• Published 23rd Jul 2020
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Going out with a boom - Shaslan

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The third day

Rainbow stood atop the enormous pillar of cloud that she had carved with her passage. She looked down at the remnants of the path she had made; more fragments of vapour broke away even as she watched. She had come as far as this cloud could take her.

Little cirrus clouds hurried past her perch. The ground was little more than a haze below the trembling, endless air. The wind was rising. It was time to take wing again.

Rainbow hesitantly spread her feathers. A little shaky, but when were they not? At least they had relaxed from yesterday’s rigid postures. The damp air had not been good for her aches and pains, but the hours spent on hoof had let her wings recover.

Rainbow readied herself and fluttered her wings a few times. The movement made her wince, but she narrowed her eyes and pushed through it. Once she was confident her muscles were as stretched out as they were going to be, she did her closest approximation of a gallop — a shuddering canter, if she was being honest — and hurled herself into the ether.

She beat her wings a few times, to level off. To her relief, she found a thermal almost immediately, and was able to rest there. Keeping her wings level was easy enough, and while it hurt, it was a whole lot less pain than constant motion.

She spent a few easy hours sliding from one thermal to the next, basking as she went in recollections of summer afternoons spent lazing on the porch of the little cottage in the apple orchard, the one that Applejack had built for her just after they got hitched.

It was so easy to relax into her memories and let the present slip away. She thought of Granny Smith, rocking in her chair under the shady leaves of the apple trees in that last autumn before the winter snows took her. Granny had spent a long time staring into emptiness, in those last few weeks. Applejack had been so worried for her. But now that Rainbow was in the same boat, she found that she saw the appeal. It was so much more pleasant, to live in the past, where you could be as young and fast as you were at your peak. When everypony you loved was around you and you could hold them close.

But eventually the wind picked up, and as the sun slid towards the horizon Rainbow’s friendly thermals slipped away from her too. Suddenly, she was all alone in empty sky, unsupported, and she was having to beat hard just to stay aloft, let alone gain any more height. She began to look around her for a cloud. She was bone-tired, and it was probably wisest to rest before she became too fatigued to keep flapping.

Rainbow flew in a tight circle, fighting the wind all the way, and squinted her Celestia-damned weak eyes in every direction she could. But the only clouds she could see were leagues below her. The air up here was cold and clear. She was alone with only the wind for company, and this wind seemed cruel and capricious, more interested in finding a way to throw her down than let her glide on its back.

The light dimmed further and the wind grew stronger. Rainbow was tossed to and fro, and though she was fighting it, she could feel herself weakening.

She ground her teeth together and pressed her front hooves against the lapels of her jacket. The medals were still there, freezing to the touch and slick with condensation. Rainbow took heart from their cold surfaces. She was a champion, and here was the proof. She wasn’t going to give up now.

She numbered her victories, one by one. One for each agonising wingbeat.

One. Longest vertical dive — snap those wings down — from greatest height. She’d beat that record before the day was out, if she had her way. Shame the record-keeping ponies with the tape measures and the stopwatches weren’t here to make it official.

Two. Fastest one-mile flight, Ponyville to Sweet Apple Acres in two minutes flat. A fierce grin split her muzzle as she remembered how loudly Applejack had cheered for her when she crossed that finish line.

Three. Fastest two-mile flight, Ponyville to Cloudsdale, six minutes and fourteen seconds. The wings that had carried her with such speed would not fail here.

Four. Fastest non-stop flight from Canterlot to Appleoosa. Five. Strongest wing power from a lone pony.

And lastly — she panted as she slammed her hoof against it — creation of the sonic rainboom. No other pony had ever been able to replicate it. Her greatest work. Only she could do it. Zap Apple — yes, think of him — there was a time, one summer, when Zap Apple was about twelve and had wanted to do everything his Mum was doing, when he had come to flight training with her every day. And he had —

Rainbow was hurled to the right by a sudden torrent of wind and had to throw herself back against it. Her wings felt like they were about to be ripped off her body. She gasped and kept trying to flap upwards. She tried to gather once more the tattered threads of that golden week with Zaps. Better than painkillers, better than drugs. Her memories could push the pain away like nothing else could.

He had been able to keep up with the twenty-year-old Wonderbolt recruits she had been training, had even outperformed some of them. And then one afternoon in the middle of a normal routine he had gone into a steep dive, and his red-rainbow mane had whipped behind him, his hooves had stretched out in front, and some sort of red barrier had started to grow there, some sort of pressure beginning to build. Rainbow’s mouth had fallen open and she had hardly dared breathe as she watched him. She could have sworn she saw a hint of rainbow shimmering behind him. But then Zap had seen how close the ground was getting — he was still just a colt, bless him — and had levelled out of his dive sharpish, and the pressure had vanished. Rainbow had never seen its like since.

Rainbow pushed herself upwards once more. The wind plastered her mane flat against her skull, and she snarled into it and pulled her flight goggles down over her eyes for the first time on this endlessly long journey. She looked desperately around herself, but the air hung empty and dark around her. Her invisible enemy pummelled her from every side, and it was all she could do to keep dragging her aching, screaming wings through that deadly repetitive motion. Up, down, up, down. Just keep it moving, Rainbow Dash.

The sun was setting in earnest now. Golden-orange rays of light flared and flamed as it set. Rainbow knew that in Canterlot, Twilight Sparkle must be watching the same sunset, wearing the crown containing the Princesses’ magic. She hissed once more at the thought of her friend. Rainbow Dash was not going to go down in some pathetic windstorm and die like a fly, smushed on the earth. Rainbow was going to push through, strong as Applejack, determined as Scootaloo, she was going to make it out the other side.

Holding the image of her smiling family in her mind’s eye, Rainbow swung her head wearily from side to side, searching for somewhere to rest. With the goggles, the wind couldn’t tear directly at her eyes anymore, and her vision was as clear as it could be in the dimming light.

Finally, a glint of amber light thrown out by the last rays of the sun hit something. Rainbow peered up at it, and then sucked in a breath. Yes! A cloud, a little underground wisp of a thing, but a cloud nonetheless.

“Thank you, Twilight!” Rainbow gasped, and pumped her wings harder than ever. The cloud was leagues above her yet, but at least it was something to aim for.

It was bone-shaking work, and her Celestia-damned wings were sending shooting balls of pain rattling down her spine, but the wind was lessening at last. Wingbeat by precious wingbeat, Rainbow clawed her way towards that scrap of cloud.

She flew higher and higher, every stroke an effort that cost her dearly. Her wings were cracking and aching, and she felt like she was nearing the end of her strength. Rainbow fumbled in the soft, wooly interior of her jacket for the hidden pocket where her grain-bars were, and gratefully crammed one into her mouth. The crumbs that fell through her hooves tumbled into oblivion below.

The food gave her fresh energy, and at last, it seemed like the wind was beginning to drop. The air was thin up here in the higher echelons. Rainbow’s pace was slow, but she kept her gaze fixed firmly on that little cloud above her. It was enough to be out of the gale; she could have wept with relief.

Dawn was breaking before she finally made it into the upper realms of the sky, where the air was so calm and clear you could have cut it with a knife. The sky up here was a deeper blue, and the fading stars, as they made way for the sunrise, looked closer than they ever had before.

At length the air grew too oxygen-starved to breathe in more than shallow pants, and Rainbow knew her journey was at an end. She coasted for a while, no longer attempting to climb.That tiny cloud that she had been fighting towards all night was still in view. Rainbow tried to force fresh energy into her limbs and raced for the distant white shape.

At long last, the wispy little thing was within reach. It was cobwebby and seemed like it might disintegrate if you hit it wrong, but Rainbow was past caring. She flopped onto it, and thank the stars, it held her weight. Wheezing with pleasure and exhaustion, she let her eyes slip shut. By the Princesses, she didn’t think she could ever remember being this tired.

This cloud might drift to pieces in the night, but she needed to rest before she could do anything else. She’d deal with any further problems if and when they arose. As Applejack would say, no sense putting the cart before the horse.

She reached for another grain-bar. As the precious, honey-laden crumbs of it melted on her tongue, she let her mind wander back to her son again.

A week or so after Zap Apple’s almost-rainboom, she had showed the recruits a simple tornado-making drill, and Zap had gotten his cutie mark. While she was thrilled, of course — what mother wouldn’t be? — she had tried and tried to get him to dive again. But all he wanted to do was study wind creation or practice his tight turns, and she had been forced to let it go. Then the summer holidays had ended, Zap had turned thirteen, and that had been the death knell. What self-respecting teenager wants to hang out at his Mum’s workplace?

Rainbow rolled onto her side, throwing her wings up and out behind her rather than furling them. If she slept with them folded, she wasn’t sure if she’d be able to spread them again come the morning.

No, Rainbow Dash was the only one who had ever managed a sonic rainboom. She was seventy-nine years old now, and she had been sixty-three the last time she had tried to do one. The attempt had dislocated her right wing, the Veteran Wonderbolts Display had ended in failure, and AJ had forbidden her from ever trying it again.

“It’s too dang dangerous, Rainbow Dash!” Rainbow muttered, her voice deepening in an attempt at Applejack’s husky tone. “Ah will not let you risk life and limb for showin’ off! You’re too dang old!”

It was a habit she’d slipped into over the last few years. It was easy to talk to yourself, as it turned out. Easier than living alone in those big, echoing rooms. It was lonely in her quarters at Wonderbolts HQ, and it was even lonelier in the little cottage at Sweet Apple Acres. On the whole, Rainbow thought she rather preferred this pathetic little cloud. At least she could rest without having to think about who should have been here beside her.

For so many years, Rainbow had been so used to waking up in the sturdy wooden bed from AJ’s old room at the farmhouse, Applejack herself at her side, Zap Apple clattering around in the kitchen below them, the door swinging open to reveal Apple Tart and little baby Pippin bursting in, their parents close behind, ready for the Apple family breakfast. But Zap and Tartie had gone off to college, and only Tartie had come back. Then Big Mac stopped showing up to breakfast, even little Pippin had moved away, and then worst of all, Rainbow had to start waking up in AJ’s bed all by herself. The cottage began to hurt to be in — Applejack and Zap seemed to have left holes behind them that Rainbow couldn’t get away from. She saw them everywhere she looked.

So eventually, she had moved into her Wonderbolts Academy apartment permanently. She told Sugar Belle it was because she would be closer to her lecture theatre, and that travelling all the time was too hard on her joints. They had both known it was a lie.