• Published 20th May 2014
  • 921 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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9: The Things We Regret The Most

Ether was hunched over a singed amplifier when the teletype repeater started clattering. She cocked an ear backwards, listening to the tones, then set down her soldering iron when she picked out the identifier for Fairflanks. Sounds like Short Spark on the key tonight, she thought, as she sat down at the console and donned her earphones.

TTR - TTR - FLK - FLT TIMES/UPLIFT AS REQ

Ether curled her hoof over the iambic key and twitched back a reply. FLK - TTR RDY COPY

TTR - FP ON 2120 IN 2128 - REQ TOPOFF 5.7 BRLS - BLOCK 2214 OFF 2220

As the next set of tones came through, Ether quickly jotted them down in the station log. Featherprop landed Fairflanks at 9:20, shutdown at 9:25. Fuel topped off, 5.7 barrels. Blocked out 10:14, took off 10:22. With a quick flutter of her hoof, she acknowledged the transmission. FLK - TTY MSG RECD. She hopped up to take the message to Espresso when the teletype came to life again.

ETHER THAT YOU?

Ether gave a quick glance around and sat back down. The lack of station formatting meant this was an informal conversation, not meant to go in the station logs. When she replied, she changed her keying pattern and dropped into the shorthoof the regions’ operators had developed and smirked. The ECC frowned on non-logged communications, but anypony down south who picked up these side conversations on a wild bounce would be scratching their ears in confusion.

EVENIN SPARKY

SORRY WE MISSED FP BEFORE DEP. DIDNT THINK HE WOULD GO SO SOON. WHATS SO IMPORTANT?

Ether frowned. Espresso had been vague, but the frazzled look in the older mare’s eyes had gotten Ether’s guard up. Something was wrong, and it wasn’t just the weather.

NOT SURE. ESSY DIDNT SAY, JUST WANTED TO VOX WITH FP. THAT AINT HAPPENING TONIGHT.

Short Spark’s next question sounded hesitant. Ether knew it was silly to read emotion in the dots and dashes, but to her experienced ear the anxiety in the sloppy keying was plain as day.

WHATS GOING ON? HEARD FP ARGUE WITH PAX, SOMETHING ABOUT MEDICINE AND FETLOCK.

Ether frowned. SORRY SPARKY. ALL I KNOW IS FLT IS LAST MINUTE CHARTER. CAME IN TONIGHT.

FETLOCKS OFFLINE FOR FEW DAYS NOW. HAVE FAMILY OVER THERE. PLEASE IS ANYTHING GOING ON?

PROBABLY A BAD TRANSMITTER. NOT THE FIRST TIME RIGHT? Ether’s stomach clenched as she sidestepped the question.

When Short Spark’s reply came through, the keying was even shakier than before, and Ether swore she could feel the worry pouring out of the speaker.

THATS NOT ALL FETLOCK MAIL IS BEING HELD BUT NO WORD WHY. ALSO NO MAIL OUT OF VILLAGE PAST FIVE DAYS. PLEASE DO YOU KNOW ANYTHING?

“Deuces.” Ether swore to herself. Something was definitely going on– there were too many coincidences coming together. She was suddenly glad Short Spark had kept this in shorthoof– if it had been in the clear, it’d be all over the wire service by morning. But Essy wants to keep it quiet. Sparky’s a good hoof, though, and she’s got family out there. She stared at the iambic for a minute, unsure of what to say.

IF ANYPONY WILL ITS ESSY. LET ME ASK HER. IF ANYTHING I PROMISE TO PASS IT ON.

THANKS ETHER. HOW SOON CAN YOU ASK?

RIGHT NOW. HOLD YOUR HORSES.

The response was a couple fast blips. Ether sat back, now genuinely worried. The news that Fetlock was essentially cut off struck her like a hoofblow. Alone, each event could have been explained away; trees fell across trails, transmitters broke, and sometimes the mailponies needed a rest. But all of them together made the back of her brain itch.

She found Espresso coming in from the weather station, snow sparkling in her mane. “Essy, I need to ask you a question.”

Espresso nodded but didn’t break her stride– after being out in the cold, her mind was focused on getting a hot cup of something to hold in her hooves and warm up with. “Sure, Ether, but you’ll have to keep up. What is it?”

“What’s going on in Fetlock Falls?” Ether was surprised to see Espresso stumble, and she had to stop short to avoid bumping into her rump. When Espresso looked around at her, Ether was surprised to see a guarded look on her face.

“Why do you ask?” Espresso resumed walking, but more slowly. The question had dragged her thoughts back to Featherprop, the flight, and what to do about the secret she'd discovered.

“Well, I was talking to Sparky, and she was wondering what the deal was up there. They can’t reach Fetlock on the radio, and she says the mail hasn’t run for a few days, either. It’s like... like the village is cut off, you know?”

Espresso winced at the other mare’s last words. Ether’s a ‘Maner. This might be hard for her– Infurenza, for Celestia’s sake. And I don’t want it getting out, either. That could be a nightmare. She stepped into her office and sat at the desk, head down as she mulled over what to do.

Ether paused at the door and continued, “And Sparky’s got family out there, you know? She’s really worried, I just wanted to see if there was anything I could tell her? That could, well, help her worry less?”

Espresso wavered, her eyes dancing around, looking anywhere but Ether’s. “Ether, there’s a lot going on. I need you to tell Short Spark everything is going to be okay. Can you do that for me?” It hurt to ask. She felt like she was asking her friend to lie for her. Hoofrot, I AM asking a friend to lie for me.

Ether’s ears shot up as her eyes narrowed. “This has something to do with Featherprop’s flight, doesn’t it? I mean, it all fits together– him zooming off with some fancy doctor, Fetlock going silent... What’s going on, Essy? Come on, you have to let me know what the real skinny is.”

Espresso looked up and down the corridor, then rolled her eyes and gave an exaggerated sigh. “Okay. I want you to promise me you won’t speak of it, at least not until this charter is settled.” When Ether nodded in assent, Espresso beckoned her and said, “You’d better come in and sit down, Ether. You’re not going to like this...”

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

Feattherprop’s ears perked inside his ‘phones as the volume of the range’s tones fell away, and he frantically looked at the instruments for a moment before realizing just why they had faded; rather than drifting off-course, they were almost over the range. He fumbled for the microphone button and made a hasty announcement on Fetlock's traffic frequency, “Fet... Fetlock Traffic, Snowpony’s over the range, ah, inbound. Anypony, we need a weather check. Fetlock Radio, Snowpony, calling for weather.” He held his breath, hoping, waiting for any sign of life from the station ahead of them.

When none came, he let out a sigh and shook his head. He thought for a moment, then shrugged; the silence on the radio had doused whatever faint hope he'd held. With a heavy voice he said, “Okay, we’ll still try this. Once we cross the range we'll have two minutes and twenty seconds– that’s how long it should take to get to the field. If we don’t see it by then, we have to start climbing. I need you to watch outside for lights– the big beacon, or a lot of lights like you saw at Fairflanks, anything at all. If you see something, sing out. Otherwise, keep quiet, got it?”

Pasture nodded in assent while biting off a sharp reply. Featherprop’s renewed impertinence rankled his sense of order, but the thought of getting his hooves back on solid ground was so strong that he was willing to overlook the Pegasus’s disrespectful tone. For now. Pasture took a deep breath and peered out the windows, unsure of what he was supposed to be looking for.

Featherprop pulled the throttles back and hoofed the ship’s timer on. Two-twenty. Again the nose of the Twin Trotter pointed towards the frozen ground, and this time Featherprop had to swallow nervously. Without a weather check, he had no idea how to adjust his altimeter for the local conditions– they could be high or low. He clamped down on his wings as they strained against the seat and re-checked his chart. Field elevation is four hundred sixty-five... we can go to eight hundred, maybe seven. Luna, I wish I had the barometer setting! As they flew away from the range, the tones came back to life, and Featherprop found himself busy hoofing in small corrections to heading and altitude, his world shrinking to the instruments ahead of him and the muffled tones in his ears. One minute down, one-twenty to go.

Pasture peered out the window intently, searching the grayness. His ears twitched beneath his ‘phones, and his nausea was nearly forgotten as he stared downward, looking for any sign of the ground. He was surprised to see that the cloud was not solid, but there were areas where the illumination seemed to dim as they flew through an open area, and then sudden brightness as they flew back into denser cloud. Suddenly the Trotter was plunged into true darkness, as first the landing lights and then the green beacon at the wingtip went out. What now? He whirled to look at the Pegasus, and saw him reaching for switches on the overhead panel.

“Sorry. I should have turned these out earlier. Easier to see without ‘em.” Featherprop spoke tersely as he darkened the aircraft, leaving only a dim glow to illuminate his own instruments. At low altitude, with no idea how close the ground really was, he was desperate to see something, anything to reassure him that there was air under their hooves and they weren’t about to smash into the frozen ground. He stared at the instruments, trying to block out the image running through his mind of a treetop materializing out of the fog. He glanced at the timer and said, “One-thirty. Fifty seconds, Doc,” in a taut voice.

Pasture nodded as he peered into the darkness. There was a quaver in the pilot's voice that caused the crest of his mane to stand up on end. He stared out the windscreen with wide eyes, searching for a spark of light in the deep blackness ahead of them. Occasionally the blackness changed, and Pasture wondered if it meant the clouds were breaking apart.

Featherprop fought the urge to stare out the window as well. Keeping the Trotter on course was taking all of his attention. He snuck a glance out the side windscreen, his heart thrilling for a second as he saw a glimmer, then despairing as he realized it was just a reflection from his panel. He shook his head and forced himself to focus on the panel again. Twenty seconds to go. This isn’t going to work, is it? Luna, we’re so close, it has to be down there! “Doc, twenty seconds. See anything?”

The Unicorn paused as he swept his eyes over the darkness“No, not yet, but almost. Can we go any lower?”

“No, it’s not safe.” Featherprop suppressed a bitter snort. Not safe, like where we’re at is so much better. Fear and desire were battling in his head– he had been wondering if they could get away with another hundred feet lower, but the thought of running into an errant tree or hill kept him from trying. He took a closer look out the side window, his breath catching as he saw a narrow break in the clouds. “Ten seconds.”

A glimmer of white caught Pasture’s eye, and he leaned forward to press his horn against the windscreen. Celestia, a light! The light brightened, a beam that swept across them and highlighted the edges of a ragged hole, then faded away as it continued to turn. “A light, I see something!” He started to turn towards the Pegasus, but reared back as Featherprop thrust his hoof across the flight deck.

“WHERE?” Featherprop shouted and would have lunged across the cockpit if not for his restraints. He leaned as far as he could, straining to see past the Unicorn’s mane. “What did you see? Where was it? Was it colored or moving?”

Pasture pointed ahead and to the right, trying to ignore the Pegasus’s breath on his neck. “Down there, I saw a break in the clouds, and a light, a white one, swept past!” He stared at the patch of glass, straining to see it again.

Featherprop followed his gaze, hoping beyond hope that the clouds would magically open wide for them. Then, from beneath the right wingtip, a beam of green light stabbed at them through a ragged gap. Next to it, a cluster of dimmer white lights was visible, and the pilot nearly whooped in excitement. The cry caught in his throat as he saw the break slide past them, the lights fading away and leaving them in darkness again.

Horseapples.”

Featherprop slumped back into his seat. His chest felt tight, and his mind tumbled from one fantasy to the next– that the clouds would clear, that they had another thousand feet below them, that the sun would rise and reveal an end to the utter darkness outside the windscreen. He was torn from his wishful thoughts when the steady tone of the range broke into an ominous dit-dah in his ears. His heart pounded as he looked at the gauges and realized he'd let the Trotter drift to the left again. “That's it. There's no way in. We have to go for Kathia.” His voice was thick and leaden as he forced his eyes back to the panel, and then took the power levers in hoof and pushed them forward to the stops.

Still gripping his armrests, Pasture snapped his head around to glare at the Pegasus. Nearly shouting, he exclaimed, “Leaving? You saw the lights, Fetlock Falls is right over there! Land this... this thing!” Caught between anger and panic, a slight aura began to surround Pasture’s horn. The Unicorn’s chest burned with frustration– the thought of coming so close and simply giving up was almost more than he could stand.

Featherprop gulped as he took note of the aura, but kept his gaze locked on the panel ahead of him and gripped the controls more tightly. “Doc, we can’t. We’re already past the airfield.” He tried to keep his voice neutral; the frantic edge in the doctor's voice had caused his mane to rise on the back of his neck, but this was no time for another argument. For a second, he wondered if Pasture was desperate enough to try to wrest control of the aircraft from him. No, nopony would do that. Not like he could figure out how to work this beast, anyway. He dismissed the thought and focused again on his piloting.

“Well, turn back! We can't just try once and prance out of here!” Pasture’s voice roughened with anger as a vision of a Court of Inquiry flashed through his mind. The reserved, commanding demeanor he’d worked to hold together began to crumble, and his muzzle curled into a frown as he cast about for some way, any way to convince, cajole, or shame the Pegasus into bending to his will. We can’t leave. The medicine... Celestia, I can’t let this happen. I can’t... The last words echoed in his mind, over and over.

Featherprop clenched his teeth together as the Unicorn blustered, clamping down on a comeback that went well beyond the border of rudeness. When the Trotter began to claw back the altitude they'd given up, he reached down and lifted a wing-shaped lever. Somewhere behind them, a motor thrummed as the flaps began to tuck themselves up against the wing. Only a few gusts rocked them as they climbed; the turbulence that had made the south end of the valley a hellish descent was muted and restrained to the north. For a moment, Featherprop felt a bitter anger grow, a sense that it wasn't fair to have had to work so hard simply to fail. I hope Pasture doesn't latch onto this as well. I don't care how calm it is here, we can't stick around to try again.

As they flew outwards on the range, he hoofed the microphone button and, after a moment of hesitation, he spoke with a calm detachment into his voice, one that he certainly didn't feel inside. “Fetlock Traffic, Snowpony is going missed.” He waited for a response, but nopony replied. Shaking his head, he continued, “Fetlock, Snowpony is at minimum fuel and cannot hold. We will depart the area to the southwest, outbound on the range. Anypony monitoring please advise Kathia of our intentions. We'll come back as soon as we can.” Slumping back in his seat, he added, “I’m sorry.”

Pasture reached over and laid a quivering hoof on Featherprop's foreleg. “You can’t do this!” He pointed towards the cargo bay behind them, his voice tight with frustration. “That medicine is perishable– it will be useless in less than twelve hours! Try again! If you take us away from here, I'll tell them... ” Pasture bit off the rest of the sentence, realizing that he was on the verge of making a crude threat. With a twinge of shame, he watched Featherprop’s head rear back, and knew it was too late. The poisonous words hung between them, and he quickly looked away as he finished his sentence, “...that you are to blame.”

As Pasture spoke, Featherprop felt an icy jolt shoot up his back, shivering his wings. Slowly, he turned to look at Pasture, and his fear turned to anger. I’m tired of being pushed around. I’m sick of bending. Damn his hooves, I’m done with giving in! He can rip me up one side and down the other to some stupid judge or whatever, I’m DONE. I don’t care anymore. I want to get out of this Luna-forsaken plane and forget this night ever happened. “Tell them what, Doc? And who, your Academy?” His words dripped with sarcasm as he stared at Pasture.

Pasture glowered and slowly nodded– there was no denying what he had been about to say. In a resigned voice he said, “The Dean’s Committee. They’ll want an explanation as to why I have failed. There will be a hearing, and they will want to know why resources were wasted. I’ll have have to give a full accounting of this flight, and the decisions made on it.” Pasture hoped that baring the knife, as it were, might convince the pilot to change his mind. If I can’t get him to turn around now, I’m as good as ruined.

Featherprop’s gut flip-flopped at the threat. With blood pounding in his temples, he turned on the elder stallion. "You want to get it there so bad?" he growled, one hoof shaking on the yoke as he stabbed the other back towards the cargo bay, "Well, there's a door back there. If you really want to get there, take your junk and jump! GO ON, JUMP!" Featherprop stared at Pasture with his muzzle clenched in an ugly snarl. A part of his mind wondered what the consequences of yelling at a representative of one of the most prestigious institutions in all of Equestria might be, but he found that he just didn’t care. I’ve had it with these damn summerhoofs. Doctors, businessponies, Princesses, to Tartarus with all of them!

The pilot’s outburst left the Unicorn staring in wide-eyed disbelief. This was not the same yielding stallion he had been dealing with, and the sudden change made him wary. Pasture forced himself to relax, and when he spoke he chose his words with care. "You're... we're leaving, then." It was a half-statement, half-question meant to give the Pegasus a chance to reconsider.

Featherprop seemed to shrink in his seat as his anger faded. But instead of self-doubt, what replaced it was a conviction that had been absent all night. “Yes, we are leaving. I tried. Now we're out of options." Though he spoke the words with certainty, Featherprop's eyes were full of the regret. He realized that his anger wasn't only directed towards Pasture. Demanding and blustery though he had been, Pasture wasn't the one who'd allowed them to get lost, nor the one who chose to fly into a turbulent box canyon with a load of ice. His cheeks reddened in shame as he looked back at his conduct throughout the evening. It’s like I tried to find ways to kill us. How did I ever let myself fly that let-down? How many rules have I broken tonight? In a more subdued voice he continued, "This is my plane, at least until we hit the ground, and I’ve decided we’re diverting. There's nothing to do here but make more mistakes."

He waved a hoof at the side window and the glazed, shiny airfoil beyond. "Look at the wings. If we go down through any more icing, we might not come back up. And just seeing a glimpse of the lights is different from being able to line up and land. I can't get us into Fetlock Falls tonight. We never should have tried. I never should have let us get this far." He slumped back, jerking as he pinched his wing against the armrest.

Featherprop glanced at the dwindling fuel gauges and grimaced. Luna, this is going to be close. I can’t back down. If I do, and I’m wrong... we’ll die.

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