Flea and Hammer booster tests; survey two target zones while in flight

Pilot: Chrysalis

Flight duration: 25 min. 14 sec.
Maximum speed achieved: 1361 m/s (ascent), 1374 (descent)
Maximum altitude achieved: Trans-atmospheric
Distance downrange at landing: 302.3 km

Contracts fulfilled: 3
Milestones: all altitude milestones cleared, fastest velocity, reached space, returned safely from space

Conclusions from flight: SPACE! SPACE! SPACE! OH MY CELESTIA SPACE SPACE SPACE!!!

MISSION ASSESSMENT: A MOST SUCCESSFUL FAILURE

The telepresence illusion had failed a few seconds after splashdown, but that had been enough. Everyone in the Mission Control room was cheering and celebrating, even the changelings. Professionalism was thrown to the four winds. The only quiet pony in the room was Ad Astra, but that was because she was busy writing out checks, a couple of which would be extremely large.

Changeling Space Program: first in space.

That would be the next day’s headline, and every pony, changeling, griffon and minotaur in the room knew it. It was even made official when Twilight Sparkle descended from the gallery to shake Cherry Berry’s hoof. In a voice loud enough to carry she said, “I see the Equestria Space Agency has a lot of catching up to do!” As she shook hooves, she added, “Under the circumstances, you’ve more than earned that wind tunnel. ESA considers the contract fulfilled in full!”

“I’m honored, Princess,” Cherry Berry replied, also pitching her voice to carry, “but we’re going to fulfill your remaining priorities anyway! And then- next stop orbit! Because the Changeling Space Program doesn’t give up until it succeeds!”

Two figures took opportunity of the tumult to absent themselves. They bore press passes in their bright, snazzy straw hats, but had anyone checked those passes there would have been awkward questions asked. Like, for example, why the two unicorns hadn’t been with the press group the day before, why weren’t the ponies carrying a camera or pencil and notepad, and who published the Weekly Midnight Star anyway, and where?

“Well, dear brother of mine,” said one to the other, “I found this diversion most educational indeed.”

“As did I, my eloquent sibling,” said the other to the one. “And what I found most educational is, I do not believe these ponies are alive to the possibilities of that spell.”

“Indeed my cup runneth over with ideas for its use,” the first said to the second, his mustache swishing.

“As does mine,” the second said to the first. “Now all we have to do is lay hooves on a chart of the spell matrix.”

“A simple matter, no doubt easily attained,” the first said, “and then a few minor modifications will set us well on our way!”

“Veritably, my dear brother!” The second chuckled, adding, “Let us be thankful for the institution of free scientific exchange!”

“Yes indeed!” the first laughed. “Let us go set some information free… and then sell it dearly!”

The two ponies laughed merrily, if maliciously, and took a brisk, jaunty walk in the direction of the administrative offices.

Chapter 8: Mission 9: Semi-Reliable Performance

View Online

Changeling Space Program
by Kris Overstreet
Chapter 8: Mission 9: Semi-Reliable Performance

Every paper in the world ran the story over the following week.

Changelings First in Space.

The exact nature of the headline and article varied depending on the paper. The Canterlot Herald, for example, focused on the dangers of allowing changeling superiority in the space race. On the other end of the spectrum, the Manehattan Times soberly reflected on the strong governing hoof of Chrysalis over her subjects(120). The Foal Free Press of Ponyville went farther than anyone in favor of the changelings, mostly because the grade school student writing the article had only two positive adjectives in his vocabulary, “cool” and “yummy”.(121)

The Crystal Empire Post-Dispatch reported the bare facts plus an interview with Twilight Sparkle, and that was all. The Griffondale Penny-Press didn’t even include the interview, though it did mention that the changelings were accepting contracts for space-related enterprises, which might be a profitable enterprise in the future. The tabloids of the minotaur islands practically presented the whole affair as a minotaur program which just happened, for no particular reason, to be piloted by a changeling queen(122).

The dragons didn’t publish newspapers, but even they began to gossip about the launch.

And as the gossip and news and discussion spread and circulated, it eventually got back to the changelings by one channel or another. There were still thousands of infiltrators in deep cover across Equestria, of course, rotating in and out, bringing love back to the hive and to the workers at the space center. They also brought the latest word, and the word was…

… not that bad, actually.

On the one hand, most ponies still feared changelings. On the other hand, a growing number were giving them respect. And a few, here and there, were actually showing approval.

But only a few. Chrysalis looked at the reports and decided it would take a lot more than a glorified elevator ride for her species to live down its past. On the other hand, she reasoned, by the time she did enough for that to even be a possibility, she’d have the Moon and enough power to conquer the world, so why worry about it?

One thing the news had done; every single space program still running, even the griffons and dragons, now wanted the new rocket engines being turned out in Appleoosa. The yak space program had sent a forty yak strong trade delegation to the Crystal Empire to order rocket parts and haul them back home.

Cherry Berry spent two weeks at Cherry’s Rocket Parts and Odd Jobs, letting her duties at the space center lapse, helping Goddard the Griffin organize the manufacture of engine after engine after engine, plus the fuel tanks. This didn’t hurt matters much, since the construction crews which had been juggled to prepare for the Big Launch Day had now been thrown into building a new launch pad, designed by Warner von Brawn, which could hold ten times the weight and withstand ten times the thrust of the original dirt-and-gravel mound. The process, which required a lot of engineering, welding and steel, was due to take weeks, even working day and night with the aid of unicorn lights.

Chrysalis was kept busy by the construction, by the need to go back to the hive for a few days to catch up on royal business, and by the occasional interview requested by journalists from around the world. Despite that, she spared a little time to set a few guidelines for the next flight:

No more flying ground surveys. They’d complete the one still on contract, and that was all.

The next rocket would focus on finally clearing out the old missions. No missions would be accepted unless they could be accomplished along the way on the same flight with no additional weight.

Once all the old, unfinished contracts were settled, the space program would design a rocket specifically for an orbit attempt, and no contracts would be accepted that interfered with achieving orbit.

That was the plan, and she repeated these guidelines in her interviews, making it clear that although CSP was currently not flying, it was not idle, either.

Other space programs were flying, however. Twilight Sparkle’s Equestrian Space Agency flew a Swivel-propelled rocket into the upper atmosphere piloted by Rainbow Dash. That one had nearly ended in a Bad Day. Twilight, still convinced that keeping the rocket whole was the way to go, had tried the same all-the-parachutes approach Chrysalis had suggested when she first encountered the concept of decouplers. The rocket came down nose-first on a thankfully shallow trajectory, but the nosecone rocket failed due to heat and the other parachutes came close to doing likewise. Once Rainbow Dash had splashed down safely the core Ponyville group had a long, private discussion, which resulted in a large order for decouplers being sent to Old Minotaur Bombs and Mining.

In the week that followed, Princess Cadence became the second being from Equus to leave atmosphere and return safely, splashing down, ironically enough, not far offshore from Horseton.(123) Two days later Gordon the Griffon became the third, just barely getting out of atmosphere but tracking a long, shallow trajectory that brought him down in the ocean south of Saddle Arabia, a quarter of the planet away. The Prench and the dragons each launched their second flights, Yakyakistan had a misfire that never got off the ground, and a group of diamond dogs, after two months of trying, finally got a Flea-hopper into the air and down again safely.

The bad news was, the Changeling Space Program was barely ahead in the space race, if it was ahead at all. The good news was, two-thirds of the components being used by the other space programs either included parts designed by CSP or were wholly manufactured by CSP and its front companies.

Between this and the checks cashed from contractors and from the Royal Canterlot Astronomical Society, far from tottering on the brink of insolvency as it had seemed weeks before, CSP was actually flush with cash.

And then, three weeks after Chrysalis’s space flight, something new entered the world, which drowned out, at least for the moment, all thoughts of the space race…

Footnotes:

(120) A point the Baltimare Sun mocked, pointing out and exaggerating the “riotous conduct” of the changelings who had recently visited. This despite the fact that, after the Times, the Sun had the broadest coverage of the flight and, more often than not, viewed the effort favorably.

(121) And although a changeling would have no problem describing a pony as yummy, most ponies would not appreciate it being applied the other way, Snails notwithstanding.

(122) Which is not totally inaccurate.

(123) She understandably declined the offer of recovery services from CSP, waiting for a team from Cape Friendship to come get her and her capsule.

Time passed, as it does.

The launch pad was completed. A flight was flown. The press oohed and aahed, though only half a dozen newspapers sent reporters to witness Mission Nine, also known as Mission Mop-Up among the press.

But three others were present- two unicorns and a hired pegasus- and it was these three ponies who, throughout their stay at Horseton Space Center, held the near-total attention of the space program’s officers.

And now, a week after the launch, all work was called off remaining construction(124), all training ceased, and over two hundred changelings, ponies, and this and that gathered in the lounge of the astronaut complex, in front of a large box with a slightly curved crystal window in the front.(125)

“Is everyling here?” Occupant asked, fluttering around the room, wings buzzing like a chainsaw. “It’s going to start any minute!”

Chrysalis, with a front row seat as was due a queen, said, “If they miss out, they miss out.” With a flicker of magic from her horn she switched the device on and adjust the knob marked CHANNEL to number 2.(126)

A slow hissing noise built up from the grille underneath the window, which began to glow with an eerie light. The light resolved itself, bit by bit, into a picture, and the hiss into words.

Chrysalis groaned as she saw a graytone picture was of a unicorn smiling far too broadly, holding up a bottle of something. “Why,” she asked the world, “is it always an advertisement?”

… and those mares out there love a stallion whose mouth has the minty-crisp ting of Flim-Flam!” The unicorn stallion smiled even more broadly, if such a thing were possible, as he held the bottle as close to the camera as possible. “So order today! Supplies are limited! Don’t miss out on Flim-Flam Brand Oral Hygiene Elixir!

Where the image of the unicorn had been in black and white, the title card listing the address to send off to which followed was in brilliant color. There was nothing wrong with the spell that powered the device, or which powered the broadcast it received. The moving pictures were black and white because the ponies running the broadcast had been too cheap to buy a color moving picture camera. (127)

Chrysalis heard a few pencils being put to paper. “When I decide a changeling needs mouthwash, I will buy some,” she said, putting a strong tone of warning into her words. “For the rest of you the answer is no.”

“Awwww.” The scribbling stopped.

The commercial card was pulled away, replaced by the view of a desk with the twin brother of the pony who’d been in the mouthwash ad. Fluffing out his mustache with a breath, the unicorn crowed, “Here’s a preview of the Seven O’Clock Report, brought to you by FF Television, the world’s first and only legitimate television broadcaster!

The quiet sound of a film projector began under Flam’s speech, and an image of Manehattan Courthouse appeared on the wall to one side of Flam’s desk. “Leading our news, FF Television continues to appeal the unjust revocation of its patent on television!

The image of Manehattan Courthouse switched to a moving picture of Twilight Sparkle, obviously furious. “I still want to know who gave that spell to those two!” she snapped, before the picture froze on a most uncomplimentary frame of a face twisted in either rage or indigestion. “Twilight Sparkle, who has been a princess of Equestria for only a bit more than a year and who obviously is inexperienced with legal matters, pleaded the case for the government at Manehattan Courthouse today. Given her conduct when interviewed by reporters, we can expect our appeal to the high court in Canterlot to be completely successful.

Warner von Brawn, loafing in a large chair suited to a massive minotaur of middle age, said, “Do you think they’re going to win?”

“Not a chance,” Cherry Berry said through a mouthful of cherries. Chrysalis wished the pony would either not talk with her mouth full, or else sit farther away. “Celestia paid off their patent. They’d have a fortune if they accepted. The way they’re going, they’ll lose the whole amount on legal costs trying to restore their monopoly.”

Meanwhile, Flam had kept on with other news items, mostly with a strong Flim-Flam spin which either made the brothers look good or tied in to products offered by mail in their advertisements. “… the thief entered through the second-story window, which sadly was not secured by a Flim-Flam Patent Pane Protection Product. Also later tonight, the sports scores, the weather schedule for all Equestria, and the latest science on how beet juice and pressed cabbage stimulates muscle development!

And now tonight’s schedule! After the Seven O’Clock Report, we have a double feature movie! A tragic tale of parental neglect written and directed by Wooden Head, I Accuse My Sire and Dam, followed by the classic sci-fi comedy, Pod Ponies! But for now, it’s six o’clock and time for this week’s edition of Look At It!

There was a brief clatter as one reel of film was hurriedly swapped for another, and then the picture focused on the black-and-white projection.

Throughout the lounge changelings shushed each other. The shushing grew louder and more hostile, partly because the “shhh” sound in Equestrian means “back off right now” in old Changeling.

“Silence,” Chrysalis snapped, and the changelings froze, settled down, and turned to the television just as the exciting tinkly piano music began to play.

Footnotes:

(124) The administration building, which included a throne room with a telepresence link straight back to the hive, was nearing completion. There was now a hangar for Cherry Berry’s plane, though construction on a larger airship hangar was still in process. The research and development complex was just finished, and bit by bit Goddard the Griffon and von Brawn’s minotaur associates were shifting the research and experiment functions of Cherry’s Rocket Parts from Appleoosa to Horseton. Finally, plans were being drawn up for a larger tracking center and a much expanded vehicle assembly building (VAB). At the rate things were going, some of the non-changeling construction workers were considering buying or building homes in the area in anticipation of that golden dream of contractors, a project which is never fully complete.

(125) Within a week of its first release, her changelings had demanded one. Chrysalis had resisted, first because of the expense, second because she had quite a few notions of what the thing would do to the minds of her subjects, many of which turned out in the end to be absolutely correct. This hesitation had put her in the right place when the competitors to the first device came out, offering (among other things) a bigger screen and knobs that actually did things. When she gave in she bought two, and ONLY two- one for the hive and one for the space center- but she bought the biggest and best models she could find.

(126) In any house with a unicorn or other magic user, the remote control, if it was ever invented at all, would gather dust on a shelf.

(127) When you consider that, as with all photography in Equestria, the process was entirely magical rather than chemical, and thus color was barely any different from black-and-white in technological terms, this means Flim and Flam had been very, very cheap indeed. Also, a bit stupid.


A Proud FF Feature

Look At It!

A Weekly In-Depth Examination of the Coming Trends Changing Your World!
Episode 3: the Changeling Space Program

Behold the south shore of Muck Lake, where the writ of Equestrian law ends, and where the Forbidden Jungles still hold tribes of uncivilized ponies and unspeakable monsters. This land of tropical terror represents the past of ponykind- superstitious, quarrelsome, and simple.

And now having seen the past, let us look at- the future!

This gleaming complex on the shores of the Griffon Ocean is Horseton Space Center, named for the nearest pony village which recognizes the rule of the Royal Alicorn Sisters. This is the future- where creatures of all races come together to advance the boundaries of learning for us! Here ponies, griffons, minotaurs and other races dream of new worlds, new discoveries and new challenges.

And here one race dreams an even more ambitious dream- a dream, after centuries of hatred and fear, of acceptance.

For Horseton Space Center is the home of the Changeling Space Program.

T -48 hours until Mission 9 Launch

The annoying thing about being a changeling queen is that you almost never get to enjoy a leisurely breakfast by yourself.

Oh, you can have whatever food you like, whenever you want it, if that’s your thing. Never mind that your system uses practically none of it unless you need to create some particular fluid, web, or casing. You can taste pony food all you like, enjoy it if you like the taste, and then discreetly spit it up and throw it away. For a changeling that’s not breakfast, that’s posing.

A meal for a changeling means concentrated love energy, and the changeling queen is responsible for storing and redistributing love gathered by her subjects, ensuring none go hungry and that the warriors and workers are strong enough to fulfill their tasks. One side effect is, although the rest of the time the queen is absolute ruler, at mealtimes she’s little more than a lunchlady to a particularly quarrelsome group of children.

Chrysalis was leaving the almost-finished administration building after distributing large doses of love brought back from the hive in the Badlands to the changelings at the space center, generally thanking Whatever that changelings could go for weeks without a feed, when she noticed the paddle-wheeled barge working its way up the Muck Lake inlet.

Cherry Berry had come out of the astronaut complex to check on her; she was due to launch Mission Nine at noon two days later, and both earth pony and changeling queen needed to be in the simulators to prepare. They hadn’t had a successful Flea test in simulations yet, and as mission backup and capsule communicator Chrysalis had to be there for every test, half in the capsule, half on the observer station. “Morning, Your Majesty,” she said. “What’s that, more rocket parts?”

Chrysalis put a hoof over her eyes to shield them from the morning sun. “Occupant’s schedule doesn’t mention a shipment,” she said. “Besides, Goddard and von Brawn are here, so who’s left in Appleoosa to ship anything to us?”

After flagging down a passing changeling and sending her to fetch Occupant, Chrysalis and Cherry trotted over to the docks. The closer the barge came, the gaudier it looked, brass and glass and brightly colored paint, as if the whole were a seagoing theater bent on attracting the attention and custom of… who, exactly?

Then, as the barge’s large paddlewheels backed water to bring the craft to a stop by the docks, the wind picked up just enough for the flag on the ship’s stubby mast to flap open, revealing a bright red-and-white FF logo.

“Well, pony, looks like we have been honored,” Chrysalis muttered.

“How do you figure?” Cherry Berry replied.

“The list of people who are bigger deceivers than any changeling is a short one,” Chrysalis said. “This ship belongs to two ponies near the top of that list.” After a moment’s thought she added, “That is, if they bought it legitimately, which I doubt.”

Cherry grunted noncommittally, not really reacting until the barge’s owners existed the pilot house atop the big square superstructure. Unicorn magic deftly cast out ropes, tied them to the pilings, tugged them fast. More magic levitated a gangplank out from a covered walkway to connect ship and pier. The two unicorns, dressed in their snappy blue-striped vests and straw boaters, trotted down the gangplank, followed by a sullen-looking, bulge-eyed gray pegasus carrying a large, beaten-up movie camera.

Upon reaching the shore, the two unicorns stopped, stood side by side, and bowed in unison, bending one foreleg sideways as they bent their heads. “Greetings, Your Majesty Queen Chrysalis!” said the one without a mustache.

“And a good morning to you, oh famous test pilot Cherry Berry!” said the one with.

“We are-“

“Flim and Flam, yes, we know,” Chrysalis interrupted. “You boys seem to have done well for yourselves, even after losing your monopoly.” She cocked her head slightly, pretending to think. “Six days from hitting the market to having your patent bought out from under you? And two days after that before four competing device makers and six competing broadcasters burst out of the woodwork? Even considering the fickle and gullible nature of ponies, that must be a record for scam gone sour, wouldn’t you say?”

Truth be told, Chrysalis’s feelings about the brothers before her ran multiple directions. She’d found out after the fact that the two had been around for her space flight, which was when she guessed they got their hooves on the telepresence illusion spell. That meant they’d stolen from her, and that was unacceptable. However, they’d produced a very ingenious device indeed, one with massive potential for use and abuse. This intrigued her. (128) Finally, their very existence, never mind their brazen effrontery at every stage of their current scheme, annoyed Twilight Sparkle enough that she lost her cool, repeatedly, in public. That sort of amusement bought a lot of forgiveness in Chrysalis’s books. Any pony the purple princess detested couldn’t be all bad.

Once she had taken certain actions in secret for her own advantage, Chrysalis greeted her visitors with a more or less open mind. After all, if all else failed, there were empty pods back in the Badlands, and these were two ponies the Princesses wouldn’t ask any questions about… well, at least not for a good long while.(129)

As it happened, her snide remarks hadn’t thrown them off their sales pitch for an instant. “The unsubstantiated rumors of our fiscal downfall are gravely exaggerated, Your Highness!” Flim said.

“Indeed, even if all goes against us in the courts, this is but a minor setback!” Flam added.

“Because although we have competition, we remain the first!” Flim said.

“We are the inventors!” said Flam.

“The innovators!”

“The explorers!”

“The leaders at the dawn of a brand new medium!”

The two ponies paused. Flam cleared his throat and tapped his hoof meaningfully.

“Right, boss,” the bulge-eyed pegasus grumbled, flying up to the ship and settling in at an organ perched on top of the superstructure. As the music began, the unicorn brothers sang:

My Queen, your reputation’s shot and your popularity is down
You want to make a change, but you need a way to get the word around
We know you can’t bear the idea that it’s beyond all repair
So allow us to adjust your image by putting you on the air

Why, you’ve got opportunity
At this space facility
He’s Flim-
-he’s Flam
We’re the world-famous Flim-Flam Brothers
Traveling broadcasters nonpareil

“Oh, not again,” Cherry Berry sighed, slowing the brothers down not at all.

You’re in a bind, and that’s the reason why, you see
Nopony else in the whole world will give you such a chance to make your case on T.V.
It’s a new world with tons of viewers with wide-open ears and eyes unblinking
That’s viewers that you can sway over to your way of thinking

You’ve got opportunity
At this space facility
He’s Flim-
-he’s Flam
We’re the world-famous Flim-Flam Brothers
Traveling broadcasters nonpareil

Flim stepped forward and gestured a hoof at the barge, on top of which the pegasus resolutely pounded out the old fashioned march tempo.

I suppose by now you’re wondering about our fashionable sailing vessel
- Our means of cruising ‘cross the ocean
- And I suppose by now you’re wondering where’s our studio?
- Anypony knows you need a stage and set to have a show
- Well, my brother and I had ideas nopony else could
Inspirations and inventions nopony else would
And that’s INNOVATION
Ma’am, it’s the one and only, the biggest and the best,
Unique!
-Tres chic!
- First-class
- Unsurpassed
F. F. Television’s Super Sailing Studio 6000!

Chrysalis took over the chorus, while a few flubbed notes from the organ took the song into a disturbing minor key:

And that’s why you’ve brought opportunity
To this space facility
We know who you are
You’re the infamous Flim-Flam Brothers
Shady hucksters nonpareil

Now before I buy your drivel
Just want to show my brain’s not shriveled
Now here’s the way it is, unless I miss my guess
You’ve got a ton of competition
So you’ve come here on a mission
‘Cause if you give the nation a sensation you might just squeeze out of your mess

Flim replied, as Fish Eye corrected his errors and the music shifted back into the cheerful major key:

Well, you make an excellent point, Your Highness, I say you make an excellent point
Our viewers are great sophisticates who we really don’t want to disappoint

And Flam added:

It’s a win-win situation, at least from our point of view
So whaddaya say, C.S.P.?
Care to take your message to the world
And let us film a documentary of you?

And the two unicorns joined in for one more chorus:

Accept this opportunity
At this space facility!
He’s Flim-
He’s Flam-
We’re the world-famous Flim Flam Brothers
Travelling broadcasters nonpareil!

And with a last clumsy flourish from the organ, the song ended, to the cheers of the crowd of changelings (plus a few construction ponies) who had gathered round as the song progressed.

Chrysalis turned to face the impromptu audience. “Don’t you all have non-pod related things you need to be doing?” she hissed.

The audience dispersed, precipitately.

“So, what do you say, Your Highness?” Flam asked. “I guarantee you none of the donkey-come-lately broadcasters will give you so much as a sixty-second ad spot. We’re going to make you the feature for an entire hour!”

“Less commercial breaks,” Flim added softly.

“And although we no longer have the market to ourselves, for a week we did,” Flam added.

“Eight thousand Truly Terrific Television 1000’s in pony homes,” Flim added. “And we’re still selling more, along with the optional TTT Tuner box additional!”

“You’re clearing the old units out at one-fifth your original asking price,” Chrysalis said. “Which is still three-quarters the price of the smallest competing tunable set. And a lot of your early buyers have sold or junked their old sets in favor of your competitors’ product.”

“How exactly are you so knowledgeable about our newly founded industry?” Flam asked.

“I went shopping a few days ago,” Chrysalis said. “My subjects insisted on trying out your idiot box-“

“Shame, shame!” both brothers chided.

“- and once there was a selection of units I could no longer put them off.”

“I say, you haven’t made your purchase yet, have you?” Flam asked.

“Next week our TTT 2000 and TTTT 3000 will hit the shelves,” Flim said.

“What’s the extra T for?” Cherry Berry asked.

“Tremendous!” Flim grinned.

“Instead of an enclosed screen, the TTTT 3000 projects on a wall!” Flam added.

“Of course you have to turn out the lights in the room to get the full effect,” Flim continued.

“But with that minor drawback, the TTTT 3000 will have the largest screen resolution of any television on the market!”

“Sadly, I have already made my purchases,” Chrysalis admitted. “But to get back to business.” She walked up to them, allowing her eyes and horn to glow. “You are aware, of course, that I could bend your minds to do my bidding. And given your history of, to be polite, questionable salesmanship tactics,” she added, “there aren’t that many ponies who would weep.”

“It took me a week to get your Super Speedy Cider Squeezy 6000 sales pitch out of my head,” Cherry Berry said. “Longer to get the taste of that horrible cider out of my mouth. Compared to that,” she added, pointing at Chrysalis, “her mind control is honest.”

Chrysalis paused, glancing at her earth pony test pilot. “Thank you, I think,” she said. “But this is moot, since I really have no need to do so. The fact is,” she said, smiling and showing off her fangs and pointed teeth, “you need me vastly more than I need you. Your competitors are bidding up the lousy old movies you’ve been airing, and they’re getting money from advertising sales, which you don’t because you only advertise your own products.”

“Actually, day before yesterday we did begin accepting outside advertisements,” Flim noted. “We rather had to. You see, that is our broadcast studio there,” he said, pointing to the barge. “And while it’s away from the docks at Manehattan, we can’t process orders for our products, so we needed something to finance this trip and keep broadcasting in the interim.”

“I stand corrected,” Chrysalis replied. “This doesn’t alter the fact that your income is shrinking rapidly along with your market share. You want something so controversial and attention-grabbing that it will help salvage your own reputations, regardless of what it does to mine.”

“We prefer the term sensational,” Flim replied firmly.

Chrysalis nodded. “Here are my terms,” she said. “You stay throughout the flight in two days. I then view your final edit to make sure it’s not, shall we say, counterproductive to my wishes.”

“She means no slam piece on the space program,” Cherry Berry added.

“Also you don’t use the program or my subjects to sell your trinkets,” Chrysalis continued. “You then go back to Manehattan or wherever and air the piece as I saw it here. If it doesn’t match, I have ways of making my displeasure felt.” She narrowed her eyes and added, “Not all my subjects are out in the open, even yet. Do I need to say more?”

“Message received, Your Highness!” Flam nodded, barely breaking a sweat… but breaking a sweat all the same.

“And we get half the advertising space,” Chrysalis added. “Free.”

The salesponies’ jaws dropped. “WHAT?” they both shouted.

“You heard me. Half the ads. Five out of nine, not counting the top-of-the-hour material.” As the unicorns struggled for words, she added, “That’s the deal. Your options are to take it,” and she gestured at their ship, “or take off. Any attempt to dicker or suggest a third option, and my demand becomes all the ads.

For thirty seconds Chrysalis thoroughly enjoyed the sight of the two confidence ponies suffering in silence, unable to confer, unable to admit just how bad their position was (130), and yet unwilling to accept the offer as presented. Something had to break, but the breaking process was entertaining enough that Chrysalis wished she had her own camera to record it all.

Of course, the break came in the direction she expected. “You strike a very hard deal, Your Majesty,” Flam said reluctantly.

“But we accept your terms in all particulars,” Flim said.

“Provided,” Flam continued, “that we get your full cooperation on everything else.”

“Consistent, of course, with safety and the requirements of your agency,” Flim concluded.

“But of course,” Chrysalis smiled. “If you would come this way, I’ll introduce you to our flight manager and mission planner, Occupant. He’ll be your guide and liaison to the rest of the program.” She gestured to the changeling hovering respectfully behind her, who had taken to wearing a bright white vest in an (unsuccessful) attempt to distract from his buck fangs.

“We will need to interview you on camera later,” Flim put in.

“But of course,” Chrysalis purred. “I insist upon it.”

Footnotes:

(128) Also, it had inspired her, and Twilight Sparkle as well, to seek other applications for their spell besides scrying on a spaceship. The first application was being worked into the administration building- a telepresence link between the space center, the hive, and the Appleoosa workshop. Twilight Sparkle’s assistant, Starlight Glimmer, was working on a spell that could be networked with thousands of others. Since Flim and Flam’s device had already taken the name ‘television,’ Twilight Sparkle wanted to use the name ‘teleconference,’ but Chrysalis liked von Brawn’s term better, ‘telephone.’

(129) And it wasn’t like these two would be dry holes like Double Face. Considering how eagerly they sought money by fair means or foul, they at least loved that. Love for each other, she sensed, would be a distant second place.

(130) It was bad enough that the ponies had decided a few days away from Manehattan would be good for their health, at least until the advertising checks cleared the bank. But then, they had built their studio on a magic-propelled barge for the same reason that, in other worlds, a certain breed of used car salesman has their office in a trailer hitched to a truck whose engine is always running…


This is CSP Mission Control, the room where a dozen scientists and workers do their best to ensure a safe flight for the mission of the day. It’s empty now, but soon it’ll be busy and crowded as the CSP prepares for its ninth mission.

CSP Mission Eight was the first non-magical transport of a creature from Equus beyond the atmosphere into outer space. Since then two other vessels have made brief trips into the great unknown, but before CSP can regain its lead in the space race, it is determined to clear all prior obligations. We spoke with CSP mission planner and flight director Occupant to get more information.

I’m sorry, but I’m a little embarrassed. My fangs, you see.


That’s quite all right, just go ahead.

Well, the thing is, the mission objectives Twilight Sparkle gave us were sort of, um a challenge. We were being asked, demanded really, to do things noling else-

Sorry, noling?

No one. To do things no one else had ever done before. And, well, we changelings do lie quite a lot- we have to, really- but we don’t back down from a challenge. Particularly not from Princess Twilight Sparkle, whose own Equestrian Space Agency has all the advantages we lacked- the knowledge base of Canterlot’s universities, first pick of existing technology, the full cooperation and funding of the Equestrian government.

Are you jealous of the ESA, then?

A bit, yeah. But mostly because they have respect and support. Changelings never get that. As long as we can remember, we’ve had to take everything we have. I guess that’s what Mission Nine is really about. Taking the respect we’re due.

Do you want Equestria to fear changelings, then?

No! No! All I want is that Equestrians stop treating us like horrible mindless monsters! You ponies already have so much, with your trains and skyscrapers and Album of the Month Clubs and princesses who raise the sun and moon and everything! Why can’t you at least leave us changelings some self-respect?

That’s fair enough. Anything else you’d like to tell our audience?

Um, yeah. This is kind of important.

Yes?

If you order the Priceless Memories collectible figurines from the Unicorn Mint, be sure to pay extra for special courier service. Your postal ponies are very nice and friendly, but they don’t seem to understand the word ‘fragile.’ (131)

T -47 hours until Mission 9 Launch

“OK, Mr. Flim, Mr. Flam,” Occupant said, holding up a map of the complex. “For your safety and our security these are your no-go areas. First and foremost,” he said, pointing to the area around the launchpad, “you are not to go anywhere in this area, between the VAB and the ocean, from noon tomorrow until after the launch the next day.” He then pointed to the VAB. “If you want to film inside the VAB main assembly room, you must be escorted so you don’t interfere with the workers assembling the rocket. The rest of the VAB is storage and off-limits. We insist on these restrictions for our safety and yours.”

“Oh, most understandable, wouldn’t you agree?” Flim asked.

“Beyond all question, oh brother of mine,” Flam nodded.

“Mission Control and the residential portion of the astronaut quarters are free-access,” Occupant continued. “The training area is restricted-access while training and simulations are ongoing, but we’ll arrange for an escort if you want to film some of that.”

“Sounds a most capital idea,” Flim nodded.

“The research complex and the gift shop are of course fully open,” Occupant continued, “and you will be offered a ride in the Fun Machine if you so desire. Administration, the airship and aeroplane hangars, and the runway are off limits due to ongoing construction, but since we’re not using any of that yet that shouldn’t be an issue.”

“Quite understood,” Flam agreed.

“And finally,” Occupant finished, “your pegasus… I’m sorry, what’s your name again?”

“Fish Eye,” growled the pegasus in a deep, gravelly voice.

“Yes, Mr. Fish Eye. It is vitally important that you remain on the ground on the day of the launch. The sound and force of the engines at launch is tremendous, and it can cause sudden drafts that can send flyers out of control. We’re used to it, but we changelings are a bit more durable than ponies.” Occupant looked seriously worried. “And we really don’t want a guest being injured.”

“S’allright,” Fish Eye agreed.

“Actually, if we could backtrack for just a moment if you would,” Flam said, “I’m quite intrigued about the idea of filming your astronauts during training. Could you tell us more about it?”

Occupant double-checked a clipboard lying atop one of the piles of paperwork on his desk. “Well, everything’s simulations today,” he said. “We use the actual capsule for our simulations, you see, and tomorrow the capsule will go to the VAB for final rocket assembly. And no training happens the day before the launch, except for the final flight physical.”(132) Occupant shrugged and added, “So I’m afraid you won’t see any of our other training equipment in use.”

“Not to worry, my good man… er, bug,” Flim reassured Occupant. “I think during the lunch break- there is a lunch break from training, yes?- we get some shots of the equipment, especially the capsule- and then…”

Footnotes:

(131) Over two hundred changelings watching the show in the astronaut lounge looked, as one bug, at Occupant. “Well, it is kind of important,” he insisted.

(132) At CSP the pre-flight physical boils down to a questionnaire: “Any limbs broken?” “Hit your head in the last twenty-four hours?” “How many hooves am I holding up?” “Got a sore throat or sniffles?” “Tummy and guts behaving?” “That’s good enough. Have a good flight tomorrow, Your Highness.”


The centrifuge, which simulates the forces of acceleration and deceleration during takeoff and landing.

The Crazy Chair, which trains pilots to correct spins in flight.

Treadmills, chinup bar, weight machines, to ensure the astronauts maintain their fitness for flight.

And then there’s this. This isn’t just a machine meant to simulate the capsule. This is the actual capsule itself. CSP uses the capsule to simulate actual flight conditions, putting their pilots through Tartarus on the ground so that, if it happens in the sky, they’ll be ready.

This particular capsule is a Cherry’s Rocket Parts Mk. 1 Capsule, production number 11. Capsule 1 flew as Missions One through Six, refurbished each time, and was retired after its historic flight to space in Mission Eight. The same model capsule is bought and used by the Equestrian Space Agency, the Crystal Empire Spaceflight Project, Griffonstone Space Exploration, and the Diamond Dog Project Stardust. Saddle Arabia and the Prancy-Germaney joint space program have orders in. The Yakyakistan and Dragonlands projects are building their own capsules. This, then, is the workhorse for spaceflight around the world- literally.

Taking a look inside the capsule, you’ll see it’s actually a bit roomier than you’d expect. Two ponies could technically squeeze inside, but the capsule is designed to allow one pony or changeling in a spacesuit total freedom of movement. The flat flight bench is designed to absorb the same force on landing as an earth pony jumping off a four-story building without injuring the pilot. Behind it, in those cabinets, are dehydrated stores for more than thirty days in space. No flight to date has lasted more than half an hour, but the designers are planning ahead to trips to the Moon and beyond.

Many of the pushbutton switches you see on the control panel are variable-function. They do different things depending on what things are attached to the current mission’s rocket. Both the pilot and the backup pilot have to memorize these functions fresh with each new mission. Pushing the wrong switch at the wrong time can change a successful mission into a disaster.

To find out what motivates someone to do all the work required to fly in this capsule, we interviewed CSP’s third-tier pilot, Dragonfly.

I’m sorry to ask, but is it Mr. or Ms. Dragonfly?

That depends on who’s dinner.

Beg pardon?

Sorry, little changeling joke. In my natural form, I’m female.

How did you get selected as a pilot for CSP?

Well, before our queen decided to work towards a trip to the moon-

Which is your program’s ultimate goal, I take it?

That’s right. Before then I was the most skilled flyer in the hive, and one of the most elite warriors. I was in the invasion of Canterlot, you know.

That’s truly fascinating. Did you like being a warrior?

Well… I like the flying. I mean, I really, really like the flying. I wasn’t part of the legion that fought the Elements of Harmony, which was disappointing, ‘cause I’d like to go against Rainbow Dash in a race- not an open-sky race, though. And, well, sure, it’s always fun when your hive’s enemies go down. But seeing your own buddies get thrashed? That’s not fun at all. In fact it’s a lot more un-fun than winning is fun.

I like what I’m doing now a lot better than being a warrior. I’m helping unlock the potential of changeling goo for all sorts of things!

Could you show us some examples?

Not with that camera running, no! Believe me, your viewers don’t wanna see! But to get back to my point, I built the parachute systems every space program uses for landing. I helped create the material that keeps every pressure suit airtight and impact-resistant. And I’m working on all sorts of other stuff. Knowing I did that- that I can do that- that’s a lot more satisfying than just biting, kicking or zapping some stupid pony who was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.

And you’re doing all this and training as a pilot too?

Yeah, it’s a lot of work. I don’t get as much training as the other two. I’m a better pilot than my Queen, at least in simulations, but she’s got better judgment. She’s smarter, and I’m just all about the go, right? And Cherry Berry is obsessed with flying. She loves it. She puts everything into it, and that makes her a much better pilot than either the Queen or myself.

So, what’s going on now?

We’re about to run a simulation of the upcoming mission. My Queen is in the capsule now, and in a moment we’re going to simulate the launch. Along the way we might include a couple of problems she’ll have to solve.

And if the simulations today succeed, then the actual flight will be a success?

No, no! We’re hoping the pilots fail the simulation. That way we can find out why it failed, fix it, and when it comes up in a future flight, we don’t fail then.

That sounds remarkably like the Bridleway tradition that a bad rehearsal makes a good opening night.

Well, yeah, maybe, except if your stage is moving faster than a mile a second, flubbing a line or stepping on some chorus pony’s hoof is the least of your worries, believe me.

One final question. You’re not doing any simulations today, right?

Nope. I cross the ocean to the Griffon Lands tonight leading the advance recovery party.

Let’s say Chrysalis and Cherry Berry both broke a leg and couldn’t fly. Would you feel ready to step into their horseshoes and fly the mission?

Put it this way. If I didn’t feel ready, I sure wouldn’t admit it!

A brave and loyal pilot. But is Dragonfly’s attitude shared by her fellow pilots? We’ll find out after these messages.

And now a special message from Bridleway Bridal Wares.

“Good evening. This is Something Blue of Bridleway Bridal Wares. Recently many of you accused my husband Bell Ringer of being a changeling to feed off love at weddings. This is absolutely untrue. Bell Ringer was born an earth pony in Canterlot, graduated from high school there, and apprenticed under Beau Brummule here in Manehattan. He is definitely not a changeling.”

*flash*

“But I am. My real name is Lacewing, and I’ve made all your bridal dresses by hoof for seven years. I’ve been able to keep myself fed and send love home to my family in the hive thanks to you, without injuring or influencing you in any way.

“Now if our customers insist that I leave, I will, but I ask this one thing: please stop attacking my husband. He’s done nothing wrong, and as Manehattan’s best wedding planner he deserves better than to be attacked by ponies who are afraid of ponies like me.

“But I hope our customers will continue to support us. After all, now you know I have just as much reason to make you wedding the happiest day ever as you do. So, when you think love, please continue to think of Bridleway Bridal Wares.”(133)

T -43 hours until Mission 9 Launch

“Buck, buck, BUCK!” Chrysalis slammed the hatch open on the cockpit, throwing herself out as the pair of changelings who had been levitating it lowered it to the floor. “Someone want to tell me what went wrong that time? I didn’t even get out of second stage before I had to abort!”

“Center of mass issues again,” Warner von Brawn rumbled. “You keep trying to pitch over too far too soon. Center of mass and center of thrust come too far out of alignment, and the ship goes into a gradual dive that you don’t have enough steering power to recover from.”

“Think of George Bull,” Cherry Berry added. “He’s always doing sums on a clipboard, but he always rushes around the halls, right? So imagine he trips on his hooves. He tips forward, but by the time he notices he’s falling he’s already halfway over, too late to correct his balance.” She used one forelimb to mime the act of falling on one’s face.

Chrysalis growled. “Tell me we’re working on that,” she said. “We need to be able to turn lateral as soon as possible. The more we go straight up, the more we risk a ballistic trajectory like mine. We barely got away with that!”(134)

“We’re working on it,” von Brawn said. “Goddard has experiments going back in Appleoosa, and he’ll be going back to that once this flight is in the books.”

“Well… good.” Chrysalis looked around the room. “Those idiotic hucksters aren’t filming in here now, are they?”

“They were in here earlier,” Cherry Berry reported. “They shot an interview with Dragonfly while you were running your second sim. You know, the one that went smoothly.”

“Except for the Flea test,” Chrysalis grumbled. “We keep getting so close…” Shaking her head, she added, “Are you coming down here for your run?”

“No, you’d better have another go,” Cherry Berry said. “Your abort came too early for us to spring the new problem on you.”

One corner of Chrysalis’s mouth twitched up. “You intrigue me,” she said. “By all means, surprise me.”

Footnote:

(133) Chrysalis had scripted this one to be filmed as soon as Flim and Flam returned to Manehattan. She loved every moment of it. The knife-twisting pathos was made sweeter by the fact that every single word in the thing was absolutely true. Guilt wasn’t very tasty, but it was nourishing, and darn if it wasn’t fun to watch.

(134) The realization that one has come seconds away from being splattered into a million pieces across the ocean will convert almost anyone, even a callous changeling queen, into an advocate for flight safety, at least in the short term. Chrysalis had now experienced that sensation twice, and she didn’t like the odds the third time around.


The day before launch day is a day of rest for the pilots of the Changeling Space Program, but for everypony else activity kicks into high gear. The mission planner looks for any last-minute contracts which can be performed without changing the rocket or the primary mission. The recovery teams spread out across the globe, hoping to anticipate the landing zone of the rocket. The launch teams inspect the launch area, making sure it’s clear of debris and ready to withstand the tremendous forces required to lift more than twenty tons of rocket into the air.

And here, in the Vehicle Assembly Building, the workers are busiest of all. Under the supervision of former Minotaur Rocket Society president Warner von Brawn, the changelings carefully inspect each component(135) before placing it on the assembly floor. Here, through a careful combination of magic and construction equipment, the components are assembled into a working rocket and secured together so that they will only come apart when the pilot wants them to.

You see below the noted rocket scientists Goddard the Griffon of Griffonstone and the aforementioned Dr. von Brawn, hard at work. We interviewed them together earlier in the day.

Thank you for giving us your time.

Think nothing of it.

To start with, I’d like to know how the two of you became interested in rockets. They were, of course, a staple of wild fantasy stories before Twilight Sparkle’s thesis on the nature of the solar system.

Indeed they were! And from my childhood I read and devoured those stories, longing for the day when, like my noble minotaur ancestors, I could journey and explore new lands! But instead of sailing the Middle Ocean, I dreamed of sailing between the stars! So I fell in with like-minded members of my people to explore and research whatever science lay behind the fantasy. Unfortunately that science was shockingly thin, and we had to build on what little there was. During our researches by far the most notable name was that of Goddard the Griffon.

Balderdash! Nobody paid any attention to my papers but you and a handful of scribes, and you know it.

It was a small field, I admit, but you were its undisputed leader. For my part, you still are.

Indeed. How did you get started, Dr. Goddard?

*grunt* Well, I was always a weak flyer. Airships were the new and coming thing when I was a chick, but even then I could see they were just too slow. I wanted to go fast. And then I went to a pony town, Rainbow Falls I think- yes, I was there for the trade days, I remember now- and I saw my first fireworks show. And I was hooked. I’m lucky I couldn’t afford to buy fireworks at the time, or else I’d have tried strapping about a hundred to a chair and lofted myself to the next world. And I don’t mean the moon!

*chuckle*

We’re glad you didn’t, Doctor.

Anyway, I managed to get into college, and I majored in chemistry. I quickly figured out that fireworks weren’t any good. Black powder is too heavy and inefficient. I wanted something with a bit more kick. So I began considering liquid fuels, which could be controlled, which would be lighter and more uniform, you see? Powder is a mixture of different chemicals, but I learned there are a lot of individual chemical compounds which will burn if you just look at ‘em the wrong way.

But I didn’t abandon fireworks. I studied the physics behind ‘em, extrapolated on Neighton’s laws of motion, and created ways of calculating trajectories for ‘em. I created words for all sorts of things nopony ever thought of-

Using old minotauran, for which I thank you.

The language of ancient science, obvious. Anyway, I was able to put it all together- the math, the physics, the chemistry- into my doctoral thesis, which earned me my degree. Unfortunately it came fifty years too soon, and I quickly found myself unemployable, a laughingstock among my kind and among academics.

It’s cruel to be mocked by your peers, we know.

It sure is! But that was my life, until Chrysalis and Cherry Berry came calling.

On that note, Doctor von Brawn, you had a space agency until you were bought out by the CSP. And Doctor Goddard, you were hired even before then by Queen Chrysalis. Would it be fair to say that you are the true brains behind the Changeling Space Program?

*joint laughter*

Are you kidding?

Ahem. We may provide the scientific knowledge, but Chrysalis could have eventually found that herself. We are grateful for the opportunity, but we are not indispensable.

Right. If you want the mare with the brains, that’s Cherry Berry.

The earth pony whose education ended with primary school?

Try, the earth pony who’s spent most of her adult life dreaming of flying and working to make it happen, kid. She’s not a scientist, but when it comes to flying, she studies and learns and works. And then she turns around and makes sure others work, too.

It’s my understanding that it was Cherry’s idea to hire us. And furthermore, without Cherry Berry, this program likely would never have got where it is now.

But give Chrysalis credit; she’s smart enough to listen when others who know more than she does are talking.

Usually.

Usually? Could you give some examples?


Well, there was that argument last week about whether or not we should buy a tel-

*abrupt cut to commercial*(136)

“Scot Free Key’s(137) charter boat service of Baltimare offers you a new way to escape the everyday: a cruise to the Changeling Space Center!

“Come see where the leading space program in the world advances the bounds of rocket science every day! Tour our astronaut training center, our vehicle assembly building, and our research facility!

“Your excursion includes a shopping trip to scenic rural Horseton, where local artisans and natives from the nearby Forbidden Jungles trade their unique wares!

“And every ticket includes a free five minutes in the Fun Machine!

“Ask about the CSP Charter, available exclusively from Scot Free Key! Find him in Baltimare’s Inner Harbor, office above the Two Black Birds Pub and Inn.

“Scot Free Key: Oh say, will you see!”

T -20 hours until Mission 9 Launch

Occupant spread the copies of the mission checklist apart with his hoof, offering them to the others at the meeting. “Twilight Sparkle wanted data on the first launch of the Thumper solid fuel booster,” he said, “so I added that contract. Miss Berry won’t have to do anything extra, but we still get paid. I also took on a contract to scan the ablative shield during re-entry at orbital speeds, just in case. And I’m quietly letting all further offers for flying surveys of Equus expire, at least anything that requires in-atmosphere flying. This one,” he tapped the item on one copy of the list, “is it.”

“Very good,” Chrysalis nodded.

“This is a pretty full mission as it is,” Occupant continued. “The Thumpers. The Flea. The Hammer. The survey site. And if conditions are right, the heat shield. I really didn’t want to add anything else. I only added the heat shield test because we’ll almost certainly hit the test conditions during our first return from orbit, if we don’t do it on this flight.”

“I wish to point out,” von Brawn added, “that our estimates of the power of the new rocket systems have been extremely conservative thus far. It’s just barely possible that Mission Nine will have enough thrust to achieve a very low orbit. I trust Miss Berry will be eager to attempt it.”

“You better believe it,” Cherry Berry nodded.

“But not at the expense of the mission,” Chrysalis insisted. “The whole point of Mission Nine is to clear our agenda and give us a free hoof for a proper orbital mission. The checklist comes first.” She tapped the list with a hoof, adding, “That said, the capsule will be prepared for orbital flight, correct?”

“Just like in the simulations,” von Brawn nodded.

“Good.” Chrysalis gave the mission checklist one final look. “I think we’ve covered everything except our guests. How are they doing?”

“They seem nice enough,” Occupant said. “I remember what you said about not letting them sell me anything, but they haven’t tried. The only thing that annoys me is, they use the telegraph an awful lot. I’ve had messages that couldn’t get through because Mr. Flim and Mr. Flam want to know what’s happening in Manehattan and Canterlot four times a day.”

“Let them use it as much as they want,” Chrysalis shrugged. “They need the info for their news broadcasts. They’ll be gone day after tomorrow. And now that the hive has a telegraph- who’s running it?”

“My assistant Clickbug, my Queen,” Occupant said.

Chrysalis groaned. “You mean the one who never washes? Who’s always gossiping about this and that?”

“She sends at fifty words a minute, my Queen,” Occupant said.

“Well, we can use the new device in the administration building to contact her, and she can get messages in and out from there, if the ponies get too annoying.”

“Where are they, anyway?” Cherry Berry asked. “I promised them I’d do my interview for their show after this meeting.”

“Misusing the wind tunnel,” Goddard growled, “where else? They’re filming a bunch of off-duty changelings having fun in free fall.”

“By my orders,” Chrysalis said pointedly. “Playful changelings on film will look like harmless changelings. Our reputation will be bolstered.” She smiled a bit as she added, “And so will our tourist income. I understand Sparkle still refuses to let visitors ride in her wind tunnel.”

“That’ll change soon,” Cherry said. “The Wonderbolts are setting up their own wind tunnel- they call it the Fly Box- at the Rainbow Falls training camp. And if the Wonderbolts say it’s a proper use of the wind tunnel…”

“Then let us get all the publicity we can for the Fun Machine first,” Chrysalis finished. “And on that note, let’s go get your interview over with.”

Footnotes:

(135) Sample inspection questions: “Did you play basketball with this piece?” “Did you play football with it?” “Yes, Hosstralian rule football counts.” “Did you, in fact, play any sports with it whatever?” “Are you lying?” “You know I’ve got your name written down here, so if that part blows up Chrysalis will come straight to you, right?” “Well, all right, it looks good enough, put it on there. No, there. And the other way up.”

(136) When asked, during the viewing in the astronaut lounge, why that part of the interview had been left in, Chrysalis said, “von Brawn could have said a lot more embarrassing things. Instead he embarrassed Flim and Flam. So he gets to live this week.”

(137) Scot Free Key was of course a changeling in deep cover for quite some time now, having learned that romantic charter cruises were an easy way to soak up excess love energy while, at the same time, providing an emergency escape route for any changeling who had to leave the central east Equestrian coast in a hurry.

Doctor von Brawn and Doctor Goddard are technically not employed by the Changeling Space Agency. They’re employed by Cherry’s Rocket Parts and Odd Jobs, Inc., a corporation founded by various pony and griffon financiers and run by test pilot Cherry Berry to supply the space program with its rockets.

Although all the rocket components are manufactured in the frontier town of Appleoosa with mainly changeling labor, research and development of new rocket systems has moved here, to the research and development department of Horseton Space Center. Here construction workers are building new labs to house devices to test new designs and create new spells and technologies for the program to use. The television you’re watching right now came out of that research.

So did this. This is technically a Canterlot Weather Factory wind tunnel, used for flight training and weather education. It’s also useful for designing rocket ships to fly through the air. But the changelings here call it the Fun Machine, and they love to romp and play in it. When you’re inside, you experience what a parachute jumper or hang glider feels as they cut through the air. The ride is over all too soon, but everypony gets a fair turn at Horseton Space Center.

On a more serious note, Mission Nine will use a new solid-fuel booster, designed here at Horseton, for the first segment of launch. Cherry Berry explained to us the advantages and disadvantages of solid fuel boosters.

Solid fuel rockets are simpler than liquid fuel rockets. There are no valves, no fuel tanks, no directional thrust. Once you ignite the fuel, it burns until it’s exhausted, and whatever rate it’s configured to burn at is locked in. That’s why the first stage of Mission 9 also has a Swivel liquid-fuel engine; it will act as a rudder to keep the ship under control with all that thrust.

The solid fuel rockets sound a little dangerous.

Well, there’s a reason the launchpad is so far from the VAB. It’s not because we want to give fifty changelings a magical workout! You have to remember that all rocket flight is basically a controlled explosion with a tin can on top. If something happens and you lose control, then a lot of people could have a really bad day.

But you’re willing to climb into that tin can.

Yep. That’s right. I’ve flown balloons, helicopters, aeroplanes and now rockets. One of these days I’ll get around to airships. If it’s a flying machine, I want to be in it, preferably at the controls.

And the danger doesn’t bother you?

Mm, bother’s the wrong word. I know the danger’s there. If it’s too dangerous, I won’t go, end of story. But once I’ve worked to make sure I know where the danger is and what to do about it, then no, it doesn’t bother me anymore.

Let’s change the subject for a moment. I’ve heard some talk that without you, there wouldn’t be a changeling space program. Why-

Well, that’s just not true! I didn’t tell Chrysalis to start a space program! Chrysalis announced her program first. I went and asked her for a job. It took two weeks for me to get it, too.

But you’re basically in charge. You make all the big decisions.

Not all of them. Chrysalis lets me run things, but she’s the queen, and don’t ever forget it. If she wants something, she gets it.

But you’re the pony who provides the vision.

Only if you think the space program’s vision is rockets in the air.

It isn’t?

No. There are two visions. One is of changelings becoming a part of Equestrian society, becoming accepted, able to get the love they eat openly and freely instead of stealing it. The second vision is ponies and changelings and whoever on the Moon, and on the other planets, exploring it together. I didn’t come up with those. Chrysalis did. If you’re looking for the indispensable mare? Try the queen.

And what’s your vision, then? What’s your ultimate goal?

I’m living it now. Me, flying higher and faster than any other pony in the world. It’s always been my dream to fly, and I got a lot of ribbing about that when I told other ponies. People would joke that I was a pegasus in the wrong body. But when you’re in the sky, in a balloon or rocket or whatever, the laughter goes away, and all you’re left with is freedom and movement. And it’s beautiful.

Well, I can’t think of any better way to end this interview than that. Thanks very much, Miss Berry, and good luck tomorrow on your launch.

Thanks!

Look at it will be right back after this:

“Hi! I’m Cherry Berry! I founded Cherry’s Rocket Parts and Odd Jobs for two reasons; so I could fly into outer space, and so changelings could have the chance to show that they’re good, hard workers just like me!

“Got a field that needs harvesting? Got rocks that need clearing away? Or any job that can use untrained labor? Why not try a changeling? Changelings learn quickly and work hard, and with a little supervision you’ll find your job done before you know it!

“Now a lot of ponies find changelings scary. I certainly did, the first time I met one! But all the changelings who work at Cherry’s are eager for a chance to prove that they can be trusted to do an honest day’s work. Don’t you think they deserve that chance?

“So stop on by Cherry’s Rocket Parts and Odd Jobs with your labor needs, and we’ll schedule you for a changeling worker or a whole crew! Now open at our main factory in Appleoosa and new labor shops in Baltimare and Canterlot!”(138)

“Notice: workers recruited from Cherry’s will not act as strikebreakers or to undercut prevailing wages. An honest day’s work by an honest changeling deserves an honest day’s pay. Cherry’s is also hiring ponies, griffons and other races and is an equal opportunity employer.

“Cherry’s: because all races deserve the chance to earn an honest living.”


Footnote:

(138) The Canterlot location had been opened by Royal Command. In fact, Celestia had picked out a storefront location directly across from the main gate to the palace grounds, in a spot which could be viewed from Celestia’s tower balcony. She’d even paid for an express train for a hundred and twenty changelings from Appleoosa to the capital. Chrysalis didn’t know what the princess’s scheme was, but she knew there was one.


Early morning. Less than an hour remains before liftoff. The changeling ground crew carefully levitate the rocket, weighing more than twenty-five tons, out to the launchpad. The pilot, Cherry Berry, is already inside the capsule, preparing for liftoff. This represents the climax of weeks of effort, large amounts of money spent, the most careful work done, all for a flight that will probably be over in less than an hour.

If everything goes perfectly, Cherry Berry may end the day as the first earth pony in space and the fourth being from Equus total to escape the atmosphere. The first in space, of course, was Queen Chrysalis, and we managed to squeeze in one last interview before launch.

Thank you for your indulgence, Your Majesty.

You’re welcome. You know, you sound a lot different when you’re interviewing somepony?

Our viewers expect a calm and impersonal interviewer, Your Majesty. The attention should be on you, not us.

Oh, that’s fine. But I wanted to say I like it. I like it a lot better than when you’re trying to sell something. You actually sound like there’s a pony there instead of a sales pitch. (139)

Er… your time is doubtless limited, Your Majesty, so I’ll be to the point. You were first in space, if you don’t count the millennia of Nightmare Moon’s imprisonment. Could you tell us what it was like?

No, I don’t think I could.

Er… if you don’t want to-

No, I mean that literally. The few minutes I spent above the world, before I had to worry about re-entry, were indescribable. I had the sense of being surrounded by joy and laughter, and it seemed like everything outside my ship was put there just so the universe could show off. Everything said to me, “You know, this universe, this life, here and now, is truly wonderful.” But I suspect the experience will be different for every pony who makes the trip.

Is it worth the danger of a rocket launch?

Well, yes. It’s even worth the danger of landing, and that’s a lot worse, believe me.

Let’s turn for a moment to the agency as a whole. The outside world believes that, without scientists like Warner von Brawn and Goddard the Griffon, there would be no Changeling Space Program. The scientists, when we interviewed them, said that without Cherry Berry there would be no CSP. When we asked her, she called you the indispensable mare. Who do you think is the true reason for CSP’s success?

Isn’t it obvious? Of course I’m indispensable. And Cherry Berry is indispensable. And so are Goddard, and von Brawn, and George Bull and George Cowley and Occupant and Dragonfly and Lucky Cricket and any number of others. And we also owe a lot to Twilight Sparkle and Alexander Popoff of Yakyakistan and any number of others.

Exploring space is a team effort, gentleponies. Each rocket is based on discoveries from every speaking race in the world. Our rockets begin as ore mined and refined by earth ponies and diamond dogs, built into capsules and fuel tanks and engines by changelings, ponies, griffons and minotaurs, transported by train and ship, assembled, fueled- there are hundreds of beings involved in every launch.

This program isn’t about any one pony. It’s about opportunity for everypony. This is about changelings like Occupant and Dragonfly discovering things about themselves, creativity and responsibility, that nopony suspected in them, not even themselves. It’s about an earth pony proving she can fly just as well as a pegasus. It’s about a griffon and a group of minotaurs realizing lifelong dreams. We’re discovering Equus while we’re discovering space flight.

My personal dream is to be the first to set hoof on the surface of the moon. But when I do that I’ll be doing it for every living being in our world.(140) And where I go, where Rainbow Dash and Gordon the Griffon and Princess Cadence and Cherry Berry and Fireball and all the other pilots of our world’s space programs go, one day everypony will follow.

A most noble dream, and thank you.


Footnotes:

(139) “Oh, they wanted that done over so badly,” Chrysalis told the others watching the show. “But they only brought so much film, and I told them it had to be in the final edit anyway. I bet they make sure the right to final edit gets in all their documentary contracts from now on.”

(140) A sentence said in perfect honesty, yet which almost everyone listening would take to mean something quite different from what the speaker intended.

Zero Hour for Launch of Mission 9

Fish Eye had a very simple philosophy: everything and everyone sucked.

Being a pegasus with bulging wall-eyes sucked.

Being continually asked if he was any relation(141) to a certain destructive mailmare sucked.

Being continually on the job hunt because of the reputation of said mailmare sucked.

Taking work as a camerapony for a pair of unicorns who neither knew nor cared anything about film work, that really sucked.

Having to work with a camera dug out of the trash behind a Los Pegasus film studio, which only worked due to his own special tender care, sucked mightily.

And standing on the roof of the VAB, the tallest structure in the space center, and pointing said camera at the rocket about to launch, zoom lens working overtime to bring the rocket fully into view, while being careful to keep the morning sun out of direct shot, sucked rocks. Obviously the mission control room was where he should be, filming the crew hard at work, using the fancy-schmancy spell to film the rocket. The spell never had to worry about zoom lenses.

But no. His bosses thought filming the actual launch, even from this long distance, would be more dramatic when televised. He was to go to mission control once the rocket was too far away to film.

The least they could do was actually tell him when the rocket was going to launch. Instead he was sitting here, running film, hoping like Tartarus he wouldn’t be midway through putting a fresh reel in when they actually lit their stupid expensive firework.

If he’d wanted to spend all day out in the sun, he’d never have left the fishing village he grew up in.

An ear-splitting shriek of noise rent the air, and Fish Eye zoomed back out to catch the group of changelings flying like mad for the safety of the space center. One last changeling hovered directly above the rocket for a moment, and then that one changeling was also bugging out, easily catching up to the others before the noise ceased.

Finally, Fish Eye thought, some action. He stopped the camera and swiftly swapped a fresh roll of film in. In less than a minute he had it back at work, zooming back in to the rocket, adjusting focus carefully.

And then light and smoke erupted from the base of the rocket, and slowly, gracefully, soundlessly, it began to rise from the massive metal launchpad. With a firm hoof, like the professional he was, Fish Eye panned upwards, tracking the gradual ascent, keeping the rocket perfectly in center frame.

Then the roar of the rockets reached the VAB, and Fish Eye had to fight to keep his hoof steady. Nopony warned me about that! he thought furiously. Despite the hammer-blow of sound he kept the camera trained on the rocket as it started to bank away from him, away from the space center, out to sea.

And in less than thirty seconds, the zoom lens maxed out. The rocket faded to a tiny dot. The slow, graceful ascent, Fish Eye realized, had been an illusion; that huge tin can had been moving, really moving, and it was still speeding up.

Huh. That’s somethin’.

The moment of wonder passed, and Fisheye grabbed the tripod, not bothering to turn the camera off. He had to fly down to his jackass(142) employers while there were still any dramatic shots worth taking.

Bet they don’t even use any of this stuff in the final edit.(143)

Footnotes:

(141) No.

(142) The use of “jackass” as an insult is of course degrading to donkeys everywhere. We apologize for the jacks and jennies who are offended by Fish Eye’s crude and insensitive language. However, we felt that changing the term would not reflect the attitudes of the persons in our drama, and therefore we left it in. Please remember the historic context of the period, i. e. five minutes ago, as you continue reading our story, and don’t judge by our more modern, sensitive age of today.

(143) Although “Look At It Ep. 3: Changeling Space Program” would lose the nod for Best Documentary to news items from later in the year, Fish Eye’s tracking shot of Mission 9 would win him the first Mulitzer Prize for Best Photojournalism, Television Division. Flim never let Flam forget it was his idea, that the shot would be more compelling without any voiceover, which deprived the brothers of a chance to share the award and its substantial cash prize.


Mission Control during a launch is a literal hive of activity. Only the professionalism of the crew and carefully crafted procedure keeps it from becoming total chaos.

Thumper burnout at ten thousand! Speed four ten and falling! Throttling to full!

Roger, Nine, Horseton reads go at full throttle.

Verified both decouplers fired, successful booster separation, both boosters fallen away clean.

She’s too heavy, Flight! Too much fuel remaining in the first stage! We should have had her throttle up earlier!

Four-twenty at twelve thousand! We need four-sixty before fifteen thousand!

Are we going to make it?

Not quite.

OK, let’s focus on the Hammer. Cap-com, tell her to fire Hammer at eighteen thousand or five hundred.

Roger, Flight. Nine, Horseton; you are to destage and ignite Hammer at either five hundred or eighteen thousand.

Nine copies second stage at five hundred or eighteen thousand.

Four-forty at fifteen thousand! No joy on Flea test!

*groan*

Four-seventy at sixteen thousand!

Horseton, Nine. Throttle to zero. Destaging. Second stage green. Igniting second stage.

Horseton copies, Nine.

Green light on Hammer test! Hammer reads ignition at four sixty-six at eighteen point two kilometers!

Well, that went right at least.

Horseton, Nine; banking down to thirty by ninety in preparation for area survey.

Horseton copies, Nine. We show go for area survey.

Roger, Horseton. Recording: It’s difficult to make out anything clearly at ten miles altitude, but the wave motion through the target zone seems to suggest a large object under the surface, possibly a seamount, splitting the prevailing currents. There’s a discolored patch in an eddy which might be a trash field; need to get somepony to clean that up. No other features discernible. End recording. Coming up on Hammer burn-out.

Flight, tracking.

Go ahead, I’m listening.

Trajectory’s a bit shallow. Remind Nine she needs to thrust up if she’s to get out of atmosphere.

I’m pretty sure she already knows, Dr. Bull.

Hammer burnout. Destaging. Third stage green. Igniting Flea.

Roger, Nine, Horseton copies Flea ignition.

I’m beginning to pick up some atmospheric heating. Looks like I’m at too shallow an angle.

Horseton confirms, Nine. Tracking recommends thrusting at higher attitude.

I’m working on it, Horseton, but it’ll have to wait- Flea burnout. Destaging.

Roger, Nine, and hold on fourth stage ignition, please.

Tracking, what do we do?

She might as well fire now. Tell her to make it steep, say sixty or higher. She’s going to have to burn most of the last stage just to get out of atmosphere, and every second is lost momentum.

Anybody else have something to add? No? Okay, do it.

Nine, Horseton, you are go for fourth stage burn, recommend vector sixty by ninety.

Roger, Horseton. Throttle to zero. Fourth stage activated. Throttling up slow, pitching to sixty by ninety. Throttle full. Tell the bullpen I want a cut-off when my trajectory goes trans-atmospheric. I want to save every drop of fuel I can for orbit.

Horseton copies, will do. – Well, gentlemen, you heard her?

We need to develop some way of sending that info up to her nav-ball. I think I see a way we could code the tracking computer’s projection to-

Now, please, we’re still on the mission clock!

Sorry. Projected apoapsis rising… rising…

For the first time in minutes the room goes quiet. There is nothing left to do but wait and see if Cherry Berry will become the fourth in space.

… and now! Cutoff now!

Nine, Horseton-

Throttle zero!

And with that the launch is over. Cherry Berry will leave the atmosphere and briefly enter outer space. In the process she has successfully completed three out of four mission tasks. Now the only questions remaining: will she achieve orbit, and will she return safely to Equus? The rest of Mission Nine when we return.

Five minutes after launch of Mission 9

Cherry Berry rested in her harness, ignoring the loose nut floating back and forth across the capsule, and stewed. Anypony else, anypony at all, would have been thrilled at the prospect of going to space. Not Cherry; she was livid, absolutely angry at herself.

Stupid, stupid, stupid! I dumped the first stage with a quarter tank of fuel left! I pitched over too hard on the second stage and lost a ton of delta-V to the air! Now I’ve got maybe a quarter-tank left in the last stage to achieve orbit and get back down! With all the mistakes I made, that’s not enough! I should have had orbit this mission, and I blew it!!

“Nine, Horseton,” Chrysalis said, her calm, level voice calling Cherry’s mind back to business.

“Copy, Horseton,” she replied.

“You’re coming up on apoapsis. The bullpen says orbit burn is borderline at best for success, but you’re welcome to try.”

“Nine copies, Horseton, go for orbital burn on your mark.”

“The bullpen also wants me to warn you,” Chrysalis said, her voice just a little less level… did she sound worried? “You are not, repeat not, to use all your fuel on this burn. Getting an orbit does no good if you can’t break back out of it.”

“Understood, Horseton,” Cherry said. “Will one-quarter of what I have remaining be enough reserve if I do make orbit?”

After a pause Chrysalis said, “Affirmative, Nine. If you get an orbit at all, pretty much anything should be enough to get you back in atmosphere.”

“Roger, Horseton,” Cherry sighed. “That lines up with what I’ve been thinking. I’m regretting that we had to dump the first stage with fuel remaining.” She bit her lip before allowing herself to continue. The press was watching, especially Flim and Flam. She couldn’t admit pilot error in public, no matter how true it might be.

“Orbit isn’t on the checklist, Nine,” Chrysalis replied, all business. “Ten seconds to aps. This is just gravy if it happens at all.”

“Nine copies,” Cherry Berry grumbled. “Throttling up to fifteen percent.”

Cherry had been so busy condemning herself for her errors that she hadn’t really noticed free-fall until it was gone. Even the gentle, faint pressure of acceleration from the fourth stage pushed Cherry into her seat, brought the loose nut to rest somewhere behind her helmet. The engine murmured where its brothers had roared in her ears during launch.

And yet, even with the feeble trickle of thrust from the engine, the speed readout on her instruments rattled higher and higher, racing from number to number. The ship was light enough, and far enough above the atmosphere, that fifteen percent thrust, a fraction of a single gravity, accelerated her faster than the three engines firing at launch combined.

But would it be fast enough? The levels of fuel and oxidizer in the tanks dwindled as the speed rose. Did she have enough to keep the ship out of atmosphere, to make the circuit around the planet without landing?

Her eyes flickered back and forth between the fuel readout and the speed readout. More speed. More fuel. More speed. More fuel.

Come on. Come on. Come on.

Eight percent fuel and oxidant remaining. Seven percent. Six percent.

Come on, Chrysalis, SAY something!

Five percent. No more. “Throttle to zero,” she said aloud as she shut off the engine.

“Nine, Horseton,” Chrysalis said. “We copy throttle at zero and report no joy on orbit burn. Tracking still shows you on course for a surface landing somewhere in the southern Stalliongrad steppes, possibly Ibexistan.”

Cherry Berry stopped herself from saying something that Princess Celestia would not approve of(144) over the comms. “Horseton, please tell Dr. Bull that I want a switch added to the controls that lets me turn off the outgoing comms. Privacy would be nice.”

“Definitely a good idea, Nine,” Chrysalis agreed. “Tracking says thirty seconds to atmosphere.”

“Already?” Cherry Berry sighed. “I just got here! I’m going to use the remaining fuel to extend my flight.” She slammed the throttle to full, and the engines kicked her in the back for about three seconds, then fell silent. “Did that do anything?” she asked.

There was a long silence.

“Horseton, this is Mission Nine, please respond,” Cherry said.

“Nine, Horseton,” Chrysalis said. “You are re-entering atmosphere now. We have more news in a moment, please stand by.”

“Roger, Horseton,” Cherry Berry replied. “I’m going to destage and reorient to retrograde for re-entry.”

“Horseton copies, go for destaging,” Chrysalis said.

Cherry Berry activated the last decoupler, felt the kick as the explosives separated the fourth and final stage from the capsule. With gentle care she flipped the capsule around so the heat shield would face forward in flight. And that done, she thought, all I have to do is hold the reticule on the retrograde marker and everything should be fine.

I certainly can’t be coming in too steep.

“Nine, Horseton,” Chrysalis’s voice called. “That very last burn you did resulted in a trajectory which, for a moment, looked like an orbit. Periapsis of twenty-two point five kilometers. But the bullpen says air resistance will slow you down enough that you’ll probably come down long before then, almost exactly on the other side of the planet from the space center. Over.”

Cherry Berry digested this news. It gave her indigestion. “How much more thrust did I need for orbit?” she asked.

“About five more seconds at full throttle on your last stage,” Chrysalis said.

Five seconds. Five measly, fleeting, tiny little seconds of thrust.

“The bullpen also wants to remind you that if you’d had that extra five seconds and spent them now, you’d be stuck up there,” Chrysalis added. “So cheer up, relax and enjoy the ride back down. Next time you go up there won’t be any business to distract you from an orbital flight.”

“Roger, Horseton,” Cherry Berry said. Come to think of it… on the one hoof, Cherry Berry didn’t want to be stuck in this little capsule forever. On the other hoof, leaving this world by, well, having left this world had a certain appeal. Everypony said it was best to pass on while doing the thing you loved. Of course, Cherry Berry had usually imagined herself drowning in a vat of cherries as big as Mount Canter, but…

“In other news,” Chrysalis continued, “you’re right in the zone for the heat shield test once you get down into the stratosphere. In the meantime, you’re on a very shallow return trajectory, so you are go to release harness for a few minutes of IVA.”

Cherry Berry blinked. “IVA? I didn’t copy that, Horseton?”

“We mean, get out of your seat and have a little fun,” Chrysalis said. “You’re still in free-fall, so enjoy zero-g while it lasts.”

“Eh, copy, Horseton,” Cherry said. She shrugged, released the harness clips, and allowed herself to float off of her seat.

Whoa.

Oh.

Oh my.

Footnote:

(144) Actually Celestia had no problem with strong language. Unfortunately, her worshipful subjects had a deep and intractable problem with the idea that the eternal princess full of wisdom and serenity might occasionally feel the need to say, “Shoot! Darn it to heck!”


On the big screen above CSP Mission Control is the illusion of the Mission Nine capsule. Of over twenty-five tons of rocket, only this capsule, weighing less than one and a half tons even with its pilot, remains. There are no more engines, no more fuel tanks, nothing but the gyroscopes which let the ship roll itself over, the heat shield to protect it from the heat of re-entry, and the skill of CSP’s best pilot.

For a while the capsule skips along the upper atmosphere, maintaining its momentum. During this time the pilot has a brief moment to relax and observe her surroundings.

I think I’m passing over Zebrica now. The grasslands seem so lush from up here, and the snows of Kiliponjaro, or I guess that’s that big mountain, anyway it’s really incredible.

It’s so amazing up here, Horseton. I’ve always wanted to fly like a pegasus, but now I feel like I am a pegasus, hovering on my own magic. Part of me wants to open the hatch and go outside, throw away the only thing between me and absolute freedom. Of course that part’s a big fat idiot, and I’m staying right here.

Thanks, Nine, I think every person in the room just stopped holding their breath.

There’s the Middle Ocean below me now. I can’t really make out the buildings on the islands from this high up, or I’d wave at Dr. von Brawn’s house.

Copy, Nine. We’re picking up a bit of plasma outside the capsule now, so it’s time to end IVA and strap back into your seat.

Nine copies, Horseton, strapping in. Back on retrograde.

According to Doctor von Brawn, re-entry is the most dangerous portion of the journey for CSP’s spacecraft. The capsule has to slow down from miles per second to the speed of a farm wagon using nothing but air friction. Any error in piloting at this stage will mean the loss of the ship and the death of the pilot.

Mission Control watches in silence as the fireball builds around the capsule. The air can’t get out of the way of the ship fast enough, and so it is compressed in front of the heat shield until it self-ignites, becoming a turbulent plasma that licks at the craft and streams behind it.

None of this disturbs Cherry Berry, She completes the final mission task, the scan of the heat shield in mid-flight, almost in passing. She shows little discomfort as the thickening air begins to slow her down, the rapid deceleration pushing against her ship at as much as five times the gravity on Equus’ surface.

And then, after an eternity of fire, the ship begins to cool. The flames fade away as the air continues to slow the capsule down. The worst is over. The flight will end with a safe parachute landing.

And what a flight it has been. The ship launched in the bright morning light of southeastern Equestria. It ends in the gathering twilight of the empty grasslands of the high Stalliongrad steppes, the mountains of Ibexistan visible in the distance. The rocket has gone from sunrise to sunset in about half an hour.

The capsule drops below the speed of sound, and with a flick of a hoof the parachute opens. The canopy doesn’t fully open immediately, allowing it to gradually slow the capsule without bringing it to a sudden and destructive halt. When it does open there is one last hard jerk as the pod, which flew ten thousand miles in half an hour, slows to the pace of a casually trotting pony.

And yet there is time for one bit of contemplation.

I can see a planet out the window. I don’t know which one. Bucephalous? Sleipnir? Chiron?

We’ll get back to you on that, Nine.

Well, whichever it is, it’s another place we need to go. It’s like that planet is looking at me, telling me, I’m waiting for you. I’m waiting for a visit. It’s been so long and there’s so much for you to see here. Come and visit.

And we’re going to go. It’s going to be a huge challenge, something that makes the Moon look like a picnic gallop, but sooner or later we’re going to get there.

And I can’t wait to make the trip.

One final observation about Mission Nine after the following messages.

MISSION 9 REPORT

Mission summary: Test Thumper solid rocket boosters; fulfill outstanding contracts for Flea and Hammer booster tests; survey target zones while in flight, second attempt; if conditions are right, run test of ablative heat shield during descent (36K-24K).

Pilot: Cherry Berry

Flight duration: 40 min. 10 sec.

Contracts fulfilled: 4
Milestones: none

Conclusions from flight: Frustrating! We came so close to a perfect flight, if not for the stupid, stupid Flea! But this time we just barely missed orbit, so we know we CAN do it the next time we try. But first… curse those Fleas!!

MISSION ASSESSMENT: MOSTLY SUCCESSFUL


A tall, slender unicorn stood on a bare stage in front of a camera, flanked by a couple of changelings, three earth ponies, a pegasus, and a griffon.(145)

“Good evening, my name is Cool Drink. Like many of you, I am an investor in the Changeling Space Program, which is already beginning to pay dividends both scientifically and financially.

“In fact I’m so pleased with my investment that I’m investing in another enterprise involving changelings. With the new medium of television opening new avenues for acting and filmmaking, there is a new demand for new actors, new directors, and new stories.

“That’s why several of my colleagues and I are founding Honeybee Studios. We intend to offer shows such as our documentary of the early days of Equestria, Founding Fillies; exciting tales of cowponies and bandits and buffalo in Dodge Junction Tales; and a comedy about two changeling roommates trying to keep their cover in Manehattan, The Neighbors Upstairs.

“The studio will hire employees of all races, including changelings, whose disguise abilities make them especially talented for acting. Honeybee Studios is already preparing pilot films to offer to the various television stations.

“We hope you will enjoy Honeybee Studios’ original programming and support efforts like it to bring all Equestria’s races together in harmony.”

Cool Drink vanished from the screen, replaced by Flam, hatless, mane parted impeccably. “Only a short time has passed since the Changeling invasion of Canterlot,” he began in the deep, solemn voice he’d used through most of the documentary.

Half the changelings booed, drowning out the next few words.

“SILENCE!” Chrysalis shouted. “We are WATCHING this!”

As the grumpy changelings settled down, Flam’s voice came back into hearing. “… many ponies will never forgive them, either for their aggression or their parasitic nature.

“But it is important to remember that the changelings did not choose their fate. They live among us because they need us to survive. They steal love because they do not believe anypony will give it freely. They try to conquer us because they live in fear of us.

“But with the coming of the space race the changelings have found a door not slammed in their faces. Now they are pouring through that door, not as invaders, but as workers and guests, invited by fate and opportunity to earn what they could not take.

“The results stand on the edge of the Hayseed Swamps as the Changeling Space Agency.

“The changelings, and the other people who stand beside them, are obviously capable of great good as well as great evil. Equestria has faced other threats in the past, including the griffons, the dragons, the buffalo. In every case Equestrian friendship has prevailed, and not Equestrian might. And we are all the richer for it.

“We do not know if the changelings’ claims of peace are true or false, but it is this pony’s belief that we owe them the chance to prove they are real. Indeed, as this pony knows from experience, everyone deserves a chance to turn over a new leaf.

“Thank you, and goodnight.”

A list of credits began to roll over the shot of a darkening studio, and Chrysalis switched the television off. “All right, everyone,” she said, “That’s all for tonight!”

“Awwwwww!” moaned the changelings and ponies who’d wanted to watch I Accuse My Sire and Dam.

“Out! Out! No more brain rot for you!” Chrysalis clopped her hooves, and gradually the crowd began to thin.

“You know,” Cherry Berry said, “I’m surprised at how even-hooved they were. With just a few words they could have destroyed us.”

“And don’t think they didn’t know it,” Chrysalis replied. “What you saw wasn’t even-hooved. That was a highly skilled and slightly dishonest sales pitch for changelings in general. Exactly as I ordered.” Chrysalis shuddered. “Those two will never be more dangerous in their lives than they are today. With that idiot box they could make almost anypony think anything.”

“But you got what you wanted out of it,” Cherry insisted. “After this a lot more ponies will be willing to accept changelings. It’ll make our job a lot easier.”

Oh, yes, Chrysalis thought, nodding but not responding aloud to Cherry’s thought. It will make it very much easier to conquer them all, once I get my hooves on the moon.

After all, it’s not like ponies will really let changelings live among them in peace. A few would, but most of them are just too flighty, too timid, too afraid. Eventually they’ll herd up and throw us out again, if we don’t do it to them first.

But in the meantime, I’ll take all the détente I can get.

Footnote:

(145) Shot only two days before, this commercial had triggered a shouting match between Chrysalis and the Flim-Flam brothers. The unicorns didn’t know Chrysalis and Cool Drink were one and the same pony, and they resented her using one of her contractually obligated commercial slots for what they saw as a competitor. Chrysalis pointed out, forcefully, that all they had to do was put in the top bid for all the shows the new studio would produce, and then there wouldn’t be any question of competition. This, of course, they probably wouldn’t do even if they could.

After the argument was ended by Because I Say So Or Else, Chrysalis decided not to destroy their enterprise completely, despite her personal feelings of the moment. She estimated it would be wasted effort. The two would either destroy themselves or get tired of the steady work and sell out within the year- the latter guess, as it happened, eventually proving correct.

Aside from Cool Drink, the ponies who stood in silence next to the changelings were all actual ponies, Bridleway actors who were open-minded to spending a few minutes on a stage with two changelings. The two changelings, on the other hand, were not actors or infiltrators, but warriors who were in Manehattan as a ceremonial bodyguard for Chrysalis. In fact they were atrociously bad liars and actors even by pony standards, let alone for changelings, which is why Cool Drink did all the talking in the shot.

Interlude: Mission 10: Unfinished Business

View Online

Changeling Space Agency
by Kris Overstreet
INTERLUDE: Mission 10 – Unfinished Business

Dragonfly wiggled the throttle, wondering if she could somehow set it to one hundred and five percent. The ship, even stripped down as it was at liftoff, wasn’t rising off the ground nearly fast enough to suit her, and her sole mission goal required all the speed she could get, as soon as she could get it.

Of course, if Cherry Berry hadn’t been on the other side of Equus after her flight, Chrysalis would have been in the seat. Or maybe not; this was a minor mission, just clearing up the last contract before their first serious, coordinated attempt at orbit. The queen might not want to sully her hooves with an unimportant flight. Give it to the backup pilot. It gives her something to do.

Granted, any flight was a good flight, but Dragonfly wanted more of a rush. Yes, the rocket had started to accelerate faster, but it wasn’t really shoving her back in the seat. The ride was too gentle. It was, well, kind of boring.

“Ten, Horseton,” Chrysalis said over the communications link, “pitch over ten degrees east.”

“Ten copies pitch ten degrees east.” Dragonfly pushed the stick to the right, watched the markers on the ball shift, and re-centered it again.

“Ten, Horseton.” Chrysalis’s voice had a touch of exasperation in it. “That was south, not east. Remember where the north line is on the ball.”

“Oops. Sorry.” Yeah, sorry, but not much. Who cared? This ship was going up and coming down, not really going anywhere.

Sure enough, Chrysalis confirmed, “It doesn’t matter much, Ten. It just means the flight will be a little shorter, that’s all. Coming up on target speed.”

Really? Dragonfly looked, and sure enough, the acceleration had picked up a bit more. The ride was so smooth compared to her first flight that it almost wasn’t flying at all. “I see it, Horseton. Throttling back to hold at five-forty.” There, the upper end of the speed required for the test- and just in time, too, as the ship crossed twelve thousand meters. Immediately a light winked yellow, then green. “Flea test reads successful, repeat green light on Flea test.”

“Horseton copies good Flea test,” Chrysalis said, adding not quite softly enough for the microphone not to catch it, “and about time.”

Dragonfly looked at her gauges. She still had more than a quarter of the fuel remaining for the Swivel, plus the Flea itself, whose thrust had been metered almost to nothing to make it suitable for deceleration and return.

You know what? There’s nothing else on the list. I’m going to do what I want.

“Throttling back up to full,” she announced, doing so and noting with satisfaction that with most of its fuel gone the Swivel was doing a decent bit of pushing now.

“Ten, Horseton; what are you doing?” Chrysalis asked.

“You and Cherry got to go to space,” Dragonfly said. “It’s my turn, and I think I’ve got the fuel.”

“Ten, we don’t have mission planning for a space trajectory,” Chrysalis said. “You get down here right now.”

“Don’t worry about me, my queen!” Dragonfly said cheerfully. “I’ll be all right!” She looked out the window and saw streamers of hot compressed atmosphere rushing past the nose of the capsule. “But maybe I’d better slow down just a little, and pause before I light up the Flea. Getting a bit warm in here.”

“You do that, Ten,” Chrysalis said. “And stand by while I talk with the boffins and make sure we can get you back.”


The final trajectory was very similar to the one Chrysalis had flown, but lower and shallower. Dragonfly got about three minutes above atmosphere, and she enjoyed every moment of them.

“Ten, Horseton, get back in your seat,” Chrysalis ordered. “Young lady, I said get back in your seat!”

“Whee! This is fun!” There wasn’t much extra space in the capsule, but in free-fall it turned out to be a lot more than the designers had originally expected. “This is even better than the wind tunnel! Who cares about the wind tunnel? This is the real Fun Machine!” She did cartwheels, somersaults, barrel rolls, even the backstroke. She bounced from one side of the capsule to the other, heedless of the voice in her ears.

“Dragonfly, you just re-entered atmosphere,” Chrysalis said sternly. “Get back in your seat and buckle up right this minute, or there won’t be anything left of you for me to punish later! I mean it!”

Dragonfly paused in her cavorting, noticed the altimeter, and sighed. “I guess you’re right,” she said, carefully easing herself back into the chair and snapping the harness buckle together. “But it’s just so much fun up here! You know how it is!”

“Yes, I do,” Chrysalis said. “I also remember how the ride back down was. Now get on your retrograde, switch the SAS back on, and stay alert.”

“Yes, my- I mean, copy, Horseton,” Dragonfly responded. After performing the requested maneuver, she added, “You know, the reaction wheels work really well with the Flea on the capsule. Makes ship balance almost perfect.”

“The what?” Pause. “Ten, Horseton; haven’t you decoupled that Flea engine yet?”

“I don’t want to,” Dragonfly said. “I think I can bring it home.”

“I wish you wouldn’t,” Chrysalis said with the kind of feeling no changeling could truly fake. “Leaving aside the fact that you’ll hit the ocean like a brick with it on, I hope after this mission never to see a Flea again so long as I should live. Get rid of it. Over.”

“But I really think I can do it.”

The speed of the ship, which had gradually increased even as flames began to lick around the sides of the capsule, was now beyond the fastest speed recorded on Chrysalis’s descent and still accelerating. “This is a command from your flight controller, the bull who designed your rocket, and your Queen all together,” Chrysalis said. “Dump. That. Engine. Now. Do you copy, Mission Ten?”

Dragonfly sighed. “Ten copies,” she said. “Besides, the air’s making steering it a bit squirrely anyway.” She hit the staging button, letting the Flea tumble before her for a few moments.

And then, to her horror, she saw it square in the middle of her hatch window, flying by close enough for her to count the rivets on the rocket casing. “OH MY F-“

And then it was gone, behind her, having missed the capsule by less than two meters.

“Um… Horseton? This is Mission Ten,” Dragonfly said weakly. “For future reference, ditching a stage directly in front of you is a bad idea. As in potential Bad Day stupid. Something, um, to remember.”

“So long as we all learn something from this, Ten,” Chrysalis said dryly.

But ditching the engine had accomplished its goal. Without the weight, and with the broad, rounded heat shield pointed directly into the wind of the thickening atmosphere, the ship began to slow. Gradually Dragonfly felt herself gain weight… and more weight… and then a whole lot of weight. “Three gees of deceleration… four gees… five gees…” Even uncomfortable as it was, Dragonfly grinned. This was what rocket flights should be like! The feeling of hard acceleration, hard deceleration, weightlessness in between! The blackness closing in at the edges of her vision, well, that was bonus!

And then, all too soon, it was over, as the ship passed below six hundred meters per second, the gravity load lessened, and the sea began coming up very, very, very fast. But, Dragonfly grinned, not fast enough. Too bad, oh Pale Horse, you aren’t getting me today. At two hundred eighty meters per second, at thirty-five hundred meters altitude, she hit the parachute switch, lying back as she heard the ropes slither out and the canopy deploy.

“Chutes deployed at thirty-five hundred,” she announced. “See? That was a whole five hundred meters higher than yours, my- er, Horseton! I really could have brought that Flea back! Plenty of room to spare!”

On the other end of the communication, Queen Chrysalis groaned, removed her headset, and slumped forward on the capsule communicator workstation.

The tragic thing, she thought, is that Dragonfly is one of my most level-headed and responsible changelings…

MISSION 10 REPORT

Mission summary: Test that cursed Flea!

Pilot: Dragonfly

Flight duration: 8 min. 28 sec.

Contracts fulfilled: 1
Milestones: none

Conclusions from flight: This is why only Cherry and I should be allowed to fly.

MISSION ASSESSMENT: A BIT TOO SUCCESSFUL, ACTUALLY

Chapter 9: Mission 11: Throw Yourself at the Ground and Miss

View Online

Changeling Space Program
by Kris Overstreet

Chapter 9: Mission 11: Throw Yourself at the Ground and Miss

Elytron resented being left in charge of the hive while Queen Chrysalis spent most of her time at the new space center hundreds of miles away. Not that he cared much about rockets or space or things like that. He just hated getting stuck with the most routine, boring chores and the most idiotic workers. Chrysalis wanted only the smartest changelings working at the space center, which meant every time some project required more workers, the average IQ of the changelings back in the Badlands dropped by a measurable amount.

What galled him most was the fact that Chrysalis had asked him to recommend the most intelligent warriors to serve as security in Horseton. She had not asked him to bring them with him. She had not asked for him to recommend other intelligent warriors beside himself. She had merely accepted his recommendations and took them away with her to her new shiny home in the swamp.

Elytron might not have been terribly bright, but he knew when he was being slighted.

Unfortunately he didn’t know what he could do about it, so Elytron received the mostly boring reports from infiltrators coming in, saw to the distribution of love reserves, trained the warriors, and went through the routine day after day after day. It wasn’t tedious; Elytron thrived on routine. He just hated the idea that his holy queen thought he wasn’t any good for anything else other than that.

One particular day Elytron sat through yet another infiltrator’s all-too-detailed report about how she’d turned some pony family’s life into something straight out of a bad agony novel(146). He longed for something different, anything different, just so he would have a chance to demonstrate that he could be smart enough for the glory work at the space center(147).

And something different did come up, or rather down- specifically, Clickbug, who had taken over the post as guard at the hive entrance- replacing the buck-fanged drone Elytron had thought the most useless changeling in the hive(148). “Commander!” she shouted, bursting into the throne room and interrupting yet another retelling of the travails of Some Ponies Or Other and how that fed the hive. “We just got an urgent telegram from Appleoosa!”

“So what?” Elytron grumbled. “Pass it on to the queen like you always do.”

“No, sir,” Clickbug insisted, “it’s for us here! They’re telling us to expect a couple of ponies! They’re on their way here in a sky-chariot!”

“Ponies??” Elytron shouted. First that mail-pony visiting once a week. Then that crazy pink-and-yellow pony with the flying contraption, who stayed. And now two. Four, if you counted the pegasi who would be pulling the sky-chariot. It wasn’t an invasion yet, but Elytron could see a trend. He didn’t like it one bit. “What are they coming here for?”

“The Appleoosan station didn’t say,” Clickbug said. “The message was, ‘Be prepared to welcome two visiting unicorns, stop. Arriving by sky-chariot from Appleoosa today, stop.’ And that’s all.”

“How in the name of Celestia’s royal cake repository(149) are we supposed to prepare for something we know nothing about?” Elytron shouted.

“Don’t ask me, sir!” Clickbug whimpered. “I only take down the messages and pass them along!”

“Well-“ Elytron was prepared to tell Clickbug to pass this message along to Queen Chrysalis for orders when it sank in. This was a New Thing. Something non-routine, something unexpected, and above all something that would give Elytron a chance to demonstrate his good sense and sharp thinking to the queen.

He didn’t think I can do this. He thought, I will take care of this. I’ll take care of everything.

“Well, get back to your post,” he finally told Clickbug. “I’ll have a message for the queen after I’ve interr… I mean once I speak with these ponies.”

There were guards to reposition, armor to be polished, and pods to be prepared for possible new occupants, and it all had to be done at once. Fortunately Elytron knew exactly how to make that happen.

But the order that gave him the most pleasure was the one which dismissed all the waiting infiltrators to quit pestering him and go give their stupid reports to one another. For giving him something more important to do than listen to all those boring stories, Elytron thought, he could almost thank these pony scum.(150)

Of course, the first thirty seconds of seeing these particular examples of pony scum drove all thought of thanks entirely out of Elytron’s mind.

For one thing, the sky-chariot was drawn not by the two pegasi as per standard, nor the team of four that the enormous pile of luggage would have justified, but by a single pony- the grey cross-eyed mailmare who visited twice a week, Wossername. Despite her obvious exhaustion, the unicorn couple in the chariot lifted not one hoof to help as the pegasus unharnessed herself, opened a side-door to let them leave the chariot, and then began hauling one trunk and suitcase after another off the tailgate of the chariot onto the rocky desert floor.

“My word, Jet dear,” the female of the pair whined, “what an ugly location this is. Do you really think that parvenu princess can be trusted?”

“Be strong, darling,” the male said. He kept his nose stuck upwards, making it obvious that his pince-nez were there for the sole purpose of helping him look down his muzzle at the world. “Not everypony is cultured enough to be part of the Canterlot elite. We must set an example to the lesser ponies.”

Elytron, who had been standing alone at the entrance to the hive, in full shiny purple armor, kept his jaw firmly shut only through decades of discipline.

“There,” the gray Pegasus gasped, the last bag offloaded. “That’s everything, Mr. and Mrs. Set.”

“Please!” The female unicorn tossed her nose into the air even higher than her husband’s, making her bouffant mane bob. “I kept my own name when we married, thank you!”

“And I would never have asked otherwise, my dear,” the male unicorn said, comforting his wife. He reached into the breast pocket of his polo shirt and pulled out a few bits, which he tossed at the pegasus’s hooves. “Job well done, miss. No need to wait for us; we’ll telegraph Appleoosa when we’re ready to depart.”

Elytron had little firsthand knowledge of the world outside the changeling guard and prided himself on that ignorance. Still, he thought that the hoofful of bits seemed a piddling gratuity for even a normal chartered sky-chariot. For the work the two unicorns had put the pegasus to, it was a petty insult.

The wall-eyed pegasus pushed the bits together in the dirt, then left them next to the chariot and trudged over to where Elytron stood. “I’m sorry I wasn’t able to bring the mail this trip, sir,” she said. “Do you have anything going outbound?”

“You there, doorpony!” The male unicorn waved a hoof imperiously at him. “Hurry up and take our bags. We have urgent business with your queen!”

Changelings have a reputation for being callous towards their main food source, and Elytron was the extreme case which reinforces a bad reputation. Pity was not within his emotional range, not even for a fellow changeling. Hate, on the other hand, was an old, true friend. After his brief exposure to those two unicorns, he was inclined to support anyling and anypony against them- even the annoying, semi-competent mailmare.

“Have Clickbug take you down to the kitchen,” he said. “Carapace is working at the space center, but he had a couple of apprentices who should be able to make some of that gunk you like.”(151)

“Thank you, sir,” the mailpony said solemnly, walking slowly down into the entrance to the hive.

Only after the mailpony’s flanks were lost in the dim light of the cave did Elytron turn his attention, ever so slowly, back to the ever-more-unwelcome visitors. “I am Elytron, commander of the warriors of Queen Chrysalis’s hive and acting regent during her absence. What business do you have here?” he said coolly.

“Please fetch a bellhop to take our things,” the unicorn said. “We need to see your queen at the earliest possible moment!”

“Or failing that,” the female added, “this earth pony, what’s-her-name, Cherry Berry.”

Elytron wanted to stop and count to one hundred(152), but the ponies required an answer. “Queen Chrysalis and Chief Pilot Cherry Berry are both at Horseton Space Center,” he said carefully.

“A likely story!” the male unicorn snorted. “We already contacted the space center. We were told the queen was not available there, and that any contract proposals would have to wait until after their next launch!”

“Which, I might add,” the female said, “they haven’t scheduled yet!”

“But we’re determined to see the queen no matter what!”

“We wish to hire the services of your space program.” The female waggled a hoof in distaste as she added, “Without all that tedious paperwork your minion asked us to fill out.”

Elytron paused for a moment to consider options. The obvious right thing to do was to send these self-important annoyances on their way. He knew it was the right thing because it was second place on his list of things he wanted to do with them. The first option- sticking them in the pods until someone asked about them- ran counter to standing orders, worse luck.

But if he did either, he’d be giving up on his big opportunity to show Queen Chrysalis he was smart enough to be on the space center roster. Also, the two would probably demand that exhausted pegasus haul them and all their things back to Appleoosa. Though he barely cared about that, he did care just enough to admit it was a factor.

“I am afraid,” Elytron said at last, “that Queen Chrysalis may not be available for some time. In the meantime, as acting regent, I have the authority to listen to your proposal. If it is pleasing I shall lay it before the queen at the earliest opportunity.”

“Isn’t this typical?” the female unicorn asked. “Even here in the forsaken Badlands you can’t escape the middlemare.”

“You can’t expect better of these barbarous ponies,” the male said.

Through the intensifying red haze Elytron had a brief memory of an old, old lesson back when he had been just a larva. “Ponies panic easily,” the teacher had told the class, “but they don’t stay panicked long. A dangerous thing that doesn’t hurt them for a week becomes normal. A dangerous thing that doesn’t hurt them for a month becomes the way things have always been. Ponies always fear what they can’t see, but they think they’re born to rule over everything they CAN see. That is why we cannot rely on fear to keep the hive safe.”(153)

Two years ago, he thought, glaring at the unicorns, you were running down the streets of Canterlot screaming. Now you’re thoughtlessly insulting me to my face. Proof, as if we needed it, that coming out of hiding was a mi… er… not one of the queen’s better decisions.

Elytron was running alternate scenarios of reintroducing these ponies to the fear of changelings through his limited imagination when something very bright and shiny yanked his attention back to the real world. The male pony had opened the smallest trunk… which turned out to be full to slightly overflowing of bits.

Thousands of bits.

Tens of thousands of bits.

Not enough to restore the treasure mound in the throne room to its full glory after it had been mostly spent on Horseton, but enough to double, maybe even triple, what was there at the moment.

The pony was saying, “We are prepared to pay quite well to be the first ponies from Canterlot to travel through space.”

His wife added, “We’ve been to all the fashionable and trendy places around the world on the fastest airships and trains. And right now there’s nothing more fashionable and trendy than rocket ships.”

Elytron blinked. “Er… yes, ma’am,” he said on pure reflex. The fire of rage inside his head was being put out by the fireponies of Ladder Company Duty and the Ambition County Volunteer Fire Department. The queen always wants more money for space, he thought. Here is a LOT of money. It will probably buy a lot of space.

And when she finds out I’ve got her a lot more money for space, she will say, What a clever changeling you are, Elytron. I need clever changelings like you around me at all times. Pack your things and come to Horseton at once, as soon as you’ve picked some particularly stupid and worthless guard to take over your duties back at the hive. Because I can trust you to pick the right changeling, because you are very smart and clever indeed.

So… how to get this money without any fuss or bother? Elytron straightened up. The old traditional methods, he decided, are the best. “It will take some time to bring Queen Chrysalis here to meet you,” he said at last. “In the meantime, allow me to bring you to our special VIP cell- er, deluxe spa and resort caverns,” he corrected himself. “After a tour of our most scenic caves and natural wonders(154), you shall be ensconced in a luxurious sleeping chamber where you can while away the time experiencing only the most delightful and nutrit- um, pleasant dreams in absolute comfort.”

The unicorns balked, to Elytron’s total lack of surprise. “Of course we can’t stay in a place which hasn’t been rated by Four Doors!” the male said, ignoring the utter illogic of packing like an army going to war while not being willing to actually remain at the destination.

“If we stayed in an ordinary residence,” the female insisted, “we’d be laughed out of our clubs! The elite of Canterlot would shun us for…” She shuddered delicately, gasping out the words, “… slumming it.”

“You’ll be staying in the very same chamber chief astromare Cherry Berry uses when she’s visiting us,” Elytron said without blinking. Which was almost true; it would be the same chamber Cherry Berry spent her first two weeks in, mostly asleep and putting off enough love and happiness to turn a trim changeling guard eggplant-shaped. “And you’ll be served the same food,” he added in sudden inspiration, “eaten by Equestrian Games athletes when they visit us.” Not quite a lie; precisely one Games athlete visited the hive, and she was downstairs right now being fed. She’d also qualified for the Cloudsdale Best Young Fliers competition a couple years back, but Elytron doubted Canterlot unicorns would care. For that matter, he didn’t care. He only knew it because of the five or six times Occupant had gushed about his one friend in the world, back in the days before rockets.

The almost-facts brightened the unicorns’ attitudes immediately. “Well then,” the male said, “if such celebrities endorse your hospitality, then we simply MUST try it for ourselves!”

“The same bed as the bravest mare in Equestria!” the female said. “Wait until I tell Brown Snooty about this!”

“I shall order some of my guardlings to bring your… possessions,” Elytron said. “Once you’ve had the tour and settled in, I shall contact the queen and let her know of your proposal. For now, if you would care to follow me, Mr. and Mrs….?”

The male held a hoof to his polo shirt. “I am Jet Set,” he said, “owner of Canterlot Airways. This is my wife, Upper Crust of the Canterlot Crusts.”

“Charmed, I’m sure,” Upper Crust smiled.

“Quite,” Elytron said, drawing on his deepest reserves of discipline. Half an hour of tour to get them to lower their guard, two quick nips to the back of the neck from the guards, and they’re in the pod and out of my chitin. I can put up with them for that long. “Right this way, sir, ma’am,” he said, gesturing them into the hive.

Gesturing the flies into the parlor.

Footnotes:

(146) Several of which were being adapted to the new medium of television, sponsored by various manufacturers of soap and cleaning products, but Elytron had avoided being contaminated by the foul device. He let changelings watch it now and then as a reward, or withheld the privilege as punishment, but he never watched himself if he could at all help it. The cruddy novels, however, were unavoidable, given the queen’s unfortunate addiction prior to the space program. You couldn’t toss a larva into any hole in the hive without the little twerp landing on three of the things.

(147) The "glory work" consisted of sitting in security booths, checking paperwork for ponies going in and out of the complex, and taking an occasional trot or flutter around the place to make sure nopony was stealing the buildings. Any guard with ideas or curiosity tended to get promoted out of the job, which contributed to the steady bleeding of the cream of Elytron’s corps. If Elytron ever got out to Muck Lake, he would be sorely disappointed.

(148) Which proved to Elytron’s satisfaction, if no one else’s, that things could always get worse.

(149) This refers not to any room in the palace at Canterlot or any government agency, but to a certain portion of alicorn anatomy.

(150) The resulting discussion and direct comparison of techniques and experiments became a regular practice among the infiltrators, whose efficiency went up 20% within the month and even higher as time went on. Elytron might have been commended had he done this on purpose; instead he got a quiet black mark in Chrysalis’s mental ledger for shirking his assigned duties.

(151) And yea, though it was but a plain vanilla muffin baked by a casual cook rather than a master chef, Derpy still got her muffin, and it was good. And for some ponies that’s all it takes to call it a happy ending.

(152) This is not quite the truth. The truth is, Elytron wanted to count to a hundred to prevent himself from doing what he really wanted to do with these two obnoxious unicorns.

(153) Actually the teacher had said, “That is why we can’t rely on fear to keep the hive fed.” Elytron, like almost everybody of any species, heard and remembered mostly what he wanted to.

(154) This wasn’t really a lie. There were some quite extraordinary caves which the hive had left mostly untouched, except for windows to let in sunlight in certain caves and extra glowing crystals or luminescent goo in others to enhance the natural beauty. Although Elytron was just as immune to beauty as he was to pity, he at least knew he ought to find such things beautiful. Thus he visited them on an irregular basis and knew the most efficient path to lead the ponies through on their tour. The third most popular such beauty site, as it happened, lay right next to the currently underpopulated feeding pods, which were about to get two new guests.


Cherry Berry banked her biplane and began her final approach to the rough-paved runway at Horseton Space Center. The visit back to Ponyville hadn’t been as relaxing as she’d hoped, what with half the town holding a parade in her honor and the other half giving her the cold shoulder for being a “changeling collaborator.” She’d spent three days on vacation, and the only times she’d actually relaxed aside from sleep came in the cockpit of her airplane.

She’d been shocked to notice the leaves on the trees beginning to change color. When she’d left Ponyville to find some space program willing to take on an earth pony pilot, Winter Wrap-Up had just finished. Half a year and more had gone by filled with one thing after another, with construction and design and testing and brief, exciting (terrifying) rocket flights. Now here it was, only a couple of weeks until Nightmare Night, and then the Running of the Leaves, and then Winter Ramp-Up and Hearth’s Warming.

There was a thought; she needed to get Warner von Brawn and Goddard the Griffon together to discuss the effect of cold weather on the rockets. Horseton would never have much in the way of snowfall, but there would be nights when it got vaguely close to freezing, and Cherry Berry knew that kind of weather would damage magic engines and any liquid-cooled motors.

On the other hoof, Baltimare and the entire Horseshoe Bay got considerably colder in winter than the Hayseed Swamps, so if cold weather made no-go conditions for flight, then the Equestria Space Agency would be slowed down, too. Which suited Cherry Berry just fine. Twilight Sparkle had announced a launch for ten days from now. Chrysalis had responded by announcing Mission Eleven's launch scheduled for eight days from now. It was crystal clear that whichever rocket actually launched first would put the first mare in orbit of Equus.

Which, darn it, is going to be ME, she thought.

Cherry was pondering the benefits of a little white lie to encourage Twilight into an excess of caution about cold-weather launches when the ear-splitting shriek from somewhere on the ground blasted into her and through the plane.

In retrospect, the shriek itself didn’t really shake the plane; it only felt that way because Cherry Berry’s hoof jiggled the flight stick when the loud cry of outrage ripped through her. She barely had presence of mind to abort her landing and bank hard to port as practically every changeling in the space center took flight, rushing straight away from the administration building in all directions- including directly across the runway, because of COURSE they would.

As she brought the plane around for another approach, a number of changelings fell into formation, generally behind her. A couple actually formed up beside her, including Dragonfly. “What was that?” Cherry shouted over the wind of flight.

“The queen’s really upset!” Dragonfly shouted back. “When she’s this upset, even dumb changelings know to make themselves scarce!”

Cherry Berry checked her mirrors, glanced at the skies around her, and said, “And swarming around my plane counts as scarce?”

“It’s fine!” Dragonfly shouted. “So long as you’re between her and us!”

Cherry Berry had heard stories about the Prench Foreign Legion and its generals’ favorite tactic, Operation Equine Shield(155). “You mean, so long mine is the head she bites off!”

“Exactly!” Dragonfly nodded, grinning a very befanged grin.

Grumbling, Cherry Berry shook her head, finished her turn, and managed to get the plane on the runway without striking or running over anypony.

Once on the ground and out of her plane, Cherry Berry became the focus of attention. The changelings who had fled in terror of their queen were regathering, mostly hiding behind her plane or various buildings. The construction ponies(156) faced her on the other side, all shouting questions about the scream, what it meant, and whether or not they could claim overtime for the work stoppage. Marked Knee and a couple of his goat assistants ran up from the research and development buildings, followed by Double Face and a handful of unfortunate earth pony tourists who had been in the Fun Machine enjoying freefall indoors when the alarm went up.

Cherry Berry didn’t bother to answer questions. She plowed through the ponies in front of her and ignored them as they filed in behind her, mingling with the changelings that leap-frogged from cover to cover. Before long she had every living being in the space center, or so it seemed, following her like a cult following its prophet through the wilderness, murmuring in quiet respect.

Cherry Berry was relieved that the inarticulate screams and exclamations still coming from the administration building were of only normal volume, and not the Princess-Luna-In-a-Temper level of loud the first shriek had been. Half the windows, including all of them around Chrysalis’s office cum throne room, had been blown out. Occupant, trembling, stood guard by the main doors, all the regular guards having joined the crowd of trembling bugs in Cherry’s wake.

“What’s going on?” Cherry Berry asked.

Occupant began, “Well-“

“BU DEE BI DIP DIP DAH!”

“-we just got a call on the tele-whatzis from-“

“RIDDIE RI DIP DOOP DER DARR!”

“-from the Hive, and it seems-“

“I CAN’T CRIPPIN RIP RAZZIN FRAZZ LUFFA WUFFLE DAH!”

“-to have upset Her Majesty beyond the-“

“WHADDA DUM-DUM DIDDLE DER WHIPPLE WHICK WHEE!”

“-beyond the ability to speak,” Occupant finished between Chrysalis’s nonsensical rantings.

“What did-“ Cherry tried to ask.

“BY ALL GUM DIM SUFFA FRAGGLE RACKIN FRACKIN DRRRRM!”

“Dunno!” Occupant said quickly. “I left the room!”

“IMA RIDDLE RIP NIDDLE!”

“Well, I’m-“ Cherry timed her words to fall into Chrysalis’s pauses for breath. “-going to find out.” Pause, gibberish. “You stay here-“ Pause, gibberish. “-and keep everypony-“ Pause, gibberish. “-out. She-“ Pause, gibberish. “-probably won’t hurt me.”

Occupant saluted smartly(157) as Cherry Berry stepped past him.

Cherry Berry opened the door, knocking only after she’d had a look inside. Aside from the windows, nothing seemed broken except the crystal array that had once been the telepresence communications device. Chrysalis had apparently run out of even nonsense words and had settled for banging her head on her desktop.

For a moment Cherry considered calm words and soothing tones. Then she remembered who she was dealing with, and she decided to go for blunt talk instead. “So, what happened?” she asked.

Chrysalis stopped in mid-headthump, finally noticing the presence of the blonde-maned pink pony. She took a deep breath, but this time actual words came out. “HE DUMPED THE BITS OUT ONTO THE PILE!” she shouted.

“Context please?” Cherry Berry asked.

“HE DUMPED THE BUCKING BITS ONTO THE TREASURE PILE!” Chrysalis shouted even louder. “HE DIDN’T EVEN THINK TO COUNT THEM!”

“And that’s bad,” Cherry stated as a fact.

“YES, IT’S BAD!” Chrysalis propped herself upright and glared at Cherry. “IT MEANS WE CAN’T REFUND THEIR MONEY!”

Out of the multitude of questions, Cherry chose the simplest. “Whose money?”

“THOSE BUCKING CANTERLOT SNOBS WHO WANT TO TAKE A JOYRIDE INTO SPACE!”

“Oh.” Cherry Berry flopped back onto her rump, having instantly recognized the significance of joyride into space and can’t refund their money.

“I think you’d better tell me… no, don’t tell me,” she said after she suppressed her own urge to scream nonsense words(158) and bang her head into solid objects. “Go do whatever relaxes you while I get some changelings to rush Goddard and von Brawn back here from Appleoosa. It sounds like we’ve got a mission-critical emergency on our hooves thanks to… that idiot.”

She didn’t know yet who that idiot was, but if some changeling at the hive had taken a bunch of money from rich ponies who wanted to buy a ticket to ride the rocket, then no matter the circumstances, they deserved the name idiot. And possibly much worse.

No tourist ponies were going to take the first orbital mission away from her.

Footnotes:

(155) Operation Equine Shield: have the foreign ponies defend the indefensible fort and slow down the enemy while the generals, their staffs, and their toadies save their own skins. If the fort holds out long enough for Prench reinforcements to come and relieve it, this is a bonus… but by no means a requirement.

(156) The last element of the flight hangar, the tall air traffic control tower, was almost complete. An expanded astronaut training center, with the rigging required to practice using Twilight Sparkle’s new EMU (Equine Maneuvering Unit) spacesuit thruster backpack, was about midway to completion. Work had begun on an expanded tracking center, not only to track and communicate with spaceships even on the other side of the globe but to add new computers designed by the minotaurs which could actually plan maneuvers rather than just chart trajectories. Next on the agenda after that was an expansion of the vehicle assembly building (VAB). The joke in Horseton was that only princesses would live to see the day the space center was actually finished.

(157) Secure in the knowledge that absolutely noling wanted to get past him. Only intense loyalty, a profound sense of duty, and a desire to get the queen to sign off on the purchase of a certain collectible set of salt and pepper shakers kept him there at all.

(158) Actually Cherry wouldn't have used many nonsense words, as such. As she'd demonstrated before, when sufficiently provoked she retained her language skills. Indeed, her vocabulary expanded under stress... and got much, much bluer..


Travel by sky-chariots drawn by pegasi was safe, but often tiring, for non-flyers like minotaurs and elderly griffons.

Travel by airborne freight carts pulled by changelings untrained for the task, in a tearing hurry, was… much more tiring.

As Chrysalis related the full story of Elytron’s folly, Cherry Berry noticed Goddard’s feathers were more rumpled than usual. Von Brawn’s apparent calm rose less from his imperturbability and more from the adrenalin crash after hours of gripping the rails of the flying cart in stark terror. The other three at the table- Chrysalis, Occupant, and herself- hadn’t had to travel any distance, but each showed varying levels of stress and fatigue from the situation that Elytron had dumped on their backs.

“I don’t see the problem,” Occupant said once Chrysalis finished. “Why don’t we just keep the money and the ponies both?”

“Because that would be wrong,” Cherry Berry replied firmly.

“Because that would be stupid,” Chrysalis corrected her. She put on a wide-eyed innocent look and sang a song of sarcastic acting: “Why, hello there, Princess Celestia! Why yes, we do have two of your ponies here from Canterlot, you know, your capital city that we tried to conquer and enslave? They showed up with a bunch of money, and they were a little bit annoying, so we’re keeping both them and the money. You don’t mind, do you? Oh, you’re coming with your army to turn the hive into a mile-deep crater? That’s nice! Looking forward to the nice chat! I’ll bring the tea and crumpets! Ta-ta!”

Occupant slumped. “You beat Celestia before,” he replied sullenly.

“Tell me, my dear servant,” Chrysalis said smoothly, “do you happen to have another exceptionally powerful yet gullible unicorn who is so lovestruck he could feed you and a hundred of your siblings for a month straight on a single day’s supply? No? Let me know when you find one, and maybe I’ll consider a rematch with the mare who moves the sun.”

“Just saying it’s an option,” Occupant muttered.

“So let me get this straight,” Goddard said slowly. “Your chief guard took the money of two ponies who said it was to pay for a flight into space. He then put it in the general pool without counting it. In the meantime, the two ponies are on ice, fully expecting a rocket ride when they wake up.”

“Elytron was so very proud of the fact that he never actually promised them a space flight,” Chrysalis growled. “When I get my hooves on that fossilized brain-dead-“

“Any court of law you care to name,” Goddard continued, “even a griffon court- especially a griffon court, come to that- will call acceptance of payment as acceptance of contract.” His feathers ruffled a little bit more, and he ran his talons through them, trying to smooth them down. “And since he was technically your regent at the time, they can argue and win the point that he had authority to make such a contract.”

“But we can’t do it!” Chrysalis shouted. “Even if we wanted to, we can’t cram three ponies into one capsule! And we wouldn’t do it for Mission Eleven anyway! We agreed on this- nothing but orbit! Nothing that risks orbit!” She threw up her hooves and finished, “But that means we’re in breach of contract! We can’t refund the money because we don’t know how much it is! And Canterlot ponies LOVE to sue! And Canterlot ponies would ESPECIALLY love to sue into the GROUND the species that tried to CONQUER THEIR CITY!”

Goddard nodded. “Sure looks that way,” he agreed.

“Then we’re bucked,” Cherry Berry moaned.

Chrysalis, Cherry, Goddard and Occupant all slumped in their seats. von Brawn, who had been slumped all this time, straightened up.

“Why?” he asked quietly.

Chrysalis raised an eyebrow. “Have you been asleep, doctor?” she asked pointedly.

“No.” von Brawn straightened up a bit more, still looking travel-worn but no longer completely out of it. “Why are we in breach of contract? Did these ponies ever specify that it had to be the very next rocket? Did they, in fact, set a deadline at all?”

“No,” Chrysalis breathed. “Or he didn’t mention one, anyway. The idiot.”

“Find out,” von Brawn insisted. “Be absolutely sure. But I’m willing to bet they didn’t, from Mr. Elytron’s story as you tell it. And if they didn’t, that means we can launch their flight on our own timetable, not theirs. In which case Mission Eleven is not directly in jeopardy.”

Long, soft sighs of relief echoed through the conference room. A weight lifted from the shoulders of pony, changeling, and griffon.

“We’ll still have to figure out some way of getting them up and down,” Goddard pointed out. “And we can’t leave them in a cocoon indefinitely.”

“We shouldn’t have them in a cocoon at all,” Cherry Berry remarked pointedly.

“What truly galls me,” Chrysalis muttered, “is that Elytron thought he was being clever and imaginative. He used those words at least three times in his report.”

Cherry Berry ignored the queen. “Can we just build a bigger capsule?” she asked. “I know the yaks are working on one. And we were going to need one ourselves, eventually.”

Goddard shrugged. “Maybe,” he said, “but it’d weigh a lot more, and it’d require an entirely new series of rocket motors and fuel tanks sized to match. I suppose we could stick it on top of our existing rockets and get a launch, but I’m worried about drag issues if we try that. We need wind tunnel and simulator tests on that.”

“Probably easier to just build a separate crew module,” von Brawn rumbled. “We might even be able to re-use cabin gear from personal airships. I know some Canterlot unicorns have the things. Expensive as Tartarus, though.”

Goddard nodded. “That would be simpler in the short term,” he said. “But then the question is, can we bring it back safely from orbit?” He rose from his chair and went to the chalkboard, sketching out two spaceships- one a simple capsule plus heat shield, the other a capsule, heat shield and a canister in between. “The ablative heat shield protects the capsule from atmospheric heating during reentry,” he said, pointing to the first sketch. “But the longer a ship is, the more likely parts of it will stick out beyond the protection of the shockwave and thus be exposed to plasma, either directly or dragged in behind the ship. Too much exposure, too much heat… and boom.” He slapped the chalk against the second sketch hard enough to break the chalk.

“And that’s a phenomenon we don’t know well enough to trust the simulator,” von Brawn rumbled. “The only way to find out if we can do it is to fly it.”

Instantly Chrysalis and Cherry Berry looked at one another. “Obviously,” Cherry said in a firm voice to make it clear that it ought to be obvious even if it wasn’t, “we don’t do this flight test with the paying passengers.”

“Indeed not,” von Brawn agreed. “Not if we want repeat customers, anyway.”

“Now there’s an idea,” Chrysalis murmured.

“No,” Cherry Berry said firmly.

“I know, Celestia wouldn’t approve,” Chrysalis acknowledged testily. “Just let me enjoy my daydream, why don’t you? If you’d met more rich Canterlot snobs, you’d understand.”(159)

“Anyway,” Cherry Berry pressed on, “that means a test flight before the paid flight. And we can’t put off the paying customers for very long.”

“It looks like Mission Eleven is affected after all.” Goddard modified his second sketch. “Obviously we won’t have our passenger cabin ready in a week, but we should be able to put something of about the right size and weight together to test the flight dynamics.”

“We’ve got a Science Jr. in from Twilight Sparkle,” von Brawn rumbled. “If it were a capsule, it might just fit two ponies inside.”

Goddard shook his head. “For tourists? No, no,” he said. “A bit longer, I think. Maybe if we add a service bay.” He smiled and added, “We’d want to do that anyway. The service bay is heavier and more heat and crash resistant. And we can put some goo cans in it and get extra science data from orbit.”

“What happened,” Chrysalis asked sharply, “to ‘nothing that gets in the way of orbit’?”

“Your chief guard happened,” Goddard replied just as sharply. “So we have to adapt. A heavier ship, but a more direct flight path.”

“We’ll be using the Terrier for the final-stage engine,” von Brawn added. “That’s a ton lighter than the Swivel, which means we can double the last-stage fuel load. We’ll also get rid of all the solid fuel except for the two Thumper boosters on the first stage. With no distracting mission tasks, that means more delta-V and a straighter vector. I think the margin is solid.”

“Do we get orbit that way?” Cherry Berry pressed.

“I’ll have to verify the numbers,” von Brawn replied, “but I’m confident.”

“Of course I’ll be flying it,” Chrysalis put in.

Cherry Berry blinked.

Occupant, Von Brawn, and Goddard all leaned their chairs back from the table.

“This is an untested design,” Cherry finally managed to say. “Mission Eleven will be going faster and coming down heavier than anything we’ve flown yet. Unproven and high-risk. That means I fly it.”

“It’s not substantially different than Mission Nine except for the payload,” Chrysalis said. “And the capsule will only be, what? Half a ton heavier? Less?”

“That’s still twenty-five percent heavier,” Cherry replied. “And the Terrier isn’t flight-tested, your underwater test notwithstanding. Unproven. My flight.”

“It’s perfectly safe,” Chrysalis insisted. “My flight.”

“You’re lying,” Cherry Berry remarked.

Chrysalis narrowed her eyes. “How can you tell, pony?”

“Have you ever noticed Occupant?” Cherry replied. “When we’re arguing his ear-fins perk up until you start lying. Then they droop.”

Chrysalis shot a nasty look at her subject, who hung his head, drooping ears and all, in embarrassment.

“You know this flight isn’t safe,” Cherry Berry continued. “And I know I’ve heard you say at least once, ‘I wish we could have a flight where the phrase got away with it didn’t apply.’” The pilot pony glared at the queen and asked, “So how come?”

“Because I'm the queen and I said so,” Chrysalis grumbled. “So… my flight.”

“You got to be first in space,” Cherry Berry said. “You’re going to be the first mare on the moon. Let somepony else get first in something in space. First orbit is mine. My flight.”

“My flight.”

“My flight!”

“Mine!”

“MINE!”

“Perhaps,” von Brawn said, shoving the word between the two bickering pilots, “we should go to training and see how that plays out.”

“Fine!”

“Fine!”

Chrysalis and Cherry Berry pushed away from the conference table, walking out the door side by side, snarling, “My flight,” at each other as they left.

“So,” Goddard said, getting out of his seat, “Lunchmeat here and I need to go start designing our luxury passenger can. I’m sure you won’t have any problem running training for the mission all by yourself, Occupant my boy.”(160)

Occupant groaned and held his head in his hooves.

Footnotes:

(159) Rarity (who loved visiting Canterlot) and Twilight Sparkle (who grew up there) would have argued forcefully against this stereotype. Celestia, who had spent most of the previous thousand years in the city, would have maintained a dignified silence. Luna would have subscribed to Chrysalis’s newsletter on the subject, if not for the minor enemy-of-my-little-ponies thing.

(160) When Goddard the Griffon was cheerful, it usually meant you were being dumped in the garbage wagon instead of him.


Simulator training for a mission had a protocol.

Under normal circumstances the lead pilot for a mission would run the simulator until she died three times or had a successful flight, at which point the backup pilot would get the simulator for one session, pass or fail.(161) Whichever pilot wasn’t in the capsule would act as cap-com during the sim, while Occupant and either von Brawn or George Bull oversaw the simulation and selected various flight scenarios, or “problems”, for the pilots to solve. Under normal conditions this protocol worked well.

Unfortunately the system hadn’t been designed for a situation in which the two lead pilots were competing for the flight. Usually the mission assignment was settled before simulations began. To make things worse, von Brawn, Bull, and the other minotaurs were either in Appleoosa with Goddard the Griffon and Dragonfly or rushing around Equestria, all trying to solve the problem of adding two passengers to a rocket system designed for a single-occupancy capsule.

This left Occupant alone in the simulators with Chrysalis and Cherry Berry, each of whom had decided to appear professional while undermining the other’s simulations. The pilots had had three turns each thus far on the day, with the results being zero orbits, two mid-launch aborts, three burn-up-on-reentries, and one successful landing from space.

Chrysalis crawled out of the capsule following the sixth simulation (burn up), snarling, “All right, I killed myself that time. I was hoping to shallow out my descent angle by inclining the capsule.” She took a deep breath, forcing herself into her more-professional-and-piloty-than-you mode. “So what else do we need to cover?”

Cherry Berry’s mouth turned up just enough to imply a smile while being able to deny that she was, in fact, smiling. “You had two problems in that scenario,” she said. “One was the mechanical fault which caused the solid fuel boosters to fall in and destroy the first stage once decoupled. You handled that well and should still have had orbit with the remaining delta-V on board.”

“And the other thing?”

“Pilot and cap-com error, technically. The verification of staging sequence checklist was never called for.” The not-quite-a-smile on Cherry’s face grew slightly less deniable. “The third stage engine ignition and the re-entry decoupler were on the same command line, due to an error by VAB crew, and it wasn’t caught. So when you hit the staging button to finish orbital burn, you instead dumped the whole stage and all its fuel, leaving you only the capsule and service assembly.”

“Tsk, tsk,” Chrysalis replied, each syllable falling with a thud on Occupant’s ears. “Well, let that be a lesson to us all,” she emphasized the last word as she stared directly at Cherry Berry, “not to become complacent with our safety checks, hmm?”

Occupant wanted to bury his head in the sand. He couldn’t tell what this was- a competition to see who was the better pilot, who was the better at cheating the simulator, or who was going to lose her temper first. Whatever it was, it wasn’t training.

“Oh, quite so,” Cherry Berry nodded. “But I thought you could use the reminder. I certainly had a wake-up call when my parachute deployed in orbit!”

“It could happen to anyone,” Chrysalis agreed. “Just like it did with me when my heat shield detached. Well, your turn for the can. Fly carefully, now!”

“Believe me,” Cherry replied, “I will.”

Occupant probably couldn’t have handled a shouting match, but he definitely couldn’t take this teeth-clenched fake pleasantry. Occupant could feel the anger and rivalry in the air. He knew Chrysalis could too, and he knew she was acting so that Cherry Berry would get the idea even if she couldn’t actually sense the emotions directly. And Cherry, knowing all this, was acting just the same as Chrysalis, as if the queen couldn’t sense the mood.

In short, the two mares were not just getting on one another’s nerves; they were stamping on those nerves with deliberate malice. That made it worst of all.

“I’m going to take a break,” he said, fluttering up from the simulation computer and over to the door. “I need some fresh air.”

The two pilots looked at one another. Their little contest, thus far, had ended in a draw, with the innocent bystander being the first one to crack. “Well,” Chrysalis said, “no point in your getting back in without him. Shall we go out?”

Before Cherry could reply, Occupant shouted, “My Queen! Miss Berry! Come quick, you need to see this!”

Footnote:

(161) On those days when Dragonfly wasn’t stuck in Appleoosa or in the R&D labs at the space center, she might get one session in the simulator when the other two pilots were done. For Mission Ten she’d got the simulator all to herself for one day. Lucky Cricket, technically fourth on the pilot list, had seen the inside of the simulator only twice, and Occupant, technically fifth on the list, was too busy helping run the simulations to fly one himself.

The canoes didn’t range as far as the eye could see, but they stretched quite a long way up and down Muck Lake. Cherry Berry counted thirty-one of them, each filled with what looked like earth ponies, although at that distance Cherry couldn’t tell whether or not there were any unicorns among them. A mere handful of pegasi guarded the sky above the line of canoes, hovering, watching.

“Close to four hundred ponies,” Chrysalis said, matching Cherry Berry’s estimate. “Probably all warriors. I have about a hundred dedicated warriors of my own on-site, and about as many more changelings I could trust to fight alongside them.” She waved a hoof at the native flotilla, dismissing it. “They’re no danger to us.”

“If that’s all of them,” Cherry replied. “They could be hiding a lot more ponies back in the jungle.”

“They could, but they aren’t,” Chrysalis replied, shaking her head. “For one thing, the swamps and jungles for twenty miles south of here are completely uninhabited except by a few monsters. We checked when we decided to build here. They came at least that far, and if they brought this many warriors that far, they wouldn’t hide them. They’d either show them all, or hide them all and attack without warning at night.” Chrysalis frowned a little at this thought. “A night attack might actually pose a danger. We’d still win, but we’d lose a lot of ‘lings and probably take a lot of damage to the facility.”

Cherry Berry tried to follow the logic, and couldn’t. “I don’t understand,” she said. “Why would they bring all those ponies here if not to attack us?”

“I can think of a number of reasons,” Chrysalis said, “at least if it were me giving the orders to them. But this looks like a show of force to me.”

“What?” Cherry Berry shook her head. “Why would anypony bring an army to show they could fight us, without fighting us?”

Chrysalis blinked. “This coming from the pony who managed to negotiate herself from prisoner clear up to head of my most important scheme? You really don’t see it?” Shaking her head at the innocence of ponies, she continued, “They obviously want something from us and don’t think we’re going to say-“

The education of Cherry Berry got cut short by a distant booming sound. Both mares focused their attention back on the canoes. A new vessel, a massive double-hulled ship with a sail and a deck connecting the two hulls, pushed its way through the tall grass on the southern shore and through the line of native boats.

Boom. The large ship was past the line and moving forward.

Boom. Boom. The rowers in the outrigger picked up speed.

Boom boom Boom boom Boom boom Boom…

As the outrigger sped across the water, traces of white foam rising from the double prows, something rose from the deck, sitting up on its haunches. A proud face, white framed by orange and black stripes, looked back across the water at the two mares.

“Tiger,” Chrysalis muttered.

“Mascot?” Cherry Berry asked.

“Definitely not. Trouble,” Chrysalis grunted.

As the ship drew closer, the source of the booms became clear; an immense drum on the rear of the ship. Smaller drums flanked the big bass, ponies setting up a rapid syncopated rhythm over the regular, resonant beat of the master drum. Cherry Berry’s heart raced in time to the higher-pitched drums. Everything inside her wanted to bolt and run at the sight and sound of this single vessel and its thirty or so occupants, even more than from the rest of the flotilla that waited behind them.

“Calm yourself,” Chrysalis muttered from the corner of her mouth. “Everyling is watching us. Don’t look,” she added, just barely stopping Cherry before she could turn and look at the crowd she could now hear murmuring behind the two of them. “Keep telling yourself, we are strong. We are powerful. We could sink every little boat they have without losing a single warrior. We are in control. They are coming to us. They fear us more than we fear them.”

“Is that true?” Cherry asked.

“Probably not,” Chrysalis admitted. “Now shut up.”

“Gee, thanks,” Cherry grumbled, and stood in silence as the catamaran approached. As it came close to shore, the bass drum gave a final roll, then ceased. The native ponies withdrew their paddles, and the boat coasted the rest of the way to the dock, turning just enough to bring it alongside the quay. Two ponies jumped out and wrapped ropes made of jungle vines around the pilings. Two more carefully lowered a gangplank from the boat’s deck to the dock, then kowtowed deeply as a pony with a large stone headdress stepped down the gangplank.

“Greetings from Tecnochtitlan,” the headdress-pony rumbled, deep voice speaking Equestrian with barely an accent. A few gray streaks ran through an otherwise ebony black mane, while a tiny bit of black beard dangled from the very bottom of his chin. “You may call me Calendar Wheel. I bring you the orders of our dread master, who is offended by your arrogance in profaning his sacred sky with your chariots of smoke.”

“And who is your master?” Chrysalis interrupted.

“You are not fit to hear his holy name,” Calendar Wheel replied solemnly. “All you need to know is that he demands your service in exchange for his forbearance.”

Cherry looked at Chrysalis. “How’s that again?”

“He said, do it or else,” Chrysalis replied. “So, what is it we’re supposed to do?”

“My master demands the use of your chariot of smoke,” Calendar Wheel said. “But to ensure that the vessel is worthy of his divine glory, he wishes to send an emissary ahead of him. You will take this emissary with you into the sky, and he will return and report to our master.”

“Wait a minute.” Cherry Berry set a hoof down quietly but firmly. “What you’re saying is, you want us to take a passenger into space. Or else w-“

“We accept,” Chrysalis interrupted, using one hole-riddled hoof to shove Cherry Berry back behind her.

“The emissary must fly and return within the moon,” Calendar Wheel insisted.

“Not a problem,” Chrysalis said. “As it happens, in a couple of days Miss Berry here,” she gestured at the irate pink pony next to her, “will pilot a test flight to verify our ability to carry passengers into space. Once this is accomplished, I will personally pilot the ship that carries your emissary into the skies.”

"You what? I what?" Cherry protested, only to get another shove backwards from Chrysalis.

Calendar Wheel nodded once. His little beard wiggled, marring the otherwise perfect solemnity of the moment. “This is acceptable to my master,” he said.

Chrysalis pointed to the tiger glaring at her from the deck of the catamaran. "Is that our passenger, then?"

Calendar Wheel shook his head. "No," he said. "The servant of our master only observes."

"Then you? Or who?" Cherry Berry asked.

"My master has chosen another," the Technochitlan pony said, his resonant voice betraying neither relief nor envy. "He is not as fluent as I in your language, but he can understand well enough. He is intelligent. He is loyal."

"I em expendable," a whiny voice muttered from behind the Technochitlan chief. The newcomer had obviously taken all of Calendar Wheel’s native accent in addition to his own, and possibly two or three other ponies from the areas south of Mexicolt. He stepped reluctantly around his chief, a skinny figure of a stallion, light-coated and dark-maned, wide eyes begging the world to not do frightening things to their owner.

"This," Calendar Wheel announced, "is the pony we send to the stars."

Chrysalis and Cherry Berry looked the unprepossessing pony up and down. "What's his name?" Chrysalis asked.

"My name?" the pathetic pony asked. "Hobble Jimenez."

“We shall treat him like a prince,” Chrysalis said.

“Got a particular prince in mind?” Cherry said, a ton of warning lading down her voice.

“Better still,” Chrysalis said, ignoring her lead pilot, “we shall treat him like a celebrity. We shall give him the best training, the best equipment, the best care we can provide. He shall be honored as the most important person in the facility, short of myself of course.”

Hope risked a furtive, timid appearance on Hobble’s face.

“Please don’t,” Calendar Wheel groaned. “Give him his daily bowl of gruel, ignore his whimpering, and stick him in your smoke chariot when you go.”

“And bring him back safely,” Cherry Berry added.

“Oh, yes,” said Calendar Wheel, “I suppose the master will have to have him back, after all.”

Hope fled Hobble’s face as Worry and Fear resumed their accustomed positions there.

“We can do that,” Chrysalis nodded. “We’ll stuff him into a can on launch day, send him screaming around the world so high there’s no air, bring him back in a ball of the hottest flame, dunk him in the ocean, and return him to you just barely fit to tell the tale.”

Hobble’s limp body hit the dock planks with a thump.

“Ignore him,” Calendar Wheel said, “he just does that sometimes. We leave him in your care. We shall return for him in a moon… one way or another.”

As Calendar Wheel walked back up the gangplank to the deck of the catamaran, Cherry Berry waved over one of the changelings hovering nearby. “A bucket of water,” she said, pointing a hoof at the fainted Hobble Jimenez.

One soaking later, the scrawny native pony was more or less back on his feet, looking no more bedraggled and miserable than before(162). “Misser Wheel! Misser Wheel!” he shouted as the catamaran cast off from the pier.

“Yes, Jimenez?” the chief asked wearily. “Do you have a last request?”

"Oh, don' put it like that," Hobble moaned.

Calendar Wheel shook his head, shaking the heavy stone headdress in his mane. "Can I do something for you?"

“Tha's better. Jes, jou can do something for me,” Hobble said, raising his big, mournful eyes to Calendar Wheel’s. “Please don’ let them do this to me.”

The tribal pony snorted, turned his back on the pier, and gestured to the rowers. The drumbeats struck up again, and ponies rowed to the beat, driving the ship back across Muck Lake and to the long line of canoes.

Chrysalis caught sight of Occupant, who stood not too far behind her and Cherry Berry. “Take our honored guest to the astronaut quarters,” she said. “Give him a good room. Clean him up. Get him measured for a spacesuit. Talk with Heavy Frosting about a special diet.”

“At once, my queen!” Occupant saluted, fluttering over to Hobble and gently guiding the very frightened pony towards the astronaut facility.

As the crowd of observers broke up, Cherry Berry leaned over to Chrysalis and whispered, “What’s got into you? Why did you say yes? Why did you just give up Mission Eleven for him? Since when do you give way that quickly?”

Chrysalis smiled an evil, smug little smile. “Since I got a mission I can fly that doesn’t involve putting up with spoiled, whiny Canterlot snobs.” The smile grew a little wider as she added, barely audibly, “And especially doesn’t require flying a mission where half the ship is made of cardboard and good wishes.”

With that the changeling queen sauntered off the dock past Cherry Berry, adding, “Enjoy your mission, pony. It’s all yours.”

“What? Wait a minute!” Cherry Berry ran around Chrysalis and blocked her path. “You're not making any sense! What are you talking about?”

Chrysalis rolled her eyes. “Figure it out, pony,” she said. “We now have two tourist missions to fly, not one. That means I can take the flight with this Jimenez pony and leave you to play taxi driver for those rich unicorns. Which means I no longer need to take Mission Eleven. It’s all yours, and welcome to it.”

The logic, such as it was, finally sank in. “So you’re saying,” Cherry said carefully, “that you didn't want Mission Eleven for yourself? You only wanted Mission Eleven because you think we have to take turns flying?”

“Um…?” Now it was Chrysalis’s turn to look confused. “But…”

“Did it ever occur to you,” Cherry Berry said, “that I could just fly both missions? That you could wait until the tourists were taken care of before taking your next flight?”

Chrysalis didn’t say anything for about half a minute. When she did speak, it was somewhat contrite. “I just committed us all to a second tourist flight, for no money, because I was stupid,” she said. “Didn’t I, pony?”

“Do you think we can back out?” Cherry asked. “Those canoes are still out there.”

“Not without a major battle,” Chrysalis said. “Maybe if I’d said no at the start, but definitely not now.” The changeling queen frowned deeply and added, “Especially not after I sold it that strongly.”

“So.”

“So.”

Pink earth pony and black bug-pony stared at each other.

“I think it’s time we got back into the simulator.”

“Yes.”

Footnote:
(162) The only way Hobble would have looked more bedraggled and miserable would have required a swarm of very hungry carnivorous parasprites, and even then they likely would have been put off their feed by his usual appearance.


“SRB separation.”

“SRB separation confirmed. Looking good.”

Yeah, Cherry Berry thought. Too good.

Both Cherry and Chrysalis had thought that, with the decision made as to who would fly Mission Eleven, the simulator shenanigans would stop. Instead things had gotten worse. Cherry Berry had gotten herself killed time and again- burned up on reentry, stranded in orbit, rocket breakup on ascent, and even, on one particular simulator run, dropping the fully fueled rocket on the pad after a flight of four whole inches after mistakenly decoupling the SRBs. She’d not only killed herself that time, but about half the space center; the computers claimed that the SRBs, fully loaded and unguided, had spun and corkscrewed right into the VAB and mission control buildings, utterly destroying them.
For sanity’s sake simulations were cancelled the day before launch, and Cherry had spent the whole day in her balloon. No plane, no simulators, just a magically controlled hot-air balloon. Just Cherry, the skies, and her thoughts.

It hadn’t helped.

“First stage burnout, jettisoning. Igniting second stage.”

“Second stage ignition confirmed.”

Cherry Berry aimed the rocket a bit more towards the horizon, flattening out the trajectory. The ship responded perfectly, doing only what she wanted, nothing more. There was no tumble, no drift, no pogoing, no shimmy, nothing. The new, larger fuel tanks held together like a dream, providing the steady flow of fuel and oxidizer the engine needed.

Go wrong, Cherry Berry thought. This is too good. This is too easy. Something must go wrong. I’ll even take a light bulb burning out in one of the controls, but please, something glitch!

Nothing did. The gentle giant’s hand pressing against her back lifted her up into the black skies, higher, faster, farther, without so much as a hiccup.

“Eleven, Horseton,” Chrysalis’s voice rang through her earphones. “Ten seconds to MECO, mark.”

Main Engine Cut-Off; saving half of the second stage’s fuel to circularize orbit. The call meant that her ship’s apogee now extended just beyond atmosphere, according to von Brawn and his bullpen. This mission was going to aim for the lowest stable orbit, the dead minimum required to say they’d done it and collect payment from the Royal Astronomical Society.

“Roger, Horseton, awaiting mark.” Cherry Berry raised her hoof and held it over the cut-off switch.

“Three. Two. One. Mark.”

Cherry’s hoof came down before Chrysalis finished pronouncing the terminal k. “MECO.”

“Horseton confirms MECO,” Chrysalis replied. “This might be the smoothest flight we’ve ever had, Eleven. Keep up the good work.”

Cherry squirmed in the flight chair. No, no, she didn’t want smooth. Smooth coming up meant something was going to go wrong while in orbit, or while transitioning to the higher orbit required for the second contract of the flight- the decoupler test.

And if not there… then on the way down.

Mission Eleven’s construction had been based on coming as close as they could, using existing parts, to the volume required for a two-pony passenger pod. At the top, of course, was the control capsule, tried and proven, where Cherry Berry flew the ship. At the bottom of the landing stage, just above the ablative heat shield, was a robust cargo bay, built in Appleoosa to Goddard the Griffon’s dyspeptic demands. Heat tests showed it twice as durable as the command capsule itself.

But in between the cargo bay and the capsule was an Equestrian Space Agency Science Jr. Twilight Sparkle’s inspired materials-experiment setup was far and away the least heat-resistant part of the ship. A test(163) showed that the Science Jr.’s bay doors didn’t provide a total thermal seal, allowing heat and flames to penetrate the pod and destroy it.

Putting the Science Jr. on the bottom of the stack, with the heat shield attached, would have protected it from almost all the heat. Unfortunately the Science Jr. was also lightweight- too much so. When that configuration was tested in miniature in the Fun Machine, the whole ship wanted to flip over and come down nose-first, heavy capsule leading light, wind-tossed base. So, instead, the heavier cargo bay with two mystery goo pods was at the bottom, to lower the center of mass and make it easier to keep the craft stable… and leaving the Science Jr. in a position where, just possibly, the re-entry fireball could cook it to a crisp.

And if that happened… Bad Day.

It had happened in simulators four times. Each time, the ship had broken up, the parts tumbling through the atmosphere, exploding, and falling to Equus as a fine rain of tiny parts and ash.

Those same simulators, when allowed to pilot the ship themselves with no pony or changeling at the controls, said the ship could be landed safely, without even triggering the heat alarms. It could be done… in theory.

The problem was, as had been pointed out in the planning meetings, theory was all they had to go on. The simulators were only as good as Goddard and von Brawn’s guesswork. The Science Jr. might stay cool through reentry even with a ham-hoofed(164) pony at the controls… or it might go boom no matter how perfectly the pilot did her job.

Cherry Berry was literally flying into a complete unknown… with her self-confidence completely shot by all the bad simulator runs. She knew that. She knew the simulators weren’t the real thing, she knew it was all in her head… but knowing didn’t get it out of her head.

Flying isn’t fun anymore, Cherry Berry thought. In her head, a quiet, weepy voice added, I want to go home.

“Eleven, Horseton,” Chrysalis called up from hundreds of miles below and behind her. “We’re coming up on atmospheric interface, so how about we get the ship’s attitude trimmed and prepare for orbital insertion burn?”

How about we get the pilot’s attitude trimmed? Cherry thought. “Eleven copies,” she said, nosing the rocket down until the nav ball’s pointer hovered just above the artificial horizon, in line with the prograde trajectory marker. “Ready for orbital insertion.”

“Go for orbital insertion burn at your discretion,” Chrysalis replied. “You’re currently forty seconds from projected apoapsis, so you might want to get on with it.”

“Main engine ignition,” Cherry replied, reactivating the second stage and setting it to full throttle. The giant’s hand gripped the ship again, pushing the rocket into Cherry’s back and up into the stars.

“Confirm main engine start,” Chrysalis said. “Everything showing green here, Eleven. Looks like we’ll need a little bit of the third stage to get a clean orbit, though.”

Cherry Berry nodded to herself. That was the way it always played out in the simulators… well, when the simulations had even got this far. A quick glance at the fuel levels in the second stage and the velocity readout confirmed it. “Eleven copies, Horseton,” she said.

Thirty-two seconds later the second stage engine burned out, and Cherry smoothly decoupled the empty stage and ignited the final engine. Unlike the Swivel’s firm thrust, the Terrier barely nudged Cherry’s back… but it did nudge it, gradually but very efficiently boosting the rocket higher and faster.

But…

“Horseton, Eleven,” Cherry Berry said. “I notice this engine isn’t as efficient as the simulators made it out to be, over.”

“Yeah, we’re seeing that too,” Chrysalis’s voice responded. “It’s not a big difference, but… well, we’ll see. Coming up on orbit now. Throttle back to twenty-five percent and stand by for MECO.”

This time MECO would mean a stable orbit, entirely above atmosphere. Again Cherry’s hoof hovered over the engine cutoff switch. “Throttle to twenty-five and standing by, Horseton,” she said.

“Steady… steady… and MECO!”

Cherry Berry’s hoof came down. “Engine shutdown!”

“Shutdown confirmed,” Chrysalis said. “Periapse reading at just above atmospheric interface. Congratulations, Eleven; you are officially the first pony in orbit around Equus. The press wants to know how it feels?”

How does it feel? I want nothing more right now than to get down, and I’m not sure I can survive coming down, and everything is going so very right that I’m scared witless and it’s taking everything I have to not look like I’m panicking in front of Celestia knows who’s watching…

“It’s an interesting sensation,” she said, which was both truth and huge horking lie. “The thought that I could stay up here pretty much indefinitely… or at least until the snacks run out…” Pause for laughter down on the ground, good, get a chance to think of something else to say. “And, of course, the sensation of free-fall, which all ponies dream of as kids when they sleep. It feels like fulfilling my fondest dreams(165) of flight, just like a pegasus. I’m so very lucky, as an earth pony, to be able to experience this.”

There. That was enough whinnying for posterity. “But now it’s time to get back to work. Opening cargo bay doors and activating first mystery goo pod.”

“Horseton copies. We show cargo bay open, pod activated, all green.”

“Activating Science Jr. package.”

“Horseton copies. We show Science Jr. bay doors open.”

“All right.” Cherry Berry took a couple of deep breaths, looking at her displays. “I’m showing about sixty percent left in the third stage, Horseton. Where does that put us on our flight plan?”

The original flight plan had been, after verifying orbit and the first round of science gathering, to boost the ship up to an elliptical orbit with apoapsis high above the planet, open the second mystery goo pod, decelerate to drop the periapsis into the stratosphere, test the decoupler (if possible without decoupling), come down, burn the rest of the fuel in the upper atmosphere to decelerate, and then decouple (if she hadn't done so already). That had relied on the fuel tank being above seventy-five percent, though. The difference between simulated performance and actual performance was not insignificant.

“Yeah, Eleven,” Chrysalis drawled, “we’re looking at that now. Flight director suggests that we might not want to risk the higher re-entry speed in any case this mission.” She didn't say why more speed was undesirable. Cherry knew, and the press didn't need to.

An idea struck Cherry Berry. She took a moment to look it over. It would let her get straight to the part of the flight that scared her the most and get it over with, one way or another. It would keep her from looking like a coward. It would even look like another way of one-upping the other space programs. She couldn’t see any down side…

… well, aside from the possibility of being rendered into a ball of flame and soot twenty miles above the ground, but that would be there regardless.

“Horseton, Eleven,” she said.

“Go, Eleven.”

“Have you got confirmation of my having achieved orbit? Written down? Check signed?”

“We only have the verbal confirmation,” Chrysalis replied. “Why do you ask?”

“I’m thinking, what if I made precisely one loop around the planet? As in, I re-enter now, and drop the capsule back down on the space center?”

“Er… stand by, Eleven.”

The channel went silent, and Cherry Berry leaned back and tried to relax and enjoy outer space. It still didn’t work. She wanted to be doing things, anything, to take her mind off the fact that, compared to both ends, the middle of her spacecraft was made of papier-mache. Give me something to do and I’m fine, but don’t just leave me up here!

After a couple of minutes Chrysalis came back on the audio channel. “Eleven, Horseton,” she said, “we’ve got written confirmation that you are in orbit and that the contracts and prizes are due us. Ad Astra says that early re-entry will not void that status.”

“Roger, Horseton.”

“As to the other thing,” Chrysalis said, “the bullpen say they can’t project an accurate landing point because the computer can’t predict atmospheric deceleration. They’ll make their best guess and get back with you for a scheduled burn in a few minutes. Once we have that, you’ll be go for reentry.”

“Copy that, Horseton.”

“Incidentally,” Chrysalis added, “where on the space center did you plan on parking your cart?”

“I was thinking next to the cafeteria,” Cherry Berry said. “You didn’t put any cherries in the snacks bin.” A blatant lie- every changeling in Chrysalis’s hive by now knew about the lead pilot’s favorite food, and packed accordingly- but it made a good joke for the press.

“You’ll do anything for a cherry, won’t you?” Cherry could hear Chrysalis smirking over the headset.

“Obviously,” Cherry replied. “After all, I’m working for you.”

“Touche,” Chrysalis chuckled. “Stand by for reentry procedures.”

And just like that, Cherry Berry thought, we pretend we’re not scared.

And Rarity never has fixed the bathroom arrangements in these spacesuits yet…

Footnotes:

(163) An expensive test, because it destroyed the Science Jr. A fun test, because it involved a flamethrower. An annoying test, because afterwards a full score of changelings had to be forcibly prevented from using the flamethrower for a new game they’d invented called Dragon Tag. It had taken threats of violence from Chrysalis to get the idea across that Horseton Space Center was not, nor would it ever be, It.

(164) Although ponies eat very little meat of any sort, they know what ham is. However, in this case “ham-hoofed” refers not to the butcher’s cut, but to the portion of the anatomy hams are attached to. To put it more plainly, the phrase implies that the pony driving, building, swinging the tool, etc. could not possibly be more clumsy if they just sat on the thing they were working with. There is, of course, a second meaning to the pony version of the phrase, but it is not fit for such a fine, upstanding, educational story such as this one.

(165) Technically Cherry Berry’s fondest dream was having a cherry tree in her backyard which flowered and gave fruit every day of the year, producing a new fruit every time she picked one, with no pits. But this was even less the time or the place than usual for that one.

Mission Eleven reentered atmosphere in the first light of dawn over the lands of the Qi Lin.

The second mystery goo pod had been activated in the uppermost reaches of Equus’ atmosphere, and then all bay doors had been closed. The final stage had been jettisoned long since, with more than half its fuel unspent, left to burn up and tumble down a bit behind the descent stage. Now Cherry Berry’s life rested in her four hooves, the heat shield, the heat resistance of the rest of the craft, and one solitary parachute at nearly its maximum rated load.

Do or die, Cherry thought. Literally.

This reentry was slightly steeper than her first, extremely shallow return from outer space. On Mission Nine she’d coasted along in the upper atmosphere for almost half the world’s circumference. This time, if all went well, she would come down in a bit less than that, crossing the Unexplored Lands and the Ocean of Storms before passing south of Las Pegasus, over the San Palomino Mountains, Macintosh Hills, and the eastern massif of the Badlands, and landing somewhere near the space center- in the Hayseed Swamps or in the ocean.

Then she’d had little enough to do; the capsule had practically flown itself. This time, with the longer structure and narrower safety zone, she’d have her hooves full.

Deep breaths. I don’t care who’s watching me on the big screen in Mission Control. I need to focus now.

The capsule began to vibrate and shiver slightly. Streamers of plasma raced past the little window over Cherry’s head. Outside, she knew, the fireball was beginning, as the thin air compressed until it could compress no more, heated to fantastic temperatures, then got pushed out of the way by the shock wave of the descending spacecraft. Bits of the material of the heat shield ablated, as it was designed to do, melting and vaporizing and carrying away heat as it joined the rush of air blasting past the ship.

Tweak. Nudge. Tiny movements. Keep the ship behind the heat shield. Watch the estimated rate of ablation on the readout.

Requests for updates from mission control. Report. Keep voice calm and steady. Keep eyes on the readouts. Drifting off retrograde attitude- tweak, push, get the ship back behind the heat shield. There. Good.

Ship beginning to decelerate. Good. Dropping into the upper stratosphere. Now the really dangerous part begins. Things get much hotter, much faster, from here on.

Warning buzzer. Flashing red light. Report it. “Reading heat alarm, external capsule section.” Wait, what? Not the Science Jr.? The capsule is reading excess heat? “Rotating capsule forty-five degrees.” That might get the overheated part of the hull out of the plasma flow. Or not.

“Horseton copies, Eleven, keep us posted.”

Tweak. Roll ship. Nudge. Center vector back on the retrograde marker.

The alarm went silent. Good. “Heat alarm deactivated. All systems green.”

“Horseton confirms all systems green. Good job. Keep it up.”

Tweak. Nudge. Midway through the stratosphere now. Everything outside the window is red. Don’t look. Keep eyes on the readouts. Heat alarm again. Capsule again, different part. “Heat alarm, external capsule. Rolling to compensate.” Roll ship. Alarm goes off. Good.

“Horseton confirms. Everything looking good. Your trajectory is looking very good for the space center, by the way. Computer currently shows you overshooting by about five hundred kilometers, but that’ll change as you slow down.”

“Thanks, Horseton. Heat alarm, external capsule. Rolling ship.” Roll again. Nudge. Tweak. Alarm goes quiet. Getting difficult to hold her behind the shield now. Ship is shaking a lot. Beginning to feel gravity return in a serious way.

“Looking good, Eleven.”

Tropopause. The air thickens up very quickly. Heat shield cooking away at a rate of one percent every ten seconds. Speed beginning to drop seriously now. Gravity has noticed me and is upset. Two heat alarms. “Heat alarm, external capsule and external science module. Rolling ship.” Roll, recenter. Please go away. You did it three times before, alarms, now please, please-

“Alarms deactivated. Two gees and rising. Speed sixteen hundred and falling fast.”

“You could have phrased that better, Eleven,” Chrysalis’s voice teased. “The press is listening.”

“Yes, but I’m not a queen. I’m not allowed to say booger.”

“And don’t you forget it, Eleven. We show the fireball dissipating.”

Cherry Berry’s higher mental functions fully reasserted themselves. She rolled the ship so she could see the ground through the window. The eastern end of the San Palominos, with the green lands of central Mexicolt to the south. A quick glance at altitude, speed and angle of descent, and some mental guesswork, told her she was going a bit too fast.

With the heat shield showing an ablation rate of zero on the gauges, Cherry Berry turned the ship sideways, perpendicular to her trajectory. It was like hitting a wall. The gee meter hit a bit over five times the force of gravity… and then dropped off, as the ship finished the turn, coming round nose first in its descent.

This would be nice if I had wings, Cherry Berry thought. As it is, no. She tried to pull the ship back around. Nothing doing. Aerodynamics were in full control, and the electrically powered reaction wheels spun to maximum deflection only to get the nose about forty degrees off straight-ahead, no more.

And then, as she rolled the ship again, a glimpse.

“Horseton, Eleven,” she said. “I can see the space center! I see the islands off the south cape of Muck Lake. I think I can pick out the VAB building.”

“That’s good news, Eleven,” Chrysalis said. “We can’t see you yet. Our plot now shows you falling into the Hayseed Swamps a bit short of us, though.”

“Oh.” Yeah. The faffing around trying to turn the ship after her braking maneuver had cost her forward momentum. Not that she hadn’t needed to shed some, but… “I’ve got the ship’s nose forward,” she said. “I’m going to try to get a little bit of lift, stretch out the flight as long as I can. I should get pretty close.”

“Don’t risk the ship over it, Eleven,” Chrysalis replied. “You’ve already done very well getting this close. We show your speed three-ninety meters per second at nine kilometers altitude.”

“Confirmed, Horseton,” Cherry Berry said. “I’ll pop the chute at four thousand meters or when my trajectory goes vertical.”

“Good enough, Eleven. Welcome home.”

I’m not home yet, Cherry thought, but her heart disagreed. She’d come through the fireball on a ship with kindling and straw in the middle, and she was still alive. In fact, the science module had barely presented an issue.

That was something to discuss with the scientists later. For now, this minute, she was alive, and flying- well, falling, but falling in a guided way. She had a little control left before she released the parachute, and she used it, holding the nosecone up just a little, trying to balance between generating lift and losing speed.

It was, of course, a losing battle, but Cherry fought it to the end. Every three seconds meant a kilometer closer to the space center, ten seconds a kilometer closer to the ground. Then, four seconds per kilometer closer, eight seconds per kilometer down. The ship slowed, her control lessened, her airspace shrank. She fought, nudged and begged for lift, until finally, at fifty-two hundred meters elevation, her trajectory crossed the forty-five degree threshold from vertical to horizontal. She nosed forward briefly for the last bit of forward momentum she could squeeze out of the ship…

… and then, as promised, at four thousand meters she pulled the ship vertical and popped the chute.

“Chute deployed,” she said. “That’s all I could get. How close am I?”

“You’re coming down in a hay-pasture about midway between Horseton and the space center,” Chrysalis said. “We have retrieval changelings on the way now. Excellent work, Eleven.”

The chute deployed fully, giving Cherry one last hard pull as she slowed down, and then there was nothing left for her to do but drift down and think.

I’m alive. I’m alive. I’m alive.

The retrieval team found the craft in the hayfield as expected, tipped on its side. The landing had been gentle, but the freshly mown field was just uneven and boggy enough that the ship had landed a little off-center and continued that way until it was flat on the grass stubble.

One thing, one final thing, had gone wrong after all; the ship had fallen hatch-down, trapping Cherry inside.

On the other hoof, Lucky Cricket(166) observed as he motioned the rest of the retrieval team to descend, it showed off the CSP’s banner quite well lying like this.

Now if only Miss Berry could get out and plant a proper flag…

MISSION 11 REPORT

Mission summary: Achieve orbit; collect scientific data from upper atmosphere; test stack decoupler in orbit; test flight and reentry dynamics of Science Jr. in preparation for future passenger flight

Pilot: Cherry Berry

Flight duration: 96 min. 24 sec.

Contracts fulfilled: 1
Milestones: Orbit

Conclusions from flight: Heat is an issue, but we can manage it.

MISSION ASSESSMENT: SUCCESSFUL

Footnote:

(166) Dragonfly, at that moment, was in Saddle Arabia with the main retrieval team. Not knowing when or where Cherry would come down, she’d been stationed on the other side of the world, just in case. This left Lucky Cricket, who normally would have had that job, back at base and ready to assemble a scratch retrieval crew on zero notice, which he did.

Interlude: ESA Flight Six

View Online

Changeling Space Agency
by Kris Overstreet
Interlude: ESA Flight 6

Flames rushed around the nosecone of the rapidly descending rocket ship, filling the solitary porthole with red and orange light. Gravity hauled down hard on the pilot’s body, pulling hard enough to make the straps holding her to the acceleration couch creak alarmingly. Loud claxons filled the capsule interior with noise, almost enough to drown out the chaotic shouting in her ears.

“Pull up, Dash, pull up!”

“Fire yer rockets, Dash, maybe you can steer-“

“No! Dash is going too fast already, any more speed and-“

“Thirty thousand and falling! Speed over one thousand meters per second! That’s faster than anything on the way up!”

The pilot managed to make herself heard. “Controls not responding! The stick’s dead! I repeat, I have no control over the craft!”

“Twenty-five thousand and falling!”

The ship gave a little lurch.

“Rainbow Dash, your main parachute’s just blown up!”

“Computer estimates thirty seconds to impact!”

“Twilight, can’t you teleport her outta there?”

“I wish I could, but she’s too far away and moving too fast and there’s not room in the capsule for both-“

“Twenty thousand and falling! Heat warnings on radial parachutes one, three, two and four!”

The pilot wanted the voices to stop. They were all her friends, and they were all frightened and panicking, and she wanted to make it stop and she couldn’t. She couldn’t even talk anymore; the forces on the ship pulled her so hard against the straps that they were digging in even through her pressure suit. She could barely breathe, and a blackness at the edge of her vision she normally only noticed when maneuvering at rainboom speeds was creeping forward bit by bit.

And despite all this, she had enough presence of mind to think:

Relighting the engine is no-go. I can’t slow myself down like that, and speed is what’s going to kill me, not angle of descent. It’s too late to flip the ship over anyway.

Air gets a lot thicker from fifteen thousand feet on down, and I’ll slow down in a hurry. I might slow down enough to break out of the slipstream and pull the nose up to slow down more. Once I get below three hundred meters per second I can fire the remaining parachutes, all ten of ‘em, and if they don’t work I’m dead anyway.

If I were flying by myself I could survive a direct impact of four hundred meters per second. I’ve done it before. The mach cone of my sonic rainboom provides a good shock absorber, thank you pegasus magic. But it’s too late to bail out now.

So, keep pulling the nose up, keep the hoof on the parachute release, and don’t black out. That’s all I can do.

“Peak speed twelve-twenty-two meters per second! Now below eight hundred meters per second!”

“Altitude ten thousand and falling! Fifteen seconds to impact!”

“Dash, you have to hit the parachutes at a thousand meters, even if they red-light! Can you hear me-“

“Seven hundred meters at six thousand altitude!”

“Ten seconds!”

“Dashie, please say something!”

“Five hundred meters at four thousand altitude!”

“Rainbow Dash!”

“RAINBOW DASH!”

“DASH, WAKE UP!!”

Rainbow Dash blinked, shook her head, and took a deep, shuddering breath. She was in the capsule of a rocket, but not that capsule, not that rocket, and not about to plow into the Griffon Sea. That had been weeks ago… and about two thirds of all the nights since.

“Baltimare, this is Six,” she said. “Receiving you. What’s up?”

“Six, we want you to try out some of the in-flight rations and record a report about eating in space,” the voice of Applejack drawled through the headphones of Dash’s flight suit. “Once that’s done, we want you to suit back up in preparation for the main mission task. All right?”

“Suits me fine, Baltimare,” Rainbow Dash replied. “What’s to eat?”

“Dunno,” Applejack replied. “Pinkie made all the rations, but she’s not here.”

“Yeah, I know.” Sighing, Rainbow Dash unbuckled herself from the flight seat, swung the back down, and opened one of the storage compartments for a dehydrated meal. Earlier she’d tested the brand-new bathroom modifications to the otherwise standard Cherry’s Rocket Parts capsule she was in, and reported her less than satisfaction. Among other things, the lingering smell was… unappetizing.

Rainbow Dash found the dehydrated food supplies and drew out a foil packet with an extra wrapper taped to the side. The stick-on label said, in Pinkie’s hoofwriting, Alfalfa curry with rice and chocolate chowpatty with icing. And in smaller print: Sorry it’s not a cupcake, but Twilight says no crumbs in the spacecraft! – P. P.

Eh, whatever.

Dash unwrapped the flatbread (which wasn’t dehydrated), used the attached tube to add icing (trickier than expected in free-fall, but doable), and ate it first. She then attached the entrée packet to the magic water spigot and let the teleported hot water do its thing while she thought about how crazy things had been since the last time she’d been in a rocket.

Equestria Space Agency’s Flight Five had ended with Dash triggering the remaining parachutes on the ship three seconds before she would have hit the ocean at just under the speed of sound. The sudden deceleration knocked her unconscious instantly, and she’d spent the following week in the hospital recovering from a fractured collarbone and two cracked ribs. Fortunately pegasi heal fast, allowing her to get back to her busy schedule of training with the Wonderbolts, saving Equestria from monsters and unfriendly ponies, and oh yeah, her sideline as courageous rocket jock pony.

Except it hadn’t been as easy for the others as it had been for Rainbow Dash. All she had to deal with was the nightmares. Princess Luna prevented them from going beyond replays of memory, and she had offered to get rid of them completely, but Rainbow Dash wanted the reminder of just how serious this rocket pilot thing really was. The other ponies, on the other hand, had all had it much, much worse.

She and the girls had never been able to devote their full attention to the space program. Fluttershy had her animals, and Pinkie Pie had work and party planning, and neither one liked the horrible scare Flight Five had put into them. They were out, done, period, end of discussion. Applejack and Rarity were still willing to help, but both had business responsibilities heavier than Fluttershy and Pinkie Pie. With fall coming on, the harvest at Sweet Apple Acres and the fall fashion season pulled both of them away for days at a time. All four of those ponies walked around in a state of depression, feeling guilty at not being there for Rainbow Dash and Twilight Sparkle, feeling afraid that the next close call would be more than a close call, feeling distracted and upset and, as Pinkie put it, anti-smile.

And Twilight Sparkle…

… well, let’s be honest, the egghead had cracked. The evening of the flight, and the day after, she’d been just functional enough to explain to the press that setbacks were only setbacks and that getting the pilot back alive was the important thing. And then, once the reporters had all gone home, she’d returned to Ponyville, gone to her bedroom in the crystal castle, and quietly folded in on herself for a week and a half.

Starlight Glimmer and Spike managed to drag her out of bed every day to come to the hospital to visit Rainbow Dash, and Dash, being glad of the company, hadn’t noticed just how much of a basket case her friend was at the time or how short the visits were. After she’d been cleared for release and limited Wonderbolts workouts, Dash had spent a few days catching up on her non-astromare life, cleaning her home, helping Tank choose a spot for his coming hibernation, and of course giving interviews and fan appearances, because hey, you didn't let your supporters down, right?

On the sixteenth day after Flight Five she visited Twilight Sparkle… and saw just how bad things were.

Rainbow Dash, being the take-charge mare she knew she was, dragged Twilight out of her book fort and into her lab, stuck her in front of a chalkboard, and told her to get back to work being a rocket scientist. That was the thing: if you crash, get back up and do it again. You didn’t let the fear rule you. You faced down the fear.

And she understood exactly what the fear was. Dash hadn’t really been afraid during the almost-crash- she'd been too busy and distracted to be afraid - but when she woke in the hospital she’d been horrified to realize just how close she’d come. Hence the flashback nightmares, which thank Faust hadn’t happened while she was awake. But she’d come that close to meeting her maker several times before. And she’d always got back up and tried it again, and again, until she got it right. Until she got over the fear.

Of course, in order to get over this particular fear, Rainbow Dash needed a new rocket, which meant getting her genius buddy out of her nervous breakdown. This had taken much of another two weeks, during which time the whole thing with Flim and Flam had cropped up. Twilight had overreacted, and Celestia had tried to step in to fix everything, and gradually Twilight had pulled herself together by using outrage at the television scam to overcome fear of failure and fear of loss of a friend.

Dash, Spike and Starlight Glimmer had worked out a routine; the day's news about Flim and Flam’s attempts to regain their television patent was kept from Twilight until she showed signs of funk during a space-related discussion. Then assistant or student would bring in the news, Twilight would get angry, and after a few minutes she would be centered and on top of things again.

Fluttershy said this wasn’t healthy, but Dash didn’t care. All she cared about was, it worked. The more Twilight was functional, the more functional she became. By the time the Flim-Flams aired their newsreel about CSP Mission Nine, Twilight Sparkle was out of her anxiety paralysis, kicking flank and taking names- or maybe kicking chalk and taking numbers, or however geeks do it.

But in the meantime, with Twilight still shell-shocked and the other girls unmotivated, Rainbow Dash became the driving force of the Equestrian space effort. Her top priority: going through every single aspect of Flight Five and finding absolutely everything that went wrong.

She began the investigation with the obvious point; Pilot Error. She’d nosed over too far trying to get a horizontal trajectory and, instead, had kept herself too low. On the other hand, according to Twilight, that had ended up being a good thing in a way. Dash had shut down the engine with ten percent fuel remaining when the first heat warnings and plasma streamers appeared during ascent. If she’d burned all the fuel, she’d probably have still been supersonic when the ship reached the ocean, and the parachutes would have failed.

Of course she should have flipped the ship immediately, thirty-five miles above the ground, instead of hanging on too long hoping for a second burn. That was inexcusable, but it revealed another problem: there was nopony in any position to make the final call on the ground. ESA’s informal buddy system had all the flaws of rule-by-consensus, and during a flight you needed clear, rapid decision-making- something consensus usually didn’t do. Somepony had to be In Charge, and it was obvious that Twilight Sparkle was going to be that pony, what with the alicorn princess thing, the Element of Magic thing, and oh yes the Smarter Than Everypony Else Combined Thing.

Rainbow Dash was fine with that. She still had confidence in herself, but each nighttime repeat of the flight was a reminder that she needed somepony to put on the brakes when she went too far. For that job she trusted nopony more than Twilight Sparkle.

This led into another point- comm discipline. Rainbow Dash, with extreme reluctance, had asked the changelings for a recording of CSP Mission Six's comms from the capsule point of view. She’d then played the recording against a recording of ESA Flight Five for the others. The differences couldn’t be plainer. The ESA recording was confused, distracting, worse than useless. The CSP recording, though it had its fear, was simple, to the point, clear, and above all calm.

Rainbow Dash then asked which recording they’d rather be stuck in a closet listening to while trying to thread an electrically charged needle. Nopony answered; the point was made, and ESA adopted CSP’s flight communications protocols for all future flights.

Other ideas got kicked around. Dash’s explanation of the dire and pressing need for the pressure suits to be redesigned for removal and re-donning in flight and to cope with, er, bathroom accidents during launch and descent left the other ponies blushing, laughing, or both. Starlight Glimmer proposed various methods of in-flight rescue and retrieval of pilots in case of disaster, and that got discussed for most of an afternoon.

Finally Twilight Sparkle brought up the thing that had caused her mental collapse: rocket design. Flight Five's configuration had been her idea, her attempt to show that she was smarter than Queen Chrysalis. The flight attempted to be a single-stage-to-space, one hundred percent retrievable rocket, and that extra weight had dragged the rocket down faster than it went up, with almost disastrous consequences. Flight Five had proved beyond all doubt that, if such a thing was ever going to work, the technology wasn’t there yet.

It took days to get Twilight to work past blaming herself for the mission failure and to focus on planning the next mission.

And the next mission, at this point, was obvious: orbit.

Cherry Berry, flying for Chrysalis and her brood, had come within a donkey’s spit of making orbit. The next time she or Chrysalis went up, they’d fix that shortcoming. Of course, the next time anypony at all used anything similar to the Mission Nine rocket design, they would make orbit if they wanted to. That, Applejack had argued, could be them, if they were quick about it.

Rainbow Dash had vetoed that. Copying Mission Nine would be just that- copying, following, like a little sister mimicking a big sister. Everypony knew Cherry Berry should have had the honor of first in orbit except for her mission requirements holding her back. The ESA would get no credit for first orbit if they did it the CSP way, but they would get a lot of disrespect for being copycats.

Of course, whatever rocket they used would end up being very close to CSP Mission Nine anyway. They didn't have time to make a new design. The Equestrian Space Agency was, by unavoidable necessity, a part-time thing. Twilight Sparkle and her friends remained Equestria’s last line of defense against monster attack and its first line of defense against friendship problems. Each of them, even Spike, had things in their life that needed doing that had nothing to do with spaceflight. Everything they’d accomplished had been done, to be blunt, in their spare time. Otherwise, Dash knew for a fact, they’d have left the changelings in their dust.

And by mid-fall the ESA would basically shut down for the winter. There was too much for each of them to do back home. Nightmare Night, the Running of the Leaves and Winter Ramp-Up, the last harvests, and all sorts of community responsibilities were calling them back to Ponyville. Time was short for getting any new mission off the ground before the end of the year- and they couldn't spare any time to make an orbit-capable ship that wasn't basically CSP-9 with the Royal Sisters flag painted on the side.

So, said Dash at the planning meeting, since they were stuck using the changeling's rocket design, they needed something else they could do once they got into orbit to prove they had jumped ahead in the space race- something nopony else could do without ESA’s help.

Also, said Twilight, the ESA program needed time to integrate new safety measures. They also needed a new backup pilot, since Fluttershy (who’d never been interested in actually flying) was all the way out now. Spitfire and A. K. Yearling, both listed as reserve backup pilots, were too busy in their normal lives to put in the training a backup pilot needed. And, finally, Twilight insisted there would be no flights until they had some way, any way, of rescuing a pilot in flight, or stranded in orbit, or whatever.

That was when Starlight Glimmer had the idea.

And now, two days after Cherry Berry had achieved precisely one lap of the planet, and several hours into a much longer flight than the changelings had dared, that idea was about to be put into action.

Rainbow Dash made some offhand comments about the food (spicy but good, a bit mushy though, and who cares about crumbs?), disposed of the wrappers, and worked her way back into the new-design pressure suit. Rarity’s redesign was much easier to get into and out of than the original, but the bathroom arrangements while it was on were, as Rarity herself admitted, undignified. Dash had a better word: gross.

The new design had an extra feature- a totally redesigned backpack, with the life support systems miniaturized to make room for the thing that would put the ESA firmly in the lead in the race to the moon.

“Baltimare, this is Six,” Rainbow Dash said, twisting her helmet into place. “Suit on, performing pressure checks now.”

“Baltimare copies,” Applejack said. “You are go for EVA at your discretion.”

“Roger that, Baltimare,” Rainbow Dash replied. The HUD projected on the inside of her helmet, including a tiny duplicate of the magic nav-ball used for steering the rocket, reported green lights on suit pressure. No air lost, all systems go. Technically she could survive for days in the suit, thanks to the water supply available from a straw at her cheek, so long as she could stand the smell and feel of her own poop. Not that Dash intended to make that endurance test if she had any choice at all.

Besides, the pressure suit bound her wings to her sides, and a pegasus who can’t move her wings is a supremely uncomfortable pegasus. Now that she could get into and out of the pressure suit as she pleased, she intended to stay out of it whenever she could get away with it.

Unfortunately, she thought as she hit the switch to reverse the magical air supply and empty the cabin of air, this isn’t one of those times.

“Baltimare, this is Six.”

“Go ahead, Six.”

“Cabin pressure is at zero. I’m going out for a walk. I may be a little while.”

“Copy, Six.”

There was, in case of dire emergency, a single lever which could be used to permanently and thoroughly open the hatch. If you wanted to close the hatch again afterwards, you had to use a separate, rather complicated system. At first Rainbow Dash had hated it, but she’d come to understand the logic; this door was not one you wanted to take any chance whatever of just coming open by itself.

The tricky bit was getting the hatch closed behind her without falling off. There were four hoofrails on the exterior of the capsule; two rungs below the hatch and one on either side of it. Aside from those, there wasn’t any place to hold onto the ship, and those four rails were none too large, especially when you had to hold on with hooves wrapped in a pressure suit. To make things even better, the physics of free-fall meant that Rainbow Dash’s body and limbs wanted to keep going in whatever direction she’d moved them last, taking the rest of her with them. To her it felt a bit like the rocket was actively trying to shake her off, even though the engine was shut down and nothing was moving but herself.

Eventually she got the hatch closed, got a grip on the capsule exterior with all four limbs, and waited until her body was motionless in relation to the ship. Only then did she say, “Baltimare, I’m outside the capsule now, ready to step off the welcome mat.”

“Copy, Six,” Applejack replied. “You’re go to release the craft in your own time.”

Now came the one truly scary part, the one thing Twilight Sparkle and Starlight Glimmer hadn’t been able to think their way around. Experiments with a backup tether had ended with first Rainbow Dash and then Princess Cadance (the new backup pilot after the official merger of ESA and the Crystal Empire space program) tangled in a cat’s cradle in the training bay. If the thrusters on the new, redesigned space suit backpack failed to activate, or if they misfired in any way, Dash would probably have to hope that, someday, somehow, she and the capsule drifted close enough together again to grab it.

Rainbow Dash released one foreleg from its grip and turned to look back at the world below her. She was over the ocean, of course. A horrible little voice in the back of her mind said: How’d you like to plummet into that in a ball of fire, this time without a rocket or parachutes?

No. You work through the fear. You don’t let it control you.

Rainbow Dash straightened her body, made sure it was still, and then slowly, carefully, released her grip on the capsule.

Her body drifted very, very slowly away. She could still reach with her hooves for a hold if she absolutely needed to, but in about ten seconds that wouldn’t be true anymore.

“Activating thruster pack,” Rainbow Dash said. This required moving her elbows into a certain position and holding it for a full second, which commanded the backpack to extend two controls on long armrests. The stick under her left hoof would provide lateral, forward and backward thrust; the one under her right hoof would control thrust up and down and left and right yaw. Each of the thrusters gave a quick burst of test-fire, then a couple more bursts to bring her back stationary in relationship with the capsule.

“Thruster check all green,” Rainbow Dash reported. “I’m going to back away from the ship now.” She pulled back slightly on the left joystick, and thrusters pushed her away from the craft. She released her pressure, and the thrusters cut off. She nudged forward for a moment, and the capsule almost, but not quite, stopped falling away from her. “Hey, this is pretty neat,” she said. “It’s almost like really flying!”

“Six, Baltimare,” Applejack said calmly. “We’re watching you down here on the big screen, and it all looks good. Twilight wants you to move one hundred meters away from the craft, stop, and then return to the hatch. Y’got that?”

“Affirmative, Baltimare,” Rainbow Dash said. “Copy one hundred meters away and return to hatch.” She looked at the ship. She was already about ten meters out and drifting very slowly further… but that drift was towards the planet. She wasn’t happy with that direction. Instead she kicked the left joystick to her right and held it for a bit, flying sideways down the stubby length of the orbiter and past the final stage engine. Satisfied, she released the thruster and let momentum do the work for about a minute or so.

“Okay, Six, that’s good,” Applejack finally said. “Now get on back.”

Rainbow Dash pushed the left joystick to the left for what she guessed was about as long as she’d held it right, cancelling out her momentum. Unfortunately her helmet’s peripheral vision, limited as it was, wouldn’t let her see the rocket anymore. She used the right stick to roll left, then nulled the roll as her heads-up display added a little pink square around the orbiter… which was farther away than she’d expected.

Eh, no big, she thought. I’ve still got massive amounts of charge in the mana battery. Facing the orbiter, she thrust forward for a bit, holding the thrust quite a bit longer for the return trip.

A bit too long, as it happened.

“Six, we’re showin’ you at five meters per second relative velocity,” Applejack said, her drawl speeding up with urgency. “Please slow ‘er down a bit.”

Dash’s hoof was already on the control and counterthrusting, but not soon enough. Fortunately, or not depending on your point of view, she hadn’t been precisely aimed at the orbiter. Very close, but not precisely.

Still going more than a meter per second in relation to the spaceship, Rainbow Dash’s left rear hoof clipped the edge of the fuel tank, sending her spinning plot over teakettle. The thruster systems, sensing the release of the controls and the motion of the pilot’s arms, retracted and shut down, allowing her to tumble and spin freely. “WHOOOOOA! NOT COOL!”

“Rainbow Dash!” Twilight Sparkle’s voice shouted over the comm link. “Are you all right? Suit integrity and systems check!”

“Wha? Who?” Rainbow Dash pulled her mind from the universe tumbling around her and focused on the little lights in the heads-up display. “Twilight, we talked about comm discipline, remember? Let Applejack do the-“

“SUIT SYSTEMS CHECK!”

Rainbow Dash reached a hoof up to rub her ringing ears, then groaned when it bumped the side of her helmet. “Right, right,” she said. “All readouts show green, air pressure good. No leaks, nothing broken, not even my hoof.” She returned her focus to the outside world and added, “I’m in one heck of a tumble, though, and I’ve lost sight of the ship. Gimme a minute to fix that.”

A moment later she had the thrusters activated again, and their automatic startup routine quickly stopped her tumble and stabilized her. She was still drifting, but at least now she had an orientation. “Okay, roll stopped,” she said. “Attempting to reacquire spaceship.”

“Use the targeting function,” Twilight said. “Your suit has a new map display. Activate it and it should show the ship. Just like in training.”

“You mean, the same training where we practiced comm discipline, Baltimare?” Dash replied.

“Will you… urgh! Yes, Six, that training!”

Rainbow Dash smiled inside her space suit. Angry Twilight was much better than worried freakout Twilight or depressed guilt-tripping Twilight. Angry Twilight could get things done, and Twilight seldom stayed angry for long. Using the HUD controls required deactivating the thrusters for a moment, but so long as she didn’t thrash around she would remain stable. She reached to her chest, opened the lid of the control box, and activated the map HUD, selected the icon for the orbiter, and set it as her target.

A pink ring appeared on the nav-ball, towards the left lower edge of the visible half, As Rainbow Dash reactivated the thrusters and reoriented herself, the pink ring moved gradually to the center of the ball, overlaying a retrograde marker. The velocity readout, instead of showing orbital speed, now showed a velocity of 0.9 meters per second relative to target.

Rainbow Dash’s smile vanished as she looked at the ship. “Baltimare, can you see the ship now?” she said. “When I clipped the ship going past I set it to tumbling slowly. Getting in is going to be a pain.” The tumble wasn’t very fast, but it didn't need to be. Now she’d have to grab onto a moving object and hold on long enough to get the hatch open…

… a tricky proposition when your species doesn’t have any digits at all on their limbs, doubly so when those limbs are wrapped in a heavily padded, pressurized suit.

“We see it,” Twilight said, belatedly adding, “Six.” Deep breath. “We’re going to have to be careful about keeping relative speed slow when near the spacecraft. For now, though, don’t worry about anything else except getting back into the ship.”

“Six copies, Baltimare,” Rainbow Dash said. She reactivated the thrusters, moving forward gingerly, reversing thrust as she approached the ship. She found herself drifting left, counterthrusted, and discovered herself rushing right three times as fast. She counterthrusted yet again, but couldn’t get the drift precisely stopped. Thrust, counterthrust, counter-counterthrust, and still drifting.

And now, drifting down as well. She thrusted up, then right again, then left, then right, then down. None of the maneuvers added up to holding still.

“Baltimare, Six,” Rainbow Dash growls, “this is just stupid! I can’t null out my drift! These controls aren’t precise enough!” She found herself getting too close to the wrong side of the ship as it slowly tumbled, and she thrust away, backing off. This caused a strong drift left, and she overcorrected right, sending her in front of the ship and up. Two more overcorrections later she was moving away from the ship at close to a meter per second.

“Use the navball!” Twilight insisted. “Prograde and retrograde markers! Start by matching velocity with the ship, then keep centered on the target until you get close! Just like training!”

In training Rainbow Dash had had the orientation of the training bay with its complicated cables and counterweights. Things were well-lit, plenty of landmarks, distances easy to judge by eye. She’d barely paid any attention to the navball. Up here in space, even in the sunlight, everything was shaded dark as night- literally- on the side away from the sun. Things reflected oddly. There was nothing up here except herself and the ship. The skills she used by instinct were nearly useless up here.

Learn fast, Crash, she thought to herself. A lot of little fillies are going to be disappointed if the next Wonderbolts show has to fly missing-mare formation.

It took a minute of careful work to bring her relative velocity back to zero, some seventy meters from the ship. This time she watched the navball more than she did the ship, thrusting this way and that even when it made little sense, moving the prograde circle-T into the center of the pink ring. She moved forwards at a leisurely three-tenths of a meter relative speed, cautious and patient. Easy, she told herself. Still plenty of juice for the thrusters. All the time in the world. Take it easy, think it through, do it right.

By and by the ship drew closer. She brought her velocity back to zero some ten meters ahead of the center of mass, just far enough to be well clear of the tumbling ship. Okay, she thought, solutions?

I could let the nose of the ship bump me. Inertia should stop its tumble, and I could use the thrusters to recover.

No. I got lucky once. Rainbow Dash is pretty hard to break, but the suit is another thing. And if it breaks, no more Rainbow Dash. No playing bumper cars with the spacesuit.

But maybe I could get next to the ship near the center, gradually slide up, and use my thrusters to push the ship until it stop tumbling?

No. I’d have to push the ship with my body. I can’t rely on my rear hooves perfectly lining up with thrust, and if I push with all hooves the thrusters automatically shut down. That’s bumper cars again. Think of something else.

When I got out the hatch was pointed at Equus. It was facing sideways, not on top or bottom. If I get on that side of the ship, I should be able to see it clearly, and I might be able to grab the rungs as they pass by on a tumble.

That’s a plan.

“I’m moving around to the side of the ship,” Dash said. “I’m going to get as close as I can, zero out relative to the ship, and make a grab for the hatch egress rungs.”

“Baltimare copies, Six,” Twilight Sparkle said. “Please be careful.”

“Trust me,” Rainbow Dash said, letting a bit of the old brag into her voice. “I’d never leave you hanging.” Yeah, she added to herself, but what about leaving myself hanging?

With careful, light taps of the controls, Rainbow Dash slid around the port side of the tumbling rocket, used the thrusters to pivot so that she faced that side, and then very, very carefully bounced back and forth on horizontal and vertical thrust until she had only a slight, slight drift left and down. This done, she gave the slightest goose of the thrusters forward, drifting towards the ship’s fuel tank. As she approached, the tank was replaced by empty space, and then by the capsule.

And, praise be to Celestia, the blessed rungs.

Rainbow Dash released the thruster controls, reached forward, missed the rung on the left side of the hatch as it passed, hooked her left forehoof under the right rung, wrapped her right forehoof around it and held on for dear life.

For a couple of moments everything, absolutely everything, seemed to spin.

Then one of Dash’s flailing rear hooves found one of the steps. She shoved the hoof in as deep as she could, braced herself, and swiftly stretched her left forehoof across the hatch to grab the other rung.

“I caught it!”

A loud sigh of relief echoed through Dash’s headset. “Good work, Rainbow Dash,” she said. “Re-enter the ship in your own time. Don’t take any risks. Once you’re inside the rest of the day is free time, and we’ll begin re-entry at 1000 hours tomorrow morning Baltimare time.”

“Really?” Rainbow Dash asked. “So if my time is mine, does that mean I can do another EVA later? This was kinda fun, but I need more practice to get it right.”

A moment later something made a loud popping sound in Rainbow Dash’s ears. “Ow! Baltimare, this is Mission Six, comms check.”

After a few moments Applejack’s voice replied, “Six, I think we’d all appreciate it if you just stayed in the capsule for the rest of the flight. And when Twilight comes to, I’m sure she’ll agree.”

“What?”

“It’s not nice to give ponies a scare like that, y’know,” Applejack added. “’Specially when they’ve been high-strung for a really long time.”

“AJ, what happened?”

“Our fearless flight director’s eyes just sorta rolled up inta her head round about th’ time you said th’ words ‘more practice’,” Applejack continued. “She’s out cold on the floor right now. Spike’s gone to get some water to bring her round.”

“Oh. Um. Sorry,” Rainbow Dash chuckled nervously. “My bad. I’ll just get back in the capsule now, okay?”

“Y’all do that,” Applejack said.

The process of opening the capsule hatch from the outside in space was almost as complicated as the process of opening it from within. With the need to hold on with three limbs while the ship tumbled, it became even more complicated.

But Rainbow Dash now had a little extra motivation. Twilight, after all.

Oh, yeah, and getting down alive from orbit, but that was tomorrow. Right now friends were more important.

Chapter 10: Missions 12, 13 and 14: Take Plenty of Photographs

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Changeling Space Program
by Kris Overstreet

Chapter 10: Missions 12, 13 and 14: Take Plenty of Photographs

Jet Set groaned as the tranquilizing effects of changeling pod goo faded. He’d been dreaming of that time in Maneaco, when he and Upper Crust had taken a sailboat out into the bay and, on a whim, decided that they’d rather have dinner in St. Cropez’. It was one of his fondest memories: the smell of the salty spray in the wind, the delightful Prench haute cuisine, the way everypony’s eyes had been glued to their ship as it glided into port under his expert guidance(167). The dream had faded, but based on the pounding in his head, the withdrawal symptoms hadn’t.

Neither had the remaining pod goo, bits of which clung to Jet Set’s clothes, mane and fur in irritating places. He tried to brush a bit of it off his ascot, and it came right off the silk without a stain. Unfortunately it remained stuck to his hoof, resisting all attempts to fling it away.

“Owww…” Jet Set noticed for the first time his wife lying next to him on the floor. “Darling, please call room service and have them send up some aspirin,” she said, holding her badly-mussed mane in both hooves. “I have such a horrible headache.”

“The pain and nausea will go away in a few minutes,” a strange voice said.

The two Canterlot ponies looked up, for a limited value of “up”, at a changeling guard. At least, presumably it was a guard, and a senior one as well. It wore a small skull-cap helmet and wore simple plate armor along its back. However, the fact that this particular changeling was actually fat- something neither unicorn thought was even possible- gave both serious cause to doubt their assumption.

“I’m Neighing Mantis,” the guard said, giving her proper name. In fact, for about half a year now the hive hadn’t called her anything other than Eggplant due to her recent weight gain. Even after weeks of forced dieting and even more thoroughly forced extraction of stored love, she remained well above the weight she’d been when assigned to guard the cocoon holding a certain blonde-maned pink pony for a week.(168) “I’m here to assist you in settling in as honorary astromare trainees at Horseton Space Center.”

“Horseton?” Jet Set sat up properly, noting for the first time that he wasn’t underground. The large room was definitely of pony construction, or at least pony design- square corners, brightly lit, and (aside from bits of goo and cocoon bits) sparkling clean. The couches, chairs and tables all screamed ultra-modern design. There was even (wonder of wonders) a large television set standing along one wall. This was far and away from the creepy, ill-lit caverns of the changeling hive.

“Yes, sir,” Eggplant gestured to a hallway, where a group of changelings were wheeling in the Canterlot couple’s luggage on little dollies. “You’ve been treated to over a week in our comfortable hibernation cocoons awaiting the pleasure of our queen. Now that Mission Eleven is complete, we’re ready to offer you our best hospitality and to explain our plans for your upcoming rocket launch.”

“Capital,” Jet Set replied. “Do I take it that the queen is finally available for an appointment?”

“Er… almost,” Eggplant replied. “It would be best if I escorted you to the showers, then allowed you to select new clothes in the comfort of your quarters, and then, once you were fully presentable-“

“I appreciate the courtesy,” Jet Set said in a tone he thought was generous, “but under the circumstances I think it’s best that we see her right away.”

Eggplant sighed. “I’m afraid you’ll have to wait a little while longer in any case, sir,” she said. “And since you have to wait, you might as well wait with clean fur and clothes, yes?”

“But (oh my head) why can’t we see her now?” Upper Crust whined. “We’ve paid good money for this-“

“The queen is currently unavoidably detained,” Eggplant interrupted hurriedly. “She regrets the delay and will see you very soon now, but… well… something came up while we were flying here from the hive…”

Footnote:

(167) Amazingly enough, Jet Set’s recollections are factually accurate, and not in any ironic way. Jet Set was a competent navigator and a better than average sailor, especially when you consider he was born and raised almost as far from any salt water as it is possible to get in Equestria. It just shows it actually is possible for someone to be an arrogant twit and not be a complete incompetent as well. It just isn’t the way you should bet.

(168) Eggplant hadn’t found either of her recent guests nearly as nutritious as Cherry Berry. The test pilot’s obsession was richer than concentrated sugar, and the casual, shallow interests and affections of the Canterlot elite were bread and water by comparison. Still, they were each much better than Double Face, who loved absolutely nothing, not even himself much.

The leadership of, as of two days prior, the officially second-place space program in the world sat around the conference table looking glumly at one another.

“Are you sure there’s no way out of this?” Chrysalis asked.

“Every space program is going to have at least one representative there,” Cherry Berry said. “Even the yaks are sending Alexander Popoff and their lead astronaut Prince Fauntleroy. It would look really, really bad if we didn’t go.”

“And it’s not like Princess Twilight Sparkle is wrong,” Warner von Brawn added, shrugging his immense shoulders. The minotaur leaned back in his chair(169) and added, “Standardized EVA and rescue training will be invaluable for all space projects, including our own.”

“Plus Rarity will be providing all attendees with spacesuits on the new model,” Cherry added. “Which requires fittings. We might as well get them done now as later.”

“Spacesuits, by Faust!” Chrysalis groaned, slapping a hoof to her forehead. “I forgot! Our three unwanted guests are going to need them, too!” The others nodded. Obviously Jet Set, Upper Crust, and the jungle pony Hobble Jimenez had never been measured for pressure suits.

“So, we take them along, too?” Cherry asked.

“And give those snobs the idea of demanding a refund and taking their business elsewhere?” Chrysalis asked. “Because if we take them for a week’s training at someone else’s space center, the first thing they’ll think is, why aren’t the people we paid for this doing the work? And remember, we can’t refund their money, because we don’t know how much it was in the first place!”

“So we don’t take ‘em,” Goddard the Griffon said testily. “We have someone take their measurements here and have Miss Rarity bring the finished product after the training is over. Non-issue.” The old griffon sat back in his own chair, folded his talons across his chest, and said, “But who does go? And who stays to babysit?”

“Dr. Goddard and I should not be on either list,” von Brawn interjected. “We’ve secured blueprints for the passenger cabin of a personal high-speed airship, and we think we’ve made design adjustments that will convert the design into a basic passenger cabin.”

“It’s a kludge,” Goddard grunted, “but what isn’t, around here? But both Warner and I need to supervise the construction in Appleoosa and the transport to the space center. If we leave as soon as this meeting is done, and nothing goes wrong, we can have a prototype here for a landing test in about a week.”

“Landing test?” Chrysalis asked.

“Landing test. We don’t know how this thing will hold up to impact, and the simplest way to find out is to drop it on land. And the best way to drop it is to fly it.”

“Unfortunately,” von Brawn added, “George Bull and Marked Knee’s automated guidance system isn’t quite ready yet. So it will have to be a piloted atmospheric flight, possibly using a Flea-“

“NOT IT,” Cherry Berry and Chrysalis said in one breath.

Unperturbed, von Brawn continued, “Piloted by Dragonfly, then. Presuming success, we shall then build one or two new passenger cabins for our guests and give them their flights.”

Chrysalis turned to Occupant. “Speaking of that, are there any contracts to help pay for all of this?”

Occupant shook his head sadly. “Nopony’s offering money for anything except ground surveys,” he said. “It’s really bizarre. One’s even offering us seven thousand bits if we land a ship directly on the Appleoosan clock tower!”(170)

“Well, you know what to do with those,” Chrysalis sighed. “Tell your assistant to let us know if something new pops up.”

“Yes, my- wait, what?” Occupant blinked confusion. “My assistant? What about me?”

“You’re going with us,” Chrysalis said. “You’re on the flight roster. That means you get a space suit, and that means you’re going to Baltimare to train with the rest of us.”

“I’m on the bottom of the flight roster!” Occupant shouted. “I have so much that needs doing here! Take Lucky Cricket-“

“Thank you, I am,” Chrysalis replied dryly. “And you too. All five of us, which should probably make us the largest contingent of astromares at the meeting.”

“Showing off,” Cherry Berry chuckled.

“And why shouldn’t we?” Chrysalis said. “No other space program has three pilots with space experience and five with experience in supersonic flight.”

“Lucky Cricket and Occupant didn’t fly faster than sound,” Cherry insisted. “Flying implies some measure of control. They were thrown.”

“So?” Occupant asked before Chrysalis could. “I still have the experience!”

“See?” Chrysalis asked, gesturing to Occupant.

“I don’t remember a bit of it,” Occupant continued, “but I have experience!”

Cherry Berry threw up her hooves. “Fine, fine,” she said. “We send everypony. But who does that leave to keep our guests busy while we’re gone?” She slammed her hooves on the table as emphasis as she added, “Or didn’t you notice that your plans take absolutely everypony with an ounce of authority away from the space center at once?”

“I have an idea about that…” Chrysalis said, smiling her #3 smile (I Have a Cunning Scheme).

Footnotes:

(169) von Brawn hadn’t broken a chair yet, but the creaking and snapping that came from each chair as he lounged in it made it seem inevitable. Various members of the space program regularly placed bets on whether a chair would fail with him on it, or whether a chair once sat in by him would fail the moment someone else sat in it. The most prominent such gambler was Goddard, who by all accounts was cleaning up on his bets.

(170) Based on the short but eventful history of Appleoosa, many unbiased observers concluded that someone or something really didn’t want the frontier town to have a clock tower. There had been the buffalo stampede, the out-of-control tornado, and the senile old knight-errant Don Rosinante. (To be honest, the last attacker only knocked a couple of bricks out of one corner before his donkey squire Hotay persuaded him that the “giant” had reformed and posed no further threat to pony or beast, but he was still part of the trend.)

Not too much later, in the largest room of the administration building (with the hasty addition of a throne), Queen Chrysalis and the rest of the CSP leadership, plus a few additional people, faced the two recently arrived Canterlot unicorns and Hobble Jimenez, who after six days of Heavy Frosting’s cooking was a little less scrawny but no less terrified. “Allow me to formally welcome all three of you to Horseton Space Center,” she said. “You will be glad to know that within three weeks all three of you will get to experience the wonders of space flight.”

“I should only hope so,” Jet Set sneered, “after what we paid-“

“Mr. Jet Set and Mrs. Upper Crust,” Chrysalis said, talking over the stallion’s mutters, “are noteworthy socialites and businessponies from Canterlot. Mr. Hobble Jimenez has been sent here by…” Chrysalis paused a moment to choose the right words before continuing, “…by his government to observe our space program first-hand and report his experiences. Together the three of you will become the first ever space tourists.”

Leaning forward on her throne, Chrysalis continued, “But before we give you your flights we have to be certain that you are physically and mentally prepared. Rocket launches are tough on the body, and without the same knowledge we astromares constantly study, you won’t have a full appreciation of what you’re experiencing.” Inspiration struck, and she added, “By way of comparison, consider what a tour of the Prench wine country would be like for a neophyte who’s never drunk anything more than plain grape juice.”

Sure enough, the metaphor hit its mark. Both Canterlot ponies recoiled in shock. “Such a waste!” Jet set exclaimed.

“Just so,” Chrysalis agreed(171). “And we feel that you wouldn’t get your money’s worth if we sent you up without at least a portion of that vital knowledge. After all, you paid enough for it.”

“’Ow much would i' cos’ for me to stay home?” Hobble asked, but he was ignored.

“So to make good the lack,” Chrysalis said, gesturing to three minotaurs standing in a row to her left, “for the next week we will leave you in the capable hooves of three of our leading scientists. The eldest, George Cowley, is a leader in aeronautical theory. He will oversee your flight training and simulations.”

“I thought I recognized him!” Jet Set exclaimed. “There’s a picture back home of you shaking hands with my father! Your work made commercial airship travel possible!”

Cowley, whose shaggy eyebrows had gone the same gray as his muzzle, waved away the acclaim. “A side matter, nothing more,” he said. “Heavier-than-air flight was always my true calling. Before long progress on that front will make airships obsolete except as a luxury experience.”

“Ahem. Moving on,” Chrysalis said, pointing to the middle-aged minotaur, somewhat more slight of build than von Brawn but still of minotaurine proportions, “George Bull is our chief mathematician and designer of the computers that calculate and predict our courses. He’s currently working on a fully automated system for artificial satellites and robot probes. He will oversee your education in spaceflight theory and terminology.”

“Enchante’,” George Bull said, bowing deeply.

Upper Crust giggled. “You speak Prench?”

“I speak seven languages, including ancient Equine and Minotauran,” George Bull said. “And I hope, over the course of our time together, to have you speaking fluent Astronaut.”

“Isn’t it ‘astromare’?” Jet Set asked.

“Either will do,” George Bull admitted, “but I prefer the term we created. It comes from two old Minotauran roots, meaning, ‘star mariner.’”

“And finally, we have the youngest member of our science team,” Chrysalis said, pointing to the third minotaur. This one was the skinniest of all four members of the original minotaur space program, but he was also the tallest and the most energetic. The stereotypical minotauran ebullience(172) von Brawn and the two Georges lacked, the fourth had in surplus. “Marked Knee is our electronics expert and is currently engaged in a joint project with the Yakyakistan space program to develop better communications and tracking systems for all our spacecraft. He will oversee your physical fitness and training.”

“To say nothing of your nutrition!!” Marked Knee shouted, grinning. “I’ve always said that a great mind must run on equally great fuel, but you need hard work to build up the proper appetite!! Starting tomorrow we’ll begin with a brisk run to Horseton and back- only thirty kilometers or so-“

“Ten miles each way,” Cherry Berry, who’d watched with amusement the whole time, translated.

“-and after that we should be ready for a nice light breakfast before the real workout begins!!” Marked Knee finished.

“Ah, pardon my presumption, Dr. Knee,” Jet Set said, “but we ponies have four legs,” he gestured at himself and the other two, “and you have only two. And yours are quite short at that.”

“Indeed!! My legs are indeed quite remarkably compact!! Well observed, sir!!” Marked Knee smiled without any hint of offense.

“My point is, if we are to go for a run… well,” Jet Set shuffled on his hooves, for once not wanting to give offense, even by accident. “Are you certain it’ll be fair, sir?”

“Perhaps not, sir!! The only way to know is to see firsthand!! But I think tomorrow morning one of us will be quite surprised!!” Still smiling the innocent, friendly, mildly deranged smile, he added, “Possibly even three of us!!”

“I don’ like surprises,” Jimenez moaned. “I never get the good kind.”

“In any event, I leave you in the care of these gentlebulls,” Chrysalis said, cutting short any more pointless chatter. “In addition to their training, over the next week you will be given full medical examinations by a pony specialist from Canterlot(173), measured for custom flight and pressure suits, and trained in the safety procedures we use at the Changeling Space Program. In eight days’ time we shall reconvene to watch the first short-range test flight of the passenger component which will carry you beyond the sky.”

Hobble Jimenez gave a heartfelt moan.

“Quit your whining,” Chrysalis said, welcoming tone gone for the moment. “You’re not going up on that flight.”

“Oh,” Jimenez said, straightening up a little. “Tha’s OK, then.”

“But I promise you fine stallions and mare,” Chrysalis said, returning to her friendly formal tone, “that three weeks from today we shall launch two flights, one carrying Mr. Jimenez, the other carrying Mr. Set and Mrs. Crust. Which should return you all to your homes in time for that honored and memorable Equestrian tradition…” Chrysalis paused, face going blank. “Um… er…” After a couple more moments of fumbling, she leaned over and hissed, “Hey, pony, what’s that stupid holiday thing you wanted to go back to Ponyville for?”

“The Running of the Leaves?” Cherry Berry asked dully, facehooving as she did so.

“The Running of the Leaves,” Chrysalis repeated as if she’d not even paused in her speech. “So, for the next three weeks, you are not merely our guests, but our colleagues. We look forward to working with you until, at the end, we can include you in the honorable fellowship of astromares.”

Eggplant, who had stood discreetly behind the three tourists, spoke up at this point. “Chef Frosting will be serving dinner in an hour. If you would like to freshen up beforehand?” With careful, polite, but inexorable persuasion, the rotund guard had the ponies out of the room and on their way back to the astronaut quarters in moments.

Once they had gone, Chrysalis left the throne, walking over to the minotaurs. “If you can actually teach those three anything at all, that’s fine,” she said, “but whatever else you do, keep them busy. Fill their days. Nightmare Night is in a few days, so that’ll be a useful distraction. Call in a couple of Dragonfly’s parachute workers and set them to work on costumes for our guests. But the important thing is, I don’t want them to have any opportunity or energy to start demanding they see me, or the pony, or anybody else.” She looked right at Marked Knee and added, “And I especially don’t want them to have a reason to demand to see me. Understood?”

“It couldn’t be clearer!!” Marked Knee shouted.

Chrysalis paused for a moment, looking down at the lanky minotaur’s legs. “You have an almost pony-like name,” she said at last.

“It’s a pun, ma’am!!” Marked Knee explained. “My parents wanted to name me after great-grandfather Markus! But my family christens babies based on their most obvious physical trait!!”(174)

“But your knees are perfectly ordinary,” Chrysalis noted, as indeed they were- solid black from shorts to hooves. “I don’t see a mark at all!”

“It was in pencil, ma’am!”

Chrysalis gave the minotaur a long look, decided that further pursuit of the conversation would be fruitless, and said, “Dr. Bull, you’re in charge of the space program until we get back. We want a short-range test rocket for the new compartment to land on solid ground within a hundred kilometers of the base. And don’t let the tourists burn anything down until... I mean, even after I get back.”

Footnotes:

(171) Thankfully nopony brought up the fact that Chrysalis herself practically never ate or drank except to maintain a cover identity, and therefore had no palate at all. To cover this lack she had established a routine in her Cool Drink identity; at large public events, take a sip of whatever potable was being served at the soiree’ in question, spit it out, and angrily demand that the staff “take this swill away and bring out the good stuff.” Without fail something that tasted exactly the same to her but had a different label would be rushed out, and she would take a sip, and indicate her silent, begrudging acceptance that the inferior product was probably the best the plebes could procure. Thus far no butler or maitre d’hotel had dared to call her bluff by bringing out the kind of wine that comes in a box, and thus Cool Drink had a reputation, if not as a connoisseur, then as an aficionado of fine wines and liquors.

(172) No apologies.

(173) Chrysalis had briefly considered using a changeling infiltrator and decided against it. For this she wanted to be certain, and it would be worth the massive amount of money it would cost to get a Saddle Row doctor out of Canterlot and down to the space center. Besides, the snobs would probably recognize Dr. Gingerbread House, whose reputation for horrible bedside manner was only surpassed for his reputation as a medical genius. Chrysalis had chosen him not for his skills, but because he was the easiest Canterlot physician to blackmail. One way or the other, he’d come.

(174) Were this one of the author’s less enlightened works, we would go into chapter and verse on the potential for abuse such a tradition would have. However, since this is a land of adorable pastel-colored ponies who solve difficult emotional conundrums in half an hour, we shall allow the readers to exercise their own imagination. Yes, you. Just try and stop yourself from thinking of things.

What with one thing and another, a week passed.

One thing:

“Oh, perk up, my friends!!” Marked Knee said cheerfully, jogging in a circle around the three staggering ponies. “It’s only another two miles back to the center!”

“How—how—how—“ Jet Set tried to swallow, but his dry mouth refused to cooperate. “How are you DOING this?”

“We have four legs to your two,” Upper Crust whined along with her husband. “How can you run us into the ground?”

“Ah, but you see!!” Marked Knee paused and looked down at the ponies, eager to educate. “Motion studies and chemical analysis has found that a bipedal stance, when compared to a quadrupedal stance in a creature of similar mass, is seventy-five percent more energy efficient!!(175) Which means you have to work four times as hard as I do for the same result!!”

“I want…” Upper Crust gasped for breath. “I want… to check… that math!”

“I already check de math,” Hobble Jimenez gasped. “Eet adds up to one worn-out pony.”

“Check it again,” Jet Set moaned. “I make it two worn-out ponies.”

“Three,” Upper Crust agreed.

An expression of contrition elbowed its way, awkwardly, onto Marked Knee’s face. “Possibly I have not thought this through sufficiently!! Sorry!!”

Hobble, without further comment, flopped forward into the dust. A moment later the Canterlot unicorns, equally silently, joined him.


Another thing:

“Upon attempting ingress or egress from the vehicle,” Cowley said, his voice almost a monotone, “an astronaut must first apply the tetro-hydraulic double dynamo reboostable booster, then activate the decompression activator, and finally engage the anti-magnetic ensconcing system.”

“And then you’re really up there!” Jet Set said eagerly.

“No,” Hobble muttered matter-of-factly, “tha’ jus’ opens the door.”

Three heads turned towards the native pony.

“Whas’ the matter?” Hobble asked. “I leesten. I pay attention, I learn t’ings. I’d learn a lot more if alla you din’ have such fonny accen’s.”

Yet another thing:

“Orbits are usually elliptical,” Bull said, describing the circle sketched around a picture of the planet on the chalkboard. “If you remember your school geometry, ellipses have two focal points. In an orbit, the body being orbited is one of the focal points. The closer the ship is to the body being orbited, the faster it must go to stay in orbit. The farther way the ship is, the slower it moves to remain in orbit.” Bull sketched a few lines on the diagram, creating a couple of slices of orbit on opposite sides of the planet. “Because of this, if you take the distance a ship in orbit travels in a certain period of time in two different parts of the orbit-“ he pointed to the two separate slices- “though the distance in the orbit is different, the area carved out in these triangles is exactly the same!”

“So what kind of orbit is the best orbit?” Jet Set asked.

“It depends on what you’re doing with it,” Bull said. He sketched two more circles around the planet, one almost circular, one very egg-shaped. “For staying in place or observing the planet, you want as close to a circular orbit as possible. That keeps your orbital speed nice and steady,” he said, pointing to the circular orbit. “But if you want to go someplace else, like the moon, then you need an orbit like this, a transfer orbit.” He drew half of a third circle, the curve rising away from the planet but never returning. “And a high enough transfer orbit will escape our world’s gravity altogether. Which, if we go to Bucephalous or other planets, will be how we do it.”

“Do you believe there’s life on Bucephalous, then, Dr. Bull?” Upper Crust asked.

The minotaur smiled. “Maybe if we get there on a Saturday night,” he said. “Myself, I’d bring a book.”

A thing of another kind:

Dr. Gingerbread House glared as only he could glare. The object of his glare paid no attention, writhing and moaning in dramatic, even melodramatic, fashion on the examination table.

“Oh, Mr. Doctor!” Hobble Jimenez moaned. “I em in such a bad condition! It hurts it here!” He pressed a hoof to his left shoulder and groaned. “An’ it hurts it here!” He poked his stomach with the same hoof and moaned louder. “An’ it really hurts it all through here!” He poked his flank with the hoof and moaned his loudest moan yet.

“Right,” Gingerbread House snapped. “Sit up and face the wall so I can examine your back.”

“Hokay,” Hobble said, sitting on the table facing the wall, his hind legs dangling over the edge, his forelegs steadying him on either side.

House stood upright, folded his forelegs, and said, “Does it hurt when I touch you here?”

“Oooooooh!”

Not moving a muscle(176), House said, “How about here?”

“OoooOOOOoooh!!”

Still motionless, House said, “And down here?”

Hobble jumped off his rump like he’d been goosed. “Ohhh, OOOOOH, oooooogh,” he wailed piteously.

Dr. House looked at Marked Knee, who had remained silent throughout the examination, apparently out of embarrassment. “Chronic asymptomatic hypochondria, probably stress-induced,” he said. “I prescribe half a salt lick.”

Hobble swirled around and down, off the table and onto his hooves so fast Marked Knee checked the pony’s forehead for a horn. “Really?” the native asked.

“Not for you,” House growled. “For me.” He reached a hoof into the pocket of his lab coat, pulled out a little white cube of salt, and popped it into his mouth, crunching it loudly. “For you I prescribe acting lessons. Do I have to waste any more time with this clown?”

As Marked Knee silently opened the door and gestured the doctor out, Hobble called after them, “Wait, Doctor! I’m also got the dizzy spells! Whoooa… the room ees spinning! Everyt’ing ees getting dark! Doctor? Doctor?” After an obvious lack of any response, he shouted, “Leas’ jou coul’ gimme some of that salt, too!” After a moment’s consideration he added, “Or some cider. I wouldn’ min' some cider…”

A not quite unrelated thing:

George Cowley sat at a drafting table in the R&D main building, all by himself, and sketched.

For months Cowley had been thinking about how to land a vehicle on the moon’s surface and raise it up again. For almost his entire lifetime he’d focused his mind on the riddles of heavier-than-air, magic-free flight. Now his mind was turned to flight in an environment without air. Space, as had been proven in flight, was an airless void. Nopony knew, not even Luna, if the moon had any air, but it was safer to presume it didn’t and plan accordingly. That made flight on the moon a true challenge- a question of thrust, momentum and control, control, control.

And upper most in Cowley’s mind was the practical concern: How can we test this without potentially stranding the pilot on the moon?

At this point, technically, he was supposed to be designing a rocket for a short-range atmospheric flight, the primary goal being to drop the new passenger cabin onto solid ground to see if it would hold up under a normal landing. But, of course, every mission, even an unimportant test flight like this one, needed secondary goals. The more results the program could wring out of each flight, the sooner they would land a ship on the moon- and that, after all, was what it was all about.

Cowley pushed aside his simple, straightforward single-stack design and pulled a new piece of paper to him. At the core he placed the capsule, passenger compartment and parachute. Terrier engines won’t produce enough lift in atmosphere to raise this stack, he thought, but if I put one Swivel under this stack the center of mass will be too high on landing- the ship will tip over. In pencil he sketched three fuel tanks and Swivel engines in a triangle around the core ship.

Yes, he thought, and add a second parachute for the extra mass, just in case. This will make a workable test bed for moon landings, with enough power to operate on Equus. I still need to ask Goddard what the maximum impact velocity is-

The lab door slammed open. “No masquerade ball!” Jet Set cried, tossing his carefully-tailored ragged straw hat onto the floor. “Not even a charming rustic carnival! Just a bunch of hillbillies getting drunk and telling horrible stories!”

“And their liquor,” Upper Crust sighed, shuddering in horror at the memory, “has no bouquet at all. I wouldn’t use it to sterilize a wound!” She straightened her gingham dress fastidiously.

Cowley looked up from his sketches and stared at the ponies. “My goodness,” he said, “did none of you enjoy Nightmare Night?”

Marked Knee crowded the doorway behind the Canterlot unicorns. “Mr. Jimenez certainly did!!” he shouted. “Until the ghost stories began, after which I suspect his enjoyment somewhat declined!!” As the younger minotaur entered, Cowley noticed the litter he was dragging behind him, upon which the skinny earth pony, wearing a Buck Ranger style spacesuit, lay frozen in a state of catatonia, clutching a large bag of Nightmare Night candy to his barrel.

“Oh, dear,” Cowley said, quite forgetting his drafting table. “Shall we go see what tidbits Heavy Frosting has in his pantry to soothe an evening of disappointments?”

“Capital idea!!” Marked Knee said.

“We would have had some candy,” Jet Set added, “but every time we try to take it away from him, he clutches it tighter.”

Yet another thing, possibly not unrelated:

“A trajectory which leaves the atmosphere, but comes back down to the surface, is called suborbital,” George Bull said, sketching the line on the chalkboard. “A full orbit goes all the way around the planet without touching the surface. We don’t count it as a proper orbit unless it stays outside the atmosphere for its entire track.”

“Why not?” Upper Crust asked.

“Air resistance,” Bull replied. “It slows you down. If you don’t have fuel to burn to recover your speed, you eventually fall back to the ground. But if you stay out of the atmosphere, you could potentially keep going around the planet forever.”

“Forever?” Hobble asked. “Never come back?”

“Potentially,” Bull said. “But once you ran out of food that wouldn’t be fun, so we’ll be sure to bring you back long before then.”

“Why no' save the troubles,” Hobble said pointedly, “an’ not sen’ me up at all?”

“Anyway,” Bull continued, ignoring Hobble’s remark, “the two really important parts of an orbit are the apoapsis and periapsis.” Using the chalk to indicate points on the circle, “The apoapsis is the point highest from the planet, and the periapsis is the point closest to the planet.”

“Poppyapsis, berryapsis,” Upper Crust said, dismissing the words with a hoof. “How can you keep track of which is which?”

“I’m glad you asked,” Bull said, stepping away from the chalkboard, his hooves clicking merrily on the tile floor as he chanted:

When you’re flying in an orbit
When into space you’re hurled
You need to know your position
In relation to the world

The point of periapsis
Is when you’re closest to the ground
Opposite your apoapsis
As the world you go around

So you don’t get them confused
Here’s a handy trick I know
So you’ll know your altitude
As around the world you go!

Bull paused, then said in a slower chant:

Api is uppy
And peri is not.
Api is uppy
And peri is not.

When you’re at your apoapsis
You’re as uppy as you go
When you’re at your periapsis
Then you’re very, very low- why?

The three ponies answered in chorus:

Because api is uppy and peri is not!

“Good!” Bull cheered, and then continued:

Now when you want to change your orbit
You have to make an engine burn
But how can we tell the pilot
Which direction she should turn?
Space doesn’t have an up or down.
No north, south, east or west,
So we need some new directions-

Hobble raised his hoof and asked:

Will this be on th' tes'?

“Yes!” Bull insisted, and plunged on:

Going forward we call prograde
Making progress like a pro
The other way is retrograde
‘Cause looking backwards makes you slow
Radial runs from the center
Pointing up and out
Antiradial points inward

Jet Set chimed in:

As if there were any doubt!

Bull nodded, continuing:

The other two directions
North and south from the equator
Are normal and antinormal
(Though we might change that later)

BUT!

Bull stopped the chant and added in normal tones, “It’s important to remember that radial, antiradial, normal and antinormal are determined by the orbit- so if the orbit isn’t the same as the equator, then normal isn’t quite the same as north.”

“So tha’s why jou use th' funny names instead?” Hobble asked.

“Right! It’s all about accuracy and eliminating confusion!” Bull stretched, took a deep breath and chanted again:

SO-
Api is uppy
And peri is not!

The ponies replied:

Api is uppy
And peri is not!

Bull:

A pro goes forward
And retro looks back.

Ponies:

A pro goes forward
And retro looks back!

Bull:

Radial goes out
Like a spoke upon a wheel
It’s normal to go north
And anti’s the other deal.

Ponies:

Radial goes out
Like a spoke upon a wheel
It’s normal to go north-

Upper Crust:

You can’t tell me this is real!

Bull:

Those are all the words you need
Now let’s use them all to make
A story of the space flight
That the three of you will take!

Hobble began:

When th' rocke' launches
Over my sincere obyection
Th' ship accelerates
Inna radial direction!

Bull nodded:

But anything that goes straight up
Would come right straight back down
So we take a prograde angle
To make our flight path round!

Jet Set:

Each bit of rocket thrust makes
Our apoapsis rise
Until the peak of our trajectory
Gets up beyond the skies!

Upper Crust

If from our pre-planned orbit
The flight should deviate
We fire normal or antinormal
To find the proper place!

Bull:

But keep mostly on the prograde
Till periapsis does appear
And keep flying until that point is
Above the atmosphere

And then you’ll be in orbit
Flying round and round and round-

Hobble raised his hoof:

Tha’s all very well an’ good, sir,
But then how do we come down?

George Bull paused the chant, took a moment to consider the question carefully, and then said with feeling, “Carefully.” He then resumed the chant:

The heavier a rocket is
The more fuel it takes to fly
But fuel has weight, so we can’t take
A limitless supply

For slowing down we drag the ship
Through the upper air
So here’s how we can get you down
With a bit of care

We use the last bit of our fuel
To slow our orbit down
Which lowers periapsis
A bit closer to the ground

The ship drops into atmosphere
Air friction builds up heat
But the heat shield keeps you safe
So you don’t fry like griffon meat

The air pushes against the ship
And gradually slows it down
Until the parachute deploys
And floats you to the ground!

“See? Simple!” George Bull smiled. “And your pilots have each done this multiple times, so there’s no need to worry. Shall we finish the flight?”

Hobble sighed and chanted:

Api is uppy
An’ peri is not
But if jour peri’s in the airy
Then jour gonna get it hot

Jet Set continued:

So point the ship to retro
Get the shield in front of you

Upper Crust, dubiously:

Because flying backwards to the ground
Is the safest thing to do?

Jet Set overrode his wife’s doubt:

Watch the parachute come open
See it shape into a dome

Bull:

Then you’ll be as safe as houses!

Hobble:

I only wish I coul' go home!

Bull:

Now you’ll know what the pilot’s saying
But in case you have forgot
Api is uppy
And peri-

The three ponies answered in conclusion:

-is NOT!

“And that,” Bull said, setting the chalk down, “concludes the lesson.”

Footnotes:

(175) Studies in at least one universe which, sadly, lacks pastel-colored, friendship-obsessed ponies strongly suggests that this is true. If true it would explain how a species of almost naked monkeys, with no claws, tiny teeth and soft, thin skin became the apex predator of the entire planet. Why it should be true in the ponies’ world, on the other hand, should probably just be written off as, “because magic.”

(176) Except his jaw. Nopony had ever successfully stilled Dr. House’s jaw, even on the several occasions some offended or annoyed patient had done something violent enough to require it to be wired shut.

At the end of the week the conference room was full once more. Chrysalis, Cherry Berry, Dragonfly and Occupant (177) had returned from Baltimare; von Brawn and Goddard had returned from Appleoosa with the prototype passenger module; and Bull and Cowley, having remained at the space center, gave their report on the tourists’ activities first.

“So,” Cowley concluded, “they’re all physically fit for flight, and without sticking them in simulators, we’ve made them as ready as we can for the mental side of things.”

“Excellent,” Chrysalis replied. “Good job. We’ll be around to keep them occupied from now until their flights.”

“Doctor Goddard, Doctor von Brawn,” Cherry Berry asked, “what have we got prepared for a passenger compartment?”

“The airship design worked better than expected, after a few minor tweaks,” von Brawn said. “We’ve reinforced the fuselage against impact and heat effects as strongly as we can.”

“The capsule’s more likely to fail than the passenger compartment,” Goddard added. “The prototype’s on a barge from Baltimare now and should arrive tomorrow, which lets us test-fly it day after tomorrow.”

“Sounds good!” Cherry Berry chirped, smiling broadly. “Have we got a rocket design ready for that test?”

George Cowley slid a piece of paper across the conference table to the three astromares. “This is what I was thinking of,” he said. “The same vehicle could be used both for the passenger compartment test and to attempt a soft landing under power, as we will need to do for a lunar landing.”

Cherry Berry’s smile vanished. She took a good look at the design drawing, one hoof tracing the three independent liquid-fuel rockets attached by trusses to the combined capsule and passenger compartment. “What is this?” she asked quietly.

“My next ride!” Dragonfly chirped, even more cheerful than Cherry had been moments before.

“Think again,” Chrysalis growled. “If it scares Wondermare here, then nobody goes up in it.”

“It scares me, all right,” Cherry said. “Doctor, do you actually propose that the pilot land using Swivel engines as landing gear? Because if I’m reading this right, the passenger compartment doesn’t actually touch the ground.”

“Well, yes,” the elderly minotaur admitted. “My proposed flight plan is, a first landing under power, then a hard burn second launch to gain sufficient altitude for a parachute descent. The engines would be jettisoned after burnout, of course.”

Cherry Berry looked around the table. “Do we even know the impact tolerance for the Swivel engine system?” she asked.

“Be right back,” Occupant said, sliding out of his chair and trotting out the door.

“Where’s he going?” Chrysalis asked.

“Probably to look it up,” Goddard grumbled. “Celestia knows I don’t remember. We know it can survive a splashdown at five and a half meters per second from Mission Five, but I can’t remember any more precise number.”

“Is it stronger than a capsule?” Cherry asked.

“Ha! Of course not!” Goddard made vague twisty-turny motions in the air with his talons. “The Swivel’s full of delicate plumbing and gimbals. They’d shear apart long before you’d put a dent in the tin cans you fly around in!”

“And in shearing apart,” von Brawn rumbled, “they would almost certainly release and ignite unburned fuel, leading to an explosion. Not, I fear, one of your better inspirations, Lord Cowley.”

“But it solves a problem we’re going to have to address soon,” Cowley insisted. “We need some means of practical training for a moon landing somewhere closer than the moon.”

“Not yet, we don’t,” Chrysalis insisted. “Right now we have one successful orbital flight in the bag. One. We still have a lot of work to do in orbit around Equus before we attempt the moon.”

“And this rig is lethally unsafe,” Cherry added. “The pilot would be relying entirely on main engine thrust and reaction wheels at low altitude, in atmosphere, under full gravity conditions. We might- MIGHT- make it work on the Moon. Without fine controls, no way it doesn’t kill somepony here on the ground.”

Somepony might get killed if somepony is a pony,” Dragonfly insisted. “I’m a changeling. We’re tough! I could put that rocket down on a bit and give you change.”

“NO,” Cherry Berry and Chrysalis said in perfect unison.

Dragonfly wilted in her chair. “Awww,” she pouted.

After a long glare at the third-tier pilot, Cherry turned her attention to George Cowley. “Doctor, one problem at a time,” she said. “We just want a rocket with only enough delta-V for a low atmospheric flight to the nearest solid, empty flat land. And then we’re going to drop the can and see-“

Everyone at the table stiffened as they heard the faint but unmistakable sound of an explosion through the administration building walls.

“What was that?” Cherry asked.

“A rupture of the liquid fuel storage tanks?” von Brawn guessed, rising from his chair.

“An accident in Marked Knee’s lab?” George Bull suggested. “He’s been working hard on his new electronic calculating engine.”

“Electronics explode?” Chrysalis asked.

“This is a rocket flight center,” Goddard grumbled, rising to an arthritic hover over the table. “EVERYTHING explodes.”

Before anyone could get out the door to investigate, it opened to let Occupant back in. “The Swivel suffers catastrophic structural failure at seven point two meters per second,” he said. “Six point eight seems to be okay, though.”

A long pregnant silence ensued, followed by the collective sound of eight people inhaling and preparing to deliver a blistering rant. Chrysalis, having been less surprised than the others, beat the others to it by a split-second, asking, “Are you telling me you just dropped a perfectly good engine to see if it would explode?”

“Of course!” Occupant nodded. “Out on the launch pad, of course. Safety first! Lucky Cricket wanted to save effort by just doing it in the VAB, but I wouldn’t let him.”

“And what,” Chrysalis asked, “possessed you to think that was in any way a good idea??”

Occupant shrugged. “No other way of finding out, is there?”

This observation had the effect of silencing the queen, and therefore the entire room.

For about ten seconds.

Then Dragonfly said, “So, seven meters per second? That’s well within our parachute descent speeds! I could handle that-“

“I said NO,” Chrysalis said, and that ended the discussion.

Footnote:

(177) And also Lucky Cricket, but he wasn’t high enough on the totem pole to attend this meeting. He was in the worker quarters telling his fellow changelings about Cape Friendship’s EVA training setup, or as he called it, The Not As Much Fun As the Fun Machine But Still Kind of Neat Machine.

The freshly erected grandstands stood next to the VAB, empty except for three ponies and one changeling queen. Off in the distance a stubby little rocket sat on the launchpad. Jet Set and Upper Crust looked at it through binoculars, while Hobble Jimenez, poor earth pony from south of the border that he was, settled for holding a hoof over his eyes and squinting.

“The rockets you will fly in,” Chrysalis said, “will be much larger. This one isn’t going anywhere near space today. If all goes well it will fly to the western edge of the Hayseed Swamps, where the Badlands begin, and parachute to the ground for a landing test of the new passenger compartment.”

“Why's tha' big tin can on top of the pointy bit?” Hobble asked.

“That’s science equipment,” Chrysalis said. “We couldn’t find a paying contract for today’s flight, so we’re going to use it to collect data on the landing zone to compare with readings we’ve taken here at the space center. Since this is a short flight, the extra weight and blunt top shouldn’t affect things too much.”(178)

“Which part is the passenger compartment?” Upper Crust asked.

“The part with the large windows, I think, darling,” Jet Set said. “In fact, those appear to be the same windows they use in Duchess-class personal airships. Perfect for taking pictures through.”

“Precisely our idea,” Chrysalis said. “If you wish, we can have extra film ordered in for your cameras.”

Before the conversation could continue, the piercing wail of Fiddlewing’s warning rang across the space center. The changeling ground crew streaked away from the rocket, soaring over the heads of the four on the grandstands. As the horrible sound ceased and the last hovering changeling fled, Chrysalis said, “Any minute now. Mission Control is going through the final checklist before launch.”

“How long will that take?” Upper Crust asked.

“I just said,” Chrysalis said, having to work extra hard to keep a sneer or a whine out of her voice(179), “any minute now.”

“So, no time for somepony to fetch us some pop-“

Smoke appeared from the bottom of the distant rocket. Slowly it rose off the launchpad, flames flashing from the bottom of the stack, gaining speed with every moment. The unicorns watched with wonder, while Hobble lowered his head and put it under his crossed forelegs.

“I say,” Jet Set asked, “isn’t it rather quiet for a-“

Now it was his turn to be interrupted, as the sound of the rocket motor, having taken ten seconds to cover the two miles between the pad and the grandstands, pounced on the ponies and, for quite some time, drowned out all possible speech. This didn’t stop the Canterlot couple from trying, as they shouted and pointed and gawked at the rocket as it turned in the air, flying directly overhead at a height of about a mile and soaring eastwards out of sight.

“Well,” Chrysalis said once the slowly fading sound of the rocket dropped low enough for ordinary conversation to be heard, “that’s what a rocket launch looks like. Now let’s go to the astromare quarters and listen to the rest of the flight.” This was a deliberate redirection on the queen’s part; having seen just how chaotic Mission Control could be even under flight protocols, she didn’t want her tourists getting an eyeful of that.

Listening to the communications between Dragonfly and cap-comm Cherry Berry would be bad enough…

Footnotes:

(178) Besides, Dragonfly had been a bit sullen about what promised to be an unexciting flight. Putting a Science Jr. on top of the rocket stack, and thus giving the ship the aerodynamic profile of a brick covered in cane syrup, had cheered her up considerably. Which made Chrysalis nervous.

(179) Long experience helped keep Chrysalis from telling the Canterlot ponies precisely what she thought of them, but it required a constant effort. Sometimes more so than others, as for example when one of the unicorns asked a stupid question… and they tended to all be stupid, in Chrysalis’s estimation.

“Throttle back to forty percent thrust,” Dragonfly said, keeping one hoof firmly on the flight stick as the rocket bucked and shuddered in the heavy air. “Airspeed holding steady at two hundred forty-five meters per second, trajectory holding at two-seventy by sixty-five. Estimated fuel at twenty-five percent.”

Mission 12 flew like a flaming brick, but that suited Dragonfly fine. She liked flying a brick. Keeping a brick pointed where you wanted it to go was a challenge.

“Copy, Twelve,” Cherry Berry’s voice echoed in Dragonfly’s helmet. “Could you angle up a little bit? Your trajectory is looking short.”

“Twelve copies,” Dragonfly said, pulling the stick a little to the left. She hadn’t bothered rolling the ship, so she was more or less lying on her side in the harness straps of her flight couch, The rocket thrust was barely above one gee, not pushing her back in her seat enough to counter natural gravity.

“The bullpen asks that you not decouple the engine for a while,” Cherry Berry added. “The extra mass and inertia will counter air resistance and keep you going longer.”

“Twelve copies,” Dragonfly said, and then added, “Coming up on engine burnout.” A few seconds later she was yanked forward in her straps as the thrust of the engines was replaced by the push of air that didn’t want to get out of the way. Fortunately it wasn’t as hard a shove as in previous missions. The flight had been kept subsonic for that exact reason.

Now Dragonfly rolled the ship just enough to let her see out the porthole. This was the tricky bit; she had to get to an open space, over the swamps and forest, that she could drop the ship into. And she had to spot it well ahead of time; by the time she decoupled the engines and popped the parachutes, anything underneath would be several miles behind her.

She glanced at her altimeter. “Altitude five kilometers and almost steady,” she reported. “I’m pretty much at the peak of my trajectory.”

“Noted, Twelve,” Cherry Berry said in a very uncertain-sounding tone.

“Horseton,” Dragonfly asked, “is there something wrong?”

“Affirmative, Twelve,” Cherry replied. “We’re not certain you’re going to make it across the Hayseed Swamps. We know you’re not going to come anywhere near the Badlands. The extra drag of the scientific equipment slowed you down a lot more than we’d anticipated.”

“So this flight is going to be an even shorter hop than we planned?”

“Afraid so, Twelve.” Dragonfly could almost taste(180) Cherry Berry’s anxiety. “You should probably be looking for a safe landing zone really, really hard.”

“Pffft. Easy!” Dragonfly said, tweaking the flight stick a little. “I could park this thing between two hay carts!”

“Please don’t,” Cherry Berry groaned.

Dragonfly turned her attention to the ground below. Most of what she saw blurring past was swamp and trees- no good, no good at all. Thankfully she was holding most of her momentum and altitude, but that wouldn’t last long- and in the meantime it was making it really hard to see what she was doing. Even two and half miles below, the ground was moving past very quickly. Too quickly.

“Preparing to decouple engine,” Dragonfly said, pulling the stick a bit to the left again. She couldn’t go full vertical- she’d stop cold if she did that- but she had to angle the ship to keep the engines from slamming into her from behind once they were detached.

“Horseton copies,” Cherry Berry said.

Dragonfly hit the staging button. “Engines decoupled,” she said, noting that the jolt had slowed her descent just a tad. She nosed the ship back down, reducing her drag as much as she could.

“We see the engine stage falling away behind you,” Cherry said. “Mission Twelve altitude thirty-eight hundred meters and falling.”

Dragonfly didn’t bother acknowledging. The ground was changing below her. The trees were growing taller and straighter, the foliage changing to a brighter green. She was actually seeing grass between the branches, or at least she presumed it was grass and not mud and brambles by the color.

And then the trees opened up, and Dragonfly saw clear ground- well, mostly clear- beneath her. She pitched the ship up to look ahead, and saw low rolling hills, mostly open grassland, and the very distant red-and-black lines of the outer ridges of the Badlands.

“I’m above some grasslands now,” Dragonfly said. “Looks good for a landing zone. Deploying parachutes!” Her hoof slapped down on the staging button, and the capsule rocked as three parachute covers released.

The ship slowed, but not quickly enough for Dragonfly’s taste. Maybe we ought to develop special parachutes, she thought, parachutes made to slow down enough so that the main parachutes can be deployed. I need to talk with Goddard about that, and maybe that old minotaur too.

The parachutes pulled the capsule up, taking Dragonfly’s view of the ground away and replacing it with blue sky. “Parachutes deployed,” Dragonfly said. “Everything looking good.”

“We agree, Twelve,” Cherry Berry said. “Standing by for full deployment.”

Dragonfly slumped back in her spacesuit. The fun part was over. Now the capsule was, one way or the other, at the mercy of three pieces of fabric, all of which she’d designed herself, all of which she’d supervised the assembly and packing of back in Appleoosa. If they all failed, the rest of the flight, and her life, would be exciting but short, and she’d have nothing she could do about it. If all three worked, or two out of three, or possibly even only one, she’d hit the ground fairly hard but not painfully so- and, again, nothing she did could change that.

Maybe, she thought, I should get Cherry Berry to give me lessons in flying that loud kite of hers. I never saw the point of it before, since anything it can do a pegasus or changeling can do better, but being able to steer a machine from takeoff to landing would be so much more fun than this…

The parachutes opened fully, and for a couple of seconds Dragonfly’s eyes bulged out as gravity pulled her back into her seat with fourteen times its normal force. The velocity readout on her console plummeted from one hundred fifty meters per second down to a staid, leisurely eight… seven… six point four… five point five meters per second.

Five and a half meters per second.

Twelve miles an hour.

I get bumped in the hallways harder than twelve miles an hour!

“Horseton,” she said, not bothering to disguise her disgust, “all three parachutes show green. Descent speed five point five meters per second. Altitude seven hundred sixty-four meters.”

“Horseton confirms, Twelve,” Cherry Berry said.

“Five point five isn’t going to give us a valid impact test, Horseton.”

“Data is data, Twelve.”

“Well, we can get better data,” Dragonfly said, holding a hoof over the emergency release switches for the parachutes. “Detaching main parachute.”

“NO!!” Cherry Berry shouted, just as over forty miles away Dragonfly’s hoof came down on the switch.

For about three seconds after that, things became very interesting indeed inside the capsule. (181)

Footnotes:

(180) Only in the metaphorical sense. The changeling ability to sense emotions is very powerful magic, but not powerful enough to reach for miles and miles, except where Princess Cadance and/or the Crystal Heart are concerned. A changeling can close its eyes and point with perfect accuracy in the direction of the Crystal Empire from as much as two hundred miles away.

(181) For those who want to know what constitutes interesting in this context, it is best summed up as, “oh buck, oh buck, I’m going to die.”

Chrysalis’s mane stood on end. Her perforated wings spread in alarm. She leaned forward towards the comm relay speaker, ignoring the customary thud of Hobble Jimenez fainting. Only iron determination not to show weakness in front of the tourists stopped her from shouting at the speakers… and if either Cherry Berry or Dragonfly could have heard her without a microphone, she might have done so anyway.

Cherry Berry’s voice- normally confident, cheerful, calm- now carried the ragged edge of terror. “Mission Twelve, comms check.” Pause. “Mission Twelve, this is Mission Control Horseton, please respond.”

“Horseton, Twelve,” Dragonfly’s voice replied grudgingly. “Descent speed now five point eight meters per second. I should have cut the lateral parachutes instead.”

A significant pause followed.

“Twelve, Horseton,” Cherry Berry said, her voice not so much calmed as walking with extreme trepidation around the brink of a deep conversational chasm. “We show your ship’s attitude as stable two, repeat stable two.”

“Twelve confirms, Horseton.” Dragonfly’s annoyed tone didn’t budge an inch.

Cherry Berry’s voice, having run out of options, jumped off the cliff. “Dragonfly, you’re upside down and about to hit the ground nose-first in another five hundred thirty-five meters. You do realize this, right?”

“Relax, Horseton,” Dragonfly said. “My reaction wheels are fully functional. I should be able to swing the ship upright and use the wheels to maintain stable one attitude until landing.”

“Shouldn’t you get on that, then?” The pink pony, in free-fall down the abyss of conversation failure, was making rapid progress from frightened to annoyed.

“In a moment, Horseton,” Dragonfly said. “Doing this will suck down battery power like a heartbroken pony in a salt saloon. If I do it too soon I’ll run out of power, flip over again, and miss the impact test completely.”

“Four hundred fifty meters, Twelve.”

“All right, all right,” Dragonfly said. “Executing attitude correction.”

For several seconds the comm channel remained silent. "What's all that about?" Upper Crust asked.

"Dragonfly cut her main parachute," Chrysalis said. "The two remaining parachutes are mounted on the ship's sides. The ship is a little top-heavy, so without the main parachute it flipped over. Now Dragonfly's using the reaction wheels-"

“Twelve, Horseton,” Cherry Berry’s voice called out, “we show you at stable one and holding.”

“Affirmative, Horseton,” Dragonfly’s voice replied. “Battery drain is pretty steep, as expected, but I think it’ll just last until I hit ground. Three hundred fifty meters, by the way.”

“Horseton confirms,” Cherry said.

“You know, this is more fun, landing this way,” Dragonfly’s voice said. “I’m actually getting to do something. This is more interesting. More exciting.”

“Exciting is not a word we really want to hear on this end, Twelve,” Cherry Berry said sternly.

“Yeah, I know,” Dragonfly grumbled.

As Chrysalis settled back on her haunches again, Upper Crust asked, “Miss Dragonfly isn’t going to be flying our trip, is she?”

“Of course not,” Chrysalis said. “You’re getting the boring one instead.”

“I like boring,” Upper Crust said quickly. “I really like boring. Boring is fashionable this season, isn’t it, dear?”

“Very true, my dear,” Jet Set said. “Boredom looks good on a pony. Myself,” he said with feeling, “I wouldn’t be caught dead without it.”

Mission Twelve hit the ground butt-first at twelve-and-loose-change miles per hour. The ground being slightly uneven, the ship wobbled and teetered slightly before settling back more or less upright. The lateral-mounted parachutes automatically detached and blew away on the breeze.

“Mission Twelve landed and stable one,” Dragonfly reported. “SAS system shutdown with twelve percent battery charge remaining. Science Jr. package and goo canisters deployed.”

“Horseton confirms, Twelve,” Cherry Berry said. “Recovery team will be at your site in about half an hour. Make yourself comfortable.”

“Negative, Horseton,” Dragonfly said. “I think I’ll go out for a walk.”

“You what?”

“Horseton, your comms discipline is strangely lacking today,” Dragonfly drawled.

“Did we copy you correctly, you intend to go EVA, is that correct Twelve?”

“Affirmative, Horseton.”

“Twelve, there’s no ladder on the passenger compartment,” Cherry Berry said. “We haven’t figured out yet how to do that without compromising the pressure vessel.”

“I know that, Horseton,” Dragonfly said. “I’m on the design committee, remember? I spend three times as many days at Appleoosa as you do.”

“And how were you planning on getting back into the ship?”

“Oh, I don’t know, Horseton,” Dragonfly said sarcastically. “It’s not like I have wings or anything under this spacesuit- oh wait, I do have wings! How about that? I never noticed before!”

“We’d still rather you stayed put, Twelve.”

“Look, I have one experiment to perform not listed on the mission checklist,” Dragonfly insisted.

“Do tell.” Cherry Berry’s voice could have frozen cider in July.

“You ponies,” Dragonfly said, “when you climb a mountain or sail to a new island or things like that, you plant a flag. It’s a thing you do when you explore or adventure, right?”

“Some of us do that,” Cherry Berry admitted reluctantly.

“Well, I made a flag,” Dragonfly said. “It's got a folding base and an extendable rod that should keep the flag out even in space. And I want to use it.”

“Fine, Twelve,” Cherry Berry said. “Just be careful not to knock over the ship as you get out, all right? We don’t want to invalidate our impact data after all this.”

“Hey,” Dragonfly said confidently, “it’s me.”

MISSION 12 REPORT

Mission summary: Test flight and landing properties of new passenger compartment; pick up scientific data

Pilot: Dragonfly

Flight duration: 6 min. 2 sec.

Contracts fulfilled: 0
Milestones: First flag planted

Conclusions from flight: Dragonfly needs a refresher course in caution.

MISSION ASSESSMENT: MEH

Jet Set poked his head through the opened hatchway of the prototype passenger pod. “You must be joking,” he said bluntly. “You can’t be intending to send us to space in this!”

Chrysalis poked her head through the hatch above Jet Set’s. “What’s wrong with it?” she asked. “Everything looks undamaged. The cabinets didn’t even open up.”

“The interior design is all wrong!” Jet Set insisted. He pointed to the padded drawers and cabinets that lined every surface except the deck and windows. “None of these are labeled! We need to be able to find things quickly- or to keep away from things we’re not meant to open! Labels. On. Everything. This is a basic passenger safety feature! It shouldn’t be difficult!”

“Er… this is a prototype?” Chrysalis said uncertainly.

“And the seats!” Jet Set snapped, jabbing a hoof at the two comfortable, padded swivel chairs bolted to the deck. “You got these out of my company’s warehouses, I’m certain of it! These are the Executive Cushies we use for our personal airship line!”

“We bought them open and above board!” Chrysalis insisted. “We thought you’d want to be comfortable-“

“They don’t lock into place!” Jet Set said. “The fastest airships don’t get above forty knots! The instant your rocket moves or turns or does anything the passengers are going to spin like tops!” To demonstrate his point the unicorn swiped a seat with his hoof, sending it spinning like a gramophone turntable with an overwound spring. “We need secure seats, with straps, or else we’re going to be lining the walls of this can!”

“Look!” Chrysalis shouted, her patience for being ranted at exhausted. “This is the first time we’ve had more than one pony up in a ship! Do you think you can do better?”

“I know I can do better!” Jet Set said. “Let me talk to your designers- I know they began with my engineers’ designs, I can see the similarities. There are half a dozen other improvements we can make, and I can give orders to my Canterlot shipyards to have the improved cabins delivered within the week!”

And, exactly seven days later, two improved passenger cabins were indeed offloaded from barges at the Muck Lake quays. In the meantime, the crews trained. Hobble Jimenez learned the true terror of the centrifuge, while both Jet Set and Upper Crust enjoyed the experience. The tables were reversed in the Fun Machine, where a relaxed Hobble pointed out to the two disconcerted unicorns that free fall wasn’t what killed you: “It’s the stop at th’ end ‘at does it.” The tourists observed, and even participated a little in, the flight simulations.

And then came the day before launch…

“Okay, here’s the bad news,” Occupant said, using his magic to pass around copies of the mission plans for every pony at the final briefing- himself, Chrysalis, Cherry Berry, Dragonfly, von Brawn, Goddard, and by courtesy the three tourists. “Aside from our passengers and the outstanding decoupler test, I wasn’t able to find any additional contracts for either mission. Nothing’s available except those survey missions that just won’t go away.”

“Who keeps offering those?” Cherry Berry groaned. “I could do them in my biplane! What nutty pony would think you need a rocket for those?”

“I keep ignoring them, but they won’t go away,” Occupant said.

“Then start sending them away,” Chrysalis said. “Contact them personally and tell them the answer is no. No more in-flight surveys of Equus. Now or ever. Period.”

Occupant slumped. “That’ll make some ponies mad,” he said. “It might make it harder to get any contract at all.”

“A survey contract doesn’t count as a contract!” Chrysalis said. “Put out the word that we’re going to be a lot more choosy in contracts from now on. We’re only taking on jobs that get us closer to our goal of a moon landing. That tone of exclusivity will make us more attractive for the jobs we actually want.”

“You know,” Jet Set said wholly uninvited, “that’s a good point. The concept that one’s services are only available to the right ponies tends to drive up demand rather than drive it down, in my experience.”

Chrysalis took a deep breath(182) and asked, “What’s the good news, then?”

Occupant brought in a pair of very large cameras with a chest-harness. “The griffons have developed a camera they think will work in a total vacuum,” he said. “It was surprisingly easy to buy a couple of them along with the film they need.”

Goddard chuckled. “You don’t know my people well,” he said. “If you did, you wouldn’t be surprised at anything they’d agree to sell.”

Occupant shrugged. “Anyway, I figure we can sell the pictures to the newspapers and magazines, maybe make a calendar or art book or something for ourselves.” He held up one of the mission plan sheets, which had a crude drawing of Equus with two rings around it at right angles to one another. “Mission Thirteen goes into an elliptical orbit with a high apoapsis, takes photos of all of Equus, and completes the decoupler test. Mission Fourteen goes into a polar orbit, which will let it take pictures of various parts of the planet more closely. Mr. Jimenez goes on Mission Thirteen, since he only needs to go up and down; Mr. Set and Mrs. Crust go on Mission Fourteen, where they can see all the same places and take their own photos.”

“Wait a moment,” Upper Crust said. “We don’t have cameras like that.”

“You won’t need them,” Occupant said. “My queen and Miss Berry will use these cameras while spacewalking.”

“Spacewalking?” Jet Set asked.

“They’ll spend some time outside the ship,” Occupant said. “Taking pictures and recording observations of what they see.”

“Ou’side th’ ship?” Hobble gasped. “Jou mean, as in, not steering it?”

“I beg your pardon!” Jet Set shouted.

The hubbub rapidly became a roar as seven different people talked and shouted over one another until, with a thunderous slam of palm onto table, Warner von Brawn restored silence. “My friends,” he said, “once you’re in orbit there is no steering, no flying, no action required. You will continue going the direction you’re going until you do something to change that. It’s not like pulling a cart or flying an airship. An unpiloted spaceship in a stable orbit simply cannot crash. Can NOT, ladies and gentlemen.”

The calm but firm voice of the minotaur scientist calmed the room somewhat.

“And to make sure that ‘do something’ doesn’t happen by accident,” Goddard continued, “we’re going to lock the hatch between the passenger compartment and the command capsule. The passengers will not be able to access any, repeat ANY, flight controls during the mission. That should sharply reduce the chance of an unfortunate accident.”

“Besides,” Cherry Berry said, “you’re going to have the comfy seats. We pilots basically lie down on a big metal bench. You get upholstery.”

“One more thing,” Occupant said. “Because of the unusual orbits, there’s no way we can expect to land either mission anywhere close to the space center. That means, when we land, we’ll have to make arrangements for travel back to your homes. That could be from halfway around the world, which is why we’ll be sending out five recovery teams to speed up the process.

“That means we need you to pack all your belongings except for one spare set of clothing each, so we can ship it back to your homes.” Occupant waved a mission plan again. “We can’t afford the weight or space on the ship to pack any more personal items than that and your cameras, wallets, and jewelry.”

Hobble shrugged. “I come here wi' nothin’,” he said. “I can go back wi’ nothin’. So long as I go back.”

“Of course we will check said luggage for hitchhikers before launch,” Chrysalis said, giving a pointed glance at the scrawny earth pony.

“Jou can’ blame a pony for trying,” Hobble shrugged again.

Footnote:

(182) Not that she needed the air, but to prevent her from giving the preemptory order for the unicorn to be silent. She counted the hours until the flight was over and she would never have to lay eyes on these Tartarus-damned ponies ever again.

The Vehicle Assembly Building had never been so busy before. The rocket design for Mission Thirteen had been a tweak from Mission Eleven- adding a third Thumper solid fuel booster and a bit more fuel in the second stage for the extra delta-V required for a higher orbit. This made it the largest, heaviest, most complex rocket the Changeling Space Program had ever assembled yet.

And, since Mission Fourteen’s rocket was identical and would be launched as soon as Mission Thirteen achieved orbit, two rockets were being assembled at once.

Four ponies and one changeling in spacesuits, helmet visors open, stood and watched as dozens of changelings and ponies wrangled rocket parts using a combination of magic, winches, and jigs. Fuel lines were connected and sealed. Tanks were carefully welded together. Decouplers were carefully leveled and bolted into place. Giant solid rocket boosters, one after another, were carted in one at a time and carefully connected.

And then two capsules, already attached to the passenger cabin expansions, were levitated onto the assembly building floor, set down in front of the astromares, their passengers, and their ground crew. “Mission Thirteen is on the right,” Lucky Cricket, supervising the assembly team, pointed to the capsule as two other changelings rolled a ladder up to its hatch. “Mr. Jimenez first, followed by Her Majesty Queen Pilot Chrysalis.” He pointed to the other and said, “Mission Fourteen is the other one. Mrs. Crust first, then Mr. Set, and finally Chief Pilot Cherry Berry.”

“Couldn’t we wait until the whole rocket is assembled?” Jet Set asked. “Why not have a boarding gantry on the launch pad, where we could board just before launch?”

Before either Chrysalis or Cherry Berry could provide a safe answer, Lucky Cricket chimed in, “Because we’d have to build a new one every time, and that gets expensive. The blast from a rocket launch is very destructive, and on some launches spent boosters fall on the space center grounds instead of in the ocean. That’s why the launchpad is two miles away from the rest of the space center. This is safer for everypony.”

There was a soft double clunk as Chrysalis’s and Cherry Berry’s jaws hit the bottom of their helmets in unison.

“I see,” Jet Set said, unruffled. “Put that way, it makes perfect sense, so long as the rocket doesn’t fall on its way to the pad.”

“No danger of that,” Lucky Cricket said firmly. “We’ll be using three teams of fifty changelings(183) each in shifts to carry the assembled rocket to the pad. Forty could do it, but changing teams allows us to rest and recover. With that redundancy you’re safer than in your own airships, trust me.”

Jet Set smiled and nodded, fully satisfied, as did his wife. Even Hobble looked a little bit calmed… or, at least, his trembling grew a little less obvious. “So,” he says at last, “the one onna righ’, tha’s mine, jes?”

“That’s right.”

“Good. Please fe’ch me some paint anna small brush.”

Lucky Cricket looked at Chrysalis, who shrugged and nodded. One of the ground crew brought out a can of red paint and the kind of brush used for detail work.

“'At’ll do nice,” Hobble said, putting the brush into the paint and carrying both to the top of the boarding ladder. There, on the front of the hatch, brush in his teeth, he carefully painted a series of bizarre, vaguely square designs, each looking like some jungle animal in horrible torment.

“What is that?” Jet Set asked, disgusted.

“Eees th’ language of my peoples,” Hobble said around the paintbrush.

“What does it say, then?”

“Eet say thees,” Hobble grunted, adding in much smaller Equestrian letters below the blocks of Mexicolt symbols: Do not be afraid. The beings inside are ponies and will not hurt you.

“There,” Hobble said, putting the brush back in the paint and carrying both back down the ladder. “I feel a bit better now.”

“Then are you ready to actually get in the thing?” Chrysalis asked.

“Do I have to?” Hobble whined.

In response Chrysalis used her magic to open the hatch, pick up Hobble, and stuff him inside.

“Jou coulda jus’ said yes,” Hobble’s voice echoed from inside the capsule.

“Make sure he gets to his proper chair and gets strapped in,” Chrysalis ordered, nodding two of the ground crew changelings up the boarding ladder. After a moment she looked at Lucky Cricket and added, “And paint the Equestrian part of that on the other ship. In fact, paint it on all our capsules from now on.”

“Yes, my queen!” Lucky Cricket said, picking up the paint can and brush and fluttering over to the Mission Fourteen capsule.

This taken care of, Chrysalis followed the ground crew up the boarding ladder.

Footnote:

(183) There were some unicorns in each team as well, borrowed from the construction crews at double pay for the day. They could levitate things even better than changelings, and since all construction halted on launch days it was only efficient to make use of them.

Two weeks before, the grandstands had been empty except for Chrysalis and the three space tourists. On this bright morning an observer might well have thought those four the only ponies in Equestria not in the stands, talking, laughing, gaping at anything and everything. Ships and barges filled Muck Lake, as lighters ferried passengers to the quay. Pegasi and griffons circled the buildings looking for a place to perch, while every wagon and carriage in Horseton ferried well-to-do ponies from the balloons and airships landing in a hastily cleared rice field.

Vendors walked or hovered up and down the stands, Horseton hillbilly ponies hawking hot snack food on an unusually brisk late autumn morning for the Hayseed Swamps while changelings under Heavy Frosting’s supervision sold so-called “space food”(184)

Of the now seven companies broadcasting on the newfangled television sets, four had cameras live on the scene. Flim and Flam's barge sat offshore in the bay outside Muck Lake's mouth, while three other stations had erected temporary transmission towers behind Mission Control. A special press box had been erected on the roof of the VAB to allow cameraponies and presenters a direct and almost private look at the launchpad.

The world had come to watch the first paying customers(185) launched into space.

"And it looks like they've set the rocket down on the pad," Gerry Goodmane, the elegantly-coiffed star of the "Voice of Equestria" network, told his viewers. "Mission Thirteen is set to fly higher than any previous space mission, fifty thousand kilometers above the world's surface. The pilot, Chrysalis queen of the changelings, will then leave the craft for a spacewalk, while the passenger, Mr. Hobble Jimenez of the tribes of Nickeragua, will remain secure in the capsule."

Goodmane looked beside him at the elderly pony standing beside him. "Dr. Inexplorata, will Mr. Jimenez take the controls while Queen Chrysalis is outside the craft?"

"I rather doubt it," Ad Inexplorata said. "First because it is doubtful Mr. Jimenez has been trained enough to qualify as a pilot, and second because it won't be necessary. Once in orbit a ship will continue on its course unless something changes. So Mr. Jimenez won't be needed to keep the ship steady, but if he hit the wrong button, that might change."

"So," Goodmane said, "no time behind the stick for Hobble Jimenez?"

"Unlikely," Inexplorata said.

"What about during re-entry?" Goodmane said. "Would Jimenez take the stick then?"

"Certainly not," Inexplorata said. "It is barely possible that in three weeks' time Mr. Jimenez could be trusted to toy around a little bit while safely in orbit, but I doubt it. But re-entry is the most dangerous part of the mission. The ship must remain behind the heat shield at all times, and with an elongated craft like Mission Thirteen that requires precision flying. There is no way Queen Chrysalis would trust anyone but herself with that task."

"Of course, the one pony she might trust to do such a thing, CSP chief pilot Cherry Berry, is currently in the Mission Fourteen rocket in the building underneath our hooves," Goodmane said. "Remind our viewers of her mission, please, Doctor."

"Well, as I understand it," Inexplorata said grumpily(186), "Mission Fourteen will attempt a circumpolar orbit, a feat never before accomplished and only attempted by the Crystal Empire and Yakyakistan space programs due to their high latitude."

"The Crystal Empire's space program, of course, having just been merged with the Equestrian Space Agency," Goodmane interrupted.

"Well, yes," Inexplorata grunted, barely holding his temper. "If successful Mission Fourteen will offer passengers Jet Set and Upper Crust unprecedented views of the entire planet. The danger, however, is that the ship won't have enough velocity to achieve a polar orbit."

"And why is that?" Goodmane asked.

"As everyone who read Princess Twilight Sparkle's thesis knows," Inexplorata said, "although Equus's rotation requires Princess Celestia to keep it from coming to a halt, it does rotate at several hundred miles per hour. That means anything lifting off its surface is also going more or less eastward at considerable speed. All the successful orbital missions until now have launched due east to take advantage of this, because it saves fuel.

"But a circumpolar orbit goes directly north and south, which means the ship must not only burn enough fuel to achieve orbit without that initial boost, it must burn even more fuel to cancel out its eastern momentum. So a ship orbiting the poles uses a lot more fuel than a ship orbiting the equator."

"Do you think the rockets being used today will have enough fuel for these missions, Doctor?"

"Well, I-"

The changelings and unicorns who had carried the massive Mission Thirteen rocket to the pad two miles distant scattered. A moment later the sound of Fiddlewing's piercing wing-rubbing reached the press on top of the VAB, interrupting and drowning out Dr. Inexplorata's response.(187)

As soon as the horrible shriek ended, Goodmane said, "I'm sorry, Dr. Inexplorata, but that's the signal for launch. We'll listen to the mission control's final checklist while we wait for the launch."

The camerapony for Voice of Equestria shifted its view to the launchpad, and the pony controlling the sound equipment nodded to Goodmane and Inexplorata. "All right, we can talk for a little bit," Goodmane said quietly.

"I thought we were going to listen to the mission control," Inexplorata complained.

"We couldn’t get a speaker up here, only a set of earphones," Goodmane shrugged. "But we have another camerapony and microphone in the press gallery at Mission Control, and Wiggle T. Plug there," he gestured to the pony at a bank of controls that looked like a cross between a sound board and a gemologist’s worktable, "is patching the sound into the broadcast over our view of the rocket."

"Oh." Inexplorata turned around to face the rocket. "So, how long does it take them to go through the checklist?"

Goodmane paused in tying a hairnet over his carefully brushed hair. "Not very long at all," he said. "You should probably brace yourself. The first time I was here I could hear the boom inside the Mission Control building."

A few seconds later, Dr. Inexplorata found out exactly what Goodmane meant.

Once the initial blast of wind had subsided and the ear-shattering noise of the launch had abated enough for any other sound to be heard, Dr. Inexplorata looked at Goodmane. The hairnet hadn’t helped at all. In fact, half of it had been pulled off, and the other half had bits of hair sprouting through the mesh like patches of grass a lawnmower had missed.

Goodmane immediately noticed the expression on Inexplorata’s face. “What’s wrong?” he asked. “Is it the mane? Someone give me a mirror, quick!” Without waiting for anyone else to do it, he plunged into the makeup kit kept discreetly below the view of the camera and hauled out a large hoof-mirror. One look at his reflection raised his voice two and a half octaves. “YE GADS!” he squeaked. “Brushies, brushies, quick quick quick!”

“Gerry,” the camera-pony said, “I won’t be able to keep the rocket in focus much longer. We need some face time.”

“We’ll go to the mission control camera!” Gerry grumbled, scrambling for various mane-care implements.

“No can do,” Wiggle T. Plug said. “We need a live shot of the next rocket coming out of the building.” As soon as he said the words, the roof of the VAB began to shake. “We need face time in thirty seconds, Gerry.”

“Okay! Okay! Okay.” Gerry took a couple of quick but deep breaths, letting his voice drop back down to its normal mellifluous tones. “Go to the Mission Control camera for a few seconds, focus the camera on the doc here, then bring picture and sound back here. Camera is either on the doctor or a rocket until I say otherwise. Got it?” As he gave orders, both hooves worked feverishly to gradually restore his manestyle.

“Yessir,” the camera-pony nodded, rolling his eyes at the pony working the broadcast controls. “Need to cut away pretty much now, guys.”

“Internal view of Mission Control in three, two…” A switch went click. “Refocus on Dr. Inexplorata… stand by, mikes will go live when I wave my hoof…” There was a tense few seconds as the rumbling of the VAB vehicle doors ceased and Wiggle’s hoof held in the air, while he listened to something on his headset(188). Then the hoof came down and, simultaneously, another switch went click.

Goodmane, still working his hair over with both hooves and four different implements, spoke instantly, as smoothly as if he were casually sipping a cup of tea. “Well, Dr. Inexplorata, that was certainly an impressive sight, wasn’t it?”

“It certainly was, Gerry,” Inexplorata said automatically. His stunned look was taken by thousands of television viewers as a result of the rocket launch. In reality his eyes were boggling behind his glasses at the sight the viewers would never see: an earth pony, without the benefit of any magic, juggling a mirror, two brushes, a comb, a pair of scissors, a jar of hair gel and a can of aerosol hair spray, putting all of them to good effect and still not being satisfied with the results.

Wiggle and the camera pony didn’t bat an eye. They’d seen this before. They were professionals. They were veterans. They’d been working for VoE two entire months. That was a century in television-years.

And as the crew of Voice of Equestria shuffled video and audio and babbled meaningless drivel to cover their biggest star’s bad hair day, fifty changelings and unicorns began carefully, cautiously carrying the Mission Fourteen rocket out of the VAB on its slow, careful two-mile trip to the launchpad.

Footnotes:

(184) Which bore no resemblance whatever to the food actually being sent up into space. The rations in the capsule, despite Heavy Frosting’s best efforts, remained either paste in tubes or rehydrated slop that could be eaten through a straw. To make matters worse, something about zero-gravity reduced pony sensitivity to flavors, so even halfway-decent paste/slop on the ground became either bland or outright disgusting in space. After much discussion it had been decided to just tell the passengers up front that the meals were still in development and that they should probably have a filling breakfast before launch.

(185) Had they known Hobble Jimenez would do almost anything to avoid being launched into space, things might have been different. For one thing, there would have been some lively bidding by the wealthier ponies present to buy his flight seat from him.

(186) Dr. Ad Inexplorata was a professor at Celestia University, Manehattan, and a member of the Royal Astronomical Society. He'd never so much as exchanged a single word with anyone at the Horseton Space Center before Voice of Equestria had hired him to be Goodmane's on-camera expert interviewee during the launch. His knowledge of CSP mission goals and intentions began and ended with a single-page flyer handed out by one of Occupant's assistants to all press members at dawn that morning. Goodmane had seen the same sheet and knew everything Inexplorata did on that subject, and Inexplorata wished he'd shut up about it and ask more interesting questions about space. He, quite literally, wasn't getting paid enough for this.

(187) Which was fortunate for him, because he hadn't a clue. A professor from Celestia University, Manehattan, couldn't just say, "Well, that big sucker looks big enough to me." That would be unscientific.

(188) Goodmane could have had a set of earphones too, but he’d refused to have anything that might damage his hairdo in the least way.

"Boosters and first stage away," Chrysalis said, allowing herself a little sigh of relief as she said it. "And the flight is much smoother already. Why do the boosters keep putting me in a roll?" She didn't notice the pout in her voice as she added, "Solid rockets always behave for the pony."

“Stage separation and second stage ignition confirmed,” Dragonfly said over the comms. “It looked like you were having a little fun there for a minute, Thirteen.”

“Horseton, I could lecture you for a week on the joys of boredom,” Chrysalis grunted, easing the rocket’s nose further down as the acceleration really started to kick in. “In fact I seem to recall I did lecture you for a week on boredom.”

“How’s the passenger?” Dragonfly asked. “I bet he isn’t bored, is he?”

Chrysalis paused for a moment, forcing herself to listen to the noises she’d been ignoring practically since liftoff. “Do you remember, Horseton,” she said as she tuned the noises back out again, “whose idea it was to put a container of hard cider in the passenger compartment to keep the passenger calm?”

“I believe,” Dragonfly drawled, “that was a Royal Command, Thirteen. By your direct order.”

“I was afraid of that,” Chrysalis groaned. “Well, it was a bad idea. The passenger, by the sound of things, is on his third-” Her ears twitched as a new sound came through her helmet, followed by resumption of more than the same. “Correction, fourth air sickness bag. I thought we only packed two of the things, anyway.”

“Thirteen,” Dragonfly said, “the bullpen wants confirmation. Did you say the passenger is somehow managing to vomit while under two point four gees of acceleration?

“Affirmative, Horseton,” Chrysalis said. “And when he’s not puking he’s whimpering.”

There was a prolonged pause. “Thirteen,” Dragonfly said slowly, “we just thought you’d like to know that we can hear the press corps laughing through the glass of the VIP gallery. And I can see Princess Twilight Sparkle holding her head in her wings.”

“Heh,” Chrysalis chuckled. “She’s probably jealous we beat her to another milestone. First barf in space.”(189)

“That might just be possible, Thirteen,” Dragonfly said slowly. “Your apoapsis has broken out of atmosphere, so we’d like you to shift your burn down to ninety by ninety and then terminate ascent burn, please.”

“Copy attitude ninety by ninety and then MECO, Horseton,” Chrysalis said, throttling back the rocket, using a little thrust to put the nose more or less on the horizon, and then cutting thrust completely. In a few seconds the rocket’s interior went from two and a half times normal gravity to zero. “MECO,” she reported. “Attitude holding steady on target.”

“Horseton confirms, Thirteen,” Dragonfly said. “Stand by for orbital insertion burn in approximately two minutes, thirty seconds.”

“Standing by, Horseton,” Chrysalis said. She paused as she noticed that, in addition to the roar of the engines being gone, so was the sound of equine regurgitation(190). “Mr. Jimenez?” she asked. “Is everything all right back there?” For several seconds there was no response. “Mr. Jimenez, could you say something?”

Somet’ing,” a most miserable voice said in jagged rusty-razor tones of bitterness.

“Are you feeling better now?” Chrysalis asked. “Everything A-OK?”

“No,” Hobble Jimenez groaned, “everyt’eeng’s still B-A-D. An’ it’s ‘bout to get W-O-R-S.”

“Really? How?” Chrysalis asked. “We did show you the bathroom facilities, right?”

“Ees like dis,” Hobble said, “my stomach wants to throw up some more… but it can’ figure out which way up is!”

Chrysalis sighed. “There’s a pouch with seltzer tablets inside the small compartment on the table,” she said. “You can use the cold-water tap to fill it after I finish the orbital burn.”

“‘At’s okay,” Hobble said. “It can wait. I don’ think my tummy wants any more visitors jus’ now.”

“Anyway, stay in your seat for now,” Chrysalis said. “I’m going to turn the engines back on again in a bit.” Or don’t, she didn’t say out loud. Don’t and see if I care.

… all right, I care. I care that CSP will get a bad reputation for carelessness, and I care that your native friends might get annoyed and decide to attack the space center, but I don’t care about you in particular.

No, even that’s a lie. I really care about the minute I can hand you back to that chief of yours and I won’t ever have to listen to your whiny voice ever again. That I care about a lot.

I wonder if the chief will mind how many pieces-

“Thirteen, Horseton.”

“Go ahead, Horseton,” Chrysalis said automatically, her grumpy fantasies instantly forgotten.

“Thirty seconds until burn. This will take all remaining fuel in second stage and a tiny fraction of third stage, we estimate. We ask full burn until second stage is empty, then twenty percent burn on third stage until mark.”

“Thirteen copies full burn to burnout second stage, twenty percent burn on third stage until mark,” Chrysalis replied.

“Ten seconds to burn,” Dragonfly said.

“Brace yourself, Mr. Jimenez,” Chrysalis called back, “there’s going to be a little bump.”

“Four. Three. Two. One.”

Chrysalis re-ignited the second stage at full throttle, and gravity returned to the interior of the rocket with a vengeance. Almost a second later she heard a truly heroic retching sound, followed by the splat of something hitting the passenger compartment hatch. Impressive, she thought. I wonder if we could use Mr. Jimenez’s gut as a launch engine?

The stage burned through its remaining fuel as the velocity readout on Chrysalis’s console ticked ever higher. The retching, after that one last effort, had thankfully ceased, and for about a minute the ship rushed forwards in near-silence. Then the fuel and oxidizer tanks went dry, the engine burned out, and the ship was in free-fall again.

The thump of the decoupler releasing the second stage echoed through the ship, loud in comparison to the otherwise silent ship. “What was that?” Hobble gasped in terror.

“Hold on, Mr. Jimenez,” Chrysalis said, “one more bump!” She activated the third stage, waiting a moment to be sure the motor had ignited properly before throttling it back to one-fifth power. The second stage would re-enter the outer atmosphere and, over the course of about twenty or so orbits, slow down until it eventually broke up and burned up into nothing… or so Chrysalis understood it, for what little she cared, as long as the bits weren’t landing in her mane. Her attention was on her earphones, waiting for the word to shut down engines.

Finally Dragonfly’s voice came through, saying, “Five seconds, three, two- cutoff!”

Chrysalis’s suited hoof slapped the shutdown switch, and the ship was once more in free-fall. “MECO,” she said again.

“MECO confirmed, Thirteen,” Dragonfly agreed. “We show you in an almost perfect circular orbit, inclination zero point two percent off the equator. Good flying, my queen.”

Chrysalis snorted. “No kissing up while on the clock, Horseton,” she said.

“Understood, Thirteen,” Dragonfly said, obviously unchastened. “I have to focus on Mission Fourteen launch now, so please turn your microphone off except for emergency.”

“Copy that, Horseton,” Chrysalis said, “Mission Thirteen running silent and awaiting word of a successful launch for Mission Fourteen.” With that she hit the newly installed switch that disabled the outgoing sound on the telepresence spell that allowed Mission Control to see and hear the mission in flight.

“You can relax now, Mr. Jimenez,” Chrysalis said. “The exciting part’s over for now.”

“I’m no’ gonna relax until I can feel the leaves under my hooves,” Hobble said firmly.

“What’s the matter?” Chrysalis asked, both exasperated and slightly amused. “We got you up safely. Don’t you have faith we’ll get you back down to earth too?”

“Oh, I have faith jou’ll gets me down to earth,” Hobble said. “Jus’ how deep into the earth, that I don’ have faith in.”

Footnotes:

(189) As dubious as such a first would be, Mission Thirteen wasn’t it. Gordon the Griffon, on his first suborbital space flight, had lost his lunch moments after entering free-fall. The griffons, lamentably, had not packed any air sickness bags for his flight, with the result that Rarity had been able to sell the griffons a brand-new spacesuit and helmet to replace the one Gordon had, well, soiled beyond reclamation. Since Gordon was the griffons’ only pilot, this had delayed the space program by weeks… and convincing Gordon to get back into the capsule took even longer. Thus far, however, the griffons (and Rarity) had kept the incident absolutely secret.

(190) Pedants from other worlds will insist that equines have a digestive tract that absolutely prevents any possibility of expelling the contents of the stomach via the mouth. Whatever might or might not be true about the equines or any other ungulate mammals on their own planet, the ponies of Equus can pay tribute to the porcelain god with the best of them.

“Good heavens! What was that?”

Mission Fourteen’s rocket had just given the passenger compartment a loud kick in the rear, practically the instant the overwhelming roar of the three solid fuel boosters and the single liquid-fueled steering engine had burned out. In the moment of relative quiet the explosive decoupling had startled Upper Crust, who sat in the rear seat and could only see the back of her husband’s chair.

A second thump, this one more sustained, shoved the two passengers firmly in the back as the second stage engines kicked in. The engine roar was much quieter than the deafening blast of liftoff, low enough for Jet Set to reply without shouting very much, “Just staging, my dear. I don’t really think they made it clear how rough the ride was going to be.”

“Indeed not.” Upper Crust strained against double her natural weight and turned her microphone on. “Miss Berry,” she said, “perchance could you watch the bumps a bit, dear?”

“My sweet, perhaps now’s not a good time to bother the pilot, hm?” Jet Set shouted as gently as possible.

“Fourteen copies three-thirty by forty, stand by Horseton,” Cherry Berry’s voice replied. “Sorry, Mrs. Crust, but-”

“I keep telling you,” Upper Crust interrupted, “Mrs. Crust is my mother. Ms. Crust, please.”

“I’m sorry, but a rough ride is what a space flight is all about,” Cherry Berry continued. “It’s kind of more important that I keep the pointy end aimed at the sky right now and make sure nothing breaks.”

“But surely, dear, you could-”

“Stand by, Horseton,” Cherry Berry said, and then, “I’m sorry, but I really am quite busy right now and I need to be able to listen to what Mission Control is telling me. There’ll be lots of time to talk once this ship’s in orbit. Please be patient.”

“Quite so,” Jet Set agreed, having turned his own microphone on. “Do turn your microphone off, dearest, it’ll be all right.”

With an annoyed snort Upper Crust did so, and Jet Set followed suit a moment later. “As much as we paid for this flight,” she said, “a moment of courteous attention seems the least she could do.” She gestured to the interior of the passenger cabin, adding, “Especially the extra money you spent in building this.”

The interior of the passenger compartment was now indistinguishable from the interior of a businesspony’s exclusive airship cabin, right down to the floor and the ceiling lights. Cushioned overhead compartments ran along either side of the walkway, and larger compartments ran along one side of the compartment opposite the two passenger seats. Only the seats themselves had been changed, with a much stronger deck mounting that could be locked into place or allowed to swivel up to one hundred eighty degrees with the simple pull or push of a lever. Of course they were locked in place now, during ascent, as the rocket picked up more and more acceleration, and thus more and more inertial forces shoved the passengers backwards, with every pound of fuel burned and blasted out the rocket bell.

The redesign had even included discreet pouches to insert labels into for each and every compartment, just as Jet Set had demanded. Unfortunately the changeling ground crew had been left to label them themselves, and most of the overhead bins had labels like: Things. Stuff. Items. Objects. Important Things. Not So Important Things. Refuse. Rubbish. Trash. And, the one that both amused and annoyed Jet Set the most, Objects d’Art.(191)

Fortunately there were a few usefully labeled compartments. The table between the two seats had several small compartments with labels like AIR SICK, FIRST AID, NAPKINS, HOT WATER, COLD WATER (these concealed two spigots connected by magic to water supplies on the ground- a duplicate of the system that supplied air to every space capsule Equus had launched to date) and UTENSILS(192). The largest compartment, the one next to the hatch leading into the command capsule, was labeled SNACKS, and presumably it held the flight rations for the voyage.

But labels aside, Jet Set was proud of the elegant yet utilitarian design, tasteful white and steel trim from bow to stern, with four rounded windows(193), two to a side, to allow passengers a view of the world outside and, mostly, below. The initial cabin design was his company’s, the hull modifications designed by Warner von Brawn and Goddard the Griffon notwithstanding. He thought it only right and proper that all future production of the component return to the shipyard whence it came.

But further development…

“About that dear,” Jet Set replied to his wife’s complaint, “I expect to make back every penny of it one way or another. We shan’t be the last tourists in space, for one thing.” He gathered his breath- the weight on his body, and the fact that he was on his back at all, made it difficult to breath properly- and added, “And for another, I’ve got some ideas that the research lab at that space facility would be perfectly suited to test.”

“What kind of ideas, darling?” Upper Crust asked.

“You know our pilot has her own aeroplane?” Jet Set asked. “We built the controls for it- royal commission, a favor called in I understand. There are maybe a dozen other aeroplanes here and there across Equestria. They’re a novelty for ponies who want to fly like pegasi, but with more development the commercial potential is-”

“Oh look, dearest!” Upper Crust said, stretching a trembling hoof out the window. “It’s the moon! Do you remember the last time we saw the moon during the daytime?”

“Yes, dear,” Jet Set sighed, letting his thoughts on jet or rocket propelled aeroplanes fall aside. “As I recall, giant vines tried to devour most of central Equestria.”

“But this time it’s just that we’re higher than the moonset!” Upper Crust said. “Do you remember the lesson on the solar system Dr. Bull gave us? Princess Luna only gives the moon enough of a boost twice a day to move it past the horizon. But now we can see over the horizon, and there it is!”

Jet Set looked for himself. He had to admit it was a very impressive sight, both beautiful and viscerally disturbing. The moon and the sun just weren’t supposed to be visible at the same time. It went against every law of nature he’d grown up believing in. And yet… not only could he see the moon, but the sky above them was darkening almost to black, and he almost fancied he could make out a planet shining somewhere off there…

“Miss Berry?” Upper Crust had turned her microphone on again. “We can see the moon outside, just above the horizon! Can you see it? Lovely, isn’t it?”

When Cherry Berry responded, even Jet Set, who acted deliberately obtuse to plebian modes of politeness because a Society pony of Canterlot needed to keep up appearances, could hear the pink pilot’s teeth practically grinding. “I’m afraid my windows aren’t turned to the western horizon just now,” she said. “And I really don’t have time to look out them at the moment. The view is even better once we get out of the atmosphere. Please be patient and hold on to your observations until I can better appreciate them.”

Without turning his own mike back on, Jet Set said, “Microphone, dear. Politely.”

Upper Crust managed a half-hearted, “Very well, do carry on,” before switching off her mike again.

Footnote:

(191) He’d peeked into it before he was strapped into his seat. It was empty.

(192) Plastic spoons for eating rehydrated meals out of pouches- a new experiment for Missions Thirteen and Fourteen. Nothing on the ship required a fork to eat. The only knife on the ship was in the tool box tucked beneath Cherry Berry’s crash bench, and she had no intention of letting the tourists know it existed unless unavoidable.

(193) Round portholes had been the tradition in sailing ships for about a century and for airships since the beginning, at least along the lateral line of ships. In sailing ships this adaptation had been to strengthen the hull against flexing between waves. The adoption on airships was initially because the first airships were basically boats with a magically inflated balloon on top, but as the technology progressed it had been discovered that the same stresses on oceangoing ship hulls existed on hulls slicing through stiff winds or storms. Jet Set had had a long discussion with George Cowley about the tiny, trapezoidal windows of the Cherry’s Rocket Parts capsules, which yet remained to be settled.

“Passengers, please brace for acceleration in five… four… three… two… one!”

Cherry Berry ignited the second stage engine for the beginning of the orbital insertion burn. Three g’s of force shoved her back in her seat again, and guessing from the muffled complaints of her two passengers they felt it just as hard. “Burning three fifty-five mark ninety,” she said. “Fuel in stage at thirty percent and dropping.”

“Confirmed, Fourteen,” Dragonfly replied. “You could just burn prograde, you know. You’re close enough to a polar trajectory that you’re not going to miss anything.”

“I still show my prograde vector as nine degrees off course, Horseton,” Cherry Berry said. “I’m going to bring that in. I ought to have brought that in on the initial burn.”

“Fourteen, you’re fine,” Dragonfly groaned. “Just get that bird into a parking orbit.”

Cherry Berry didn’t listen. She wasn’t going to settle for “almost” a polar orbit. One fine day soon “almost” wouldn’t work. It was bad enough that landing their ships was pretty much like a blind unicorn playing darts. She wasn’t going to accept sloppiness on the ascent. Sloppiness could kill.

“Ten percent fuel,” Dragonfly reported.

“Roger ten percent,” Cherry Berry. “Mr. Set, Ms. Crust, I’m about to destage. There will be a few bumps, so sit tight.”

Thankfully, this time it was Jet Set and not Upper Crust who responded. “Very good, Miss Berry. We’re ready. Carry on.”

“Coming up on second stage burnout…” Almost the instant she said the word burnout, it happened. With a jerk the ship went from three g’s full throttle to free-fall. Two taps of the main staging button later, the empty stage was dropped and the third stage ignited, its smaller engine pushing forward at a much more modest 0.7 g.

“Third stage ignition,” Cherry reported. “Burning three fifty-five mark ninety.”

“We confirm third stage ignition, Fourteen,” Dragonfly replied dutifully. “You’re only a couple degrees off the mark, you-”

“Excuse me, Miss Berry?” Upper Crust interrupted, loud enough to drown out Dragonfly’s raspy voice.(194) “It’s ever so much lighter now. Is it all right if we unbuckle these straps? They really do chafe.”

“PLEASE don’t do that,” Cherry Berry gasped. “Getting out of your seat now would be like falling flat on your back. You could be seriously injured. Please remain in your seat until orbital maneuvering is completed.”

“Fourteen, Thirteen,” a very smug voice broke into the channel. “Just wanted to say, at this point in time, here and now, that I Told You So.”

“Thirteen, please keep the channel clear,” Cherry Berry growled. “Horseton, have I got orbit yet?”

“Yes, Fourteen,” Dragonfly said. “In fact, we’d be glad if you shut down the engine any time now.”

“Stand by, Horseton.” Cherry Berry skewed the ship hard to port, thrusting due westward. Slowly the prograde marker on the nav-ball crawled the last degree to perfect true north. “Shutdown!” she said, cutting the throttle to zero and using the reaction wheels to reorient the ship along its prograde axis.

“Horseton confirms MECO,” Dragonfly said, relief obvious in her voice. “Fourteen, you’re currently at periapse with an orbital eccentricity of about thirty thousand kilometers.”

“Thirty thousand??” Cherry Berry grumbled. “Shoot! I know I can get a circular orbit! What’s my correction burn?”

“Negative, Fourteen,” Dragonfly said. “We show you at forty-five percent in your final fuel tank. The bullpen wants that fuel to stay there unless absolutely necessary.”

“But I can get this right!” Cherry Berry said. “With as much delta-V as this ship had, there’s no excuse-”

“Horseton, Thirteen,” Chrysalis’s still-smug voice cut in. “Am I go for transfer orbit burn?”

“Stand by, Thirteen,” Dragonfly said. “Fourteen, we currently have you in a good polar orbit, and we have Thirteen in a more or less equatorial orbit. Two ships in orbit at once. That’s a first. Accept it and go forward with the mission checklist.”

Cherry Berry slumped in her spacesuit. “Fourteen copies,” she said sullenly. “Preparing for EVA.”

“Horseton copies Fourteen preparing for EVA,” Dragonfly replied. “Thirteen, your transfer burn is twenty-seven seconds at full throttle on your prograde at your discretion.”

“Horseton, Fourteen,” Cherry Berry said, “just a reminder to the bullpen, we really need those trajectory maps and information up here in the capsule.”

“Acknowledged, Fourteen,” Dragonfly replied. “But believe me, we can see it on the screen here, and it’s beautiful.”

“I’ll bet,” Cherry Berry said. “Fourteen running silent pending EVA.”

“Captain Berry,” Jet Set’s voice cut into the channel, “I presume we may remove the straps now?”

Cherry Berry took a deep, calming breath. “Yes, sir,” she said. “You’ll still want the straps if you wish to sit at your meal. The main entree for both of you is at the front of the food compartment. Do you remember the training for how to make them ready for eating?”

“Certainly, Captain,” Jet Set said agreeably. “Thank you, that will be all.”

Cherry Berry rolled her eyes in silence at this, and then rolled them again when she heard Upper Crust, also on the channel, ask, “Darling, aren’t you a bit too personal with the pilot? After all, she is a mere Ponyville pony.”

“Dear, you don’t understand,” Jet Set said. “I sailed once with a champion racing yacht captain- this was before I met you, of course.”

“She was a looker, wasn’t she?” Upper Crust asked, in what Cherry Berry presumed was a playful tone.

“Not a patch on you. Anyway, after a practice run I congratulated her on her skill, and she nearly bit my head off. She pointed out seven different errors she’d spotted that I’d been oblivious to- all her own. I’d made several myself, but she didn’t mention those until after she’d calmed down. She demanded perfection of herself. That kind of drive was what made her a champion. And I see that same drive in Miss Berry. I’d be proud to have her as one of my airship captains.”

“Darling, you know the unicorns who use our airship service would panic if they saw an earth pony at the controls.”

“True, true.” Cherry Berry thought Jet Set sounded honestly regretful. “But possibly that will change. And besides,” he added, “it’s not like a slow, stodgy airship can compete with outer space, is it?”

Cherry Berry released her straps and floated up to the little porthole. Below lay the planet Equus; the ship was flying well above Trottingham with the mountainous terrain of Rainbow Falls coming up beyond that. She could see the oranges and reds and greens of the forests and meadows below, while off to starboard lay the towers of Manehattan and the rolling blue oceans.

No, she thought, nothing can compete with this.

She decided not to let the tourists know their microphones were still on.

Footnote:

(194) It had been decided that, since it was vital for the pilot to be able to hear both Mission Control and the passengers, that the controls for the telepresence spell would be set by default so that the pilot’s headset would carry both channels at the same time, but Mission Control and the passengers, to avoid confusion, couldn’t hear each other. The passengers had been instructed in the importance of comms discipline, but Upper Crust apparently hadn’t taken the idea on board of not being able to speak whenever she wanted.

Behind Chrysalis, something went thump.

“Owwwww!” Hobble Jimenez had left his microphone on as well. “Jou coul’ have warn me jou were gonna do that!”

“Oops. Sorry.”

“Dat don’ soun' too sincere,” Jimenez grumbled.

“Quit whining,” Chrysalis replied. “It’ll be over in another twenty-four seconds.”

“Twenny-four?” Jimenez asked. “Din’ jou say twenny-seven? Like twenny secon’s ago?”

“I’m using half thrust,” Chrysalis said. “Makes it easier for me to get a precision burn. Like… this!”

The engines cut off. A few seconds later, the unsecured load behind Chrysalis thumped against the forward end of the passenger compartment and complained, “Owwwww again!”

“More complaining?” Chrysalis asked. “Are you going to keep this up for the whole flight?”

“Depends,” Jimenez replied. “We got any cough drops on dis rocket?”

“You know,” Chrysalis said, “if you don’t like the driving, you can walk home. It’s a bit more than five thousand kilometers straight down.”

For about three seconds, silence.

“Five t’ousan’ kilometers.”

“Correct.”

“Straight down.”

“Indeed.”

“I’ll be good.”

“Thank you.”

Chrysalis had just released her seat straps when Hobble added, “So, when can we eat? I’m kinda hungry…”

If we ever do this again, Chrysalis fumed silently, the pony or Dragonfly gets to drive. I am not putting up with this again…

The tourists had their meals, which they reported as being distinctly more flavorful than most Canterlot restaurants but far below Prench cuisine standards(195). Chrysalis was firmly in her highly eccentric orbit which would take her up to the altitude required for the decoupler test contract.

And Cherry Berry was outside the hatch of the capsule, clinging on to the rails and steps with all four hooves, preparing herself. The EVA backpack had passed its checklist. She’d trained with every active and several inactive astronauts at Cape Friendship for a week, learning to use it. Now all she had to do was… well… do it.

Unfortunately every earth pony instinct that had ever failed to tell her, in the past, that all four hooves belonged on dirt now screamed at her to keep all four hooves on metal.

“Horseton, Fourteen,” Cherry Berry said. “I’m releasing the craft now.” Yeah. Saying that committed her. She had to do it, didn’t she?
Forehooves unwrapped from the rails. Rear hooves slid out of the boarding steps. The ship drifted slowly, slowly, slowly away.

“Activating thruster pack.” Cherry Berry put her forelegs in the proper position, and the control arms sprang forward to meet her hooves. The thrusters automatically fired for testing, then counter-fired to stabilize her again. “Thruster pack all green. I have control.”

“Horseton confirms thruster pack green,” Dragonfly said, “You are go for EVA maneuvers. Don’t forget about the camera.”

Cherry Berry looked down through the bowl of her helmet at the camera fastened to the front of her spacesuit. “Roger, Horseton,” she said. “See you after I take my stroll.”

The joysticks under either forehoof felt perfectly responsive to Cherry’s touch. A slight touch brought her right back to the hatch; a second touch backed her off again. A few more touches bumped her left, then right, then up, then down, all with perfect control.

Gradually the fear of falling faded away. Something in the back of Cherry Berry’s mind said: The ship is staying put. The planet is staying put. I’m not falling.

I’m not falling.

I’m FLYING.

The stress and tension of flying the rocket up and into orbit fell away, taking with it the fear and leaving behind sheer joy. With a series of giggles and cheers of delight Cherry Berry jetted herself around and around the stubby form of the orbiter, making laps with short, efficient burst of thruster propellant. She turned somersaults, pirouettes, and cartwheels. She pulled off about a hundred meters, aimed herself carefully, and buzzed the ship at a relative velocity of thirty meters per second. It wasn’t quite the same as flying like a pegasus, but it was the next best thing. In fact, it was better than the best dreams she’d ever had about flying(196).

“Thruster propellant level sixty percent,” Dragonfly’s voice cut in.

That sobered Cherry up a little, but only a little. After acknowledging the message and bringing herself back to rest relative to the ship, she turned herself to face the planet below.

Yes, she thought to herself, this is why I do it all. This is why I put up with Chrysalis. This is why I run myself ragged between Appleoosa and Horseton and who knows where else. This is why I’ve seen my friends less than seven days in the last eight moons. It was for this.

I’d forgotten. But I’ll never forget again. Not after this.

But even with this epiphany, even filled to overflowing with the sheer joy of flying without a machine(197), she had work to do. She took a few photos of the landscape below her (the lands east of the Crystal Empire, from the looks of it), then keyed on her space suit’s recorder and said, “Survey report, space above the Northern Mountains. It’s always incredible just how small everything is from up here. We ponies have such a small, comfortable existence, and seeing how it fits into the rest of creation makes me even more grateful for the cozy lives we all lead back at home…”

Joy and professionalism wrestled with one another, and Joy quickly put Professionalism in a submission hold and forced it to tap out. “But I’m even more grateful that I’m FLYING!! WHEE! I really can’t say strongly enough how FREE I feel up here! I’m floating about ten meters from my ship, and with a touch of my thruster I can go kilometers in any direction and then come back! It’s everything I’ve ever wanted since I was a little filly too small to understand that I wouldn’t get wings when I was older. Well, now I’m older, and I’ve got wings made of hot and cold running SCIENCE!”

Just as she was about to switch the recording off, Cherry remembered what a survey was actually meant to do. “Oh, and by the way, the Northern Mountains have rocks and snow and stuff. Really rocky. And snowy. And stuffy.” There. Duty completed and recording logged, she turned her attention back to the ship.

Through the windows Cherry saw Jet Set and Upper Crust still playing with their food(198). Struck by a whim, she gently brought herself up to the windows, releasing the controls and using her hooves to stop her momentum. She carefully tapped on the window, got their attention, and waved.

Then she took a photo of their shocked, terrified expressions though the glass(199).

Footnotes:

(195) This mild praise surprised Cherry Berry, who had no experience with the overpriced flavorless offerings that far too many Canterlot restaurants had, until recently, passed off as high-class dining. The fact that Jet Set and Upper Crust found the effects of zero gravity on their mostly-liquid food more interesting than its flavor didn’t surprise Cherry Berry at all, which is why the food locker contained duplicate meals and an abundance of napkins.

(196) Except that there weren’t any cherries around. She’d have to go back inside the ship to have her cherries.

(197) Yes, the thruster pack and space suit were machines, but to Cherry’s mind, only very little ones.

(198) In free-fall it’s more difficult to NOT play with your food. Play is, after all, a form of learning, and in orbit you have to learn how to do all sorts of things all over again. However, few astronauts in any world have ever improvised a ping-pong game using spoons and an uneaten dumpling.

(199) Sadly, due to reflection of the sun’s glare off the extra-thick glass, it didn’t come out. The tourists’ photos from inside the ship, for the most part, ended up much better.

While Mission Thirteen made its long climb up to the high point of its orbit, Mission Fourteen sped around and around the poles, with Cherry Berry popping out to spacewalk, take photos, and record observations(200), popping in just long enough to recharge the mana batteries in the thruster pack, then popping right back out again. While she was having fun in and out of her own ship, Chrysalis sat inside hers while Hobble Jimenez ate three whole meals and, to her great relief, kept them down this time.

Finally, near the apex of her orbit, the examination of the decoupler completed and the report filed for the contract, Chrysalis took her own steps into the vacuum, less because of her mission tasks than out of a desperate need to escape the intermittent whining of her sole passenger.

I know they’re ponies, she thought as she released the ship and activated her own thrusters, but they live outside of Equestria. Maybe Celestia won’t mind if I conquer them just a little bit? They brought it on themselves, for sticking me with the one pony in the whole world that makes the most grumpy donkey look cheerful.

But not Pinkie Pie cheerful. No donkey could ever be Pinkie Pie cheerful.

And yet, she thought as she allowed herself to drift slowly away from the ship, headset turned off completely, so long as I can’t hear him, I don’t mind.

Chrysalis had the most peculiar feelings when she was in space with nothing much to do. She didn’t think ponies had those specific feelings. Ponies couldn’t sense love, compassion, welcome, all the delicious sugary warming emotions, except coming from themselves. For all her skill, Cherry Berry would never experience space flight the same way Chrysalis did.

For all the hostility of the environment around her, for all that removing her helmet would mean an instant of agony followed by an infinite number of instants of being dead… to Chrysalis it still felt like the entire cosmos, all the stars and planets, the Milky Way and the comets and, and, and, and the everything… was hugging her.

Hugging her, and saying, Welcome home.(201)

Appropriately, she looked down at Equus on its night side, with a thin sunlit ring almost encircling the huge black mass. Lights sparkled here and there in the darkness- the cities of the eastern hemisphere, a few thunderstorms here and there, and one feral typhoon out in the Hindian Ocean. She took several photos, thinking to herself, Yes. This is exactly right. A thin skin of light concealing bottomless darkness. Why shouldn’t I conquer it all? Could I make it any worse?

The universe didn’t answer. It just hugged her and loved her, unconditionally, unthinkingly.

For several minutes Chrysalis just floated above the world, content to savor the peaceful experience. That peace was broken by the sun breaking the horizon, drowning out the little lights on the dark side of the planet and making Chrysalis squint even through her tinted helmet visor. Sighing, she took a few more photos of the orbital sunrise, then switched her comms back on. “Horseton, Thirteen,” she said. “I’ve got some good photos, and I’m returning to the spacecraft now.”

“Horseton copies termination of EVA,” Dragonfly said. “Be careful getting back in. We don’t want you to do a Dash, now do we?”

“If by we you mean you and your fellow subjects,” Chrysalis said dryly, “no, you really don’t.” She’d drifted some fifty meters away from the ship, but it was child’s play to line herself up with the ship and thrust. Gradually she drifted back in, forty meters, thirty meters, twenty. The hatch was a little out of her line, so she tapped the thrusters a bit to port. That sent her drifting slightly up and over the ship, so she corrected with a brief burst down. Then the ship seemed to be approaching a little too fast for comfort, so she made another correction.

And another, and another, and another. Each correction required another correction, and Chrysalis couldn’t quite recover the nice straight vector she’d begun with. Her flight path kept wobbling, wobbling, wobbling, and she couldn’t make it stop.

The universe wasn’t hugging her anymore. The universe had turned its attention elsewhere, leaving her to choke down a rising sense of panic as, in her view, the ship kept bouncing back, forth, up, down, anyplace except dead in front of her.

But then there was the hatch right in front of her, and Chrysalis released the thruster controls and reached out for it with her forehooves.

One hoof grabbed a rail. The other three didn’t.

The universe did a somersault around the changeling queen.

Panic took over. Hooves scrabbled, and when coherent thought resumed, Chrysalis was clinging with desperate strength by her forehooves to the very tops of the two rungs that ran on either side of the hatch. The rump of her suit was seated, rather infirmly, on the protective covering of the main parachute.

Chrysalis took deep breaths, forcing herself to calm down, barely noticing the fleeting sensation that the universe had paused in whatever it was doing to give her an empathic pat on the head for encouragement before returning to its errands.

Ha, she thought. Chrysalis 472, Certain Death still 0. Suck it, Pale Horse.

Negotiating the hatch was, as ever, an awkward business, and even more so in free-fall, but Chrysalis managed it. After repressurizing the command capsule, she raised the visor of her suit and said, “Horseton, Thirteen; back in the capsule and awaiting instructions.”

“Copy, Thirteen,” Dragonfly said. “We show your remaining fuel in stage at approximately seventy percent. Could you verify that?”

Chrysalis checked the readout. “Sixty-eight point two percent, Horseton. Why?”

“Well, the bullpen just pointed out that you only used about fifteen percent of your tank for your current orbit,” Dragonfly replied. “That means fifteen percent will put you back in a low circular orbit. So we’d like you to prepare for a burn at periapsis. That way you’ll be able to choose your own landing zone and come in a lot slower.”

“Sounds good to me, Horseton,” Chrysalis said. “I’ll pass on the word to our passenger.”

“Copy, Thirteen.”

“Mr. Jimenez!” Chrysalis shouted.

“Jou called?” the whiny voice replied.

“Let’s talk about our return to the ground.”

Oh, yes, LET’S. For a brief moment the whining tone, and indeed the accent as thick as cold molasses, was cut away by the sharp edge of raw anger. The moment passed almost instantly, as Hobble said in a more reasonable tone, “At’s my favori’ subjec'.”

“In a couple of hours we’re going to burn the engine to lower our orbit,” Chrysalis said. “That won’t be our re-entry burn. It’ll just slow us down a bit, so we won’t hit the atmosphere so hard.”

“Oh, don’ say hit,” Jimenez moaned.

Chrysalis rolled her eyes. “Fine,” she said. “We’ll go down more slowly and carefully. Doesn’t that sound like a good thing?”

“When jou put i’ like that,” Jimenez replied, “soun’s real good. I’m all for it. The slower the better, I say.”

Thinking of previous flights, Chrysalis shut off her microphone and said, “You and me both, pony.”

Footnotes:

(200) About half of which were babble on the general theme of, “I’m FLYING! WOO-HOO!” Only, more verbose.

(201) The closest thing she’d ever experienced to it was in those bizarre dreams she had of the pink fluffy thing. Of course, she told absolutely no one about those dreams. Let her changelings have their Fun Machine; she was keeping the Fun Cave in her dreams entirely to herself.

Five hours had passed since the launch of Mission Fourteen. Mission Thirteen had just finished a perfect orbital transfer burn, putting it in a tight low orbit in preparation for re-entry. Cherry Berry was lounging against the inside of the capsule eating some cherries while, thanks to a bit of jiggery-pokery with the comms spell, the press back in Horseton was discussing the flight with Jet Set and Upper Crust.(202)

“I got the feeling,” Jet Set was saying, “that Princess Twilight Sparkle and the ESA didn’t… well, there was a strong feeling that this flight shouldn’t take place. And that’s understandable. This is the first space tourist flight, the first truly private flight, you see. And I admit I didn’t really understand just how dangerous an adventure this could be until after our training for this flight. I can easily understand why Princess Twilight didn’t want to take the risk.

“But right now, looking out the window, I can see the blackness of space. I can see Equus. I can see the curvature of Equus. And the sight is just spectacular. I don’t think I can ever replicate the feeling I have right now. And it’s well worth every bit I paid for the adventure.”

“Myself,” Upper Crust added, “I had no idea how comfortable space would be. I think, if more ponies know what I know, there would be a huge demand for private space flights.”

A tinny voice echoed over the comms, “What does it feel like, knowing that you’re the first space tourists?”

Jet Set laughed. “Who cares about that?” he asked. "I just wanted to go. I thought it'd be chic. And I’m glad I did. The fact I was able to makes me one of the luckiest ponies in the world. Correction,” he added, looking back at his wife, “makes us two of the luckiest ponies in the world.”

“And I think that’ll do it, folks,” Cherry Berry heard Occupant’s voice, also tinny, on the channel. “We’re going to have to discuss the rest of our flights with the pilots now, so if you could all return to the press gallery? Thanks!”

Cherry Berry worked a few switches to restore the comms to their normal settings. “Horseton, Fourteen, comms check,” she said.

“Fourteen, Horseton,” Dragonfly said, much more clearly than the reporters’ voices had been. “We hear you just fine. How about you?”

“Sounds good to me,” Cherry said. “I could stay up here as long as there was food, but my passengers have plans for next week.”

“Horseton, Thirteen,” Chrysalis chimed in from her ship. “I’ve got a passenger who needs to be taken home, too. Let’s talk landing.”

“Roger, Thirteen, Fourteen,” Dragonfly said. “Thirteen, our best guess at bringing you down back at the space center requires a burn about forty minutes from now. Fourteen, we think that if we have you make re-entry burn now, that’ll bring you down somewhere near Haywaii.”

“Haywaii?” Cherry Berry gasped. “How near Haywaii?”

The shrug could be heard in Dragonfly’s voice. “George Bull is telling me the trajectory plotting system isn’t reliable in atmosphere. It can’t predict air resistance, and they’re still trying to figure that out. All I can say is, Haywaii’s the closest land to where you’d end up.”

“Understood, stand by,” Cherry said. “Well, Mr. Set, Ms. Crust, how does a Haywaii landing sound to you? Give or take a thousand miles, that is.”

“Haywaii would actually be rather convenient,” Jet Set said. “My airship line runs flights to and from Haywaii by way of Los Pegasus. It’d be a nice, short trip home.”

“Sounds good enough to me. No promises, though,” Cherry Berry added conscientiously. “Any landing zone we’ve hit in the past has been more luck than skill. All I can promise is a water landing.”

“Thank you for letting us know,” Jet Set said. “Will the food and water arrangements hold out if we end up on some unmapped desert island?”

“For a week, easy,” Cherry Berry replied. “For fresh water, indefinitely.”

“Then please proceed, captain.”

“Roger.” Cherry Berry settled back into her crash seat, strapped herself in, and said, “This is CSP Mission Fourteen. Passengers please strap in. Ten seconds to re-entry burn.”

“Horseton copies, Fourteen,” Dragonfly said. “Have fun!”

“Thirteen copies, Fourteen,” Chrysalis added. “We’ll be watching from up here. More or less.”

While the replies had been coming in, Cherry Berry had been reorienting the ship for its deorbit burn. “Burn in four, three, two, one!” She ignited the engine and brought the throttle up to fifty percent thrust. “Horseton, awaiting your mark for MECO,” she said.

Two seconds later Dragonfly’s voice shouted, “MECO!”

Cherry Berry killed the engine. “We have MECO,” she said. “Preparing to jettison engines for re-entry.”

“Horseton copies decoupling engines, confirms MECO,” Dragonfly said. “For what it’s worth, the trajectory plot shows a periapsis of twenty-five kilometers over a point a couple hundred miles west of the westernmost Haywaiian island.”

“Understood, Horseton,” Cherry Berry said. “Passengers, brace for staging.” She brought the ship around ninety degrees to the vertical, the engines pointing at the planet below. A moment later she hit the staging button, and with a thump the last engine and fuel tank, mostly but not entirely depleted, fell away and vanished. This done, Cherry put the ship back on its backwards-facing attitude using the reaction wheels, laid back, and said, “Okay, folks, you have about ten minutes left if you want one last snack before re-entry. Don’t bother heating it up. It’s going to be a warm ride down.”

Footnote:

(202) The possibility of in-flight interviews with the paying space tourists had been mooted at leadership meetings days before launch and kept open pending an assessment of the mood of the Canterlot ponies mid-flight. They never even considered allowing the press to interview Hobble Jimenez. He was certain to say too much for anypony’s comfort.

Underneath the expanded capsule of Mission Fourteen, the snow and ice of the southern polar cap gleamed in the late-year sun. Around the capsule itself, on the other hand, flames already flickered around the ship as the upper atmosphere, unable to move out of the way of the speeding craft, simply got hammered into submission.

Cherry Berry focused on the navigation ball, keeping the ship absolutely centered on the retrograde marker, the three-barbed circle sitting just above the horizon. Behind her she could hear the sound of camera shutters clicking through the hatch to the passenger cabin. Jet Set and Upper Crust, even strapped in as they were, had refused to stow the cameras, and instead were taking a last few pictures out the windows.

She hadn’t objected. She didn’t have time. Almost from the moment the capsule had touched the top of the atmosphere it had begun to wiggle, twisting and turning in inexplicable ways. At first the motion had been small and slow, requiring only a couple of corrections each minute. Now they required almost constant monitoring, hooves on the flight stick, nudging and twitching the cantankerous craft this way and that.

And this is only the first bit of shock plasma, she thought to herself. We haven’t got anywhere near the thick air yet.

“I say, captain?” Jet Set asked. “Could you roll ship just a bit? I just caught a glimpse of the moon near the horizon, and it’d be interesting to photograph it through the lights outside.”

“Kind of busy now, sir,” Cherry Berry ground out. “I can’t even see the moon from this-” She cut her speech off short as, compelled by the conversation to look out one of the tiny windows in the capsule, she saw something glitter where there absolutely, positively should not have been anything.

It was too small to be the moon.

It was in the wrong place to be the jettisoned third stage.

It was too big- just barely too big- to be a planet.

And although she couldn’t really see it as anything more than a bright bit of light, it had a distinctly… lumpy… look to it.

“Horseton, Fourteen,” she ground out, returning her attention to keeping the ship tucked behind the heat shield at its base. “There’s an unidentified object in the sky to port of my trajectory. I'm certain it's not the third stage. Could you have someone investigate that, please?”

Two voices overlapped in Cherry Berry’s headphones: Dragonfly asking, “Can you get a picture of it, Fourteen?”; and Upper Crust saying, “I see it!” A couple of seconds later Cherry Berry heard several shutter clicks through the hatch.

“The tourists might have some shots,” Cherry answered. “My hooves are full right now- whoa!” The ship chose that moment to begin to roll, in the process sliding slightly out of retrograde. For a moment, before Cherry Berry brought the ship back on course, the heat alarm rang out. “Heat alarm, capsule,” she reported. “Alarm off.”

“Horseton copies heat alarm,” Dragonfly said. “What’s wrong?”

“The ship’s wiggling unpredictably,” Cherry Berry said. “Can’t spare attention to talk about it right now. We’ll discuss it-” The heat alarm went off again. “Heat alarm, capsule,” she said over the noise. “Rolling ship to compensate.” Ninety degrees of roll later, the alarm went out.

For about fifteen seconds.

“Heat alarm, capsule,” Cherry grunted. “Rolling ship.”

“Captain, is everything all right?” Upper Crust asked.

“Darling, please shush,” Jet Set said.

“We know how to deal with this,” Cherry Berry replied. “Don’t worry.”

“See?” Jet Set asked. “Calm and collected. She’s got everything under-”

The alarm sounded again.

“Heat alarm, capsule. Rolling ship.” Cherry Berry ground her teeth, rolled the ship, coaxed it back on retrograde.

The alarm went silent, then blared five seconds later. Roll, pitch, alarm off.

Alarm on. Roll, pitch, alarm off.

The force of deceleration began to kick in. The sounds of cameras clicking ceased.

Another heat alarm. “Heat alarm, capsule. Rolling ship.” Cherry Berry rolled the ship again.

This time, instead of just rolling, the ship yawed. The building roar of hot air from outside became the scream of an angry primal god. The heat alarm doubled in intensity.

“Fourteen, Horseton, we read critical heat alarm, capsule and passenger compartment,” Dragonfly warned. “Please advise.”

Cherry didn’t respond. Her universe contracted itself to the navball. Ignore the glow coming through the windows. Ignore the klaxon that’s become a constant single note. Get the ship back on retrograde.

The ship yawed back, too far, passing the marker on the navball. Now the primal god hammered at the other side of the ship. A new alarm rang: the ship’s outer hull was beginning to deform from heat.

No! Cherry thought to herself. Back on course! Carefully!

The ship rocked back again, a little off center, then back on the beam with a last gentle adjustment. The hull alarm died, and a few moments later the heat alarm went from the critical buzz to the warning intermittent buzz. Cherry rolled the ship again, more carefully this time, and that went away as well.

For seven seconds.

“Heat alarm, capsule. Rolling ship.”

The ship rolled. The alarm went out.

This time it stayed out.

The flames around the ship faded and died. Twice the force of gravity now pushed on Cherry’s back. They weren’t totally out of danger, but the worst was over. Assuming the parachutes hadn’t been damaged by the rough ride down- and all three still showed amber ready-but-don’t-do-it lights- they would probably land safely.

“Fourteen, Horseton, comms check.”

“Fourteen here,” Cherry said. “I had a busy couple of minutes, but I’m fine now. How do you read?”

“Well, Fourteen,” Dragonfly said slowly, “the bullpen really didn’t like that maneuver you pulled. You’re way low and way off course.”

“How far off course?” Cherry asked.

“Our best plot now puts you down closer to Hosstralia than Haywaii,” Dragonfly said. “Way south and west of your planned course, and at least ten kilometers lower than you should be. We’re sending telegraphs to every country in the area, but you might have a long wait for a pickup.”

“Fourteen copies,” Cherry Berry said, very slowly. “Thirteen, do you copy?”

“I’m listening,” Chrysalis’s voice replied.

“Okay, everypony,” Cherry Berry said. “My best guess, without seeing the trajectory plots- and I now insist we get something in these capsules that lets the pilot see those, darn it- I fired too hard on my re-entry burn and came in too low. Thirteen needs a higher trajectory for her re-entry. Everyone copy?”

“We copy, Fourteen,” Dragonfly said.

“Thirteen copies,” Chrysalis added.

“All right,” Cherry Berry said. “Looks like I got away with this one… but now I have to explain to my passengers how their day in space just became a prolonged sea cruise.”

“Wave hello to Cherry Berry, Jimenez!” Chrysalis called back to her passenger. “She’s somewhere there below us!”

Only a muffled whimper came back from the passenger cabin(203).

“Suit yourself,” Chrysalis said, returning her full attention to flying the capsule. “Horseton, Thirteen. I don’t know what the pony was talking about. This flight down has been the smoothest one yet. I’m not feeling any wiggling or unexpected movement in the ship at all.”

“We copy, Thirteen,” Dragonfly said.

“I may be in the water, but I can still hear you,” Cherry Berry’s voice chimed in.

“Can you see me?” Chrysalis asked. “Just look up for the ball of fire that flies better than you do.”

“Har de har har,” Cherry Berry replied. “No, Thirteen, negative on visual; I don’t know where to look, and even if I did I’m not going to waste battery power on the reaction wheels to roll the ship.”

“Thirteen is well downrange of Fourteen’s location by now anyway,” Dragonfly commented. “But if we’re being chatty on the air, I’m jealous of your flight, Fourteen. That sounded like fun.”

Choked spluttery sounds of impotent horse rage echoed over the channel.

Chrysalis allowed herself a couple of deliberate laughs before saying, “In all honesty, this configuration does take some watching, but it’s no great matter for a skilled pilot. Why, I’m almost through descent and I’ve not had a single heat alarm.”

Braaaap, braaap, braaap, braap.

“Grrrr. Heat alarm, cockpit. Rolling to compensate,” Chrysalis muttered.

“Ha HA!” Cherry Berry called triumphantly over the comm.

“Oh, hush, you,” Chrysalis said. “It was only one-”

Braaaap, braaap, braaap, braap.

“Heat alarm, cockpit, rolling. Alarm off. Now as I was-”

Braaaap, braaap, braaap, braap.

“Oh, COME ON!!”

The heat alarm rang four more times in quick succession, then a fifth time after a pause, and then ceased. “Shock heating is easing up,” Chrysalis grumbled again. “Horseton, give me an update on my landing zone?”

“Er....” The trailing mutter was followed by a significant silent pause.

“Horseton, this is your queen speaking,” Chrysalis growled. “Not to be to blunt, but I am running out of up to fall down from. Where am I landing?

“I’m afraid you’re off course, too,” Dragonfly said. “You’re landing well southwest of the space center- maybe a couple hundred miles from us. It’ll be after dark local time before we can get a recovery team to you.”

“Southwest?” Chrysalis asked. “West I can understand, but how did I turn right on a ballistic re-entry trajectory?”

“And when you get that question answered,” Cherry Berry added from thousands of miles behind Chrysalis, “you can explain it to me, too.”

“I’ve got four minotaurs shrugging at me, Thirteen,” Dragonfly's voice replied. “For now, just do your best. Try to pop your chutes before you hit the mountains.”

Chrysalis rolled the capsule, looked out the porthole, and hissed something very vile in Old Changeling(204). She recognized those mountains all right. She’d seen the other side of them quite frequently… on the southern horizon from the hive. She was coming down in the very heart of the Forbidden Jungle itself- a place which was no real threat for a hive full of changelings, but which could make life all too interesting for a lone changeling, even a queen.

Oh, and there was also the minor detail that the ship, dangling from three parachutes, would have to come down through dense forests. That could never possibly go wrong, now could it?

“Good news, Jimenez!” she shouted. “We’re going to be landing in your home town, looks like!”

“Really?” There was the faint sound of movement from the rear compartment, followed by the most heartrending whimper Chrysalis had ever heard in her life(205).

“I’m just saying,” the queen continued, rolling the ship and hoping to spot anything ahead of her that looked like a viable landing zone, “I might need to crash at your place overnight, that’s all.”

What had been the most heartrending whimper Chrysalis had ever heard yielded the title it held for only six seconds to a new world champion.

“You try to lighten the mood,” Chrysalis muttered, and then decided she was out of time. At thirty-eight hundred meters altitude she triggered the parachutes.

Footnotes:

(203) At the first flicker of plasma visible through the windows Hobble Jimenez had leaned his head back in his chair and closed his eyes tight. Of course, Chrysalis had no way of knowing this, and she wouldn’t have cared anyway.

(204) “You offspring of contemptible food!” is the precise translation. The more colloquial translation, into Earth English at least, might be, "Son of a mare!" Or, possibly, some other female mammal.

(205) Hobble had opened his eyes, looked out the window at the trees, realized the window in question was aimed straight down, and clamped his eyes hard shut again. Again, Chrysalis didn’t know and wouldn’t have cared.

The tribe of the Nickeragua ponies were not completely ignorant of the outside world. There was trade and commerce, of a small but consistent sort, via the port town on the west coast run by the Acapolo ponies and via the occasional explorer. News reached them also from tribes closer to the shores of the Griffon Sea to the east. And, of course, there was their God-king and ruler, He Whose Name Must Not Be Spoken, He of the Five Hands, the Master of the Great Cats. But he was seldom around, and practically never in a chatty mood, so he didn’t really count as a news source.

The tribal ponies knew what tin cans looked like. They knew what umbrellas looked like. They’d taken a number of each off of explorers and tourists under various circumstances(206).

They didn’t know what descending space capsules looked like, and so they gaped skywards at what appeared to be a gigantic tin can under three umbrellas floating deceptively slowly to the ground, right onto the center of the village.

The ponies cleared the square as the can, as far as they could tell, fell from the heavens, striking the packed dirt of the village square with a hard thud. Latches clicked on the big metal thing, and the umbrella-things went flat and flopped onto the ground around it.

There were holy-rock symbols painted on the upper part of the ship- a bit burned, as if by a great flame, but still legible enough. Underneath was a smaller line of words in the tongue of civilization. Those few of the tribe who could read either read them.

Do not be afraid. The beings inside are ponies and will not hurt you.

The warriors gathered around, spears and bows in hoof, ready to strike. The high priest himself, Calendar Wheel, emerged from the village temple and walked up to view the giant can from the sky. He too read the words, in both languages.

The conical part at the top of the can opened. Queen Chrysalis, her helmet removed, stuck her head out and looked around the half-frightened, half-hostile crowd of ponies. From one of the glass circles in the side of the can, an all too familiar face peered out in dread.

Calendar Wheel shook his head. “Is it not as the ancients have said?” he asked. “Truly, you cannot believe everything you read.”

MISSIONS 13/14 REPORT

Mission summary: Transport three tourists to space and return them safely; conduct EVAs in orbit; photograph and study Equus from low and high orbit; complete decoupler test

Pilots: (13) Queen Chrysalis, (14) Cherry Berry

Flight duration: (13) 6 hrs. 17 min.; (14) 5 hrs. 31 min.

Contracts fulfilled: 3
Milestones: First CSP EVAs, first time with multiple flights in progress simultaneously

Conclusions from flight: Everything was perfectly successful except our aim. All mission goals completed- time for a nice long vacation.

MISSION ASSESSMENT: SUCCESSFUL, IF SOMEWHAT INACCURATE

Footnotes:

(206) To be fair, none of the Mexicolt tribes actually harmed their occasional Equestrian visitors, except for the occasional inconvenient hero or thief(207). As High Priest Calendar Wheel himself put it, “We give them a scare and a thrill, we take what we want, and we send them back. They tell the others what happens, and then the others want to see for themselves, and they come loaded down with more useful things. Civilization might be insane, but it’s a gift that keeps on giving.”

(207) The same word is used for both in the Mexicolt dialects.

Occupant sat at his desk, piled high with paperwork. Paperwork was hard, but it was satisfying. Reading words on paper, writing words on paper, made him feel important. He’d even made a point of never completing all the paperwork for a day, because something inside him said that a clean desk wasn’t an accomplishment; it was a sign that its owner couldn’t be trusted to do anything more. A pile of paper on a desk meant that ‘lings wanted and trusted the desk’s owner to do anything and everything.

It wasn’t a rational idea, but it made him happy, so he didn’t question it.

On this day Occupant was practically alone in the mission control building, and indeed the whole space center. With winter coming, even the mild winters of the Hayseed Swamps, there would be no rocket launches until springtime. Most (but not all) of the construction ponies were taking vacation for Winter Ramp-Up and Hearth’s Warming. Most of the changelings were taking out pocket money from the hive’s budget for their own tourist trips, enjoying a begrudging-tolerance the likes of which no changeling could remember. The Fun Machine, which normally required two minotaurs to clear of changelings and tourists long enough to do actual wind tunnel tests, was enjoying down time and overdue maintenance.

Even the leaders of the space program were absent. Chrysalis had been rescued from what indeed was Hobble Jimenez’s home village, along with her camera and its film, the night of the landing(208), after which she returned to the hive to catch up on backlogged royal duties(209). Three days later Cherry Berry, Jet Set and Upper Crust arrived in Canterlot after being rescued about a hundred miles south of Port Maresby and taking steamship and airship flights halfway around the globe to return home. Cherry Berry had gone straight to Ponyville(210) after that, sending word that she’d be staying there right through the holiday before spending New Year’s Eve with family in Dodge Junction.

So it was just Occupant, the guards, a small remaining crew of construction workers, tour guides, and maintenance workers, and Marked Knee, who claimed to be on the verge of breakthrough and refused to leave his work even though the other three minotaurs had taken ship for home days before.

Occupant didn’t mind. The mail, telegrams, and even new-fangled telephone messages continued to come in. He had his work, he had his importance, and he had his mail-order catalogs, complete with a substantial bonus from the queen herself. He was content…

… except for the pile of mission contracts on offer, which he was going through one by one. More than half of them were for aerial survey missions. A couple were for combination aerial survey and landing missions, which after the last couple of flights was laughable. Most of the remainder were contracts to test various pieces of rocket equipment, either their own or other experimental designs, under conditions so impossible that even Occupant recognized the fact without consulting any of the scientists.

The Changeling Space Program was currently without contracts. Although money had been coming in from various sources, they definitely didn’t have enough to just fly indefinitely. More money needed to come in for future flights, and none of the contracts on Occupant’s desk was in any way acceptable. Occupant foresaw major problems in the near future if he didn’t find something, anything, to change this.

There was one contract for two more tourists- a couple of Manehattan society ponies- but Occupant was holding that as a last resort. The first experience with space tourists had been exhausting enough; noling was ready for a second tourist flight so soon after the first. He’d have to be certain, absolutely certain, there was nothing else that would bring in money before he presented that contract to his queen.

The door to Occupant’s office slammed open. A cool autumn breeze, so unusual for normally-roasting-and-humid Horseton, blasted in and scattered papers off Occupant’s desk. “SUCCESS!!!” the creature who’d opened the door shouted. “It passes every test with flying colors!! At last the great work of the Minotaur Rocket Project is ready for flight!!”

Occupant tried to grab at papers while he looked at the figure in the door. “Doctor Knee, what are you talking about?” he asked.

“My Shotputnik!!” Marked Knee said enthusiastically, stepping inside the cluttered office and not bothering to shut the door behind him(211). “I have finally perfected a computer core capable of accepting commands from the surface and executing them in flight!! We can now fly a rocket without a pilot!! So many of our testing problems are now solved!!”

Occupant, having not many months before experienced supersonic flight without the benefit of a craft(212), didn’t see the advantage of this. “That’s nice, Dr. Knee,” he said noncommittally. “Could you close the door, please?”

“But don’t you see?!” Marked Knee asked, kicking the door shut behind him with one hoof. “With Shotputnik we can send up untested rockets without risking pilots!! We can learn whether or not a ship has the ability to return without potentially stranding people in space!!” Glancing around the floor, the tall minotaur snatched up a contract sheet and pressed it at Occupant’s face. “How else can we attempt a contract such as this one with our current rocket systems?”

Occupant pulled his head back far enough to look at the contract. It wasn’t an aerial survey. It wasn’t an equipment test. It was…

It was…

It was exactly the sort of thing Queen Chrysalis would love.

“Dr. Knee,” he said quietly, using his magic to take the contract from the minotaur’s hand, “I think we need to send a message to the queen and to Miss Berry. Right now.”

Footnotes:

(208) The Mission Thirteen spacecraft had to be left behind, as the tribal ponies insisted the “smoke chariot” be kept for their mysterious master to examine. It would turn up at the space center five weeks later, tied up in a giant Hearth's Warming ribbon and bow. Six months after that, Daring Do and the Captured Cosmonaut would make its hardcover debut on bookstore shelves throughout Equestria.

(209) And to give Elytron a tongue-lashing he would never forget. That was the single most important bit of royal duty, in fact.

(210) Three days early for the Running of the Leaves.

(211) Not that he’d shut the first two doors he’d opened behind him either, hence the cold breeze now blowing through most of the office portion of the mission control building.

(212) Or a parachute. Or a helmet. Or a safe landing zone.

Chapter 11: Missions R1 and R2: Another Unplanned Ignition

View Online

Changeling Space Program
by Kris Overstreet
Chapter 11: Missions R1 and R2: Another Unplanned Ignition

You’re invited to a

Hearth’s Warming Feast

Hearth’s Warming Eve
after the pageant
Castle of Friendship, Ponyville

Music - Games – Presents
Everypony Welcome

Pinkie Pie almost, but not quite, lost herself in all the celebrations and planning leading up to Hearth’s Warming Eve.

Pinkie knew that most ponies thought of her as a crazy, simple-minded but sweet pony. She didn’t mind. After all, she knew she was sweet, and she’d be the first to admit she was a bit cray-cray in the neigh-neigh. But simple-minded? Nope. Pinkie looked simple because she focused her attention, as much as she could manage to do so, on the simplest possible things- things like baking and parties and making friends with absolutely everypony.

But how could she explain just how marvelously, miraculously complicated those simple things could be? How could she describe to even her closest friends how she could practically see the connections between every pony in Ponyville? How could she explain how all the bits of a perfect party kept dancing around in her head, rearranging themselves, with every breath she took? And how could she even begin to talk about how she figured things out without realizing it, just because some part of her mind had worked it out carefully step by step while she was engrossed in hanging up streamers or spreading frosting on a cupcake?

When she’d been a little filly on the rock farm everything had been simple, because there wasn’t anything except the farm, her parents, her sisters, and Granny Pie. Then the big rainbow had come and literally blown her mind, and the more she saw of the world, the bigger the explosions in her own head became. Her idle brain was the grandest fireworks show imaginable, and only she could actually imagine it.

And if that hadn’t been enough, there was also her Pinkie Sense, transforming things she couldn’t explain into twitches and wobbles and buzzes and spasms in her body.

Pinkie’s problem wasn’t that she had a short attention span. It’s that she experienced a lot more of the world than the five senses known to normal ponies could convey. Most of that began and ended in her head (or tail, or mane, or knees, or eyelids, or whichever Pinkie Sense was going off). There was so very, very, very much going on, and any or all of it might be important, so it took a lot of exhausting, focused concentration to shut it all out and keep track of only one thing.

But she’d had a lot of practice at doing that, and as the first snows were delivered from Cloudsdale she threw her mind completely into Hearth’s Warming planning and, simultaneously, making sure that nopony in Ponyville with a birthday too close to Hearth’s Warming missed out on their very own birthday party.

She very, very nearly shut out that one little inner voice among the cacophony of her skull that kept whispering: Traitor. Traitor. Traitor.

Bits and pieces of her mind argued back and forth with that one little voice, bits and pieces that weren’t involved in choosing which party crackers to stock for whose birthday, whether to have figgy pudding or pumpkin pie for the Hearth’s Warming feast at Sugarcube Corner, and looking both ways before crossing the street. Slowly, over the course of days, fragments of subconscious mental dialogue accreted into something coherent, more or less like this:

I abandoned my friends.

What else could you do? We can’t go back there again.

I wasn’t there when Rainbow Dash needed me most.

We saw our friend falling to her death and we couldn’t do anything about it. We felt the twitchy-tail and the doozie at the same time and it wouldn’t stop and we knew, we KNEW Dashie was-

We knew and we RAN.

Dashie said it was all right. We’ve done lots of stuff together since then! And Twilight said we don’t have to work on the space project if we don’t want to.

It shouldn’t even be a question. We-

Wait a minute. This is me talking to myself, right? So shouldn’t it be I instead of we?

I don’t know. Talking to myself is so confusing!

And then, a week and a half before Hearth’s Warming itself, Pinkie Pie found herself out of things to occupy her mind. Both the day’s parties had been partied. Button Mash’s favorite video game had been repaired and upgraded. All the Hearth’s Warming presents were wrapped, the tree decorated, the halls decked, and one particular hall un-decked. (Mr. Cake didn’t care that the deck was cedar with galvanized nails, he wanted his hallway back.)

And all the accumulated bits and pieces of fear, guilt and rationalization slammed down on her mind at once, leaving her frozen in place, staring at the inside of her head.

I ran away from my friends.

But I couldn’t DO anything! It was all going wrong and I couldn’t help at all!

Then DO something to help!

And suddenly, like a shaft of sunlight in Celestia’s dawn, that one brilliant idea cleared away the fog inside Pinkie Pie’s mind. Yeah, she thought. I’ll do something big! Not just cooking space meals- I’ll do something that’ll make sure nopony is ever in the kind of danger Rainbow Dash faced ever again!

The little inner voice stopped repeating its one-word mantra and replied instead, That’s the way! Make it up to them!

Only one thing, little inner voice...

What is it, Big Rest of My Mind?

How do I do that?

Don’t ask me. I just do guilt trips. I’ll have to figure it out for myself.

Don’t you mean that… wow, you’re right, this IS confusing!

Don’t worry. I’ll take care of it.

Hi there! Who am I, New Inner Voice?

I’m just some subdivision of my subconscious mind. I’ll just sit back observing things until something passes by that gives me the idea, and then I’ll tap me on the shoulder and let me know what it is. So you just go back to what you were doing, me.

Wow! Thanks, me!

That settled, Pinkie Pie went to bake some cupcakes, on the principle that you can never have too many cupcakes. She didn’t have a plan yet, much less The Plan, but she knew that The Plan was coming, and that it would make everything all right… so long as she didn’t rush it.

Bad things happened when she rushed plans.

The honor of your presence is requested at the Hearth’s Warming Gala
Boilerplate Hall, Canterlot
Hearth’s Warming Eve, 7:30 PM until midnight

With music by the Royal Canterlot Chamber Quartet
fine wines and hors d’oeuvres provided by Fancy Pants

Formal attire requested

Please RSVP your regrets or your acceptance plus one guest

For the nineteenth time that day, Chrysalis wished for three or four Occupants(213) to help her with the paperwork.

One of the advantages of secrecy had been a relative lack of paperwork. All reports were given orally, in person, at an infrequent rate. Paperwork involving her own cover identities in the outside world took all of about five minutes per mail delivery- possibly an hour if there was a legal contract involved. Infiltrator drones were strongly discouraged from creating paper trails unless their cover identity was both permanent and strong. Even in those cases, they were expected not to bother the queen with it.

What a difference a year of publicity made. About a quarter of her infiltrators now worked in the open, and they all created paperwork- requests for birth certificates(214), credit checks, loan guarantees, criminal background checks(215), employment and rental references(216)… it went on and on. In addition, criminal and civil complaints about her subjects who kept up the old tactics while out in the open kept rolling in. That meant reading through warrants and depositions and deciding whether or not the changeling in question was worth bailing out.(217)

But this pile of paperwork was a mere life raft compared to the grand three-masted schooner which was the hive’s diplomatic and public relations paperwork. Celestia sent at least one letter to the hive every day, and Chrysalis’ delegate to the ongoing negotiations for peace and amnesty between ponies and changelings sent two or three. Lesser pony officials made their own daily contributions to the pile. There were diplomatic insults, compliments(218), requests for anything from missing-persons information to extradition to cultural exchanges to personal appearances, and so on and so forth. And then, on top of that, was the inevitable daily-or-more press release.

The once-per-week mail delivery was a thing of the past. The changeling hive now had its own postal bureau, with its own stamps(219). (That had taken a ton of paperwork to set up, including reciprocity agreements with the Equestrian Post.) Each day two teams of two changelings each hauled mail by air cart between Appleoosa and the Badlands. Based on their complaints of aching wings, before long it would be four teams.

Much of this paperwork got forwarded to Horseton Space Center, but not all, and what didn’t get forwarded piled up. Furthermore, after Elytron’s attempt at showing initiative, Chrysalis didn’t dare delegate any of the backlog to anyone else.

So Chrysalis buckled down to work, as much as she resented being forced to do it. While Cherry Berry, the rocket boffins, and indeed most of her own subjects were enjoying a winter solstice holiday, she found herself trying to write coherent responses to letters while paying attention to whatever drone was giving its after-action report after one mission or another(220). Only her queenly superiority enabled her to perform such an exacting mental task.

“My queen?”

“Oh, are you done? Right, then please convey Our regrets to Baronne Social Climber, and use the Sandwich Slices cover identity to pay the fine for petty theft but not the one for public relations coup, but my schedule is full at Fillydelphia.”

“Er…” The infiltrator shifted on her hooves. “My Queen, are you all right?”

“Of course I’m…” Chrysalis trailed off mid-rant as her brain caught up to her mouth. She looked at the scroll she’d been writing on, read the nonsense about an invitation to a high-class part-time grocery job in suburban Fillydelphia’s jail, and crumpled up the scroll in disgust. “Starting over,” she grumbled. “Did you get caught?”

“No, my Queen.”

“Did you blow your cover?”

“No, my Queen.”

“Did you bring back concentrated love for the reserves?”

“Yes, my Queen.”

“Fine. Good job. Store the love and go get some more. Next!”

Chrysalis had just begun on a replacement response to the Canterlot society ball invitation, while carefully ignoring the boring report of the next infiltrator, when the throne room’s telepresence spell activated, popping up an image of Occupant. “My Queen! My Queen! Wait till you hear this!”

A bit of Chrysalis’s mane sprang up out of place(221). “What do you want?” she asked the image projected on the throne room wall.

“It’s great news!” Occupant insisted. “We’ve just got this great new contract that-“

“Will it wait until after the new year?” Chrysalis asked, with a strong tone of it had better hiding behind her words like a disgruntled yak hiding behind a broom.

“Well, it could,” Occupant admitted, “but it doesn’t have to! You see-“

“Tell me,” Chrysalis asked, “do you have a calendar on the wall in your office?”

“Yes, my queen. It’s the one with the adorable kittens speaking broken Equestrian.” Occupant’s image gave the queen a confused look. “Is that important?”

“What page is it on?”

“The last page, my queen, you know that.”

“Yes. I do. I was wondering if you forgot.”

The menace in Chrysalis's voice, no longer even bothering with a pretense of hiding, would have warned an average changeling to back off. Occupant, unfortunately for him, was in the grips of his enthusiasm, and he missed it completely. “No, my queen!” he said. “I have to keep track of what day it is very carefully, so I put the right date on all the paperwork, just like I did with this new-“

“So you are, in fact, aware,” Chrysalis interrupted icily, “that the space program is on vacation until after the new year, correct?”

“Yes, my queen, but that’s what-“

“And the space center is not currently burning down?” Chrysalis asked(222). “Nothing exploded? No tidal wave? No monster attack? No invasion of seaponies? Ground hasn’t opened up and swallowed the VAB, has it?”(223)

“Er… no.” Occupant hadn’t gotten the hint yet, but he'd almost figured out something might be wrong. “What has that got-“

“So everything is running just fine?”

“Yes, but-“

“THEN GET BACK TO YOUR WORK AND DON’T BOTHER ME UNTIL THE NEW YEAR!” Chrysalis roared, sending paperwork flying and servants scurrying for cover. “I am on vacation, which means I’m working too hard to be bothered with your brainstorms! Understand?”

“Yes’m!” Occupant gasped, saluting with one forehoof, then the other, then both at once, and finally cutting the connection.

“Honestly,” Chrysalis grumbled, levitating the paperwork back into its stacks, “whatever it is, it can wait until I get back.” She lifted up the letter she’d been writing and re-read it until she had her superior mind back on track.

By the time she finished writing her bread-and-butter note to Social Climber, she’d entirely forgotten about Occupant’s interruption.

Footnotes:

(213) A year before- one short, ephemeral year- if someling had told Chrysalis she would ever want more than one of the simple-minded mail-order addict, she would have ordered them cocooned until some smart pony invented a cure for deranged changelings.

(214) Prior to the space program the changeling hive had never bothered with birth certificates or any record of the sort. Chrysalis had fought like a tiger against them, and when she finally gave in she hired a pony to do them for her. In three months she’d gone through four ponies. The first had fled in terror after one day on the job. The second resigned after three weeks due to claustrophobia. The third had stumbled into the brood pit, thought the larvae absolutely adorable, and became the hive’s new preschool teacher. The fourth one had lasted forty days thus far. Chrysalis could just about tolerate her, except for her unfortunate bad habit of insisting on knowing the “sire” and “dam” for each and every certificate…

(215) Chrysalis at least had a form letter for this one: “The changeling drone (insert name here) has never, in a lifetime of faithful service to the hive, been caught breaking the laws and ordinances of the Kingdom of Equestria or any municipality therein, save for incidents covered under the laws of war.” It seemed to work; at least, no pony had ever sent a follow-up inquiry.

(216) Chrysalis couldn’t decide which was more stupid; the changeling who listed her name as a character reference, or the pony who followed up on it, read Chrysalis’s response, and then hired the changeling anyway.

(217) One particular drone fell firmly in the “not” category. Parasol was an excellent infiltrator, mimic and harvester… and also a clinical kleptomaniac. She stole things without realizing she’d even picked them up- never big or important things, but small things that appeared, for the moment, to be abandoned or unwanted. This habit eventually blew her cover sky-high. After four trips through the justice system and dozens of complaints, it became standard Trottingham police procedure, any time some item worth less than five hundred bits went missing, to find Parasol and shake her until it (inevitably) fell out. Some wit at the local jail had hung a sign from one barred window reading RESERVED FOR PARASOL- which wasn’t far from the truth, since she spent a week in, then two to three days out, then a week back in. Two parts of this arrangement confirmed Chrysalis in her belief that all ponies were either hopelessly naive or outright insane: first, that Parasol was still allowed to live in Trottingham; second, that Parasol seemed to be harvesting more love inside the jail than out of it.

(218) The best diplomats, of course, write in sentences that work both ways.

(219) Occupant technically headed the changeling post office, and it was his idea to issue more than one kind of stamp. The newly-drafted hive flag was the default letter-mail stamp design, but Occupant also sold a larger denomination stamp with Chrysalis’s likeness, a limited edition stamp for every achievement the Changeling Space Program did first, and a slightly less limited but still collectible series of stamps featuring the sun, moon, and various planets of Equus’s solar system. Chrysalis had withheld release of the Battle of the Canterlot Wedding stamp; she wanted to save it for whatever moment it would annoy Celestia the most.

(220) For those wondering why Chrysalis didn’t demand written reports instead of spoken ones, bear in mind two details. First, the changeling education system is limited and tightly focused on matters of survival. Second, there is a word for written records of actions which range from the clandestine to the outright felonious: “evidence.”

(221) Chrysalis, taking pride in her appearance, worked hard to ensure that her mane had the perfect greasy coating to cling together like Velcro and hang heavier than steeple-bell ropes. Having a bit of her hair stand up at this particular moment was not a mere indication of stress; it was a significant violation of the laws of physics.

(222) Because, no matter how much you want someone to ring off, it pays to be certain about such things.

(223) It pays to be especially certain where changelings are concerned.

Y’ALL COME
Appleoosa’s 3rd Annual
HEARTH’S WARMING HOOTENANNY

Music! Dancing! Games! Gifts!

EVERYPONY WELCOME
(even changelings, but no funny business)

Occupant and Marked Knee stood in the throne room of the space center’s administration building, staring up at the magically-projected image of an empty office.

“How long can it take to find one old griffon?” Occupant asked.

“Dr. Goddard is surprisingly spry for his age!!” Marked Knee noted. “Possibly he is spreading his wings above Appleoosa as we speak!!”

Before Occupant could express his doubts, a faint voice came out of the projection, faintly at first but rapidly growing in volume. “… and one more thing, you tell those idiots, fifty percent, you got it? Not one bit more than fifty percent! The clamps aren’t built to hold the thing at any higher setting! Got it? Good, go tell them that!” The owner of the voice, Goddard himself, stepped into sight of the spell and glared back at the two in the administration room. “What?” he asked without the least hint of cordiality.

“Dr. Goddard!!” Marked Knee bellowed. “I trust you are having a good time in Appleoosa??”

“Oh yes, loads,” Goddard snarled, slathering every word with sarcasm. “Just me and a bunch of know-nothings who keep blowing up my experiments every time I turn my back. Which makes it even MORE fun to be interrupted in the middle of a test on a heavy-lift rocket motor. Three miles out of town, because the ponies here, NOT being idiots, don’t want a live rocket test right next to their precious clock tower!”

“Good to hear!!” Marked Knee said. “We’re having fun as well!! In fact, we want you to come back to-“

“Come back??” Goddard snapped. “What for, some stupid Hearth’s Warming party? I could attend one of those here if I wanted!” The old griffon threw his talons in the air and shouted, “For this you drag me away from vital work for the space program, leaving an experiment in progress in the claws of some of the most-“

A dull rumbling sound echoed over the magical projection, causing Goddard to stop in mid-rant. A moment later the rumble became a loud explosion. “They went to full throttle!” he gasped. “Those idiots went to full throttle! Wait until I get my claws on them!”

“Er, Dr. Goddard,” Occupant said meekly, “we’re sorry about your test, but-“

You!” Goddard roared. “You idiots just go do whatever you want, but by Godfrey’s golden tea-tray, LEAVE ME ALONE!”

The connection to Appleoosa went.

“I believe we caught the good doctor at a bad time!!” Marked Knee said.

“He wouldn’t even hear us out,” Occupant noted.

“Perhaps we should call him back in an hour or two!!”

“Er… no,” Occupant said, “I think that would be a very bad idea.”


EQUESTRIAN UNION TELEGRAM

From: Horseton Space Center (HAY-CSP)
To: Cherry Berry c/o Golden Harvest (EVR-PVL)

BREAKTHRU IN ROCKET TECHNOLOGY STOP OPPORTUNITY FOR MAJOR ADVANCE STOP REQUEST YOU RETURN HSP AT ONCE
SGN OCCUPANT EOM


EQUESTRIAN UNION TELEGRAM

From: Cherry Berry (EVR-PVL)
To: Horseton Space Center (HAY-CSP)

OPEN DICTIONARY READ DEFINITION VACATION STOP SEE YOU THREE WEEKS AFTER NEW YEAR AND NOT BEFORE STOP HAPPY HEARTHSWARMING

SGN CHERRY BERRY EOM


Marked Knee took the telegram printout from Occupant, who lay half-sprawled across a dining table in the astronaut quarters. “This is disappointing,” the minotaur said in an uncommonly subdued tone.

“Any hope of a message to your friends?” Occupant asked without much hope.

“They’ll still be on their ship at least another two days,” Marked Knee said. “Even if we sent a messenger by air it would be over a week before they could return.”

“It’s such a shame!” Occupant moaned. “We’ve got your remote control system-“

“Shotputnik,” Marked Knee corrected him.

“-and we’ve got enough rocket parts in stock to put a big rocket on the pad,” Occupant continued. “At least as big as Thirteen and Fourteen were. But noling wants to listen.”

“With a lighter payload, we should be able to fly past the moon,” Marked Knee sighed. “If only we could get either Miss Berry or your queen to sign off on it.”

“I could do it myself,” Occupant sighed. “I’d get into big trouble for doing it, but I sign everything around here anyway, so what’s one more thing? But I can’t fly it and run the launch both. I don’t think I could fly it, period.”

“I could probably put together the rocket,” Marked Knee murmured uncertainly, “but I’d need to watch the readouts and tracking to test the system. I couldn’t either fly the rocket or oversee the launch.”

“So we need a pilot,” Occupant groaned. “We also need permission, but we don’t have that either, and if we had that we’d also have a pilot.”

“A knotty situation!!” Marked Knee agreed, a bit of his gusto returning. “Will the contract wait until springtime??”

“Possibly, but that’s not the problem,” Occupant said. “This is a Royal Astronomical Society contract. If we accept the contract, they’ll make a public announcement, and we’ll be committed, and we’ll look bad if we wait to the deadline to launch. If we wait, some other program might pick it up just to say they tried.”

“What other program- pardon me!!” Marked Knee’s attention switched to the pair of changelings who had just entered the room, levitating together a large black cabinet with a rose-colored pony painted on the side. “Where are you going with that??

“And what is it?” Occupant asked, lifting his head from the table.

“It’s a video game,” one of the changelings said. “There are a couple of others in the recreation room.”

“This one’s been out a couple years,” the other changeling said. “I was an infiltrator when it first came out, not long before the invasion. A lot of ponies were talking about Pink Mare. They said it was the hottest thing since Saltlick.”(224) The changeling shrugged and added, “I never saw the appeal, myself.”

Marked Knee snorted. “Video games,” he rumbled contemptuously. “A waste!! A travesty of the potential of electronics!! No, not even electronics- it uses a magic array!! Only the logic structure is the same!!”

“Logic schmogic,” the first changeling porter said indifferently. “All I know is, Dragonfly bought it and asked us to bring it in here and plug it in.”

“Dragonfly??” Marked Knee asked, jumping to his hooves.

“Yeah, she’s the only one who plays these,” the other changeling said. “She owns two of the other three games in the rec room- Changeling Invaders and Gorgge.

“She doesn’t own that Saltlick cabinet?” the first changeling asked.

“Nah. Carapace bought that one for the tourists. And of course they never touched it.”

“Figures. Well, let’s get this plugged in.”

“Wait!!” Marked Knee bounded over to the porters. “I meant to ask, where is Dragonfly??”

“She said she was going to Manehattan,” Occupant said.

“Well, she’s back,” the first changeling porter said. “Told us she was looking for you.”

“Now do you mind, guys?” the second changeling asked. “This ain’t a rocket, but it’s not light, either.”

“Sorry,” Occupant shrugged, waving the workers on.

“This is excellent news!!” Marked Knee cheered.

“How’s that?” Occupant asked, not having really paid much attention to the conversation.

“We have a pilot!!” Marked Knee cheered again(225).

“Oh,” Occupant said. “Do you mean Dragonfly.”

“Yes!! The pilot is Dragonfly!!”

“Whose enthusiasm for flying is tied to how dangerous it is,” Occupant explained.

“So??” Marked Knee’s grin threatened to decapitate him. “She’ll be flying a ship with nobody in it!!”

Occupant’s eyes widened as his dark clouds rolled away and the brilliant light shone through. “She’ll be flying a ship with nobody in it!” he repeated, the enthusiasm building in his voice as his ears heard each word he was saying.

“Yes!!”

“I can sign the papers!”

“I can build the rocket!!”

“And she can fly it!”

“We have a mission!!”

“We have a mission!!!”

Dragonfly walked in on a changeling and a minotaur doing a celebration dance around the dining table(226). “Hey, guys,” she said casually. “Am I interrupting something? Because I want to talk to you about getting an orbital mission when we start up in the spring.” She looked at the two of them frozen in mid-dance and added, “But that could wait until you’re sane.”

“Oh, I don’t think you need to wait that long,” Occupant said.

“Good,” Dragonfly said. “If I had to wait that long-“

“No!!” Marked Knee bellowed. “We mean you don’t have to wait until spring!”

Dragonfly blinked, then looked from Marked Knee to Occupant and back. “You two really are crazy,” she said.

“So what if we are?” Occupant asked.

Dragonfly considered, and answered, “If it gets me a flight, sign me up for a padded paddock. What’s the deal?”

Footnotes:

(224) The writer is not responsible for this one. A Saltlick arcade cabinet appears in “Hearts and Hooves Day” and “Slice of Life.” Your guess as to how a video game about a saltlick would work is as good as anyone else’s, especially the writer’s. If it wasn’t for how it was being used in “Slice of Life”, the writer would guess it was a pony version of “Tapper”.

(225) Oblivious that his statement was blatantly obvious and, also, that his audience was in turn oblivious to the fact being stated. This is as close as minotaurs ever come to Zen.

(226) For the historical record, it was the Hustle.

GET YOUR PHOTO WITH SANTA HOOVES

General Disarray’s General Store
On the Square in Horseton

Raffle to win
BRAND NEW RIVER FORD EXTENDED CAB HAYCART (1007 model year)

2 Second Prizes – a case of Genuine McIlwhinny’s Tabasco Sauce
10 Third Prizes – certificate for a free ride in HSC’s Fun Machine wind tunnel

Proceeds benefit First Solarist Church(227) Rebuilding Fund(228)

Drawing held at the Winter Ramp-Up Festival
The Saturday before Hearth’s Warming
On the grounds at Horseton Space Center

Marked Knee and Lucky Cricket walked through the main storage area of the Vehicle Assembly Building, looking over the various rocket components being stored in preparation for future launches. “We’ve got plenty of goo canisters,” Lucky Cricket said, pointing to a rack with half a dozen of the components in question sitting on it. “And we’ve also got a couple of Science Jr. units from the ESA. And we can get thermometers and barometers off the shelf in Baltimare.”

“Excellent!!” Marked Knee said, waving the clipboard he held in one immense hand. “With this being the first object made on Equus to fly past the Moon, it’s urgent that we place as many experiments on it as possible!! We must make the most of this opportunity!!”

Lucky Cricket looked at the minotaur scientist. “How much do you think the rocket can hold?”

“We’ll find a way!!” Marked Knee insisted. “After all, we only need to launch the probe to the moon!! Bringing it back is not necessary!!” He thumped his clipboard with his free hand and added, “I’m quite certain that the rocket stack we used for Mission Thirteen will be quite adequate!”

“Thirteen?” Lucky Cricket asked. “We used up all our Thumper booster rockets on Thirteen and Fourteen. So far Appleoosa’s only shipped us two replacements.”

“Two will be more than sufficient!” Marked Knee cheered. “After all, even with all the experiments, the probe will be much lighter than the crew compartments of Mission Thirteen!”

“If you say so,” Lucky Cricket said. “You’re the one who does the math.”

“In any case,” Marked Knee pressed on, “we can lose one booster assembly without any great difficulty!! So long as we have the rest of the components for the Mission Thirteen stack!!”

“Well… we don’t,” Lucky admitted. “We’re out of tailfins.”

“Tailfins??”

Lucky Cricket gestured to an empty spot against one wall of the crowded storage room. “The Queen cut some sort of deal with Jet Set’s company,” Lucky said. “We’re supposed to get a new kind of tailfin that rotates to steer the ship. But we were ordered to sell off the remaining old fins, and we did.”

“No fins,” Marked Knee rumbled absently. “Well… yes, I’m sure they’re superfluous!! The Shotputnik’s controls are more than capable of compensating!!”

Lucky Cricket nodded, giving the matter no further thought. After all, Marked Knee was one of the rocket scientists. He knew things ordinary drones like himself didn’t. If he said it was okay, then it was okay.




The capsule hatch opened to let Dragonfly out. “Wow,” she hissed, “that rocket is a lot more unstable than I remember it!”

“Sorry!!” Marked Knee shouted contritely. “I’m afraid Shotputnik isn’t yet advanced enough to handle both user input and SAS tasks!!”

“No problem,” Dragonfly grinned. “It’s a challenge. I love challenges. And this is like the biggest, best video game I’ve ever seen, you know?”

“It’s a little big to fit in a cabinet,” Occupant replied, rubbing his forehead with one hole-riddled hoof. He and Marked Knee were stretched to the limits running the simulator for Dragonfly. In fact, Occupant was performing not just his own duties but Warner von Brawn’s as well, since Marked Knee was too busy assessing Shotputnik’s performance in the sims to operate the simulation computer himself.

Something nagged at the back of Occupant’s mind. He wasn’t a very bright changeling, and he knew it. He knew he was missing something. He was probably missing a LOT of things. He juggled mission planning, simulation operations, launch planning, and communications with the wider world, and he couldn’t keep track of any of it. It was too much for an ordinary changeling, which meant (he admitted to himself) it was far, far too much for him.

But he couldn’t think of what, precisely, he’d overlooked. It wasn’t his job, but… well, it kind of was his job, in a way. He was, after all, responsible for everything going on at the space center while the queen and Miss Berry were gone. He’d signed the bottom of a lot of forms to make this all happen. If something went wrong, he would take the blame…

… and he knew, deep in his shell, that something was going wrong, but he just could not figure out what.

Maybe it was nothing. After all, Dr. Knee had no misgivings about the matter. If anything was wrong, he’d pick up on it in the simulations. That was what simulations were for- to catch mistakes and work them out before the actual launch, right? And anyway, Occupant was only a drone barely qualified to stand at a door and tell curious ponies to go away.

Yes, that was it. He must be wrong. And come the day of the launch, everything would go well and new contracts would come rolling in.

This was fine.

“Okay, I think I’m ready for another run,” Dragonfly said. “Are all the switches reset?”

“Oh, right!” Occupant said. “I’ll have that done in just a few minutes!” Without another thought to whatever was bothering him, he jumped down to the capsule and climbed in. It was the only time he ever boarded a capsule- to reset all the switches to launch position. He knew what they all did, even if he’d never use them himself.

He knew what everything did, especially the science equipment. He’d had to learn. His job required it, and so he worked hard, read everything, and learned things until his head hurt, which didn’t take long.

As he crawled onto the pilot’s bench, he heard the reaction wheels spinning. It took a moment for him to find the switch to deactivate them. No point in burning electric charge between simulations, of course.




Plastron looked at the final assembly instructions for the Shotputnik launch, or as it said at the top of the form, Mission R1.(229) “Hey, Lucky,” he called out, “this can’t be right.”

“What can’t be right?” Lucky Cricket asked, fluttering down from the already growing rocket stack. After a single glance at the instructions, he said, “Looks the way the brain-bull wrote it down to me.”

“Where’s the heat shield?” Plastron asked. “Where’s the parachute? When this thing comes back it’s going to shatter into a million pieces!”

“Dr. Knee didn’t put any on here,” Lucky Cricket said. “And noling’s riding in it, so I guess it doesn’t need to land in one piece.”

“C’mon, Lucky,” Plastron said, “you know how grumpy the queen gets about how much gear we throw away on each flight. When she finds out we’re getting nothing back-“

“But Dr. Knee’s instructions-“

“So ask him!” Plastron insisted.

“He’s busy giving final instructions to the radio relay teams,” Lucky Cricket replied. “They have to leave now in order to get to their places on time. And then there’s all the final prep work and assembly and, well, there just isn’t time, Plas.”

“Lucky,” Plastron replied, “the queen. The very angry queen!”

“All right, all right,” Lucky shrugged. “So we’ll put a heat shield on it. It won’t hurt anything, I’m sure.”

“Heat shield’s no good without a parachute, Lucky.”

Lucky groaned and pointed a hoof at the spherical Shotputnik, which sat in a corner of the main VAB chamber plugged into a wall socket. “Look at it, Plas,” Lucky said. “The M16 won’t fit on that stupid sphere. I checked- it just won’t attach.”

“What about one of the lateral parachutes?” Plastron asked. “They’re made to be mounted on curved surfaces.”

Lucky Cricket stared at Shotputnik for several seconds, considering this proposal. “It’ll look lopsided as heck,” he said. “That bothers the bulls for some reason.”

“But it’ll work,” Plastron said. “And so long as we get the machine back, who cares how it looks?”

Lucky Cricket shrugged. “Okay,” he said. “We can spare the part. Besides, what can it hurt?”

Footnotes:

(227) The Solarist Church is a religion founded in the century immediately after the banishment of Nightmare Moon, popular in rural and agricultural communities throughout Equestria. Its adherents revere and worship Princess Celestia as the daughter of the Creator (and treat Luna as a Satanic figure, recently redeemed by grace). The foundation of their religion is a book of scriptures, parables and moral guidelines was written by Celestia Herself (or so they claim) and therefore is the infallible, unchanging word of God. They ignore the fact that Celestia lower-case-h herself personally writes in the front of each copy of the book she comes across, “This is a work of fiction.” Although the church is a generally harmless way of strengthening community ties, there are exceptions. Celestia deals with the less tolerant and friendly church elders by summoning them to Canterlot to live in the palace with her for a month, which is usually enough to sweep away even the most persistent illusions of godhood.

(228) A disputed and apocryphal verse in the Book of Tally says, “And by these signs shall you know the chosen of Celestia; that they shall speak in tongues, that they shall heal the sick, and that neither flame nor poison nor snake venom shall harm them.” Based on what happened to the previous First Solarist Church of Horseton building, empirical evidence suggests at least one of these claims to be false.

(229) Marked Knee, when he found out the R was for “robot”, was appalled and offended that his masterwork was being compared to a creation for children’s stories. Occupant persuaded him that the mission number was on all the paperwork (because he’d put it there), and changing it now would just cause confusion.

CANTERLOT HERALD

EXTRA – SPECIAL EDITION – EXTRA

CHANGELINGS LAUNCHING ROBOT TO MOON
Lunar Fly-By to Test New “Shotputnik” Unmared Probe
Launch Scheduled During Horseton Hearth’s Warming Festival
“No Comment” Says Princess Luna

Pinkie Pie was delivering fresh cinnamon rolls to the pegasi delivering the first winter’s snow to Ponyville when Cherry Berry nearly ran her over in the street. “Whoa!” she said, deftly catching several flying rolls with the box and snagging the last one with her tail just before it could hit the muddy street. “Hi, Cherry Berry! What’s the rush?”

“Excuse me, Pinkie! No time to talk!” Cherry Berry paused only a second to make sure her fellow pink earth pony was unhurt before she galloped off. “I have to send a telegram right now!!”

“Anything I can do to help?” Pinkie called after the running pony.

“Tell the weather team to hold off on the snow!” Cherry shouted back. “I need the field clear for takeoff!”

Pinkie shook her head. Cherry Berry must be really upset- otherwise she’d remember that Sweet Apple Acres and all the other farmland south of town had been the first target for the snow teams. Nothing short of a snowplow was going to get a field clear now.

Something rustled at her hooves. “CHERRY, YOU DROPPED YOUR NEWSPAPER!” Pinkie shouted, but the pilot pony had already turned a corner and dashed out of sight. Shrugging, she slid the box of rolls onto her head, ate the one she’d caught with her tail, and browsed the newspaper headlines.

The doozie her Pinkie Sense dropped on her a moment later quite ruined the remaining rolls, dumping them on the ground. Pinkie didn’t notice. Her eyes remained glued to the lead article, particularly one paragraph:

Shotputnik, developed by the Minotaur Rocket Project team and its lead electronics expert Marked Knee, translates input from the ground into control of a spaceship via the use of radio waves, allowing the ship to fly without anypony inside. This action at a distance, insists Dr. Knee, is not spooky in any way whatever.

Hi, me! she thought. This is me! Remember?

Of course I remember! I said I was going to be thinking of something, right?

Yep-a-roonie! And I just thought of something! I just thought that this might be exactly the sort of thing I can do to help Twilight and Dashie!

You know, me, I was thinking the exact same thing!

Of course I was! I should get to Horseton as soon as possible!

I betcha!

But first I should go bake more cinnamon rolls for the weather team!

Oops. Yeah, I should do that. Thanks, me!

I’m welcome, me!

Pinkie Pie dropped the newspaper and dashed back to Sugarcube Corner, full of purpose and eighty-seven point five percent empty of cinnamon rolls.



Chrysalis slumped back into her throne as the lawyer and accountant(230) left the throne room, orders in hoof and claw. As yet the Changeling Space Program, despite operating (barely) within the borders of Equestria and accepting payments from Equestrian organizations, paid no taxes(231) to the Equestrian crown. Negotiations for a final peace treaty between the changeling hive and Equestria proceeded with the blistering speed of a molasses-coated glacier, but Chrysalis expected that in the end a lot of back taxes would be due, and she wanted to prepare for that day.

It had taken two hours to persuade both the lawyer and the accountant to actively avoid all means of reducing the final tax bill when it came. Chrysalis wanted to leave Celestia absolutely no excuse to crack down on the hive, not even tax evasion(232). The professionals had strongly objected on the grounds that reducing tax bills was their job and that deliberately failing to do so, in their eyes, constituted malpractice. It had taken a bit of blackmail, a bit of persuasion, and a healthy dose of What Am I Paying You For The Customer is Always Right to bring them around.

With their departure Chrysalis allowed herself a sigh of relief. The infiltrator reports had been triaged, with the most important or interesting reviewed and the rest given a cursory rubber-stamp response. The bushel baskets of paperwork and correspondence had been reduced to a single small-ish bucket. The work wasn’t finished, but the end was finally in sight. With a bit of luck, she might even get away for some of the Hearth’s Warming celebrations in Manehattan.

Just as the thought of tempting ponies into a night of delicious debauchery entered her mind, it got shoved right back out again by the appearance of a changeling she’d come to dread over the past week. “What is it, Clickbug?” she asked glumly. “More mail?”

“Er, no, my queen,” Clickbug said. “A reporter from the Manehattan Times seeks an audience.”

Chrysalis’s tiny, twisted heart sank. Dealing with the press meant a lot of double-talking and thinking two steps ahead of some truly weaselly minds. If you weren’t careful with each and every word, they’d print who-knew-what, making you look terrible in the process. And if you were truly inept, they might even print the truth, and that would be a disaster.(233)

But almost any blather was better than leaving a reporter to make something up from their assumptions. “All right,” she forced herself to say, “send her in.”

“Him, my queen,” Clickbug said, admitting a unicorn with a cheap but well-pressed suit. His nose, wrinkled in distaste as he passed by the unwashed gatekeeper, relaxed as he approached the throne.

“Good afternoon,” Chrysalis said. “And whose byline am I contributing to?”

“Brief Abstract,” the reporter said, “associate science editor with the Times. I came here to ask a few questions about tomorrow’s launch.”

If she hadn’t been warned that the visitor was a reporter, Chrysalis might have been incautious enough to blurt out, What launch? Forewarned, she kept up her cool, suave demeanor, despite the loud clanging warning bells ringing in her head. “You’re certainly welcome to ask,” she said. “But I should think the launch will speak more eloquently than any words.”

“Indeed so,” Abstract, said, levitating pencil and notepad with his magic and scribbling down the quote. “The first attempt to remotely control a spaceship? That definitely makes a statement. But there are some who suggest that it might be, shall we say, excessively ambitious.”

Chrysalis’s mind raced, scrambling for phrases which would say nothing while eliciting more drops of information from the reporter. “The moon is still up there,” she said. “It hasn’t gone away, and it’s not any easier to get to today than it was yesterday. What you call ambitious others might call long overdue. Can you blame a pony for not wishing to waste time?”

Pencil and notepad waggled in the reporter’s magic as he pressed on, “But going for it all in one shot? Attempting to send the very first robot space probe flying past the Moon itself? No suborbital or orbital test?”

“Why not prepare for the best case scenario?” Chrysalis replied. “If the rocket fails in atmosphere, or achieves orbit but is unable to go beyond, then another one can be sent up. But if the rocket succeeds at every step, why not be prepared to make the most of the success?” The words were spoken as lightly as she could manage, but she balanced each and every one of them before letting them go. In her head she raged: WHOSE launch? It surely can’t be ours… at least, it’s not supposed to be…

… it better not be…

“So you anticipate a fully successful flight tomorrow?”

“Only in that I approve of being prepared for success as much as being prepared for failure,” Chrysalis replied. “What I anticipate is a learning experience for everyone involved in space exploration, no matter the outcome of the launch.”

The scribbling paused to allow Brief Abstract to flip to the next page of his notebook. “But what if you learn that Shotputnik doesn’t work?”

What the buck is Shotputnik? “If the launch fails, we will learn at least one reason why Shotputnik didn’t work this time,” she corrected. “And the next launch will fix that, and possibly other things we discover. Eventually it will work- or else something better will be found. That is the nature of science- testing, improving, refining, and building from the experience of others.”

“So, you’re inviting other space programs to potentially gain from your failure tomorrow?”

Bingo.

We are apparently launching something called Shotputnik tomorrow. It’s a remote control rocket, and it’s going to attempt to reach the Moon.

And noling told me about this until now.

Heads. Will. Roll.

“I am inviting the world to see what the ingenuity of the Changeling Space Program can dream of,” Chrysalis replied. “We have had successes and failures before, and we don’t fear them. And if any other agency thinks it can surpass our development of unmared space probes(234), they are certainly welcome to launch their own- if they can!”

The scribbling accelerated. “Spiffing stuff!” Brief Abstract said. “Now if you could just-“

“I’m afraid I have to cut this audience short,” Chrysalis said, adding a counterfeit sigh of regret. “I still have a few more bits of internal hive business to conclude before I depart for Horseton. Clickbug!”

Occupant’s subordinate stepped forward. “Yes, my queen?”

“Please see to it that Mr. Abstract is taken by chariot to Appleoosa at once. If at all possible get him there in time to catch the last train north. It is a long way back, after all.”

“Actually, I have a hired chariot waiting topside,” Brief Abstract said. “But thank you for the offer.”

“No, I insist,” Chrysalis said. “Your pilot will be tired from his trip here.”

“Her,” Clickbug interrupted.

“Her trip,” Chrysalis said. “And we want to make sure that your story appears in tomorrow’s edition, after all. See to it, Clickbug. Good evening, Mr. Abstract.”

Abstract attempted a couple of other questions, but Chrysalis picked up one of the few remaining items in the bucket of unfinished work to examine. Eventually the reporter, being a Canterlot native of good upbringing, took the hint and allowed himself to be escorted out.

“Guard?”

“Here, my queen!” one of the sentries said, fluttering up to the throne. Chrysalis couldn’t remember the name; there were so many changelings, and so few distinguishing characteristics between them.(235)

“You are to quietly and discreetly- you know the meaning of those words, right?”

The guard nodded.

“Quietly and discreetly prepare for my transfer back to Horseton,” Chrysalis continued. “As soon as that chariot gets back from dropping the snoop in Appleoosa, I want a fresh team of changelings ready to take me there. I want my travel kit packed and ready to load within the hour. Quietly and discreetly, do you understand?”

The guard nodded, leaned up close to Chrysalis’s ear, and whispered, “Quietly and discreetly, my queen!” This done, he bolted out of the throne room, wings buzzing like a chainsaw.

Chrysalis groaned, rubbed her head, and hoped the travel bottle of aspirin wasn’t empty.

Footnotes:

(230) A griffon and a pony respectively, both from Manehattan. Their personal visit to the changeling hive had cost the hive some ten thousand bits. Geneva the Griffon had handled the affairs of the fictional Gwyneth for years, but as yet had no idea that Gwyneth and Chrysalis were one and the same. Carried Interest was a more recent hire, looking to make her name in the business by taking on high-profile, even notorious, clients… and nopony was more notorious than changelings.

(231) Aside from sales taxes, which were included in the prices of everything the program bought.

(232) That is, until it was too late for Celestia to do anything, after which point any future tax bills could go hang. But Chrysalis had learned from hard experience not to mistake Too Soon for Too Late, so she prepared for a long wait.

(233) Although the author does not share Chrysalis’s dim view of journalism in general, it should be noted here that the author worked briefly as a small-town newspaper journalist. He lost interest once he realized two things: first, that he was too considerate of the privacy of others to report anything meaningful; and second, that a lot of the material written for small-town papers is paid for by the people being written about, and thus about as informative or accurate as the average photo in an online personal ad.

(234) Chrysalis remembered having read the phrase in one of the many documents Cherry Berry and the boffins had tossed in front of her at one point or another. She remembered practically nothing else about it, but at this moment, talking to this pony, she was grateful for whatever motivation- fear, anger, boredom- had made her actually open up the folder and read the contents, for a change.

(235) The changeling in question, Leafcutter, had been in the front lines during the invasion of Canterlot giving what he thought was sterling service protecting the queen’s person after the shield had come down. If he’d realized that the queen didn’t even remember his own name, he’d have been heartbroken, but the possibility never entered his mind. Thus, everyling remained in a happy state of mutual ignorance.

Twilight Sparkle fluttered her wings, backspilling just enough to allow her to settle down onto the gravel of Horseton Space Center’s aeroplane runway. Above her dozens of pegasi and even a couple of griffons and a dragon circled around the field, while over on a tower next to Cherry Berry’s hangar a changeling in a bright yellow vest and hard hat waved two hoof-lights to guide the traffic pattern overhead(236).

Only part of the crowd could be blamed on the next day’s launch. The large hay field between the space center buildings and the eastern edge of the property, which normally sat empty except for a handful of cows, was now mostly full of carnival, with brightly lit fun-fair rides, midway games of various kinds, and all manner of unhealthy deep-fried snacks(237). Horseton’s annual Hearth’s Warming Fair this year was the biggest and best any of the locals could recall, and the influx of tourists on what would have been the last evening only made it better(238).

And rushing up from the crowd of hay-carts and wagons near the livestock judging(239) tent came a changeling and a minotaur rushing to meet their highest ranking VIP.

“Welcome, Your Highness!” Occupant called out cheerfully, trotting up the bank of the elevated roadway to meet Twilight. The towering Marked Knee was barely a step behind him, his short legs bounding up the slope without effort. “Good to see you! We weren’t expecting you until tomorrow morning!”

“I have to fly back to Ponyville immediately after the launch,” Twilight said. “Hearth’s Warming Eve is the day after tomorrow, so I have to be ready for all my princessly duties. But I just couldn’t stay away from this!” The purple princess bounced on her hooves, wings twitching strong enough to turn the bounce into a slow float back to earth. “The first flight of an automated rocket! Think of the possibilities! We could send science experiments to distant planets and retrieve the data without risking a pony’s life!”

“Oh, but there are greater possibilities!!”Marked Knee noted. “Since the control system relies on modulated electromagnetic radiation rather than a magic array, the system is much more economical than technomantic devices like the new television or,” and he paused for a moment to express his full disgust at the next two words, “video games!!” Recovering his normal happy enthusiasm, he continued, “The applications beyond spaceflight boggle the mind!! Imagine this tangle,” he waved at the confused crowd of flyers in the late afternoon sky, “organized with the same kind of wired headsets used in concerts and theater today! Except without wires! Ponies communicating at a distance without wires or magic! We could bring concerts into the home! We might even replace television with an entirely electronic-“

“Okay, okay, I get it,” Twilight said, waving down the minotaur before he could explode with enthusiasm(240). “But let’s stick with space flight for now. You’re testing something unprecedented in the history of ponykind.” She shuffled her hooves a bit before mustering up the courage to ask, “Can I see it?”

“I’m afraid not,” Occupant said. “The assembly crew already has it in the VAB. It’s not safe to go in there right now, either for you or for Shotputnik.”

“Oh,” said Twilight, her heart sinking. “I had been hoping…”

“Yeah, me too!” a giant walking pile of assorted carnival goodies said.

Alicorn, changeling and minotaur jumped, startled by the new voice. Twilight Sparkle recovered first- after all, she knew that voice very well. “Pinkie? What are you doing here? I thought you said you couldn’t set hoof in a space center again!”

“No,” Pinkie Pie said patiently, poking her head out between a foot-long haydog and a wad of blue cotton candy. “I said I couldn’t set hoof at Cape Friendship ever again.” She shuddered a little at the name, but continued, “But here I’m just fine.”

Twilight gave Pinkie a deep look right in the eyes. Usually that was about as revealing as trying to read a book that was in another room… of another house… with the lights out.(241) But this time, for once, Twilight thought she saw something different in Pinkie’s usually innocent, oblivious nature… as if she was being happy and cheerful about being near a space launch center through an effort of will, rather than naturally.

And then Marked Knee broke the moment. “But you haven’t answered the question!!” he said. “What are you doing here??”

“Spying,” Pinkie Pie said matter-of-factly. “Funnel cake?” One of the cakes in the massive pile of snacks rose slightly and waggled itself in the direction of the minotaur.

Shaking his head, Marked Knee asked, “What kind of espionage strategy is it, when the spy walks up to the people in charge, announces herself as a spy, and offers up a fried pastry??”

Pinkie Pie paused for a moment’s thought. “Bribery?” she suggested.

Loud smacking and chomping sounds interrupted Marked Knee’s response. Occupant had accepted a chocolate-drizzled funnel cake and was noshing on it most industriously. “Hey, it works,” he said.(242)

Marked Knee took a deep breath. Somehow he’d found himself put in the role of Only Sane Mare, a role for which he was multiply unsuited.(243) “Normally a spy doesn’t tell the people she’s spying on-“

A lavender hoof reached up(244) and stilled the minotaur’s lips. “You should probably just stop there,” Twilight Sparkle said. “You were about to use the word ‘normal’ in connection with Pinkie Pie. That never ends well.” She smiled a little sheepishly as she settled back to all fours, adding, “I speak from experience.”

A loud growl drew attention back to Pinkie Pie, who looked both red-faced and cheerful. “Whoops!” she said. “Swishy-tail, blushy-face, tummy-rumble! That means we’re about to get a visit from someone who’s really angry and needs some comfort food!”

Almost on cue the sound of a magic-powered motor rose above the hubbub of the tourists and the fun fair. High overhead, Cherry Berry’s biplane circled around for a landing approach.

“Wow!” Pinkie Pie chirped. “I guess she found a clear field after all! But she’s cutting it close- I don’t think she’s qualified for night flying!”

Marked Knee looked nervously at Occupant and saw the little changeling looking right back. Both knew that Cherry Berry, normally of a sweet and timid disposition, got downright vicious on matters related to flight. “Maybe we should stay out of her way for a while,” Occupant suggested.

“Who, Cherry?” Pinkie Pie asked. “She’s only annoyed. THAT,” she added, gesturing to the west end of the runway, “is the pony who’s really angry!”

And there, just visible against the setting sun, flew Chrysalis’s personal air chariot, coming in for a landing behind four tired but determined-looking changelings in full armor. The sole passenger, even without armor, looked more intent on mayhem than the warriors pulling the chariot.

Marked Knee and Occupant looked at one another again. They had, up to this point, carefully not discussed what would happen when Chrysalis and/or Cherry Berry learned about the launch. Marked Knee himself had hoped that neither would take notice until the flight was a completed success. Now that the moment had come, neither minotaur nor changeling wanted to be the one to face the imminent dressing-down (245).

And then the Princess of Friendship offered them a way out. “I’m not surprised,” she said. “With that many ponies in the landing pattern, I’d be annoyed too.” She smiled as she added, “Actually, this gives me an opportunity to discuss some important business with her! I was afraid it would have to wait until springtime, but…”

The rest of Twilight Sparkle’s sentence went unheard by Marked Knee and Occupant. For the third time in thirty seconds the two locked eyes and saw in each other’s face a single thought; so long as the princess is around, we’re safe from retribution. All we have to do is stick as close to Twilight Sparkle as possible, as long as possible.

Without a word, the instant Twilight turned to face the runway and the approaching chariot, Occupant and Marked Knee took one subtle step closer to, and behind, the alicorn.

Chrysalis stepped off the chariot, gave the cluster of people one glance, and raised one eyebrow to show that she understood precisely what was going on. “Good evening, Princess,” she said smoothly. “I trust my loyal, faithful, and obedient…” and here she stressed each adjective as leadenly as possible without descending into outright sarcasm, “…staff have made you welcome.”

“Oh, I just got here myself,” Twilight Sparkle assured her, oblivious to the less than subtle message. “I really wasn’t expecting to run into you, but since you’re here-“

“Oh, please!” Chrysalis smiled most cordially(246). “This is Hearth’s Warming, or so I’m told! I have left the operations of Horseton Space Center in the hooves of my competent,” she said with a snarl, “and loyal,” adding even more snarl, “subordinates.” She gestured one perforated hoof in their direction (causing Occupant to flinch) and added, “If you have business to discuss, speak with them, not me.”

“Well, I did have a request to make,” Twilight admitted, “but-“

“Well, there you are, then!” Chrysalis crowed. “Take it up with Occupant, who of course has assumed total responsibility for everything that happens tomorrow. I am completely uninvolved.” Chrysalis ceased displaying her fangs long enough to give an honest, chilling glare at both Occupant and Marked Knee in turn as she added, “Of course, once the mission is complete I will have quite a number of questions for them.”

“Um.” The naked threat flustered Twilight, but after a moment’s thought she obviously decided to ignore it. “Well, in that case-“

“Hiya!” That moment’s thought had been all the time necessary for Pinkie Pie to break into the conversation. From within the immense pile of unhealthy festival food in her hooves she managed to produce a smallish rectangular box. “Happy Hearth’s Warming! I knew you’d need this!” She waggled the box vaguely in Chrysalis’s direction.

Momentarily jostled out of her anger, the queen lifted the box with her magic and flipped up the lid. Inside lay a small custom chocolate cookie with dark chocolate chips. Written on it, in chocolate icing, was the message: World’s Evillest Tyrant!

Chrysalis’s face took on a complex and completely unreadable expression. “Thank you,” she said quietly, “I’ll enjoy it later.”(247)

“THERE YOU ARE!”

Cherry Berry, aeronaut helmet and goggles still on her head, galloped down the embankment towards the group. “What the BUCK were you THINKING?” she shrieked. “When I get my hooves on you I’ll-“

“Hiya, Cherry!” Pinkie called out, having almost instantly placed herself between the enraged earth pony and the others. “Want a snack? I’m pretty sure I’ve got a cherry fried pie here somewhere!”

“Pinkie??” Cherry Berry skidded to a stop from shock. “You were in Ponyville at noon today! I flew straight here! How did you get here before me?”

“Weeeeeeeeell,” Pinkie Pie drawled, “I took the 1:15 train to Canterlot, then caught the 3:45 airship flight to Manehattan, but we were redirected to Rainbow Falls, so I took the 9:15 from there to Tall Tale, which got there just too late for me to catch the 7:48 to Dodge Junction, so instead I had to take the 6:05 to the Crystal Empire, made my connection on the 10:11 express to Trottingham, but then I didn’t have the money for the 4:14 red-eye to Baltimare, so I had to join a band of traveling minstrels, roaming the land and spreading joy wherever we went…”

Cherry Berry’s jaw had gone slack and her eyes had glazed over(248).

Twilight Sparkle nudged Occupant and said to Marked Knee, “I think this is the part where we leave.”

“But… but the timetable-“

Twilight nudged Marked Knee’s knee. “Just repeat to yourself, ‘I will not try to explain Pinkie Pie,” the princess said. “Now shall we go?”

Chrysalis, being no fool, was long gone.

“Y-yes, Princess,” Occupant said, breaking away from his own hypnosis. As the trio walked away from the chattering Pinkie and her victim, he added, “What kind of business did you want to discuss?”

“I’m working on a design for a heavy-lift mission,” Twilight said. “But I need to know how lateral decouplers will function at high speed in the upper atmosphere. I wasn’t planning a flight until at least spring, but-“

“Say no more!!” Marked Knee said. “We can dry-fire a decoupler on this mission!! We have more than enough delta-v to spare for our lightweight craft!!”

“Er… for a reasonable fee,” Occupant added. “Let’s go to my office and do the paperwork.”

Footnotes:

(236) Because a princess always gets top landing priority, even if it’s not your princess.

(237) And a handful of cows, two of whom had teamed up to make one particular bunco operator very unhappy. Cows get very little in the way of spending money, and they take serious exception to ponies who run rigged milk-bottle ball-toss games. For the record, they ruined her day not by smashing her booth but by stealthily interfering in the game so that every pony’s toss- every toss- knocked over all three of the normally immobile stone bottles. Cows do not like to cause a commotion, because no cow wants to be that horribly embarrassed one who started the stampede.

(238) The carnival ponies certainly didn’t object. Horseton was usually a small event, one last little showing for next to no expense before the operation shut down for winter. Having a crowd each day ten times the size of Horseton’s entire pre-CSP population meant huge piles of found money… except for the one crooked ball-toss pony, who left the weekend a broken mare in more than one respect.

(239) In Equestria local fairs are about more than fun, rides, food, and produce. Since most farm animals on Equus are intelligent, and a few (cows, for example) can actually speak, they are considered entitled to some due process of law. In the Livestock Judging the farm animals of an area air their grievances, reach settlements, and mete out justice for minor crimes. Meritorious conduct is also recognized with Good Show awards, with most fairs giving out an award for the most noble act by a farm animal in the previous year, Best Show.

(240) The phenomenon is not unknown among ponies. Some have even been known to explode twice.

(241) This isn’t the best analogy, since Twilight Sparkle had actually done this once or twice, at a huge expense of magical energy, but she’d never successfully read Pinkie Pie’s thoughts by looking at her. But for most ponies who aren’t supremely magical ponies and excruciatingly bibliophilic, it still holds up.

(242) There are those who say that chocolate is no substitute for love. Three out of five changelings say they are wrong.

(243) Leaving aside the obvious point, which is mainly an artifact of the ancient influence of matriarchal society on the Equestrian language, Marked Knee had never been in a position to explain why someone else’s view of the world was at odds with reality. Also, though he thought himself quite eminently sane just like any other minotaur, it never occurred to him that minotaurs, as a species, tend to be utterly bonkers in one fashion or another. His particular flavor of bonkers (athletic, over-enthusiastic, and technology-obsessed) just happened to dovetail with that of many if not most other minotaurs, not least his colleagues from what had been the Minotaur Rocket Project.

(244) With the aid of wings. Only Celestia and possibly Luna could stand on their hind legs to put a hoof on the muzzle of a minotaur of normal stature, and Marked Knee was tall for his species.

(245) Particularly in Occupant’s case, since he knew very well Chrysalis was not above carrying out said dressing-down literally. Since changelings were even less likely than ponies to wear clothing in the first place, this usually began with the removal of chitin and/or skin.

(246) Or possibly cardially, since despite her honey-sweet tone she looked ready to lunge for somepony’s jugular. But if the corners of the mouth are turned up and teeth are showing, by the dictionary it counts as a smile…

(247) On the one hoof, Chrysalis was one of those changelings who didn’t see the appeal of chocolate. In fact, she could barely stomach any tangible food at all, and the cookie represented about twice her stomach capacity. On the other hoof, she could smell the complex emotion of Willing-to-Forgive-Past-Wrongs-To-Be-Friends Pinkie had leaked all over the thing, which made her mouth water. And then there was the message, which even as an empty compliment touched something deep within her, giving her a moment’s hope that someone else really understood her…

(248) A very common symptom in ponies subjected to one of Pinkie’s explanations, particularly when the explanation raised many more questions than it answered.

Marked Knee stood alone in the front row of Mission Control’s workstations, the only bull in the bullpen, one of only a handful of creatures on the floor altogether, hoping his intense worry didn’t show.

Worry, and for that matter doubt, seldom troubled the young minotaur. Eventual success had always been a given. Granted, he often experienced frequent bouts of frustration as one difficulty after another arose on a certain project, but he always knew the final result would be total, unqualified success.

Not so now. For almost the first time in his life, Marked Knee had begun to see that failure outside the laboratory had more potential consequences than failure within it… and that, truth be told, the potential for failure was much more real than he wanted to admit.

Example: the press gallery crammed absolutely full of reporters and cameraponies, with government and foreign VIPs lining the front row of seats… including Cherry Berry, Chrysalis and Twilight Sparkle sitting side by side at the end closest to the gallery doors.

Second example: bleachers flanking the VAB, plus press galleries on top of the building, all full to capacity. Even the carnival barkers and ride operators from the fun-fair had shut down for the launch. All in all, several thousand ponies, griffons, changelings and otherwise were crowded on the inner grounds, plus a substantially larger number of ponies with carts parked on the grass to either side of the road halfway back to Horseton.

Third example: the rocket itself.

The vital symmetry of the rocket had been spoiled by the lateral parachute some changeling had slapped on one side of Shotputnik. The lateral decoupling had thoughtfully been applied to the opposite side, but at a lower level. Hidden under an in-line decoupler lay a heavy heat shield; Marked Knee hadn't asked for or approved either one. The vital stabilizing fins of Missions 13 and 14’s second stages were appallingly absent. This rocket would be an unstable beast, requiring expert control- and expert control it would not get.

Granted, even with the extra weight R1’s orbital package weighed only one-third that of Mission 13. Granted, reducing the solid fuel boosters from three to two had eliminated only a small portion of the rocket’s total delta-v. The changes nagged at him anyway. So much could go wrong, and if it did the entire world would see.

But he couldn’t back down now. Cancelling the flight would at best postpone it by months, and possibly kill Shotputnik altogether. It would also represent a major black mark for the Changeling Space Program and for space flight in general, making promises and then backing away from them. Eye Wall, the pegasus in charge of local weather, had kept the sky clear of the traditional Hearth’s Warming Eve snow(249) for the launch with more than her usual ill grace. She’d be impossible to work with if they cancelled now, after all her trouble.

And her anger would be nothing compared to the rage of Queen Chrysalis, the program’s benefactor.

So the countdown continued, as the rocket was given its final load of fuel, as Dragonfly sat in the cap-com position behind a small mock-up of the normal flight control system(250), as Occupant paced Mission Control’s back row in his pristine white flight-control vest, as the soft murmur of VIP chatter bled through the glass of the gallery.

“Fueling complete,” Lucky Cricket reported from his station, as the giant projection on the Mission Control wall showed the changeling ground crew disconnecting the last fuel lines. “Go for Shotputnik activation.”

“Activate Shotputnik,” Occupant replied.

Marked Knee flicked a switch on his console, nodding as the lights on the console began to flicker in Shotputnik’s standard start-up sequence. “Shotputnik activated,” he reported. “Reading successful initialization and link-up with ground control.”

Dragonfly worked the controls in front of her. On the screen, the thrust bell of the first-stage engine rocked slowly back and forth. “Shotputnik accepting commands,” she said. “Controls responsive. Uplink secure.”

“Test data transmission system,” Occupant ordered.

This was the first real moment of truth. If the radio system didn’t work, the launch would have to be scrubbed. A bit of Marked Knee actually hoped the radio would fail. The rest of him, of course, shouted down the minority opinion as being a disgrace to both minotaur innovation and minotaur pride.

“Receiving temperature and barometric data from the craft,” Dragonfly reported. “Radio transmission successful.”

Marked Knee noted a reading on his console. “Flight, Systems,” he called.

“Go, Systems,” Occupant replied.

“The transmission’s eating a lot more power than expected,” Marked Knee said. “Recommend limiting radio use to data transmission and relying solely on magic link for telemetry and operations.” This wasn’t a mission abort condition, quite. Any power eaten pre-launch would be recharged by the thermocouples in the first two rocket stages. But once those were gone, whatever battery power remained would have to sustain the probe for its entire trip to the moon. When that power ran out, Shotputnik R1 would shut down forever.

But that was later, and right now the ship would still fly. When the final go-no go call went around the room, Marked Knee gave his firm “Go!!” without hesitation.

Not without qualms, though.

“All right, we’re all go for launch,” Occupant said as the last confirmation was called out. “Restart countdown clock.”

“T minus thirty seconds and counting,” Marked Knee said, pushing a button.

A large countdown clock had been added to the grounds between the VAB and the launchpad, for the benefit of the witnesses. It had been frozen at thirty seconds between the final fueling and the go-no go confirmation. Now it resumed counting down, a bright white light flashing off and on above the numbers. Fiddlewing’s warning shriek echoed across the space center grounds as the skies were cleared of flyers by the changeling pad crew.

The seconds ticked down. Thousands of ponies and other talking creatures waited on the edge of their seats.

At zero Dragonfly hit the staging button on her console, igniting all three first-stage engines.

Mission R1 lifted, slowly and gracefully, into the sky atop a plume of flame and thunder.

Outside the VAB, and inside the VIP gallery in Mission Control, the watchers cheered.

In Mission Control itself, things began to go wrong almost immediately.

“Capcomm, Flight,” Dragonfly said within seconds of launch.

“Go, Capcomm.”

“I’ve got a lot less response from the ship than I should,” Dragonfly said. “It’s not behaving anything like the simulations!” After a moment’s pause and a grunt, she added, “Yaw maneuver for gravity turn is sluggish, and roll controls are absolutely unresponsive. Ship is beginning to roll and I can’t stop it!”

On the screen the rocket was, indeed, rotating on its axis as its nose very, very slowly angled vaguely eastwards.

“Systems, what can we do?” Occupant asked.

“Remember that we don’t have SAS or control wheels on the craft,” Marked Knee said, his voice subdued by rapid thought.

“No control wheels??” Dragonfly shouted, ignoring comms discipline. “You never told me this ship had no control wheels!”

“There wasn’t room in the Shotputnik casing for them,” Marked Knee said. “But that was covered in the simulations.”

“No, it wasn’t!” Dragonfly replied. “I had the whine of the test capsule’s wheels in my ears the entire time! They were running every simulation! I switched them on at the start every time because that’s what I always do and noling told me not to!”

Marked Knee saw it all in his mind in an instant. The simulation computer, and for that matter Shotputnik, had been receiving full data from the capsule, including the feedback from the reaction wheels. The simulation would have accepted the reaction wheel input and responded accordingly- as if the wheels were Shotputnik’s. It was a simple but obvious oversight.

And that oversight totally invalidated every single simulation flight. Instead of the several successful simulation flights, Dragonfly had false experience with a control system fundamentally different than she’d come to expect.

Twenty seconds in, Mission R1 was in deep, deep trouble- and Marked Knee, whose specialty was electronics and not control systems or aerodynamics or mathematics, had no idea what to do about it.

“Er- cease all angling attempts!!” he shouted. “Keep the ship on a steady trajectory! We can adjust once we’re out of atmosphere, but-“

“Solid fuel boosters exhausted,” Dragonfly interrupted. “Decoupling.”

The spent boosters fell away from the rocket, its liquid fuel center stage still firing.

And then the rocket nosed down, hard… and continued nosing down… and then flipped, tumbling in flight. (251)

“I’ve lost it!” Dragonfly shouted. “Shutting down engine!”

On the screen, the plume of flame from the first stage engine died. The ship continued tumbling.

“No response to controls!” Dragonfly added.

“The only control system the ship has is the rocket thrust vectoring!!” Marked Knee replied. “The only way you can stop the tumble is with the rocket!”

“But half the time the rocket nozzle’s pointed prograde!” Dragonfly protested. “We’ll lose velocity and crash!”

“The engine’s good for any number of ignitions!!” Marked Knee said. “Try only activating it when the rocket’s nose is pointed skywards!!”

“Okay!” Dragonfly turned her attention to the controls. “Staging!” she said, jettisoning the almost-spent first stage and activating the second stage.

The ship continued to tumble, losing speed rapidly as it continued up its trajectory. Dragonfly didn’t bother calling out engine-on or engine-off; activation and deactivation followed one another too quickly, the rocket tumbling end over end once every two seconds or so. For half a minute, the effort didn’t seem to be doing any good, as the rocket slowed to subsonic speeds, reached apoapsis well inside atmosphere, and began dropping.

And then, just as hope was almost lost, Dragonfly crowed a raspy cry of triumph as the tumble finally slowed. One final end-over-end, and then the ship stabilized, and Dragonfly pushed the throttle to full. “We have control!” she shouted. “It cost us half the second stage, but- grr!” Cheer vanished as the accelerating spacecraft began to sway and twitch on the screen, forcing Dragonfly to return her full attention to the controls.

“Dr. Knee, are we still go for the moon?” Occupant asked.

“I… I don’t know,” Marked Knee murmured. In a louder, but no longer ebullient, voice, he added, “Once we reach orbit I’ll have a better idea of where we stand.”

“If we get there,” Dragonfly grumbled. “I’ve still got that roll problem. It’s really screwing up my control. Darn ship wants to go every direction except straight!”

“We’re gaining altitude again,” Marked Knee said quietly. “We should still be good for the decoupler test.”

“Ugh!” Dragonfly struggled with the controls, just barely able to get the words, “Don’t jinx it!” through her fangs.

The warning, apparently, came too late. The rocket’s wayward wobbling became more intense, swinging back and forth around, but never on, the prograde vector, until little more than a minute after regaining control the ship resumed its uncontrolled cartwheel.

“Shoot!!” Dragonfly began pulsing the engine again, hooves racing across the controls as it staggered unsteadily higher into the thinning air. “Lost it again!”

“You got it under control before,” Occupant said, trying to reassure her.

“I don’t know HOW I got it under control before!” Dragonfly snapped. “It’s tumbling AND spinning and doing everything EXCEPT what I want it to!” Her hooves never stopped as she said this, except to wipe sweat from her carapace(252).

“Dr. Knee?” Occupant asked. “Is there anything else we can do?”

Words failed to come to the minotaur’s lips. Silently he shook his head. Unless a second miracle restored control of the ship, nothing could be done.

“Coming up on second stage burnout!” Dragonfly warned.

And that, Marked Knee knew, was the end of the mission. The third stage alone could not both achieve orbit and supply the thrust required to reach the moon. In fact, at the ship’s current velocity, he doubted the third stage could even get the probe to orbit.

About the only thing that might be salvaged from the launch was the decoupler test. They would achieve the altitude, and just possibly the required speed. If Dragonfly could just coax a little more velocity out of the almost uncontrollable craft…

“Second stage burnout!” Dragonfly shouted. “Staging!”

Her hoof came down on the staging button.

The lateral decoupler shot off the probe and into empty air, far below testing altitude.

“SHOOT!” Dragonfly shouted, hitting the staging button again. The second stage fell away and the third stage lit, but the damage had already been done.

The truncated rocket continued to tumble, and Dragonfly continued to pulse the engines, but Marked Knee no longer really perceived any of it. Slowly, gradually, he slumped into the chair he almost never used when he was on the mission control floor.

Shotputnik had failed. Utterly. Spectacularly.

And it was all his own fault.

Yes, Dragonfly had been at the controls. Yes, Occupant had signed all the paperwork and agreed to all his decisions. That didn’t matter. All the fundamental errors were his and his alone.

He’d failed to warn Dragonfly about the staging sequence, having forgotten that the mission plans had called for the decoupler check during second-stage burn. He’d failed to personally oversee the changelings who assembled the rocket. He’d failed to remember to deactivate the simulator’s reaction wheels to provide accurate simulations. He’d piled tasks on an untested, unproven, uncertain system without a second thought.

And above all, he’d pushed the project too hard and fast. He hadn’t waited for the right parts to be available. He’d overrated his abilities, his creation’s abilities. He’d been impatient, and he’d encouraged Occupant’s own impatience, and he’d pushed the program in the absence of its leaders far ahead of what they were prepared for.

All. His, Fault.

Marked Knee barely looked up from his own lap when the mission control doors slammed. “Lock the doors,” Cherry Berry’s authoritative voice called out. “Occupant, give me your headset.”

“But, Miss Berry-“

“Give. Me. Your. Headset.

Occupant, wilting, levitated his microphone-earphone headset over to Cherry Berry, who adjusted it on her head with one hoof. “Attention all controllers, flight leader is now Cherry Berry,” she said. “Mares and gentleponies of the press, we are going to work to recover Mission R1 and find out what went wrong. For the time being we have no statement and will answer no questions. You are welcome to continue monitoring the remainder of the mission as you like, but access to the space center outside of mission control is limited to the welcome center and the carnival. Thank you for your cooperation.”

The soft murmuring from the visitor’s gallery grew louder, drawing Marked Knee’s attention to it. He noticed, looking through the glass, that Twilight Sparkle was still there, watching with a most sorrowful expression, but Chrysalis’s seat, like Cherry Berry’s, lay empty.

“All right, cut the gallery comms,” Cherry Berry said, taking off the headset and setting it on the console.

“Er…” Occupant moved to his own console and threw a switch. “All external speakers off,” he said. “That includes the speakers in the stands.”

“Ohhhh,” Cherry Berry groaned, rubbing the side of her head with one hoof. “So it’s not just the press who… never mind.” With a shake of her head she was all business again. “First order of business- where are we?”

“Just leaving atmosphere,” Marked Knee replied quietly. “We won’t be in space very long on our current trajectory.”

“Can we get control long enough to put the ship on retrograde?”

“What do you think I’m doing?” Dragonfly growled, hooves still frantically working the remote controls. She had given up on cycling the engine on and off. It now burned constantly as the ship continued to tumble despite Dragonfly’s best efforts. “Thirty percent fuel remaining in third stage, by the way.”

“So, no,” Cherry Berry said. “Keep trying anyway. Dr. Knee, can the ship survive re-entry?”

“It was never intended to,” Marked Knee said. “The original craft design had the center of mass directly amidships. But someone in assembly added a heat shield and parachute without my authorization. It is just possible that the weight of the heat shield and the drag from the parachute cowling will cause the ship to turn itself retrograde during re-entry. That would put the heat shield in front, dealing with most of the re-entry heat.”

“And what happens if it doesn’t?” Cherry asked.

“The science experiments almost certainly burn up,” Marked Knee said. “The service module with the batteries might survive re-entry, but not impact. The parachute might survive. But no re-entry tests were ever done on Shotputnik itself. As I said, it was never intended to re-enter atmosphere.”

“Would it be more likely to survive if we keep the third stage on?”

“Less likely. We’ll be coming back very steeply. Extra mass makes it less likely that the ship will decelerate enough to deploy the parachute before impact. And more time spent decelerating also means longer exposure to atmospheric heating.”

“Burnout!” Dragonfly called out. On the telepresence screen, the ship tumbled, powerless, helpless.

“Jettison third stage,” Cherry Berry ordered.

Dragonfly hit the staging button, and on the projection two halves of spaceship tumbled away from one another. “Third stage separation,” Dragonfly said.

“All right,” Cherry Berry said. “We hauled those experiments up there, so I want them to be used. Save enough battery power to keep the ship powered long enough to give the order to open the parachute. Use the rest to transmit scientific data. Anything we can salvage from this flight, do it.”

This work distracted Marked Knee for a few minutes, observing the results from one experiment after another. The data duplicated that gained from previous missions- nothing new, nothing that would change simulations or ship design- but it helped keep the minotaur’s mind off his own failure for a little while.

By the time the doors on the Science Jr. module closed, the ship was well back into atmosphere, still tumbling, the first flickers of reentry plasma building up around the ship.

And then, with a confused waggle and then a rapid spinning wobble, the tumble ceased, and Mission R1 plunged into the atmosphere head-first.

“Is there anything else I can do?” Dragonfly asked. She’d taken her hooves away from the controls after switching the experiments and transmitter on and off.

“I don’t think opening the service bay doors would slow the ship enough to justify the danger,” Marked Knee murmured. “Dr. Cowley would know better than I.”

“So we wait,” Cherry Berry said, bringing all conversation in the half-empty control room to an end. For almost a minute they waited in silence, watching the screen as flames built up, as the air gradually thickened around the ship, as the probe's ignominious end approached…

… and then the erratic wobbling increased, then became a single convulsive backflip, ending with the ship descending heat shield first, still wobbling a bit but much more stable than before.

The half-dozen creatures in Mission Control almost unanimously let out a sigh of relief. Half a minute later they did it again as the ship’s velocity dropped below the danger zone, as the last flames of plasma winked out, leaving only the shimmering of a rapidly shrinking mach cone.

“All right,” Cherry Berry said. “Dragonfly, pop the chute the moment it’s safe to do so. Dr. Knee, where will it come down?”

Marked Knee activated the trajectory projection map. “Roughly one hundred and five kilometers east-northeast of here, in clear ocean.”

Cherry Berry blinked. “Only a hundred kilometers??” she asked. “It went up higher than that!”

“Not by much,” Marked Knee replied mournfully.

Cherry Berry took a couple of deep breaths. “All right,” she said. “Chrysalis is already sending chariots to haul von Brawn, Goddard and the others back here at top speed. Lucky Cricket, get a retrieval team moving now.” Her normally wide, innocent eyes glared with hostility at Occupant, then at Marked Knee, then at Dragonfly. “You three,” she said, “I will be taking your statements in my administration office individually once the ship is down. Tomorrow we will discuss responsibility, procedures, and how we go forward from here.”

The pink pony’s lips twitched a little bit, as if she had more to say, before she compressed them into a thin frown. With a final snort and toss of her head she turned and slammed open the room’s double doors, which shut and locked themselves with a loud clack.

Marked Knee, moaning, slumped forward and put his head in his massive hands, as behind him Shotputnik’s unauthorized parachute opened, silhouetted against the wan but cheerful Hearth’s Warming sun.

A cluster of reporters barged through the doors into the astronaut lounge. “I’ve been expecting a flop from the changelings for months now,” said one stallion wearing a bowtie, “and here it is at last.” The reporter barely glanced at the cruller hoofed over the counter to him, much less at the pink pony who had handed it to him. “Let’s see Chrysalis spin this one into a success!”

“Fifty-some miles,” agreed a camerapony, who accepted a plain bagel and a cup of coffee from the server. “I’ve seen kites that flew farther from home than this Shotputnik, and kites are a lot cheaper.”

“I always thought the whole robot idea was loony,” said another reporter, brown mane topped with a snazzy fedora that proudly held his press pass in its hatband. “Machines need a living pony’s hoof at the controls. It’s a fact of life, and no Shotputnik is ever going to change that.”

“Shotputnik!” a newsmare giggled, accepting a tray with a chef’s salad and soda crackers on it. “More like ‘Stayputnik.’ It didn’t want to go!”

This bit of wit, not all that funny to normal people, sent the group of reporters into over a minute of uproarious laughter(253). This gave the mare serving the food the opportunity to finish handing out snacks none of the reporters realized they hadn’t actually ordered before making herself scarce.

Pinkie Pie enjoyed working with Heavy Frosting. Granted, the chef was a bit of a grumpy perfectionist, but he quite obviously took great joy in his work. If nothing made him angrier than ponies meddling in his work, nothing made him happier than seeing(254) the pleasure of ponies eating his creations. And though Pinkie Pie was a pretty good baker, she always learned neat new things when around a master chef like Frosting.

It also gave her an excuse to stay where the computers were.

She hadn’t been able to charm her way to Shotputnik itself or into Mission Control to see the computers that operated it. Of course the design notes for the computers, and for Shotputnik, would be even better. But those were in two file cabinets in Research and Development Building 3 (255), locked tight, and up to now Pinkie Pie had decided breaking and entering for non-party reasons was really, really rude.

But that was before listening to the loudspeakers. That had been before hearing a bunch of bad news that reminded Pinkie of another bad flight several months before, giving her serious not-fun shivers. Pinkie would have gnawed her hooves, except that would have been most unhygienic in a food preparation area. Ick!

And now there were the reporters, who were laughing at the flight’s failure. As if the ponies- well, changelings, but you know- hadn’t worked hard trying to make it work! As if Shotputnik hadn’t had the potential to save a lot of pony lives and make space flight much safer!

Breaking into a filing cabinet might be really rude, but laughing at a failed launch was kicking a pony when they were down. It was super-duper rude. It was rudy-rude! It was rude to the rude power multiplied by pi!

So, logically, Pinkie could multiply the other side of the formula by Pie and still not be as rude as those mean reporters.

With this thought uppermost in the bubbly froth of her brain, Pinkie Pie went to thank Heavy Frosting and excuse herself… after borrowing a butter knife, a black body suit, a flashlight, and a can opener.

Because a pony’s gotta have the proper tools to do what a pony’s gotta do.

MISSION R1 REPORT

Mission summary: Test communications, flight control and other properties of Shotputnik; test of decoupler systems in upper atmosphere; first lunar fly-by

Pilot: Shotputnik (Dragonfly)

Flight duration: 16 min. 27 sec.
Contracts fulfilled: 0
Milestones: First uncrewed flight

Conclusions from flight: The roadapples finally hit the fan.

MISSION ASSESSMENT: CATASTROPHIC FAILURE

Footnotes:

(249) Pretty much the only snow Horseton ever got, barring a once-in-a-decade feral storm from the Macintosh Hills. Keeping snow clouds stable and productive that far south was a labor-intensive task, and Marked Knee’s request for clear flight conditions, with highly perishable snow clouds already on the way from Cloudsdale, meant a lot more work for the weather team than he ever understood.

(250) Because the full capsule used in simulations couldn’t fit through the mission control doors, and also because Occupant had pointed out how bad it would look to reporters if they had somehow crammed it in.

(251) In our world, almost any rocket, particularly a multi-ton rocket similar to R1, that spun end over end in atmosphere during hypersonic flight would tear itself apart from atmospheric stresses within seconds, if it didn’t break instantly. However, one of the benefits of building changeling-proof modular rocket components is that the resulting rockets are not merely changeling-proof but resistant to practically any other destructive force you care to name.

(252) Changeling sweat is rare, but not impossible.

(253) There is something about having a lame sense of humor that makes a person gravitate towards the media as a career. Those with a worse than average funny bone, of course, are given the job of writing clever headlines, but the true masters of the talent of anti-funny get entrusted with the sacred art of crafting crossword puzzle clues.

(254) And eating, too; after all, Heavy Frosting aka Carapace was still a changeling.

(255) One of the lesser aspects of Pinkie Sense was that odd, random bits of information Pinkie Pie had no way of knowing would spontaneously pop into her mind, usually but not always completely accurate. Of course, it only worked when Pinkie was making no effort whatever to acquire said information. Pinkie never told any of her friends about this, partly because investigating it might break the ability forever, but mostly because she knew it would give Twilight Sparkle a huge headache.

“You three do not know,” Queen Chrysalis drawled, “how lucky you all are.”

The Horseton Space Center’s throne room usually sat as it had been constructed, plain and undecorated; a large high-backed chair on a little dais with a narrow carpet, so purple it was almost black, leading up to it, and two CSP security changelings in friendly-looking light blue peaked caps. On this day, however, Chrysalis had done it up properly. Tattered-looking tapestries strung from one edge of the ceiling to the other, hanging down with deliberate menace. The two regular guards had been replaced by eight warriors in full battle armor. Even the queen herself had dressed up, adding a cape and pauldrons to her little knobbed crown.

The blonde-maned pink pony seated on the floor next to the dais clashed with everything else, despite Cherry Berry’s attempt to look authoritative by adding her fluffy-collared flight jacket(256). But the light lavender eyes had gone steel-gray with anger, making them a set with the rest of the décor. The friendly earth pony from Ponyville was gone, and the steely-eyed missile mare waited to stomp heavily upon whatever bits Chrysalis left intact.

And in front of them all, bowing or kneeling, were the three conspirators, Occupant, Marked Knee, and Dragonfly.

The dance was done, and now the piper presented his invoice.

“I have read the transcripts of the interviews conducted by Chief Pilot Cherry Berry,” Chrysalis said, not so much sitting up as flowing from a fully recumbent slump into an upright seated position- sort of melting in reverse. “I have also read the early editions from Manehattan and Baltimare, which I had flown to me by changelings more faithful than any of you.” Reaching behind her, the queen pulled out three newspapers and tossed them in front of the trio.

The Manehattan Times headline read: CHANGELING MOON SHOT MISSES BY 249,935 MILES.

The Manehattan Post, its tabloid cover a photo of the still-dripping probe hanging from underneath a trio of changelings in flight: ROBO NO-GO- CHRYSALIS’S BRAINCHILD FAILS TO LAUNCH.

And the Baltimare Sun, with its one-word headline: STAYPUTNIK!

“The last time I was humiliated this thoroughly it was by my enemies,” Chrysalis drawled, allowing the horror of the situation to sink in even deeper. “The last five times I was humiliated even half as much as this, the changelings responsible were made to suffer. And what I want to do to all three of you right now, for that alone,” she added, the drawl taking on a buzzsaw edge, “would make you envy the fate of those changelings. Oh, very much so.”

After allowing herself a moment to savor the threat, the queen took a deep breath and continued, “However, as I said, you three are extremely lucky.” A clipboard with a thick stack of paperwork on it clattered to the floor next to the newspapers. “For one thing, I need you three in order to clean up this mess in a hurry. That,” the queen said, pointing to the clipboard, “is the construction schedule for the VAB expansion. The work crews return immediately after New Year’s celebrations end, and while they work, we are grounded- for the entire winter and possibly longer.”

Chrysalis glared across the group before adding, “That means we have nine days, counting today, to launch a new moon fly-by mission. And this one MUST succeed. That means I can’t get rid of you- as much as I want to right now.”

Leaning back in her throne, Chrysalis continued, “You are also lucky to have a wise and crafty queen like myself. While you were flying and crashing your expensive pinwheel, I lined up contracts for the spring that will cover the costs of ‘Stayputnik,’ including tourist flights and a contract for an artificial satellite that will orbit Equus’s poles.”

Marked Knee didn’t correct the name.

Chrysalis turned her attention to Dragonfly. “That will be part of your punishment. You are from now on in charge of all tourists during their flight training. And since you demonstrated an interest in machinery, you, yourself, shall be training under Goddard the Griffon for a role as flight engineer.” Chrysalis glared and added, “In short, I intend your time behind the stick to be as short and unpleasant as possible henceforth. Your joyrides are over.

“Thank you, oh merciful queen!” Dragonfly hissed, bowing and groveling again.

Chrysalis turned her attention to Marked Knee. “You are not one of my subjects, so I cannot exercise casual cruelty upon you…” She paused and considered. “Well, I could, I am a tyrant after all, but as enjoyable as it would be it would make more trouble than it’s worth. And you did try to put all the blame for this fiasco on yourself. A noble gesture, but wasted on me.”

Chrysalis drew herself up to her full seated height. “You are hereby demoted. You can no longer authorize anything or give orders to anyone in this program. All requests for materials and labor will have to go through Dr. von Brawn, who shall be your permanent supervisor. In particular you are banned from ever designing a rocket again. Furthermore, your salary shall be cut in half for the following year.

“And the next time you displease me in any way, your employment shall be terminated outright. Am I understood?”

“Yes, Queen Chrysalis,” Marked Knee replied meekly.

This left Occupant. “And you,” Chrysalis said, her voice rising gradually as she allowed a sliver of her true emotion to show. “I gave you authority, and you abused it. I gave you trust, and you betrayed it. Marked Knee may have talked you into it, but you are a changeling! You are supposed to deceive others! You’re not supposed to be the patsy!”

Occupant joined Dragonfly flat on the floor, groveling and trembling in fear.

“And you are the luckiest of all,” Chrysalis continued, “because I need you too badly to dispose of you as I want. I can’t even take your job away- noling else wants it.”

Occupant didn’t raise his head. He’d been in trouble with Chrysalis before, and he knew better than to get his hopes up prematurely.

“But that doesn’t mean I can’t do anything, oh no my dear Occupant.” Chrysalis stood from her throne and stepped down the dais, towering over the drone. “You are stripped of your power to unilaterally order missions. You can still accept contracts for missions already in planning, but no new missions may be scheduled except by consensus of the combined program leadership.” Chrysalis smiled a thin, humorless smile as she added, “That’s not your punishment. That’s just shutting the front door after the pony has fled out the back(257). I have something much worse in mind for you.”

She clapped her hooves again, and two guards entered the room. One carried a small but heavy hammer, of the kind used for fitting horseshoes(258). The other carried a milky sphere with an obvious seam around its equator.

“This,” Chrysalis said, “is your E-Z-Scry-Me Ball, Occupant. I ought to know- you thanked me for letting you buy it every day for over a month. You shake it and ask a yes-no question, and it gives an answer. Sometimes even an accurate one. It was, I believe, the very first thing you ever bought by mail order. The start, you might say, of your addiction.”

The guards set the cheap plastic ball and the hammer in front of Occupant, who raised his head and looked at the objects, obviously confused but still too scared to speak.

“I made some inquiries,” Chrysalis continued. “It seems this children’s toy is no longer in production. Not easily replaced. And, of course, it is the very first thing you ever bought. The heart of your collection. Your most prized possession.” She smiled a nasty, fang-baring smile as she finished, “And now, my loyal servant, to demonstrate your loyalty to me, you will smash it.”

Occupant’s eyes bulged even more so than usual. “NOOOO!” he shouted. “My queen, PLEEEEASE!”

“You circumvented my will,” Chrysalis continued coldly, no longer smiling. “You embarrassed me in front of the entire world. You cost this program tens of thousands of bits for a flight that accomplished nothing. You abused my trust and endangered our conquest of space in the process.” She jabbed a hoof at the plastic ball and snapped, “And now, if you ever want to return to my good graces, you will take that hammer and smash that toy until there is nothing left to mend.”

“My queen,” Occupant gasped, his normally raspy, nasal voice pinched even more by despair, “mercy, p-please-“

“Do it.”

The hammer floated into the air in a flickering field of green magic. It wobbled up and over the little plastic ball, twitching and flinching in Occupant’s unsteady magical grip. It jerked up and down as Occupant tried and failed to suppress his sobs, as thick glutinous tears rolled down the sides of his muzzle. The hammer swung once, twice, checking itself each time well short of the plastic. With each miss, Occupant’s sobs grew louder, as the changeling worked himself up to the horrible, horrible act he was about to-

“That’s enough, Chrysalis.”

Cherry Berry stood, walked over to the tormented changeling, and swatted the hammer out of the air. Occupant’s magic winked out as the hammer hit the floor and over to the wall with a quiet hiss. “Punishment is one thing,” the pink pony continued, “but you were enjoying that too much.”

“And why should I not, pony?” Chrysalis hissed back. “You know what he did!”

“And I know he won’t be any use to us if you make him go through with this,” Cherry Berry continued. “Plus it’s just plain mean. Choose something else.”

Everyone in the room watched Chrysalis’s eyes, expecting an explosion of rage. Instead the queen settled for a single affronted snort and a toss of her long, lank mane. “Very well,” she said. “Occupant, your personal stipend is suspended for six moons. Furthermore, you shall also begin flight training under George Cowley as an in-flight science specialist. Not George Bull, I mean the boring, dry-as-toast one. Henceforth half your workday will be devoted to Dr. Cowley’s tutelage. Do you understand?”

As it happened, he didn’t. As soon as he’d realized that his sentence had been commuted, Occupant had hugged his first treasure to himself, trembling and weeping with relief, utterly deaf to the world. Eventually Cherry Berry had to shake the buck-toothed bug to bring him back into the here and now so that Chrysalis could repeat her revised sentence.

That made things worse. Once he got the message, Occupant erupted with a long, rambling mixture of thanks and apologies and praise, all mashed together with blubbering and weeping that made the whole completely incomprehensible. Chrysalis gritted her fangs and waited for a pause. After about a minute it became apparent he wasn’t going to stop; in fact, he wasn’t even stopping for breath. At the ninety second mark he began to run out of air, and yet he continued babbling incoherently in a gasping, rattly croak, until he flopped forward on the floor again, still clutching the E-Z-Scry-Me and still, without air, trying to apolothank.

“BREATHE, you idiot!” Chrysalis shouted. Cherry Berry rapped him atop the head for emphasis.

Occupant stopped babbling, took an enormous gasping breath, and found his next words silenced by a timely pink hoof to the mouth.

“’Thank you my queen’ will suffice,” Chrysalis said.

“Ah! Thank you! Ah! My queen!” Occupant gasped once Cherry Berry removed her hoof.

“Now if I may continue?” Chrysalis swept the room with her gaze. “Dr. von Brawn is awaiting us with a preliminary report on his failure analysis of Mission R1. Once we leave this room, we shall never speak of this again. But I have neither forgotten…” Her serpentine gaze stabbed at Dragonfly, Occupant and Marked Knee. “… nor forgiven.” This said, she turned her head to face Cherry. “Do you have anything to add, pony?”

Cherry Berry took a deep breath. “I was going to rip your heads off-“

“If I’m not allowed to do it,” Chrysalis muttered, “neither are you.”

“Figure of speech!!” Cherry Berry protested.

“Not where I come from, pony.”

Cherry groaned with frustration at the unrepentant queen before pressing on. “I had a lot of things to say, but after what Chrysalis put Occupant through I don’t feel like it anymore.

“I’ll just say I am very angry, and very disappointed, in all of you. I’m angry that you put everything at risk. I’m angry that you pushed a flight before we were ready. The next time it happens there might not be any more flights after that. The next time it happens it might be one of us in the ship.” Cherry Berry waved her hoof around the room, indicating everyone. “So there can’t be a next time, understand?”

After a moment, she added, “That’s all I wanted to say- that I’m really disappointed, and you should be ashamed.”

Chrysalis, listening uncomfortably to this awkward ramble, slapped a hoof to her head. “One out of ten points for style, pony,” she muttered.

“Threats and emotional torture are your thing, not mine,” Cherry replied. “I’ll take Occupant to wash up. We’ll be in the board room in five minutes.” After noticing that Occupant’s drying tears had glued one of his hooves to his cheek, she corrected herself, “Ten minutes.”

Footnotes:

(256) Or she might have just been cold. It was snowing outside, after all.

(257) An exclusively changeling expression. Ponies would say, “shutting the barn door after the stampede is over.”

(258) Although no pony on Equus would ever tolerate nails being driven through their hooves, and thus designed their shoes to be slip-on, the shoes still required precision bending to fit the unique curve of each hoof. With work shoes this is not a gentle process.

“The one fact that jumps out from the data,” Warner von Brawn said, “is that Shotputnik itself performed flawlessly within the limitations of its design.”

The conference room resembled a gathering of giants clustered around oddly squared-off snow-covered mountains. The giants, of course, were von Brawn and his fellow minotaur scientists, Chrysalis, Cherry Berry, Occupant, Dragonfly, Goddard the Griffon, and Lucky Cricket(259). The mountains were a series of stacks of documents piled on the conference table- magically printed data from the launch, plus various other documents from every step of the planning and design for Mission R1, with foothills made of detailed dossiers for each member of the CSP leadership. A second mighty pile of paperwork rose from the floor, concealing an entire corner of the room.

“Shotputnik,” von Brawn continued, “had neither SAS capability nor reaction wheels. Although it had capacity to operate the new AV-R8 winglets from Canterlot Airship Works and Paper Products, none were installed. Thus, the only control it had came from vectoring thrust from the main engines, which according to telemetry it did flawlessly throughout the flight. Staging, parachute deployment, data transmission and experiment operation all worked without error or delay.”

Von Brawn nodded to George Cowley, who cleared his throat noisily and wheezed, “The contributing factors to mission failure came not from Shotputnik, but from the design of the rocket,” he said. “As mentioned, the ship had no controls except for vectored thrust. Unauthorized additions of a heat shield and parachute made the nose of the craft aerodynamically unstable, and that instability grew greater as the ship’s velocity increased, until the thrust could no longer counter the force of air.

“The first period of loss of control only ended when the ship lost sufficient velocity for thrust vectoring to overcome the aerodynamic instability,” Cowley continued, raising his wheezy voice over the sound of scribbling notes. “In three wind tunnel experiments we were unable to replicate that recovery. Possibly more testing will explain how recovery was possible, but we can safely conclude that, had a pilot been on board… how shall I put this?” the elderly minotaur trailed off.

George Bull chipped in, “To use the common terms in the program, any crew on board would have had a Bad Day. And they would not have gotten away with it.”

“Indeed,” Cowley nodded. “We shall have to take measures to prevent a return of such an unfortunate contingency.”

The sound of pencil scribbling became very loud for several long, thoughtful seconds.

“There is,” George Bull said, breaking the almost-silence, “one other factor which did not affect the outcome of the flight as it happened, but which would have guaranteed mission failure had the flight gone smoothly.” Bull gestured to the conference room chalkboard, which had a rough sketch of a translunar injection orbit- that is, a trajectory which took a ship out of Equus’ orbit towards the moon. “The ship had sufficient delta-v to reach the moon within about two days’ flight time,” he said. “However, given the minimum power requirements of Shotputnik and its control systems, the batteries provided in the ship’s design would have been exhausted less than halfway through the flight, assuming the generators in the first and second stages left the ship with full batteries at orbit.”

Shaking his head, he concluded, “Once Shotputnik reached lunar space, it would have been dead, unable to perform any experiments. Even assuming a perfect ascent to orbit, the mission was doomed from launch.”

Von Brawn nodded. “It is the preliminary conclusion of this investigation, subject to further study, that the primary cause of failure of Mission R1 was flawed rocket design. However, Shotputnik’s flaws were contributing factors and would have prevented mission success regardless. It is the recommendation of this board that Shotputnik requires a redesign to incorporate SAS technology, reaction wheels, and some electrical generation capacity, and that no further unmared missions be flown until these changes are made.”

Chrysalis turned her full gaze, at its most baleful, to Marked Knee. “Can you do that in five days?”

Marked Knee, his confidence utterly destroyed, couldn’t answer. Instead another voice- female and chipper- spoke up: “Easy-peasy!”

Every face in the room(260) turned to the pile of paperwork on the floor. As they stared, a pink hoof emerged from the depths and deposited another piece of paper on its peak.

Cherry Berry, who recognized the voice, put her face in her own pink hoof. “Did nopony ask,” she said, “whose papers those were?”

“They sure didn’t!” the voice from the papers said. “About half of ‘em are Dr. Knee’s and Dr. Bull’s. Well, it started out about half, but I’ve taken a lot of notes since then, so it might be more like a third now. By the way, could you get me some more blank paper? I’m kind of running low.”

Cherry’s hoof left her face and slapped the table. “Pinkie” she said, addressing the occupant of the pile of notes, “what are you doing here??”

“Spying,” Marked Knee and Occupant said in chorus.

“Spying?” Chrysalis asked, smiling for the first time that day. “I knew there was a reason you were my favorite bridesmaid(261). And just how did you get here, Miss Pie?”

“Weeeeeell, it’s not really relevant,” said Pinkie, sticking her head out of the papers for the first time. “But since you ask, one day about a year after my sister Maud Pie was born, my mama told my dad she had this craving for pickled granite and ice cream, and Granny Pie said that could only mean-“

“Question withdrawn,” Chrysalis interrupted.

“Pinkie.” Cherry Berry did not pound the table or shout, mainly because as a longtime Ponyville resident she had built up a tolerance to Pinkie logic. Even so, all the changelings in the room, even Chrysalis, inched a little bit away from her as she spoke. “Today is Hearth’s Warming Eve. You’re supposed to be in Ponyville planning the celebrations!”

“Pffft!” Pinkie waved this away with a hoof. “I took care of all of that days ago! And if I was in Ponyville right now,” Pinkie Pie replied, picking up a stack of papers in her hooves and riffling through them(262), “then I couldn’t redesign your space probey-dobey!”

Jaws dropped around the room.

“Redesign?” Cherry Berry asked.

“Redesign?” Marked Knee asked, showing the first flickers of life for the first time since the previous day’s launch.

“Probey… dobey?” Chrysalis muttered.

“Yeah!” Pinkie Pie pushed herself up and out of the paper pile with her forehooves, bouncing onto the floor and pronking over to the empty whiteboard. Taking a marker in her teeth, she set to work. Not a word was spoken(263) as Pinkie wrote and drew and scribbled, humming happily around the marker, until at last, the board completely full, she capped the marker and gestured to the board.

In the center, among many digressions, was a comparatively simple, short list.

Pinkie had sketched herself twice next to the first two items on the list. The third item had a picture of Marked Knee, right down to his pencil-thin mustache, next to it.

“I’ve pretty much got the first one done already,” Pinkie grinned, gesturing to the disorganized mountain of papers. “Of course it’d take ages to build it from scratch, but I figure we can just recycle some parts from an old Pink Mare machine!”

“Video… game…??” Marked Knee rumbled. He gave a loud, involuntary snort through his massive nostrils.

“Heeeey, wait a minute,” Dragonfly hissed, speaking for the first time in the meeting. “I just bought that game! And you can’t have it!”

“No problem!” Pinkie Pie smiled, waving a hoof. “I’ll just have the company ship you a brand-new one!”

“I’m not gonna have the money to replace it for at least six months!” Dragonfly insisted.

Pinkie giggled. “Who said anything about money?” she asked. “I can get it for free! I designed it, after all!”

“WHAT?!?” Marked Knee was on his hooves, arms spread, snorting rage. “You make VIDEO GAMES?? I am NOT going to allow some-“

“Dr. Knee,” Chrysalis said in the kind of soft, silky sound that a dagger makes slicing through fabric, “if you complete that sentence the consequences will be very final.”

Marked Knee froze.

“Marked, please be seated,” von Brawn rumbled. “We can wait until the new designs are evaluated.”

“But- but video game consoles operate on magical arrays!!” Marked Knee protested. “We can’t keep a magical array powered remotely!!”

“Oh, there’s ways around that!” Pinkie Pie shrugged. “My Nana Pie and Grampa Quartz invented most of ‘em! But we don’t need to!” She reached a hoof into the pile on the floor, rummaged a moment, and somehow came out with the exact piece of paper she wanted. “The magic array in Pink Mare only creates the images for the projection screen! All the thinky-bits are straight electronics based on Mom’s patented inlaid-silicon chips!” She smiled and added, “We grow the crystals right on the farm, you know!”

Marked Knee’s jaw dropped again. “Your mother is Cloudy Quartz??” he asked. “Daughter of Bell Quartz and Banana Pie?”

“Yep-a-roonie!” Pinkie nodded.

“Wait a minute, Pinkie,” Cherry Berry interrupted. “I thought your family was rock farmers.”

“We are!” Pinkie nodded. “But it all got started when Nana Pie got tired of winding Gramps’s alarm clock, because it would lose a half hour in a week! But she knew that quartz crystal will vibrate at a constant frequency when you put electricity through it, so-“

“She invented the piezoelectric circuit!!” Marked Knee said. “And her daughter invented the silicon printed circuit chip!”

“Eh, that was kind of an accident,” Pinkie Pie shrugged. “Mom mostly makes those for a snack when the neighbors come over to play dominoes. Nice and crunchy!” She licked her lips in fond memory and added, “It’s the copper inclusions that really make it!”

A series of glances went around the room, all of which said, without any words being exchanged, Do you want to know what any of that means? Because I don’t think I do.

“I mean, yeah we could make clocks from them,” Pinkie continued. “Nana got an honorary rocktorate for her paper on the theory. But you can make clocks out of potatoes, too, and you don’t exactly see people lining up to buy those! So when this pony started making video games like Buck(264) and said he thought Mom’s chips would work better than vacuum tubes, she sold him a bunch!” Nodding to herself, she added, “And a good thing too, because that woulda been a real tight winter, what with the granite glut that harvest-“

This is the daughter of Cloudy Quartz!!” Marked Knee interrupted, grinning like a lunatic.

Chrysalis raised a hoof. “For those of us who don’t speak nerd,” she asked pointedly, “what is the significance of this? And what has it got to do with space ships?”

“A thousand pardons, Queen Chrysalis,” von Brawn rumbled. “But much like our own beloved Goddard,” and he nodded to the grumpy old griffon seated at one end of the table, “Miss Pie’s family’s scientific work is unknown except for a tiny circle of academics. The full potential of their discoveries has been ignored by the world at large.”

“Yes, I got that,” Chrysalis said dryly. “What does this mean for us?”

“It means that, short of securing the services of Cloudy Quartz herself,” von Brawn said, “Miss Pie here is the greatest expert on integrated circuitry available in all Equestria.”

“Nah,” Pinkie disagreed, shuffling two stacks of her notes together like a Los Pegasus dealer. “I never had the knack for baking silicon chips. I just played with ‘em a lot.”

“Played like video games?” Chrysalis asked.

“Well, not at first,” Pinkie admitted. “Mostly I played tiddlywinks with ‘em. But when Mom wrote me about the ponies who made Buck, I paid ‘em a little visit, and it didn’t take long for me to figure it out. I mean, it’s so easy, right?” she grinned. “IF-THEN, AND-OR-NOR, nothing to it! Anypony could do it!”

George Bull, who had invented the terminology Pinkie had just tossed off, tilted his head in confusion. “Not just anyone…” he muttered.

“So I made my first game! That didn’t do so well. It was called Personal Space Invader, and the players would try to move their pony as close as possible to other ponies, but if the pony got mad and told them to back off, they lost.” Pinkie Pie shrugged. “But nopony wanted to put bits into it, except for one machine at a taxi stand in Manehattan.”

“Hey, I dumped half my pay as a courier into that machine!” Dragonfly hissed. “It was like being a proper infiltrator instead of just a fancy messenger. I liked that game!”

“I never stationed you in Manehattan,” Chrysalis said.

“Eh, my cover identity sent me there a lot- er, my queen,” Dragonfly replied. “One of the bright spots of my life. Baltimare shippers wanted reports to and from Manehattan’s financial district. How do you think I got you so much dirt on-“

“MOVING ON,” Chrysalis said insistently, overriding Dragonfly’s imminent confession to, among other things, corporate espionage.

“Anyway, my second game was kinda-sorta OK,” Pinkie said. “That was Cutie MarQ, where you’d buck a ball like in Buck, but instead of trying to put the ball in a goal, you’d knock out bricks to reveal a cutie mark! And I also added some bumpers and lights and things like in pinball, because everypony likes pinball!”

“Ugh, that one was lame,” Dragonfly said.

Chrysalis shot the drone a shut-up glance and said, “I think we’re getting away from space ships, here.”

“So then I decided to make a game about me!” Pinkie grinned. “Eating all the candy in a maze and shooing off nasty party-poopers! And that was the game that paid for every party I’ve thrown for the last three years! Pink Mare!”

Now it was Dragonfly’s turn to get starry-eyed. “You really invented Pink Mare?” she asked. “Do you know I have the safe pattern memorized?”

“I hate that pattern.” Pinkie Pie frowned in memory. “The company made me put that in. I made the game so the party-poopers would learn from the player as the game went on, but nopony other than me could get past the third level that way. So they made me change it.”

“You created a computer,” George Bull said slowly, “that could learn. That could program itself.”

“Does this have something to do with spaceships?” Chrysalis asked pointedly.

Pinkie Pie shrugged. “It’s not that tough,” she said. “The party-poopers in the game can only turn or go in reverse. Not a lot of options to choose from. And the Pink Mare cabinets are really overpowered for the game- that’s why we’re debuting Pink Mare II: Pink Mac tomorrow! New mazes, new goodies, and a new party pooper!”

Dragonfly drooled. “Do you think we could-“

“SPACE SHIPS!!!” Chrysalis shrieked, pounding the table with her hooves. “What does any of this have to do with space ships??”

Warner von Brawn managed to speak before Pinkie could find a new tangent. “Apparently we have overlooked a source of talent in our computer experiments,” he said. “If Miss Pie is willing to cooperate, we should be able to upgrade Shotputnik-“

“Nah, throw that junk out,” Pinkie said, waving a hoof. “Keep the rocket-control interface, we’ll need that, but the Pink Mare hardware is lighter and more powerful. It’ll make a perfect brain for our probey-dobey!”

“Our?” Chrysalis asked.

Pinkie blinked. “Oh, yeah, I almost forgot!” she said, scrambling to the conference room window and opening it. “C’mon in!” she shouted.

With obvious reluctance bordering on terror, a pale yellow pegasus fluttered in through the window, prodded by the lavender Princess of Friendship herself. A bit later, with much grunting and groaning, an elderly earth pony stallion in a white suit hauled himself through the window after them. “Why couldn’t we jus’ use th’ door?” he asked in the same thick accent used by Horseton (and, for that matter, Dodge Junction) residents.

Twilight Sparkle stepped forward. “Please pardon the intrusion, Queen Chrysalis,” she said. “I believe you know Fluttershy.” She gestured a purple wing to the pegasus in question, who was trying not to hyperventilate. “And this is Ben Fetlock, attorney at law. They’re here to negotiate the terms for the ESA-CSP joint robot probe enterprise-“

“Probey-dobey!” Pinkie Pie insisted.

One brief eyeroll later, Twilight continued, “Which, at least for now, we’ll call Probodyne.”

“PROBEY-DOBEY!”

Another eyeroll. “Probodobodyne. Our agencies will pool our assets- namely Marked Knee, George Bull, and Pinkie Pie- and improve the technology we saw demonstrated yesterday into something that can explore the depths of space in advance of ponies!”

Chrysalis turned a baleful eye at the old, stout stallion, who smiled most disarmingly back. “Lawyers,” she grumbled. “If there’s one thing I can’t stand, it’s-“

Fluttershy’s trembling switched off like a light bulb, and the one eye visible behind her somewhat frazzled mane locked dead on the changeling queen, pinning her as with a lance. “It’s what?” Fluttershy asked, the harmonics sending waves of guilt and fear up Chrysalis’s optic nerves and down her spine.

“Iiiiiiiit’s when people don’t listen very carefully to everything lawyers say,” Chrysalis continued in a much less confrontational tone. “After all, lawyers are here to smooth things out, aren’t they? Unfortunately ours are off for the holiday, but-“

“That’s all right,” Twilight said. “Mr. Fetlock is only here to arbitrate the negotiations. Fluttershy will be the chief spokespony for ESA.”

Mr. Fetlock nodded. "I'll send my bill to this Problebibblebabble whatchamacallit."

Chrysalis’s mood disimproved. “Fluttershy? Not you?” she asked Twilight.

“Oh, Twilight’s just my ride home!” Pinkie smiled, bouncing over to the princess. “I’ll be back day after Hearth’s Warming!”

“And a chariot will be here to pick up Fluttershy in about two hours,” Twilight Sparkle continued. “I look forward to the new year’s launch!”

With a flash of purple light princess and party pony poofed away, leaving Chrysalis to put her head in her hooves and groan at the injustice of life(265).

Footnotes:

(259) Who had evaded any punishment for his minor role in Mission R1, receiving only a lecture on following rocket design instructions- “The next time you think something’s wrong with a design, ASK first!”

(260) Except, of course, Pinkie’s.

(261) Technically Cadence’s bridesmaid, but since Chrysalis had been disguised as Cadence, it was the same thing so far as Chrysalis cared. Pinkie had been her favorite not for any sneaky traits, but because the pink pony had been among the most gullible of the group of ponies her plan had been specifically designed to break apart. But she wasn’t going to tell Pinkie Pie that.

(262) So she could watch her crayon-drawn animation of a pony turning cartwheels.

(263) Despite the multitude of questions, like for example, “What do the ingredients for ginger snaps have to do with spaceflight?” or, “Why is she sketching a picture of Chrysalis and Cherry Berry roasting marshmallows on the sun?” Nopony dared even think the more obvious one, “How does she get blue, pink and yellow out of a single black marker?”

(264) The pony version of Pong, in essence. At the time of the events in this story it was obsolete, with the old cabinets mostly junked to make room for the newest arcade game, E. T. the Extreme Terrapin. Of course, the old-school gamers scoffed at the idea that a video game about a racing turtle, even with a blue shell and spiky scales, would do anything other than blow up in the industry leader’s face.

(265) Chrysalis was all for injustice, but only when she was on the right end of it.

BLOOMINGMARE’S OF MANEHATTAN
RETURNS AND EXCHANGE

At this sign you are roughly
NINETY MINUTES
From the counter

SEASON’S GREETINGS &
HAPPY NEW YEAR

“The bad news is,” Goddard said bluntly, “we can’t reproduce Mission R1’s rocket.”

Hearth’s Warming had come and gone. Although the construction ponies would remain on vacation through the end of the year, the changeling members of CSP were trickling in, generally replete with love and cheer gained by fair means and foul. A number of them(266) brought with them little souvenirs and gifts for Queen Chrysalis, to the point that the administration building's throne room was being conquered by mounds of bric-a-brac.(267)

Returning workers, of course, meant the resumption of work… within limits.

“Appleoosa is fresh out of components for the Thumper solid-rocket booster,” Goddard continued. “We won’t have any more until at least two weeks into the new year. We still have some Fleas and Hammers, but they’re too inefficient to even consider putting on a moon launch.” The old griffon groaned and slumped back in his chair, stretching his wings out a little for balance. “And the only use for the next generation of heavy-lift rocket motors right now is for fireworks.”

Von Brawn rumbled his own noise of discontent. “Doctor, you’ve just told us that any rocket we can build with enough thrust to fly by the moon won’t be able to lift itself off the pad,” he said. “Unless we assemble liquid-fueled boosters.”

“We don’t have enough engines or fuel tanks for that,” Goddard grumbled. “We have two Reliants, one Swivel, and two Terriers remaining. Any combination of those that gets to the moon requires more fuel tanks than we can get here in time. And even if we had ‘em, I don’t think the configuration works for anything beyond orbit.”

“What can you get built between now and launch day?” Chrysalis asked.

“Nothing,” Goddard grumbled. “If I were in Appleoosa right now, with the skeleton crew we have there, maybe a Swivel and a couple of fuel tanks. I think we’ve got the parts on hand for that. But it’d take me the rest of today to get back, and then the things have to be shipped all around Celestia’s green earth to get here safely. And, of course, no new parts or materials will begin coming in until after the holidays end.”

“What about your training wheels?” George Cowley wheezed.

Chrysalis blinked. “Training wheels?” she asked. “What good are wheels on a rocket?”

Von Brawn chuckled. “An inside joke, Queen Chrysalis,” he rumbled. “The first experiments in maneuvering rockets for use in orbit. Smaller rocket motors that can be mounted radially, around the fuel tanks,” he explained, making a circle in the air with one finger. “We were considering using them as additional thrust for a second stage or for a lander vehicle.”

“I’ve got four of ‘em,” Goddard added. “I think they might add enough thrust to get the first stage up- I’ll have to do the math to be sure. The problem is, they feed off the same fuel tanks as the main engines, so we’ll have to add more fuel tanks to the first stage.” He leaned forward again, making curlicue scratch marks on the tabletop with one talon. “The rocket will be taller than anything we’ve sent up yet. It’s probably going to shimmy like a wet poodle, which means loss of efficiency and possible structural failure. And that’s if it doesn’t just tip over the instant we set it on the launchpad.”

“That means the probe goes on a diet,” von Brawn continued. “The mission requires the probe control system, electrical supply and batteries, communications, and a thermometer. Nothing else goes. No goo, no Science Jr. Definitely no parachute. This one flies, or this one crashes, period.”

“But will it work?” Chrysalis insisted.

Von Brawn and Goddard looked at one another for confirmation. “On paper, I think so,” von Brawn said. “But we can’t be certain.”

“I’ve already sent for a couple of those launch-brace things like we tested on Mission Seven,” Goddard said. “But they have to be shipped from the minotaur islands, so they probably won’t get here in time. Good news,” he added, not sounding at all cheerful about it, “is the first batch of Jet Set’s new fins, the AV-R8s, arrived on this morning’s barge from Baltimare. We should be more stable in atmosphere than ever, assuming we don’t shimmy the probe to death.”

“The last time we were this rushed,” Chrysalis grumbled, “it was for that kludge of a mission Sparkle set us up for.”

Cherry Berry, alone of the ponies at the table, smiled. “The last time we were this rushed,” she said, “you became the first pony in space.”

This wrung a little smile out of the changeling queen, but nothing more. “So we have a rocket,” she said. “Do we have a robot to stick on top of it?”

Marked Knee, in the course of only a few days, had gone from enthusiastic to morose to angry, and now he achieved yet another new state: bafflement.(268) “How should I know??” he asked. “I’ve dismantled that video game according to her instructions, but I can’t decipher her notes to go any farther!!” He held up one piece of paper and added, “Unless the probe runs on a recipe for tutti-frutti ice cream punch!!”

“And her programming for the probe is even worse,” George Bull complained. “It’s like she took my ideas and translated them into Ancient Yak! AND, OR, NOR and NOT- those I understand. But MAYBE? GUESS? KINDASORTA? You can’t build a logic tree from those!” He slapped another piece of paper and added, “And RND? What IS RND? Research and development? Read new document? Really nice donut? WHAT?”

“Welcome to Pinkie Logic,” Cherry Berry giggled. “Ponyville’s been living with it for over ten years now.”

“She’s supposed to return later tomorrow via express chariot,” George Bull said. “She sent a telegram saying she had to go pick up the electrical generation system and an expert on its operation.”




The expert wore an eye-bending bandanna over her orange corn-row braided mane. Sleepy, slightly bloodshot eyes gazed out from a lime-green face. “Like, did you know all the negative vibes your place has?” she said by way of introduction. “It’s like, y’know, all the concrete and junk, it’s totally shaking its hoof at Momma Nature.”

“This is Tree Hugger,” Pinkie Pie said. “She’s a friend of Fluttershy’s. These solar panels came off her house. She’s used them for all her power for years.”

“Like off the grid is the way to go, you know?” Tree Hugger agreed. “No pollution, no bad karma, just sticking it to the Mare.”

“Oh, Tartarus,” Chrysalis groaned. “Someling fetch me a fresh bottle of asprin.”

The minotaurs, in contrast to the patient Cherry Berry and the annoyed Chrysalis, inspected the two solar panels with every sign of interest. “And this device uses Back Corral’s photovoltaic effect?” von Brawn asked. “But I thought the gold-gadolinium material was both too expensive and inefficient. Less than two percent.”

“One of my family’s competitors, Fuller Earth, grows huge silicon crystals,” Pinkie Pie said. “Slice that really thin, add some conductors and a clear film on one side to let the light in, and there you go! More than ten percent efficiency!”

“But it’s still a very inefficient process, surely!!” Marked Knee commented.

“Like, ten percent of free is still free!” Tree Hugger said, her smile never fading. “So long as you can see Celestia’s sun, you have lights!”

“And besides, ESA is installing brand new panels on her house!” Pinkie Pie added. “So for her it really IS free!”

The two panels sat next to the sky chariot, a light but strong aluminum gridwork underlaying the thin, dark, reflective surface. “We mount these opposite to one another on the service bay that holds the probe body,” von Brawn decreed. “So long as we never run the battery completely down and keep one side or the other turned to the sun, we should be able to recharge indefinitely.”

“Well, let’s get these over to the VAB.” Cherry Berry looked around her, then asked, “Where’s Lucky Cricket?”

“I am one with the cosmos.”

Tree Hugger stepped aside, and Lucky more or less slumped to the ground. “Like I didn’t want to say anything,” she said, “but he’s really harshing my vibe, you know? Can we get like a little personal space here?”

“The colors sing to me!” Lucky Cricket raised one perforated hoof, slowly and unsteadily waving it back and forth. “The map of reality is printed on my frog!”

“Pony, remind me,” Chrysalis muttered in Cherry Berry’s ear, “to have a word with my subjects about not snacking on visitors to the space center.”

“Snacking?” Lucky lifted his head. “I could go for one of those fudge things Carapace makes. What’s he call them… um… brownies?”

Footnotes:

(266) By and large, the smarter ones. Chrysalis only wished they'd been smart enough to include receipts.

(267) Plus rather a lot of mud, as the Hearth’s Warming snow melted and the normal not-quite-tropical weather of Horseton reasserted itself. Shouting and threats had produced apologies and quite a bit of bowing and scraping, but it hadn’t increased use of the doormat.

(268) This is universally recognized as stage two of the Process of Pinkie Pie, the full sequence being Confusion, Bafflement, Denial, Bargaining and Acceptance.

George Cowley, who was the least suited to the current discussion of crafting instructions for calculating machines of the gathered scientists, leaned back in his chair and considered the nature of genius.

In his long lifetime Cowley had known only a handful of true geniuses- beings whose talent for lateral thinking and leaps of calculation or inspiration changed the nature of their chosen field. The one common feature they all shared was a tendency for eccentricity. The kind of mind that could change the world often had trouble changing its shirt.

Take Goddard the Griffon- definitely a genius, as his creation of the equations that made practical rocket flight possible and his insight into the use of liquid propellants showed. He was also a certifiable crab even by griffon standards, with a vile sense of humor that generally only surfaced with the misfortune of others. Short-tempered, gruff, socially inadequate, and when given the opportunity a workaholic. And, the old bird's secret shame, he was a baseball fanatic, an advocate of (of all teams) the hopeless Vanhoover Lumberjacks. At least the Griffonstone Falcons had been in the playoffs during Goddard's lifetime, but Vanhoover? Eccentric, oh yes indeed.

But if eccentricity was the measure of a genius, then Pinkie Pie might, in Cowley's opinion, qualify as the next step in pony evolution.

For two days thus far the minotaurs had enjoyed, more or less, a front-row seat to a display of genius at work(269). Pinkie Pie’s explanations consistently went faster than the astonished scientists could follow, took unexpected and far-reaching tangents, and often as not made no sense at all. In fact, von Brawn and his associates were often having to un-learn as fast as they were learning, once they figured out that some of Pinkie Pie's methods worked for her and no one else on Equus.

For one example: Marked Knee and George Bull had created a programming method called "top-down design." You began by stating the one big thing you wanted the program to do. You then broke that one big thing down into a series of steps, and then you broke each of those steps down into smaller steps, until you reached the simplest possible actions. Flow charts often got involved in the later stages. It was methodical, it was logical, and it worked.

Pinkie Pie used Bottom Up Design, or "the BUDdy System" as she called it. Somehow she was able to begin with all the little things a program needed to do and then, after the fact, build a framework for them all. This system worked fine for someone who had accurate information popping into her head from apparently nowhere, but for mere mortals it was simply unworkable. The tragic part of it all was the minotaurs, even Cowley, could see how much time and trouble could be saved by Pinkie's system... if only you knew at the very beginning everything you needed to get the job done. They'd learned the hard way how unlikely that was.

Ah, yes. And apparently Pinkie Pie had just come up with another Don't Try This at Home concept, judging by the consternation on all three of Cowley's colleagues. Silently he removed the earplugs he'd been using to shut out the unimportant babble- he'd been following progress by the chalkboards and whiteboards.

"- random number generator has no place in a precision computing machine!!" Marked Knee was insisting.

"Yes, it does!" Pinkie Pie ins