• Published 20th May 2014
  • 1,084 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.

  • ...

11: A Sort of Homecoming

In the dim radio shack, a pool of bright light framed the frustrated outline of a pony. Ether Watt hunched over a workbench, a frown twisting her muzzle. Ribbons of rosin-scented smoke drifted up into her mane as she poked at one of her long-term projects– an amplifier sub-board from Griffoni Telemetrica. The spring issue of The Long Wave had billed it as the latest and greatest in transmitter upgrades, and while the malfing thing had lived up to that reputation, she had also discovered one unexpected feature: It added an ear-twisting warble to the outgoing signal.* She hummed to herself as she poked at one vacuum tube with her soldering iron, melting glob after glob of solder away from it's posts.

Danged if it wasn’t a blowtorch setup, though. After installing it, reception reports from stations she’d never heard of began filtering through the net. At first she’d been thrilled, but when a friend had confided that her new handle was “The Gargler” she’d yanked the amplifier back out in disgust. Since then it had sat on the shelf, half-forgotten, and now it was supposed to be the perfect distraction.

Except that it wasn’t. Though she had a hot tool in hoof, her mind was still wrapped up in the hushed conversation she’d had in Espresso’s office. Espresso had been right– Ether guts were churning at the thought of what she’d learned. Infurenza. Just the word sent a shiver down her spine.

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

Espresso’s face was drawn and weary. “Ether, you’re from up north, aren’t you?”

“Yeah, my folks are still on the homestead up near Fairflanks.”

Espresso nodded and glanced around the office, never quite meeting the radiomare's eyes with her own. “I need you to take this calmly. Feather is... Well, that Unicorn, Pasture, came up here to look into a possible outbreak of illness in Fetlock Falls. I turns out it’s... it’s Infurenza.”

“What? And Feathers agreed to go? You LET him go??”

Espresso’s head drooped, “He doesn’t know. I didn’t know either!” Espresso added as she'd jumped to her hooves. “Pasture didn’t tell me.”

“Well, we gotta tell him! He can’t go in there!”

Espresso's face turned grim as she said, “Ether, you know as well as I do that there’s no way to reach him. If there’s anything there, the doctor will take care of it. We just have to wait to hear from him.”

Neither of them had said anything much after that.

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

Since then, Ether had been hunting for something, anything to take her mind off her worries. Usually that meant heating up the iron and melting some metal, but by now it looked like she'd melted off a pound of the stuff and her thoughts were still spinning in place. “Geez, Griffoni, how much solder do you use on these things?” Finally, the tube wobbled and came loose. She held it up triumphantly and peered at the number on it. “Well, no wonder it warbled, you beakbrain! This tube’s for the longwave freq...” She blinked as a thought suddenly hit her square in the brain. This thing's compatible with longwave? She trotted over to the transmitter cabinet, tail lashing back and forth back and forth as her mind whirled. If I can keep it powered and feed it in parallel... Celestia, if I can sync them up, ‘blowtorch’ won’t be hot enough!

Half an hour, four minor shocks, and one smoking eartuft later, Ether let out a deeply-held breath and made one last check of her work. Once again she was burrowed into the transmitter cabinet, curled around a bundle of cables with only her rump sticking out. She tightened the last of the power leads and was bathed in a warm glow as several tubes on the cobbled-together board began to hum. She grinned triumphantly, “Okay, Ether, let's light ‘em up!”

She stretched out a rear hoof and poked around for the STANDBY switch. It clicked, and she was rewarded with a redoubled humming as several amplifier boards began feeding power into the main antenna. Her grin turned to a frown when the hum quavered and began to fall apart. “Oh no you don’t!” She grabbed a screwdriver in her mouth and slowly twisted a rheostat she’d soldered to the bottom of the Griffoni board. “Ah ghnew yew’d do ‘at!”

With a hair-raising wave of static electricity, the broken hum snapped back into synchronization. The tubes glowed brighter, radiating heat as they reached a dull yellow glow, and Ether shied away as the smell of hot fur filled her nostrils. She wiggled out and hopped up to the main console and with a flourish cranked the antenna wattage up, past nine, past ten, to a hoof-scrawled “11.”

Ether took a deep breath and leaned forward, lips brushing the microphone. She flicked the carrier switch and calmly recited, “Apple, Baker, Cello, Diva, Easy.” She kept her eyes glued on the broadcast monitor, where a little needle registered the strength of the antenna’s output. With each word, it shot across the dial and hit the stop with an audible click. “Easy, Diva, Cello, Baker, Apple.” She read down louder, but still nothing started smoking and nothing blew up.

Ether whooped and pranced in a circle, then looked around self-consciously. With a snort and a toss of her mane, she sat down at the console and flipped over to the Territorial net. “Securitay, Securitay, Securitay, all stations, Trottinger Apple Easy Five, calling for overdue flight Snowpony Four Twenty Five. All stations, Trottinger Apple Easy Five...”

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

The low fuel warning light flared to life as the Trotter punched through the bottom of the clouds. Ahead of them, the beacon of the Kathia aerodrome swept across the snow-covered field. Featherprop forced his wings to relax and offered silent thanks to Luna; for a moment, he felt that he would never again see a more beautiful sight than that beam.

“Kathia Radio, Snowpony has the field at nine hundred. No additional icing on the way down.”

“Snowpony, thanks for the report. The field is yours, and welcome to Kathia.”

Featherprop wrinkled his brow at the cheerful voice, then dismissed it and clicked the microphone button in reply. With the end of the flight literally in sight, his weariness weighed upon him even more heavily. All I want is to sleep for a few days. He glanced briefly at the Pony next to him, but if Pasture noticed he couldn’t tell; the Unicorn may as well have been made from stone. In the past hour he'd barely moved and had not said a single word. Even the rough landing only brought the barest of grimaces to his muzzle.

Yet as Featherprop guided the Trotter to Kathia’s brightly-lit terminal, Pasture began fumbling with his harness even before they’d come to a stop. Featherprop briefly considered making him wait, but dismissed the thought with a shake of his head and punched the override switch to let the ramp drop. The motor’s whine filled the cabin, and Pasture leapt up and stomped his way around the supplies and off the aircraft. His angry hoof-falls thrummed through the floorboards, shivering their way up into Featherprop’s rump and making him wince.

The propellers drifted to a stop, and the only sound was that of the gyros spinning down, one screeching intermittently as it wobbled on it’s bearings. For a few moments, Featherprop stared blankly at the dark dials in front of him, then hoofed up the aircraft logbook to make his final entries. Seven point four hours for the night, I haven’t flown that long in ages. He stifled a yawn and signed his name with a lazy scrawl.

The noise and light of the terminal were like a different world– warm wood paneling was lit by gas lanterns and a fire roared in a huge stone hearth. He let his eyes close and took a deep breath. Instead of grease and fear, the air was filled with the scent of pine, carrot soup, and coffee. His nose began to follow the aroma coming from the pilot lounge until he caught sight of Pasture leaning over the Operations desk. While he couldn’t hear any words, the skin on his neck began to itch as he watched Pasture talking to a pale orange mare at the Operations Desk. In his head he could almost hear a small voice whisper, Run.

He could see that Pasture’s brows were furrowed, and the set of his withers betrayed his frustration and seemed to ooze entitlement. Meanwhile, the mare opposite him radiated an icy reserve, leaning back with a look of distaste and supreme patience on her face. Her ears were laid back in a way that would have given any Frostmane stallion pause, yet Pasture seemed not to notice. He tapped a teletype form with a hoof, then gestured out towards the airfield as he raised his voice.

“... that you had this an hour ago? Pray tell, Ms. Mane, why did you not inform us?” Pasture fought to maintain a shred of his normal decorum. It wasn’t that he wanted to shout; that was the crude tool of the inarticulate and uneducated. Yet the mare ahead of him, Misty Mane, seemed impervious to his requests and calm explanations. It was maddening.

The hours of forced inactivity had left Pasture with too much time to brood over what the events of this evening could do to his career. Now he was brimming with nervous energy, and it was an Eponan task to keep it in check. The mare’s stubbornness only made it harder.

His first thought on landing had been to send a preliminary message to the REMMA office in White Harbor, to make sure his account was heard first. Publish early, publish often had been his thesis advisor’s admonition, and the advice had served him well over the years. Now, however, new information had put him past that; despite the methodical rigor of his scientific training, he knew that there were times one had to set aside caution and firmly, carefully grasp at straws.

This was one of those times.

“Sir.” Misty Mane’s voice was as cold and sharp as the icicles that hung over the doorway. “I work for the Kathia Regional Aviation Bureau. We support the aviation industry, and by extension the whole of the Frostmane, not your Academy. It is not my job to know what you want to know before you do, and the details of your situation do not change that. While we strive to accommodate reasonable requests for information, it is your pilot who will need to determine what is or is not relevant, not you.”

Featherprop felt a violent twitching in his tail. Oh, batfeathers. Watching Pasture butt heads with the implacable mare was great entertainment until he realized he could get pulled into it. His sense of self-preservation took a split-second too long to decide that he suddenly needed to be somewhere else, anywhere else, in a hurry. He began sidling towards the nearest door, but Pasture’s imperious voice froze him in his tracks.

“There you are! Come here, there’s no time to waste– get what you need and let’s get going.” Pasture’s voice echoed through the room, drawing the eyes of everypony to himself and the cringing Pegasus who had stopped with his head poking into a broom closet.

Featherprop groaned. The booming command had made them the center of attention, and there was no slipping away now. With a last envious look at the mops and brooms, he shuffled back out of the closet.

Featherprop gave the irate mare a questioning look as he plodded towards the desk. Behind Pasture’s back, she rolled her eyes and gave a skeptical squint towards the teletype that lay in front of her before narrowing her eyes and glaring at Pasture. Featherprop took a deep breath and asked, “Dr. Pasture, what do you mean “get going?” Get going to where?

“Where? Where else, to Fetlock Falls! Look here, they’ve been sending your weather reports for over an hour now.” Pasture’s aura surrounded the teletype form as he tried to lift it, but the slip only fluttered slightly before he snorted and snatched it up with a hoof. He thrust it out in front of Featherprop. “I can still salvage some of the precursors, but we must leave immediately! Now, get whatever you need and get us back to Fetlock Fall!”

Featherprop looked at the form and felt his wings droop. It was indeed a list of weather reports from Fetlock Falls, all received within the past hour. The cryptic notations showed that the weather had gone from absolutely dreadful to merely bad, with only occasional dips into potentially nasty. The reception times were uneven– that could be due to poor radio conditions, but Featherprop suspected that somepony was trying to pick the best readings to pass along.

And yet, the hard numbers on the page were there for all to see. Based on what he could see, the weather in Fetlock Falls was at the bare minimum to consider beginning a return flight. Featherprop had feared just this scenario– with numbers like these, somepony sitting in a comfortable chair could second-guess his decisions. A board of Ponies, probably, with plates of donuts and mugs of coffee, looking at a rather large bill for a flight to the wrong destination. Ponies who had not been fighting their way through a winter storm for seven hours, who would pass judgement on him, and would probably find his actions incorrect. Inadequate. Cowardly.

For a moment, Featherprop’s head spun as a wave of fear swept through him, but just as suddenly it was followed by a sudden calm resignation. He knew what he had to do.


Pasture blinked, then slowly said, “I’m sorry, I must have misheard you. Would you care to rephrase that?” His mouth was a hard, emotionless line, but in his eyes there was a glint that warned, Do not cross me.

Featherprop remantled his wings and pulled himself up straight. He stared into Pasture’s eyes and spoke with a calm, clear voice. “I said ‘no,’ Dr. Pasture. I will not be taking you to Fetlock Falls tonight. In my professional opinion, the weather reports do not justify the risk. And even if they did justify departing, you’d have to find another pilot. I’m fatigued, and I’m not flying again before getting some rest.” He punctuated the words with a stamp of his hoof.

Pasture scowled, working hard to keep in check the anger that clawed it’s way up his throat. His voice held a menacing edge as he said, “Very well. I’m sure my report shall make for some rather interesting reading back in Canterlot.” Turning to Misty Mane he demanded, “Tell me where your communications facility is.” Without another word he whirled on a hoof and stomped off in the direction she indicated, his tail lashing angrily.

As Pasture rounded the corner, Featherprop exhaled explosively and slouched against the counter; from the look on Pasture’s face, he’d feared that the Unicorn would have done nearly anything to bully him into agreeing. No, that’s not fair. He’s got a job to do, just like I do. Or did, anyway. Featherprop’s wings draped down over his sides, the tips brushing the floor as weariness overtook him. He rested his chin on the counter and let his eyes close, until a kindly voice caused his cheeks to redden in embarrassment.

“And you spent all night with him?” Misty Mane's voice held a mixture of pity and admiration, and she smiled as she watched Featherprop try to nod with his chin still resting on the counter. “You poor little pony.”

At that, Featherprop lifted his head and chuckled. The warmth in her voice shooed away the dark cloud Pasture had left in his wake, and for the first time in hours he smiled. “Yes’m, all the way from Trottinger, by way of Fairflanks and Fetlock Falls.”

She shook her head and gave a disapproving hmph as she glanced in the direction Pasture had marched off. Looking out at the open ramp of the Twin Trotter, she leaned over and whispered, “I would have tossed him out after an hour at the most.”

Featherprop blinked and stared at her, catching a twinkle in her eye that belied the seriousness of her voice. “Well, so far, I have a perfect record of never losing cargo in-flight. It’d be a shame to break it.” He did his best to hold a straight face, but couldn’t keep the corners of his mouth under control. His half smile triggered a muffled snort from her, which in turn caused him to stifle a chortle. Soon, both of them were laughing openly.

Misty made a show of composing herself and putting on a serious face. “Now, sir, what can I do for you? Do you need fuel? Catering? A parachute for your passenger?”

Featherprop grinned and shook his head. “I could use a featherbed and a couple days’ sleep, but if you have a couch that won’t be needed for a few hours, I’d be grateful. Oh, and I need to send a message, but I don’t really want to...” He trailed off as he nodded in the direction Pasture had gone. Misty winked and slid a fresh message form over to him, and he scrawled a quick note:

SND: Featherprop
REC: Frostmane Flying Service, Trottinger FM, Espresso
MSG: SN425 on ground Kathia. Landed min fuel. Fatigued. Pax angry but need rest. Sorry FP

“Can you send that to Trottinger? My dispatcher must be going crazy by now.”

Misty looked doubtful. “Mm, I’ll have our operator try, but there’s no guarantee. We haven’t been getting much through tonight.” She gave the tired stallion a wink and checked a box on the form labeled PRIORITY. “It’s short. We’ll put it in the rotation until we get a confirmation.”

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

“Hey, you. Fluffypop. Rise and shine, you’ve got a radio call.” The voice was gruff and terse, and Featherprop was confused for a moment. Long Tom? When the couch shook from a hooftap, he opened his eyes and blinked up at the elderly gray pony who’d led him to a battered couch after he’d finally bedded down the Trotter the previous evening. He rubbed his mane with a hoof and yawned. Luna, how long did I sleep?

“It’s ‘Featherprop,’ Tom. Why can’t you ever get it ri– you do this on purpose, don’t you?”

Long Tom smiled. “You flaphorses and your fancy names twist my tongue up. What’s wrong with a good, simple one, like, say, Tom? Anyway, need you to get over to the radio shack.”

Featherprop nodded and sat up, ruffling first one wing and then the other to get the kinks out. It’s gotta be Fetlock. “Have you seen Dr. Pasture? If Fetlock is up, I’d better get going before he blows a seal.” He dreaded the prospect of dealing with Pasture again, but there was no getting around it. A contract was a contract.

“Pasture? Oh, your high-and-mighty passenger? Nope, he’s gone. Left a few hours ago.”

Featherprop almost fell off the couch. “LEFT? He... where did he go?”

“Fetlock Falls. He conned Skipole into taking him– waved around some “Royal Commission” and gang-pressed a buncha ponies to haul his gear over. Good riddance, I say. How’d you get roped into carting him about, anyway?”

Featherprop barely heard the older Pony. A mixture of relief and aching worry battled in him, and he couldn’t figure out which to listen to. “It’s... batfeathers, I don’t even know.” He looked up at Long Tom. “Who’s on the radio? Fetlock Station, you said?”

The older pony shook his head. “We started picking up vox from Fetlock a while back, and soon as it came through your Pasture started raising Mane to get out of here.” He fixed Featherprop with a curious look, “No, now there’s a mare on the ‘waves with some sorta freakball transmitter out of Trottinger. Our vox on the Territorial just started coming back, but her carrier wave’s been bleeding across half the longwave spectrum and mucking up everyone’s net all night long. Now I don’t know how she’s burning through the Lights, and I don't know what's so Luna-blazed important, but I do know that Trottinger doesn’t have a Class... horseapples, there isn't even a class for what she's doing. Class Wierdo. You Trottinger types are all wierd, you know that? Anyway, the sooner you come and talk to her, the sooner I can stop pretending she isn't breaking half-a-dozen regulations.” A hint of a chuckle hid under his complaint, just as a smile tugged at the corner of his wrinkled lips. “And the sooner I can get the hoofball scores. It’s semi-finals week, son.”

Espresso. What the hay has she done? No, this sounds like something Ether would cook up. Luna, Espresso must be frantic, or Ether wouldn’t put the the station's licence at risk. “Didn’t my message get through? I... I thought I asked Misty to send that. Didn’t I?”

Long Tom fixed Featherprop with an impatient glare, “You did, but the Lights’ve kept us from hearing anything east of the Frostmanes most of the night. Your friend over there seems to have a knack for getting a good bounce, so once she stops mucking up all the frequencies we can get your message through.” He paused and mused, “Though if you talk to her, I don’t suppose it’ll matter, will it? Come on now, get your flank in gear!”

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

Like most cold-weather stations, the radio “shack” was just a room inside the building, instead of a separate hut. As they stepped in, a familiar voice buzzed through the monitors, distorted but unmistakable.

“Kathia Station, Trottinger Apple Easy Five, calling for Snowpony Four Twenty Five.” Even through the fuzz of a longwave transmission, Featherprop could hear the weariness in Ether’s voice.

Long Tom nudged Featherprop in the ribs and asked, “That’s you, isn’t it?” When Featherprop nodded, the old stallion pointed towards a microphone at the console. “No time like the present, son. I want my airwaves back.”

Featherprop sat down at the console and tried to sound breezy, but the tension in Ether’s voice put him on edge. “Ether? Ether, I’m here.” His throat choked, and his own words came out stiff and rushed.

“Feathers?” Hearing Featherprop’s voice must have caught Ether by surprise, for there was a whoop that made the monitors rattle. Featherprop grinned and shrugged as Long Tom looked at him in alarm. “Feathers, don’t move, lemme run and get Espresso!” The transmission ended with a clattering noise and a cutoff shout of “Essy!”

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

Espresso had given up on the pretense of staying busy and sat at her desk, staring into the empty mug in her hooves. He has to be okay. Please let him be okay. She looked at the clock again and wished the hands would move backwards. She wished the weather would improve. She wished the Lunar Lights would settle down. And above all, she wished she’d never shaken hooves with Dr. Eisen Pasture of the REMMA.

She mentally reviewed the math again, but it was the same as before: A Twin Trotter carried five-and-a-half hours of fuel. Featherprop had left Fairflanks nearly nine hours ago. One way or another he was on the ground by now. Her mind ran over the horrible possibilities: He might be inthe middle of an epidemic, or a stranded on a frozen riverbed... Or in a smoking crater. “No,” she said out loud, “not him. He’s learned. I know he has.” She stared into her empty mug, caffeine keeping her thoughts in a whirl. Whatever's happened... it’s my fault.

A whoop from down the hall caused her to fumble the mug, flinging a trail of midnight-black dregs across the desk. The shout was followed by a screeching and crashing noise that brought her to her hooves. She made it to the office door in time to see Ether skid around a corner and slam into a coat rack. The radiomare barely slowed down, shaking off coats and scarves as she galloped straight for Espresso.

“ESSY! I GOT– Oof!” Several scarves and a snowsuit tangled around Ether’s forelegs and she tumbled head-over-heels, flopping to a stop in front of Espresso. Panting, she tried to speak in between heaves of her chest. “Essy... he’s down... okay!” As she tried to untangle herself, a smug grin spread across her face. “Just got through... to Kathia... barely!”

He’s safe! Espresso slumped against the wall, relief lighting a warm fire in her chest until she realized what Ether had said. “Where did you say? Kathia?" Not Fetlock? Oh, I don’t care right now. In a daze, she stumbled down the hall away from Ether, picking her way around scattered coats.

On the floor, Ether struggled against the tangle of clothing, but found that it only made her situation worse. Not only were her rear hooves tangled up, but a loop of scarf had wrapped around her head and tightened over her eyes with every movement she made. “Essy? Hey, a little help here? Espresso?”

The only reply was the retreating sound of hooves as Espresso broke into a gallop towards the radio shack.


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

Espresso burst into the radio room and paused, the smell of hot circuitry tickling her nose. Shaking her head, she rushed to the console and frantically looked for the carrier key. “Featherprop? Featherprop, are you there?”

In Kathia, Featherprop’s face lit up as he replied, “Yeah, I’m here, Espresso.”

His voice was weak and barely broke through the static, but it was unmistakeable. “Oh, thank Celestia you’re safe! Ether said you’re in Kathia? Why didn’t you send a message sooner?” A note of disbelief and relief lay under Espresso’s light scolding. Though she didn’t doubt Ether, the worry that had eaten at her all night long demanded to hear it from Featherprop directly.

Featherprop heard a snort behind him. Blushing, he turned to see Long Tom leaning against the doorframe with a knowing grin on his face.

“They allus’ get like that, y’know. You’d think as you get on, they’d lay off, but...”

Featherprop glared at the older Pony and waved a hoof, shooing him away. With a chuckle, Long Tom held up a placating hoof and mouth the word "wierdo" before turning, whistling the jingle for “Hoofball Night in Equestria” as he walked down the hall.

Featherprop turned back to the console and sighed. Grateful as he was to hear from Espresso, he couldn’t shake the feeling that he’d made some major mistakes that she’d have to fix. Again. “Espresso, I’m sorry. I think I’ve made a mess of it, but it was the only thing left to do.”

“What? A mess, what do you mean?” Even with the weak signal, Espresso heard the doubt in his voice. A pang of worry spread through her gut. What happened?

Featherprop tried to explain, but his scattered thoughts got tangled up as he tried to speak. “I... I only gave it one shot at Fetlock. Pasture was furious after, but I didn’t have any choice.” He rubbed his mane with a nervous hoof, then the words suddenly spilled out in a rush. “It was bad, Espresso, really bad. Pasture got hurt, and we were all iced up, and we got down and we saw the beacon but it was only a break in the clouds and then it closed up and our fuel state was getting critical. And it was close, Espresso, I mean we landed with bingo fuel here, both tank lights were on, you know?” He ran out of air and lost his train of thought.

Espresso keyed her microphone and cut him off before he could go on. “That’s okay, Feather, it’s fine. Are you alone now? I found something that I need to tell you before you go anywhere.

Featherprop looked around. “Yeah, the shack’s empty, Espresso. What’s going on?”

“It’s about... about Fetlock. The medical supplies, this whole charter. Pasture didn’t tell us why he was so damn set on getting there. I should have known when he wanted to rush through the contract. I should have insisted. on reading it all.” Espresso paused, fuming, almost as angry at herself as she was at Pasture.

Now it was Featherprop’s turn to cut her off. He asked, “You mean about the Infurenza?”

Featherprop’s glib reply caught Espresso by surprise. “Y-yes. How in Equestria do you know?”

Though she wasn’t there to see, Featherprop smiled and shrugged. “We talked. The whole thing didn’t seem right, so I got him to tell me.”

Espresso’s anger was too much to hold back. “Well, that was nice of him to tell you after you’d departed. I’m sure it made him feel better, but the fact is that he lied to us when I asked about it! He knew I’d never have let you go. I found a note... Is he around? I want to talk with that slippery lab-skulker.”

Featherprop sighed and cringed at the thought of Espresso being expressive over the open airwaves. “Espresso, no, I don’t think that’d be a good idea. And he’s gone, anyway.”

GONE? Gone where? There’s nowhere to go from Kathia!”

Featherprop flinched at her outburst. No matter how manipulative Pasture had been, he was a client holding a carriage contract with Frostmane Flying Service, and Featherprop had failed in his duty to fulfill it. In the end, Pasture’s departure was his fault. “I guess he got Skipole to take him to Fetlock. I... I’m sorry, Espresso. I lost the contract, didn’t I? He wanted to launch right away, and I said no.” As he spoke, the sense that he’d made a monumental mess of the entire situation grew and grew. No matter the weather, no matter the other Ponies involved, he knew that, in the end, it came back to him and the choices he’d made.

When there was no reply for a few moments, Featherprop's wings began to twitch and ache, as he imagined that Espresso’s fury was slowly turning towards him.

But at the other console, Espresso was trying to convince herself she’d heard him correctly. In a subdued voice she asked, “You told him "no?" To his face?”

Featherprop felt his cheeks burning and hastened to explain himself. “Yeah. By the time we’d landed, Fetlock managed to send a few marginal reports. I mean, probably we could have gone, but... it felt wrong. And I was so beat, Espresso, I didn’t want to take the chance of dozing off. After everything else, I couldn’t justify it. Espresso, I’m really, really sorry. And now he’s gone and I hosed us on the contract... I’m sorry.” He released the key and rested his chin on the console, letting the sense of failure wash through him as a feeling of utter failure robbed him of his strength.

Espresso found herself staring at the monitor again. The guilt in Featherprop’s voice almost hurt to hear, pulling up a sense of abject misery that stirred a mix of emotions in her chest; sympathy for the Pegasus, a growing anger at the Unicorn, and one that surged ahead of all the others.

“Featherprop,” Espresso’s voice wavered as she spoke, “I’m proud of you.”

Featherprop looked up, surprised. He tentatively keyed the mic. “You... you are? Espresso, I couldn’t make the destination. I royally ticked off the customer, and I refused a flight. What’s there to be proud of?”

Espresso smiled. Celestia, what does it take to get it through his skull? “You stood up to Pasture, Feather. You told him to stuff it.” She laughed at the thought of Featherprop standing up to the Unicorn.

FP blushed harder. “Actually, I kinda did. At Fetlock he was pushing to make a second try, and I sorta... sorta told him that he could jump out of the plane if he wanted to get there so badly.”

Espresso had pressed the key to reply before she had caught the full meaning of what Featherprop had said, so the open circuit caught her explosive burst of laughter as it struck home. The image of a wild-eyed Pegasus with a disheveled mane yelling at a sour-looking Unicorn sprang into her mind. Every time she caught her breath, the scene would play again and she was helpless to stop the shrieks and cackling that poured out.

Eventually, she managed to stifle all but the strongest giggles. “Feather, you hoofhead, none of that stuff, none of it matters. Contracts don’t matter. Passengers like Pasture don’t matter– he can go play with timberwolves for all I care. You ... right thing when it count ... at’s what ma...ers.” Espresso’s voice became broken, partially obscured by a rising tide of static.

“Espresso? You’re cutting out. I’m losing you.” Featherprop looked at the dials and switches ahead of him, searching in vain for a way to filter out the interference.

“... can hardly hear you. We’ll d .. of this ... get back. Just... home when you can, Feather. ...” Espresso’s last transmission was barely readable, and then the carrier wave was filled with squeaks, pops, and a wall of static.

“Copy, Espresso,” Featherprop said, just in case she could still hear, “and thank you. I’ll see you soon!”

For the first time in months, years even, Featherprop leaned back and relaxed.

* The odd warble was indeed a feature– it was a bandpass filter designed to work with Gryphon vocalizations, amplifying muted dipthongs while suppressing sibilant consonant pairings that would tend to overload a microphone’s dynamic range. The softer Equestrian language tended to sit right on the threshold of the bandpass settings, resulting in a quavering audio that was either hilarious or mortifying, depending on whether you were receiving or transmitting.

Author's Note:

I think this was my favorite chapter to write. It came together very late in the process, when I decided there just needed to be more to pull things together. By that point, I'd learned a lot about how not to write, so I think it's better than the early parts of the story. I certainly had fun with the interactions, even if they get a bit silly. At this point, though, being alive would be a pretty powerful trigger for endorphins.

After scraping by, you certainly do worry less about some things.

Anyway, this is the last chapter.

What's that, it feels like it's not done? Odd. Now why would it feel like there's more there?