The ensuing tour of the base was like something out of one of Zoisite's novels. From the hallways to the experiment labs to the viewing rooms, the décor was eerily similar to the Arc that brought them from Earth and seemed completely surreal. Several of the rooms contained experiments that Endymion could only get the gist of, while Nephrite was chatting away with Cretair and Zoisite was keeping up with all conversations at once, seeming to understand and be part of everything at once. He stuck with Jadeite throughout, the both of them conversing quietly about inconsequentials as the tour progressed. Several research bays were dedicated to transportation, but others seemed medically or biologically inclined, while others still had people working with wiring and screens and devices he hadn't seen before outside of the Arc.
Hours passed pleasantly while curiosities were presented. Occasionally, they were allowed to test the nearly completed projects, one of which was a device wherein a "user" could use a series of buttons with symbols on them to enter data into a database that could be accessed elsewhere. Zoisite was able to key in a phrase, which was returned shortly by another researcher using a prototype at the castle itself, several leagues away from them. It was amazing – it could bring so many people so much closer! It would allow for the single greatest sharing of ideas since the printing press. Leran explained that in this initial stage, their goal was to store their research data and some of the Lunar histories; eventually they wanted to "program" the machine to fit the Queen's specifications and allow her a unique accessibility. It was all very interesting, and Endymion found himself wondering if he could somehow convince his father to set up some sort of exchange with Levan and his Research Base.
Midway through the afternoon, it was time. They entered a room with a long window on the opposite side, though which they saw a sleek dark gray vehicle and a handful of suited pilots and what were probably technicians.
"Well, here we are at last," Levan introduced, "The Cruiser. A mere thirty feet long, it sits two and houses our most powerful engine yet, travelling at an expected top speed of eleven miles per second."
"So," Cretair asked, twitching his moustache appreciatively, "Who wants to go first?"
Endymion raised his hand quickly, but so did everyone else. Before an sly argument could start, Nephrite stepped forward to stand beside Cretair. He was joined quickly by Jadeite, who probably thought the brunet was trying to sneak into first try, but with a quirked eyebrow Nephrite pushed the blonde back with everyone else. "Hold on, I just want to set some ground rules. As I started this thing, I figured I should set the ground rules."
Endymion scoffed; with a smile, he shrugged, "So long as it's fair."
Nephrite shrugged in return, "Winning any other way wouldn't be as sweet. So, here's what I'm thinking: no one gets to see the route before they start. All bets are laid out now, before anyone takes the run, and we all agree to the consequences beforehand. No backing out when things go sour. Agreed?"
They all nodded, "Agreed."
"I'll start then." He smirked cruelly, "If I win, every time you are addressed by name, you have to interrupt the speaker with the statement "I'm from Earth." "
"Oh, come on, really?" Jadeite scoffed. "Neprhite, that's just—"
"I'm from Earth."
"See how awkward that is?" he grinned, "Better get used to it."
Zoisite rolled his eyes.
"And what do you have planned, Zoisite?" Nephrite inquired.
"Trigger words. When I say "Really?" any one of you within earshot will balance on one foot until I say "Well, then." If you lose your balance or move before I utter the final phrase, your punishment will be that you will have to hop on one foot until I let you go."
"Uuug," Jadeite groaned, not all that great with his balance when he had to think about it.
"And yours is?" Zoisite prompted, looking smug, as though his punishment was thought up specifically for the other blonde.
Jadeite's eyes hardened to a glare, his mouth turning up in a malicious sneer as he revealed, "When I win, you four will serenade me as the brightest and most amazing of us all!" His hands shot back dramatically, "Instruments and rehearsals required! And an original piece, like –" and then, he broke out into song:
"Jadeite, oh Jadeite, Wonderful King of the East,
Of all of us from Earth, you suck the very least!
Your charm is everlasting, your wit? It has no end!
Atop the ranks of greatness, you will inevitably ascend!"
It wasn't the most terrible song he had ever heard, but then this wasn't the first time Jadeite had tried his hand at composition. Endymion groaned with the rest of them as Jadeite struck a pose and he glanced over at Nephrite. As one they quirked an eyebrow, silently agreeing that Jadeite would not be allowed to win. Endymion was fairly certain now that anything he came up with wouldn't be as out-there as Jadeite's, but he was also certain that he couldn't make up anything more embarrassing. Maybe something in the middle of the road, then? How much time did he have before he had to choose something?
"I'm letting Venus choose the punishment if I win," Kunzite declared, forcing Jadeite out of his pose.
The blonde crossed his arms. "That's not fair."
Kunzite shrugged, "There was no rule stating otherwise."
"I still say it's not fair. I don't want to agree to something that a girl makes up!"
"That's fine – you don't have to participate," Zoisite stated coolly.
"What?" Jadeite turned to Nephrite, "You have to agree this is against the rules."
Nephrite shrugged, unbothered, "No guts, no glory. Whatever she comes up with can't be worse than a boy band." Jadeite groaned, muttering "fine."
And suddenly it was his turn. What should he have them do? What would Venus make them do? They were looking at him now; he opened his mouth and just let out whatever came to mind, "If I win, you all will have to go on a snipe hunt when we get back home." Where did that come from? Their looks were incredulous, but in a good way in this case. A smile crept onto his face when he imagined the four of them hunting through forests for a nonexistent beast, sneaking throughout towns and recruiting help from villagers who knew better… and he decided he quite liked the idea. "Besides acting fervently as though the snipe truly exists and is a real threat to the kingdom, you must also recruit volunteers to help you with the hunt. The person who recruits the most volunteers doesn't actually have to go." He smiled and crossed his arms, waiting for a reaction beyond the shocked expressions he got now.
Kunzite was the first to break. "Alright then," he nodded, his body language telling Endymion that the silver-haired commander had thought of a loophole.
"Yes," Zoisite trailed, his thumb and forefinger to his face in a thoughtful expression, "Okay."
"You're not serious," Jadeite stated.
"Afraid I am," he held his palms up, as though he had no choice in the matter anymore, fighting a smile as he imagined Jadeite crawling through the underbrush calling "Snipe! Snipe-Sniiiipe!" . It was a tough battle to win, but he managed.
"Then could we at least do it away from the capital?" Jadeite bargained; Endymion didn't see the harm, so he shrugged his acquiescence. But Jadeite wasn't thinking things through – the capital people knew them; if something like this happened, they would figure out it was a dare or a bet gone wrong and wouldn't think anything of it. A smaller outlying town, however, would go away with the idea they were nuts. It just kept getting sweeter and sweeter.
"Are we agreed on the terms, then?" Nephrite called officially and, still feeling proud of that marvelous bout of inspiration, Endymion nodded with the rest of them. "Alright then!"
They drew straws to determine the order, then everyone stepped out of the observation chamber as the first contestant, Zoisite, met with the pilot and left for the timetrial. To keep things fair, they decided that no one could see any part of the operation of the ship until it was their turn; that way, no one would have a leg up on any of the others. Once their trial was over they could watch from the observation room, but until then they were in the dark on every aspect of the operation. Endymion had pulled to go fourth, but as Kunzite and then Jadeite exited for their turns, he wasn't feeling nervous at all. He and Nephrite, wearing strange one-piece suits and holding onto full-head helmets, taunted each other when they were the only two remaining, making bets about the current winner and passing time with good-natured trash-talking.
Zoisite opened the door and Endymion waved back at Nephrite, whispering loudly to Zoisite, "Poor guy still thinks he has a chance." He glanced back to see the brunet making a face and shot one back before the door closed completely. Wiping the rude expression from his face he turned and offered his hand to whom he guessed was the pilot. He shook it, mentioned his name, and then led him from the room via a door beside the glass. Endymion followed him, walking down the metal staircase to the floor of the bay and over to another short stair up to the cockpit of the strange ship. If anything, it reminded him of a bird with outstretched wings, and they were climbing into a glass-encased area that would have been the bird's back. Within he found two low seats, one behind the other, and a mesh of strange panels and switches around the interior of the small room. His eyes roamed the area, trying to take in everything, though he knew he had no hopes of understanding it all.
The pilot sat in the back seat and asked Endymion to watch how the restraints worked. When Endymion stepped in and sat down, his legs almost straight out in front of him and stretching underneath the panels, he did as he saw and was soon strapped in. He fit comfortably into the padded seat, and once a technician popped in to check to make sure he was strapped in correctly, which he was, his helmet was locked into place on his head and the staircase was removed. With the flip of a switch from the pilot behind him, the glass encasing closed about them and locked into place, and two black arms extended from the panel just in front of him.
"Those arms are the steering apparatus," the pilot explained, "I have a second set back here in case we get into any trouble, I but the steering is very similar to directing a horse. To turn left, you pull back on the left stick and push forward on the right; to go right, you do the opposite. It only differs in the vertical region – to go up, you pull like you're trying to stop the horse, to go down, you push forward."
"Okay," Endymion nodded, wrapping his hands into the steering device, feeling the soft material meld to fit his hands. "And how do I slow down or stop, then?" he asked curiously, glancing over the numerous buttons and switches.
"On the arms, right by your thumbs, are your thrusters. Flick the switches away from you to go, and flip them back towards you to slow down, or start heading in the opposite direction. I'll handle the rest." Endymion nodded in comprehension, mentally reviewing the controls again. "It's a pretty simple circuit today," the pilot continued, "Just once around the surface travelling the 0 latitude line."
"Once around… we're going to go once around the moon?" Endymion asked incredulously, facing forward as the bay doors opened ahead of him.
"Yep. Now we're facing the right way, so you just want to lift her up a bit to get her off the floor, then forward thrusters and punch it."
"But they weren't gone for that long – "
"Eh, our shortest time is around 12 minutes in the bird for a circuit; your friends haven't quite reached that, but there's still hope for you. Just remember the steering directions; I won't mess with you too much. Ready then, Prince Endymion?" He took a deep breath and just went for it. He pulled back slightly and felt the "bird" lift, then flipped the switches by his thumb to face away from him, and immediately the ship kicked forward.
It was a thrill like no other. His blood raced through his veins, his mood skyrocketing as the bird swooped over the white landscape, over craters and around small ridges left by impacts thousands of years ago. They moved clockwise around the surface, travelling towards the sun's light, and oftentimes the pilot would direct him to either keep him on course or to go through obstacles made up for their specific timetrial, such as once around a good-sized crater, several miles above a ridge and down into a dive to nearly kiss the surface. It was absolutely exhilarating – if anything, Endymion could only crave the wind in his hair. Moving in a straight line over a nearly-unmarked region, he felt the bird nearly reach top speeds, the ground whisking out beneath him before he could focus on a single spot. He yelled in elation, and the pilot joined him, laughing. Before long they were around to the far side of the moon, the mysterious face that he had never seen before. The part that caught the sun's rays was desolate, nearly undisturbed, and lacked the characteristic craters of the Earth-facing side, but it was nonetheless fascinating.
As was the line between day and night.
One moment, he was chasing his shadow, the next, the ground seemed to almost fall away beneath him before artificial light shot out infront of the bird to light his path. "Eerie, isn't it?" the pilot asked rhetorically; Endymion nodded, but kept his eyes on the river of light before the nose of the bird, keeping himself on track and ready to dodge any obstacles along their way. Only once did he manage to tear his eyes from the surface to look up at the sky, expecting, for some reason, to find it different here than anywhere else. However, the stars were familiar, if not a little brighter in the darkness, so he returned his gaze to the lunar surface.
Before he knew it, the pilot asked him to put the thrusters in reverse, and he flipped the thumb switches back towards himself to oblige. They slowed quickly, but before the speed had decreased too much, the pilot instructed him to pull back as far as he could on the arms. Wondering why, Endymion did it nevertheless, and his stomach felt like it did backflips as a result. The ship tore skyward, then turned right around, as if he were flying upside down, then turned back again. "Woah," he commented, the only thing he could manage as his insides righted themselves.
The pilot laughed, "Isn't that neat? Just a flip to keep things interesting before she slows down too much. Here now, level back out, turn her a little to the left – there you go, great job – and keep her straight." Barely seconds passed, the bird going slower and slower, before the pilot said "There's the base. You see it?" Endymion nodded as the tiny square in the distance approached; by the time they reached the open bay, the bird was crawling to a halt. The pilot took over from there, setting it down where it needed to be and engaging some landing gears.
The ride was over. The glass enclosure lifted and a technician offered him a hand out of the seat, which he took gratefully, and led him down the staircase. His helmet was removed and he stepped out of the suit, then turned to give the pilot an enthusiastic handshake, "That was amazing!" he applauded, the smile on his face genuine, "And you get to do that every day?"
"Nearly so," the pilot laughed, "I'm glad you enjoyed it. Your time, from leaving the hatch to returning, was 16 minutes, 14 seconds."
He nodded and gave the man's hand a final shake before following him back up the stair to the observation deck once again, where he stood over with Kunzite and the others while Nephrite made his way down into the bay. It had been so fantastic! As soon as Nephrite left the room and he could talk about it, Jadeite and Zoisite were just as enthusiastic as he to discuss it – even Kunzite spoke about the experience with excitement. Twenty minutes later, Nephrite vaulted into the room and crashed into him, his hands on Endymion's shoulders as he exclaimed about how amazing it was.
The contest was all but forgotten as the five of them relived their experiences again; once they had control of themselves, Leran and Cretair, in high spirits, led them back to the shuttle and wished them a good evening, Endymion and his generals thanking them again for the tour and the opportunity to test the prototype rocket. Before the shuttle pulled away, Leran handed a folded slip of paper to Kunzite and smiled, then waved as he and Cretair disappeared into the complex and the shuttle sealed itself for the trip back to the capital.
It was nearly impossible to keep composure over dinner that night. The sight of the high table would be remembered later, as everyone dressed semi-formally, yet the visitors of Earth seemed to be having problems keeping their voices at a quiet, dinner-time level. Endymion couldn't help himself; he was so enthused by the visit he had to insert his own views of certain areas here and there, and when it finally came time to talk about the time trials… well, they all seemed to lose themselves in this other world. For their part, their hosts were gracious and stimulated the conversation, actively participating when they could, asking questions and looking for further explanations, a retelling of stories when someone seemed particularly taken with an idea; he guessed that they themselves had been there before, but they smiled and reacted as though it were a new experience for everyone.
Serenity was radiant. He couldn't help but smile after what he'd been through that afternoon, and her continued interest, her quiet questions, and the look of amazement and shared excitement in her eyes kept him in high spirits throughout the meal. Her laugh, her smiles, the look of fright in her eyes when Jadeite regaled them again with his story of nearly losing control in the dive – she was adorable, beautiful, kind and interesting, and he wanted to keep sharing things with her. He wanted to know everything there was to know about her.
So when dinner ended and Venus invited them to the gardens for a while to socialize, it was all he could do to nod gracefully and not follow them straight out of the room.