Eleven: Thunder Road
Twenty-five pegasai flew in formation, pushing against the still, hot, humid air. Their tiny wings flapped with literally unearthly power, heaving the heavy bodies they supported ever higher. After a time, the lead pegasus, Alexi, called out "GLIDE!" and the formation spread their wings carefully to soar at a shallow angle, resting muscles and catching breath. Sweat dripped from the colorful equinoids, the perpetual summer as much a danger to them now as the height; enervation an enemy as deadly as any beast.
"FLY!" called out their leader, and the practiced constellation of pegasai moved as one, pumping the air with powerful strokes, climbing once again. Their height now was prodigious, the hill they had started from a tiny spot on the brown world below surrounded by colorful specks; their herd, their community.
The woven wreaths of grass that each wore around their necks were an additional burden; the clever unicorns had twisted and braided the irregular and clumsy torus shapes to serve as a food supply. With water to drink from the clouds they would make, the pegasai could stay above the haze layer for several days without growing too weak to make a successful decent.
It was clear that some in the constellation were struggling more than others; Alexi was finding the climb exhilarating and almost easy now. Droplet was working hard but keeping up. A former terrestrial Meteorologist who had taken the name 'Cirrus' was falling behind, while 'Cherryblossom', a white and pink mare was now gliding out of sync, desperately trying to follow the group.
"HAZE! LAYER!" Alexi barked the words between breaths, as the constellation of pegasai drove into the blank, white, disorienting mist. This was the most dangerous part of their flight; they would be rendered effectively blind, unable to see beyond the ends of their own wings. A collision would be catastrophic; they had three absolute rules for this part of the journey: keep flying, keep going in a straight line, keep calm.
The glowing white blindness was horrifically silent, erasing all sound that came from each other. None could hear the wings of the other pegasai and grunts of effort were absorbed, leaving only eerie quiet. Even the odd loud call was but a distant, muffled whisper. As the pegasai worked their sodden wings, water spat from the tips of their primaries, the long feathers that provided their greatest thrust, while more wetness trickled down their muzzles, soaking their coats.
The white layer seemed to extend forever, and it was easy to imagine that there was no open sky above; just an endless hellish world of silent, pale mist.
Alexi was the first to breach the surface of the sea of haze, his white wings and blue mane soaked and shining in the bright, late morning sun. One by one the remainder of the expedition burst through into the clear, cold air, immediately beginning to glide as per their instruction. Alexi did not want any of his constellation to suffer the same cramps that he had; entering the cold air while dripping wet, so the pegasai began gliding, skimming their hooves on the haze layer.
Astonishment awaited them as they found that they did not sink twenty feet through the layer as Alexi had, instead they sank only to their stifles, the smaller of them to their hocks; a gentle landing allowed them to stand on the haze layer with only slight compression of it.
Alexi, testing the sharply defined interface between haze and sky could not help but imagine the plummet that had drove him twenty feet down into the layer. He felt gratitude that he had not been injured; thoughts of starving on a bed of cloud with a broken wing, unable to return to the ground, briefly terrified him. He had been very lucky indeed.
Alexi called out "ROLL CALL!"
One by one, each pegasai shouted out their names, identifying who had made it above the layer. All were now accounted for, except for Cherryblossom; Twenty-four pegasai were panting and gasping on the mist, wings drooping in exhaustion, grateful for the rest.
Careful instructions existed for any pegasus that felt they could not make the full journey; they were expected to immediately glide back down. There would be other times to try again in the future. After all, this was their unique task for the sake of nature; to fly and make the weather that all life relied on.
It was a strange concept to face; every pony in Equestria had a part to play in the maintenance of the workings of Nature itself; they themselves were the engine of Nature in this new universe. Equestria had no natural processes as humans had known them on Earth; instead ponies, Equestrians, acted as natural forces, working together to keep the very world running.
In their human lives, the world was a place one existed within, a stage on which the theater of a person's life might unfold. In Equestria, the world was a career, a calling, and every pony was needed to create and maintain Nature herself. In Equestria, nopony stood apart from Nature, instead they literally were Nature, and the world depended upon them.
Suddenly, a panting desperate Cherryblossom burst through the haze, nearly crashing into Cirrus as she passed. She was blind with terror, pumping her exhausted wings, flying higher and higher trying to escape the white hell she had already unknowingly left.
"Droplet! Assist!" Alexi and Droplet leapt up, beating the air furiously in order to reach Cherry before she fell. This was a maneuver the pegasai had practiced on the ground, an emergency technique that did not always work, but which was better than nothing.
Alexi and Droplet flew on either side of Cherryblossom, calling out to her to glide. She eventually heard them, and went into a steep decline, too tired to angle her wings correctly. Alexi called out "LOW!" indicating that he would take the low position. He soared underneath Cherryblossom and attempted to allow her to put a hoof or two on his broad back, just enough to help support and stabilize her glide.
"TAIL!" Droplet flared her wings and dropped behind Cherry, then flapped forward to catch her streaming tail. The newfoals had been astonished, early on, at just how well constructed their new bodies were. It was almost impossible to pull hair out, and their tails were amazingly strong and durable. One of the Bureau holoprograms had actually demonstrated this fact; early tests of the newfoal body showed that a pony could be entirely suspended by their tails with no ill effect. No terrestrial equine could survive such treatment intact.
If Cherryblossom were to fall, then a last resort was to catch her by her tail, then try to land her as softly as possible through an effort of strength. In effect, the Tail Assist pegasai would try to act as a living, flapping parachute, one that could make the difference between broken bones and mere bruises.
Cherryblossom had pulled back from panic, now that she could see blue sky, and having a hoof on Alexi's back had relieved some of the effort of flying, allowing her wing muscles needed rest. The three pegasai were close to the haze layer now, skimming just above it. "I can handle things now!" Cherryblossom called out.
"You sure?" Alexi still felt weight on his back; Cherry was still depending on him for support. "I'm sure! Let me go!" Cherryblossom began using her wings in earnest again, and Alexi felt the pressure of her hoof removed from his back. He glided off to the side and flared for a gentle landing on the mist.
Droplet remained attached to Cherryblossom until she had safely landed, her tail still in Droplet's mouth right to the end. Alexi felt proud of Droplet, there was a pegasus a pony could depend on.
They had made it, they had all of them made it.
The winged newfoals gazed in wonder at the new land spread before them, a landscape only their kind could walk upon. Above, the wide clear sky almost shouted 'BLUE!' at them, the color so intense that it seared their eyes. The endless white expanse was like an infinite field of snow, blindingly bright under Celestia's gigantic sun.
Alexi stared at the sun. It was safe to do such a thing in Equestria; unlike Earth's sun, Celestia's creation could not permanently blind any creature, nor harmfully burn their flesh.
He had never really thought about it, but up here, with only sky and endless white, he found himself in awe of the size of the sun. It was much larger than the sun he had known on Earth - the few times he had ever seen it under the perpetual smog - and it dominated the sky.
"Pretty incredible, isn't it? That sucker is way more than 32 arc minutes. I'm thinking, gosh, at least a hundred arc minutes! Maybe even more!" Cirrus Uncinus, the former meteorologist had carefully made his way across the white plane to stand near Alexi.
"Ark... what?" Alexi looked at the pale blue and white tufted pegasus in confusion.
"Arc minutes. It's a unit of measurement for celestial bodies. It WAS a unit of measurement, I don't think it even matters anymore here, I guess. Basically it means it's big. The sun here is really, really big! In the sky, I mean. It looks just huge!" Cirrus grinned, as though he had found a new toy.
"Big. Yes, the sun is indeed big. Gigantic, I would say. It makes me fear it should fall on me, almost!" Alexi grinned back, just excited that everypony had made the trip successfully, everypony safe and unhurt.
"This is... I don't know how to describe it. On Earth, I studied the weather. Here... I guess I'm going to be helping to MAKE the weather. It just blows my mind. I'll tell you something..." Cirrus looked off at the endless glowing plain "If it all ended for me right this moment, it would have been worth it. I mean, damn. Just... damn." The look in Cirrus's eye when he turned back was one of almost religious ecstasy; this was his life's abstract fascination, and now he was standing on it.
Scientists, Alexi thought, they're all just big kids, and the world, any world, is their toy. Alexi liked dealing with scientists; they were almost always easy to make trades with, if you could give them a reason to be interested. He liked how excited and happy they would become when talking about the things that fascinated them. And he'd never been cheated by one.
"I agree, my friend." Alexi shook the water from his ears and mane. "It is a good thing to stand in the sky. I think I like this being a pony business!"
Cirrus grinned widely "It definitely beats my old corporate job. Heh..." The pale blue pegasus also shook the water from his ears, the curved tufts that made up his white mane rippling as he twisted his head. "Hey, Joe, what did you do today?" Cirrus spoke in a silly voice "I filed the radiative forcing reports! How about you?" Cirrus changed voices "Well, Bob, I flew up and made some clouds. Let's get a beer!" Both Cirrus and Alexi were laughing now.
"Hey, what's up?" Droplet had finally made it over; walking through the mist layer was a little like walking through a thick but lightly packed fall of snow; each hoofstep had to be lifted high and brought down carefully to compress the material underneath. "What's so funny?"
Alexi ended on a few chuckles, they had made it and the relief was intoxicating, as well as the view. " We were just marveling at the beauty of the world. Also, we like our new careers." For some reason this brought both Alexi and Cirrus to laughter again; Droplet just stood tilting her head, perplexed, but smiling. At least everyone seemed happy, and that was good enough.
"EVERYPONY! Listen up!" All ears swiveled to listen to Alexi "We need a place to spend the night. Let's meet in the..." Alexi scanned the endless plain of white "...middle... here, and begin stomping out a nice, flat, solid place. Maybe we can find a faster way too, if we try. But we need a sleeping platform before night."
Stepping carefully, the pegasai made their way to where Alexi, Droplet and Cirrus stood. Already, Droplet was stomping mist into a floor around her, trying to make it as flat and even as possible.
The unicorns horns pulsed and flared with arcane light. Together, Ocean, Lightning, Boeing and several others focused on a single nail. The nail appeared to be made of iron, more or less, and the head of it was huge; in some ways it was more like a spike. The nail was embedded in the thick Equestrian wood of a crate, one of the twenty that had been left behind by the Royal Unicorn Corps when the newfoals had been abandoned. For almost two months the crates had stood, impossible to open.
It was everyponies wish for that situation to change.
The unicorns pulled with their will, with their mind, with the small organ at the base of their horns called a carbuncle, a tiny, red, jewel-like organ that collected and focused the very stuff of magic itself. They pulled at the nail, some using fine control, others using raw power.
They had worked out a clever way to meld their abilities; those with raw power would sheath the nail in force, while those with fine control would compress and guide the raw power of the others. Together it just might work; together raw force might be restrained by fine control; each capability making up for the lack of the other.
The nail moved. It jerked out a tenth of an inch. Lightning got a sudden inspiration; he began to twist his mental grasp on the nail clockwise; it was enough to loosen the friction on the nail.
The nail shot out, caught in the glowing fields of seven unicorns, all working together. In the thick, Equestrian wood a hole remained, a hole the diameter of the nail.
They had done it! They had proved that they could open the crates using the same abilities as the Royal Unicorn Corps; magic. They needed to work together; it was exhausting, and it would take time... but it could be done. One nail after another. All they needed to do was to keep at it.
By the end of the day, when it grew dark and the unicorns became too weary to continue, they had extracted five nails. There were dozens on a side, but it was a significant start. If they could train other unicorns to do what they had discovered, the process could be accelerated.
After the dinner graze, Lightning, Ocean and Boeing lay together on the flattened mat of grass between the four hills. They were not far from the pile of crates. In the rising moonlight, Lightning played with the nails, making them dance, and chase each other with the power of his horn.
"Dude, we can really do this!" Ocean was basking in their success. "It was, like, awesome. Working together, and that twisting... oh that was like totally radical, dude."
"The torque you applied did seem to make the difference. I think we should use torque application as a standard technique, and teach it to others." Boeing took one of the nails up in his own glowing force, and examined it, spinning it end over end. "You lowered the friction coefficient significantly, Lightning. Excellent strategy."
"Heh. I guess maybe I can become a proper unicorn wizard now. If they have wizards. And if they don't, I'll be the first!" Lightning felt a wave of excitement and hope; he felt like he could become something amazing. He could matter to others. "We all did it together. Thanks, you two. We make a great team."
"Dude! We're like a unicorn rock band or something! We should totally have a name! Like... the 'The Nail Twisters', or the 'Spike Pullers', or maybe the 'Rod Yankers!'"
"Uh... No." Both Boeing and Lightning said simultaneously. "Just... No." The frown on their muzzles mixed incredulity with horror.
"Dude, what? Like, I don't get it! What did I say?" Ocean seemed genuinely surprised by their reaction.
"I think..." Said Boeing diplomatically "...that having... a band name... would set us apart too much. We all need to work together."
"Yeah, Ocean." Lightning picked up on where Boeing was going "We need to help the other unicorns feel a part of it all, right? All together, right?"
"Yeah!!!" Ocean grinned widely as a lock of blond mane fell across his eyes "Righteous, dudes! All, like, together! I can dig that!"
Lightning and Boeing glanced at each other, briefly, then settled in to sleep.