• Published 15th Oct 2011
  • 4,440 Views, 44 Comments

Airborne - Fernin



A misnamed colt and a misplaced human Soldier find friendship despite the barriers between them.

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Chapter 2: Survive and Evade

Lieutenant Green moaned as he woke up. What the hell had just happened? He felt like a bus had hit him. Or maybe a semi. Everything ached, and this bed felt terrible. It was like he’d gone to sleep on a pile of rocks. He rolled over—and pushed himself up, coughing, as he nearly inhaled a lungful of near-freezing water. Mike wiped his eyes to clear them and moaned again as the cheery sunlight jabbed red-hot needles directly into his brain. He swore and collapsed back into the shallow water, covering his eyes.

The disoriented lieutenant’s head throbbed. He felt like his skull had been stuffed full of cotton—assuming that cotton could also swell and fill one’s brainpan with ridiculous amounts of pain. Mike started swearing, quickly exhausted his woefully inadequate vocabulary of obscenities, and began repeating himself. After a few minutes, he felt better as the pain ebbed to a dull, repetitive throb centered.. well, nowhere in particular. And then he remembered where he was, and suddenly he didn’t feel better at all.

Oh. Oh, @$*%! The convoy! The attack! Forcing down a rising wave of nausea, Lieutenant Green wrenched his eyelids open with a force of will and glanced around. Same river. Same high, imposing mountain ridges rising a thousand feet on either side of him. He was in a river valley in the middle of Afghanistan, miles from the nearest friendly base. He found himself trying to invent entirely new swear words as a surge of adrenaline kicked his body into overdrive.

Lieutenant Green tried to keep his breathing slow and regular, but it was a struggle. He was so screwed. Where the hell was the convoy? More to the point, where the hell was his M-ATV? Where was its crew? Had he been thrown free of it somehow as it fell? Maybe gotten out when it landed and been washed down-stream? It was impossible to tell. He couldn’t even see the road from this vantage point. He’d have to get to somewhere higher and try to figure out if he could… could what?

The important thing now was not to panic. Mike could remember that from that online SERE training that they’d made him take as part of pre-deployment training. All right. What had the class said… It was in the name, right? SERE: Survive, Evade, Resist, Extract.

Okay… so first, Lieutenant Green had to survive. Check… So far. Assuming he didn’t die of hypothermia first. Scrambling out of the water, he did a quick equipment check. Helmet. Check. Body armor… wet and heavy as hell, but check. Camelbak… Check? It felt full enough, but he’d have to look at it later to see if it’d been punctured. Multitool? Check. Most importantly, rifle and ammunition? Check and check. Water dripped from the barrel and it probably wouldn’t be useable until he cleaned it out, but at least it was still in his hand. Mike thanked his lucky stars that he’d followed that advice and secured the weapon to his vest with a karabiner. Best purchase he’d made in the past year.

Unfortunately, Mike’s cursory equipment check had some rather glaring omissions. For instance, he’d already passed his Dari-to-English smart card on to his replacement. He didn’t have a global positioning system receiver. He didn’t have a map. He didn’t even have a compass, although the lieutenant’s still-foggy memory helpfully offered up a few suggestions from his days in college Reserve Officer Training Corps on how to make a solar compass. Maybe later. Okay, what was next after ‘Survive?’

After that, evade… evade. Right. Lieutenant Green could do that. The important thing was to go where people wouldn’t normally go, right? The bank of a river definitely didn’t fit that description. Steeling himself for the ordeal that would be coming, the dripping wet Soldier beat his shaky legs into action. He ignored his still-aching muscles and headed toward the narrow crease of a rocky draw in the imposing gray wall of the nearest ridgeline. That looked about right.

Mike shuddered as he climbed, contemplating the immediate future as water continued to drip off his sopping uniform. This wasn’t going to be a very warm night. He’d been dreading it before, but now a cot next to the flight line at Bagram Airfield was sounding pretty good. Heh. Well, there was no time for that now. He had to climb.

* * *

The sun was barely above the mountain peaks by the time Skydancer made his way back to the small hamlet of Bucephalus’ Ford. Blocky, mud-brick buildings clung to the steep gray walls of the towering mountain ridges as though trying desperately to take up as little space as possible.

In fact, that was precisely the intent. Even here at its widest spot, the narrow Hippocrene River Valley afforded very little flat ground for farming. The ponies did what they could with what flat land was there, but it was woefully insufficient. And so, the ponies had farmed and built in the only direction available to them: up.

Built with the greatest of care, a complex network stone retaining walls ran along the sides of the mountain to create row upon row of terraced fields. One of the earth ponies working the stairway-like terraced fields waved down to Skydancer, calling out a greeting. The blue pony waved back halfheartedly and kept moving, trotting down the rocky path to his home. By this point, Cirrus had probably been home for hours, telling her side of the story.

When Skydancer saw the pink pegasus mare leaving the door of his house, he knew he’d been right. Sure enough, here came his mom. He opened his mouth to say something, but before he knew it, the white-furred, white-maned mare had grabbed his ear in her teeth and was pulling him bodily towards the house.

Skydancer, I’ve just been talking to Mrs. Cloud and I am very disappointed in you!” Quartz hissed through gritted teeth as she dragged her squirming, protesting son through the doorway and into the privacy of their home.

“But Mom—” Skydancer whined. He stared pleadingly up into his mother’s eyes, only to meet a hard and unyielding wall of motherly disapproval.

Quartz shook her head, frowning in irritation at her agitated son. “No ‘buts,’ Sky. Shame on you. You shouldn’t hit fillies.”

Skydancer stomped his hoof in frustration, deepening his mother’s frown. He knew it was a mistake, but it wasn’t fair! “But Cirrus hit me first! And she called me a dirt pony!”

Oh she had, had she? The Cloud family had always thrown their weight around in the valley; that was sure. The white-furred mare would die before she admitted it to her son, but it was nice to hear that at least one of those stuck up ponies had gotten her comeuppance. Still. Quartz held back a smile and set her mouth in determination. “That’s no excuse, Skydancer. I’m still very disappointed in you. I expect better from you. Now, go to your room and think about what you’ve done. Your father and I will talk about this more when he gets home from the mine.”

“Mommm!

“No, Sky! Go to your room!” Quartz shouted, a bit more forcefully than she intended. She watched Skydancer’s eyes fill up with tears. He hesitated for but a moment more. Before the mare could move herself to speak, her young colt was gone. The only evidence of his hurried passage was the fading sound of choked back sniffles and the gentle rippling of the brown curtain hanging across the door.

Quartz sighed and returned to her housework. If only Skydancer were better at making friends, this sort of thing probably wouldn’t keep happening. Unfortunately, he’d inherited that loner attitude from his father, big lug that he was. “Oh, Diorite… Hurry home and talk some sense into your poor son.”

Skydancer buried his face in his bedding, feeling hot tears running down his muzzle and soaking the woolen cover of his pillow. It wasn’t fair. It wasn’t fair! He could just see it now—that stupid gray pegasus filly getting comforted and stroked and hugged by her loving parents. And what did he get for defending himself? He got shouted at! What good were parents if they never took your side, even when you were right?

“I… I hate you, Cirrus!” the young colt wailed into his pillow. He pushed himself up, batting at the pillow with one forehoof. It sailed across the room, bouncing off the mud-brick wall and landing with an unsatisfying thump on the floor. Skydancer looked at it, then at his hoof. It was dirty, covered with caked-on dust after his trek back to Bucephalus’ Ford from the river

Maybe Cirrus was right. Skydancer was a dirt pony. He was covered in the dust of the ground. What could he do that she couldn’t? Nothing. But what could Cirrus do that he couldn’t? Turn his parents to her side, for one… but no. She could fly. And that made all the difference. She was special.

Gallingly, Skydancer realized that the annoying pegasus had him beat in every respect. Cirrus’ father was a big, important messenger pony, carrying orders from the main office to the emerald miners—miners like Skydancer’s dad. She had her big house high on the cliffs… His was just a few rooms and so near to the river that even now he could hear the roar of the Hippocrene as it flowed by. The earth pony could still remember the miserable first summer when they’d moved in during the river’s flood stage, with water nearly at the door for months.

More importantly, Cirrus had the affection—or at least loyalty—of half the colts and fillies in Bucephalus’ Ford. She wasn’t really cool enough to have scores of friends, but with her big, important dad, she had them anyway. Meanwhile Skydancer had… himself.

“I… I hate being an earth pony! I hate it!” The dirty brown splotches on Skydancer’s blue hoof seemed to blur as his eyes filled with tears again. He buried his face in his blankets and moaned in anguish. What did he even have to look forward to in life? If only he’d been born special. He could have been a unicorn like Professor Pyrite, the mine’s quality control gemologist. He could have been a pegasus like Mr. Cloud and been able to run messages. Instead he was… he was… An anguished sob escaped Skydancer’s lips as he buried his muzzle even deeper into his blankets.

After a few minutes Skydancer’s wails had diminished to sniffles. He lifted his head, his blue-white mane matted and mussed into something resembling a bramble bush. His eyes felt puffy, and streams of clear mucous dripped from his nose until he wiped across his muzzle with one still-dusty hoof. He looked around his room. For the first time, he saw the mining equipment posters for what they really were—foalishness.

All the grinning earth ponies, dust goggles on their eyes and yellow mining helmets on their heads, were stupid. ‘Strong’ and ‘connected to nature,’ his blank left flank. They grubbed in the muck while the pegasuses… pegasi… whatever! While the winged and horned ponies got to have all the fun. Well, that wasn’t going to be Skydancer. No. Skydancer’s glance turned to the dramatically posed pegasus ponies on his Wonderbolts poster. That was the kind of thing he wanted. Fame. Recognition. Coolness. And the blue-furred colt was going to get it. Somehow.

Getting shakily to all four hooves, Skydancer started gathering up his things. He grabbed his lucky hat, his lucky pencils, and his lucky rock. After hesitating for a moment, he pushed his chair over to the Wonderbolts poster and hopped up to undo the tacks holding the poster in place. He rolled it up lovingly and wrapped it with the rest of the bundle. He nodded happily to himself. There!

Feeling satisfied now that his mind was made up, Skydancer glanced at the doorway to his room. He couldn’t go back that way… His mother might see him. Instead, he climbed back onto his bed and put both hooves onto the sill of his narrow window. If he had been a full-grown pony, the aperture would have been too small by half. Fortunately, Skydancer could just fit. Kicking his hind legs and flailing a bit, he managed to ease himself through the opening. He tumbled and rolled when he hit the ground, grunting in pain as he slid across the ground and collided with a rocky outcropping near the back of the house.

“Ow-mmph!” Skydancer bit off the cry before he could alert his mother to his escape. Righting himself, the young pony picked up his bundle. Casting a longing glance back at his soon-to-be-former home, the colt trotted out into the darkness. He was already feeling homesick, but there was no time for that now. He had to climb.

* * *

Lieutenant Green shivered and eyed his body armor. If it was dry, he could probably put it on and warm himself up a bit. It had been sitting out in the sun all afternoon; surely it was dry by now? Mike reached out a hopeful hand and grasped it. It squished. “…Guess not.”

In contrast to the apparently hydrophilic ballistic armor, the lieutenant’s uniform had dried quickly. Unfortunately, the same thin fabric that made it easy to dry also made it nearly useless for retaining heat. And now the sun was going down. As Mike looked, it dipped below the opposite ridgeline and night fell. Even after a year’s worth of seeing the rapid approach of night it was amazing how fast that had happened. In the Midwest, the sun always seemed to hang around forever, reluctant finally to dip below the horizon. Here, it seemed more businesslike, wasting no time in diving below the mountains and plunging the valley into chilly darkness.

Resigning himself to a night of near-frostbite, Lieutenant Green huddled back in his rocky alcove. He still counted himself lucky to have found it. It was far out of the way, but offered an excellent vantage point while simultaneously giving him good concealment. At least it did as long as he huddled in the half-cave under the shadow of the overhanging rocks and stayed very still. He hoped.

The lieutenant was painfully aware that the only way to truly test such beliefs was to take a look at one’s position from the enemy’s point of view… and there was no way he felt comfortable climbing all the way back down now. He’d just have to risk it.

Lieutenant Green rubbed his gloved hands together, trying to keep himself warm as he went over his plans for what felt like the thousandth time. All right. He’d weather the night here. A bit before first light he could climb up to the nearest peak and try to see if he could spot a road. He could follow the road as best he could and head back down to the Shomali Plain. From there, back to Bagram, or to the nearest friendly troops he could find. Hopefully. If he made it, he was golden—no, make that when he made it. Mike clapped his hands together. He had to keep a positive attitude; it was the only way through this.

The sound of the clap, as abrupt as a gunshot, echoed off the bare rock of the valley. The lieutenant winced. Okay, new rule… no more clapping. Hopefully, nobody had heard that. Curling up as best he could, Mike huddled up next to his body armor, clutched his rifle close, and shut his eyes, praying only that he didn’t get discovered in the night… and as a hasty afterthought that he didn’t roll down the side of the mountain in the dark.

Skydancer’s ears twitched as the sharp sound echoed off the rocks around him. Was there someone there? He glanced around hurriedly, trying to make out any shapes he could in the gloom. The exhausted earth pony was already regretting his decision to run away at night. He should have picked the morning… maybe after breakfast. His stomach grumbled at him, but the little colt continued to climb.

Against the yawning velvet darkness of the night sky, Skydancer could see the black outlines of a rock outcropping. Picking his footing carefully, he scrambled up the slope. That would be good enough for tonight. Tomorrow morning, he could figure out what to do next. He could do it now, but… he was just so tired. He yawned again as he finally reached the shelter and scrambled inside.

If Skydancer had had any doubts about his quest, they were quickly banished. The rocky shelter smelled a bit odd but already felt a bit warm. Smiling to himself, the colt set down his bundle and lay down in the shadows, settling in for the night. He closed his eyes and dreamed of flight.