“Nopony is certain what the spectrum barrier actually is or why it exists, but scientists and mages alike have been all but unanimous in their agreement that there is absolutely no way that it can possibly be broken by any means known to ponykind. Nevertheless, the fact that a huge crowd of spectators, including Princess Celestia, recently witnessed a young pegasus accomplishing this very feat has caused some to doubt the conventional wisdom.”
– Scientific Equestrian, “The Myth of Super-Spectral Flight”
Rainbow Dash smiled broadly as she pulled the cart containing her fitness saddle off to the side of the road. It had taken a few weeks, but she and Twilight had finally figured out a system that allowed them to get this bizarre-looking oddity outside of Ponyville while keeping the suspicions of busybodies to a minimum.
“You certainly look cheerful today,” Twilight said as she levitated the saddle out of the cart. She’d been waiting for her flying partner to arrive for nearly ten minutes.
“Of course I’m cheerful! Most of the time, an overcast sky means I need to put in extra hours at work, because it usually means showers to monitor. You have no idea how fussy they are about precipitation rates back in Cloudsdale.”
“Well, I’d imagine that they’d be quite persnickety about it,” Twilight replied. “After all, many crops are dependent on certain amounts of rainfall, so mistakes could be devastating for the agricultural sector.”
The pegasus sighed. “Listen, I’m complaining about my bosses here. That means you're supposed to be on my side, even if the pencil pushers have a point.”
Twilight winced at her conversational faux pas. “I’m sorry—I misunderstood you. Still, when you want empathy, it would help if you talked about your feelings.”
“I did! Didn’t I start out by pointing out how cheerful I was that I didn’t have to do all that crap?”
The unicorn thought for a bit and realized that Rainbow Dash had indeed been implying that she merely found aspects of her job to be annoying, even if they were necessary. “Oh... I see what you mean... I think.” Twilight decided to change the subject a bit. “So, why exactly is the sky overcast today? Don’t tell me you scheduled it that way just for this practice.”
“What? No way! I take my job as Ponyville’s chief weatherpony seriously, and pulling that sort of thing would get me demoted in a heartbeat. The reason we’ve got an overcast sky is because several local farmers requested it so they could get some work done outside without having to deal with the sun on top of everything. We get requests like that all the time, but usually none of them can agree on a date.”
“I take it this time they coordinated with each other?”
“Uh, no, actually. From what I can tell, they just got lucky, and enough of them requested it today to justify requisitioning a nice, thick stratus.”
“Huh... I never would have imagined you as the bureaucratic type.”
“Yeah, well, that part of the job may be boring, but after you get a grip on how the whole system works, you can usually get things done quicker. I’ve still got lots of free time, and the pay is good.”
“Of course! How else do you think I could afford my home?”
“Uh, well, I assumed that cloud houses were cheaper than those on the ground because there’s a lot more sky to go around than land.”
“Well, that’s true,” Rainbow Dash admitted, “but that isn’t some cheap winged-trash double-wide we’re talking about here. Trust me, decorative columns and rainbow water features cost money.”
“So, why did you put them in?”
“I didn’t, actually. They were already in place when I bought it. It’s actually the first cloud house built in Ponyville,” Rainbow Dash added with no small amount of pride.
“Really? Have you considered registering it as a historic landmark?”
“I’m way ahead of you on that one. Legal Tender suggested it so I could get some tax benefits.”
“He’s my accountant—the best one in Cloudsdale.”
“Huh... well, I guess we’d better get strapped in.”
“Oh, no you don’t,” Rainbow Dash replied with a smirk. “Not yet. Now, it’s your turn.”
“What do you mean?”
“Come on, what does a librarian’s salary get you?”
“I’m not sure I’m comfortable talking about that...”
“Hey, it’s not like I’m asking for a specific figure here—I’m just curious. Besides, my tax bits help pay for it, so I’ve got a legitimate interest.”
Unable (or perhaps more accurately, unwilling) to argue with this line of reasoning, the librarian reluctantly caved in. “Well, pretty much all of my compensation comes in the form of room and board. The money I have for personal purchases comes from the stipend I receive as Celestia’s protégé, and I won’t reveal that to anypony, because I don’t want to sound like I’m bragging about how much I have access to.”
“Okay, okay, suit yourself. It’s not like I told you all that stuff about my house to try to impress you. I’m just really proud of it, that’s all.”
Twilight sighed. “That’s okay... it’s just that so many ponies in Canterlot make judgements about others based on how much money they have....”
“I hear ya. Besides, you’ve already told me plenty.”
“You must be pretty well-off if you’re worried about other ponies thinking that you’re bragging. Am I right?”
Twilight Sparkle chose not to dignify this with an answer. “Let’s just get up in the air,” she groused.
The stratus clouds were indeed quite thick. When Rainbow Dash had zipped up the hole they’d used to get through the cloud layer, Twilight couldn’t see anything but clouds and mountaintops. “Wow... this is really... impressive.” The unicorn was rather disappointed that she hadn’t been able to come up with a better adjective to express her feelings on the sight before her; it was as though Rainbow Dash was standing on an apparently endless floor of cotton. Sure, she’d seen the tops of clouds plenty of times before, but that was usually from the basket of her hot air balloon, rather than the back of a pegasus, and the clouds themselves had never seemed so indescribably vast.
Rainbow Dash seemed to pick up on her rider’s unspoken comment. “Yeah,” she said with a characteristic smirk, “I bet that overcast skies would be a lot more popular if everypony could see what they looked like from above. But we’ve talked enough for now. Time for flying!”
The pair warmed up by running through most of the maneuvers they’d worked on the previous week at a moderate speed. Now that Twilight had a reasonably good idea of what she was doing, the loops and turns were becoming tighter, the Aileron rolls were faster and cleaner, and Rainbow Dash was even more certain that she’d chosen the perfect mare to be her rider. It was time to really get down to business.
“Twilight, when I first had the idea to ask you to ride me, I had one goal in mind. A seriously, totally, undeniably awesome goal of pure, unadulterated coolness!”
“And that goal is...?”
“Two words, my friend: Sonic Rainboom.”
The pegasus’ rider let out a low whistle, although she didn’t find this revelation to be particularly surprising in and of itself; after all, Rainbow Dash’s penchant for setting lofty goals was common knowledge in the Ponyville area. That said, she was glad to learn it. Knowing precisely what her friend ultimately wanted to get out of this training session meant that the remainder of their time could be occupied more efficiently. “So, you really think we’ll be able to do it today?”
To Twilight’s astonishment, her friend’s reaction was to laugh so hard that it felt like a minor earthquake from her perch in the saddle. “I wish! I’ve only pulled it off a few times, and every time I did, I was flying downwards, so I had gravity helping me.”
“But... won’t having me along make it easier, then?”
“Sure... but making things easier won’t do anything to help my strength training. No, my ultimate goal is to be able to pull it off whenever I want, no matter what direction I’m flying in. Horizontally, diagonally... or maybe even vertically. I mean, if I can do that, I’ll be a shoo-in for the Wonderbolts!” Rainbow Dash paused to allow the rapturous visions of personal glory to play out in her mind. “But to do that, my wing muscles need to be way, way stronger to make up for the lost acceleration, so using gravity now would kind of defeat the whole purpose of having you along for the ride.”
“I see... so, what are we going to do, then?”
“Well, just because I can’t break the spectrum barrier without gravity doesn’t mean I can’t reach it. In fact, I’ve actually done it on my own while flying horizontally plenty of times before. I’m pretty sure I can take you there today, though it won’t be easy.”
“Oh, of course. It’s basic resistance training, isn’t it?”
“Right. If I get good enough to reach the barrier with a rider without any problems, then breaking it on my own should be a lot easier.”
Twilight was really starting to comprehend the full extent of Dash’s plan. “That’s great! And later on, we can use gravity to increase the resistance by increasing the angle of ascent.”
“By Luna, I think you’ve got it!”
“Oh... but what happens when you don’t break the spectrum barrier again?”
“Well, the compression pushes back against you. The faster you go, the more it builds up, and if you don’t break the barrier, it rockets you back like a slingshot. That’s why I didn’t want to try doing something like this until there was enough cloud cover around to absorb the crash.”
Twilight nodded in understanding. “Okay. So, what’s the procedure here?”
“It’s pretty simple. You pick a point somewhere off in the distance, and fly towards it as fast as possible. Only thing we need to do is make sure there’s enough room to reach the barrier before we actually get there.”
“I see.” Twilight looked around, and the only things visible besides the clouds (which were subject to the wind and thus not stationary enough to use as a target) were various mountain peaks, one of which had an unmistakably distinct feature. “Do you suppose the Royal Palace is far enough away for this?” the unicorn asked, motioning towards the outcropping upon which the Princesses’ castle stood.
Rainbow Dash pondered this for a moment. “Yeah... that should do nicely. Ready when you are!”
The pair began by making a large inside loop, mostly to gain speed before beginning the extended flat pass (after all, using a little gravity from the downward half of the maneuver—just to get the metaphorical ball rolling, nothing more—wouldn’t really interfere with the overall results). Once they’d leveled off, Rainbow Dash began her acceleration. Even though she hadn’t gone into this exercise with any predefined plan to do so, Twilight found herself increasing her friend’s airspeed every eight wing flaps. One-two-three-four-five-six-seven-eight, One-two-three-four-five-six-seven-eight, One-two-three-four-five-six-seven-eight, One-two-three-four-five-six-seven-eight...
The rhythm was nice and steady, almost musical, and Rainbow Dash didn’t seem to be pushing herself too much as she continued accelerating. Twilight smiled as the wind whipped through her mane, which would doubtless be an absolute mess when this session was finished (and which, now that she thought of it, probably explained why her flyer never bothered to style her own mane or tail). Still, the speed was exhilarating, creating a sort of tunnel that soon blurred out much of her peripheral vision. Twilight Sparkle found herself getting excited at the prospect of just arriving at the spectrum barrier, even if breaking it today was somewhat unlikely. Unfortunately for her, physics had other plans that day.
The unicorn had mentally prepared herself for the eventual approach to the spectrum barrier. When Rainbow Dash began slowing down, she would have a split-second to get ready before the catapulting effect kicked in. When it did, it would be her job to reorient her flyer as soon as possible, so they could move on to the next stage in the training session (whatever that might be). What she most certainly hadn’t prepared for was the possibility of Rainbow Dash suddenly going out of control before this ever occurred, which is why the unicorn was taken completely by surprise when her friend suddenly shot straight upwards, her typical precision vanishing in an instant as Twilight’s attempts to regain control sent the pair hurtling towards the fluffy padding beneath them.
The two ponies bounced along the tops of the clouds as Twilight was once again reminded that the soft, fluffy nature of these meteorological phenomena didn’t make crashing into them all that pleasant. Upon seeing the pair, an outside observer might have been tempted to make an analogy to a pebble being skipped across the surface of a pond, but that would imply a degree of stability that simply was not present, at least from Twilight Sparkle’s point of view. To her, the bouncing and jostling was more akin to a ball being thrown across an erratically shaped field, or perhaps the parties Pinkie Pie occasionally threw when she was absolutely certain that there would be no foals in attendance, giving her the opportunity to serve Sugarcube Corner’s award-winning extra-proof rum cake. When she and Rainbow Dash finally came to a stop, Twilight was upside down, completely surrounded by cold, damp stratus clouds, and extremely grateful that her friend had spent the bits necessary to purchase the safest saddle on the market.
The unicorn still looked dazed as Rainbow Dash righted herself, pulling her out of the clouds. “Urgh... I thought you said we’d be bounced backwards if we didn’t pull off the Rainboom....”
“I did, and we would have, but we never even got close to the spectrum barrier.”
“So, what happened?”
“I was hoping you could tell me. We were going along fine, and then suddenly I was completely out of control. I mean, I didn’t even feel you pulling back on the reins.”
Twilight thought about this for a few seconds before the obvious explanation came to her. “Of course!” she said, knocking a hoof against her forehead in a show of frustration. “I was sitting upright the whole time, which meant that your aerodynamic profile was completely disrupted. When you got up to speed, the air pushed against my body with enough force to flip us end over end.”
“Huh... I guess that makes sense. You have any ideas on how to fix that?”
The unicorn took several more seconds before replying, “As a matter of fact, I do. If I lean forward, that should reduce our aerodynamic profile significantly.”
“Hmmm... simple and to the point. Sounds like a good Plan B to me.”
At first, it really did appear to be a good plan. The smaller profile that resulted from the forward lean didn’t just make it easier to stay in control; the reduction in drag also meant that Rainbow Dash was able to accelerate much faster. At least, that’s what Twilight Sparkle thought, although she admittedly had much less experience with high-speed flight than her counterpart. Still, the unicorn was fairly certain that her flyer had taken less time to reach the point where they’d run into problems before, assuming the increasing strain on the muscles in her midsection were a reasonably accurate indication of airspeed. Besides, this time, the barrier was starting to become visible, just like Dash said it would.
As the distortion associated with the spectrum barrier began to manifest itself in a translucent cone around the pair, Twilight’s natural curiosity caused her to turn her head so she could observe the phenomenon from the side. The unicorn was fairly certain that this action would not create significant drag, and technically speaking, she was correct. Turning her neck did not cause the pair to spin out of control. No, that happened because the distraction caused Twilight to forget to keep the muscles in her barrel and shoulder contracted, which meant that she was suddenly blown into an upright position by the air resistance, this time flailing her forelegs wildly.
This, in turn, caused Rainbow Dash to receive so many conflicting signals that she simply stopped flapping her wings altogether. The good news was that Dash now had some idea of what Fluttershy experienced whenever she attempted to fly in front of an audience. The bad news was that she and Twilight ended up nosediving directly into the clouds below.
“Alright, time for Plan C. Since you’re just going to be flying in a straight line, that means you don’t actually need me to steer you. Therefore, I’ll just leave you in charge, while I drop down and wrap my forelegs around your neck and hang on. Does that sound good to you?”
“You bet it does! Let’s do this!”
It certainly seemed like a good plan, and indeed, when the two ponies reached the point where Twilight had been previously been unable to lean forward under her own power, she was able to keep clinging to Rainbow Dash’s neck with relative ease. Unfortunately, the pegasus didn’t notice that as the winds buffeted Twilight’s body, once again shifting her posture upward, her friend’s grip was sliding slowly up her neck—until the unicorn’s hooves reached her larynx, that is.
Once again, Twilight Sparkle found herself with her head quite literally in the clouds. “Okay, on to Plan D...”
“I’m not really sure that I can handle a ‘Plan D’ right now,” Rainbow Dash groaned as she rolled over. She coughed a few times and rubbed her throat. “Can we just call it a day and head home?”
“Um, actually, that is Plan D. If we want to even get close to the spectrum barrier, we’re going to have to come up with a safer way to reduce our aerodynamic profile, and right now, I don’t see how that’s going to happen without some good old-fashioned research.”
“Great... you can do that, while I head home and recover.”
“Uh... don’t we have to go back to the field and get the cart?”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, Canterlot looks a lot closer now than when we started...”
Rainbow Dash looked at the castle, and groaned as she realized that the unicorn’s observation was correct, and that she and Twilight would have to fly all the way back to their starting point. “This is just great... My wings are going to be so sore tomorrow.”