“If you do your job right, you’ll never be surprised by anything that happens during a race. Disappointed, maybe, but not surprised. When something happens that genuinely surprises you, it means you’ve been outsmarted.”
Rarity was beaming as she strode into the VIP box for at Stratochase course, which was located on the outskirts of Las Pegasus. “I can’t thank you enough for your hospitality, Princess.”
“We assure you, the pleasure is ours,” Luna replied as the unicorn took her seat beside her. “We trust that you were able to make those business contacts you were interested in?”
“But of course! Given the ornate nature of the hats mares traditionally wear at these events, the simplicity of my new line complements them perfectly. I suspect that I’ll be receiving several orders in the near future—but let’s be honest: that’s not the reason I’m here.”
The alicorn nodded. “Indeed, we would not normally have made plans to attend were it not for the participation of Twilight Sparkle and Rainbow Dash. Much as we have always enjoyed watching tandem races, the sport has changed a great deal during our absence. This marks the first time since our return that we have felt it worthwhile to modify our schedule to personally attend such an event.”
“Oh, that’s right... this is rather early for you... or is it late?”
“It is quite late indeed, but our sister graciously agreed to raise the moon for us last night, so we presently have a bit more energy than is usual for us at this hour. But enough about that—we would like to hear about you.”
“Oh, Princess, you flatter me.”
“Flattering or not, it is quite sincere. You are, after all, the only one of our saviors that we did not get the chance to meet on Nightmare Night.”
“Ah, I see... well, I was born in Ponyville, and I’ve wanted to be a fashion designer since I was a filly. I suppose that opening my own shop was the high point of my life before I became the Element of Generosity.”
“Indeed... speaking of the Elements, did you get the chance to speak with ‘Rain-Spark’?”
“I was able to briefly greet them at their hotel earlier this morning, but they’re on a rather tight schedule. We plan on getting together this evening, once Twilight can use cloudwalking spells again, to take in the sights of Las Pegasus like proper tourists.”
Luna smiled. “That does indeed sound... fun.”
“We are so gonna take this.”
Reaction Time raised an eyebrow as he briefly paused in saddling his flyer. “Your confidence is reassuring, but we still have a race to win.”
“Whatever,” Fast Twitch replied. “What’s most important is that the Bondage Twins are going to eat our dust.”
His rider chose to ignore the fact that that particular idiom made no sense when one was racing in the sky, and focused instead on the target of his insult. “If you’re referring to Rain-Spark’s saddle, I wouldn’t be too hasty in disparaging it.”
“Because you’re going to be wearing one as soon as our contract with Whirlaway expires—that, or I’ll find a flyer who will wear one.”
The orange stallion stared at his rider in disbelief. “You’re... you’re kidding, right?”
“I most certainly am not. No matter how much that saddle detracts from a flyer’s top speed, it more than makes up for it in maneuverability.”
“Huh? What are you talking about?”
Reaction Time smiled. “You’ll see. Don’t worry, even though Rain-Spark has superior equipment, we have more experience, and that’s what’s going to take us to the winner’s circle.”
Fast Twitch didn’t respond, mostly because he was still reeling from the utter seriousness with which his rider had proclaimed that ridiculous getup to be “superior” to their 2000-bit Whirlaway. He would have assumed that his partner was joking, if it wasn’t for the fact that Reaction Time never joked about anything even remotely related to racing.
Fortunately, an angry beige mare chose that moment to storm into Fast-Time’s stable and pick up the conversation. “Reaction Time, you traitor!”
The grey rider smiled broadly at this rather untraditional greeting. “Why, Nitty Gritty, what brings you here?”
“Rain-Spark just arrived at the stables.”
“And they know about the rule change!”
“Well, of course they do. I informed them.”
“You informed them?! You said you were going to make sure they didn’t hear about it until this morning!”
“Well, I was going to go through with the plan to hoof-deliver the memo to the Lady Luck instead of the Lucky Horseshoe and afterwards claim to have made a mistake, but then I had a pang of conscience, and I decided that I could not thus sully the name of our sport, particularly when the rule change itself was sure to provoke controversy without any additional assistance.”
“That’s a load of crap, and you know it. You’re planning something.”
Reaction Time smiled. “Of course. I plan to win, just like every other competitor.”
“But this would have taken those upstarts out of the equation!”
“Really? They were smart enough to figure out how to do an Aileron roll in the first place. How do you know this would have fazed them?”
“Well... it might have.”
“But what if it didn’t?”
“Anyway, if the rule change alone was enough to completely neutralize the Aileron roll, all that trickery would have been pointless.”
“Grr... you won’t get away with this!”
“Get away with what? Seeing the error of my ways before it was too late? Besides, it’s not as though this completely torpedoes your chances of victory; after all, you can just use your backup plan.”
The mare abruptly fell silent for several seconds before responding, “Backup plan?”
“You did make sure to come up with an alternative plan to beat them in case I had a change of heart, right? After all, since all of you thought it was necessary to do this in the first place, that must mean you believed they’d figure out another way to win if they were given the chance.”
“That’s part of your job as a rider, isn’t it?”
“Um... you see...” The mare was visibly struggling to come up with a reply. Eventually, she decided to ignore the question and pose one of her own. “Well, what’s your plan?”
Reaction Time smirked. “You’ll find out once the starting bell rings.” As the rider stalked off, muttering curses under her breath, he turned his attention back to his astonished flyer. “And that, Fast Twitch, is how one plays mind games.”
Because they had to get completely saddled before arriving at the stables, Team Rain-Spark had little to do other than wait to be called out to the starting line. Twilight adjusted her inhibitor to make sure it would stay tight on her horn. It was quite possibly the ugliest shade of green she’d ever seen, made even uglier by the garish way that it clashed with her indigo mane. “Rarity is going to have a fit when she sees this thing,” the unicorn commented.
“Hey, it’s not your fault,” replied the pegasus beneath her. “That was the only color they had in stock.”
“I know,” Twilight replied with a sigh. “I’m just trying to pass the time.”
There was another awkward lull in the conversation, with silence being broken only by a ticking clock over the doorway. Eventually, Rainbow Dash spoke up. “Hard to believe we’ve only been doing this a few months, huh?”
“Well, we did come up with a new technique....”
“No, I don’t mean racing. I mean you riding me. It wasn’t that long ago that neither of us knew what we were doing, but now... well, now, letting you take the reins feels like the most natural thing in the world.”
Twilight nodded. “I think I see what you mean.”
“Do you think we can win this?”
“I think it’s a possibility.”
“So, your plan...”
“If I’ve correctly anticipated the plans of the other competitors, we should do alright.”
Almost on cue, the traditional trumpet fanfare sounded calling the teams to the post. “Well,” Rainbow Dash said, “I guess it’s time for us to do our thing.”
Team Rain-Spark had expected to hear some sort of reaction from the crowd as they flew towards the starting gate—after all, as Elements of Harmony, they were already somewhat famous. What they didn’t suspect was that there would be a noticeable roar as they came into view of the stands; roughly half of the spectators were unicorns and earth ponies, and the novelty of having a team with a wingless rider in the pole position had planted most of them firmly in their cheering section.
As they entered their stall, Rainbow Dash turned to her right to see Team Fast-Time next to them. She couldn’t resist throwing a barb: “Good luck, you two.”
Fast Twitch merely scowled at her, while Reaction Time appeared to be so focused on the task before him, that it was quite likely he hadn’t even noticed her. She would have considered attempting to thank the stallion for his help the previous night, were it not for a pull on her reins, as Twilight directed her attention forward. The reason became obvious two seconds later, when the starting bell rang, the gates opened, and the 157th running of the Las Pegasus Stratochase began.
In their past runnings of the Stratochase, Team Fast-Time had made their break as they exited the spiral ascent. That, however, wouldn’t work this time. Even with the rule change, Rain-Spark’s mastery of the Aileron roll meant that they were going to make a huge break at the inversion zone, and they were going to leave any team that was close to them in their wake. The other teams would probably assume that they’d get left behind during the hairpins, but if Rain-Spark could stay close to them by that point, they’d win the whole thing.
Reaction Time knew better. He’d already figured out how they could keep up, and as far as he was concerned, there was only one strategy that could possibly win: break as fast as possible, right out of the gate, and then hang on to the lead for as long as Fast Twitch’s stamina allowed. Under normal circumstances, it would be incredibly foolhardy, but as far as he could tell, most of the other teams (with the obvious exception of Rain-Spark) refused to accept that the circumstances were very much abnormal this year. This strategy seemed to be working very well: Fast-Time reached the apex of the vertical climb just as Rain-Spark began their ascent. None of the other teams had tried to pull ahead of them—and as far as Reaction Time was concerned, they’d already lost.
“But why is it a bad idea to get an early lead?” Rarity asked, somewhat confused.
“Wind resistance,” Luna replied, not bothering to move the binoculars from her face as she watched the pack begin its descent to the ground level. Things were looking good for Rain-Spark, as they were managing to avoid getting left behind. “Think of instances when geese fly in a ‘V’ formation—the one in front expends much more effort than the ones behind it, which is why they trade spots to conserve their energy. Fast-Time doesn’t have the option of trading spots with anypony, so they’re going to be moving much slower by the end of the race.”
“I see,” Rarity replied, as she looked through her own binoculars to see Team Rain-Spark, easily identifiable thanks to Twilight’s criminally hideous magic inhibitor, finishing the inside loop.
Team Rain-Spark was in the middle of the pack as they came out of the loop, which was right where Twilight wanted them to be. Her plan was about to face its most important test: the hairpins. As she watched the riders in front of her stick out their wings to slow down for the turn, she took a deep breath. She hadn’t had time to test her idea out, and even though Rainbow Dash hadn’t seen any flaws in it, the unicorn would have greatly preferred to have some foreknowledge of its feasibility. Here we go....
The unicorn deftly maneuvered to the outside of the curve, as she had done in her previous attempts to yaw through the turn. However, just as the turn began, she performed a quarter roll to the left, so that she and Rainbow Dash were parallel to the horizon. She then directed her flyer “upwards,” as if they were performing an inside loop. By the time they were done, they were on the inside of the turn, directly underneath one of their competitors, so Twilight finished the remaining three-quarters of the roll, popping up beside the competing team, whose eyes were wide with a mix of astonishment and panic.
Not only had Team Rain-Spark managed to make a turn that was nearly as tight as one made using the traditional method, but by avoiding using body parts in a rudder-like capacity, they had done so without slowing down. In short, Twilight’s plan was working out beautifully.
Normally, Reaction Time’s face was stoically blank during a race, but as he approached the spiral ascent and glanced to his right, he indulged in the briefest of smiles. Twilight Sparkle’s inhibitor made Rain-Spark easy to spot as they zoomed down the straightaways, and they were still in the thick of things, which meant that the unicorn had indeed figured out how to use her maneuverability to make up for her lack of wings, and this was very good news indeed.
As it turned out, he had been correct in his belief that all of the other teams would plan on Rain-Spark falling behind. It really was a stroke of good luck, not only because he knew that many of the other riders were otherwise intelligent ponies who could have come to the same conclusion that he did, but because the Elements’ unexpected tenacity caused them to panic, speeding up in an effort to create the gap that they assumed would already exist, unintentionally tiring out their flyers and virtually eliminating the disadvantage that Fast-Time had taken on by breaking so early in the race. It was just a matter of staying ahead of the feisty newcomers, now.
But what the grey rider could never have anticipated was the degree to which the other teams would overreact to this development, because what happened as he turned his attention to the spiral could not have gone better for Team Fast-Time even if he’d planned it.
“What?!” Rarity shrieked. “What just happened? Why did they spin out?!”
Luna’s face was cold and stern as she continued gazing through her binoculars. “During the last turn, one of the other riders used her wing to sideswipe Rain-Spark, causing them to go off course slightly.”
“But that’s cheating!”
“If it’s intentional, yes. But there’s likely no way to prove it wasn’t. Don’t worry—they didn’t go out of bounds. They were merely slowed down long enough to allow most of the other teams to overtake them.”
“So they can still win?”
Luna paused for an uncomfortably long second. “We are... uncertain.”
Twilight Sparkle didn’t know if she and Rainbow Dash had been sideswiped intentionally, or by accident, and at the moment, she didn’t have time to care. Most of the other teams had passed Rain-Spark, and Team Fast-Time had just exited the spiral, but neither she nor her flyer were hurt. The race was still salvageable. It had to be salvageable. They could still win—and knowing how competitive her partner was, Twilight felt obligated to do everything she could to try. She leaned forward to Dash’s ear and shouted, “Let’s do this!” The pegasus grinned, immediately taking off in pursuit of the mass of ponies in front of them.
The spiral was supposed to be an opportunity for the flyers to take a break by catching a ride on an updraft that had been engineered to flow at a constant speed for the duration of the race, but that wouldn’t be nearly fast enough to get Rain-Spark back in the game. Instead, they tilted sideways, treating the spiral like a trio of of inside loops lined up side by side and rotated so that they were stacked vertically. Twilight had Rainbow Dash flapping her wings throughout the maneuver, and by the time they had reached the final ascent before the inversion zone, they’d nearly caught up to the teams who’d passed them.
Reaction Time managed to catch a glimpse of his competitors as he guided Fast Twitch in the first of the barrel rolls. He had no idea why Rain-Spark was now behind the large mass of ponies, but that was just as well, since he’d overestimated his flyer’s stamina; Fast Twitch’s wingbeats were becoming more labored, and lacked the power that had propelled them out to such an early lead to begin with. Still, Rain-Spark’s current position likely meant that they would have to settle for second place—barring any more unforeseen circumstances, of course.
If Rainbow Dash was getting tired, she was doing a superb job of hiding it from her rider; the potent mix of adrenaline and competitiveness had the pegasus running at full blast as they entered the inversion zone. Twilight signaled her flyer to begin the Aileron rolls, which the pegasus pulled off in an incredibly short amount of time. The rest of the competition, meanwhile, was still in the midst of their barrel rolls, with one exception. Team Fast-Time was only about 150 trots from the finish line, flying as fast as they could. At their present rate of speed, Rain-Spark might be able to get close... but winning... appeared to be out of the question, by any reasonable standard, anyway.
Twilight, however, wasn’t in the mood to be reasonable today. They’d come here to do more than wow the Wonderbolts—they also had to wow the idiotic politicians who were hell-bent on standing between Rainbow Dash and her dreams, and those imbeciles would probably give most of the credit to the unicorn’s ingenuity, rather than the pegasus’ skills, unless they could end with a bang.
A bang... or maybe....
Twilight Sparkle gritted her teeth as she made her decision. She knew what had to be done, and there wasn’t a doubt in her mind that Rainbow Dash could pull it off; the only question was whether she’d be up to the task. Even though this was essentially the reason she’d been exercising on her own, the unicorn hadn’t really been put to the test yet. Squinting her eyes, Twilight tightened the muscles in her barrel and legs as Team Rain-Spark started to accelerate.
For her part, Rainbow Dash was thrilled that her rider was increasing their speed. Sure, she was near the end of her reserves, but that finish line was so close. It wasn’t until her vision began to get obscured by white streaks and the mild turbulence hit her that she realized this was more than just a last minute sprint to the end. She isn’t....
The pegasus briefly looked behind her, and saw her friend grinding her teeth and flaring her nostrils as she attempted to keep her body as prone as possible. She is! Rainbow Dash had a huge grin on her face as she refocused her attention on the finish line. Through the rapidly congealing cone of whiteness, she was barely able to make out Team Fast-Time, who were mere trots from the finish line.
And then, the sky exploded.
“Sonic Rainboom! Sonic Rainboom! Rain-Spark has pulled off a Sonic Rainboom!”
Up to this point, Rarity hadn’t paid much attention the course’s announcer, but with the way he was shouting into the loudspeaker system, he was difficult to ignore. Not that there was much else that he could talk about; the rainbow streak left in Team Rain-Spark’s wake had obscured the vision of almost everypony in the crowd. At the moment, the most they could be sure of was that it was close—extremely close. Twilight and Rainbow Dash had passed Team Fast-Time at some point near the finish line, and the officials were going to have to rely on magically-activated photographs to determine the winner.
However, the VIP box had a clear view of the finish line, and though Rarity still wasn’t sure what had happened, she was sitting next to someone whose eyes were likely sharp enough to provide an answer. “Princess Luna?”
The alicorn didn’t answer; instead, she continued to follow the rainbow trail through the sky with her binoculars, her jaw hanging open in shock. “It’s... beautiful....” The perfect ending to a perfect day, the princess mused silently to herself as a glimmer of inspiration began to form in her mind.
This finally got the royal’s attention, and she turned to her guest. “Yes, Rarity? What is it?”
“Did you see who won?”
To the unicorn’s surprise, Luna’s smiling response contained a warmth that one would normally associate with her older sister. “Does it even matter?”