In the three-hundred-and-eightieth year of the glorious reign of Our Lady Celestia as Ruler of Day and Night, Potential Number Fifty-Three was working weather duty when she was told her mother was dying.
She quickly excused herself from the team, and took off. Her mother’s home was in Hoofington, a good many leagues away, so she put on extra speed as she rose up through the clouds and steered toward her mother’s side.
She tucked her legs in tight against her body, wings buzzing with speed. She was easily the fastest pegasus on her crew, and well she knew it. Ponies had told her that she could go in for racing, actually, but she was never the competitive sort. Besides, touring around on the racing circuit didn’t really appeal to her. She spent too much time away from her mother as it was.
The thought of her mother made her heart leap in panic, and she poured on an extra bit of speed. She was going faster than ever now, driven by panic and fear at thought of being too late: a corona of light surrounded her; she felt herself pushing, as if against some unseen barrier. All she had to do was go a little bit faster...
She was never sure what happened after that. There had been something, and then she had lost control. She tumbled end over end, unable to recover or even right herself as she whipped through the sky, screaming in raw panic. If those flyers from the Equestrian Air Patrol hadn’t been out on maneuvers in that part of the sky, there’s no telling what might have happened. As it was, she was several minutes on the ground recovering before she felt ready to go again.
When she landed at her mother’s house--surely too late--she was met at the door by her surprised mother who was fine, thank you, and had no idea who could have sent such a message. Later enquiries proved fruitless; they never did find out where or who the message came from.
As the years went by, she shone in her weather-work and became crew chief and later, district manager. Sometimes she thought about that day, and wondered why somepony would play such a cruel joke, but as the days went by and her schedule became more full, she did so less and less.
And the hunt went on.
Captain Skyhoof tilted his head as Lieutenant Bravecoat whispered urgently in his ear. He grunted, and turned to her. “Are they sure?”
The young Lieutenant nodded. “Quite, sir. They said right after school. That gives us about three hours.”
The captain looked over his cluttered desk. All the dossiers were there, laid out in a mosaic of facts and photos. He glanced up at the wall map, littered with hooftacks. He eyed several of them critically. “It seems we are mostly ready. The others?”
“Shouldn’t be trouble, sir. I’ve had our specialists on standby. Shall I have them go ahead and begin prep?”
“Yes, go ahead. I want to see everyone downstairs in the monitoring room in half an hour, all right?”
“Very good. Dismissed.”
After she departed, he ran a hoof over the pile of papers on his desk. Three hours? Well, it was certainly doable. He shuffled them into some sort of order, took them carefully in his mouth. He’d best get down to the monitoring room now, start getting everything ready. Bravecoat would take care of the rest, no doubt. It was good that he could rely on her.
Before he left, he took one last look at the map. It was a million-to-one shot, but that made it all the more important, really.
He pulled the door closed behind him as he left.
In the six-hundred-forty-third year of the reign of Celestia, Princess of Day and Night, Potential Number Two-Six-Two was playing with her friends after school when a strange sensation washed over her. She felt herself drawn away: past the playfield, through the cherry orchards and into the Greenleaf Woods. She didn’t generally go into the woods, and certainly not alone, but today she nearly galloped, heading ever deeper into the forest.
In the back of her mind, some small part of her screamed. What was she doing, heading into the woods like this? Where was she going, and what was driving her there? It pulled her like a magnet, like gravity itself. Some part of her, hidden to herself, knew exactly where it was going. All she could do was trust in that hidden part of her, follow as it led her ever deeper into the woods. There was someplace she had to be, something that had to happen. And then, suddenly, she was there.
The woods opened into a glade, a treeless area just large enough to open up to the sky. Here there were golden beams filtering through the branches, bathing the flowers in golden light.
The flowers--oh, dear Celestia, the flowers! Red and blue and yellow and purple and every color of the rainbow, all mixed together, carpeting the entire clearing. She stood, entranced, gazing at the cacophony of color all around her. This was what had drawn her into the woods. Somehow she had to be here, right now, surrounded by light and beauty and these magnificent growing things. But why?
She sat in a comfortable patch of clover, and looked up at the sky. She could feel... something. Anticipation in the air. Something was about to happen, and she needed to be here when it did. Very well. She settled in, and waited.
After several minutes, she began to second-guess herself. There didn’t seem to be anything happening, really. The woods were quiet, but no more than usual. She stretched herself a bit, rolling onto her back and staring up at the sky. Eventually, a pegasus pony flew overhead. They seemed to be going very fast. She watched them with mild interest until they disappeared behind the trees.
After that, she began to feel restless. Whatever it was that had drawn her here was fading fast. She was alone in the middle of the woods, and the sun would be down soon. She shuffled up to her hooves, and wound her way back through the forest towards home.
She often visited the clearing after that, and eventually became a florist, growing and cultivating her own varieties. She never told anyone about that day, and with time barely thought about it herself. Still, things did seem to have worked out in the end.
And the hunt went on.
In the monitoring room, things were getting busy. The room was large and circular, with consoles in concentric rings around the central sphere. Captain Skyhoof watched as the last few specialists filed in and took their seats. One by one, they conjured up individual scrying spheres and calibrated them, locating their assigned subjects. In the middle of the room, six robed unicorns--the elite of the corps--sat around the central plinth, their horns aglow. Their magic entwined in the middle, danced a latticework around a giant sphere, and resolved as a picture of all Equestria. It was very powerful magic, and very useful. Inside the sphere, if you cared to look, you could see every pony, every blade of grass in the kingdom.
He glanced around at the other unicorns, each one focusing on different parts of the world, and saw that it was good. Everything was coming together admirably well. Bravecoat was young for a junior officer, but she was a born organizer; there was no question about that. He allowed himself a little smile, and trotted down to the floor chief. “How are we looking?”
The floor chief looked out over the room. “Got nearly everyone in, couple people not here yet, but they’re en route, so we should have them well in time. Our monitoring stations are all online, and our field people are all in place.”
“Excellent. How are we for time?”
“Assuming they meet right after school, that gives us just over half an hour I think. Possibly a little more.” She floated her pencil from behind her ear, and noted down some readings from the sphere in front of her. “Sir?”
“Do you think we’re going to succeed this time?”
The captain didn’t answer right away. He just gazed into the sphere on the console before him. There was a classroom there, and sitting in the back was a blue pegasus with a rainbow mane and an expression of almost terminal boredom. She fidgeted in her seat, and kept stealing glances out the window.
“Well,” he said, “I’d say we have the best chance we’ve had in a very long time. If it doesn’t happen now, it won’t be because we weren’t prepared.” He watched the filly for another moment or two. She squirmed in her seat, unable to sit still for a whole minute. He’d read the dossier all the way through several times by now, of course. He practically knew it by heart. Surely, this time...
“Anyway. You have everything under control here?”
“All right, then. I’m going to go ahead up to the palace. If something comes up get hold of me, right? I should be back before time.”
“Yes, sir. Understood.”
Two days previously, the principal of Cloudsdale’s premier flying school was wading through budget proposals for the oncoming year when there was a tentative knock at the door.
He sighed, and put the papers aside. “Enter.”
A young colt pushed open the door, and stepped in. He shook his head, pushing some of his mane out of his eyes. “You wanted to see me, Principal Twister?”
“Ah, yes. Hoops. Yes, there were a couple of things.” He shuffled through his inbox until he found the slip of paper he was looking for. “First off, it seems you were tardy again today. Care to explain?”
The young colt shuffled his hooves. “Sorry sir, uhm, kinda was late gettin’ up and stuff. And then I had to go back home cos I forgot my books and old man Stormchaser said he’d give me detention if I showed up without ‘em again.”
“I see.” The principal made a note on the paper. “Well, don’t let it happen again. I expect you to get up on time, and have your school supplies with you and ready from now on, do you understand?”
“Good.” He put the paper away. “Now, as to the other thing... what do you have to report?”
“What? Oh!” He rubbed his snout thoughtfully. “OK, well, she’s been flyin’ circles around everyone else, uhm, like I said before. And some of us have been doing races and stuff. Just little ones, you know? Like, after school? Anyway, I don’t know why you care so much about her. I mean, sure she’s fast, but I could totally be that fast if I wanted to.”
“Anything new? How is she doing with that other student?”
“What, the yellow one? Oh, she’s hopeless! Can’t hardly get off the ground.” He snickered. “This one time, we saw her trying to get through the juniors’ course, and she barely made it through the first hoop, then got turned around and went back through it the other way!” He flopped back on his haunches, and snorted. “Strictly glue factory, man. I nearly died laughing.”
“And what does Dash think about her?”
“Huh? Oh yeah. Well, actually, she kinda looks out for her, you know? Beats me why she’d bother with a no-hoper like that. Some of ‘em say she’s a filly-fooler, but I--”
“I think we can do without that language, Hoops. Or that flippant attitude.”
“Anyway, I have new instructions for you. Sit down, and pay attention.”
"Captain? How good to see you. You have news?”
"We have just received word that Potential 374 has taken the bait. They will begin the race in just a few minutes."
"Wonderful. And your team, Captain, are they in readiness?"
"Indeed, Your Highness. They are quite optimistic. They seem to feel that, if properly motivated, there is a greater than seventy percent chance that this subject can break the sono-chromatic barrier."
"Really? As I recall, no previous subject has shown a potential above forty percent."
“Correct as always, Your Highness. But we have been monitoring this one for quite some time, and there is... excellent potential.”
“And tell me, Captain: is she, in your opinion, properly motivated?”
(Hoops listened in puzzlement as Principal Twister explained. “So, I just have to race her? Is that it? But we race all the time.”
“Yes, but those are just ordinary races. This time there needs to be... incentive. Just follow your instructions to the letter. Taunt the Fluttershy girl to provoke Dash into a race, and when you see the light flash at the top of the school bell tower, knock her out of your way. I know you are capable of that, yes?”
“Well, yeah, but... why just that? I could totally knock her out of the sky, if you wanted! I mean, she’s fast, but--”
“You will do no such thing, colt. Your instructions are to provoke her, and nothing more. Do you understand?”
“Yeah, I guess.” The young colt sagged; he scraped his hoof along the hardwood floor. “I just don’t get what all this stuff is about. I mean, the spy stuff is kinda cool, but it don’t make no sense.”
Principal Twister sighed. “Look, Hoops. All you need to know is this: the instructions I’m giving you come straight from Canterlot. Frankly, I don’t know what it’s all about either, and I don’t think I much care to know. You’re being given an important job here, and your ability to pull it off will probably have a very large and direct bearing on your future.”
“Besides: let me remind you that, considering your academic record, this little ‘extracurricular activity’ is the only thing that’s keeping you on the airball team this year, or did you forget that?”
“Good. Now, off you go. You will come and see me again when the race is arranged.”
The door shut behind the young colt. Principal Twister sat a moment in thought, then unlocked the bottom drawer of his desk. He pulled out a large parchment, and unrolled it. He read the message again, noted glumly the royal seal at the end. He didn’t need this at his time of life. He ran a flying school, for pony’s sake. But somebody at the Palace had developed an interest in one of his students and suddenly there was all this cloak-and-dagger nonsense. Well, with any luck it would be over soon.
He put the scroll away and went back to work.)
“...believe so, Your Majesty, yes. We have analyzed her personality traits, and were able to devise a scheme that should be very effective, particularly since it plays against her pride, her sense of competition, her loyalty, and not incidentally Potential 383. We believe this will create a ‘perfect storm’ of sorts, and will give us the best chance of success.”
“And the other potentials?”
“All in place, Your Majesty. Arrangements have been made.”
“Well done, Captain. I can see you’ve really put your best hoof forward on this one.”
“Yes, Your Highness. Er... Your Highness?”
“I... well, I’d never question your judgement, and I know that what you wish must be for the best of Equestria, but nonetheless, I must--“
“Well, I feel a bit uncomfortable with the whole business. Keeping an eye out for Potentials, yes, certainly. And of course, if the ancient scrolls are to be believed, the potential of the Sonic Rainboom is of limitless value.”
“But... well... they’re just foals, Your Highness. I’ve got two of my own about their ages. I’m sure you have your reasons and everything, but... well, I think it would help me to understand better if I knew why we have to, I don’t know, sneak around? It doesn’t sit well, Your Highness. I’m sorry.”
“Not at all, Captain. You are an honorable pony; your concern does you credit. But yes, I think you deserve to know the truth. Tell me, Captain: do you know the old story of the Mare on the Moon?”
“What? Yes, of course, Your Highness, but surely that’s just an old story about how your... ah.”
“Do you recall the end of the tale? At the end of a thousand years, the stars shall align and free her from her prison to return to our world and claim it for her own.”
“I believe I remember something along those lines, yes.”
“The time is coming soon when the stars will be right. At that time, I will be powerless to stop my sister. But if today’s little experiment is successful, Captain, we may yet have hope. We have spent hundreds of years searching for Potentials, trying to unlock the secrets of the Sonic Rainboom. And now, when time is coming to a crisis point, we suddenly find the most promising group to date. Do you not find this intriguing?”
“Indeed, Your Highness. I think I understand, yes.”
“Very good. Never underestimate, Captain, the power of many united as one. I think that may be the greatest defense we have against the oncoming darkness.”
“Just as you say, Your Highness.”
“On that note, you said the other Potentials were in place; would that include number 379?”
“The prodigy? Oh, yes, madam. I took the liberty of scheduling her entrance examination at the Academy for today. She should be beginning any moment now, in fact.”
“Well done. I think I may just head over there. I have a suspicion I may need to intervene. In any case, it seems you have the situation well in hoof. Tell your scientists to record everything that happens, absolutely everything. I shall want a full report. And Captain?”
“Yes, Your Highness?”
“Those foals of yours. If we succeed today, then they will have their best chance to grow up in a world without eternal darkness, a world where two sisters rule the sky once again. We all have a stake in this, Captain. The time has nearly come for damnation or redemption, and our actions in the next few minutes may decide the turning of the world.”
“I understand, Your Highness. We will do our best.”
“I would ask nothing more or less. Now, then: just give me a few minutes to get to the Academy, then give the signal. And best of luck to us all.”
When Captain Skyhoof returned to the monitoring room, Lieutenant Bravecoat was in animated discussion with two mages. “--time for subtlety, and this isn’t it. If you have to drag her there, then so--”
“Something wrong, Lieutenant?”
The younger pony spun around, and snapped off a brisk salute. “No, sir! Just getting the last details taken care of.” She nodded to the other two, who quickly departed.
“Very well. Are we on track?” He looked around the room. By now, the place was packed. Every console was occupied; there were crystals as far as the eye could see. From his vantage point, he could see nearly all of them. In the center, the Big Ball (as the junior officers persisted on calling it) had been focused on the school. It looked like school was just getting out. It wouldn’t be long now.
“Yes, sir. I’ve got everybody locked in and ready. We are recording at all stations, and our field people report they are in readiness.”
“And that last detail?”
Bravecoat glanced across the room. The two mages were standlng facing a crystal which pulsed with light in indescribable colors. If she squinted at the crystal, she could just convince herself she saw a small white figure, travelling at speed. “Should be there on cue, sir.”
The older colt smiled. “Very good. Her majesty, incidentally, is quite pleased by the job we’ve done. She seems optimistic.”
“Well, I think she has reason to be, sir.” She glanced out at the room. “We have six perfect potentials, all lined up, and this flyer is the fastest we’ve ever seen.” She allowed herself a little pride. “And, if I may say so sir, we’ve certainly got the thing organized to a T.”
The Captain chuckled. “Indeed you have.” He sighed, stretched his legs out, cleared his throat. “Everyone?”
The room quietened down, dozens of heads turned toward him, attentive. “Now, we all know why we’re here, so I’ll keep this short. Our research team and field personnel have laid the groundwork for us; all we have to do is monitor the results. I know I can count on each and every one of you, so before this happens I just want to say good luck to us all.” He nodded to the six ponies in the center. “Right, bring us in closer.”
The six concentrated, their horns glowing like beacons. In the giant central sphere, the view shifted, zooming in to the clouds outside the flying school. It looked like a crowd was starting to form...
In the nine hundred ninety-second year of the reign of Celestia, Princess of the Sky, Rainbow Dash banked through a cloud ring, and into the straightway. Dumbell had veered off course somewhere back in the last turn, predictably; now it was just her and Hoops.
She tucked her hind legs in, making herself more streamlined. The clouds shot by as she raced, going faster than she’d ever gone before. It was exhilarating. The world rocketed past her at high speed now as she followed the course. This was incredible. This was indescribable. This was awesome. She sailed through the air, leaving the outside world in the dust. Now there was just the blue, open sky, and the race, and speed, glorious speed.
She only dimly registered the movement coming up on her left flank. By the time she remembered Hoops he was already coming in too fast for her to dodge. He hip-checked her off course, laughing. “Later, Rainbow CRASH!” And then he was gone.
That was It. She veered back on course, aimed directly for him. Her wings, already a blur, roared as she pushed them harder than she thought possible. This was pure speed now, fueled by pride and fury and white-hot adrenaline. She caught him up easily, ripped past him in a rush of wind that sent him spiraling off into the clouds. Down below her, she could see the next ring. She gritted her teeth, forelegs outstretched, going faster now; a corona of light surrounded her; she felt herself pushing, as if against some unseen barrier. All she had to do was go a little bit faster...
They say the blast was seen from one end of Equestria to the other. Probably an exaggeration, but what is true is that the shock wave spilled out across the sky, an eruption of color and sound. And wherever it went, it sent shockwaves:
On a cliff on the Great Stone Plains, a young unicorn gazed into the heart of a multicolored
geode, and saw her future.
On the edge of the Everfree Forest, a shy young pegasus finally found her voice, soothed and comforted
the creatures of the earth and sky.
In a grey-brown rock farm in a grey-green valley, a dusty pink farm girl watched as the sky erupted in
color, and for the first time experienced pure joy.
In Manehattan, a lonely young mare, tired of phony words and phony smiles, gazed out her window and
watched as a rainbow shot through the sky and showed her the way back home.
And in Canterlot, a gifted young magician felt a torrent of magic surge through her. It pulsed through every fibre of her being, seeking outlets where it could, devoid of all control. She felt herself drowning in it, becoming subsumed. Soon there would be nothing left of her, only the sheer power than even now surged through her body... and then, just as she could feel herself slipping away, there was a beacon. A faint trace out of the chaos of her mind, but it was there, and it pointed the way.
She felt her consciousness drift toward it, somehow. There was no direction, nothing so physical as that. Somehow she understood it, though: it was the way out. The world resolved itself around her; the raw magic still surged through her, but at least she was back in herself. The storm began to abate. She felt a hoof rest gently on her shoulder, turned, and looked up into the smiling face of her goddess.
In the monitoring room, all was silence. The echo of the sonic rainboom coming from a few dozen scrying spheres at once had effectively cut off all other noise, and now there was the silence of intense concentration. That was what Captain Skyhoof remembered afterward: there had been no cheering, no applause. Nearly one thousand years of trying, and the event was greeted with the silence of a roomful of people carefully taking in every detail.
It was a good five minutes before anyone spoke. “Field reports are coming in, sir. It looks like we have success. We’ll have to wait a while to get word on some of the more outlying potentials, but so far we do have at least three confirmations.”
The captain nodded. “Good work, everyone. Keep monitoring your stations.” He gazed quietly at the central sphere. The rainbow still hung over the school. He wasn’t a superstitious colt, but he liked to think this was a good omen.
“Well.” He turned to the Lieutenant, who was still gazing at it herself. “We finally did it.”
She nodded, not taking her eyes away from the sight. “Yes, sir. So it would seem.”
They watched the sphere together.
“Should we send someone to let Her Majesty know?”
Captain Skyhoof glanced at a nearby console. In this sphere, he could see the shape of a young purple unicorn. She seemed to be dancing around in a circle. He smiled.
“No need,” he said. “I think she already knows.”