• Published 20th May 2014
  • 1,078 Views, 110 Comments

The Last Link - Featherprop

When a pilot finds himself trapped with no good choices left, what will he do? Good intentions conflict with harsh realith, and he has to balance saving lives against losing his own before he can help.

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7: Don't Make Me Pull This Thing Over...

As the Twin Trotter clawed its way upward through the clouds, Featherprop and Pasture avoided looking at each other. Aside from occasionally flicking on the ice lights to look at the treacherous ice coating the leading edge, Featherprop sat motionless, lost in his thoughts. The shock of losing the range had worn off, but in it’s place a blanket of doubt settled over him. How did I let this happen?

On the other side of the cockpit, Pasture was restless, shifting in his seat every few minutes as he brooded over his own concerns: The discomfort of flying, the difficult diagnosis he faced in Fetlock Falls, and the nagging threat of failure all fought for space at the front of his mind. If we don’t find this Celestia-forsaken town, I’m through, aren’t I? All of my work, undone by meteorological phenomena and the ramblings of a glorified cart-driver. He stared grimly out the windscreen, a small scowl fixed on his muzzle.

Featherprop glanced over at Pasture and caught what he thought was an angry look on the Unicorn’s face. Something about Pasture’s impatient scowl and furrowed eyes that sent a shiver through the crest of his mane. A violent shiver swept through his wings as the resemblance to another Unicorn from his past struck him like a blow: Brusque, arrogant, driven, and unwilling to listen. His chest tightened with panic.

Placer Nugget. Featherprop shrank in his seat as he silently mouthed the name. With frightening clarity, the last words the golden-maned Unicorn had said to him rolled through his mind. “Son, you’ve got a damn hard head, so I’m going to give you one more chance to think about your answer. If’n it’s still ‘no,’ then you’d better be booking passage back down south. Who do you think Bits is going to listen to? You? A dryhoof featherhead with a ticket so new the ink is still wet?”

And true to his word, the vindictive Unicorn had tried to end Featherprop’s career.

Featherprop winced as the knot in his gut tightened. Oh Luna... he’s just like Placer, isn’t he? Both stallions had come to the station in a rush, both were arrogant, and both had little patience for a Pegasus with reservations about the weather. Had the similarities been in the back of his mind all night, subtly pushing him to give in to Pasture? His barely-checked panic made it impossible for Featherprop to tell. Not that it would have made a difference. You can’t say no, not with so much on the line. Not to somepomy like him.

Placer Nugget. Why in Luna’s night did I have to think of him again? Featherprop had thought he’d put the damage Placer had wrought behind him, but the nervous shivering in his wings, the tremor in his hooves, put that lie to rest. It wasn’t the confrontation beside the Pferduyn Norsepony he’d been flying, or even Placer’s gravelly-voiced threat. Those had been frightening enough, but it wasn’t until Pinching Bits himself came to Trottinger that the bottom had fallen out of his world.

It began with a scroll, full of ominous terms like “employee review,” “lax standards,” and “failure to conform to company expectations,” which left Featherprop with a nervous ache in his gut that no amount of sweetgrass could quell. But when the old stallion himself had stepped off the scheduled flight from Flank Harbor, Featherprop’s heart nearly gave out. With nothing more than an icy glare and a nod, Pinching had gathered up the Pegasus and marched into Espresso’s office, demanding an immediate “employee conduct evaluation.” That term had made even the unflappable Espresso blanche, and it was then that Featherprop knew he was meant to be cleaning out his locker by the end of the day.

“Featherprop. FEATHERPROP.” It had taken several tries for Espresso to get his attention, and he had read the angry look on her face to mean she shared Pinching’s disgust with him, which mirrored by his own feelings of shame. “Featherprop, please go wait in the lounge. We need to discuss some things..” She nodded her head towards the grim-faced Pinching Bits.

Twenty minutes later, she had trotted into the lounge wearing a tight smile, which broke into a worried frown when she found Featherprop plopped on his haunches in front of his locker, wings drooping over a half-filled box. “What... no, Featherprop, stop! Put it back. It’ll be okay– you’ve got two days suspension, half pay. Go home, rest, and be back here on Monday.”

Featherprop shook his head silently as the painful memory played out. He still didn’t know what had happened in that office, but he knew Espresso was the reason he hadn’t been out in the snow. Those had been the worst twenty minutes of his life, almost, sitting there convinced he was being summarily dismissed. No, not dismissed. Banished. It would have been like Cloudsdale all over, and he couldn’t have taken the displacement again. He’d come to the Frostmane to escape the sense of being a failure, and felt he’d found his true place. If Pinching Bits had meant to teach him a lesson, he’d certainly learned one: Saying no is bad for your career.

And while Featherprop had been afraid of pushing out past Fairflanks, he was more afraid of having to leave Frostmane Flying Service. For the lonely Pegasus, the Flying Service, and Trottinger Station in particular, had become a new family. He even had an older sister– Espresso. No, he thought, she’s more like a mother. That brought an impish smile to his face for a moment before reality stole his amusement. He couldn’t stand losing another family, or worse, being kicked out of it. Again.

The months after the conference had been a blur. Inside, he experienced a constant tension between fearing for his career and fearing that he would push a little too hard. Increasingly he had turned to Espresso for validation of his decisions, hoping that she would have the answer. At first, she’d cancelled several of his flights without discussion, only a sympathetic look in her eyes. When she began to hesitate to contradict him, though, he began taking chances.

Ironically, his unwillingness to say ‘no’ made him popular with impatient clients, which began a self-sustaining cycle of risk-taking. A conciliatory note from Shining Bits, praising his “rededication to company goals and customer service” had reinforced the lesson.

It was only after one flight nearly ended in disaster that Espresso had put her hoof down – it had taken hours to scrub the green streaks from a near-miss with a conifer off the bottom of the Twin Trotter – and begun making him to justify his ‘go/no-go’ decisions.

The pre-flight meeting became a ritual of sorts, where she would ask questions he ought to have considered, gently berating him when he glossed over risks or ignored conditions that merited canceling a flight, before finally giving a nod of approval or sending him back to ‘take another look at’ a critical factor. In hindsight, he could see that she’d been coaching him, making him think through the basics that he’d pushed aside in his fear and worry.

Her methods were painful but effective, and after several months he had regained a measure of self-confidence, enough that instead of asking her if he should cancel a flight, he was telling her he was cancelling a flight. Though Espresso was never free with her praise, more than once he’d caught a glimmer of approval in her eye.

Once, he had made the mistake of trying to thank her for saving his job. The resulting explosion of indignance and implied threats had driven him to seek refuge in the hangar for the rest of the evening. At first he had been hurt by her reaction, but he later realized that she was worried about her reputation: If it became known that the Iron Mare of Trottinger, scourge of the pilot group, had gone soft on him, then the rest of the rabble may well try to trot all over her.

“THANK me? For what?” The mare’s nostrils flared as she planted her hooves on the desk, rattling her coffee mug.

Featherprop fumbled for words, startled by her outburst. “Well, I mean, after that meeting–”


The Earth Pony’s eyes narrowed as she put a doubtful tone in her voice. “After what meeting? I already do half your work as it is, what makes you think I’d lift a hoof more for you?” She stabbed a hoof at a stack of flight logs and fuel receipts in her inbox, causing the young stallion to blush – the topmost had his initials on it, and was covered in illegible marks that were supposed to be flight times and cargo notes.

“The... the meeting with Bits? Where he was going to send me away...” He took a step back and ducked his head as her hoof came crashing down on the desktop, the empty mug bouncing onto it’s side.

“Featherprop, listen.”

Espresso’s eyes narrowed and she said in a near-whisper, “I don’t recall a meeting where Bits was going to do anything, do you?” She arched her eyebrows and stared at him pointedly. “I would certainly remember a meeting where the future of one of my pilots was discu– ”

A hoof tapped his shoulder. “Featherprop!”

Featherprop would have jumped out of his seat if not for his restraints, and gave Pasture a bewildered look. “Doc? What is it?”

The Unicorn arched his eyebrows incredulously, and tapped his ‘phones. “Listen! Is that your... range, or whatever? Haven’t you been listening?”

“Oh, ah, sort of? Sorry, Doc, I... there was something on my mind.” Featherprop was acutely embarrassed that he had gotten so wrapped up in his memories. He shook his head a final time and reached over to give the frequency knob a tweak, and then there it was: A DIT-DAH emerged from the static, then faded again as the interference surged. “Luna’s Moon Pies, you’re right!” he exclaimed. The sound electrified him, and he bent forward to reach under his seatpad and rummage through a box of charts. He let go of the yoke in his eagerness, and as the aircraft lurched sideways he heard a startled yelp from Pasture. “Sorry!”

So, Whitepony’s N field, got to be the south one... the A field from Fetlock... Discord’s horns! He blanched as the magnitude of their drift became apparent. Luna, the forecasts were all wrong... we must be thirty miles past the airway from Sheltie’s! The winds had pushed them far north and west of Sheltie’s Meadow, and Featherprop shuddered as he thought of just how close they must have come to the Frostmane’s frozen teeth while in the clouds. Hoofing up a pencil, he marked a general location on the chart, then showed it to the Unicorn next to him. “There, we’re in there.”

Pasture looked. “Where?” The map was sparse, featuring only a few lines, some jotted numbers, and Featherprop’s rather large circle.

Featherprop pointed at the circle. “Right in there.”

Pasture’s eyebrows arched and his voice dripped with sarcasm. “That’s your idea of knowing where we are?”

Featherprop frowned and folded the map, tucking it up over the sunvisor. “Look, Doc, it’s a start. Better than what we had before.” What the Pegasus did not want to say was that now they would likely be flying into the teeth of the storm, fighting their way through a gale that could slow their progress to a crawl. And we’re already iced up and down low. He glanced at the twin fuel gauges at his left hoof. While reliable and powerful, the Trotter’s engines were notoriously thirsty at this altitude, a fact that had given more than one pilot a premature gray mane.

Featherprop did some quick mental calculations, shaking his head as the results came up short of what he hoped for. No time to waste, or we’ll be sucking vapor. Luna, why didn’t I think of this, as well? His muzzle twisted in a determined frown as he pushed the thought from his mind and set about getting back on course to Fetlock Falls.

Fifteen minutes later, Pasture had to admit that the Pegasus had been right– knowing a little about where you were was better than not at all. With some guesswork and patience, Featherprop had managed to bracket the Fetlock range, and the steady tone in their ears rose above all but the loudest surges of interference. When Featherprop had first explained it, the concept had seemed implausibly complicated, but Pasture had to admit that it was working.

Without knowing the exact direction to fly, Featherprop had first pointed the Trotter in the general direction of Fetlock and then begun to fly a series of zig-zag or ‘bracketing’ legs, listening for a softening and blending of the tone in his ears that would indicate the edge of the navigational range’s course. Once he’d found that, a smaller series of zig-zag legs had given Featherprop an idea of the direction of the wind and the amount of correction needed to counteract it.

What a strange concept, Pasture thought, as if you had to walk sideways to move straight ahead, always aiming to the side of where you want to go. After his earlier doubt, he felt that a measure of recognition was owed the young pilot. He tried to dredge up a measure of earnest gratitude and said, “Well done, though I still don’t understand quite how you worked out our position from that.” He pointed at the folded map, where the rough circle was still visible on the front fold, “Most impressive!”

Featherprop, though, barely heard the compliment, and responded with an offhoof “Thanks, Doc, yeah.” In addition to keeping the aircraft upright, listening to the range, monitoring the gauges, and adjusting his course, he had his hooves full with reviewing what he hoped would be end of the journey, and perhaps the most dangerous part of the trip: The blind let-down into Fetlock Falls.

Come on, ‘Prop, it’s just like bracketing the range here, he thought, and smiled bitterly at the lie. While the let-down did indeed involvethe same sort of maneuvers he had performed earlier, it was complicated by the fact that, as they got lower, there were things to run into. Large, solid things. Fetlock Falls had more of them than the average destination, and in very inconvenient places.

Featherprop grimaced as he looked at the chart. Fetlock Falls lay near the southern end of a glacial valley that ran from southwest to northeast. On the western side of the valley was a steep ridge. During the day it was a stunning collection of striations and crags, but when the weather turned it reminded him of nothing more than dragon’s teeth.

Across the valley the terrain rose more gently, but to a much greater heigh. Between them the glacier had ground down the hills and left a narrow, flat floor. It was in this valley, several miles north of Fetlock Falls itself, that the airport lay, with the navigational range sited between them.

The real problems lay south of the town. Several vast peaks formed a glacial bowl which surrounded a lake of shockingly blue water, runoff from the remnants of the glacier that had carved the Fetlock Valley. The falls for which the town had been named marked the north end of that lake, where the frigid waters spilled over an uplifted ridge of rock to give birth to the Fetlock River.

It was not the long valley that Featherprop worried about– with the range to guide them, staying away from the mountains on either side was easy. The mountains south of the lake though, were making his gut ache. The shape of the valley mandated a procedure which required a steady hoof and faith in the equipment.

Approaching from the northeast, Featherprop saw, they would have to overfly the navigational range and then turn around to approach from the south, using the range to make their final descent as they came back to the north– the peaks south of the lake made a missed let-down in that direction impossible. Okay, the east side is the protected side, but barely. He clucked his tongue as he saw that the course reversal would have to be quick and tight.

Because of the height of the peaks, they would be turning around inside the valley, and flying too far in any direction would put them at risk of hitting terrain. His eyes widened as he saw the altitude change needed between the range and the airport. A ‘Chop and drop’ let-down, he thought, Luna, we’re going to need some luck if we want to pull this off.

In training, this sort of let-down had jokingly been called the “flying brick” approach– the rate of descent needed to successfully perform it was so steep, it felt as though one were falling out of the sky. And we’ll have a tailwind, making it even worse. The one saving grace was that, if they could not find the airport, the navigational range would guide them down the long, empty valley. He shuddered when he thought of trying to climb towards the peaks south of the town.

Featherprop snuck a glance at his passenger and grimaced at the thought of how the older Unicorn would react. If he thought the takeoff was bad... He reminded himself that a pre-attempt briefing would be essential, with particular emphasis on keeping hooves and magic to oneself. In a panic, many Ponies would grab at the yoke to brace themselves.

Sighing, he wished there were more coffee; it had been a long night and his tail was dragging. Almost over, ‘Prop. I hope to Luna we can get in.

~~ ~~ ~~ ~~ ~~ ~~ ~~

“Fetlock Traffic, Snowpony is on the range, inbound, looking for conditions.” Silence followed his transmission, and Featherprop shrugged at the expectant Unicorn. “We might still be too far away for voice to get through.” With no way to measure distance from the range, he could not be certain how close they were.

Yet he knew they were close; the strength of the range, which was now a steady clear tone that was completely uninterrupted by static, told him that. Ten minutes later, he tried again. “Fetlock Traffic, Snowpony inbound, anypony respond?”

Still, there was no answer. To himself, he mumbled, “Somepony should be answering...”

Catching the worry in the Pegasus’s voice, Pasture asked, “Is there something wrong?”

Featherprop stared at his chart and answered in a wary voice. “Yes. Someone should be at the radio there.” He looked up and asked, “They were expecting us, weren’t they?”

Pasture nodded, but qualified his agreement. “Yes, though they didn’t know when exactly I was going to arrive. A message was sent ahead to Falling Fever, though, so he would know that a response was planned.”

“That’s not good, then. Why wouldn’t they keep the radio monitored? Usually they only do that when– ” Too late he realized that he was thinking out loud and cut his words short. Luna, he’s going to want to go no matter what, and I need time to think this through.

As Featherprop feared, Pasture had heard him. With suspicion in his voice the unicorn asked, “Only when... what?”

The Pegasus cursed under his breath and gave Pasture a regretful look. “Only... only when the airport is closed, Doc. Like... when it’s not possible to get in.”

Pasture listened, then reared his head back as the implication struck him. “Are you suggesting that we’ve traveled all this way, and now you won’t even try to land?”

Featherprop wanted to kick himself. With all the time they had been in the air, he’d not given any thought about how to deal with bad weather at Fetlock Falls. The mild conditions early in the flight had made it easy to forget about. Later, the stress and fear after discovering they were lost had focused his attention on simply finding their way here.

The rest of the time, though, he had to admit that he’d shied away from discussing it. It’s not easy disagreeing with this a pony like him. He’d tried once or twice, of course, but the doctor’s overbearing nature made it hard to get the point through. So, Doc, I know you’ve come all this way, but we’re just going to cruise past. Maybe you can wave, will that help? He sighed. Sarcasm wasn’t going to help “I... no, that’s not what I said, Doc. It could be other reasons too.”

Pasture drew himself up and cleared his throat. He knew the look of a Pony who was stalling, and it was obvious that Featherprop was trying to purchase some time. There wasn’t a doubt in his mind that the young Pegasus was searching for a reason to avoid making the attempt entirely. To come so close and then just leave... unacceptable. “Featherprop, I regret having to remind you, again, but you leave me no choice. It is an absolute necessity that we land in Fetlock Falls. There can be no allowance for dithering, there is no more time for delay. “ He glared at the Pegasus. “We have to land there, and I will not accept any excuses.”

And there it is, thought Featherprop. Pasture had laid out his position in clear terms. Running a nervous hoof through his mane, he looked away, staring out the side windscreen into the gray-black night. Sighing, he said, “Doc... let’s just wait until we get overhead, okay? I don’t know enough right now, neither of us do. Maybe somepony left the volume down; maybe they had to run outside for something.” He gave the Unicorn a pleading look. To his relief, Pasture nodded his assent.

Having won a short reprieve, Featherprop slumped a little in his seat and tried to gather his thoughts. He felt backed into a corner; every decision he had made, every time he had put off saying ‘no,’ had driven him to this point, and now all of those reasons bore down on him. With a heavy sense of inevitability he thought, I don’t see that I have a choice. I have to try. Even though it went against his professional instincts, he felt as though there were no other option. The long evening and the burning memory of past events pushed him to give in.

But a part of him fought back. No, you don’t. You can still say ‘no.’

He groaned and hung his head. Oh, great. Now I’m arguing with myself again. I’m going mental.

No, mental is trying to make the let-down when you don’t know the weather down below. What if there’s more ice?

Featherprop glanced out at the wing, not really wanting to see the thick, coating that glazed the leading edge. It’s pretty cold up here, I don’t think we’ll pick up anymore. And I can’t say no to Pasture. I just... I can’t. He hung his head in shame again, feeling weak as he admitted to his fear.

Why not? He’s just another Pony.

No, he’s not. He was sent by the Throne, for Luna’s sake, and he’s dead set on landing at Fetlock. Do you know what he could do to me if I tell him no?

Featherprop could almost hear a shrug in the voice. Why are you asking me? It’s not like I’m somepony else, is it? What exactly can he do to you?

He can... well, he can get me sacked. Us. That’s what happened last time, isn’t it? Almost? His muzzle screwed up in a sour look as he thought about Placer Nugget’s vindictiveness. Pasture’s got more wingpower behind him than Placer could ever dream of.

Fine. Maybe he can get you sacked. Then again, staying un-sacked is pretty pointless when you’re not alive to enjoy it.

Featherprop snorted to himself. Now you’re just being melodramatic. It’s a blind let-down, not running a gauntlet of timberwolves.

I’m sorry, you’re right, it’s just a blind let-down. Without any weather reports. And with a load of ice. And I’m sure those headwinds we’ve been fighting won’t cause any turbulence in that valley, will they? So no, it’s not timberwolves, but it could kill you just the same.

Featherprop shook his head dimsissively. I’ve done it before and been fine. Rather than dissuade him, the internal argument was hardening his resolve.

You did. And as I recall, you also spent an entire weekend scrubbing the streaks from that pine off the belly, didn’t you? There was almost a gleeful edge to the voice, as if he were taunting himself.

Oh, fine, now it’s throwing THAT in my face? Featherprop’s muzzle reddened at the memory, shame flooding him. Not because of the risk taken, but because of the disappointment in Espresso’s eyes when he’d had to explain himself.

Face it, you’ve made some pretty bad decisions tonight. This one could top them all.

The blunt assessment felt like a kick in the gut. Featherprop’s head swam a bit as a wave of guilt and helplessness wiped away the justifications he’d been nurturing. At the point when he felt most lost, his own psyche was turning on him. A terrible feeling of abandonment welled up, and that raw emotion finally dragged his attention away from himself. There’s a whole village down there. What about them? Where do they fit in?

They don’t. You can’t make a decision based on them.

Though he knew it that to be true, though he’d said it a dozen times when diverting to an alternate airfield or delaying a flight, a sense of loss he thought he’d buried long ago reared up, stronger than ever. But there are whole families down there. Mothers and fathers... foals. They need help. I can’t abandon them.

They’re down there, and you’re up here. Just because they’re there doesn’t change the way things are up here. You can’t make decisions based on how you want things to be, only the way things are, you know that. The voice was flat and emotionless, rebuking him with it’s dispassionate tone.

The callous dismissal kicked up a rebellious defiance in Featherprop. Using reason and logic had failed all evening long, and now he gave voice to his gut feelings. Like hay I can’t! I know some of those Ponies... I can’t leave without even trying, like some coward. I don’t want to; I’m scared, but I’m more scared of not trying, and somepony, everypony down there is depending on me. I’m here now; there’s nopony else is around to do it, so it’s up to me. His thoughts were jumbled, and all he could do was cling to the concept of duty in the face of danger.

Even if it kills you?

The voice went silent for a moment, and then repeated a phrase that Featherprop had often heard at the Flight Academy:

Do what has to be done.

For a moment, he couldn’t decide whether it was agreement or rebuke. The old Gryphon who had been his chief instructor would use the phrase, usually when one of his underlings was complaining about a frustrating student. Now, though, he had the nagging feeling it was a last emotional appeal from whichever side of him was playing Nightmare’s advocate. With a snort he thought, It’s too late for second thoughts, I had my chance before we took off. I’m committed now, I can’t back out, even if... No, no backing out. He listened, waiting to see if he’d won the argument with himself. When there was no reply, he grabbed the let-down chart for Fetlock Falls and began reviewing the procedure once more.

~~ ~~ ~~ ~~ ~~ ~~ ~~

If he makes it back alive, I’m going to pluck him bare, then tar and feather him with his own feathers.

Espresso was hooves-deep in a filing cabinet, trying to discover how exactly a file folder had come to fly up out of the drawer and scatter it’s contents across the floor, and dreaming up dark outcomes for a certain Pegasus. This has Featherprop written all over it. Despite her frustration, she had to admit he had come up with a clever trick this time.

The mechanism turned out to be surprisingly simple: A spring-loaded arm had been held down by a pin, connected to a string tied to the back of the cabinet. When she had opened the drawer, the string pulled a pin free, releasing the spring, and the folder had flown up in the air. She sighed and rested her muzzle on a foreleg. Three months’ of fuel receipts, half of them stamped using the Griphorian calendar. I’ll be here all night just converting the dates.

Before Featherprop had been dumped on Trottinger’s doorstep, she couldn’t recall meeting Pony who was so good at being infuriating while managing to make her feel bad about being angry. Her ears drooped as she mused that in this case he’d lucked out; as much as she wanted to buck him across the town square for this, that urge was overwhelmed by her guilt over taking the REMMA contract, saddling him with Pasture... and putting his life in danger. She pursed her lips as she realized that the additional filing was not entirely unwelcome– it gave her an excuse to stay at the station until he returned. Only so I can shave him bald, of course. And then do that tarry-feathery thing.

The sound of hooves in the hallway caused her ear to swivel back. Suddenly feeling embarrassed at her sentimentality, Espresso snapped, “What do you want?” then regretted it. Whoever it was, her agitation wasn’t their fault.

Ether Watt flinched at the sharpness of Espresso’s voice and stopped short, keeping her hooves in the hall. She craned her neck in, trying to take in the spectacle: Half the office was covered in flimsy pink slips, and in the middle of it Espresso was reared up on her hindhooves, forelegs buried in a drawer, with tension knotting in her withers. Hesitantly, Ether said, “I... I finally got something back from Fairflanks. I thought you’d want to know.”

Espresso managed to yank the spring free with a grunt, then pulled her forelegs out and turned to face the other mare. “Oh, Ether, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to bite your flank. He’s been at it again, you can see.” She held up the spring and gave it an exaggerated glare, but then she blinked and the harshness faded as she turned to look at Ether. “Wait, you got through? Did they catch him before he started up?” She hurriedly shuffle together the some of the receipts scattered across her desk, then snorted and lifted her hooves up and took a deep breath.

“Of course, what am I doing? This can wait, I’ll come right now. Celestia, how am I going to say this? It’s complicated. Can we talk, or will it have to be...” She broke off when she noticed that Ether was still standing in the hallway, eyes downcast and ears hanging low. “Ether? Featherprop is still there, isn’t he?” She could see from the sad look on her friend’s face that he wasn’t, but the hopeful question had tumbled out before she could stop herself.

Ether’s mane swayed as she ducked her head to avoid Espresso’s eyes. “He’d already left. By the time I was able to get the message through he’d... I’m sorry, Espresso.” Ether looked up at her friend, shame clouding her normally vibrant eyes. For most Ponies, Ether would have given a shrug and left it at that, but Espresso’s agitated state, along with the terrible interference, had created a sense of foreboding that she couldn’t push out of her mind. “I tried, I really did! Conditions are awful tonight, I had to double-key it and even then it took four tries.” She sighed. “By the time I managed to get a good copy, he was already off the ground and out of range.” Misery twisted Ether’s muzzle into a frown. She took her failure to catch Featherprop as a mark against her skills, and on top of that Espresso’s obviously urgency had her worried about both her friends.

Ether rocked from hoof to hoof. If it had Essie so worked up, what the hay is ‘Prop flying into? Seeing Espresso in a near-panic earlier had truly frightened her. She’d never seen the station manager so worried, and now Ether was afraid she’d failed both of her colleagues. Her friends.

Crestfallen, Espresso half-heartedly shuffled a few more receipts on the desk. “Oh... oh, it’s alright, Ether. I’m sure you did all you could. I’ll just have to contact him later. There’s nothing more to do about it tonight.” Stepping forward, she laid her neck across Ether’s and nuzzled her mane to comfort the younger mare.

Ether sniffled and leaned into her, then quietly asked, “But it seemed so important to you. Is he in trouble? What’s he going to do?”

Espresso took a deep breath. “Oh, Ether, you know Featherprop. He knows his job.” Closing her eyes, she added, “By tomorrow it won’t matter anyway.” And I pray to Luna that it’s because he’s back here safe, not... She forced herself to stop the thought there, and brushed her cheek against Ether’s as she turned to go back to the scattered receipts.