Down to Earth and Up Again
It was no small miracle that the flaming wreckage missed me. With my eyes closed, I had no idea by how much, but close enough to sever the parachute cords above my head.
The ejection seat flipped over with a sudden jerk as the parachute was torn away. It was a good thing I was still wearing my helmet or the violence of the spin would have cracked my head against the metal seat frame.
Suddenly deciding that I was going to have to fight for my life after all, I looked around, trying to figure out my orientation in relation to the ground. Everything was spinning. I saw the moon flash by in my peripheral vision, but in the darkness couldn’t make out how close I was to the ground.
What was that expression my fellow pilot had used? Oh yeah, GoFu. That’s exactly what this was.
I knew there was no auxiliary parachute installed on the ejection seat. I fumbled with the seatbelts. Every millisecond that crawled by felt like an eternity. I had to get out!
One of the shoulder straps released and then the other. I kicked out of the leg restraints and pushed away from the seat. Below, I could finally see something. Tall dark trees were rushing up to meet me.
But, I got my first lucky break all night. Back when I was getting fitted for my first flight suit all those years ago when I joined the Air Force, someone had thought to include slits in the back for my wings.
I tried to slow my descent at much as possible. The muscles in my back protested at the huge effort, and I lost a couple of feathers. I was falling too fast to stop, and the heavy flight gear I wore wasn’t helping. The best I could hope for was a slightly softer landing.
As I plunged into the trees, my helmet and flight suit kept me from being scratched and bruised by the clawing branches. I bounced off a couple of larger limbs that knocked the wind out of me, but slowed my fall a little.
I never saw the ground coming until I slammed into it. Every ounce of breath was pushed out of my lungs, and I lay stunned for a moment, trying to figure out what just happened.
Slowly, I managed to draw a painful gasp of air. I rolled over on my back because it hurt less. Still moving carefully, I managed to sit up and take stock of my body.
My wings, while not broken, were definitely strained with the effort I had just gone to. When you’re trying not to die, you don’t worry about the fatigue you’ll experience later. An experimental flap produced muscle pain, and I knew that trying to fly was going to be difficult.
My legs, surprisingly, had taken just enough impact to be sore, but not enough to be broken. Pegasi bones are light for better flying ability, but the tradeoff is a drop in strength. I was lucky that I didn’t seem to have any fractures.
The sudden meeting with the ground hadn’t broken any ribs, but my entire torso was probably going to develop one huge bruise. It hurt to breathe.
All in all, it far less injuries than I expected to receive when I lost my parachute thousands of feet in the air. I slowly stood up and began discarding flight gear. I had a lot of traveling ahead of me to stay ahead of any pursuers, and I didn’t need the extra weight.
The helmet and g-suit were the first to go. I also left most of the survival kit. I had no need for things like fishing lures and wire snares.
The rescue radio and beacon had turned on automatically upon ejection. I checked to make sure they were working.
When I was ready to set off, I checked the survival compass carefully. One direction would take me back to safety, and the other would lead me straight into the hands of the Tajik Army. I glanced at the moon to confirm the compass wasn’t lying, and set off.
The cloudless night gave me some moonlight, at least. The going was still pretty slow. I checked constantly to make sure I was alone and wouldn’t be spotted. For the first time in my life, I was unhappy with my Celestia-given cyan coat and rainbow striped mane. The Nomex flight suit was uncomfortable, but at least it was dark green.
Time crawled by slowly. The continuous effort of scanning the terrain around me was taking its toll. How did Rarity put so much attention into noticing the small details? I saw the faint glow of the rising sun appear on the horizon. The coming dawn would make me easier to spot.
I came upon a small stream just before sunrise. I had a welcome drink and used some mud to dull my coat and mane. I knew the coating would eventually get dry and start to itch, but it was better than the alternative.
While I was there, I had a few bites of grass. I hadn’t eaten anything “in the wild” for years. It made me wish for one of Applejack’s nice juicy apples or a delicious cupcake made by Pinkie.
I knew I couldn’t afford to let my mind wander, but keeping my thoughts so focused was hard to do. My fellow pilots certainly deserved my concern. And the battle—had we won? I had no way of knowing how things went after I was shot down.
My thoughts drifted further back, all the way to the time before the portal spells were released from the Canterlot Archives. Life had been…simpler. I was on the Ponyville weather patrol. I hung out with my friends every day. I was never happier.
I’d gained a lot, and accomplished much during the years I’d lived on Earth. I had never really thought about what I’d lost, however. My friends were—
The radio crackled with static, snapping me out of my thoughts. It wasn’t turned up very loudly, but in the still forest, it sounded as earsplitting as thunder. I dropped to the dirt, fumbling with the radio, struggling to turn it down. It wasn’t so easy, and I was sure any Tajiks in the area had heard me. Why couldn’t they have made the stupid thing hoof-compliant?
Faintly, a voice came through the radio. It was an authentication code. They wanted to be sure they were talking to me, and only me.
I clicked the button and spoke the reply code that I had been given before taking off on the mission. Several seconds passed.
“Rainbow Dash?” asked the voice on the other end.
“Glad to see you’re alive. Stay put. We’ll come to you.” I nearly breathed a sigh of relief when I heard that. Only the long training that had been drilled into me kept me alert and looking for danger. It wouldn’t do if the rescuers were ambushed.
Long minutes passed. I kept my eyes moving, looking for any sign of trouble. I wanted to get the buck out of Tajikistan, and I was going to do everything I could to make that happen.
I looked for any sign of a camouflage uniform or the muzzle of AK-47 pointed at me. For the first time in my life, I wished I’d been born a unicorn. Twilight may have been a bookworm, but she had enough raw magical power to be dangerous. Right now, I wouldn’t mind having a better way to defend myself.
My luck held, and soon I heard the welcome noise of an incoming helicopter. I stood up and waved a hoof. The trees prevented a landing, but Air Force Pararescue men didn’t let a little thing like that stop them.
One Airman went over the side of the helicopter on a winch and was lowered to the ground. He did a quick sweep with his rifle to make sure the area was all clear before focusing his attention on me.
“Good to see you, ma’am. Can I give you a lift?” he joked. I had no idea who he was. We’d never met before. I knew he wouldn’t have been doing the job if he didn’t care passionately about rescuing those who needed it. In a way, it reminded me of Fluttershy’s kindness for those less fortunate.
The man showed me a nylon harness attached to the winch cable and helped me get secured in it. Raising his arm, he gave a signal to the helicopter crew chief, who activated the winch and hauled us up.
Inside the helo, they treated my wounds with field dressings. My wings were still in pain, but only rest could fix that. As the helicopter headed back to base, I leaned tiredly against the bulkhead and closed my eyes.
I was probably going to get some time off to recover. That was standard procedure for a shot-down pilot. It was only after wandering around Tajikistan for a while that I’d realized what was most important in my life and how silly I’d been to ignore it.
I decided I was going to use the rest to visit my friends in Ponyville. It had been far too long.