“Figure 3. In the year 967, the Las Pegasus Tandem Racing Committee added the “inversion zone” (shown here in green) to the Stratochase, giving the race the layout in use to this very day.”
“Vivaaaa, vivaaaa, Las Pegasus!”
Twilight Sparkle couldn’t resist a grin as her friend finished her song. “I didn’t know you were a fan of Elvis Przewalski, Rainbow Dash.”
“Eh, not really—my parents loved his music, so I grew up around it. But c’mon, this is Las Pegasus. Somepony’s gotta sing it, right?”
The unicorn chuckled before nodding her head in agreement. “It’s too bad Pinkie couldn’t make it. She’d probably come up with something that would put every showmare in town to shame.” The pink earth pony wasn’t the only one of their friends who couldn’t make it—even with two months’ notice, there still wasn’t time for many of them to clear up their schedules to cheer them on. This wasn’t like the Best Young Flyer competition, which had been held in Cloudsdale, a city that was fairly close to Ponyville; this was in a city that was farther away from home than Appleloosa. Still, Rarity was planning on making the trip, since the traditional fancy hats that were associated with the event gave her the perfect pretense to write it off as a business expense, and there were rumors that Princess Luna intended to show up, as she’d always had an interest in gaming, but neither could arrive until later that night, after the qualifying rounds were finished (which put more pressure on Twilight and Dash to actually qualify for the next day’s race).
“This is great!” Rainbow Dash said excitedly. “Where are we staying? Celestias Palace? The Houyhnhnm?”
“Uh, neither, actually. We’re staying at the Lucky Horseshoe.”
Rainbow Dash was, to put it mildly, disappointed. “The Lucky Horseshoe?! But that’s on the ground! Everypony knows that all the best resorts in Las Pegasus are in the sky.”
“I know, Dash, but the rules strictly prohibit the use of all forms of unicorn magic on any of the competitors, and that includes cloudwalking spells.”
“Why would they single out unicorn magic?”
“Because pegasus magic is necessary to actually compete in the race, and most earth pony magic requires physical contact with the ground.”
“Oh... that makes sense, I guess.”
“Great... I’ll get us checked in at our hotel, while you register us with the Stratochase organizers.”
The Celestias Palace Resort, it seemed, had everything: a five-star hotel, a casino, shopping, restaurants (including an impressively stocked all-you-can-eat buffet), nightclubs, a spa, several impressive stage shows, and even a tattoo parlor for those ponies who felt the need to embellish their cutie marks. About the only thing it didn’t have was an apostrophe in its name—apparently, their lawyers were worried that calling the place “Celestia’s Palace” might cause some to assume that they had a royal endorsement when no such endorsement existed, which was illegal according to Equestrian law. That, however, was of no concern to Rainbow Dash, who made her way to the resort’s convention center to register for the Las Pegasus Stratochase.
The actual registration went off without a hitch, initially. Once Rainbow Dash had signed in, the clerk was very friendly to her. “Good luck with the race, and we hope you enjoy your stay here at Celestias Palace.”
“Um, actually, Twilight and I are at the Lucky Horseshoe.”
“Really? Whatever for? We provide for all of your expenses.”
“Yeah, but cloudwalking spells are a no-go, right?”
“But why would a pegasus need to use a cloudwalking spell?”
“Uh, Twilight’s a unicorn.”
The clerk looked stunned. “Are you... are you serious?”
“Yeah. Is there something wrong with that?”
“Er, well... no... it’s just... well, it’s been quite some time since a unicorn attempted to qualify. Or an earth pony, for that matter.”
“Uh... okay. But other than that, there’s no problems, right?”
“Um... no...” The pegasus was starting to look a little nervous. “Technically, there aren’t any problems....”
“Great! I’ll tell Twilight that everything’s ready, then.”
“Um... yes. Ah, you said that your rider is a unicorn, correct?”
The clerk pulled out a book and started sifting through the pages. After a several minutes, she found what she was looking for. “Ms. Sparkle is going to need to wear a magic inhibitor.”
“It’s a sort of sleeve that goes over her horn to prevent her from using magic. It’s... well, it’s required for unicorns to compete, according to the rule book.”
“Uh, okay. I’ll be sure to tell her.”
“You can bill the Committee for it. Um, we apologize for the oversight.”
“Thanks...” Rainbow Dash was really starting to get wary. Why was the fact that Twilight was a unicorn throwing this mare off so much?
“In any case, Team Twi-Dash is scheduled for a practice run in a few hours, so you’d better get back to your hotel to get ready.
“For the ease of the announcers calling the race, each team is given a designation that’s a combination of each member’s name.”
“I figured that much, but... Twi-Dash?”
“Well, if you prefer, it can be made from any combination of syllables, as long as there’s at least one from each team member’s name.”
Rainbow Dash rubbed her chin thoughtfully. “Is that so...?”
“I still don’t understand what was wrong with calling ourselves ‘Team Twi-Dash.’”
The pegasus sighed as she once again attempted to explain the blindingly obvious to the unicorn strapped onto her back. “What was wrong with it was the fact that it doesn’t sound nearly as cool as ‘Team Rain-Spark.’ I mean, come on! ‘Spark’ is easily the coolest syllable in your name.”
“And ‘Rain’ is the coolest one in yours?”
“Uh, not really... but Rain is made of water, and Sparks are made of electricity, so when you put them together, it sounds really dangerous and edgy.”
Twilight sighed; there really wasn’t much point if squabbling about something that was ultimately this minor, particularly when there were more important things to worry about, like making sure the magical inhibitor covering her horn fit properly. It had taken a surprisingly long time to find a place that sold them, even in a city as cosmopolitan as Las Pegasus, and by the time they showed up to take their officially sanctioned practice run on the Stratochase’s course, they were the only ones who hadn’t done so, depriving the unicorn of the chance to see for herself why pegasi were apparently considered innately superior riders.
The pair did the best they could to block out the derisive snickers that they heard from some of their fellow competitors as they flew up to the starting line. Apparently, most of them were expecting to watch them make complete fools out of themselves, though a few stray comments about their saddle suggested that this had already been accomplished.
Truth be told, Twilight was a little worried—her initial idea of creating a life-size recreation of the course had been shot down quickly, since the ecosystem around the Ponyville area required too many clouds to make clearing an area of sky that large practical. Thus, Team Rain-Spark had had to rely on practicing the individual twists and turns out of context over the field, while also working on improving Rainbow Dash’s general middle-distance flying skills. The unicorn was still fairly confident that they’d do well, but she’d underestimated how intimidating a full 2.5-kilotrot course would actually look, and not just because the actual course was bounded by a series of rings that they hadn’t bothered to recreate back home.
Twilight quickly suppressed these uncertainties when the starting bell rang. She began guiding Rainbow Dash through the course at a moderate speed; to her mind, there was no reason to let those competitors who were observing them know the full extent of their abilities. The course began with a 50-trot straightaway before pulling into a 100-trot vertical ascent. At once this ascent ended, there was a sharp, 180-degree hairpin turn into a 150-trot vertical descent. This extremely fast transition from the course’s highest elevation to its lowest was one of the oldest features of the race, and more than a few of the illustrations Twilight had come across were of this particular section.
Once on the “ground level” (a rather ironic name, considering that it was nearly 100 trots above the actual ground), the course leveled out into another straightaway, this one 75 trots long, before making a 90-degree turn to the right. 50 trots after the turn, there was an inside loop approximately 50 trots in diameter, followed by another 50-trot straightaway, which, after a sharp 180-degree turn, led into the section that Twilight already knew would provide Rain-Spark with their greatest challenge.
This section consisted of three flat, 120-trot straightaways, laid out parallel to each other and connected by hairpin turns even sharper than the one after the loop. Naturally, it was the turns that concerned Twilight Sparkle, since Rainbow Dash’s yawing skills weren’t nearly as impressive when she had to carry the unicorn’s weight. Still, they made it through without too much trouble, and after another 120 trots of straight flight, they entered the next portion of the course.
This was a long, helical section, with a spiral approximately 60 trots in diameter that went around three times before ending at a height near the starting altitude. This was followed by a 100-trot straightaway that turned left into a climb which, after 160 trots, ended at an altitude 50 trots higher than the starting line. Another left turn led into the infamous inversion zone. On illustrations of the course, it looked like a simple, sloping descent that went on for 300 trots before ending at the course’s starting point, which also served as its finish line. However, this was where teams that had been lagging behind could do rolls to reduce their official time, with five seconds being removed for each inversion, and, in theory at least, allowing the race’s excitement to last until the official winner was announced. The boundary rings were completely absent from this section; in theory, a team could take any route they wished, as long as they ended by going through a final ring, but one would have to be a fool to take any route other than the straightest line possible.
Twilight had her flyer do several barrel rolls in this area—to her mind, there was no reason to let their competition know about their strategy of performing a dozen or so aileron rolls in the inversion zone when there wasn’t an official timer. As far as she was concerned, the five minutes it took for them to complete the course this time would more useful in convincing the other teams to underestimate them. After returning to their ground-based hotel to prepare for the evening’s qualifying round, she sent Rainbow Dash back to mingle with the other pegasi to scout for more information about the competitors.
The pegasus went to the competitor’s lounge in one of the swankier cloud resorts, where the casinos had provided free food and drinks for all the entrants, including, much to her delight, an entire barrel of cider from Sweet Apple Acres (non-alcoholic, of course—after all, most of these athletes would be racing in a few hours). Rainbow Dash had just finished quaffing her third mug when she heard a cocksure voice from behind her. “You really think you have a shot at this?”
Rainbow Dash turned her head to see an orange stallion with a short, spiky brick-red mane and an abstract cutie mark that appeared to consist of three stylized arrows, laid out in parallel. “Wouldn’t be here if I didn’t,” she replied. “What’s it to you?”
“The name’s Fast Twitch. I’m the flyer for Team Fast-Time.”
“Call it ‘cute’ if you want, but we’re the odds-on favorite to win the whole thing.”
“Yeah, well, good luck to you,” Rainbow Dash said, taking note of the stallion’s air of confidence.
“We don’t need luck. You, on the other hand, are going to need a miracle.”
“You’re one of the Elements of Harmony, right? Got in with your connections?”
Rainbow Dash sighed. “Yeah, I guess.” I knew getting Celestia’s help would backfire, she thought absently.
“You’re rider’s a unicorn, right? Personal friend of one of the Princesses, or something like that?”
“Twilight is Celestia’s personal student. She’s one of the smartest ponies in Equestria.”
Fast Twitch snorted. “Yeah, I know the type. All the brains in the world, and not a drop of common sense.”
The blue mare was really starting to dislike this guy’s attitude. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
The stallion didn’t bother to answer the question. “I’ve gotta say, I admire your bravery.”
Rainbow Dash wasn’t sure what to make of this. “Bravery?”
“Yeah, most of the past winners of the Best Young Flyer competition wouldn’t dream of humiliating themselves the way you are.”
The blue pegasus scoffed. “If you’re talking about our practice run, that doesn’t mean anything. You really think Twilight and I would be dumb enough to go full speed when it didn’t actually count? I thought you said you were a pro.”
“I am, and it doesn’t matter how much faster you can go when you’re trying. You’re going to lose, and you’ll be a laughingstock.”
“And just what makes you say that?”
“Well, for one thing, you’ve got the most ridiculous saddle I’ve ever seen. Seriously, a fitness saddle? That thing’s strapped on you so tight there’s no way a decent rider could get a good lean to indicate a roll. You need an actual racing brand, like Whirlaway.”
“Twilight can roll me just fine.”
“I wasn’t talking about her, I was talking about a decent rider. Your unicorn friend just plain sucks.”
Being the Element of Loyalty, Rainbow Dash was not one to suffer such a remark lightly. “What did you say?!”
“I said that she sucks. She’s terrible. She can’t do anything except to hold you back.”
“What the— Why you— You don’t even know her!” The other pegasi in the lounge had all gone silent, their attention completely focused on the shouting match before them.
“I know she’s a unicorn, and that’s enough.”
“Oh, come on! You’re actually going to be blatantly racist about this?”
“Please, there’s nothing racist about saying that pegasi are inherently superior riders, any more than it is to say that they’re superior flyers. Or do you need me to explain that, too?”
Rainbow Dash stood her ground. She had to defend her friend, for the simple fact that the unicorn couldn’t be present to defend herself. “Twilight knows exactly what she’s doing.”
Fast Twitch rolled his eyes. “Look, I’m sure you’re friend’s quite talented for a unicorn, but if you want to ride at this level you need to have wings.”
The stallion let out a derisive laugh. “Ha! If you can’t figure that out, you deserve to be humiliated.”
“Oh yeah?! Well, we’ll see who’s laughing after we kick everypony’s tail tonight! Pole position for Team Rain-Spark—count on it!”
The good news was that Twilight Sparkle’s riding skills were more than sufficient to back up Rainbow Dash’s boasting. The bad news was that there actually was a very good reason that pegasi were thought to be superior riders to other ponies.
The unicorn had been correct that the series of hairpin turns would be the most difficult section of the course, but she’d vastly underestimated the degree to which this would be true. It turned out that the standard practice was for the rider to stick out a wing when turning, acting like a rudder and greatly decreasing the flyer’s turning radius. When combined with the fact that the standard racing saddle allowed for much more vigorous wing movement than even a high-end fitness saddle could provide, Team Rain-Spark found themselves way behind the pack, and it looked like they wouldn’t even qualify for the next day’s race.
However, the same safety features that made Rainbow Dash’s wing-flaps less powerful were also the ones that made her more responsive to the movements of her rider’s hind legs. Thus, while most of the other teams performed a few barrel rolls in the inversion zone, Team Rain-Spark had the ability to perform Aileron rolls, which took much, much less time. Where most teams only attempted five or six inversions, Rain-Spark pulled off twenty, easily giving them first place and an official time of 2:34.30, setting a new course record, even though they’d crossed the finish line almost thirty seconds after everyone else.
Needless to say, the reaction of the professional teams who’d been tandem racing for their entire lives was a bit... mixed.
“You can’t be serious!”
“This is an outrage!”
“Damn it, what about tradition?!”
The spokespony for the Las Pegasus Tandem Racing Committee was really starting to wish that she had some aspirin, or at least some sort of traditional zebra remedy for migraines, because the complaints were starting to drive her to distraction. “I really don’t know what else to tell you. Rainbow Dash has been tested both for drugs and unauthorized magic, and she’s come up clean on both counts, and Twilight Sparkle’s magic inhibitor was inspected and found to be in good working order. Their time is therefore perfectly legitimate, and they’ll be given the pole position for tomorrow’s race.”
“Why even bother having the race? There’s no way they can possibly lose if nothing changes.”
“The hot-dogging makes a mockery of this sport.”
“I still say they’re cheating. Everypony knows Aileron rolls can’t be done during tandem flight.”
The spokespony tried to resist groaning out loud. Even though the objections were flying at her so quickly that she couldn’t tell which pony was making what complaint, she still had to maintain some semblance of dignity. “Team Rain-Spark has explained the methods they use to the committee, and they have determined that they are well within the bounds of sportsponylike conduct.”
“Yeah, right. You’re just letting them get away with it because they’ve got connections with the Royal Family.”
“Please, there’s no need to throw such accusations around. The committee’s official position is that Rain-Spark’s performance has exposed flaws in the official rules that were heretofore unnoticed, and they have decided to take action to ensure that nopony is needlessly humiliated when the event is held tomorrow. Now, as the nature of this action is still being deliberated, I must excuse myself to return to the meeting.”
“Don’t let them get you down.”
Rainbow Dash looked up from her seat in the Lucky Horseshoe’s no-frills lobby to see a pegasus stallion with light grey coat and a dark grey mane standing in front of her with a friendly smile on his face. His cutie mark was yet another example of the inexplicably common hourglass. “Uh... thanks, I guess. And, uh, you are...?”
“My name’s Reaction Time. I’m the rider for Team Fast-Time, and I came here to apologize for my partner’s... ill-considered remarks to you earlier in the day.”
“Fast-Time... wait, you’re that Fast Twitch guy’s rider?!”
“Indeed. Twitch has the unfortunate habit of needlessly antagonizing opponents with his trash talk. He thinks he’s playing some sort of mind game, but often as not, he ends up motivating them to do better.”
“Well, it certainly worked in our case.”
“Of course. Ms. Sparkle was smart to hide that little trick you had up your sleeve. Am I right in assuming that it’s the saddle that allows for the Aileron roll?”
“Yeah... Twilight thinks that normal racing saddles are too loose to signal rolling the way we do it.”
“I see. She has excellent flying instincts for a unicorn. Who taught her to ride?”
“Uh, well, she basically taught herself, with a little help from me.”
Reaction Time chuckled. “Of course. Only somepony who didn’t know Aileron rolls were supposed to be impossible would bother figuring out how to do them. How long has she been riding?”
The stallion, who had seemed quite collected up to this point, suddenly looked incredulous. “You’re... you’re joking, right?”
“Nope. Twilight is Princess Celestia’s protégé, and that pretty much makes her one of the smartest ponies in Equestria.”
“No doubt... and I’m guessing that the rumors that the Princess got personally involved to even get the two of you in this competition are true, then?”
“Uh... yeah, pretty much. I know the other teams resent it...”
“Given how hard most of us had to work just to get here, it’s hard to see how they couldn’t. Still, I think most of them were more put off by the fact that the style of riding they’ve spent years perfecting has suddenly been rendered so obsolete that they would have had no chance at winning tomorrow.”
“Don’t you mean that they won’t have a chance? I mean, it’s not like anything’s changed since this afternoon, right?”
The stallion seemed somewhat surprised at this response. “Nopony told either of you, then?”
“Told us what?”
Reaction Time sighed. “I can’t believe they’re being that petty....” He reached into his saddlebag, pulled out a manila envelope, and gave it to Rainbow Dash. “Here. Apparently, your copy got conveniently lost before it arrived at your lodgings. Given the close relationship the two of you have with the Princesses, I highly doubt that it was the intention of the organizing committee, or even of anyone racing tomorrow—most likely, one of the teams that didn’t make it in bribed the messenger to ‘misplace’ it in some misguided attempt to get back at you.”
“Rhat izh dis?” Dash asked with the envelope in her mouth (since she had no saddlebag of her own where she could put it.)
“I suggest you take that to Ms. Sparkle. You’ll want to be together to discuss the ramifications.”
Back in her hotel room, Twilight Sparkle read the pertinent section of the official memo aloud. “Due to recent events, glaring weaknesses in our current rules and regulations have been exposed, which we believe will detract from the tension and excitement our patrons have come to expect from the Stratochase. Therefore, to rectify the situation, we are modifying the regulations regarding the inversion zone. Instead of being rewarded for performing any number of inversions with seconds removed from the official time, teams shall now be required to perform seven inversions within the inversion zone, with a fifteen-second penalty for each missed inversion. The inversions may be performed by whatever means each team chooses.”
Rainbow Dash scratched her head. “Uh... could you translate that from legalese?”
“Basically, they’re changing the rules on us. Doing Aileron rolls all the way to the finish line won’t affect our official time at all.”
“This is complete load of horseapples!”
“Actually, it makes a lot of sense, when you think about it. Since ponies gamble on the outcome, if the rules remained the same, our victory would be a foregone conclusion, which would mean that everypony would bet on us to win, and as a result the casinos stand to lose a lot of money. Also, the rule change does mean that, absent any penalties, the winning team will be the one that crosses the finish line first, which will make it much more exciting for spectators.”
Rainbow Dash sighed. “I guess it does make sense when you put it that way...”
Twilight nodded. “Now, as for the fact that they’re making all of these changes the night before the race, that’s a load of horseapples. Still, this is partly my fault. If I hadn’t gone overboard on the aileron rolls, they likely wouldn’t have thought such a sudden, drastic change was necessary.”
“Well, that and if you hadn’t agreed to let Princess Celestia grease the wheels, they might not have been that hostile in the first place.”
The unicorn sighed. “Okay, you were right, Rainbow Dash. I shouldn’t have dismissed your concerns about how getting help from Celestia would look. I made a mistake, and I’m sorry.”
“Apology accepted, I guess.... So what do we do? The Aileron roll can’t help us now.”
“Actually, I think it will—just not to the degree it did before. Doing barrel rolls still increases the distance a team has to cover, compared to the Aileron rolls, and currently, most teams choose to do five or six inversions. I can’t be certain, but I think they chose the number of rolls to lengthen the course for traditional riders just enough to make it look like we’re still competitive. If they didn’t ‘throw us a bone,’ to use a Diamond Dog idiom, the resulting scandal would probably ruin the event’s reputation. Being able to do Aileron rolls still gives us an advantage, but the advantage isn’t big enough to guarantee a win for us on its own.”
“But we’re still going to be way behind thanks to those stupid hairpin turns.”
The unicorn paused as she tapped a hoof against her chin. “Actually, I’m not so sure about that....”
“You have an idea?”
“Maybe... I need to think things out tonight. In the meantime, you need to make sure you’re well rested. Don’t worry; I’m the rider. It’s my job to deal with obstacles like this. By tomorrow morning, I’ll have a plan. I’m sure of it.”
Rainbow Dash sighed. “Okay... if you’re sure.”
The pegasus walked towards the door so she could head to her own hotel room. “Then I’ll see you tomorrow. Good night, Twilight.”