Seven: The Land Above
It had become clear that all the newfoals were in danger. The abundant grass was drying out, gradually turning from a lush green to a faded brown. The many ponds and small lakes were now less than half their original depth, drying mud ringing their shorelines. The heat was unbearable; the humidity only made it worse.
The crystal clear, blue sky had been replaced with a white expanse, the stars no longer visible at night. The moon shone only as a fuzzy patch of dim light. It was the one-month anniversary of their arrival at Base Camp, but nopony was celebrating.
Frustration at the situation had turned toward the pegasai. It was their job to control the weather, somehow, and both fear and the heat had brought out the worst in many of the ponies.
"You splash in pools and you glide down hills! While you are playing like fillies, everything is going to hell!" It was a fairly upset topaz and white earth pony named Goldrivet; as a human he had been in the corporate navy. He stood nose to nose with poor Droplet, the leader of the 'Flight Team', yelling at her.
"We're doing the best we can! Nopony told us how to be what we are, we're trying to learn as fast as we possibly can!" Droplet's golden eyes looked on the verge of tears; she really had been trying her best to find out what pegasai could do. Goldrivet's anger mirrored her own at the lack of success she had achieved.
"Please, everypony! We've still got our crops; we're still growing food; and even if the grass tastes dry there is still a lot of it. We just need to give them time!" Sweetpepper always tried to be a peacemaker, but this time the green-maned earth pony was not being listened to.
A huge, red unicorn stallion loomed over the more delicately built Sweetpepper "Have you looked at your precious little crops, you pathetic gelding? Look at them! They're wilting, foal!"
Sweetpepper was taken aback by this "I am NOT a gelding, and I don't see why this needs to be personal, I was only trying to help."
"I don't see you unicorns doing anything!" It was a roan mare pegasus, upset at the attack on Sweetpepper.
"It isn't OUR job to control the weather, it's YOURS! So DO something about it!" The muscular, red unicorn began to dig at the matted, dry grass with a hoof. It almost looked like he was getting ready to charge.
"ENOUGH!" Alexi flared his white wings, braking from his glide down from the hill that he and Caprice considered 'home'. "BICKERING LIKE HUMANS IS NOT GOING TO HELP ANYPONY!"
In some deep way, this shocked the crowd; the word 'human' had not been used in weeks. The mention brought back memories of their blackened, dead world; of endless slums and continent-spanning ruined cities. In this normally green and unspoiled world, 'human' felt like the worst insult possible.
Alexi stood tall, his hooves firmly planted on the dry, flattened grass. "Yes, we are in trouble. Of that there is no doubt. It is time for action; study and practice has been VERY useful, but it has gotten us only so far." Alexi nodded at Droplet and smiled, the blue pegasus mare sniffed. "Today, I Alexi, will fly up as high as I can go, and see what can be done. If it is the job of a pegasus to control the weather, it is clear that this job cannot be done down here on the ground!"
Hearing this, Caprice began to immediately trot down the hill, feeling worried.
"I will go with you!" Droplet stepped away from Goldrivet, toward Alexi. "I'm sure I am not alone, either!" Only a few of the Flight Team pegasai echoed her sentiment; gliding was one thing, but the fear of falling from a great height was another.
Alexi spread his wings as he stood. "I tell you honestly that I do not know what to do once I get up there. But I will try everything and anything I can, perhaps something will work." The newfoals were listening, and they had stopped arguing. "If... something should happen, Caprice will lead you. Caprice is my peach princess; let her be yours!" With that, Alexi flapped his wings, pushing up from the ground, struggling to maintain balance in the air. It was tiring, but he had tried such a take off several times over the past few weeks, and had managed to get nearly thirty feet up, before needing to glide down again. This time, he had a new notion to try.
"Alexi!" Caprice had finally made it to where Alexi had been standing; for the first time she was angry to be a mere earth pony. Why was he doing this? Why did it have to be him? She knew the reason, of course, but in the moment she did not want to face it. Alexi had been made the leader. This was a job for a leader.
Alexi drove his wings powerfully against the humid air, twenty feet, twenty five; his muscles ached and soon he would be at his limit. I really should have done a gliding take off from the top of a hill he thought But no, Alexi has to be dramatic, like big media star. Alexi quickly went into a glide, as he had many attempts before, but this time he angled his wings slightly, as if he were flaring to land. It was tricky to get the right balance, but his glide became very shallow, and this gave his muscles time to rest.
When he reckoned that he was down to about fifteen feet from the ground, Alexi began pumping his wings again, climbing once more. The forward motion he had gained seemed to aid his ascent, making him feel all the more foolish for his wasteful vertical lift off. He would need all the energy his new flesh could provide to achieve his goal; to climb above the haze.
If being on the ground was useless, then being in the air was all that was left. Perhaps, once he was above the whiteness that hid the blue sky, some hidden magic would be revealed, or some new power. It wasn't much to go on, but it was all he had; something had better work, and soon.
Below him, Alexi could see Droplet and several other pegasai trying to follow; they made a decent height but then ran out of strength, forced to glide down again. He wished he could somehow tell them to try a gliding start, and the trick of angling wings to gain a shallow glide with which to rest, but he was too far away now.
Alexi repeated the process over and over, pumping to gain altitude, using shallow gliding to rest. He was now easily over fifty feet up, above the survival limit if he fell. The unicorn that had lectured them on Earthly flight had made a big point of that; fifty feet was the terrestrial limit for any reasonable hope for survival. Alexi did not believe in miracles, so he knew his life was on the line. Then again, maybe things were different in Equestria. Alexi fervently hoped so.
He was flying in a circle around the four hills that made up the borders of 'Base Camp'. The hundred and fifty-two ponies below looked more and more like colorful dots against the tan grass. The lakes and ponds shone white, reflecting the haze. Alexi could no longer tell his height; he only knew that it was terrifying.
Alexi was gliding now with great speed, he could tell that much, and the wind howled through his ears, bending them back. The forward speed helped, it provided more and more lift, which helped his aching wing muscles when he returned to flapping. If it were not so frightening, if he truly knew what he was doing, Alexi imagined that all of this would probably be a great deal of fun. This was true flight, like a bird, the wind on his face, the lift in his wings; just pegasus and air, working together. It felt like he was somehow making love to the sky itself.
The heat began to lessen, the higher he climbed. Now his abundant sweat was starting to cool him, and he dared to look above; the haze seemed closer, but it was difficult to tell. His wing muscles felt frighteningly tired; he ruefully thought of how awfully sore he was going to be if he survived this madness.
Far below, Alexi could just make out what appeared to be a mass of multicolored candies that had been spilled upon a wide green carpet. Those tiny candies were everypony he currently knew, everypony he might ever know for the rest of his life. Each speck was one of his herd, three of those specks were his family.
Suddenly, Alexi could see nothing but white. In all directions, glowing whiteness stretched, smooth and without any difference wherever his eyes gazed. For a moment, he felt panic, unsure of direction. He briefly worried that he might be pushing himself downward, but quickly realized that this was ridiculous; he could still feel the pull of whatever passed for gravity, and he knew he was fighting it still.
On and on the whiteness went. Exhausted, he tried a shallow glide again, but the total blindness caused by the cool mist panicked him. He knew with his intellect that there were no mountains to crash into, nothing that he could hit, but his gut kept expecting a large brick building to comically pop out of the fog, with no time to avoid it. The white blankness unnerved him so greatly that he could no longer maintain the glide to rest his wings.
Once again Alexi began to flap, pushing the air with all of his might. Faster and faster he pumped his wing muscles, fear overtaking his mind. He just needed to get above it, he just needed to be able to see anything, anything at all.
The mist was so cool, almost cold now. Large drops of water flung off of his white feathers with each stroke as he pushed himself harder and harder. Liquid drizzled down his long neck, and he could feel it flowing down his nose and into his mouth. His breathing was ragged and his heart pounded in his chest like a caged animal, desperate to burst free.
Just as he felt open, raw panic begin to consume him, he was instantly surrounded by brilliant golden light and a pure and perfect blue. Still pumping his wings frantically, a white floor dropped below him, stretching from horizon to horizon.
He was above the layer of haze; above an infinite landscape of seamless, blindingly white fog.
Alexi began to laugh with relief; the astonishingly azure sky filled his eyes and the cold air bitterly stung his nostrils. He could no longer feel any pain in his muscles; everything felt numb. The sun seemed so close, so huge and near, that he half believed that he could stick out his tongue and lick it. The air was now an almost icy cold, and it felt so incredibly good to his overheated, dripping body.
It was at that splendid moment that the first cramp began. It was in his right wing, in the powerful muscles that attached to his back. The pain was unbelievable; the wing clamped itself to his side and would not pull away again. It was the worst muscle cramp he had ever experienced in his life.
Alexi began falling, his left wing outstretched, spinning faster and faster, with no way to stop. His right wing was useless, a searing agony; it felt as if it would shatter itself from its own contraction. He could barely breath, his ribs cramping in sympathy with his wing.
Alexi fell, utterly helpless, a one-winged angel falling from a sky-blue heaven; the only thought remaining in his agonized mind was the regret that Caprice might accidentally see his broken, splattered body smashed against the brown fields below.