There are three things that are awesome in the world. The first thing is winning. The second thing is also winning, because it’s so awesome it gets to be on the list twice. The third thing is me, Rainbow Dash. You know how some ponies don’t like to brag? I’m not one of those ponies. I’m so fast that by the time you realize how fast I am you’re already in second place or lower and I’m across the finish line having champagne and caviar with the other ponies living the good life.
It was right after the Thunderhead Grand Prix. I’d won, obviously, and me and the other two ponies that had placed went to the Union Sky Tavern to celebrate. It was the first stop in the qualifiers for the Mustang Marathon, and tradition demanded that I buy drinks for the second-place finisher, they buy drinks for the third-place pony, and all of us buy a round for our ground crews.
“That third curve at Thunderhead is feathering nuts,” Lightning Dust said. She’d come in hot on my tail.
“It was nuts because you didn’t even try to slow down,” Cloud Chaser yelled over the noise. “When Vapor Trail tried to follow you they went right off the track and into the stands! Total crash and burn.”
“Nopony got hurt,” I said. “Pretty sure I saw Dust nudge her out of control, though.”
“Hey, you gotta play rough if you wanna win!” Dust countered. “Don’t tell me you’ve never crashed somepony.”
“Course I have. You hear about what happened last year at Rainbow Road?” She shook her head. “They had some racers that were from the same stable competing at the same time. Pretty normal, right? But they had this one real big guy, Bulk something or other, and he didn’t even try to keep up. Instead, he let everypony get stuck behind him, and then he let his teammate slip through!”
“Isn’t that against the rules?” Dust asked.
“It’s unsportsmarelike,” Cloud Chaser said. “But at the time it was legal. I was there too. I got stuck looking at his flank for half a lap.”
I nodded. “The idea was, his teammate got an extra lap in, then they’d just cruise to victory. Nowhere near a record, but it was a sure victory for their stable and he was prolly getting some kind of payoff.”
“So you crashed him, right?” Dust asked.
“It’s not as easy as just saying it,” I slammed back my drink and motioned for the waiter to bring me another. “He had a ton of chrome. Total ironmonger. I couldn’t just punch him out, either, cause the rules are that there’s a big difference between using your wake and turbulence to shove a pony and actually attacking them.”
“Tell that to the jerk who set off the stormclouds,” Cloud Chaser groaned.
Dust grinned. “They call it Thunderhead for a reason! I’ll buy you a bottle of something off the top shelf if you forgive me, hot flanks.”
“I’ll take you up on that, but only cause you complimented my flanks.” She waved over a server and ordered a bottle of scotch. “Don’t worry, it’s not the most expensive thing on the menu. It's only second-place, like you.”
“So how’d you take him down?” Dust asked, after swatting Cloud Chaser for that comment.
“She waited until his teammate was about to pass, then she flew right up her wake and past Bulk Biceps! She was so close they didn’t notice her until she was right there, and Rainbow Dash did a triple-S cutter loop!”
“And that sent them right into each other and out of the race,” I finished. I turned around to see who’d spoken. A filly with my team jacket and a backstage pass on her lanyard was watching me with the kind of awe usually reserved for Princess Celestia.
“I-I’m Scootaloo,” she said. “I don’t know if you remember my emails--”
It clicked. “You’re the president of my fan club!” I grinned. She looked amazed that I remembered her. “Did Spitfire get in touch? I told her to make sure she treated you right.”
“Yes ma’am!” She held up the pass. “She got me tickets to Thunderhead too!”
“What’d you think of the race?” I asked, motioning for her to join us in the booth.
“To be honest, there wasn’t a lot of competition,” Scootaloo said, as she hopped up. The kid was tiny. “I heard a lot of racers have their first time there.”
“That’s why the spring meet is called the Cherry Festival,” Cloud Kicker said, with a smirk. “Lots of new blood.”
“Come on Dash, you can’t have your fans sit with us,” Dust complained. “What about my fans?”
“Do you have fans?” I asked. “Because I didn’t see any.”
“Owch,” Cloud Kicker said.
“You placed first in the X-Storm Games last year,” Scootaloo supplied. “They’re pretty cool, but a little scary. My aunts won’t let me go see them because of how many ponies end up crashing into the stands.”
“They do get rough,” Dust agreed. “They allow full contact. No weapons, but ponies kinda skirt those rules. There was this one pony with what he claimed was a leaky oil pipe.”
“I heard about that!” Scootaloo gasped. “He spilled oil everywhere then set it on fire!”
Dust’s eyebrows raised. “Then you’d know what happened to him.”
“Well, I wasn’t there, but from what I read somepony in the race spun him out and kicked him back into his own fire. There was an explosion from the open fuel line. He’s recovering but any evidence of his cheating was destroyed.”
“Dumb move on my part. I should have just tossed him into the hayburger stand,” Dust mumbled.
“It was pretty cool, though, and you almost caught Dash! I think you’re faster on the straightaways but she’s got better turning.”
“And on a course like Thunderhead, the turns matter,” I said.
“She’s okay,” Dust decided. “Cloud, pour her a drink.”
“She’s a foal, I’m not gonna give a foal a glass of scotch.” Cloud Kicker moved the bottle out of Lightning Dust’s reach.
Dust stuck out her tongue. “She’s like, what, thirteen, fourteen? That’s close enough.”
“Eleven,” Scootaloo corrected.
“Okay maybe she is a little young,” Dust admitted. “Hey, waitress, can we get a shirley temple over here?”
Eventually, DJ-PON3 took the stage and Dust and Kicker took off to bust a move in front of the crowd. I kinda felt responsible for Scoots. Part of being a winner is knowing how to treat your fans right, so I stuck with her after they’d left.
“So, am I gonna have to worry about you on the circuit in a couple years?” I asked, leaning back. “They say half the race’s in your head and you’ve got that down.”
“Me?” Scootaloo blushed, her tiny wings fluttering. “N-no, I couldn’t.”
“Sure you could. You can start racing in the Junior Speedsters league in two years, then you can get scholarships, sponsors…”
“No, I mean, I can’t,” she said, with a bitter tone in her voice. “I can’t fly. My wings don’t work.”
Oh. Well now I felt like an ass. You know -- rude, ugly, and a little dumb.
“So what?” Dust asked, as she swung by the table to take a few swigs of her drink. “Sorry, heard the sob story. Anyway, the league allows anypony to fly. You need to get augmented wings, no big deal. Plenty of ponies have chrome. Half my skull is carbon fiber, and my right eye is totally artificial.”
“Really?” Scootaloo asked, looking closer.
“Yep. The color’s not quite right, and if you look really closely you can see the iris is more like a camera lens.” She leaned in so Scootaloo could see. “I had an accident when I was a foal. Fell like a rock with wings and landed on my face like a rock with a skull fracture.”
“Cloud Kicker’s got an artificial liver, right?” I asked.
“Pretty sure you’re the only one with no implants at all,” Dust said. “Rainbow here doesn’t even have an AR implant. She has to wear these dumb glasses when she goes out.” She grabbed my glasses from my bag, a wraparound pair that always made me feel dumb when I wore it.
I blushed at that and snatched them back, hiding them from view.
“Hey, I have a condition!”
“A condition?” Scootaloo asked.
“We all got problems, okay? I just can’t get implants. My body would reject ‘em. I’d have to be on anti-inflammatory and anti-rejection drugs basically forever, and even then they’d wear out real quick because of nerve stuff.”
“I didn’t know that,” Scootaloo whispered.
“But if you can get them, go for it,” I said. “Dust is right that it’s usually no big deal. I think there are some charities and stuff that can help if you’ve got health problems. I’ll have my agent find out and send you the info.”
“You’re gonna do all that just for me?”
“Hey, if there are gonna be ponies on the track, I want them to be my fans. Nothing’s as good as friendly competition, right?”
“And once you get in the air, I’m gonna have to teach you some tricks,” I said. “Don’t thank me yet. It’s gonna be tough keeping up with me. You ever heard of the sonic rainboom?”
“Oh buck not this story again,” Lightning Dust snorted. “Don’t listen to her, kid. There’s no such thing.”
“I was just a foal,” I said. “I was in flight camp--”
“Remedial flight camp.”
“It was advanced flight camp,” I corrected.
“Dash thinks Special Ed is the same as Special Ops,” Dust whispered. I shot her a glare.
“Fine, it was the remedial flight camp,” I grumbled. “Which makes it a better story, not worse, because it shows great things come from humble places!”
Cloud Kicker dropped down into the booth. “I heard somepony say sonic rainboom. I wanna see just how much Dash exaggerates the numbers this time. Maybe she’ll add in a hydra!”
“Feathers, you two just can’t let anything go,” I said.
“I wanna hear the story,” Scootaloo said, because she had good taste and knew that my story was awesome because it featured me.
“So the point is, I was at flight camp, just a little filly like you, didn’t even have my cutie mark yet. There are basically no camp instructors watching us because they had to take care of some VIP foal who was too scared to flap her flap-flaps. These two flank-faces come up to me and start talking horseapples. I’m super aerodynamic, and they’re built like bunkers from the war, as big as a house and as dense as concrete.”
“When she says aerodynamic she means she’s short,” Dust supplied.
Cloud Kicker nodded. “Super short.”
“Her official biography card says her height is--” Scootaloo started.
“Let’s not get numbers involved, kid,” I said, cutting Scoots off. “So Brick and Dumbbell challenge me to a race. And not just your normal around-the-bunks lap type of stuff, they wanted to do the big Triple-D. The Doomsday Death Drop. A straight vertical run all the way from the camp to the ground. First one to land wins.”
“That doesn’t sound too bad.”
“Kid, we’re talking about a couple foals who can barely fly dropping a mile as fast as they can. The drop itself isn’t dangerous. What’s dangerous is this is a race. You don’t just fall and glide, you have to fly right at the ground, and the first one to turn chicken and hit the brakes loses. You either coward out and lose, or do the stupid thing and win by smashing into the dirt. If you wanna win and not break a few bones, you gotta be good.”
“And unfortunately for Dash, she was in remedial fight camp.”
“Shut up, Dust! I kicked your flank on the track and I’ll do it again right here! Where was I… so there we were, looking down over the Triple-D…”
Technically, it was a well-defined cloud dock that went out far into a hole punched through the clouds like a well or the eye of a hurricane. The instructors taught gliding here, far enough over the turf that they had plenty of time to catch anypony who was having problems. When they were here, it was safe. When they weren’t, it was one of the few places around the camp where you could fall all the way down to the ground. Rumors were that one or two ponies went missing every year.
Cloudsdale was over the middle of nowhere today, just the automated farms between cities. I couldn’t tell if it was corn or wheat from this height. I stared down at it, trying to identify the crop.
“What’s wrong, Crash, you getting chicken?” Brick taunted. “Bwak bwak bwak!”
“That’s not even what chickens sound like, idiot,” I muttered. “They make a coo-coo sound.” I knew it because my mom had a wooden clock that had this little chicken that would pop out and sing every hour. She thought it was the best clock ever.
“I donno, I think we know what chickens sound like,” Dumbbell taunted. “They say things like ‘I’m Rainbow Crash’.”
“First one down to the ground, right?” I asked, putting on my goggles. “And when I beat you, you’ll admit I’m better?”
“You ain’t better, but we’ll say you’re faster,” Brick said.
“Faster is better.”
Dumbbell spread his wings and looked at Brick. “We go on three.”
“One,” Brick said. “Two--”
They took off. I should have seen it coming, but I was a kid and kinda stupid. I took off after them and I was already a second behind. When you’re flying down, you have gravity working with you. It’s your friend and makes everything faster and easier. You can bite right through wind shear because you can put your whole body into it.
The problem is, gravity is a clingy jerk and doesn’t know when to let go.
The real trick to the Triple-D is to accelerate as fast as you can and get ahead. If you’re in the lead, you can control things a little. You don’t have to worry about anypony’s wake and you can’t get sucked into their jet stream. It’s more work to fly solo like that, which is why most ponies in a race end up in a pack -- they’re flying faster than they could on their own because they’re drafting behind the ponies in the lead, but they can’t push ahead because they’re at their limit.
I hadn’t properly tied my goggles on, and they were ripped from my face. My eyes watered, the wind biting them. It was hard to see anything, but that feeling made it all more real. It was like I’d been just sleepwalking, and I snapped awake.
Instead of blocking everything out, I could really feel it, I was there, in that exact moment.
And then I felt this push. I had all the power in the world in my wings. I went faster and faster, and in just a few seconds I was pushing against the barrier, the air like a steel wall.
“When you get close to the speed of sound, the air can’t get out of your way fast enough,” Kicker explained. “Imagine trying to get through a crowd of ponies. If you’re walking, they can get out of the way, but if you’re going too fast they bump into each other and you have to shove them. If you’re going really fast, you have to be able to run them over. The fastest the air can move on its own is the speed of sound. Beyond that, things start to get weird.”
There’s no trick to getting past the barrier. You just have to have enough power to push through and be tough enough not to come apart. All the moisture in the air condensed in a cone, blurring my vision.
Everything exploded, and the barrier was gone. I was sailing smooth, faster than I’d ever gone before.
The ground reached up. I didn’t have time to stop. I put everything I had into a turn. Only inches from the ground, I snapped a ninety-degree roll and skimmed along so close to the cornfield below that I could have reached out and grabbed an ear.
Of course, I was in a race, so I had to bleed off speed and actually land. I flared my wings and they almost tore off as the barrier slammed into me. I just barely got it together and landed without breaking anything.
I turned back to look and saw the rainbow ring spreading across the sky.
A couple seconds later Brick and Dumbbell hit the ground a lot less gracefully.
“And that’s how I got my cutie mark,” I finished.
Dust shook her head. “The last time she told this story, I had somepony smarter than me run the numbers on the turn she said she did. The G-forces would have ripped her apart if she was telling the truth.”
“Hey, you weren’t there!”
Cloud Kicker. “Maybe if you did a Sonic Rainboom now, we’d believe you. I still think the rainbow ring was just from getting your cutie mark and you were going pretty fast, but nowhere near supersonic. Everything else is just…”
“Hype,” Dust concluded.
“Hype isn’t what beat you at Thunderhead,” I muttered.
“It wasn’t a Rainboom either,” Dust said.
I grunted. The truth was, I hadn’t been able to go that fast ever since I got my cutie mark. Not for lack of trying, either. I’d been training for years just trying to catch up to myself, and it was starting to suck. I didn’t want my finest hour to have been when I was a foal and nopony was around to see.
“Welcome one and all to Casa Crystal,” the announcer boomed. I flexed my wings, my breath visible in the chill of the Crystal City’s racetrack. “I’m Big Blue, and we’ve got a lot of great ponies out there tonight, and Princess Mi Amore Cadenza herself is gracing us here in the VIP booth.”
I glanced up, not because I cared about some Princess or whatever but because I could just make out a little orange filly waving frantically towards me. I saluted to let her know I’d seen her, and Scoots only redoubled her efforts, hopping up and down.
It made me smile. My agent really had come through for her. It felt nice to know being famous meant I could do something decent once in a while.
Casa Crystal was basically a brand new track. Relationships with the Empire were starting to thaw, and races were a great way to get tourists in and some easy free press. The track was along city streets, just like the Mustang Marathon track. The start of the race was right under the Crystal Palace. Markers were placed along the route.
A route which I realized I hadn’t actually studied. I probably shouldn’t have spent the night before the race in a sauna instead of learning the turns.
“At least I’m not the only one with nerves,” I muttered. Somepony I didn’t recognize was shivering in his little chrome hooves a few spots away.
“Princess Cadenza is ready to begin the race. All ponies on your marks!”
Up in the booth, she’d be holding a checkered flag. By the rules, that flag said when the race started, but none of us were watching it. My eyes, and everypony else’s, were fixed on the lights above the track.
The bell sounded, and we jumped into the air. The start of a race was always chaos. It was a sieve, dozens of ponies fighting for position. I was already at the front of the pack. I’ve heard a lot of bad racers complain about the way initial places are determined. It’s basically a meritocracy. If you’re good, you get a spot closer to the front. If you’ve been losing, you’re in back. It might sound like a rich-get-richer kinda thing but it keeps ponies safe. If the fastest ponies are in back, it makes things dangerous when they try to pass, like the trick the ponies at Rainbow Road used where they intentionally blocked the lane.
By trying to order ponies basically by skill, it meant things started basically in the same order they’d be in at the end of the race, all things being equal. The ponies around you are the ones you’re most likely to change places with -- the slow ponies are never gonna pass the fast flyers no matter how hard they flap, but they can pretty easily rise or fall a couple of places in the rankings.
Also, I deserved to be number one, because I’m number one.
The streets were packed with crystal ponies cheering for us. I didn’t even feel the cold air with them pushing me on to do my best. I even had a plan. I was gonna take it easy the first two laps, learn the course and just stay ahead of the pack, then the last lap I’d go all-out and finish in first place.
See how good my plan was? The last part was me winning. That meant it was flawless.
Tracks in cities all tended to be tough. Tight quarters, sharp turns, and hazards everywhere. Because of the height restriction, we couldn’t even go very far vertically without getting a time penalty. If you go off-track you didn’t hit a cloudbank or water, you hit walls. In this case, crystal walls. I didn’t know if that was better or worse than cinderblocks but I really didn’t wanna find out.
The first lap was behind an aircart, the ponies onboard waving flags. We took it nice and slow, and I tried to keep an eye on that nervous pony from before. Something about him had really gotten to me. Nervous meant he might do something unexpected and dumb.
We circled back around to the castle, the pace cart peeled off, and we hit the gas.
Glimmers of light from the crystal around the course made the rush disorienting, like flying through a cave lined with mirrors. Streets and ponies flashed by, and I felt the crush of the ponies behind me, the maze of turns letting them stay close.
We hit the main stretch going up to the castle, and I pulled ahead. You can feel a tension in a race like this, the ponies at the front dragging the rest along like we’re connected by giant elastic bands. It’s harder and harder to get a lead and they fight more to avoid being left behind. If you stop fighting for a second you snap back and then BAM you go from first place to fourth to ninth like a total square.
I heard some kinda commotion behind me. The crowd was reacting. I couldn’t spare the time to look. It screws up your aerodynamics and slows you down.
I guessed somepony had pulled ahead, and then I heard it.
Sound is funny at these speeds. You were almost outpacing it, and it had to struggle a lot to catch up. You’d hear something half a lap away from where it happened.
Like I said, I wasn’t looking back. I didn’t see it when it happened, but the video and pictures, those are burned into my mind. While I was racing ahead, just as we reached the Crystal Palace the pony I’d thought looked nervous activated some kind of jet or rocket engine or something. It was a total violation of the rules. Maybe he didn’t care as long as he crossed the finish line first.
We’ll probably never know for sure why he did it. I mean, like, yeah we know the general reason now, months later, even if it’ll never be public, but his personal reasons for doing what he did are a mystery.
That noise I heard was the motor firing up. The trail of smoke and fire caused a huge pileup behind me. I didn’t hear that until the idiot went past me like a fireworks display, shooting sparks everywhere.
He was totally out of control, and there was nothing I or anyone else could do to stop him as he crashed into the VIP box and everything erupted into flames.
Obviously, the race was called off. Princess Cadance was fine, but a dozen or so high-ranking members of the Imperial government were injured or killed. It dominated the news for weeks, and the previously thawing relationship with them froze solid.
One thing that wasn’t covered by any of the major news networks was the death of a foal who’d only been there because I’d put the ticket in her hooves.
I couldn’t race after that. I was grieving and hurting and dad always said you’re better off putting your whole heart into one thing instead of doing two things half-heartedly.
The worst part of not being able to have implants is that you have to wear these stupid glasses basically everywhere. If you want directions, traffic signals, whatever, you need to be connected to SolNet with an AR display. Without ‘em, I’d be half-blind compared to everypony else.
[You should get a scone!]
“What.” I’d been thinking about something, but my train of thought absolutely disintegrated when a bright pink face popped up in my display.
[A scone is like a biscuit except sweet instead of savory unless you have a savory scone which is like a biscuit.]
“I don’t…” I looked around. Somepony was pranking me. It was literally the only explanation. “Hey! Whatever kinda joke this is, it ain’t funny!”
[I’m not a joke I’m an ad! Mention me for 20% off and a free coffee at Sugarcubed corner!]
Free coffee sounded real good considering I hadn’t been in any races for months. I wasn’t exactly in trouble, but free anything was super tempting.
The second I thought that, directions popped up. If it really was a prank I was gonna kick somepony’s flank.
Arrows led me through the crowd to the bottom floor of one of the huge apartment blocks Canterlot was home to. It was a little run down and dirty looking, and I wasn’t really expecting much until I opened the door.
“Huh. This place is kinda nice,” I mumbled. It also looked empty, for all of half a second before a pony was in front of me with impossible speed, like she’d appeared out of nowhere. If I’d been wearing socks I’d have jumped right out of them but I don’t wear socks because they’re not aerodynamic.
“Hi! Welcome to Sugar Cubed Corner!” She looked just like the pink pony in the display.
“Where the buck did you come from?!”
“Behind the counter.”
“No you didn’t! You just… blinked!”
“Well technically I used the AR display in your glasses to overlay an image of myself closer to you than I was and edit out my real position, but now I’m guessing you don’t like surprises as much as I thought.”
“You did what now?” I took off the glasses. She was still there, so unless she’d figured out a way to hack my eyes I was pretty sure she was real.
“Aw, it doesn’t matter, it’s all boring stuff,” she said. “The important thing is that you seemed down in the dumps and I wanted to cheer you up!”
With the glasses off, the way she moved was a little jerky and off, that kinda stiff way ponies with a lot of augmentation moved. I slipped the glasses on for a second and the motion smoothed out. Weird.
“Whatever,” I sighed.
“What can I get for you?” She asked. “No, wait, let me guess! You waaaant… a scone and a coffee!”
“Sure, I guess.” I shrugged.
She coughed and leaned in, stage-whispering. “Don’t forget to mention the ad!”
“Oh!” She pretended to be surprised. “So you heard about our deal today with a discount on scones and a free coffee with your order!”
“Is this like, a weird retail thing? I never worked retail.”
“Mister Cake doesn’t like me giving out freebies but I can’t help it if ponies mention coupons,” she explained. “I’m Pinkie Pie, by the way. I know you didn’t ask but I wanted to tell you so we could be friends!”
“You’re a weird pony,” I said.
“Yeah!” She giggled and led me to a booth. “I’ll be right back with your order, Miss Rainbow Dash.”
Okay, now I was suspicious. “Woah, I never said who I was! How do you know my name?!”
“I’ve seen you on television,” Pinkie said. “You’re a racer. A really good one!”
I felt stupid now. Of course she saw me at the races. I was famous, after all. Sometimes even an awesome pony like me forgot how famous and great she really was. Probably it was mostly cause I didn’t feel very awesome right at that moment with all that stuff going wrong.
“I’m the best. Or I was. I’m sort of done I guess,” I said.
“Why?” She put a tray down on the table.
“Didn’t you see what happened at Casa Crystal?”
I took a bite out of the scone thing. It was good. Like, really good. I mostly ate cheap stuff and take-out and this was more like something home-baked by a pony who cared. It was nostalgic in a way that didn’t make sense since my mom was an awful cook. I got all my skill from her, which was why I ate so many microwave meals.
“There was a bad crash,” Pinkie said.
“Yeah. And a pony got killed and it was my fault.”
“You didn’t cause the crash.” She paused, eyes going blank for a moment. “Reports from all the major agencies agree that it was quote-unquote the act of a single pony working alone, and the result of an illegal rocket motor augmentation.”
“I didn’t cause the crash but I did put somepony in the stands that got killed. She shouldn’t have been there.”
“You didn’t mean for her to get hurt.”
“So? It’s still my fault.”
Pinkie paused again. It was weird. She totally froze up like a statue whenever she did that. Eventually, she came back to life. It couldn’t have been more than a second and a half but it was starting to creep me out.
“Would she have wanted you to quit?”
“...no. She was my biggest fan.”
“Then you shouldn’t quit yet.” Pinkie smiled. “Instead of quitting for her, give her a race to watch. She’d be happier that way. I know if she was your fan she wouldn’t want to make you sad.”
Like it was that easy.
Pinkie Pie was weird, but I left feeling a little better than I had been. Food and coffee did that for a pony, especially good food. I was gonna have to make sure I came back sometime.
Her advice about racing again was a little harder to stomach than a pastry. I could see where she was coming from, but it was like, could I really get my whole heart in it for this? What if I lost? If I ran a race for Scootaloo’s memory and I didn’t win, what did that mean?
There were probably all sorts of depressing philosophical things I could have thought about and totally would have except my AR cut out and my map and directions vanished.
“Bucking glasses…” I touched down in the street and tapped them, trying to get them to reboot and connect to the network.
“Don’t enter the Mustang Marathon,” growled a deep, synthetic voice from right behind me. “And don’t--”
I turned around.
“I was going to say don’t turn around.” The voice as so synthesized it was impossible to tell if it was a stallion or mare. The body wasn’t much better. I'd never seen so much chrome bolted to one pony. Actually I couldn’t even see any pony, just steel.
It looked more like a bat than a pegasus, an X-shaped visor where its eyes should be. It was all navy blue and charcoal grey with only a few touches of silver to break up the dark colors. It didn’t have a cutie mark, which brought up all sorts of other questions. Was it a pony, or just a machine?
“Who the buck are you?”
“Just call me Racer X,” it said.
“Never heard of you.”
“You wouldn’t have. You dropped out of the league.”
“Yeah well, I don’t like ponies telling me what to do!” I stepped towards him. Her? Racer X could have been either. Probably not both. “Who do you think you are, coming here and telling me what races I can and can’t be in? I could join the Mustang Marathon any time I wanted!”
“You’ll just get hurt. And lose.” Racer X spread its wings, huge dragon-like wings with steel spars. “Don’t try to follow me.”
It took off.
Obviously the smart thing would have been to let it go. But it had challenged me, sort of. It had definitely insulted me. And that was basically a challenge, right? If somepony insults you it means they think they’re better and the only way to prove them wrong is to beat them at the thing they think they’re good at and my point is that I was thinking clearly when I followed it into the air and into traffic.
Racer X did a barrel roll, just missing an aircart, and I sped up to follow, stretching muscles I hadn’t used since Casa Crystal.
You’d think it was dangerous flying through traffic, but when you were an expert racer the aircarts looked like they were practically standing still. The ones going the same way you were, anyway. The problem was we were flying into oncoming traffic so this was like, practically suicide if you didn’t have reflexes as fast as lightning.
Well I got news for you. I have a lightning bolt on my butt and my reflexes are even faster.
I was right behind Racer X, and her (his?) fat flank was blocking my view, so when she did a sharp turn and I was looking at the headlights of a garbage scow I had to scramble and really knock some rust off my skills before I knocked rust off their bumper with my teeth.
“You can’t lose me that easily!” I yelled.
“Should I start trying?” Racer X asked. “Nothing’s as good as friendly competition, right?”
Something about that phrase hit me. The last time I’d said that was…
“Hey, what’s your real name!” I demanded.
“Catch me and I’ll tell you,” it said. And then it really turned on the speed. It really had only been playing before. It pulled up, and I followed it almost straight up. The air grew colder and thinner.
“You aren’t gonna lose me,” I swore.
It didn’t respond. Maybe my voice wasn’t carrying. My AR glasses were still messed up. I couldn’t tell how high or fast we were going.
Racer X rolled and banked out of the climb, using the roll to change its direction. I matched it pretty easily. It was bigger than me, but I was way more maneuverable and definitely faster, even if it was making me work hard to try and prove it.
We dove back towards the city, and I was hot on its hooves, so close I could almost reach out and touch the steel ribbon of her tail.
“Looks like I’m done playing for today,” Racer X said. “I have a meeting I have to get to.”
“I’m not done!” I pushed harder, nearly alongside it now.
“I know. I wish we could finish this.” Racer X’s wings swept back, and we entered the canyon-like streets between the buildings of the city’s main avenue. “It’s been fun.”
Smoke poured from her body and for a second I thought she was in trouble but then I realized she was deliberately making a smokescreen.
“Wait!” I yelled. “You gotta tell me if you’re Scootaloo or not!”
I charged through the smoke and out the other side, holding nothing.
Racer X was gone. My AR glasses rebooted on their own, and the map and directions reappeared in the corner of my eye.
But I had a good idea of where she was gonna be.
Things didn’t go smoothly when I showed up at the race track. I assumed I could just walk in like I owned the place since I practically did in a metaphorical way. Instead, some jerk who thought being a race official meant he could tell me what to do stopped me at the gate.
“Ma’am, please calm down.”
I was already extremely calm. I wasn’t sure why he couldn’t see that, so I yelled louder to make him understand. “Do you know who I am?!”
“I know for a fact that the win at Thunderhead got me an invite to the Marathon!”
“You can’t just show up on the day of the race with no warning and expect to be let in!”
“Uh, yeah I can,” I snorted. “Go get your boss.”
“You know what Ma’am, I’d love to do that. I’ll go get him, and you can argue your case with him, okay?”
I nodded and waited patiently for about thirty seconds, then I waited impatiently for another five minutes before somepony I actually knew decided to show up.
“Rainbow Dash, it’s been a while.” Wind Rider offered a hoof to shake. “I thought you were retired.”
“I was just on a break. I had to get my head together.”
“I’d love to have you on the track today, but you have to understand there are some problems. You wanna walk and talk?” He tilted his head and I followed him inside.
“What problems?” I asked.
“The main one is that the starting positions were set a week ago,” he explained. “Because you missed a few races and we couldn’t confirm you were attending, there’s no open slot for you.”
“I know there are always a couple dropouts.”
“There are, but everypony else got moved up to fill the empty spots in the formation.”
“So there’s room at the back.”
“Technically, yes. We could slot you in at the back. But you know the safety issues better than anypony else. Having to pass that many ponies is dangerous to them and you.”
I snorted. “Hey, that’s part of the race”
“I’m not going to deny that the fans like it.” Wind Rider stopped outside of the locker room. “Why are you really doing this, Dash? If you just want to get back in the game, there are other races, and you’d have the time to do things properly. You could get into the Monte Fuller next month, great prizes, you’d be in a good seed, and it’s just as famous as the Mustang Marathon.”
“I know. But this is personal.”
“Personal, huh?” He smiled a little.
“Somepony told me not to race here. I was in a bad place and that was a big wake up call. Ponies can’t push me around like that. I’m gonna prove them wrong.”
“Let me guess, you don’t care if you win, you just want to show them you can race any time you want.”
“Nah. I’m totally gonna win. I’m gonna shove my trophy in Racer X’s face and make her tell me who she really is.”
“So it’s a her?” Wind Rider looked into the locker room. “X is kind of a scary pony. Came out of nowhere with the most tricked-out body I’ve ever seen. You don’t have any augments, Dash. I’m not sure you can beat it. Or her, I guess.”
“Skill is more important than hardware.”
“...Okay.” Wind Rider said. “I’ll let you race.” He patted my shoulder. “You had a good answer about wanting to win. If you’d said you didn’t care about how you were doing I’d have kicked you to the curb. You still have at least a little spirit.”
“Go get your gear and get to the back of the line. And try not to harass any of my other employees, okay? They’ve got enough stress with the rumors.”
“It’s nothing important. Just the usual threats. We have security stepped up just in case. Don’t worry about it. Worry about how you’re going to pass a few dozen ponies. Otherwise you’re never even gonna see Racer X, much less beat her.”
He was right. I had to focus on just one thing. That was where a pony like me had an advantage. I didn’t grow up distracted by texts and AR cartoons and stuff. I knew how to focus on just one thing at a time.
What I was focused on now were the numbers next to my hooves. My AR glasses were showing a small box with the number forty-seven orbiting around the sides. I was so far back in the pack it’d practically be easier to get to the starting line by flying backwards.
The worst part was the company.
“...so even though I was in last place, the pony in the lead crashed, and the others were so close they couldn’t get away and ended up tripping all over each other,” my neighbor said. I’d been trying to block her out and it wasn’t working. I’d learned her name, her favorite food, and now I was hearing about her most exciting race.
“Uh-huh,” I said, trying hard not to listen.
“I was trailing pretty far behind so I was able to go around! That’s how I got a gold medal at the Flower Cup!”
“Yep. Hey, look, I’m gonna pass you basically as soon as the starting light turns green so don’t take this the wrong way cause it’s been fun--” that was technically a lie “--but I hope we don’t see each other again until the end of this thing.”
“Once it’s over, maybe we could get a drink? I know my kids would love to hear that I met a famous racer like you, Miss Dash!”
I shrugged. ”Sure.”
She did a little dance and quieted down, which was enough of a relief that I almost relaxed too much. Then I caught a glimpse of black steel from way up front, with forty-five ponies between me and her.
Racer X. And maybe Scootaloo.
I had to keep myself on a razor edge if I was gonna beat her. What I’d seen in our little chase through the streets put her firmly in the ranks of the best ponies I’d ever flown with. It would have been tough if I’d been starting out right next to her. With an obstacle course of ponies between us, she was gonna get a huge lead before I could start really chasing after her.
A buzzer sounded, and lights blared down around us.
I got into position.
The red light hung like the eye of an angry goddess before blinking out.
Yellow replaced it and sat teasingly, every muscle in my body tensing as it stayed for too long, every moment stretched to eternity.
Everything in front of me erupted into motion.
Everypony except me fought for altitude. The wisdom was, altitude was advantage. If you were near the top of the track’s height limit, you had better visibility for yourself and to the crowd, and you could get through a tight spot much more easily if you were diving and working with gravity than if you had it as an opponent.
I shot through the pack, so low my chest almost scraped the street. These were asphalt roads, not a cloud course forgiving of mistakes. A crash here, at this speed, at zero altitude, meant I’d need skin grafts.
So you know, the best thing would be to not crash.
I didn’t even try to count the hooves inches from my ears. It was like flying under a landslide, trying to outpace an avalanche of pegasi.
The sky opened up over me, and I pulled up just before the turn, banking and practically climbing up the safety wall, kicking off of the corner for just that extra tiny burst of speed.
Tenth place. I’d passed dozens of ponies already.
“Get out of my way!” I roared. The pony ahead of me looked back with surprise, obviously not expecting me to already be on her tail.
Looking back was a mistake. She could have moved to block me, but instead she hesitated. I bumped her as I passed, not quite knocking her off the course -- I didn’t want to hurt anypony, just slow her down. Her wings caught the air wrong and she was forced to fight to regain control, yelling something at me.
I didn’t stick around to listen.
Something popped up in my glasses. An update notification. I tried to dismiss it, and a bunch of windows filled my field of vision. I swore and tried to ignore them. The pony ahead of me, who in my mind had a big number 8 painted on her flank, smacked the side of her head. At least she was having the same problems I was.
She slowed down for a second. Just a second, while something inside her rebooted in the middle of the race. The display in my glasses flickered. I jetted ahead, sliding past her while she floundered.
In most races, there tends to be a knot near the front and then a gap before the big ball of losers that finish last. You get a pony in the lead and others drafting off of them closely, using their jetstream to conserve energy and get ready to push past them.
I could see Racer X from here, so I was close enough to catch it when her flanks popped open and smoke poured out just before a series of turns. The two ponies drafting off of her -- I recognized Lightning Dust a moment before she vanished in the thick smog -- got caught up in it, something in the cloud reacting with their magic, like they’d flown into a ball of cotton.
The rest of us were far away enough not to get caught in it, going up and over, alerts popping up that we were on the very edge of the course.
“What the buck was that?!” Yelled the pony just ahead of me.
“She’s not playing fair,” I shouted over the wind.
“She’s gonna get disqualified!”
“I don’t think she really cares!”
Racer X spun in midair, flipping onto her back, keeping up that incredible pace even while doing a backstroke. The crowd started to panic. I thought they were getting worked up because she was cheating but the ponies around the next turn looked terrified.
Something black moved in the corner of my eye, like a shadow.
I had to fight not to look. The pony I was trying to pass lost that fight and turned her head a little. She swerved in blind panic, right into me. If I’d been distracted too, we would have gone into the stands. I caught her, and she kicked at me, screaming.
“What the buck is your problem?!”
Right in front of my eyes she transformed into something horrible, a black shape full of fangs and slime like one of those deep-sea fish that’s just basically a monster.
I tried to push her away, every instinct in my body screaming for me to start kicking and never stop.
Her hoof hit my face, and my glasses went askew.
The monster vanished, and there was just a scared pony.
“Get away from me!” She squealed. I let her go, and she bolted.
Racer X had slowed, not that there was competition anymore. All the ponies between us were scattering, running from monsters just inside their own heads. Tartarus, there wasn’t even a race now.
“What the buck did you do?” I screamed, charging at her. I couldn’t save the thousands of ponies in the stands one at a time, but if I could stop it at the source, maybe I could keep it from getting worse.
“I wanted to race with you, Dash,” she said.
“So it is you!”
“I don’t blame you for the accident. It wasn’t your fault. This is what I always wanted, Dash. It’s just like you said, I can be a racer just like you!”
“Who did this to you?” She was putting the speed back on. I was keeping pace but with a body like that, I wasn’t sure how close she was to her limit. It was like trying to read the body language of an aircart.
“There’s not a lot of time to explain, Dash,” Scootaloo said. “So just listen and try to keep up!” She stopped mocking me with her backstroke and used the next turn to bank and flip back over.
I had to cut the corner close, edging out over the crowd as I fought to keep up. It would have been a penalty if the refs weren’t busy with imaginary monsters. Lucky for me but I felt a little bad about it. It was the kinda thing I’d have yelled at another racer for.
“They said you died!” I was practically on top of her, and she moved away, denying me the opportunity to draft on her jetstream. I was gonna have to actually work to keep up.
“I’m living my dream!. Isn’t that all anypony ever wants? This is the best thing that ever happened to me!”
“How much of you is even left in there? You don’t even have a cutie mark!”
“I didn’t have one before. What does it matter?” She did a loop around me. Her speed was obscene. I’m not saying I was jealous, but I wasn’t on the top of my game and she definitely was.
“Scootaloo, stop playing around! This is more important than a race!”
“Nothing is more important to me than this race. Nothing could ever be more important.”
“There is no race! Look at what’s going on!”
“There’s just you and me, Dash. Your number one fan. It’s perfect!” For a moment she sounded just like she had back when I’d first met her. No distorting buzz or menacing growl. Not trying to be cool, just being herself.
I started to slow, keeping pace instead of pushing myself. Racer X’s pace slowed as she unconsciously matched my speed. I started to actually catch my breath again.
Until she noticed what I was doing.
“Don’t you dare!” Her voice flared, the synthesized tone blaring static. “You want motivation, Dash? If you don’t move your slow flank and beat me across the finish line, I’ll do what She ordered and--”
We flew a few hundred feet in silence, which was about two heartbeats. “Is this ‘what’ like you’re shocked, or ‘what’ like you don’t understand?”
“Who cares about any of that junk?!” I yelled. “You really think you can beat me just because you’re in a fancy fake body?!"
“Yeah, I do!” The edges of her wings started glowing, and she rocketed ahead. I had no idea how she was so feathering fast. I’d raced plenty of chromed-up ponies. It wasn’t as much of an advantage as you’d think. Physical strength was less important than technique and wingpower, and once you got to the point you had enough chrome your cutie mark was fading, your wingpower dropped off a cliff because your pegasus magic was getting messed up.
With no cutie mark at all she shouldn’t have even been able to fly, much less fly that well.
I sprinted after her, using everything I had, even though there was almost half the track to go. It was stupid. I should have been saving it for the end of the race. You were always supposed to hold back just a little, keep yourself from hitting that wall, until the final dash for the finish line. You could only go hard for so long, then you’d run out of steam and you’d collapse. Do that in the middle of the race and you never finished. Do it at the end, and you fall over after the checkered flag, and everything was golden.
The wall loomed, my breath getting shorter as I kept up with her through the last few turns of the course, to the final straightaway.
My wings burned. My chest burned.
I wasn’t gonna let her win. There was her mission or whatever but what mattered was that she was a dumb kid who was doing all this stuff to try and prove she was better than me.
We were neck and neck. The wind roared around us, drowning out the stampede in the stands. In the distance, the finish line sat on the horizon, too close and too far at the same time.
Turbulence shattered my concentration. Mist trailed from my hooves. The air in front of me was like trying to fly through bricks. I’d felt it before, years ago, when I’d been a filly.
From the corner of my eye I saw Scootaloo struggling with the same thing. No matter how fancy her body was, she was stuck at the same place I was, just on this side of the speed of sound.
Unlike her, I’d been on the other side of the sound barrier.
Instinct screamed at me to stop. It felt like flying into a hurricane, like the whole world was in front of me and telling me I couldn’t do it. My heart was beating so fast and hard it was the roar of an engine.
I closed my eyes and blocked out the world. I’d never been able to do what I needed to do since I was a filly, before I’d learned the limits of my body. All the times I’d ever told the story about that first Sonic Rainboom, I hadn’t told them about what happened afterwards. A week in the hospital, months of physical therapy.
As an athlete you drilled it into yourself not to overextend. You learned the safe way to fall, the safe way to crash, the safe way to take turns.
That was why amateurs sometimes came out of nowhere to win from behind - they didn’t do things the safe way. If you took turns like you didn’t care about crashing, holding nothing back, you could beat ponies who were playing it safe.
I tucked my wings tight against my body like a filly diving a mile towards the ground did years ago, turning myself into a compact, lean bullet. No control, no real lift, just speed.
The barrier shattered, and I opened my eyes just in time to see the finish line flash past.
I spread my wings, trying to slow down, and they were nearly yanked from their sockets. I banked and fought for control and managed to get my speed down to something survivable by the time I hit the ground and rolled to a sudden stop against the water barrels being used as a barrier between the course and the crowd.
From where I was lying on the ground, I could just see fading rainbow rings rippling through the air.
“You beat me,” Scootaloo said, awe filling her synthesized voice.
“Of course I did.” I got up. It wasn’t as easy as it sounds. I was numb where I wasn’t sore, my lungs burned, and my hooves were shaking under me. My heart was still going a million miles a minute. I poked Scootaloo’s metal chest. “Don’t you-- don’t you bucking forget it.”
I felt like I was gonna black out any second.
“You did a sonic rainboom! That was amazing!” Scootaloo started prancing like an excited filly. Which I guess she was, but it looked weird since she was bigger than I was and looked like a pony crossed with a bag full of bats and knives.
“Yeah, it was pretty amazing, wasn’t it?” I smiled.
“It was worth it,” Scootaloo whispered. “It was worth everything.”
“Now you’re gonna…” I stumbled, one of my forehooves going numb and landing my dumb flank on the ground.
I tried to tell her I was fine, but I couldn’t catch my breath. Everything started to go black around the edges, and the last thing I felt before I passed out was the hot asphalt under me.
I woke up and groaned. I was sore, I was still tired, and the alarm was going off. I rolled over and tried to find it with my eyes closed, flailing with a hoof in the general direction of my bedside table.
“Five more minutes,” I demanded into the paper-covered pillow.
“Bow, she’s awake!”
Hooves grabbed my shoulders and shook.
“Bwah?” I recognized that voice. “Mom?”
I started to actually wake up. I wasn’t in my room. My mom and dad were looking down at me with one of the only two expressions they ever had. The usual one was pride, but today they’d decided on worry.
“Oh honey we came right away after we heard about what happened!”
Mom pulled me into a hug, and I looked over her shoulder at where I was.
“Why am I in the hospital?” I asked. “The last thing I remember, I passed out after I beat Scootaloo--” I gasped. “Where is she?”
“Honey, calm down!” Mom and Dad pushed me back down into the bed. If I didn’t feel so awful I would have fought back more, but it was easier just to let them have their way.
“I’ll calm down once I know what happened. Where’s Scootaloo? What happened with ponies seeing things?”
“I don’t know who Scootaloo is,” Dad said. “But the blackout is over, and everything’s okay. You’re okay. Whatever you saw, it wasn’t real--”
“I know it wasn’t real, Dad. It was just a trick in my glasses, so I turned them off.”
“What wasn’t a trick was you hurting yourself,” Mom said. “You need to calm down and rest for a few days. The doctors say you had… you had…” she sniffled and looked away.
“A heart attack, Dash,” Dad finished for her. “Whatever you did, you pushed yourself too hard. I don’t know the medical terms for everything--” which was fine, because I didn’t know them either “--but they say you can’t do heavy exercise for a while.”
“Great,” I mumbled.
“It’ll be fine, Dash,” Mom assured me. “You can always come back home with your father and me and we’ll put you up and take care of you. We’ll wait on you hoof and fetlock until you’re back on top of things.”
Dad nodded. “Anything for the best daughter in the world.”
“Thanks, guys,” I said weakly. I probably didn’t have the luxury of refusing. “I just need to figure out what happened to Scootaloo first. Or, uh, Racer X. Whatever she’s calling herself.”
Mom and Dad looked at each other. Mom was the first to ask. “Racer X?”
“It turns out she was a fan of mine and-- you know what, it’s a long story and I don’t even know the middle part of it. That’s why I gotta find her. Something bad happened to her. It’s my fault.”
“If she’s really your fan, she’d want you to get better,” Mom said. “How about I put a post on SolNet for you about how you’re recovering? Then you can wait for her instead of trying to find her yourself!”
“You know I hate waiting,” I mumbled.
“And I hate seeing my daughter in a hospital bed,” Mom countered. “Just do this one thing for me, please?”
I closed my eyes. “Just… put her name on it. Make sure she knows she can come and see me, okay?”
“I will,” Mom promised.
I felt her and Dad tucking me in, and started to drift off again. Maybe when I woke up, Scootaloo would be there to explain just what had happened. And I’d be able to apologize again, for everything I’d done wrong.