We'll get higher and higher, straight up we'll climb
Higher and higher, leave it all behind
Oh, we'll get higher and higher, who knows what we'll find?
Van Halen, “Dreams”
“A Day with the Wonderbolts”
Rainbow Dash was finally living her dream. She had it all figured out, how she’d wow the team and convince them to finally let her join, point by point. But the surprises started almost immediately.
Dash and her escorts arrived at Wonderbolt HQ after a mercifully short flight from Cloudsdale -- down. As she descended, she got a good look at the campus, a series of almost nondescript, rectangular buildings, clustered around a central flying field. Most were small, but a couple were very large, what she assumed were dorms or gymnasiums. The buildings were all white, though as she closed in, she could see subtle grey cloud patterns painted on them, with deep blue ribbons of color circling their perimeters. Atop the corners of every building and the flying field, deep blue pennants with the “Flying Thunderbolt” logo streamed out, showing the wind’s direction from all over the campus. Near the ground entrance to the campus, there was a little square, like a miniature of the flying field; at its center was a stone plinth with a carved Flying Thunderbolt attached to it, seeming to hover just above.
The whole place looked like a fancier version of Junior Speedsters Camp!
When she landed, her surprise grew further: the entire team had come out to greet her. She counted more than a dozen and a half of them standing on the ground in a perfectly spaced formation.
“Congratulations and welcome to Storm Cloud, Dash,” said the escort on her left, as all three landed together. “Headquarters of the Royal Aeropony Demonstration Squadron. Otherwise known as…”
“THE WONDERBOLTS!” shouted the rest of the team in unison.
Her escort called back, “ONE HERD-“
“Dismissed!” barked Left Escort, and the team scattered and trotted off. “My name’s Skybuck, Flight Leader. This is Slider, Right Wing. “ He motioned to her other escort, who bowed his head. “I fly left wing with Squad One. It’s good to meet you, Dash; we’ll meet again soon!” He tossed his head and also trotted away, heading for one of the larger buildings.
“I’m going to be your escort during your day here, which will start at sunup tomorrow. Tonight will be pretty simple: we have a few things to go over, there’s an evening benediction that we would love to see you at, and then I’ll show you to your sleeping quarters. You’ll want a good night’s sleep – tomorrow is going to be a very busy.”
He paused, looking at Dash, who by now had an eye-to-eye grin frozen on her muzzle, her whole body vibrating like a buzzer. For a moment, Skybuck’s squad-leader demeanor broke, and he started chuckling. “Easy there, Dash. We know you’re enthusiastic, but if you explode, Celestia’s going to make us fill out a lot of paperwork.” Before long, Rainbow Dash was giggling too.
“Okay, to business,” he said. Dash looked attentive, trying to keep the boiling cauldron of her feelings at bay. “We’re very grateful for you saving our squad. We think you’re a brilliant flyer and you have a whole lot of spunk and talent. But we have to be honest with you: this is not an audition for the Bolts. That comes – perhaps – later. Nonetheless, we owe you a big favor, and this deserves a bit of a different approach.
“We’re going to give you the most unvarnished look at our day to day lives as we can. As much as we safely can, we’re going to show you what it truly is like to be a Wonderbolt.”
He checked that he still had Dash’s attention. She wasn’t quite so frozen-eyed as before, but she was still practically vibrating in place. He gave her a reassuring smile, and then his face once more turned serious as he continued:
“The most critical rule is that during our stay, you must follow all instructions given! This is particularly important when we’re in the air; the first thing you learn as a Wonderbolt is, surprise in the air can kill! You saw that at the Young Flyers’ Competition; we’re a precision aeropony team, not a rescue squad, and half of Squad One almost died for it.
“Failure to follow instructions will result in immediate removal from the grounds. We’re sorry that we have to be harsh about this, but around here, safety is everything.” He looked her in the eyes. “Agree?
Dash nodded a bit dumbly, still trying to get her feelings more under control. For once, she wished she had Applejack’s laid-back personality, or perhaps Twilight Sparkle’s academic detachment. But Skybuck’s smile quickly returned.
“Most of us have already had dinner; the volunteer judges will be having room service, same as you. But we have a benediction ceremony we’d like you to be a part of. You can leave your panniers at the edge of the field; they’ll be taken to your room. Come join us at the ceremony.”
She nodded, finally relaxing a little, and followed Skybuck to the square at the front. The rest of the team was gathered in the front courtyard, surrounding the marble sculpture, each holding a cup of something spicy. Upon closer examination, she saw what was inscribed at the base of the plinth:
“THE WONDERBOLTS: ONE HERD, ONE STORM.” Exactly as she’d heard before. Wow, they really take this team stuff seriously. But I think I understand some of it. Our herd feels like a family, too…
“We gather here tonight to welcome this year’s Young Flyer winner, Rainbow Dash, into our midst for one day. While I normally reserve the benediction to welcome new team members, our escape from calamity demands it. Ponies, raise your glasses.”
They all arched higher, lifting their glasses and tilting them toward the plinth, raising all their wings in a salute. Dash followed their lead, trying hard not to drop hers as she shook a little.
“We remember tonight all those that came before, those that wear the crest now, and those that are yet to grace our family. Look around at your teammates, and once more commit this special bond to memory.
“To Princess Celestia, our royal sponsor, may she always rule with kindness and wisdom.”
All the Bolts set their drinks down on the plinth, and drank a little. Now there’s something I can drink to, thought Dash, as she sipped as well. The drink burned going down; she caught just the faintest taste of rainbow in it.
“To the Bolts that came before; may we always remember their contributions to our team.”
They all poured a little bit of the drink on the plinth, briefly giving it an oily, rainbow sheen.
“To the Bolts that now wear the royal crest!”
They all toasted each other, splashing a little of the drink on each of their manes, giving the locks the same slight rainbow sheen.
“And finally, to the Bolts yet to be, the young flyers that are the promise of our future!”
All the team reared up as one, delivering a rousing “Huzzah!” and splashed a little of the drink in Dash’s direction. Startled, she backed a little, but she was met only with smiles and nods.
“Thank you all for coming out tonight. Enjoy the rest of the evening, remember, we’ll be starting bright and early. Wonderbolts, dismissed!”
As they all turned away to trot back to the largest of the buildings, Skybuck fluffed his mane and gestured toward it. “Now, let’s show you to your quarters. Instead of giving you the VIP visitors’ quarters, we’re going to let you stay in one of our spare dorm rooms. Our caterer will serve your dinner there; tomorrow, you’ll be eating with us.”
Like the rest of the campus, the dorm building didn’t look like much from the outside, but once brought up to her room, she blinked. It spoke at once of austerity and luxury; simple cloud-sculptures in front of walls bare save for a couple of Wonderbolts posters. The furnishings were finely crafted, however, and the sleeping-cushion was almost cloudlike, as soft and comfortable as any in Canterlot’s royal courts.
Skybuck continued. “If you want to wander about, feel free, but it’ll be a little boring before tomorrow, and you should get your rest. See you sharply at sunup!”
And with a flourish of his wings and a swish of his tail, he was gone, the door closed behind him.
Rainbow Dash stood frozen at the center of the room for a long time, once again practically vibrating with excitement. The caterer came and went, leaving a dinner fit for a royal courtier, but she barely noticed, and for a while still she simply shook in place.
But a moment later, several of the Bolts in that part of the dorm startled as an earsplitting war whoop exploded from the guest room. Grinning to themselves, they went back to their individual business.
The following morning, Skybuck reappeared with an orange-maned escort. Dash was flopped into the cloudfabric sleeping cushion, snoring mightily away. Skybuck gently shook her.
“Morning! It’s sunup, time to start your day!”
Dash rolled off the cushion in a heap, and promptly fell back to sleep.
Skybuck rolled his eyes, and looked at his companion. “This happens every year. You want to do the honors?”
“Oh, but I don’t want to be TOO hard on her…she did save my life, after all.”
“Then aim the horn high.”
The orange-maned mare grasped a little canned airhorn in her muzzle, aimed it at the ceiling, and let fly. Three things happened almost simultaneously: Rainbow Dash hitting the ceiling, Rainbow Dash landing squarely on Skybuck, and Spitfire falling over howling.
These Young Flyer days are never boring, are they? he thought to himself, then carefully got to his feet, tilting to get Dash’s hooves on the floor.
“Okay, okay, now that we’ve had our morning laugh, this is Spitfire, Lead Solo, Squad One. She’s one of the team whose lives you saved yesterday.” Spitfire recovered herself and bowed very low, forelegs splayed, then stood up and bobbed her head. “Thanks again, Dash! We’ll always be grateful.”
Dash did something truly unusual: she blushed. In rainbow hues, yet.
Spitfire laughed and trotted off to the mess hall. Skybuck motioned to Dash and they followed. On the way, he detailed some of the day’s itinerary. “We’ll take you to breakfast to meet the team, morning calisthenics, briefing of our Gala routine, preflight walkthrough, aerial practice, postflight breakdown…and a little surprise at the end. And of course, you can ask questions any time.”
“What will I be doing?”
“You’ll see! Though I’ll warn you in advance, most of it is going to be watching. We want you to see up close what we do day to day, but we do precision maneuvers and having someone up that doesn’t know them is unfortunately too dangerous. You aren’t a member of the team…yet.” And the familiar reassuring smile was back.
Hope fluttered in her heart, washing away most of the disappointment at not getting to fly with them in practice. Still, she didn’t want to pop the question quite yet. It was way too early.
They reached a small mess hall, big enough to hold the entire team and servers but few else, and collected their food. Breakfast was the same sort of mix of austerity and luxury as her quarters: the food was top-quality but relatively light, and nobody ate too much of it. She followed their lead. She noticed that there was nothing really sweet other then fruit – no refined sweets. Afterward, Skybuck lined the entire team up and they trotted by, gave a little head-bow and introduced themselves one at a time, by number. She recognized Slider and Spitfire; amusingly, her number, five, was inverted on her uniform. A light-blue mane named Lightning introduced himself as Left Wing, then a dark-blue called Soarin’ in the slot position. Then came Cloudkicker, Sundancer, Hurricane…the names all started to blur together as she daydreamed about flying with them.
Soon enough, though, the team had all introduced themselves, and Skybuck gently nudged her out of her reverie. It was out to the flying field for morning exercise. Calisthenics was nothing new, but she quickly got her first lesson as to how the Bolts did things a little…differently.
On the field, everyone lined up by squads, and Skybuck kicked a pedal on the ground. A heavy dance beat came over the announcement system, and the Bolts all began their exercise routine. Rear, hoof-cross, buck in each cardinal direction, stretch wings, a combination of dance and stretch…nothing terribly unusual. Except that they did it absolutely in unison. Following the beat and Skybuck’s lead, the Bolts moved together, with palace-guard precision. Even for as routine a thing as exercise, they were one.
And once the exercise was complete, they trotted off as one. It was time for the morning briefing.
Dash was getting restless, and the day had barely begun. Fortunately, Skybuck seemed to pick up on this and, after letting her see a bit of the briefing, finally took her on a tour of the grounds. “Not that there’s too much else to see. You’ve seen our flying field, the dorms, the mess hall. We have a visitor’s center for VIPs, an indoor exercise room and a gym, the briefing rooms, and a rec hall…”
Dash tried to think of something to ask…anything to ask! For once, she wished she were more like Pinkie Pie, who would have probably frizzed his mane by now.
“What did you want me to do?” Talk about lame…Gilda would be proud of me.
“Well, so far, you’re doing really good! But, when we start our flying practice, I must remind you – stay out of the safety box.”
“The…safety box? You take a box out onto the field?”
Skybuck chuckled and shook his head at himself. “It’s an invisible “box” covering the field up to a certain altitude. When we’re practicing, we have to make sure it’s clear. Remember…”
Dash repeated in unison, “…surprise in the air can kill, yeah.”
“I know it’s really hard. I know you want to be up there with us, strutting your flutter...”
Was I really that transparent?!
“But around here rule one is, safety first. Okay, next, we walk through our routines on the ground, and get our talker spells installed. You’ll get one too, so you can listen in.”
Dash peered at the odd little earpips. “Talker spells?”
“So we can talk to each other even when we’re flying far away from each other, and so the ground crew can listen in. This is part of why our primary base is on the ground. We’re not just pegasi here -- there’re unicorns and earth ponies as well, giving us the support work we need.”
Dash nodded, as the two squads started to walk slowly along the ground, discussing the day’s practice. They split into the expected groups of six. Occasionally, one would make a swooping or diving gesture as they talked, and she recognized some of the formations they formed on the ground. Only Skybuck remained with her. “Any other questions?”
Dash, still thinking about her own routine, blurted out, “Were you really going to give Rarity the Young Flyer award?”
“What?!” she shouted, then kicked herself inwardly. This was the head Wonderbolt she was talking to!
Fortunately, Skybuck seemed far more amused than offended. “We were going to give two awards this year. Look, we’re not happy with your…Rarity. She crashed the proceedings, made fools out of the judges and nearly got three quarters of our diamond killed.
“But we’re still planning to offer her a job.”
Dash, just thinking about how neatly he’d dodged the real question, felt doubts replaced by blank astonishment. Her jaw hung open for a moment, and then her mouth started to work. “But…but…you just said…and she’d never leave her shop…!”
“She wouldn’t need to. We think she had a really good idea, and one we’ve wanted to develop for a while. We’re going to sponsor, with Celestia’s support, an aerodance squadron – aerial ballet. That requires a whole different set of skills, and Rarity was a natural. We’re betting she’ll be extremely good at designing some routines for us, and perhaps some new costumes as well.”
Seeing Dash’s muzzle once more hanging open, he closed it for her gently. “As long as she keeps her hooves on the ground, it’ll be fine. We try never to pass up talent when we see it. We’ll mail a formal offer to her later on.”
Dash decided this was beyond her ken, and changed the subject. “What about those neat trails during your routines? How do you do that?”
“They’re cloud trails. One of the first courses of training when you become a Wonderbolt is using your pegasus abilities for all sorts of things. Cloud trails, lightning bolts, tailwinds to enhance our speed, headwinds to help us hover, and so on.”
Skybuck looked at the two squads on the field, who’d finally finished their walkthough, had their goggles down and were looking at him expectantly. “Any more questions, Dash?”
She badly…more than anything…wanted to ask him what he thought of her flying, but she just couldn’t work up the courage to. What am I, Fluttershy, just because I’m finally talking with my idol? My role model? The pony I’ve wanted all my life to meet…?
She shook her head.
“Then I’ll leave you for now. It’s time for morning practice. Remember what I said about not going into the box while we’re in the air!”
He gestured to Fartalker, a white unicorn, whose horn glowed. A series of small earpips glowed with it. He carefully placed one in Dash’s ear, and one in Skybuck’s. “This will let you listen in on our practice. Watch, learn, and enjoy, Dash. I’ll be back afterward to take you to lunch.”
With that, he gestured to the others and they all took off, heading into the sky. Her wings quivered, and she took off as well. However, she followed Skybuck’s instruction and kept her distance far from the practice area. For the first time, she heard how Skybuck led the squads through their routines. The absolute brevity of his commands surprised her, and there was absolutely no other chatter over the pip. Some of his commands were almost singsong: “Up we gooooo,” “Little more piiiitch,” he’d hum, as they climbed. Some were very sharp: “Ready, roll!” “Go, Diamond” preceded quicker maneuvers. Periodically she’d hear other team members call out their names as they got into place. Then, things really got interesting: both squads set up to practice newer demonstrations. Cupid’s Arrow, Ponytail Streamer, Double Diamond, and more were named over her earpip. Always, even in practice, she could see their grace and precision. She kept herself occupied during the long set-ups by daydreaming of herself up there, being the best solo flyer they had ever seen…
Lunch and early afternoon passed in a blur. The meal was delectable as breakfast. Post-flight breakdown, where for the first time she saw Skybuck show a stern side. He methodically listed their flaws at practice, things so subtle Dash hadn’t even noticed, and gave a speech strongly admonishing them to do better, as the Gala show was not very far away. After the squads were dismissed, a couple of the ponies stayed behind to talk with Skybuck one on one, discussing the things that went wrong; he was more gentle with them one on one then he was toward then as a group. They went on to their own post-practice breakdowns. While all this was happening, Dash kept trying to work up the courage to ask him for his judgment. And she kept failing.
And then Skybuck sprang the surprise he’d mentioned earlier.
“Normally, we hold an afternoon practice. But today, I’m going to call Free Flight. We’re going to have a game of Ribbon Elimination – and we’d be very happy if you’d join us, Dash.”
Oh, happy day! “R…really?” The ear-to-ear grin was back, but not quite so frozen this time.
“Of course. You’ve been very patient, and I know you want to fly with us. So here’s your chance. The rules are simple: two teams, each with a different color streamer attached to the dock. One team tries to remove the other’s ribbons. If your ribbon gets removed, you have to land and leave the game. ANY contact with any part of the body besides a ribbon is a foul and you leave immediately. Last team with members in the air wins. Got it?”
Dash nodded rapidly.
“I’ll line you up with Squad One, and pair you up with Slider. You’ll be his wingpony for the game. Remember, I don’t want anyone hurt up there, least of all you, so don’t get TOO enthusiastic.”
“And to make sure of it, I’m going up too. I’ll be wearing a purple ribbon; I won’t be attacking, but any team can catch me, and if they do, I fly for them!"
With that, both squads dropped their goggles over their eyes and trotted out, still moving in unison, and lined up on the opposite sides of the field. Her side had blue ribbons attached to the base of the tail; the other side, red. She noticed Spitfire among the Red squad, but didn’t readily recognize the other ponies. She took what she presumed to be Skybuck’s place, next to Slider, and took a half-step forward, tensing. This is where it was at. This was where she’d show them just how awesome she really was.
The airhorn sounded, and both squads took off simultaneously. Dash charged almost straight up, furiously beating her wings to gain altitude. She noticed both teams settling into their groups of two, except for Slider – whom she’d inadvertently left behind. Once she got a little bit of altitude, she charged straight down at lightning speed, flashing by one of the Reds, grabbing for his ribbon – and missing as he snaprolled to put it out of Dash’s reach.
She was preparing for hammerhead turn to return to the attack when through her earpip came, “Dash! You’re my teammate, remember! Form up on my wing, I’ve got a Red coming up my tail!”
She drove back up and found Slider. Spitfire had darted in while Dash was making her attack, and also lacked her wingpony. At least I wasn’t the only one that jumped the horn! This time, she made a more deliberate approach, from beneath and to one side. Spitfire saw this and tried to roll, only to discover Dash had feinted, flying up, somersaulting in midair, and diving right where she had rolled to. A moment later, Dash had a red ribbon in her muzzle – a tag! Over her earpip, a “Congrats, Dash, ya got me!” and Spitfire flew down to watch the rest of the game.
Dash took a position just behind and to one side of Slider, following him as he rolled and jinked, looking for the lone Red that Spitfire’s departure had left, before he could join up with another wingpony.
“Got a Red 10 o’clock high! Keep watch at my tail, Dash, we’re going in!”
Dash kept behind, as Slider lined up the attack. Then she saw a flash of a purple ribbon, cruising up above the fray.
“Slider, I see Skybuck, 3 o’clock high.”
“Don’t fall for it! He’s there as a distraction! Stay with me, Dash!”
Dash looked around. The others were all engaged . No one was behind them. “Slider, your rear is clear. I’m going after Skybuck.” Without further ado she rolled out, leaving Slider fuming in front of her. At last, her chance! She’d been waiting for this this entire day, the chance to show the team leader what she was made of! She flew straight at Skybuck, executed a knife-edge pass and whipped around, heading straight for the ribbon.
Skybuck looked over his shoulder and took off like a rocket. He encouraged Dash on, “Come on! Come around!” he shouted, and the two locked in a furious aerial duel. Skybuck would twist one way, and Dash would be right there breaking the other. Back and forth they went, through rolls and scissor turns, loops and hammerheads, flips and pivots. Skybuck seemed to be using every trick in his book but Dash kept right up. Whoa, this filly really is good! thought Skybuck to himself.
And each move brought Dash a little closer to Skybuck’s ribbon. By Celestia I’m actually doing it! I’m going to outfly the head of the Wonderbolts!
But then she felt the fateful tug on her tail. While she was closing with Skybuck, she’d failed to watch behind her, and a Red – Lightning -- had taken off her ribbon in a pass, neat as could be. “Gotcha! You’re out, Dash.”
Swearing a blue streak to herself, she went down only to find Slider was also down on the ground. She looked apologetically at him but got a rather grumpy look in return, and he said nothing. But there was little time to worry, as Skybuck’s voice came over the earpip. “Game’s just ended! Congrats to the Red team. Blue team, I expect better from you tomorrow. “
He landed on the field, the remaining Wonderbolts all coming down behind him, only a couple still with ribbons attached. Both teams formed up in their now-familiar formation.
“We’ll break a little early today. I’ll be talking with Dash before she heads back home, and it will give everyone a chance to cool down. Tomorrow, we’ll start fresh. Wonderbolts, dismissed!”
He turned to Dash, who was looking pained and embarrassed. This wasn’t how she wanted it to turn out at all. Now, she was never going to get in. She was sure of it.
“Dash, I know what you’ve wanted to ask me, all day. You wanted to know what we, the Wonderbolts, thought of your performance at the competition, and you wanted to convince us to let you join the team.”
She cringed even more, fully expecting the worst.
“Dash, I said it before and I’ll say it again. I see some real brilliance in your flying. Your routine was very well thought out – the slalom showed you mastered the basics, the cloud-twirling showed finesse, and the sonic rainboom showed you have a hell of a lot of power behind you. All those are really important.”
She looked up at him in surprise, a few tears in her eyes.
Skybuck pressed on, facing her directly. “But you need to learn better control and teamwork. You saw up there how important teamwork is. It is even more important during our shows. Sometimes, our very lives depend on it. So, you are not yet ready to be a Wonderbolt. However…”
He gave her his Mentor’s Smile and gently pushed her muzzle up, looking at her eye to eye.
“I’ll be shocked if you aren’t wearing a Wonderbolt uniform before too much longer. We’ll definitely be keeping an eye on you, Dash. You’ve got a whole lot of promise. When you have learned enough control and teamwork, and if you are ready to make the sacrifices we ask, come to our next audition. We’ll be waiting.”
Shaking a little still, she turned to go, but Skybuck said, “And one more thing…”
She looked back at him, trying not to break down crying. “We’ll be sending along the usual swag, the signed poster and so on, by courier. But we’re giving you a special gift, because you did save lives, and because we really do like you, Dash. We overheard those two ponies calling you “Rainbow Crash”. Well, we’re giving you our own squad name. You can use it whenever you see us – and you WILL be seeing us again, that I am sure of.”
“Clear skies and fair winds to you, Rainbow Flash.”
She managed a wavy smile to the Wonderbolt leader, who gave her a rearing salute. She took off and headed back home.
Whether or not you ever end up with us, success to you, Dash. You’re one of the truly promising young flyers out there.
With that, he trotted back to the mess hall. Before long, it’d be time to get back to work. The Gala was just around the corner, and that Ponytail Streamer Cross needed a whole lot more practice…
When she arrived back in Ponyville, most of her friends were busy doing other things, but, of course, Pinkie Pie was there to greet her. “Heyhey there Dash! I brought you something to celebrate your win, I thought you’d like a little Pinkie Pie gift.”
She’d brought cupcakes. Chocolate ones, with blue icing and a hard-candy yellow Wonderbolt logo atop each one, and for the second time that day, Dash got tears in her eyes.
“Pinkie Pie, you may be random, but nobody could ask for a better friend.”
“So how was it?”
Rainbow Dash thought long and hard. Where even to begin? Well, there was one thing she could say…
“It was 200% more awesome then I ever dreamed.”