• Published 26th Jul 2016
  • 4,044 Views, 189 Comments

Sick Little Ponies (And One Dragon) - Estee



Seven sick Ponyville residents. Seven short stories. Six Bearers. One dragon. (Bring your own hoof sanitizer.)

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Rainbow: The Great Plague Vector Stunt

The first thing Rainbow did when she stepped out of her bed on that most crucial of mornings was hit the floor.

Literally.

There was a sudden pressure in her ears, an odd roaring sound, the vapor surface seemed to tilt to the left and she automatically tried to adjust her foreleg planting to suit, only it turned out that her floor hadn't moved while her forelegs had, and that direction seemed to be a little more backwards than she'd originally intended, her hooves slid, which pitched her barrel forward, her head naturally came along with it, and...

She lay perfectly still on the cool surface until normal sound returned and the bedroom stopped trying to relocate itself to Cloudsdale. And then she did the second thing.

That did not just happen.

Denied everything.

Okay. I'm a little more tired than I should be, because I had so much trouble sleeping. Amazingly, the universe didn't tilt to the right just in trying to get away from the sheer blasphemy of the thought. Because today is -- today. So I didn't get quite enough sleep and I'll have a chance to make that up later, plus there's always wake-up juice. But that's what it was. I was tired and I didn't pay attention to how I was planting my hooves, and I only got up instead of flying out because I've got to save all my wingpower for later, so really, my legs are out of practice and it's all their fault. I'm fine. Nopony saw that.

She took an instinctive glance up at the huge terrarium which now occupied the space where her headboard had once been. A little green reptilian head was just starting to poke out of its shell, curious about the sudden noise.

Right. Nopony. "Morning, Tank..." she muttered, still on the floor. "I'll feed you. Gotta feed you now, because like we were talking about a million times in the last two moons, even though it's my day off from weather coordinating, I'll be gone all day. Because there's gonna be a line. And you can watch ponies from the line and figure out how everypony else is doing. What the competition is like. Only now I've got to try and find somewhere to nap. And wake up before they call my number." Fifty-six. Which was, quite frankly, ridiculous. Not that she was so far back -- the numbers had been assigned by random draw -- but that there was so many ponies even trying in the first place. The power of delusion ran strong, although it might be taking second place to the desire for having somepony famous interact with them, mostly by saying a rather bored "No," directly to their snout.

Tank wisely nodded, or at least made a movement which she could interpret as such.

"But first, I've gotta get up," she told him. "And find wake-up juice. I think we've still got some, unless you've been drinking it again. So..."

She stood up.

Or rather, she didn't.

She got her body about halfway raised. And then the roaring came back, which was shortly followed by the abrupt return of the floor.

That did not just --

But some things were too cruel to deny.

-- no, oh no, not today, please, not today, I can't have...

She needed a mirror. And in order to reach the mirror...

Rainbow groaned.

All right. The mind overrides the body. Which is usually stupid because my body knows best and my mind just takes too long, but -- not today, not today -- I've got to think about moving. Every leg, every joint. Don't risk the wings yet. Just... focus. One leg at a time. One, two, three, four. Four legs. Which was really too many for thinking about. Minotaurs didn't know how easy they had it. Here we go...

And she got up. The roaring returned, whenever it could -- but because she was concentrating, she was ready for it. Each leg shifted in turn, every move was planned. Slow and deliberate and careful and everything else that made her want to scream, but the thing which would cause even more pain than that had to be verified and there was only one way to do it. Step by far-too-considered step, she forced herself towards her bathroom mirror --

-- and there it was.

The whites of her eyes had taken on a light tinge of pink.

Rainbow screamed.

It took a while before the scream managed to reach anything resembling words, for the wail of agony needed nothing so crude as language to properly express itself. It made some of the fixtures in her home dance, it rearranged parts of her wall, and it made Tank very slowly shift out of his terrarium so he could go check on her, which was going to need about eight minutes and the second-worst part was, that was only quadruple the time she'd required for reaching the mirror. But eventually, the words came.

" -- no! I can't have Manière's, not today! I CAN'T!"

But she did.

She'd been spending a lot of time in the upper atmosphere over the last three weeks. Too much time. It had allowed her to practice in peace, it had given her privacy during a period when far too many delusional pegasi were clogging up the lower layers with their own efforts -- but it had also made her vulnerable. And so the disease had settled in for its usual three-day trial of vertigo.

It was possible to move when you had Manière's. Slowly, while thinking about absolutely everything involved. A truly focused pony might manage a slow trot. And as for flight -- yes, as long as you considered a one-way spread-winged glide from home to ground to be flying. But get distracted, or try to operate on instinct, and the fluid inside her semicircular canals would toss like the ocean during a storm, capsizing the pony trying to navigate a world whose surface had become churning water.

And today...

She glanced behind her. Back into her bedroom, towards the calendar.

Other ponies might have circled the date. Some would have stained it in ink. Rainbow didn't have to. The whiteness was harsh enough. The blank space of an unknown future, one which had just become fixed into failure.

The Wonderbolts Academy practical exam entrance trials are today.

There were two steps to getting in. The first was a simple written application, filled out in the most careful fieldwriting possible. (It normally would have been mouthwriting, but Twilight's style was somewhat more legible and Rainbow's final contribution had been the attached packet of recommendation letters, plus a signature.) And the second... well, nopony was going to be considered for the Wonderbolts based on paper alone, because recommendations could be faked, credentials forged, and even the most accurate, glowing report didn't let them see how you could fly.

Today, the Wonderbolts would be just outside Ponyville. For one day. And everypony who'd filled out an application, including the delusional ones, would fly for them. They would take notes. They would seldom speak to anypony about what they'd written down. They would move on to another settled zone about two hours before Sun-lowering, because it took the best of light to let them truly see what everypony was doing. And eventually, there would be a letter -- or not. But if there wasn't, then the rejected pony was free to try out again the next time they came through with the intention of conducting entrance exams.

In fourteen moons.

Rainbow screamed again. It seemed to be justified.

On the fourth go-round, she felt a hard little head butting against her right hind leg.

"It's..." Several seconds were required to get her breathing back under control. "It's nothing you can do, Tank. I'm sorry, I know you want to." She glanced back at him, which wasn't quite enough to trigger another episode any more than the look at the calendar had been, and saw the tortoise staring up at her with open concern, feet steady on the vapor. (The permanent version of the cloudwalking spell didn't work on anything over a certain fraction of bale-weight, but Tank had been well within the limit. And since Twilight hadn't been able to figure out that particular twist in the working, Rainbow's salary had been just barely capable of dealing with the cost.) "And there's nothing I can do. Not to cure it, or to get rid of the vertigo, even for a little while. You just try not to move too much for three whole days, but it's hours until the practical trials, there's nothing I can do to get it cured within hours, nothing anypony can do..."

She wanted to weep. But she was Rainbow Dash, and even with Tank as her only witness, even with something this cosmically unfair, that would have been too much. Instead, she simply allowed pink-tinged eyes to stare into the mirror as her tail drooped.

"Nothing..."

She blinked. So did the reversed self in the mirror.

Was there nothing?

Rainbow had hours. She was fifty-sixth: that wasn't going to be called for a long time. And she had friends...


"...you're a pony," Fluttershy eventually said as she slowly backed out of the chicken coop. She hadn't turned to face Rainbow in the entire time since arrival (although it wasn't from trying to avoid contracting the disease: Manière's wasn't contagious), and arrival had been hard enough. Rainbow had managed to glide down by using an emergency wing-locked position she hadn't thought about since flight camp, and had also extended the glide's duration using every thermal she could find on an early spring day -- but that hadn't been all that many. It had put her down closer to the cottage, but not close enough, and making her way out to the fringe...

Hours. She still had hours. But the clock was running, and doing so far faster than she currently could.

"I know I'm a pony! But if there's anything you have to treat vertigo in animals, you just have to up the dosage enough for my weight, or down if it's for someone like Harry, and then I'll --"

"-- you won't do anything. Because I won't give it to you." Fluttershy sighed. "And neither will anypony else. Rainbow, I know there isn't a cure, or even a real treatment. I remember all the ponies who got it during flight camp, and I know nothing's changed since or you wouldn't be here. But different species are just that. There isn't much which works for everyone, and when you try to make that include everypony... eventually, there's going to be a bad reaction. I know two things which moderate vertigo. One works on cats, the other is for squirrels. But the cat medicine makes dogs sick, sends raccoons into temper tantrums, and what it does on ponies is going to be a mystery forever because I'm not telling you what it is or giving it to you, plus I know you, Rainbow, which is why I lied and said it was for cats. And the squirrel mix is worse. Not that it's for squirrels. Rainbow, I know it's the Wonderbolts, and how important that is to you. But I care about your health more. And they'll be back --"

"-- in fourteen moons," Rainbow groaned. "Fourteen moons, Fluttershy. That's too long..."

The caretaker finally turned. "...why?"

Exasperated and no longer caring whether it showed, not that she usually did. "Why what?"

"...why can't you wait fourteen moons? There's always openings, every year. And you waited your whole life to get this far to start with... so what's fourteen more moons?"

And for the first time, the words came.

They only came internally. They were not voiced, and perhaps never would be. They would also be carefully forgotten within seconds of their arrival, because to not forget created a chance of remembering at exactly the wrong moment, which was the best way to make them come true. But still, they came.

Fourteen more moons is fourteen moons of missions.

Of monsters and magic nopony understands and disaster and crises and everything else.

In fourteen moons...

In fourteen moons, we could all be dead.

And then she pushed the words away.

"It's too long," Rainbow huffed. "Fluttershy, if you just gave me the tiniest dose imaginable -- one drop, you can give me one drop and then monitor me for a couple of hours. I'll tell you if I feel any better, if I feel anything, and then --"

"No."

And that was it. No hesitation, no pause to gather strength. Yellow hooves were firmly planted, wings slightly flared, the one visible eye locked into the pink taint within Rainbow's own.

"I won't risk your health," Fluttershy said. "I won't treat you as a test subject. I'll lie to you in order to keep you from trying anything on yourself, and if I have to, I'll follow you all day to make sure you don't do anything stupid, because you can't move fast enough to get away from me, not today. I'll do anything necessary to keep you from making yourself worse. I know this is important, Rainbow. But you're more important. Maybe --" and this created a pause "-- if it was something that was killing you, there were no doctors and no time and... you would die if nopony tried anything. Maybe then... if there was no other choice..."

The blue-green eye briefly closed.

"But this is just Manière's. So it's no, and it'll always be no. I don't experiment on ponies. Now do I have to follow you?"

Rainbow took six deep breaths, which was just enough for the drive to charge to ebb.

"No."

"Good," Fluttershy quietly said. "Go home."

"No," Rainbow solidly replied.

"There's nowhere else you can go. No doctors can treat you, no vets will try --"

And Rainbow shrugged, even as a wild fox grin began to manifest on her face.

"You said experiments..."


Twilight stared at her.

"Get out." It was sincere. It was forceful. It was also somewhat desperate.

Rainbow decided her only chance was to ignore all of it. "Twilight, I'm just asking you to do something you like doing anyway! Creating a new spell! Look, I asked you down into the basement because I wanted to show you I wasn't afraid to be down here!" With open pride in herself, "Unlike a lot of ponies I could name and aren't gonna because you probably know already. I trust you. I'm taking a chance on you because of that trust, and also because this is important and my friend is so good with magic that if anypony in the world could create a healing spell before my number comes up, she could! It's a challenge for you, right? A test. Don't you want to pass?" So -- " carefully looking around "-- is there anything you need me standing next to? Or attached to? How about drinking? I see that one beaker over there, it's already bubbling a little and --"

"-- parasprites," Twilight forcibly interjected, and very visibly shuddered.

"I have to eat parasprites? Oh, Celestia's heated hooves... is it because they're doing circles in the air all the time? You know, I never really thought about the way they fly, but when you really consider their wing patterns --"

"-- Stop. Talking."

And the words had been angry.

Rainbow blinked. Shut up from sheer shock.

Devices hummed around them, beakers bubbled. It was the only sounds Rainbow could pick up, other than Twilight's hard, furious breathing, the narrow rib cage heaving...

"I tried to create a new spell on the spot with the parasprites," Twilight said, and each word was its own kick, directed at a very close target. "They nearly ate the town. I tried a new variation on a spell out of nowhere at my first Winter Wrap-Up. Animation workings -- they're really just setting up a field to keep a pattern of movements going without the caster having concentrate on them. Come To Life... it's an overstatement. It's more like making a temporary machine with glowing gears. But I didn't want Applejack to know I was too weak to move the plow. So I hid my field, when I know doing that can make workings operate differently, and when it started to run away from me, I couldn't even cancel the working because I didn't understand how the altered casting operated at all. And then there was -- well, that was before I moved here. But you research, Rainbow. You figure out principles, you do micro-scale trials, sometimes for weeks, for moons. Under controlled conditions. Unless you're being stupid, or desperate, or -- me. Unless you're being me. And --"

Her head came up. The horn was dark, and for a moment, it seemed as if it might always remain so.

"I wouldn't experiment on you when you had insomnia. I'm not experimenting on you for vertigo. Not on a pony. Not ever. Not when something could --"

She stopped. The impacts of the words against the small purple body continued.

"...Twilight?"

The humming seemed to be getting louder, but that might have been because it temporarily didn't have breathing to compete with any more.

"I hope you pass the next trials," Twilight whispered. "In fourteen moons. And I'm guessing you don't want any of us coming to watch you then, any more than you did this time, because... I don't know. Maybe you didn't want us to watch in case you failed. Got hurt. Tried something new because you were experimenting and being stupid and somepony got --"

And the weight of the pain snuffed out all sound.

Or nearly all.

"Get out."


And that brought her to the last resort.

It had taken far too long. From home to Fluttershy's, all the way out at the border of the settled zone, right against the fringe. Then into the heart of town, to the library. And finally, abandoning settled zone for wild, even following a familiar path, one where no threats generally manifested, but having to do so at a time when it took all her focus just to trot, she was trying not to stumble, every distraction created a chance to fall and nopony with Manière's ever tried to move this much...

Still, she'd gotten there. She'd knocked on the door, been lucky enough to find the resident at home. Explained herself, as carefully as she could, trying to impress the need on an individual who might not have ever heard of the Wonderbolts (as hard as that was for Rainbow to conceive) until the moment the talk had begun.

Rainbow had just finished, or almost so. There were just a few words left, and she sent them into the air on wings of something very close to prayer.

"Can you help?" And waited.

Zecora sighed.

"Rainbow, please -- come inside. This doorway speech, I can't abide. We finish this inside my hut, for better and for worse. I wish your words to stay enclosed --" and another sigh "-- in case you need to curse..."

She slowly turned, trotted. Rainbow, already suspecting what the answer would be, followed, closing the door behind her.

A quick glance around. Rainbow was always on the hunt for new masks when she visited. Zecora had cool masks.

The zebra, tail slowly swaying, took a bench. Rainbow followed suit.

"I know how you see my position," Zecora slowly said. "Caught between medic and magician. But Rainbow, what need have I, for doses to cure pegasi? You hope for cure, and dream the "why" -- but the truth is, zebras cannot fly. In my land, your kind does not live -- well, no: a few: reasons they don't give. This disease, I do not know, because we never contract -- and thus the cure, I do not know, with no cause to act. I could remove the pink from your gaze: a simple dose suffices. But the vertigo behind it -- not through my devices. And like your friends, who wish you well, and to never see you hurt -- I will not risk your health to guesswork: that I must assert. I would help you if I could. And you came here, in hopes of 'should'. But fourteen moons, not long to wait. Please, Rainbow -- accept your fate."

And all Rainbow could do was put her head between her forehooves and close her eyes.

"This sucks," she said.

"I hope you understand that I am sorry... but better the sickness than a dead body."

"That one's a little forced," Rainbow muttered.

She heard the tiny smile. "In my tongue, it makes more sense. In yours, much closer to offense."

"So... all you could do is make my eyes look like I wasn't sick. And that's all you'll take a risk on."

"True, you."

"For all the good that does..."

...wait.

It's Manière's. There's two external symptoms. One is the pink tinge and the other is falling over a lot.

If you don't have the pink tinge, and you're careful...

Rainbow understood that most ponies came with an internal voice of caution. She really didn't understand how that worked, and sometimes believed it had to be damaging Fluttershy's hearing because the caretaker seldom listened to anything else. But suddenly...

You're going to be trying complex stunts. While you have Manière's. You're having enough trouble with walking.

What if I just did basic stuff? But did it better than everypony else? They're seeing too many pegasi today, and I know what the locals have for skill. It might not take much to impress, not much at all...

Flying. With Manière's.

I'm the best flier in town. If anypony could do it, I could.

Flying. With Manière's.

Fourteen moons.

Rainbow raised her head, opened her eyes. "Can I just get the eye stuff? Having this is bad enough. I don't want to look at it every time I pass a mirror."

Zecora silently nodded, got off her bench and headed for a bottle-filled shelf.


"Fifty-four now landing!" High Winds' voice had more than a touch of exhaustion in it: the day had been a long one. And given just who was landing, it also sounded slightly concussed. "Clear the area for fifty-four!"

Rainbow tried not to look. She'd arrived just in time to see the end of that particular trial, having made the mistake of glancing up just after claiming her rather late place in line. (The pony collecting forms had glared at her, silently demanding to know why Rainbow had nearly missed the trial. She hadn't risked losing any focus through making even a non-verbal reply.) There was only one pony ahead of her (with five behind her), and he was rather difficult to see past -- so she'd looked up, and that had nearly made her head swim all by itself, Manière's or not.

"Fifty-four, come to the table, please."

The pony approached. Waited. Sweat dripped from her body, mixed into the low-lying cloud which she was mostly standing within.

"Normally, I'd tell you to watch your mail a few weeks from now," the Wonderbolt said. "But..."

"Yes?" the pony enthusiastically chirped, because she nearly always had strength left for that.

High Winds helplessly glanced at Silver Zoom.

"Well..." the stallion carefully said, "I can safely say... I've never seen that."

"Any of that," High Winds quickly emphasized.

"But you... well, you take up -- a lot of room. More than we account for in the formations. Also, you weren't exactly going fast. At all. I mean, we can trot... plus you almost completely exhausted yourself just from those few minutes, and..."

They both looked at the third pony who was seated at the table. The pony Rainbow hadn't expected to be judging the trials at all.

"You're unique," Spitfire said. "But your style of flight is not suited to our needs, and so I can tell you not to expect a letter. However, I recommend that you continue to work on your performance. I think you may have found a niche' act. Or -- something."

The pony nodded. Drops of froth hit the table.

"Go see our medics before you go home," Spitfire concluded. "You need a cooldown. The tent is right over there, past what's left of the trial line. Thank you for coming."

"Thank you for letting me try out! I didn't even think I'd get that far!"

"Yes," Spitfire said in a not-very-well voice. "Well, we've had self-levitating unicorns try out before, so there's no space for 'race' on the written application. There's even been a few on the team."

Rainbow automatically ran down the list. Self-Propelled had made the initial species breakthrough, and he'd been followed by --

"-- but this was..." Spitfire visibly searched for a concluding word. "Different. Yes. Different. Very. All right. Fifty-five! Fifty-five to the takeoff area!"

Snowflake's huge body spontaneously tossed off a surprisingly-small shiver, and the stallion slowly trotted forward. The judges stared at him. (Rainbow missed most of that: she was watching the pony who was on her way out.)

"Oh, for..." Silver Zoom muttered in a tone which was probably meant to be barely heard. "At least she got off the ground..."

"Stop it," Spitfire said, and that voice was meant to be heard by everypony.

"Captain?"

"That's fifty-five?" Papers shuffled. "And here's his only attached recommendation. From Las Pegasus." One was hoof-pushed over. "I think you might recognize the name. And signature. It's rather hard to fake mouthwriting that bad."

Silver Zoom swallowed.

"Triple... Triple Twist?"

"Yes. And if the previous captain is willing to pause his lazy retirement long enough to sign off, then I want to see what's got him motivated to open his mouth for something other than giving a barely-legible autograph. Fifty-five, proceed to the takeoff area and begin your routine. We'll be watching. Closely."

Snowflake timidly nodded, and continued to trot. The most recent failed applicant passed him going the other way, sweat still falling from her body. It dripped down in unusual ways, for she was balanced on her hind legs, pushing the thing with her forehooves.

"Hi, Rainbow!"

"...hi, Pinkie..."

"I got worried! I thought you'd be here first thing and watch everypony!"

"Yeah. So did I. But -- stuff. Pinkie, you -- didn't tell me you were trying out."

"Well, I've got this..." The right forehoof affectionately patted the thing. "...and I hadn't taken it out for a while! Plus today's my day off, and I'd known it would be for a long time. So I thought, maybe the Wonderbolts haven't seen this before, and it would be really fun to show them after a day of watching everypony! And on the one in a million billion trillion chance they took me, we'd be Academy buddies!" She smiled. "But I guess I'll just have to visit. After you make it. So -- you still don't want any of us watching right?"

Especially now. "Right."

"That's okay. I'll just go get cooled down, and then I'll go home. Without looking back and peeking, I promise! Just come to Sugarcube Corner when you're ready to tell me about it! Celestia watch over you, Rainbow! See you!"

Pinkie pushed the thing away, with the single runner leaving a narrow skid trail in the dirt. Rainbow watched her go, silently thanking the Princesses for not having had the conversation produce a collapse into the ground. And then she focused on the trial area.

They were fairly close to the fringe, in an open pasture which didn't serve as farmland, or a sports staging area, or anything else except holding down potential land just in case the town needed to expand a lot more. Under normal circumstances, the area didn't host anything except grass, a few insects, and some birds who were looking for the insects. With the Wonderbolts in town... just about every cloud in the area had been wrangled down to ground level, more had been made on the spot, and the earth for what almost felt like gallops around was covered in density-altered vapor. The world had been crash-cushioned, and a few slow-shifting dents showed where they had already been needed.

Three Wonderbolts at the table. Five in the air, and she knew all of them instantly, even from that distance. Those were the monitors. Pegasi tended to have the best eyesight among the three main pony races (and saw more than anypony else), plus the judges had devices to boost their perceptions -- but still, a little mid-air judgment was helpful, and the monitors would fly down to consult after many routines. And Rainbow knew they were also present because there were times when it was possible to rescue a pony before the ground clouds needed to get involved. Along with others when it was necessary.

I'm not going to need them.

I'm really glad they're here, but I'm totally not going to need them.

I think...

...no, she couldn't even start looking at things that way: just the thought seemed to be making her dizzy. She just had to finish planning out her routine, something she'd been mentally reworking since she'd left the hut. The original composition had been trashed: there was no way she was going to attempt a Rainboom. A Rainboom required instinct, and Rainbow was going to be flying on concentration and thought, something which was already terrifying enough.

Basics, done better than anypony else. Enough to hint that I've got the more advanced stuff and just don't see any need to pull it out right now. That's the way to go.

Except that Spitfire's here. Who's seen me before.

I wish I knew how everypony else had managed the basics.

How the judges are rating the basics.

If I'd been here at the start, I'd know.

There was no helping it now. She simply sat back (because it was less legs to worry about), planned, and occasionally glanced up to see how the current trial was going. There was nothing there which surprised her: she'd seen Snowflake in the air before, which -- still took some getting used to. But she had experience with it. The judges...

"Fifty-five... now landing?" High Winds sounded more concussed than ever. "Clear the area for fifty-five! ...and maybe clear a lot of it..."

There was the usual WHUMP!

"Fifty-five, come to the table, please." Spitfire speaking first. That somehow felt... rare. Of course, given the state of the other two...

Snowflake approached. Waited.

"You are -- decidedly more maneuverable than I had expected," the captain slowly said. "A reasonable expectation, I think. But you're not really using techniques, and your landings need work. Still... I need to think this over, fifty-five. You'll have the final decision in a few weeks."

He nodded.

"So watch your mail."

"...yeah."

"Thank you for coming. And -- for showing me something." She glanced at High Winds and Silver Zoom, both of whom hadn't been able to close their mouths just yet. "I may want to see more of it. Fifty-six! Fifty-six to the takeoff area!"

Well, on the extremely dubious bright side, her wings were certainly rested...

Rainbow slowly trotted forward, up the provided incline and onto the cloud surface, focusing on every leg in turn. She risked a glance at the judges. At Spitfire.

Friendly, casual, with every bit of the camaraderie she naturally felt in their presence, "Hi. I think -- I know you remember me. We --"

Spitfire slowly nodded, and the mere motion was enough to stop Rainbow's words. "I'm aware of who you are."

"...yeah. I thought you would be. And --"

"-- and do you know what that makes you to me today? It makes you number fifty-six."

Rainbow was suddenly very aware of her knees, and the way all four had simultaneously tried to give out.

"Fifty-six, proceed to the takeoff area and begin your routine," Spitfire told her. And that was all there was to be said.

She forced her concentration, because it was now necessary to force her legs as well. Proceeded to the takeoff area.

From behind her, High Winds said "But that's --"

"-- an applicant. Who, for purposes of this trial, has yet to do anything. Her papers are in place. Her recommendations are -- unusually solid. But she has to perform, just like everypony else."

The center of the takeoff area. Rainbow looked up.

Thinking and flight. Not just advance planning and then letting instinct and practice carry the day: thinking about everything she was doing. How much could she truly accomplish in such a state? There had been no practice time, and...

Don't think about that.

Think about flying. Nothing else.

Basics, done better. Done perfectly.

But she knows me. She's probably expecting...

No. Basics. That's what I might be able to manage. That's what I'll do.

Five monitors.

Eight if the judges can get into the air in time.

"Fifty-six, we have other applicants --"

-- Rainbow spread her wings, pushed. And flew.

It was one of the hardest thing she'd ever done. The near-instant transmission of sensory data to muscle fibers, insight becoming reaction, was gone. Deliberately disabled, because to take her mind out of the way and just let flight happen was to let the lurking vertigo through. She had to think about each flap, individually consider every tenth-bit of information she had coming in. She considered the implications of the southerly chill gust just in time to not get out of its way, and then she had to think about how to turn her desperate recovery into something which looked like it was just another part of her performance.

Oh, she was managing -- to a degree. If it had been just a normal day, she might have even been able to go about her daily routine, more or less, although only if she agreed with the town's cruel collective proposition that said routine included at least two crashes. She stayed in the air through the first minute, and then a second. She managed a flip, but had to make it a much slower one than she would have liked, and felt the fluid in her ears beginning to shift. A fast spiral -- no, a slow one, and with the loops far too spread out, gentle curves only seen on the first day of flight camp. But she was managing the basics, wasn't she? Flying with Manière's. Who had ever done that? Possibly just her, plus a few other ponies who'd been equally as desperate. And she could see the monitors --

-- focusing on the monitors got her left wing clipped by a thermal, she scrambled to recover --

-- and they looked bored.

Oh no.

It's not enough.

No matter what Spitfire says, she knows me. She knows I'm capable of more than this. She's expecting more. The only impression I'm making is how boring I've suddenly gotten. And no matter what she said, she's expecting more and I'm boring her, I don't even have any flow because I'm thinking too much, everything she knows about me is being wiped away from boredom...

(She was thinking too much and about the wrong things, her concentration was beginning to slip, there was a distant roaring in her ears...)

I -- have to do something. Anything. Or they'll forget me, and it's fourteen moons before I can try to make them remember, fourteen moons, and --

-- she stopped thinking. The thoughts hurt too much.

She dove.

What had her instincts decided on, to impress the Wonderbolts? She didn't know. Just that a dive was the first stage of it, and then there would be a next stage, and when she finished, they would --

-- her ears roared. Fluid shifted. The world twisted, tilted, spun. Ground and sky inverted, and the last thing she saw before the true spiral began was the shocked faces of the monitors, who didn't know what she was trying, what had just gone so wrong...

...falling I'm falling oh Celestia Luna and Cadance I'm falling...

She couldn't get oriented. Everything was moving around her, everything. Her stomach recoiled, her muscles went tight, she couldn't focus, didn't know which way to make her wings move when she didn't know what any direction was, there was ground and sky and neither was where it should have been, atmosphere pummeled her as she cascaded through ever-tighter spirals, there were crash cushions below her but she was moving too fast and there was no time to think --

-- and once again, all thinking stopped.

The vertigo could have her senses. It could take her orientation.

But it could not claim her wings.

They flared. Tilted, about ninety degrees to the plane of rotation, on pure instinct. Feathering.

Drag decreased. Windmilling began to slow. But the only way to bleed off the momentum in time was --

-- her forelegs tucked under her body, her hind legs followed suit. She pulled her head back, instinctively mimicking Tank as she changed her position to present the smallest possible profile against the wind. Wings and a center steering entity. Nothing more.

Her wings tilted again, then pulled in somewhat, curled...

And she shot across the sky like one of the Founder's Day bottle rockets, twisting and spinning in a horizontal line as her tail created a prismatic contrail and Silver Zoom's shout filled the tunneled air.


It had taken the monitors some time to find her. More to silently walk her back. Nopony asked why she didn't want to fly to the trial site, not after what they'd just seen. And for the same reason, nopony asked why her knees kept shaking.

"Fifty-six," Spitfire said, and the voice seemed far too distant for the source being a mere seven body lengths away. "We have to --"

"-- that was the first stage of a shadowfount!"

Everypony looked at Silver Zoom, whose forehooves were on the table now, half-trampling Rainbow's recommendations. Rainbow had never seen a pony with eyes that wide -- or half-seen: she was still having some trouble getting her head up.

"Nopony does a shadowfount! Nopony's seen one since -- just the first stage, but -- I -- how did you -- you've got to tell me, those spirals, how did you figure out how to --"

"Stop."

Spitfire. Insistent. Forceful. Angry.

"Fifty-six," the captain of the Wonderbolts said. "We have to talk. Immediately. Alone. Follow me, please."

High Winds stared at her. Everypony did.

"But," the third judge protested, "Captain... that was a --"

"Stop." And the order was obeyed. "Now, fifty-six."

And Rainbow, hooves shuffling, legs barely straight, hearing that roaring getting closer again, followed.


Spitfire had led her quite some distance away, much further than Rainbow wanted to move under the circumstances, which was to say they'd moved at all and then kept right on doing it. All the way on hoof. But it had brought them to -- the medical tent.

Pinkie was already gone. Spitfire gave the doctors a hard look, and they were impacted into silence before any could say a word. All four retreated, and Spitfire gestured Rainbow to one of the beds, one with an open curtain around it, the hanging fabric mounted on a high circular railing.

"Sit."

Rainbow sat. Spitfire closed the curtain.

"First stage of a shadowfount."

Rainbow didn't seem to have any words. Spitfire had two more.

"Horse apples."

Rainbow's eyes closed.

"You lost it out there," Spitfire half-hissed. "Completely lost it. You figured out a recovery before you hit and about two seconds before the monitors would have reached you, but you lost it. The fact that your recovery method looked like a crude version of a first-stage shadowfount? Pure. Bucking. Coincidence. The others may be dazzled by what came at the end, enough to forget what led into it -- but I wasn't. You were barely up there. You were barely there, and barely staying up. Flight school dropout? Flight camp dropout? Worse. I almost expected that sort of routine from the pony who went before you, the one who was flying with half-amputated wings, assuming he could get off the ground at all. If I was grading this on the fairest curve possible, then the earth pony beat you. And I know you're better than that." Her volume was beginning to increase. "So what are you on? Field booster drug with some nasty side effects? Trying to give your techniques a push they don't need? Decided you had to be the best so much that you forgot about screenings? Have you been taking stuff this whole time and that's how you pulled the Rainboom off in the first place, but you finally got a bad batch? Because I can call in a doctor right now and test you for everything there is, and I'm giving you one chance to tell me what you took before I order them to prove it and kick you out of --"

"I have Manière's."

It had been a whisper. And yet, it was enough to completely stop Spitfire for two whole breaths.

"Bad lie, fifty-six. Your eyes are --"

"-- I have... a zebra friend. She's kind of halfway between a medic and a magician, and she couldn't cure me because zebras don't fly. But she could make my eyes look normal. So I did that, and... then I came out. I spent the whole day looking for anything to cure me and all I could do was make my eyes look right..."

Spitfire was staring at her now.

"You tried flying. With Manière's."

"I was practicing in the upper atmosphere, getting ready for the trials. I -- just got unlucky."

Softly, "Pegasi with Manière's can't fly."

Below a whisper. "I thought... if I just did the basics better than anypony... but the monitors, they looked... it's fourteen moons until next time, fourteen moons and missions and... I had to..."

Spitfire turned away from her.

"I'm sending a doctor in," she said. "To take your blood. The tests won't take long. Just enough time for me to judge the last applicants. You stay right here."

And Rainbow did.

The needle didn't hurt. Not more than everything else.


The trials were over. She'd heard one other pony being brought into the medical tent: strained left wing. Treated and gone.

Rainbow hadn't moved. At all.

The curtain parted. Spitfire was back. Not that it mattered.

"The tests are back."

Rainbow silently nodded. Regarded the floor, which wasn't currently spinning.

"They proved two things."

Waited.

"The first is that you have Manière's. A severe case. As bad as anything they've ever seen."

That didn't seem to require a nod.

"The second is that you're an idiot." Spitfire took a deep breath. "I'm going to remember that. The fact that you're stubborn, and determined, and stupid. Stupid in a way I don't think it's possible to measure, stupid in a way you can't teach and maybe stupid in a way you can't unlearn."

She shook her head, very slowly.

"It's about two hours before sunset. The practical trials are over. We're going to strike the tent, raise the clouds, and move on. The practical exam team will be back in fourteen moons."

And sighed.

"I'll be back in four days."

Rainbow blinked.

"Because Manière's lasts for three. Even a case as bad as yours. And it's going to be a pain in the tail on a level you don't understand, to scramble back here by myself and set everything up again. But you're stupid. You are so stupid that you tried to fly with Manière's -- and you made it work. You've got four days to get better and, if at all possible, smarter. Let me see you when you're not sick. And then... well, I can't promise a letter, not after this idiotic stunt. But I will promise you a second chance. And possibly your last. So make it count."

Rainbow nodded. Just barely.

"Got it?"

Again.

"Good. Now I'm going to go get an air carriage, and then I'm flying you home. Because I don't want you proving your idiocy again, not today. Stay here." She turned, started to trot away --

-- turned back.

"Have you ever seen a shadowfount?"

"Nopony has," Rainbow managed. "Just old mare's tales and -- some diagrams, partial ones, which have to be wrong because following them just makes you crash." She knew all about those crashes.

"But the surviving diagrams show what the complete first stage is supposed to look like. What you did."

It might have been the hardest admission of her life. "It was an accident." And given what had happened immediately after she'd gotten out of sight range, she hadn't thought of it as a first-stage shadowfount at all. More like the Vomit Comet.

"Or instinct."

Rainbow looked up. It would not have been in time to see the smile, if a smile had ever been there at all.

"Four days," Spitfire said. "Be ready."


And in the end, there was yelling and uniforms and badges, stunts and spinouts and lives at risk, ponies she admired and wanted to be like, then didn't ever want to see again, dreams discarded and renewed, an ending which led to a new beginning and an air path leading off into a future which might go on for more than fourteen moons.

But before all that... there was a letter.

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