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

The Last Link - Featherprop

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

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4: A Real Fixer-Upper

ETSB Number: EAR-13-20
Impact Site Summary

Detailed examination of the airframe was not possible due to the extensive damage sustained during impact and the post-impact fire. The aircraft’s first point of contact was with minor limbs at a near-vertical angle of descent, with a glancing bole impact approximately thirty feet above ground level. Branch breakage patterns and trunk damage indicate the aircraft entered the forest crown in an inverted attitude, with a nose-down attitude of eighty-five degrees below the horizon. The accident is classified as non-survivable due to the near vertical path, high velocity, and minimal energy dissipation prior to striking the ground. The full force of impact was borne by the cabin structure. Impact forces compromised fuel tank integrity and post-impact fire damaged all involved structures to the point that further analysis was inconclusive. A three-inch thick slab of mixed clear and rime ice was found near the separated left wingtip. The longitudinal profile of the slab matched the wing leading edge, providing strong evidence of severe to extreme icing conditions.

After he recovered from overwhelming aural and physical sensations of his first takeoff, Pasture was surprised to find that flying was remarkably like sitting at a desk. If one were to put a desk in the middle of a beehive. Though the noise was now only a fraction of the onslaught during takeoff, it was still deafening if he were to take the ‘phones off. The windows were much darker than the interior of the cockpit and Pasture gave only a passing glance at the instruments in front of him; while he could guess at the meanings of some of the readings, they told him nothing of value. All in all, it was both boring and distracting, which only grated on his nerves even more.

As his disinterest grew into boredom, Pasture found himself watching his Pegasus pilot. Featherprop seemed utterly absorbed in his tasks, but there was an air of relaxation about him that intrigued the doctor. When Pasture was performing hands-on work in the laboratory or digging through the stacks in the research library, his was a single-mindeded focus: The experiments were carefully designed to minimize variables, and his reading was always done with a specific goal in mind.

The Pegasus, however, did not seem to approach his work the same way. Though he sat still, his eyes scanned back and forth across the panel. He held the yoke almost carelessly with his left hoof, but the right seemed to be moving constantly: Turning knobs, touching the radios, or reaching up to nudge the levers hanging from the overhead. As far as Pasture could tell, there was no method or pattern; the younger Pony seemed to make changes at random. I could never concentrate with the noise and constant distractions. I wonder if he would have a hard time working in a quiet office?

As they flew on, Featherprop began to turn down the lighting until only a dim glow emanated from the panel. Lit from below, the outline of his brown muzzle and ears softened against the quilted insulation on the wall behind but his eyes still glinted in the lights of the instruments. Pasture watched as Featherprop began to glance outside the cockpit more often, suppressing a frown as he felt the plane begin to drift from the steady course Featherprop had previously been holding.

They droned onward through the darkness, and soon Pasture could not stifle the urge to yawn. Though he was quite tired, Pasture felt a gnawing worry at the thought of falling asleep while hurtling through the air in a rattling, bouncing contraption. He reached behind his seat and pulled a notebook from his saddlebag. Just before departing Pasture had marshalled a small army of graduate students and lab assistants in the library, herding them into the stacks with a combination of vaguely plausible promises and ominous musings about the future of their academic careers. One particular set of case files had been of primary importance, but his platoon of ponies had also managed to find a few journals that held promise.

Pasture had already read through them, of course, but he hoped another review would help alleviate some of the boredom. Not that reading old Frostenhoof’s notes again will help with that. He felt above his head for the overhead lamp’s rheostat, but before he could turn it on the Pegasus stayed his hoof and shook his head.

"If you really need a light, Doc, use the red one over your shoulder. Keep it low, though." Featherprop tried to keep his voice level; he hated it when some otherpony touched the controls in his cockpit without permission, but for now he didn't want to provoke Pasture. The last thing he needed was to add to the tension that was still knotting up his insides.

Pasture twisted his head and looked about, finally recognizing a small gray cylinder above his shoulder as some sort of lamp and turned it on. The beam was weak and barely illuminated the pages of the notebook. With a look of distaste, he turned to the pilot and complained, "That’s all? I can't read with this scrap of light."

Featherprop sighed as his mane prickled in annoyance annoyance, but tried to keep it from his voice. "Sorry, but if you turn on the overhead then I won't be able to see. Right now, that,” he glanced downward at Pasture's notebook, “isn’t important. What's outside is." He nodded his chin towards the window besides the Unicorn.

Until now, Pasture hadn't looked beyond the instrument panel or the pilot– the lighting in the cockpit had made the windscreens opaque from the inside, while the strangeness of the entire experience had made forget there was a world beyond the aircraft. He cupped a hoof over his brow and stared intently out the side window. Now with the glare blocked, he could begin to see patterns of light and dark patches beneath a uniform gray ceiling. As his eyes grew accustomed to the darkness, one of the seemingly distant dark patches slid past at a startling rate and the Unicorn's ears flickered in surprise. His eyes snapped into focus on a white patch with black speckles as it sped past, then lost it in the faint green glow of the wingtip, and Pasture only realized afterwards that he’d been holding his breath.

Though his passenger's nose and horn were pressed against the window, Featherprop could hear a touch of alarm mixed n his voice. "Wait, are we flying through a valley? Shouldn’t we be flying above the hills?"

Featherprop smiled. “They’re mountains, actually. Some of them reach up higher than we can go. The ranges aren’t reliable through here, so it’s safer if we stay out of the clouds, and that means running the valley. Now, if no one blinds me, it’ll be a piece of cake.” He delivered the gentle barb with a brief smile, hoping to break the ice, but the words were lost on Pasture, who was still staring intently out the side window.

Pasture nodded absentmindedly, only half-hearing the Pegasus. After his eyes had adjusted, the view was surprisingly clear. Though there was a solid overcast, the light of Luna's moon diffused through, barely lighting the world around them. The silvery luminance imparted a soft glow to the clouds, with some light filtering down to the forested slopes and valley below. A river wound back and forth in the valley, it’s snow-covered channel meandering between the dark fir trees. Above it, sharp peaks stood out like teeth against the velvet backdrop of the clouds, the white streaks of avalanche chutes marking their flanks.

The tops of many of the hills seemed to have been cut off unnaturally, ending abruptly at the same level. After several minutes Pasture felt a flush of embarrassment spread across his muzzle as he realized that the hills were really mountains, whose peaks were piercing the clouds, their summits reaching an unknown height above them. In the valley below there was only an occasional pool of light, and Pasture imagined it must mark the home of a lonely farmer or woodspony, spending an evening in front of the fire or tending to some late chores. Soon even those were completely gone, leaving only the cloud-filtered glow of Luna’s moon to light their way. Without anything to focus on, his eyelids started to grow heavy.

Featherprop’s smile faded when he saw that Pasture was absorbed with the view, and he turned back to his own thoughts. If there was one thing he wanted to avoid, it was a flight full of bickering– the mission itself had his mind going in circles, and he didn't think he could endure a running argument with a passenger as well. Especially one who’s dead set on getting where he wants to go and has a Royal Commission to back him up.

He snorted. ‘Dead set,’ ‘Prop? Care to rephrase that?

Featherprop’s worries were not just obsessive fussing; despite the short history of mechanical aviation (or perhaps because of it), the Frostmane had already seen quite a few tragic examples of what happened when hubris, wishful thinking, or coercion triumphed over common sense. Like most pilots, Featherprop took a professional, dispassionate interest in these accidents. Most of them, at least.

Featherprop winced as old memories surfaced, and fought to stuff the dread they brought with them back down. It took a few deep breaths and perhaps a quick sniffle before he looked up again. Luna’s Veil, it's lonely up here tonight. He belatedly remembered that there was somepony else along, and slid his eyes sideways, worried that Pasture had noticed.

Most nights when those recollections stalked through his mind, there was no one up front to see him– often anypony else on board was busy in the back. Tonight, though, he didn't even have the illusory privacy of an empty copilot's seat.

To Featherprop’s relief he could see that Pasture couldn’t have seen him, for the Unicorn was losing his battle to stay awake; Pasture had slumped against the side of the cabin, his head nodding erratically as he dozed. Looks like we could both use some conversation. Maybe I can even get him to open up about what’s behind this Luna-forsaken trip. He dug into a bag behind the seat and pulled out a steel cylinder.

Pasture felt a hoof nudging his shoulder and snapped his head back up. A steaming mug was bobbing in front of his muzzle. The cockpit had filled with a spicy, almost caramelized scent that intensified as a tendril of steam drifted past his nostrils. Looking over, he saw the Pegasus glancing sideways with an apologetic grin on his muzzle. Pasture gratefully took the cup in a magical aura, quickly reaching a hoof up to support it as it wobbled in mid-air. “Thank you. I seem to be having a hard time staying awake.”

Featherprop nodded. “It's the noise and vibrations– they wear you down after a while. Coffee helps, but nothing works better than having somepony to talk to.” He took an exaggerated sip of his own coffee to hide his nervousness and tried to look nonchalant. “So... what's the word, Doc? Tell me something I don't know.”

The Unicorn tentatively lifted his mug to his lips and felt his eyes pop open. What in Celestia's name did they do to this coffee? He had never been a connoisseur of the bitter brew, but it had become a staple among the academic elite in Canterlot. This, however, was beyond anything he had ever tasted– not so much bitter as deep and complex, with a slight malty-chocolatey feel coating his tongue after he had swallowed. He coughed and smacked his lips a few times. “Well, for one, I've never had coffee that tastes like this.” He took another experimental sip and was surprised at the sudden feeling of alertness. “It certainly grabs your attention.”

Featherprop nodded enthusiastically, “Neither did I before I came up here. This stuff takes the cake! Sort of reminds me of this brew the Gryphs make. Not quite the same– with theirs, it’s more like they distill it, then smelt it with sugar, cream, and butter– it'll curl your feathers, that's for sure.” He paused and took a deep whiff from his own mug, nostrils flaring as he gently pulled in the rising steam. His eyes closed and ears drooped in pleasure. “Anyway, you can thank Espresso for this coffee. I think there’s some Zebricaran mixed in, that’s the spiciness you smell. She even named this blend– 'Come Along Home,' though it took some doing to get her to admit it.” He watched the Unicorn take a deeper sip and nod in approval. “She doesn’t want anyone to know she can get sentimental– it’d destroy that NightMare image she cultivates.”

They drank in silence for a few minutes, both stallions simply enjoying the flavors and, to Pasture's surprise, the companionship. He examined that feeling with some bemusement. Why is it that a mere beverage can bring on this contemplative feeling? So far on his trip he had felt at odds with everypony he had run into. So many had seemed set on putting obstacles in his path that, with a looming deadline, he’d had no choice but to run roughshod over them. Now that he was nearing his destination, he felt a growing sense of disquiet at the thought of the journey coming to an end and his true task beginning. So, Eisen. You weren’t happy when you were held up, and now you’re not happy to be on your way? Would that be called irony or pettiness?

Featherprop, Pasture could say with confidence, would never make a good politician. The Pegasus’s desperate attempt to project a calm, confident demeanor was belied by the constant twitching of his wings– Pasture knew enough Pegasi to be able to recognize some of their unique physical cues, and Featherprop was quite obviously tense and distracted.

Well, I can certainly sympathize with that. He took a deeper sip and decided that the Pegasus might have a point about coffee and conversation. “Come Along Home, hm? Your Ms. Connemara is a most remarkable mare.”

Featherprop's eyebrow quirked up at the subtle intonation Pasture gave to the words “your” and “Ms.” and gave a bemused grunt. “She's unique, but ‘my’ Espresso? I don't know if your compass is reading right, Doc.”

Pasture shrugged and stared at his coffee. “It sounds as though the two of you can’t get along, yet in your voice I believe I hear a certain fondness for her.” He turned to face the pilot, tilting his head down and giving the Pegasus a searching look from under his mane. “How does it come to pass that close colleagues are at such loggerheads, hm?”

The Unicorn’s question caught Featherprop by surprise. The passive-aggressive sparring between himself and the Earth mare had gone on for so long that it had become a part of daily life, something that simply was. His ears swiveled forward and back as he tried to figure out exactly what he thought about that, and how to word it, without confirming Pasture’s slightly-frightening ideas about some sort of affection.

He and Espresso didn't hate each other by any means, but they'd been trading barbs with each other for so long it that any other way of conversing seemed almost intim– inappropriate, he corrected himself. Wasn’t always like that, though. She scared the feathers off of me early on.

While Espresso had rather easily intimidated the young Pegasus in the beginning, Featherprop had surprised her (and himself) by fighting back, albeit indirectly. His strategy had been subtle– he avoided open conflict with her, preferring to win his battles in absentia while staying out of range of whichever blunt object she happened to have nearby. Featherprop was fairly certain that the architect of the Flight Center had been a Pegasus, for the double-height ceilings and broad hallway seemed custom-made for flying Ponies. On several occasions when Espresso had cornered him with an empty coffee-pot (and proceeded to give him a few good jabs in the ribs with it), the high ceilings had given him an escape route and allowed him to flee relatively unharmed. Another reason you need a good api... ada... fat layer; protection against angry mares.

Featherprop sighed, slightly embarrassed to be talking about the part he’d played. “I suppose it began a few months after I was hired on. Espresso’d been around for years and nopony at the Center dared to cross her. We had a few little run-ins, you know, things like paperwork not being filled out right or forgetting to hand in my timecard, and she always made sure I knew I'd messed up. Nopony likes getting pushed around, but... I really didn't want to rock the boat, you know? So I did my best to stay out from underhoof, until this one day. Okay, you've smelled her coffee, right?” The Unicorn gestured with his mug sardonically, and Featherprop looked sheepish. “Oh, right. Well, you can see why I love it. But in the beginning, whenever I tried to get some she'd stare me down and I just didn't know how to deal with it. I was new, and she can be really, really intimidating, so I just went without.”

Looking back on his early days brought an odd tension to Featherprop’s gut. There were a lot of good memories, but some that were embarrassing, and some that he coud have washed away with hard cider. It should have been embarrassing to dredge up these old events and discuss them with somepony who was essentially a stranger, but instead it was liberating to talk with someone outside the tight-knit community of Trottinger.

“Well, like I said, there was this one day. She had brewed up a pot and just as I walked by she trotted out to take care of something. It smelled so good. I figured I could sneak a half a cup before she came back.” He felt himself blushing, “Well, it was too good. Since she was still out, I had another half-cup, and then another, and... well, pretty soon the pot was empty.”

Pasture found himself leaning over as the brown stallion talked, ears tilted forward in interest.

The Pegasus continued, “That was when I heard her in the hall. You can't mistake her gait when she's 'in a mood,' and boy was she ever that day. I panicked, I figured I was a dead pony.” He unconsciously looked around as if he feared she would somehow overhear, then went on in a lower voice. “I don't know if you noticed the arched window over the door to her office?” The Unicorn nodded; though he reallyhadn't, he was too interested to interrupt the tale. “Well, just before she walked in, I saw the ledge up there. I flew up and started trying to open it.” Featherprop’s words started to come in a rush as he recounted the events, the fear he’d felt evident in his voice.

“I think she heard me as she came in, but thank Luna she didn't look up. She saw the empty coffee pot, though. I'd left it sitting right on her desk.” An embarrassed grin had started to grow into a smile on his muzzle, and his voice trembled a little as he fought to keep a straight face. “I watched her walk in, right under me. She knelt down in front of the desk and stared at the pot, nose right up against it. Then she looked at the coffeemaker, then the door, and the pot again.” He turned away, trying to stifle a nervous snicker that was trying very hard to escape.

He glanced sideways at Pasture. “So I'm balancing on that ledge, my heart pounding, and I'm convinced she's going to hear it. But she just kept staring at the pot and glancing at the coffeemaker, and then she sorta backed out the door, still looking at the pot. I heard the door close, and then open again– I think she was looking to see if, I don’t know, maybe if she’d imagined it or something.” His eyes were tearing up and he tried to wipe them clear with a hoof as his voice cracked. “Fina... finally I heard her trot down the hall, muttering to herself. I flew down to the pilot lounge and just burst out laughing– I had to smother it with the pillow so she wouldn't hear.” His relief replayed itself on his face, and he grinned broadly at the Unicorn. “That changed everything– it was so much fun, I couldn’t stop smiling the rest of the day. After that, it sorta became a game, though she didn't realize it for a while. It wasn't until I came across the Instant Coffee of the Month Club... Hoo, that one really ate at her! She finally figured out it was me, but by that time I wasn't so new anymore.” Looking a little guilty, he admitted, “Actually, she cuts me a lot of slack anymore. I guess I should feel bad, taking advantage of that, but... it's just too hard to resist!”

Pasture found himself smiling along with the pilot. The brown stallion had been right– conversation definitely helped with the weariness, though he attributed some of that to the potent brew in his hooves. When Featherprop motioned with the vacuum flask he nodded and held out his mug for a refill. “And to think, when you started I thought you'd have some story of a date gone wrong.”

Featherprop head snapped around with an haunted look on his face. “Are you crazy? After dealing with Espresso at work, I can't imagine what going on a date with her would be like. It'd be...” He shuddered. “Well, I don't know what it'd be like, but it'd be pretty scary.”

Pasture chuckled and sipped his coffee. “I take it you've never dealt with royalty, then. Ms. Connemara is a breath of fresh air compared to some Grande Dames I've met at Academy balls.”

The Pegasus grimaced and stuck out his tongue, “Well, you can keep 'em. One Espresso is enough for this territory.”

The two stallions lapsed back into silence, both content to work through the cooling coffee and sift through their own thoughts. Featherprop turned his attention back to the skies as he guided the craft through a series of passes and valleys, while Pasture mulled over the task he faced in Fetlock Falls. Above them, the clouds thinned and Luna's moon began to find thin spots in the cover, dappling the valley floor with shifting, diaphanous pools of light.

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

Espresso grumbled as she sorted through the ruins of her filing system. What is his problem? I had all of this in order, then he puts his hooves on it and in five minutes, I can’t tell Applelopolis from Prancecagoula! Featherprop had left the weather reports in an abominable state. I’ve had it with him. No more Mrs. Nicemare. Yet her burst of anger quickly faded as quickly as it had flared, damped down by a wave of guilt.

Not that she used a gentle hoof with him, anyway; Featherprop managed to annoy her much more frequently than any other Pony at the Flight Center, and she seldom missed an opportunity to try to correct him.

As a rule, Espresso didn’t put any effort into being nice to new pilots: Generally they were lazy, broke stuff, complained about broken stuff, and mistakenly considered themselves the most important part of the entire outfit.

Worst of all, they thought they were entitled to coffee and muffins just for showing up to work. She made a point to put them in their place as soon as possible, using a combination of glares, veiled threats, implied and outright insults to get her point across. Most of them became tolerable after a few months on the job, and once they stopped acting like spoiled Canterlot savages she would treat them like grown-up Ponies. Featherprop had seemed no different, really; in fact, he’d learned his place in the pecking order much quicker than most. The problem lay with how thoroughly he yielded to her– he had been almost completely non-confrontational..

Until I turn my back. That was when the contents of drawers were swapped, coffee urns glued in place, entire filing cabinets inversely alphabetized according to Modern Gryphillic... the list went on and on. At first she had thought it was simple foalish revenge and became even harsher with him. But after a few months, she realized that nothing was being damaged or destroyed... the only thing of value missing tended to be entire pots of coffee. There was a glimmer of logic to it, even if she thought it was sophmoric.

After a few stubborn, resentful weeks, she finally began to see the humor and resourcefulness in his pranks and softened her responses, somewhat. As a matter of principle, she refused to stop treating him with disdain when he made mistakes. Which is often. He can be persistent, but what I want– what I need– is for him to stop backing down when confronted. He needs to learn to stand up for himself, or he’ll get stuck in a situation that he can’t escape.

From the beginning, Featherprop had been something of a challenge for Espresso. He was young, single, and already possessed of a set of wings, which made him doubly assured of his invincibility. Within weeks of her arrival, she had fielded the usual complaints that accompanied a new pilot– dramatic takeoffs, low flying, the usual back-of-the-mane stunts a newly-untethered aviator wanted to try. As station manager, the decisions made by the Ponies she supervised were ultimately her responsibility, so of course it fell to her to cure him of these impulses. Espresso had swiftly and surely laid down the law with a ferocity that she was sure had left him with ringing ears more than once.

But just when that professional interest in the development of a subordinate had turned into a long-term personal improvement project, she couldn’t quite place.

Espresso was finally satisfied that the reports were close enough to organized to be useable, and she turned her attention to the desk with a sigh. You’d think an airline runs on paperwork, not fuel. Nearly everything to do with both the business and operational side came across her desk, and the volume would scare most Ponies. Flopping down on her seatpad, her thoughts drifted off again as she sorted fuel receipts and invoices.

As near as she could tell, the real beginning of Project Featherprop was shortly after he had arrived in Trottinger, the day after... Luna, I don’t want to think about that with him up there. But the thoughts were there, and she had to admit that they worried her.

That day was still clear in her mind: A brief message came from Flank Harbor, informing them that Featherprop’s roommate from the Gryphon flight academy had died in a crash. The message arrived early in the evening, while Featherprop was flying. Though it was formatted as a bulletin for the entire station, she had taken it with a slight shake of her head and placed it in a drawer. It seemed cruel to simply post the message next to the chalkboard for Featherprop to see in passing– the only equine thing to do was to give him the news face to face.

When Featherprop had finally stepped in the door and shaken the snow out of his mane, Espresso found the words she had practiced sticking in her throat. As he gave her a puzzled look, all she could do was pass the bulletin to him. The puzzlement on his face turned to disbelief as he read, his jaw quivering. He slumped against the doorway, then fell in a heap as his wet hooves slipped on the planks. Scrambling up with a wild look in his eyes he began hyperventilating and glancing about as though he were lost.

Espresso recalled how she had come close to smacking him, settling for a few good shakes before herding the dazed Pegasus down the hallway to the pilot lounge. As he curled on an empty bunk, she'd admonished him to take a few days off.

But to her surprise, the next day he came to work at the usual time. He was quiet and grim, he didn’t say much, but he was there for duty. Though she scolded, it didn’t seem to faze him– he simply asked for his assignment in a flat, empty voice. After a long look at the young stallion, she penciled him in as a secondary reserve and gently told him he could stay.

Looking back, she could see that work was the only thing that had held the withdrawn stallion together. As days and weeks passed, Featherprop’s old demeanor began to come back, but with it came a newfound respect for the dangers that accompanied every flight, and a growing patience when it came to waiting for the weather. She had watched with a measure of pride as he grew into his position as a captain, leaving behind most of his coltish impulses.

That changed the day Placer Nugget came to the station.