• 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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5: Lessons Learned

As the flight to Fairflanks drifted into monotony, Featherprop mulled over some of the questions he hadn’t had time to ask before departing. An unsettling sensation of being deceived kept his ears twitching. While he didn't want to start an argument with Pasture, the worries eventually drove him to speak.

“Doc.” The tone of Featherprop's voice caused the Unicorn to look over– all the mirth was gone, and it was filled with concern. “You never did say why you had to come up here. I mean, the scroll we got was vague, and Espresso barely said a word to me before we left but she looked like she'd seen a ghost. What's going on in Fetlock Falls?”

Pasture had been hoping to avoid a conversation like this as well. There were dimensions of this mission that demanded secrecy. With the uncertainty of what he would actually face when he arrived at Fetlock Falls, he’d been reluctant to discuss anything surrounding it. So far he'd been able to gloss over the details with the help of his Royal Commission, but now it was harder to justify withholding information. The isolation would make it impossible for any rumors to spread beyond the few communities, at least until he would be able to make a report to Canterlot. Even so, the idea of openly discussing the situation, especially with a Pony he’d just met, worried him.

Pasture hedged his words and spoke carefully. “There's been an outbreak of... illness in Fetlock Falls.”

Despite living in a remote, unsophisticated town, Featherprop could hear the dissemblance in the Unicorn's voice. “Doc, I carry sick and hurt Ponies all the time. Nopony needs a doctor from Canterlot for a cold. I don’t need to be a genius to figure there's more to it than 'someone's sick.' What are we flying into?“ His voice had taken on a commanding tone, one he usually reserved for unruly or frightened passengers– the doctor’s half-truth had raised his hackles. By Luna, I may be just a pilot, but this is my plane. I’m not gonna be lied to up here.

Pasture flinched a little at the question. He’d known that, sooner or later, he would have had to explain the situation to Featherprop. In a way, it was a relief to be able to talk to some otherpony about what had been troubling him for days. With a sigh he said, “Fine. I'm a pathologist– I received my Doctorate in the study of diseases. For the past decade I have been working in the Infectious Illnesses section of the REMMA– 'Coughs and Cooties' as our bone-and-sinew mending brethren call it. Whenever there’s a suspected outbreak or epidemic, our section is notified. Most often it's routine, like a strong strain of the common cold or outbreaks of Pinionnaire's Disease."

"Aside from studying and keeping records of these outbreaks, we've also been refining thaumaturgic therapy– the utilization of magic and medicine together for therapeutic purposes. Many doctors have combined the two, but always on an intuitive rather than scientific level. My department has focused on systematically researching the most effective combination of the two. It's because these areas of specialization that I've been sent here.” A look of pride flashed across his muzzle, only to be replaced by a slight grimace.

“Several weeks ago, a scroll was delivered from the Frostmane Health Bureau, describing a radio report of a rash of illness in Fetlock Falls, possibly Infurenza. It was cursory and sounded like a run-of-the-barn outbreak, so our medical attache, Falling Fever, was sent to investigate.” Pasture’s voice was calm, but he looked uncomfortable.

Featherprop blinked and looked at the doctor with concern. Infurenza certainly wasn't unusual, but it was particularly feared by 'Maners. Anxious mothers of sneezing foals would hold their hooves to check for tremors– folk wisdom held that to be a way to tell between a common cold and the more serious illness. When Featherprop had first arrived, he'd found the 'Maner's fear of the illness quaint.

It was only after traveling to some of the more remote villages that the Pegasus began to understand why they feared it so. Infurenza was seldom life-threatening, but it was not the disease itself that posed the danger; rather, the chills and weakness it brought prevented anypony from working, and in the harsh climate of the Frostmane, that could be disastrous. In remote villages or on homesteads, daily chores were often a matter of survival; without fuel, the hearthfire would go out, and without forage, the larder would run empty early in the winter.

Pasture continued, “Nine days ago, the situation became much more serious: Our attache fell ill as well, even though he had received the standard inoculations and should have been protected by the usual magical precautions. In fact, he was affected much more quickly, and to a much worse degree, than the local populace, a sure sign that this was not Infurenza as we know it.” He glanced at Featherprop, whose face now had a mix of worry and horror creeping across it. “I began looking through the records, searching for other cases of resistant Infurenza– at that point, we assumed he had carried it there with him. What we found in was in some ways better and in some ways worse.”

Pasture paused, reconsidering the wisdom of launching into this explanation. It’s too late now, isn’t it? “We are familiar with most current forms of the Infurenza, and it's not hard to quickly create an immunizing agent. Against an unknown form, however, our abilities are limited. I am here because of my research and what we uncovered in the records.” He sighed and took a moment to organize his thoughts.

“Years ago, long before you or I were born, there was an epidemic in the Frostmane, which eventually became known as the Winter Infurenza. By all accounts it was much stronger than the strains we are accustomed to.” His head drooped as he measured his words. “There were some cases in Equestria, but the Frostmane was hit particularly hard; the Territory was just being settled, and what few hospitals existed were overwhelmed. The harsh winter weather meant isolated settlements were nearly impossible to provide with aid.”

“Even worse, the illness struck the most vulnerable communities the hardest. It started in the late fall in a few of the coastal towns, but they were only moderately affected by the epidemic. Fairflanks and Trottinger, oddly enough, were only mildly affected by the illness, but we aren’t sure why. As winter set in, the epidemic began to spread inland to the smaller settlements.” He paused, waiting for a catch in his throat to clear. “The cost was terrible. With no communications to speak of besides word of mouth, few villages received a warning. Even for the ones that did, the warnings were of no use– nopony was prepared for the virulent nature of the disease.”

Even for a detached scientist, the scale of the tragedy was overwhelming, and Pasture’s voice was tinged with sadness. Despite the scores of years that separated him from the events, his profession's failure weighed heavily on him, moreso now that he was faced with a possible resurgence of an aggressive disease.

Featherprop was stunned; the Pegasus had never heard any of this. “Doc... why didn't you, –well, your Section– do anything? It might just be the Frostmane, but you're here now. Why didn’t you deal with it then?” There was an edge of bitterness to his voice. Like native Frostmaners, Featherprop had come to harbor a feeling that Southerners didn't always see their Northern cousins as equals, and this situation certainly seemed to justify that belief.

The accusation was like a blow to Pasture. For a moment the Unicorn felt an urge to snap back, but his anger faded into resignation. He doesn't know the history of the region; why would he know anything of the REMMA? “The Infectious Illnesses Department didn't exist at the time. In fact, the Winter Infurenza was the primary reason it was created, on direct order from Princess Celestia.” He could see that this was indeed news to Featherprop, for the Pegasus’s muzzle reddened and he looked away.

Pasture decided to try a different approach, and made an effort to soften his voice. “Tell me, Featherprop, have you heard of a village called Fetlock Shallows?”

The Pegasus frowned as he tried to recall the name. It was similar to their final destination, but he couldn't recall ever hearing of it. There's the Shallows downstream from Fetlock Falls, but... there's no settlement there, just–

A sudden realization caused Featherprop to draw his breath in sharply, the microphone catching the hissing sound and startling Pasture. “There's a ford farther down the Fetlock River, the locals call it the Shallows. But there's only an old burn on the north side...” He trailed off, for the look in Pasture's eyes told him he'd stumbled onto the truth.

Pasture held his gaze for a moment, then looked away out the window. When he spoke, his voice caught in his throat, sounding gravelly. “Fetlock Shallows ceased to exist after the epidemic. At that time, it was so remote nopony knew the disease had swept over the settlement– not until a few survivors managed to limp into the next village, weak and frostbitten. Cedarvale was stricken as well, though they had the benefit of some medical staff from the Fairflanks clinic. In the end, it was several weeks before any sort of relief party could be dispatched to Fetlock Shallows.“

His voice faltered; the dry, unemotional details recorded in the journals now seemed much more vivid, and voicing them lent a reality to the events that he wished he did not have to face. “After... after the rescue and recovery operation, all the buildings were purposely burned. Scavengers... well, it was decided the buildings were no longer fit for habitation.” Looking out the window, he felt very, very far away from his laboratory and medical library. Neither Pony spoke as the dark weight of history settled over them. When the silence stretched on for several minutes, Pasture looked over at the pilot, who looked to be lost in thought.

Featherprop was trying to assimilate the doctor's revelations, but images of burning houses and crippled stragglers kept interrupting his thoughts; all he could do was stare blankly out the windscreen. When he felt a hoof on his shoulder, he cringed and shook his head to clear the nightmarish images. The Unicorn was looking at him with some concern. He shook off his torpor; there were still questions he needed answered. “I.. I don't understand. What does that have to do with Fetlock Falls?”

“Fetlock Falls is not that old, is it? Twenty years or so since it's founding?” Pasture had not had time for detailed research, but there was no reports from medical staff referring to the village prior to that.

Featherprop nodded. “I think it was several families from near Trottinger, actually, that went to homestead the area. Before my time, though.”

The Unicorn looked ill at the thoughts he was now voicing; they had seemed much less disturbing in the rushed, informal briefing he had given the Dean of the Academy. “Like Fetlock Shallows, then– the medical records suggested most residents were related and had few relatives outside of the settlement. Most of the deceased were laid to rest near the Shallows; we fear that their... well, that the Infurenza may have been preserved by the permafrost. If any remains have been, ah, disturbed, then it's possible somepony has picked up the illness... and it may be affecting Fetlock Falls. “

The Pegasus's mind began to race at this latest bit of information. We go in and out of Fetlock Falls a few times a month... and there's the snow-road as well. Alongside the horror he felt, his anger was rising– he was getting tired of being out of the loop. “Doc, who else knows about this?”

Pasture sighed. Featherprop’s question was the one he had feared would come from this discussion. The REMMA had been concerned that a panic might ensue if news was released before they knew what they were facing, so he had been instructed to avoid direct references to the Winter Infurenza or any kind of communicable illness until there was confirmation, positive or not. It was a mistake to tell him... but better he finds out now, rather than on the ground. “Very few Ponies. The Territorial Minister knows, as does the head of the Frostmane Health Bureau.”

Now Featherprop knew why he had felt bitter– this felt like pure Equestrian arrogance. It's one thing to ask a Pony to risk his life, but pretty low to trick him into it. “Who else, Doc? Did you tell Espresso? And what about me? I'm flying you in there, don't I rate a 'watch your flank?' ” He didn't bother to hide the venom in his voice.

Pasture wasn't fazed by Featherprop’s sudden aggression– years of Departmental budget meetings had given him a tough hide and had forged him into a skilled verbal infighter. I wish he could see that there are bigger issues here than the feelings of a courier. “I feel I should point out that I just did.”

Featherprop quirked an eyebrow at the Unicorn's arch reply. “Oh, and such a timely warning, too! Think maybe you were a little late, Doc? The time to talk about risk is before you get started.”

Pasture waved his free hoof dismissively. “Risk? Compared to flying in this thing, there's no risk. You need close, sustained contact with a sick pony to risk contraction. It's a disease, not some curse.” Leaning on the hoofrest, he eyed the pilot. “Let me ask you: Had you known beforehand, would you have refused to fly me there?”

“Well, no, but...” Despite his anger at being deceived, Featherprop could not deny that he would have taken on the mission anyway. “But that’s not...”

The Unicorn cut him off, raising his voice over the pilot's hesitant words. “I knew you wouldn't; you have a sense of honor and duty. I regret not telling you, of course, but I have people I answer to. There are higher considerations! We protect the public, and that takes precedence over many things. I apologize if your feelings may be hurt, but let us keep in mind what we are here to do: I have sick Ponies to care for, perhaps an epidemic to nip in the bud, but only if we can get there in time.”

Turning to look out the side window again, Pasture’s voice dropped to a sad, almost paternalistic tone. “And for that, I need you. I need to get there, and with the Celestia-forsaken cold, this is the only way to get there in time. Without you, this situation becomes much more dangerous– if it is Infurenza and it spreads, we will have a regional problem, rather than a single town. And if it’s a revival of the Winter Infurenza... soon we will have a Territory-wide epidemic.” With that, he lapsed into silence, regretting both the tone he'd taken and having divulged the information. What's done is done, Eisen. It sounded so easy, so logical as the Council discussed it back at the Academy, but none of them are here. He risked a glance over at the pilot. Featherprop was staring at the instruments his mouth was set in a hard line. Pasture shrugged to himself. I hope you have not made an enemy of him, Eisen. There’s still a long way to go.

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

Placer Nugget. Espresso was sitting at her desk, trying to stay focused organizing a pile of receipts and invoices overflowing her inbox, but her eyes narrowed at the memory of the brash, loud-mouthed Pony. Placer Nugget was a legend in the Frostmane, first as a representative of the Equestrian Treasury and later as an independent prospector. The Unicorn had used his talent for detecting precious metals to make a fortune, locating a string of deposits for the Equestrian Mint and then branching out on his own.

When she thought about how he had come into the Trottinger station, flashing smiles and tipping freely, Espresso wished she could say she had seen through him, but that wasn’t true. He’s a walking, talking legend. How do you you see through that within five minutes of meeting a Pony? When rumors flew that he was on a mission to suss out a new claim, everypony acted as if they thought his golden touch would rub off on them.

For Espresso, reality soon set in. While she hadn’t seen through him in five minutes, within ten Placer had revealed a bit of his true nature, once he was behind closed doors Thank Luna I made ‘Prop sit in on that little negotiating session. Rude, demanding, and supremely self-confident, Placer had tried to bargain down the price of his carriage contract. When that failed, he tried to secure a guaranteed discount on future flights. With some amusement, she recalled how Featherprop’s eyes had dilated as she stood up to the pushy stallion, raising her voice just as much as the Unicorn did. In the end, Placer backed down, and as his swishing golden tail went through the doorway she had whispered in Featherprop’s ear, “Remember, he’s a bully. Don’t give in. You know what’s in the contract now, so don’t let him push you.”

And he hadn’t. Espresso considered it a sign of Featherprop’s growth that, when faced with worsening weather, the Pegasus had stood firm. He’d refused to depart Fairflanks for a remote riverbank destination, even when Placer had threatened to have him fired. Though years had passed, her ears pinned back at the Unicorn's threat Featherprop had recounted: “Do you know how many bits you’re going to cost your company? It's an easy choice, son: We go, or I’ll break you. You’ll be making sandwiches back in Cloudsdale when I’m done.”

Of course, she couldn’t think of that without chuckling at how Featherprop had shrugged with a sad half-smile as he’d told her, saying, “Funny thing, though, I used to make sandwiches in Cloudsdale for a while. It wasn’t that bad.”

With a muffled whoosh, a stack of papers fell over and scattered across her desk. Espresso groaned and gave up, laying her head down. She felt drained; the weight of events past and present sapped her motivation, and she surrendered to the memories that kept pushing into her conscious thoughts. Luna, why am I so worried about this? Oh, right, because you put him on a plane with another pushy Unicorn. Of course there’s no problem there, Espresso.

In the end, the Placer Nugget affair had drawn her in, as well. After Featherprop’s refusal, the fuming Unicorn had stomped across the field and cajoled, wheedled, or bribed a Pone Air pilot into taking him north. While the flight had arrived safely, Placer didn’t forget to follow through on his threat; the following week Espresso received a scroll from Frostmane Flying Service’s owner, Pinching Bits, warning of serious repercussions resulting from “... pilot Featherprop’s blatant disregard fo client priorities, resulting in a breach of contract and potential lawsuit.” The scroll was followed by Pinching Bits himself, who immediately insisted on a private conference with her and Featherprop. Even to the naive Pegasus, it was apparent what the outcome would be.

There, that’s when it started. Arguing with that old cheapskate while ‘Prop sat there with that dazed look on his face... Pinching Bits had spent nearly an hour lecturing the Pegasus before she finally had enough and stepped in to stop the browbeating. By then, though, the damage had been done– Featherprop’s confidence was shattered. Espresso had never told the Pegasus that, after he had listlessly plodded out of the office, she’d turned on the old stallion. In clear, loud, and profane terms, she had let Pinching know that if he wanted to fire the pilot, he’d have to replace her as well. Pinching Bits had spluttered and blustered, but eventually backed down. That’s the last thing he needs to know, that keeping his job depended on me.

Though she’d shielded him from Pinching’s anger, the months that followed had made Espresso want to tear her mane out. She’d sat back, her patience wearing ever thinner, as Featherprop agonized over simple decisions and exhausted himself worrying about keeping clients happy even when it was obviously foolish to proceed. It was frustrating and sad to watch, and eventually she decided he needed a helping hoof, just a little bit. Nothing major, I told myself.

That was when Featherprop had stopped being just another pilot and became her own personal, walking, talking, flying, hopeless improvement project.

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

Eventually the clouds above the Trotter thinned and parted, letting a silvery light flood the valley below. Around them, the peaks exploded into brilliant blue-white luminance, the bare rock becoming gray streaks between ribbons of snow. On a stark black background, thousands of lights shone in the darkness, fading next to the brilliance of Luna's moon. Featherprop reached a hoof up and nudged the throttles forward, his other gently pulling back on the yoke and setting the aircraft into a shallow climb. Reaching over, he adjusted several dials on the radio, eventually filling their 'phones with a profusion of warbles, squawks, and chirps. The Pegasus frowned; radio conditions were worse than had been forecast. We should be picking up the Fairflanks range by now... But despite careful tuning, all he got was a cacophony of interference.

Pasture looked startled. “What in Celestia is that noise?” He glanced at Featherprop with concern, but the brown stallion's answer was to point northward, out the forward windscreen. The Unicorn's eyes followed his hoof.

As they gained altitude, a band of light seemed to detach itself from the stark white of the snow-covered peaks and hung near the horizon, fading upward into the wash of stars. Fascinated, he watched the curtain shimmer and blinked. Is it a reflection off the snow? Soon he could see that it wasn't; there was a dark band between the following ridges and the lights which hung across a quarter of the northern sky. “Is that... ” He trailed off as he watched the pale curtain shift to a soft mint-green before fading to a deep red.

Speaking for the first time in an hour, Featherprop nodded and tersely answered both questions at once. “The Lunar Lights, yes.”

They cleared the ridge and flew over a wide, glacier-carved valley. Luna's moon illuminated the white expanse of a frozen lake where the valley opened up into the hinterlands. On the shore was a glow that was entirely Equestrian in origin, the town of Fairflanks, and near it a green-and-white flash marked their first destination: Fairflanks Field.