• Published 20th May 2014
  • 1,085 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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3: When You See It...

ETSB Number: EAR-13-20
Kathia Volunteers Brigade Station Log

Initial notification was sent by runner from Kathia Radio and logged by the night watch at one hour after midnight. The duty officer woke the alert team and organized a line search directly west from the last known position of the aircraft, with instructions to watch for fire or smoke. The volunteer network was activated at that time. Once sufficient volunteers reported for duty, a radial search pattern was begun from a point four miles west of the range.

Approximately twenty minutes after sunrise, the accident scene was discovered seven miles west-southwest of the Kathia navigational range in a stand of pines. There had been a post-impact fire, but the wet conditions and heavy snow prevented it from spreading beyond the immediate area. A quick survey found all wreckage was contained within a fifty foot radius and it was determined there were no survivors. At that point the mission status was changed from search and rescue to recovery and site access was restricted.

“There she is!” Featherprop spread his hooves in a grand gesture.

The quiet awkwardness that followed was palpable. For Featherprop, rolling back the doors always gave him a little bit of a thrill. Whether it was day or night, clear skies or clouds, opening the door meant going somewhere. Pasture, he suddenly realized, didn’t seem to feel the same sense of excitement.

The Pegasus set his forehooves back on the ground and glanced around sheepishly, certain that Pasture was staring at him but too embarrassed to risk meeting Pasture’s eyes. In the hangar he could see the last of the cargo being carried up the craft’s ramp, and seized upon the chance to escape from the uncomfortable silence. “I better, uh, go check on stuff!” With that he dashed into the hangar, leaving Pasture standing in the doorway.

After netting down the cargo and giving the straps one last tug with his teeth, Featherprop turned his attention to inspecting the rest of the aircraft. Though he had put it to bed earlier in the evening and knew it was in good shape, he forced himself to walk around the craft once more. Preflight and postflight inspections were a pain in the flank, but Featherprop had learned, the hard way, that catching problems on the ground was much less embarrassing.

With a touch of guilt, he found himself half-hoping to find a puddle of oil, a broken cable, something that would take some time to get checked out. Anything to put this trip off for a few hours.

Pasture’s hocks began to quiver as he stood at the threshold, the cold creeping up under the long hem of his coat. Reluctantly he stalked into the hangar, berating himself for letting his fears rule him. Pasture had spent the entire trip trying to ignore his worries about this portion of the journey. His skepticism of aviation had grown into a deeper fear, and now he could feel it hobbling him. It’s only a machine, Eisen, not a disease. He halted next to the nose and looked up at the windscreens, then swept the rest of the craft with a critical eye. Yes, but diseases I understand.

Unlike the sleek, natural forms of the Pegasi or Gryphons, the craft was a strange mix of straight lines and simple curves, a big box with plank-like wings jutting out, all perched on three spindly legs. The purpose of the shoulder-mounted wings was obvious, but unlike those of living beings they were supported by a strut rising from the bottom of the fat body, meeting the wings at two barrel-shaped pods.

Beyond the wings, the tail end of the aircraft lifted up over the a loading ramp. At the very end of the tail a set of perpendicular door-sized panels, one vertical and two horizontal, were attached, looking oddly oversized. As he frowned at the absurdity of the design, a crude, whimsical touch caught Pasture’s attention and elicited a dismissive snort: Painted on the rear fuselage was a lumpy Pony-shaped figure with beady black eyes and pineboughs for wings: A snowpony.

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

Pasture had never considered the challenges involved in enabling a non-Pegasus to fly, at least without some magical assistance. Life without magic, he wryly thought and shook his head, I must admit, it leads to a certain resourcefulness. Pasture’s area of study was the intersection of magic and Equestrian physiology. Engineering of any sort had always been dull and boring to him– it dealt with cold, unliving things, while medicine and magic were full of vitality and life. Technology was useful, but it wasn’t essential.

That's a wing, and I suppose the back works like a Pegasus’s tail, but what is the purpose of that... thing? Walking underneath, he looked up at the most streamlined part of the entire aircraft, the large pod mounted at the front of the wing. Even that was marred by odd scoops and vents, and three feather-shaped blades that jutted out from a sleek cone at the very front of the pod. Trails of sooty exhaust blackened the sides, while underneath a dirty film of oil and dust on the underside caused Pasture to pull back, lest he brush it with his mane. Shaking his head, he groused to himself, "Impossible. A foal’s kite would fly better than this thing."

An unexpected reply from Featherprop caused Pasture to jump. “Well, that kite doesn't need to haul a dozen Ponies and a week's worth of food through a snowstorm, Doc.” Though his voice held a hint of annoyance, there was a sense of easy pride and familiarity to it as well.. No one insults my plane. Only I get to do that. With an odd motion, the Pegasus squeezed himself under the fuselage and gave a half-flap of his wings to regain his balance before standing next to the doctor, feathers rustling softly as he settled them back into place.

Featherprop watched Pasture look over the aircraft, his frown matching the one on the doctor’s muzzle. The de Hoofiland Twin Trotter was impressive only for its size, at least to the average Pony. The designers had been ruthless in their practicality, sticking to simplicity in every aspect of design and turning their backs on decoration or stylized elements. The result had been a boxy, ungainly craft, but one which became legendary for its toughness and reliability. “She’s not pretty, but you'd be surprised at what she’ll do when the chips are down.” He shook his head and mumbled, “Saved my tail more than once.”

Pasture snorted and looked away. “Well, hmm. I shall take your word for it. Please forgive my, ah, observation. I cannot claim any familiarity with aviating beyond the basic principles of Pegasus flight.” He nodded at his smooth withers. Pasture felt increasingly out of place here, where his research meant nearly nothing. It made him feel inadequate, and he defensively added, “I did once go air-yachting. One of the Barons invited the department for a cruise around Canterlot.” With a shudder he added, “Wretched thing, never stopped bobbing. Your aircraft doesn’t bob, does it?”

Featherprop chuckled as he imagined the details Pasture had left out, until he remembered that they’d be cooped up together for hours to come. In bad weather. With a little gulp he said, “Nah, not if it’s calm. And aviation’s not that hard, Doc. It’s just airfoils, whether you build ‘em or grow ‘em, that’s all.” Featherprop unfurled his wings, then nodded at the aircraft. “It's all about lift, drag, and thrust. Mechanical aviation can’t match the efficiency or resilience of a real wing’s structure,” at this he warped and flexed his wings, showing a thrust-generating downstroke, “but the Gryphons have found ways around that.” He pointed a wingtip at the curious pod that Pasture had been pondering and brushed a primary across the face of one of the blades. “The propeller here is just airfoils, but we use 'em to push the air back rather than hold us up like the wings do.”

Pasture was unconvinced, but suddenly felt very conscious of his lack of mechanical knowledge. His ears swiveled half-back as he felt his way around an answer. “I suppose that makes sense. But where does the motive force come from? Is it like a locomotive's steam engine? That hardly looks big enough to contain one.” He nodded towards the engine nacelle.

The question was music to Featherprop’s ears. Besides flying, talking about flying was one of his favorite things to do. Pointing a hoof at the nacelle he continued, “Similar idea, but not quite the same. We use something a lot smaller– the Gryphons call it a turbine. Instead of boiling water for steam, it just burns the fuel and air to make power. And the cool thing is,” he smiled and waggled his primaries, “it uses a bunch of airfoils inside to drive the propeller! Like I said, everything in aviation is about airfoils! You can never have too many.”

Talking shop always put Featherprop in a good mood; for the first time all evening, he was beginning to feel a glimmer of confidence. Of all the things Featherprop missed since coming to the Frostmane, instructing was foremost among them. Unconsciously, he had started to grin as he warmed to his lecture, and turned towards Pasture.

But it was obvious Pasture didn’t share his good mood. Indeed, the frown on the Unicorn's muzzle had been replaced with pursed lips. The doctor stepped up to an oversized wheel and tapped it with with a forehoof, then turned to give the Pegasus a level stare. “So, how quickly can we be on our way?”

The bluntness of the question left no doubt that Pasture had no interest in receiving a primer on mechanical aviation. Featherprop's spirits deflated again as the unspoken command brought him back to the reality of task ahead. Regardless of his burst of enthusiasm, a part of him dreaded finishing the preflight. So far there’d been nothing that would let him postpone the flight, and there was very little of the Trotter left to check.. Afraid to fly, 'Prop? What kind of Pegasus are you? He shook his head at his ego’s attempted self-taunting. Just one that wants to stay alive.

Sighing, Featherprop realized he there weren’t any more excuses for delay, and turned to waiting Unicorn. He closed his eyes in acquiescence. “How does now sound? Nothing left to do but get her pulled out and warmed up.” Unlike moments before, his voice was suddenly flat and his ears drooped against his head. Ignoring the quizzical look on the Unicorn's face, he trudged up the ramp, his hoofsteps muted by the boxes of medicine as he made his way to the cockpit.

He sounds like a chastened foal– what did I say? With a twinge of uncertainty, Pasture followed the subdued Pegasus, nose twitching at the odd scent that permeated the cabin– a combination of wool insulation, grease, fuel, sweat, and... something that rankled his nose. Fear, his subconscious mind supplied. He snorted at himself, but all the same there was an undeniable feeling of apprehension that washed over him.

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

The field stretched out past the reach of the Trotter's lights, twin lances of stark white that faded to a bluish-gray. Dr. Pasture once again wondered what he could have done to somepony to deserve such a fate. He was strapped into the right-side seat, keeping his hooves to himself (as admonished) and looking in confusion at the proliferation of lights, dials, needles, knobs, and oddly abbreviated lettering all over the place. INST & ENVIR OFF? What in Equestria could that possibly mean? He scowled– everywhere he looked there were reminders that he was little more than glorified cargo.

In the pilot’s seat, Featherprop nodded to himself as he tucked the flowcard up above the dash and gave a cluster of dials in front of him one last look. He glanced at the Unicorn and pulled the boom microphone down to his muzzle, The words “Ready, Doc?” sounded clearly in his own 'phones, and a tense nod from the doctor seemed to confirm he had heard as well. Satisfied with Pasture's assent, he switched to the radio and called out, “Trottinger Traffic, Snowpony is rolling, westbound.” Placing a hoof on the throttles, he pushed them forward and began the litany that accompanied every takeoff: “Props on speed... power set... autofeather armed...”

Dr. Pasture felt his withers and croup pressed deep into the padding of the seat’s back panel as the pilot moved the levers forward, and his neck muscles strained to keep his head from rearing back. He heard some muttering from the Pegasus, but it was lost to the sensory overload that assaulted him. The noise was oppressive, like an unending dragon's roar. Even the padded set of 'phones riding on his poll didn't seem to help. Powerful vibrations throbbed through his chest and raced up his spine to rattle his eyes– occasionally the panel in front of him would go out of focus as the massive propellers lumbered in and out of synchronization.

On the railroad Pasture had gotten accustomed to the swaying klack-klack of the railcars, but that was nothing like what he experiencing now: This was primal. It shook the craft as if a Hydra were gnawing on the tail-planks. As the aircraft began to accelerate, the rutted snow of the pasture grabbed at the skis and pulled them in different directions. Each rut caused the Trotter to buck and slew, each of the jolts amplified by the stout springs of the landing gear.

The bounding, skittering motions caused the Unicorn to grip the armrests tightly, despite already being bound by restraints over his haunches and across his barrel. His horn flared without conscious thought as he tried to magically enhance his grip.

As their speed increased, the wild bounding faded to a harsh thumping as they plowed over the uneven snow. Then he heard Featherprop say,“Rotate!” and the craft tilted back, rearing up like a Pegasus preparing to leap into the air, and blackness filled the windscreen.. It paused there for a moment, and then the shaking stopped. Startled by the loss of forward vision, Pasture's ears pinned themselves to his head and all he could do was stare at several dials in front of him and pray. Oh Celestia, I know not what I have done, but let me live to un-do it!

On the other side of the cockpit, the mood could not have been more different. Like any red-blooded stallion should, Featherprop felt a deep-seated thrill in the power under his hooves. The Pegasus eased back on the yoke to take the weight from the nose-skid as several ruts slewed the craft sideways, and felt the mains skip... stutter... then lift free from the surface. Releasing some of the pressure, he allowed the climb to halt a bare half-dozen feet above the sparkling surface. As a silly grin stretched over his muzzle, the winged stallion kept the craft low, the snowy pasture now becoming a crystal-streaked blur. Luna, but I love this job! As the aircraft accelerated over the frozen terrain, he watched for the snowbank and fence line at the end of the pasture, tempted to give in to the foalish urge to properly ‘initiate’ his passenger.

Stealing a glance sideways, he tried to gauge the Unicorn's reaction so far. As they said in Flight camp, 'One never knows a Pony until you fly a furlong with them.' Of course, they never said how you measure a furlong in the air... Or judge a non-Pegasus. To his amusement, the Unicorn had squeezed his eyes tightly shut and seemed to be mumbling to himself. He seems okay so far– he's not sharing his hayfries with me. Yet.

With a disapproving resignation, his mature side spoke up and reminded him of his responsibilities. And how will it look if you DO make the Throne's representative lose his lunch?

Grumbling, Featherprop's fun side had to admit that his mature side had a reasonable point. I suppose I ought to behave myself. He expressed his disappointment with a small snort and set the aircraft for a gentle climb as a snowbank flashed two feet below the skis, propwash kicking up a pair of horizontal cyclones in their wake. Okay, he grinned. NOW I'll behave myself.

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

Once he had leveled off, Featherprop reached over and poked Pasture's shoulder. “Doc, you can open your eyes now.” He tried to disguise his bemusement, but the grimace on the Unicorn's face made it impossible to stop grinning. The doctor's eyes slowly opened and flicked over to give him a sour look.

In a tense voice Pasture asked, “Is it always that bad?” Featherprop's reaction was not reassuring– instead of offering comforting words, the pilot laughed loudly, the sound harsh through the 'phones. Pasture felt his ears pin back and burn at the weakness that seemed to be implied in the guffaws.

The scowl on Pasture's face told Featherprop his laughter was being taken the wrong way. “Bad? I'm sorry, I'm not laughing at you, Doc. It’s just that, all in all, that was a trot in the park. If you come back sometime when the winds are blowing across the valley, then you can see what bad is like.” The Pegasus smiled apologetically. “I guess if you've never done it before, that could be a little dramatic. But hey, you took it pretty well! I mean, except for not looking at all– you kinda missed the show.”

Thinking of the trip ahead, his amused tone dampened. “All joking aside, Doc, we'll probably see worse coming up. But look, now you know what it's like, it won't be much worse. The first time tends to get to everypony, except maybe the foals. They always think it's a hoot, as long as they're not going wobbly. Anyway, drama's over for now; we've just got a long, boring flight to Fairflanks.”

He unlatched his barrel restraints and leaned forward, stretching each wing as much as he could in the close confines of the cockpit and then re-furling them in a vain attempt to find a position where they weren't pinched. He nodded to Pasture to indicate he could do the same, then eased his seatpad back. With a quick perusal of the flow card, he settled in for the long cruise to Fairflanks.

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

Espresso cocked an ear sideways as the sound of the Twin Trotter faded; to herself, she thought, They’re off, good, though that certainly wasn’t a word she could apply to herself. In one way, the departure was a relief, but it also meant she would have an entire evening of worry. The contract still sat on the desk in front of her, but her mind shied away from re-reading it. I need to do something. I’ll go crazy if I just sit here all night.

Rising to her hooves, she began walking through the halls without purpose. As with the last few times she’d wandered aimlessly, she found herself passing a door from behind which came the sound of static punctuated by pops, crackles, and the occasional squeal. Is the interference that bad tonight? Hoof on the knob, she paused as a plaque on the door caught her eye.

Radio Shack
E. Watt, Proprietor

That’s new, she thought and shook her head; the short radiopony had such an odd sense of humor. Stepping into the darkened room, Espresso’s ears flattened back as a wall of noise buffeted her. The tiny room was stuffed full of racks of equipment, but there was nopony at the console. She rapped a hoof on the door and called out, “Ether, are you in here?”

She heard a muted thump from one of the equipment racks, followed by a sizzling sound and a blue-white flash. Looking past a workbench, Espresso could see Ether Watt’s pale blue hooves and a dark blue tail poking out from the bottom bay.

“Horseapples! Espresso? Turn it off, turnitoffturnitoffturnitoffforLuna’ssakeTURNITOFF!!”

Espresso rushed over and stared at the rack in horrified confusion. “Which... how?”

“Red switch! Big red switch!!” Ether’s voice was tight and frantic. The smell of singed mane wafted around her as she cringed inside the cabinet, the snap and hum of loose electricity distressingly close to her ear.

Espresso slapped the switch off with a hoof and was startled by the sudden silence. With the primary radios off, she could hear the slight radiomare muttering to herself as she wiggled out of the cabinet. One bang of Ether’s mane was singed, and in her smudged hoof she held a wire-filled glass tube.

Breathing heavily, Ether rubbed her ear and gave Espresso a distressed look. “What’re you doing back here?”

Espresso snorted. Ether had never been good with social graces, but at the very least Espresso had expected a word or two of thanks for saving her flank. “Looks like I’m saving you from getting fried,” Espresso sniffed. “For which you are welcome, by the way.”

Ether looked down, sheepish, then gave Espresso a defiant glare. “Well... if you hadn’t barged in, I wouldn’t have needed it! I was doing fine until you startled me.”

Espresso rolled her eyes at the excuse. “And what were you doing, anyway?”

Ether shrugged and held up the glass tube. “Trying to replace a blown vacuum tube, what does it look like?”

“With the power ON? Are you crazy?” Espresso didn’t know much about electrical equipment, but she was fairly certain it was foolish to crawl inside of it while it was powered up.

Ether grumbled, “The longwave set wouldn’t freq-lock, and I have to keep monitoring the shortwave. It was just one tube, no problem. Well, no problem until you came in making all kinds of noise... and I sorta bumped the power lead.”

Espresso gave a sarcastic snort, gesturing to one of the console’s speakers. “Wait, I came in making all kinds of noise?”

Ether nodded without a trace of irony.

Espresso squinted at the slight radiopony and tried again. “Ether, I came in. Making noise.” She gestured at the speaker again.

Ether nodded again, looking puzzled. She wasn’t sure what Espresso was getting at.

Espresso gave up on subtlety and exclaimed, “Ether... how did you even hear me over all that racket?”

Unperturbed, Ether shrugged. As if it were the most obvious thing in the world she said, “But you don’t sound like radio noise. I’m used to that stuff. It’s totally different when someone bangs on the door and stomps in!” The singed end of her mane flopped in front of her face, and she grimaced as she caught it in a hoof and examined it. With a sigh she flipped it aside and opened a panel in the cabinet, swapped the good tube for a silvery, sooty blown one, then hoofed the set back on. Lights and needles on the console’s board came to life, and a torrent of noise poured out of the speakers again.

Espresso blinked as she looked from Ether to cabinet, then back to Ether. “Wait... that’s what you were trying to do?”

Ether nodded. “Yeah, what’s your-” She was interrupted when the steady static faltered and then Featherprop’s voice came over the speaker. “Trottinger, Snowpon... th times." She hurried over to the console and hoofed on her phones, grabbing the station log.

"Snowpony, Trottinger's ready copy. Slow read, slow read please." She frowned and closed her eyes, straining to pick up the carrier wave through the interference. Deuces, the Lights must be going crazy up above.

Featherprop's voice came back in a slow and steady cadence, but was still nearly impossible to hear through the noise. "Roger, Trotting... owpony’s off ... elve after eight, exp... Fairflanks near ten-fif... Don’t go deaf, Ether.”

Hoofing up a microphone, she replied, “Snowpony, Trottinger has good copy. Don’t worry, it’s quieter than having you sawing logs down the hall.” There were two quick bursts of static as the pilot acknowledged her, but then the radio crackled again with Featherprop’s garbled voice.

“If Espresso is loom ... er you, tell ... said ‘thanks.’” Even through the interference, a note of genuine gratitude could be heard in the pilot’s voice.

The radiopony snickered and replied, “Roger Wilco!” One last broken reply came through, “...t’s the vector, Vict...” before being washed out by the interference. Tilting her head back, Ether looked through a fringe of dark-blue mane to see that Espresso was indeed leaning over her withers with an uncertain look on her face. Ether gave her a suggestive grin and asked, “And he’s got you pretty well figured out, doesn’t he?”

“I wish he’d spend as much time figuring out how to fill out his flight logs as he does figuring out how to annoy me,” Espresso growled. I suppose I ought to be glad he’s learning manners, even if he can’t use them when he’s standing in front of me. Secretly, she wasn’t all that bothered by the pilot’s dig, but wasn’t fond of the implications in the other mare’s suggestive tone.

In a way, Featherprop’s jibe was what she needed to shake off her lethargy. There were chores to do before closing the offices for the night, and now she was short a pair of hooves to help out. Not that Featherprop would have been much help anyway. I think it takes more time getting him to do things than just doing them myself.

The young stallion was perplexing. Face to face, he was reluctant and sometimes lacked manners, but put him at the other end of a radio and he was pleasant, often gregarious. A little voice in her head reminded her, That’s because he’s out of hoofreach, Espresso. If you’d calm down, he might not be so skittish. She dismissed that reasoning as soon as it passed through her mind; the overgrown colt needed to toughen up, and nopony ever did that when being coddled.

Espresso’s thoughts were interrupted by an off-key wail that raised both mares’ manes, and Ether hoofed the monitor volume down with a grimace. “He’s right– the interference is awful tonight. Luna, I hate monitoring when it’s like this!” Absentmindedly, she rubbed her ears and sighed.

The radiopony’s complaint gave Espresso an idea. With a smile, she spoke casually, “You know... I’d be happy to sit in for a while if you can do a few quick things for me...”

The smaller mare gave her a sour look, clapped her earphones over her ears, and pointedly glared at the door before hunching forward. Espresso took that to mean the conversation was at an end, rolling her eyes at the unsubtle hint. With a sigh, she turned and shuffled out, leaving Ether to her noise-filled vigil.