• Published 20th May 2014
  • 920 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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1: Let Sleeping Pegasi Fly

Equestrian Press Flank Harbor -STOP- Kathia Radio Reports Missing Aircraft -STOP- Flight Snowpony 413 from Fairflanks last heard after midnight during second letdown attempt -STOP- Flight reported as medical mission -STOP- Left navigational range westward then radio contact lost -STOP- Second aircraft reports possible fire west of range search ongoing at dawn -STOP- Kathia Volunteer Brigade full strength plus volunteers searching -STOP- Two Ponies on board presumed lost -END-

Clouds. Enticing and unchanging from far away, ominous and ever-shifting up close; lone pillars and mushrooming towers rising like loaves of bread and flanking lines spreading sideways, rain-chilled shafts that plunge downward, and delicate tendrils stretching up to brush the bottom of the next wind layer.

Their shapes reveal some of the mysteries of the air while at the same time hiding others – the wet, hail-studded downdrafts that scour the cores of the towers, the spiraling updrafts that surround them – and the turbulent summit, where the newly-chilled air tumbles downward, tearing the cotton-ball clouds apart until they melt in the bright sunlight.

A brown-and-cream Pegasus flies among them, trailing the tips of his broad primaries along their sides and feeling the lift hidden within. He glides across the domed top of an anvil and flares his wings, turning tightly and looking back to watch the tip vortices pull scrolls of white vapor away from the surface of the cloud. The cold of the thin air contrasts with the heat of the sun baking his shoulder, while his shadowed flank twitches from the chill. Ahead, a twisting loop of cloud in a growing tower challenges him, tightening into a ring. He cups his wings and beats the air with massive strokes, intent on squeezing through. Not quick enough, he braces himself as his head slices through the top of the ring. The brief passage through the chilly vapor frosts his face and leaves the metallic taste of snow in his mouth.

A squeak and rattle broke through the rush of the wind, and the Pegasus’ ear flickered. He thought, clouds don't rattle. That sounds more like a doorkn–

Featherprop’s dream ended with a grating clack as the latch popped free and the door creaked open. A flare of light banished the clouds, the sudden brightness stinging through the stallion’s eyelids. The old cot under him squeaked as he flinched. Grimacing and hunching his shoulders against the intrusion, he burrowed towards the wall and nosed his way beneath the pillow, hoping the intruder would apologize and leave him to his dreams.

"Featherprop, time to rise and shine. I've got an ad hoc for you."

Batfeathers. He groaned, “No fair, I just got to sleep.” as he started to roll towards the voice. He was suddenly stopped midway, hooves waving in the air, as frost on the wall gripped the nap of the blanket. One wing folded back on itself and he winced, then gave several frantic kicks. He finally pulled free and flopped over on his side with the blanket tangled around his legs. Dignified, Featherprop, just like Fred Haystaire. Eyes squeezed shut, he could just feel somepony suppressing a snicker and addressed the interloper. "I can hear you smirking, Espresso."

A snort confirmed his suspicions. True to her name, Espresso was full of energy and, as usual, didn’t bother to hide her amusement at his embarrassment. The Pegasus tugged at the wrinkled blanket with his teeth and folded his haunches under him as he struggled to sit up. He cracked one eye open to look at the chunky, tan Earth pony who had woken him from one of his favorite dreams.

Espresso gripped a tray bearing a nicked mug in her mouth. Though she couldn't laugh properly, her eyes glinted with amusement. From the mug on the tray a single oily wisp of steam rose, and Featherprop could have sworn it bent towards him, reaching out to tease his nostrils.

Still groggy and annoyed at being woken, Featherprop quipped, “Yeah yeah, very funny. Say, Espresso, is that a cup of Foalgers I smell?” He only realized how foolish the comment was when he heard a hiss from Espresso. Looking up, he saw that her bemusement had turned to either dramatic outrage or promised vengeance as she fixed him with a hard stare. When she whirled on a hoof he sighed in relief, then remembered that she still had the coffee with her.

Featherprop desperately made grabbyhooves towards the mug before she could leave. “Hay hay hay, I was only joking. Luna knows, you make the best coffee in the Frostmane. Please, I need that! Please?”

With a huff, Espresso turned back and allowed him to retrieve the mug. The sound of a happy whinny escaping his muzzle caused her ear to twitch and swivel towards him. Setting the tray aside, Espresso turned a triumphant smirk on Featherprop so he'd know it hadn’t escaped her notice.

Featherprop’s shoulders slumped, then he shrugged to himself. Oh, who cares? With a brew like this she can do, well, she could do a lot of stuff. It’s worth– wait, what did she say? Without looking up from the mug, he asked, “Wait, ‘ad hoc?’ Don’t you mean an evac?”

Espresso had been rather curious about that too, and with a puzzled look she replied, "Nope, it’s an ad hoc and it’s urgent, some medicines. You’ll have a passenger, too– he’s a courier or attendant from the REMMies." She turned to go and looked back over her withers as she walked out. “He just arrived on the late train, but they sent the mail ahead, along with the latest forecast scrolls. Come down when you’ve woken up and look presentable.” She accentuated the last word with a disapproving glance at his rumpled uniform as she began to pull the door closed.

Featherprop stopped mid-sip as her words cut through his sleepiness. A courier from the Royal Equestrian Medical Magic Administration? He had never heard of the REMMA sending an attendant before– their medicines and potions normally came magically stabilized and safe from anything except being roasted by dragonfire. A worrisome feeling swept the last of the cobwebs from his brain, and he asked, "Wait... where to?"

With the door mostly closed, only Espresso’s voice came through, and the answer landed with a dull thud. ”West. Fetlock Falls." Then with a click, she was gone.

Ten minutes later, Espresso looked up as a less-disheveled Pegasus stepped into her office and held out a now-empty coffee mug in front of her muzzle. She eyed it distastefully and glared at him, then the mug, then pointedly back at him. Featherprop flinched and muttered a half-apology-half-request that brought a self-satisfied smirk to her muzzle. Such a pushover. Someday, some mare will have him wrapped around her hoof and he won’t know it until it’s too late. One corner of her mouth twisted down as she looked at his uniform again. But not until he learns to run an iron. But for a clod, he can be endearing. Sometimes. She filled his mug, and her grin grew into a satisfied smile as he quaffed the brew, ears drooping to the side in pleasure.

Unaware of his coworker’s rare charitable thoughts, Featherprop broke the moment with a raft of questions. It wasn’t so much that he was lazy – he was, and he freely admitted it – but that it was such an odd thing to have happen, especially in the middle of winter. In the Frostmane, nearly all the calls for on-the-spot transportation were medical emergencies or relief flights for snow-locked villages.

“So who wants to get to Fetlock Falls? And why? This isn’t exactly the best time of year to visit there. And why just one Pony? Usually there's a few doctors and nurses if it’s a clinic. Is there cargo too? Why’d they send word through White Harbor, why didn’t they call us directly? I could have used some more time to get going on the planning.” Featherprop didn’t really mind surprises, unless they were the kind that dumped a bunch of work on your head when you ought to be burrowed under five or six blankets.

Espresso held up a hoof to stop the barrage of questions, then pointed towards a seatpad until Featherprop obediently sat on his haunches. “I don’t know yet, I know it’s not, yes just one, and I already told you there’s cargo. As for White Harbor, I asked Ether Watt about that once. She said the longwave broadcasts can do strange things, especially when the Lunar Lights are up. Stations nearby hear nothing but static, while you can have a clear conversation with someone in Mareami. She said it’s called 'skip' or 'bounce,' but then she started talking a mile a minute and completely lost me.”

Espresso frowned and fixed him with a stern look. “Now I know you’d rather be sleeping, but this is important so I need you to get any whining out of the way and be ready to buckle down.” She waited patiently as Featherprop rolled his eyes and then nodded sheepishly.

She shuffled through a pile of mail and tapped a hoof on one scroll. There was a slight hesitation in her voice as she continued, “Obviously, there's some kind of emergency up there. They’re very serious about it– they didn't even ask for a quote. The scroll just said 'Urgent transport for medical assistance needed, all reasonable rates will be paid.' Here, look for yourself.” Her hoof trembled slightly as she slid the scroll around for him to see.

When Featherprop touched it, he noticed the parchment was heavy, with a soft, inviting texture. What he saw next caused him to nearly drop his coffee. He looked up with his jaw hanging open.

“Espresso, this is the Royal Seal.” Featherprop was caught up in reading through the scroll, and didn’t see her hesitant nod.

“This had to come from Canterlot, didn’t it?” He looked up and was startled to see a worried look on her muzzle. Espresso almost always had the answers, or at least the confidence to deal with stuff like this. Her obvious concern caused his gut to do a little flip-flop.

She nodded, and her voice was subdued as she stepped around the desk and stood beside him. “It must be from the Court itself.” She pointed at the bottom of the scroll, “Look, the billing address is just 'The Royal Palace,' not any of the Ministries.” Shaking her head at the thought of it she reluctantly said, “I’ve never seen a document like this from the regular Ministries and Bureaus. I think... I think it had to come from the Princesses.”

They looked at each other in silence as the weight of that idea sunk in.

Featherprop felt all of his flight muscles spasm at the thought of attention from the top of the Equestrian government. Like Espresso, he had never heard of such an unusual request for services. He didn’t even know anypony who had dealings with anypony above the Territorial Commission.

Whoever this passenger was, whatever he was bringing along, he had a lot of wingpower behind him, and Featherprop didn’t think he liked that. Ponies with that kind of status weren’t accustomed to hearing the word “no.” And this deal has a huge “NO” painted all over the side of it. He shook his head and tried to resettle his wings, feeling foolish at being so awed. Everypony is just a pony, ‘Prop. One corner of his muzzle twitched upward in a half-smile. Say it often enough and maybe you’ll even start to believe it.

To try to cover his embarrassment, Featherprop asked, “Ah, what about the weather– you said we got the scrolls in?” She nodded and pointed to a stack on the corner of the desk. Featherprop ran a hoof through his mane, failing to neaten it in any way, and tried to get his mind into shape for the evening’s work. He loosened the tie he had just struggled to put on, completely missing the disapproving look Espresso gave him.

Weather in the Frostmane was complex, much more so than in Equestria. The Territories were so big, and had so few weather stations, that the forecasts from White Harbor were always vague at best. When real weather started moving in, that accuracy fell from ‘vague’ to somewhere between ‘speculation’ and ‘fantasy.’

Unrolling the first scroll, he grunted. Fantasy. An outline of the Frostmane Territories was printed on the scroll, and drawn over that by hoof was a meteopony's best guess as to where the weather systems would be in the future. He saw that this particular forecast was for three hours ahead, but had been drawn up six hours ago. Inwardly he groaned. Not just fantasy, but Ponitzer Prize-winning fantasy.

There wasn’t even a report from Fetlock Falls, which drew a frown from Featherprop. East of Fetlock and north of Trottinger, Fairflanks was still under clear skies, but clouds were expected to move in, while a solid layer of them already blotted out the stars above Trottinger. Grasping a pencil in his teeth, Featherprop made some quick notes. He hardly noticed as Espresso fell into her usual habit and began gathering up the components for a bracing pot of coffee.

His ears flattened as he looked over the rest of the forecast. Temperatures and pressures were low to the west. Featherprop stepped around Espresso as she patiently cranked a hoof-driven coffee mill and opened a filing cabinet to ruffle through some older scrolls. The Pegasus compared numbers and then frowned – the drop in pressure was so large, he had to recheck his notes. This is no little system coming through. Even with the moon out, there’s no way we can hop over direct tonight. “Okay, let me get some planning done. How much time do we have?”

Espresso looked at her clock and tilted her head, figuring. “Well, the train got in about half an hour ago, but there’s cargo to unload, so it should be–” Just then the bell over the front door jangled, announcing the arrival of somepony, and from the sound of hooves and the murmur of voices, it was several someponies. “ –right about now, I suppose,” she finished lamely.

Of course. “Gre-e-at,” Featherprop drawled. “Well, I'll be in the briefing room. Let me do some figures, but I’m pretty sure we can’t make a straight hop to Fetlock– with the weather, I think we'll have to run up the valleys to Fairflanks, refuel, and then follow the ranges over.” Espresso nodded as she hurried past him to play host, her mane and tail perking up as she went to greet their passenger. Where does she find the energy? He glanced at the gurgling coffeepot and shook his head with a chuckle. Oh, right. Nosing the scrolls and notes into a saddlebag, Featherprop trotted down the hall in the other direction.

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

Espresso tried to look cheerful as she went out to greet the ponies at the front entrance. She found several porters from the rail depot straining to push a cart up the receiving ramp, laden with boxes bearing the seal of the REMMA, and a unicorn. It was easy to guess that he had arrived with the boxes, for his stylish light coat and bare poll made him stand out like an earth pony in Cloudsdale.

Espresso paused, suddenly unsure of how to address the cultured-looking stallion. Oh dear... How do you greet an envoy of Royalty? Your Evnoyness? While her mind furiously attempted to calculate the protocol, her mouth got lost at the differential courtesy equation and she was embarrassed to hear herself call out, “Hello, hello! Come in!” like a common innkeeper. The unicorn turned, still flicking his ears and shaking his mane to toss off the snow that had coated him on the trot over from the train station. Mortified, Espresso came to a sudden stop as her cheeks flushed.

Seeing her, the Unicorn gave one final shake and bowed, announcing himself. “Good evening, madam. I am Dr. Eisen Pasture, of the Royal Equestrian Medical Magic Academy. You are Ms. Espresso... Connemara, isn't it?” When she nodded, he smiled warmly. “Oh good, I was certain I would mangle your last name. Most unusual!”

Blushing at the compliment, Espresso recovered her composure and replied, “We're happy to have you here, it's quite the honor!” She winced internally at the clumsy wording. I may as well find a pitchfork and a wheat stalk to chew on.

“Nonsense, I'm simply a dutiful servant, nopony special. Forgive me for being rude and putting business first, but it is most imperative we deal with the matter at hoof. Is there somewhere we can speak privately?” Pasture had a broad, engaging smile on his pale white face. His deep red mane was starting to mat down from the snow melting in it, which made his horn all the more prominent.

“Of.. of course! PLease follow me, we can talk in my office! As it happens, I was just putting on a pot of coffee, a wonderful blend out of South Amareica...” She trotted up the stairs and down the hallway, talking as she went.

In contrast to charming manner in which he greeted Espresso, Pasture virtually ignored the porters who had finished lugging his cargo to the top of the stairs. Without even a ‘thank you,’ let alone a bit or two for their efforts, he swept past their doffed caps and followed Espresso into the Flight Center.

Snorting, the porters left with their heads pressed close together as they began to plot an improbably circuitous route by which Pasture's luggage would make it’s way back to Canterlot, should he pass through Trottinger again:

“Las Pegasus.”

“No, St. Ponysburg!”

“No, Trottawa, then he’ll have to get a broker, pay the Customs fees, AND file for a Temporary Import/Export license!”

“... Get the timetables, this is gonna be epic.”

As she led Dr. Pasture down the hall, Espresso gamely sought to spark a conversation. After Pasture’s charming greeting, he had become quiet and only grunted when she asked about his work. When her questions about the charter failed to draw him out, she found herself chattering about the history of the depot, telling him about the initial construction decades before; how the extension of the railroad had brought an influx of settler ponies to Trottinger, who established homesteads and small towns in the surrounding region. Through it all the Unicorn did little more than occasionally nod. I suppose history isn't his interest. Well, of course, Espresso, he's a doctor of medicine, not history. When they finally reached the door of her office she breathed a silent sigh of relief and ushered her guest inside.

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

After five minutes, Featherprop had totally forgotten his reservations about the high-powered passenger. The more he dug into the planning, the longer the night was looking to be. At first glance, it was just as he'd told Espresso: The flight to Fairflanks, at least, would be straightforward. But beyond that, he was becoming increasingly uncomfortable with the margins as he reviewed the scarce weather reports from westerly stations.

On a clear day, the trip from Trottinger to Fetlock Falls could be made without stopping, but the bad weather changed everything. He worked his way backwards from Fetlock Falls, playing the What-If game. What if the weather is bad in Fetlock? What if the winds are stronger than expected? Okay, if Fairflanks stays clear, I should enough fuel for 30 minutes of holding. If Fairflanks goes down... Whitepony should stay up, but we won't have any time to spare. Fan-flapping-tastic. Radio conditions? He grabbed another scroll and groaned. The flux is that high? No wonder half the stations haven’t reported in. While radios weren’t strictly necessary, the quality of reception could be a matter of life or death when you were depending on them for navigation.

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

“Would you like some coffee, Dr. Pasture?” Espresso was already reaching for the pot when the Unicorn demurred. Refilling her own mug, she gestured towards a cushion and took her own behind the desk, cradling the mug as if it were a shield against the uncomfortable silence.

Pasture took in the cluttered office with a bored look. Crowded shelves and battered filing cabinets contrasted with the organized desk. The walls were covered with portraits and group photos, some in front of what must be the airline's craft, others showing wagons mounted on skis rather than wheels. In some of the older pictures, the Ponies wore coats and hats so thick, it was nearly impossible to tell the stallions from the mares. One Pony in particular caught his attention; from the bag the stallion carried he must have been a doctor. The Unicorn shook his head, unable to fathom what would cause a doctor to choose to come to such a place.

Following his gaze, Espresso hoped he'd recognize the Ponies in the photographs for who they were– not as acquaintances, of course, but as fellow lifesavers. Long before the Frostmane Flying Service had moved into the building, the Trottinger Depot had hosted the village first aid station. Those in the pictures were the doctors, nurses, and volunteers who had served as the ambulance corps/firefighters/sheriff's posse for an area spanning several hundred miles. Before the adoption of mechanical aviation, emergency calls often required several days of travel, so the doctors treated callouts as something of an expectation and brought as much with them as they could.

The history of the Trottinger Volunteer Brigade was a matter of pride for the entire town, and Espresso felt that pride in her own chest whenever she looked at the old photos. We might have given up the wagons, but it's still the same fight. The rattle of Pasture clearing his throat brought her back to the present.

“Thank you, but no, I’ve had more than enough coffee trying to stay awake on the train. It’s been a frightfully long trip to get here. I do wonder why no one operates a mechanical, er, aircraft?” Pasture looked at her questioningly, and she nodded. “Aircraft,” he continued, “between here and at least Vanhoofer.”

Espresso smiled. “Well, I certainly wish we could, but there simply isn't enough demand for it. The Frostmane is not exactly a premiere destination, as I’m sure you know. Most of the Ponies who travel here are either planning to stay or have come on vacation. The vacationers especially seem to enjoy the slow pace– it gives them more time to view the scenery.” She smiled. “You probably saw most of the Hoofinuska valley on the way up, isn’t it beautiful?”

Pasture was not convinced. With an attitude like that, it’s no wonder anypony of culture avoids this place. I’ve never encountered conditions like that on any railway in Equestria, nopony would stand for it there! His nose twitched at the memory of his three-day journey. To his chagrin, there were no private compartments, so he’d been forced to spend his days in the lounge car and bunk down in a sleeper car with a dozen other ponies at night. The fact that many of the passengers spent the entire trip in communal compartments with no bunks at all was a detail that had escaped his notice. Indeed, the sight of multiple colts and fillies with obvious colds running up and down the aisle, spreading disease and brushing past him, or running into him at a gallop, had been quite unnerving.

He gave a test sniffle. The protective spell seems to have worked, but I still smell cabbage and beet soup everywhere I go. Something else Pasture hadn't noticed was the perceptiveness of those foals. They had been well aware of his disdainful looks, and on one particularly boring night they decided to share their soup with him, conveniently stowed away in his luggage for him to enjoy later.

“Well, yes, anyway. I don't wish to be rude, but we really must get on with business.” Pasture turned and a weak magical aura surrounded his saddlebag, the flap feebly lifting up. His eyebrow arched in confusion and he squinted with extra effort, finally extracting a bundle of papers. Here I have the contract for carriage to Fetlock Falls. I've been told that it is most generous.” The papers floated over and landed on Espresso's desk.

It was a big bundle. Espresso read through the first few pages, and then realized that a complete review would take hours. She began skipping through, trying to find the section on stipulations and hoping to spot any deal-breaking clauses as she riffled through the pages. She finally found the summary, her eyebrows rising as she breezed through the compensation clause. She paused to re-read it, and her mane began to stand on end. That's what we earn in a month's time! She coughed lightly and looked up, meeting Dr. Pasture's level gaze with a less-confident one. “This is... this is certainly more than adequate. Now, if I may ask, and I must ask, why is it so important to get to Fetlock Falls? You must understand this situation is most unusual.” Something didn't feel right, and she was reluctant to make such a large business decision without more information. Espresso was the station manager and had the authority to do so in emergency situations, but the feeling of having the full risk resting upon her back was quite unsettling.

Pasture gave an irritated sigh. The situation was complex and fraught with uncertainty, and he had no time to sit and go over details with a low-level manager. Isn't it enough that the REMMA has sent me to this place under the aegis of the Royal Seal? “A full explanation would take far too long, Ms. Connemara, but it suffices to say that there has been an outbreak of illness in Fetlock Falls. In reviewing the reported symptoms, we found that there may be... complications which would require the modification of some valuable medicines, which of course would be the parcels I have brought. As the researcher most familiar with this kind of illness, I was selected to accompany and administer the treatments.”

Espresso nodded. “I see. And the medicines you have– do they require any special handling? Are they dangerous?”

Pasture chuckled a little. “Madam, all medicines are dangerous if used improperly. But no, in their current form these are not. By themselves they are inert, and my skills are needed to combine them and make them effective. In addition, the containers themselves are proof to nearly any kind of shock or damage.” His muzzle drooped in a frown as he filled his voice with a commanding tone. “However, one thing these components are not impervious to is time. They are magical precursors and have a limited life. The time it took to get here by rail has already stretched the limits of our preservation techniques, and I must insist on beginning the final phase of the journey as soon as possible before they become worthless.” Pasture drew himself up and held his head high. “Now, as a representative of the Ministry and, in this matter, the Throne, I have to ask: Is the Frostmane Flying Service capable of getting me to Fetlock Falls?”

Espresso felt a flush rising on her cheeks at the undertone of doubt in the doctor’s words. Though she suspected she was being baited, she could not resist replying sharply, a wave of indignation lending a hard edge on her voice as she said, “Sir, we are the most capable airlift operation in the Territories. If it is possible, we deliver.” Shaking off her reservations, Espresso grasped a quill in her mouth and signed the contract with a flourish, committing Frostmane Flying Service to transporting one Dr. Pasture, Eisen, and eight Ponyweights of Precursors, Medical, (INFZ), from Trottinger to Fetlock Falls.

Down the hall, Featherprop felt a shiver run down his spine, and his tail began to twitch.

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