• Published 15th Oct 2011
  • 4,428 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 3: Discovered

Lieutenant Green cracked open one bleary eye and smacked his lips. His mouth tasted like some mountain creature had used it as an outhouse. His throat felt scratchy and dry—he’d used up the last of the water in his camelbak the night before. He glanced out over the morning vista of the river valley below him through the rocky mouth of the half-cave. He’d overslept. That was going to make things a bit more difficult.

Surprisingly, though, it wasn’t all bad news. Mike didn’t feel as cold as he’d expected to do. In fact, he felt downright toasty. He still remembered—not particularly fondly—the cold, early mornings out at Fort Lewis when he’d only had a poncho liner to keep him warm. Here, he didn’t even have that, so how..?

The lieutenant stared down at his unexpected guest. His heart sank. Why hadn’t he thought of this earlier? A place like this—out of the way, well sheltered—would be the perfect lair for some kind of animal. And here it was. Using him as a pillow. Oh, crap.

Mike found himself almost at a loss to describe the thing. It looked a bit like a horse… if horses could be the size of a German Shepherd. And have blue fur with an unruly blue-white mane. And if they had legs that thickened as they neared the hooves instead of remaining thin except near the joints. And if they had short muzzles that—oh good lord it was waking up.

The horse creature shifted, nestling itself a bit more comfortably against Lieutenant Green’s side. Its eyelids flickered. With achingly slow and deliberate smoothness, Mike moved to get a better grip on his rifle. He wondered vaguely if the mutant horse thing could smell fear and slid the pistol grip of his rifle comfortably into his grasp.

Yawning, the little animal pushed itself up a bit and opened two large, expressive eyes. It blinked a few times and finally focused on Lieutenant Green. Its mouth dropped open, the very picture of astonished shock. Then it screamed and started flailing madly.

Mike grunted as one waving hoof clipped the muzzle of his weapon, sending it flying up to smack him in the face. He yelped in pain and straightened, yelping again as the movement smashed his head into the overhanging rocks.

For its part, the blue animal skittered backward and out of the shelter, bleating and bawling as if the groaning lieutenant had branded it. The fearful cries and sounds of hooves sliding on rocks quickly faded, leaving Mike to nurse his new injuries in peace. Oh, his aching nose… And scalp. And jaw.

What the hell had that been all about? Lieutenant Green had seen some inventively colored animals, especially when the Kuchi nomads had led their herds past the FOB in late Spring… but he was pretty sure he would have remembered “tiny blue horses” if he’d seen them before. He stared down at his hands and rubbed his throbbing skull. Was he dreaming still? The insistent pain in his head suggested otherwise. Was he nuts, then? Was he hallucinating? Mike wasn’t sure whether that would be better, or worse.

Picking himself up off the gravel of the little alcove, Lieutenant Green checked his gear. It was all still there and finally his body armor had dried. He pulled it on and had started to climb out when something new caught his eye.

There was a small bundle lying forgotten next to where the body armor had rested. That hadn’t been there the night before. After a moment the puzzled Soldier picked it up. When it failed to explode in his hand, he opened it. A random assortment of trinkets fell from the little cloth. There was a small boy’s baseball cap. Next to it was a river rock, polished smooth by ton after ton of fast moving water flowing past it for who knew how long. There was a thick wooden pencil as well. Most puzzling of all was a sort of art deco style poster featuring… Mike scratched his head, unable to make it out. He couldn’t place the language, but it didn’t resemble the tight, looping scribbles of the Arabic alphabet that he’d been expecting. Weird.

With a shrug, Lieutenant Green gathered up the items again, putting them back in the bundle, and started to put the little collection back where he had found it. As he knelt he saw a flash of blue as the animal from earlier ducked out of sight. Hmm.

All right Mike, he told himself, you’re an officer. Thinking is supposed to be your ‘thing.’ Maybe start doing some of it for a change… Right. Clearly, there was no such thing as little blue horses. No animal he’d ever heard of would have acted like the horse-creature had. As he mulled over his situation, the lieutenant could see it peek its head around the rock again. It looked nervously at the bundle and quickly ducked out of sight as soon as it saw he was watching it.

Okay. The obvious solution here was that he, Mike, had gone a bit nuts. There were no such things as little blue horses, but there was such a thing as head trauma. Now, why he would start seeing the local nationals as little animals beat the hell out of him but hey, ineffable are the ways of the brain, right?

Finally, Lieutenant Green had a way forward. It was not a good way forward, but it was the best he was going to get. He knelt down and, moving as non-threateningly as possible, backed away from the bundle. He took a seat at the back of the alcove formed by the rock, set his weapon aside, and took off his helmet. When the little blue horse—no, the little Afghan, he corrected himself—showed himself, Mike grinned and smiled coaxingly and marshaled what little conversational Dari he knew. “Hi there little guy. Uh… A salaam aleyukum. Chi gap ast? Do you speak English?”

Oh no, oh no, oh no… Skydancer shifted nervously from hoof to hoof as he stared at the strange, mottle-skinned creature. It waved one of its weird, floppy forehooves again, pointing at the bundle that the little colt had so foalishly left in its lair.

Skydancer’s heart still pounded from the shocking revelation that he’d slept within the creature’s grasp all night. It could have eaten him at any time! He was just lucky that it hadn’t woken up and decided to have a pony-sized late night snack! The colt shivered at the morbid image of the creature feasting happily on his remains.

For its part, the creature just sat there with its limbs bent in ways that looked eye-wateringly painful. It bared its teeth, nodding and making encouraging gibberish sounds as it waved one forehoof towards Skydancer’s most treasured possessions. A strange idea struck the young pony. It wasn’t baring its teeth. It was smiling! Could it be that the creature was… intelligent?

At the thought, Skydancer found his interest piqued. He took one hesitant step forward, then another. The creature made no move, but simply smiled and bobbed its head up and down in what seemed like a gesture of encouragement. It made more of its strange half-slurred growling sounds and then very pointedly leaned backward, taking its eyes off the blue pony. Go on, its movements seemed to say, there’s no way I can get over there and eat you from way over here.

Quick as a flash, Skydancer lunged forward and grabbed his bundle. He scooted backwards until he was out from under the outcropping once again. The green- and gray- and pink-hided creature hadn’t moved an inch. Maybe it was intelligent after all… Skydancer dropped his bundle from his mouth and cleared his throat nervously. “Uh… Thank you. Do you speak Equestrian?”

Any doubts that Lieutenant Green had about his self-diagnosed brain injuries were swept aside when the little horse bowed slightly and gabbled something in what sounded like a respectful tone of voice. It smiled awkwardly, as if waiting for a response.

What concerned Mike most about this situation was that whatever language his totally-not-a-horse-at-all visitor was speaking, it didn’t sound like Dari, or Pashto, or any other language he might have expected. Probably an effect of the brain injury. Lovely. Well, gestures and tone of voice would have to do for now. The lieutenant smiled, then shrugged and shook his head while pointing at his ears. “I’m sorry, I don’t understand.”

The little creature—even knowing that he was hallucinating it, Lieutenant Green had a hard time thinking of the little horse as the Afghan boy that it probably was—looked irritated for a moment and sighed. It babbled at him again and waited for a response. Mike repeated his gestures of incomprehension. “Sorry, I still don’t understand you.”

Sitting down on its hindquarters like a dog, the little horse looked thoughtful for a moment, scratching its chin with one forehoof. After a beat or two it beamed and exclaimed… something… enthusiastically. Mike tried to look pleased, even though he had no idea what was going on.

“That’s it! You must be deaf, right? That’s why you can’t talk properly! Here, come on, come with me…” Skydancer motioned to the creature, trying to get him to come forward. He waved a hoof in the thing’s direction and took a few steps out from under the outcropping, then repeated the gesture.

The mountain beast seemed to get Skydancer’s meaning. It nodded and gathered up several items that had been jumbled around the cave, sliding them on and buckling them in place. The whole maneuver reminded the little blue colt strongly of when his father, Diorite, was putting on his protective vest and helmet before going into the mine. His father… Shaking off the temporary homesickness, Skydancer urged the creature forward. It crawled forward out of the cave. Then it did something entirely unexpected.

Skydancer had been wondering how the creature’s strange forehooves would fare on such rough, rocky ground as the mountain slope. Its forelegs seemed too short and its back legs too long for all but the most awkward movements. But to his surprise, it didn’t continue forward on all fours. Joints creaking, the creature yawned, stretched… and reared up, standing on its hind legs. It had seemed big before but now it looked even taller than his dad!

Frightened despite himself, the pony took a few steps back and waited to see what his new companion would do. Rather than attack, or fall over, or whatever else might be expected, the creature simply balanced on its hind legs, shifting from hoof to hoof as if it was the most natural thing in the world. Skydancer found himself grinning. “Weird… but cool!”

With continuous urgings, Skydancer managed to coax the creature down the slope of the mountain and to the riverbank. It kept glancing nervously back at the mountain, obviously unwilling to get too far away. The pony was careful always to stay within the creature’s view. Poor thing, it probably couldn’t hear him to know where he was if it couldn’t see him. “Come on, not much further!”

Finally the two reached their goal at edge of the Hippocrene River. In this area, the river was much more active, roaring over rocks and through an impressive rapids. But here on the banks, soft, sandy soil had been deposited by the previous season’s flood. Grasping a twig, Skydancer carefully wrote out his question. “W…h…o… a…r… u…?”

The little colt paused. After an embarrassed silence, he corrected his spelling to, ‘Who are you?’ and waited, looking up expectantly at the puzzled, flat face of the mountain creature.

Bending down, the creature got to its knees and reached out with one of its forehooves and a look of concentration on its face. Skydancer felt a little ill. He hadn’t gotten a very good look at the creature’s front hooves before. Now he wished he hadn’t as, without ceremony, it pulled off its gray-green outermost layer of hide. The bared hooves beneath were soft, fleshy things divided into strips that vaguely reminded Skydancer of some of the sea creatures he’d seen in the school’s book on the ocean. Ew.

Very carefully, the creature drew out a meaningless series of interlocking lines. Looking up at it, Skydancer could see similar markings on the creature’s vest. It must be some kind of decoration. The pony sighed in disappointment. Well, maybe the creature wasn’t deaf after all. “Oh… Well maybe they don’t teach reading and writing in mountain monster school…”

Lieutenant Green couldn’t help but chuckle as he saw the little creature’s bright excitement change to dejection. “Sorry little guy, I can’t read your writing, either. Let’s start with something more basic, I guess. Uh…”

The lieutenant wiped out both sets of writing and made sure he had his little companion’s attention. When he did, he pointed at himself. “Green. Mike Green. Green.”

Looking at Mike oddly, the creature pointed one hoof at him and said something that sounded approximately like, “Greyn… Grein? Green.”

Beaming, Lieutenant Green nodded happily. “Yes. Green.”

“And for my next trick… You are?” Gesturing to the small blue horse, Mike let his voice trail off interrogatively.

There was a short pause as the creature processed this new information. Mike was just about to repeat himself when the little one seemed to get it. He pointed a hoof at himself and said—

“Skydancer. I’m Skydancer. Got it? Sky… Dancer.”

‘Green’ seemed to consider it for a moment. Finally, it—he? The voice was kind of deep, so Sky decided maybe it was a he—tried to gargle out a response. “Sk… Skydarmbh…. Skadigrcesz? Sky?”

Taking pity on the poor creature, Skydancer smiled. Who would have though ‘Green’ would have such a hard time with a simple name like ‘Skydancer?’ He seemed like such a smart mountain monster. The blue pony shook his head and pointed his hoof at himself again. “Er… Try just ‘Sky.’ Call me Sky. Sky.”


“You’ve got it!” Skydancer nodded vigorously, grinning. The mountain monster grinned too—then knelt down and started trying to write again.

Working carefully, ‘Green’ steadily created a large collection of squiggly lines on the sandy patch of soil. Skydancer looked on, trying to make sense of it all. There were sharp, pointy zigzagged lines, and a small set of wavy lines passing through that. Near one side of all the lines, the mountain monster drew a little two-legged stick figure with another, smaller one beside it. As an afterthought, the creature scratched out a little circle with wavy lines coming off it. He sat back to admire his handiwork for a moment while Skydancer cocked his head and tried to reason it all out.

‘Green’ pointed at his artwork meaningfully—first at the larger stick figure, then at the smaller one. “Green. ‘Sky.’”

Realization dawned. “Ooooh! Is this a map? You’re showing me where we are?”

Skydancer waited for confirmation, but none was forthcoming. Oh, right. The mountain monster couldn’t understand Equestrian. Ugh, this was frustrating. Thinking for a moment, Skydancer pointed his forehoof at the wavy lines next to the two stick figures. That must be the river. Making sure that ‘Green’ was watching, Skydancer pointed at the Hippocrene River, alternating between the scribbled map and the actual watercourse several times. “This is the river?”

“R… Rivr. River…?” Unfortunately, Skydancer was unable to catch any more of the words as ‘Green’ trailed off into more babbling, nodding enthusiastically.

Now the mountain monster applied his disturbingly flexible forehooves to drawing something new. A few paces away from the detailed part of the map, ‘Green’ sketched out a large circle. He indicated it meaningfully. “Bagram. Bah-gram.”

Still puzzled, Skydancer continued to watch as the monster drew a long arrow from his stick figure to the important circle. ‘Green’ looked up and made an exaggerated gesture of puzzlement, looking concerned and shrugging his shoulders while waving his forelegs wide.

“Uh…” So… ‘Green’ was lost? And he wanted to get to a place that Skydancer had never heard of. The little blue earth pony had never paid much attention in during geography lessons. He thought hard, trying to figure out a way to act out the bad news. Thankfully, as it chanced, he didn’t have to.

Skydancer looked up and nearly leaped out of his skin as the gray-green blur that was ‘Green’ dove over the edge of the riverbank. A muted splash followed, and Skydancer winced. It wasn’t very deep there; that had to hurt. But why had he—

The started earth pony whirled as he caught the sound of approaching hooves—just in time to see a sweating, panting Professor Pyrite gallop into view. That was strange. What was the hurry? As one of the valley’s most senior and esteemed professionals, the mine’s gemologist usually didn’t go anywhere faster than a trot.

What if the professor had seen ‘Green?’ Skydancer cringed, trying to act casual as he moved in front of the map before the gold-yellow unicorn could see it. He grinned and waved nervously as the older pony galloped past. “H-hey Professor Pyrite! Why the rush?”

At the sound of Skydancer’s voice, Professor Pyrite’s head whipped around and all four hooves planted into the soil. Stopping dead in his tracks as he slid to a halt, the unicorn seemed almost to vibrate. He stared disbelievingly at the blue colt over sweat-fogged glasses. “Sk- Skydancer?!”

“Uh… yes? Uh, yes sir?” Skydancer took a worried step backward as the professor practically charged up to him, staring at the earth pony in apparent shock.

“You’re… all right!” Fatigue was catching up to the venerable unicorn. He was shaking in relief. At least, Skydancer hoped it was relief. That, or the gemologist was about to have a heart attack.

“I am? I… Um…” Had there been some kind of doubt? Skydancer knew he had left suddenly, but…

There was an awkward silence as Professor Pyrite tried to get his wind back. When he’d recovered enough, he gasped out, “Come with me right now, young colt! Your parents have been worried sick about you!”

Skydancer hesitated, casting furtive glances to his new friend’s hiding place. If he stayed here too long, there was no telling what Professor Pyrite might spot. The last thing the professor needed was something to push him further towards heart failure. Plus… his parents were worried about him? The little blue pony’s ears drooped. “S-sorry Professor.”

Professor Pyrite nodded, absentmindedly using his necktie to clean the sweat off his glasses as he led the contrite young earth pony back up the path toward the village. “Honestly, I don’t know about colts these days… In my day, a young pony wouldn’t just wander off in the middle of the night like that. What happened, Skydancer?”

Clearing his throat uneasily, Skydancer stalled for time as he tried to come up with a response. He found himself looking back down the road to where he’d been forced to abandon ‘Green.’ Despite his abrupt and frightening introduction to the strange mountain monster, the colt couldn’t help but wonder what would happen to ‘Green’ without his help. What was the creature, anyway? “Professor… Does anybody live in these mountains? Other than ponies, I mean.”

“Other than a few species of birds, some sheep, a cockatrice or two, and the fish in the river, you mean?” chuckled the professor. Seeing the resentful look he got from Skydancer, Professor Pyrite could see he’d taken the wrong approach. He coughed nervously. Augh. He’d never been good with young ponies. Why did he have to be the one to find Skydancer? Still, at least Diorite and Quartz would be pleased that their prodigal son had returned.

* * *

Lieutenant Green winced again as he trod incautiously on another loose stone, but the two horse-creatures he was shadowing seemed not to notice. He had to keep reminding himself that this wasn’t as stupid as it looked. It wasn’t, right? Couldn’t be.

Okay, at first it might have been dumb. So sue Mike for not wanting all his hard work building rapport with ‘Sky’ to go down the drain. He’d spent several tense moments in the frigid, knee-deep water as ‘Sky’ and the newcomer babbled at each other in whatever language it was that they were using here.

The conversation had seemed friendly enough, but who could really tell? Mike had cursed himself as he crawled back onto the bank and began to follow the two horses at a distance, but things were calm enough now as the two creatures trotted along in silence towards, presumably, a village.

If Lieutenant Green was lucky, said village would have a nearby Afghan National Police checkpoint. His sojourn in Injun territory could be over tonight. Still… there were lingering doubts. Would ANP really be friendly to an isolated American in an area where the insurgents obviously felt secure enough to set up a complex ambush against a large, well-armed convoy.

Thankfully, the lieutenant didn’t have long to wait as he stole stealthily along the trail, just in visual range of ‘Sky’ and his older companion. Mike shaded his eyes as he peered around a bend in the trail and saw it.

Hugging the steep slopes of the nearest mountains, the village was like any other that Lieutenant Green had seen during his tour in Afghanistan… and yet also startlingly different. Low, blocky houses slathered in mud were stuck almost barnacle-like to the rocky side of the mountain, using any nearly flat space as an excuse for building a multi-story home. The construction was just as expected… which was what made the colors so weird. Instead of the usual uniform mud-brown, the houses were painted a surprising array of cheery pastel shades—pink, blue, yellow, and green. “…The hell?”

Equally jarring were the village’s residents. Lieutenant Green had been able to accept the idea that a blow to the head was making him see things; the brain worked in funny ways. However, accepting that one little blue horse was actually a young Afghan boy was one thing. He’d even been willing to hand-wave the boy’s guardian or father or whoever having the unlikely addition of a horn. It was probably his brain’s way of telling him that that guy actually had a rifle, or something. But, seeing an entire Afghan village populated by creatures out of a children’s cartoon was something else entirely. That strained credulity. And come to think of it, shouldn’t Mike have some kind of headache or something if he had brain damage?

Hearing movement above him, Lieutenant Green looked up—and swore. Where the hell was he? This was impossible! Not more than a hundred meters above him, another horse swooped down—borne aloft on two tiny wings that shouldn’t have kept a pigeon aloft, let alone a little pink pony. No way was that something his brain would have come up with.

That—that was it. Heck with the Afghan Police Station. Heck with this village. Mike was getting out of here before someone—before something—saw him. Turning on his heels, the confused Soldier hurried away from the bizarre village and its impossible inhabitants. Figuring this out was not as important as survival. He was heading to Bagram. As long as Mike was going downhill, he had to be heading in the right direction, surely? If not, he was sunk.

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