• Published 20th May 2014
  • 921 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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6: Secrets and Signals

ETSB Number: EAR-13-20
Mechanical Components Summary

The left wingtip was sheared off approximately seventy feet above the ground and fell forty feet from the primary impact zone. A partial second-stage turbine blade assembly was recovered. Centripetally-induced fracture patterns in the blade root structure indicate high power was being produced at the time of stoppage. One artificial horizon was recovered. Helical scoring from inertia ring failure indicates the gyro had tumbled at the time of impact and was not providing accurate attitude information.

Structural deformation of the aileron hinges indicate there was no roll input commanded at the time of impact. Elevator hinge mount breakage and structural deformation indicates full nose-up elevator was held at the time of impact. Foliage marks on the underside of the surviving wing panels are consistent with a high angle-of-attack impact, possibly indicating an attempted positive-G recovery from an inverted condition.

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

Featherprop ran a hoof through his mane as he frowned over the latest scrolls. I wish I hadn’t looked at these. He sighed as he considered what to do, then glanced around. Pasture had not come inside yet, but he knew this would be a delicate situation. All of his professional instincts told him the best thing to do was sit and wait. He pawed through the scrolls again, hoping to find a large skull-and-crossbones somewhere to wave at Pasture; he suspected little else would dissuade the Unicorn from insisting they continue. At the very least, he decided, they needed to wait a bit to see what would happen.

Featherprop’s fears were well-founded. When Pasture finally came in, shivering and stamping his hooves, he was unhappy with the pilot’s assessment.

“What do you mean, wait an hour? We’ve been here that long already!” The Unicorn’s outburst brought startled glances from a few porters and a slight frown from the gray mare sitting behind the counter.

Across the room, several AirPony Express pilots, their heavy wool coveralls open to the warmth of the Fairflanks Aerodrome’s massive fireplace, turned to watch. One elbowed the other, ears rotating to follow the argument.

Featherprop sighed. “Doc, you heard how bad the radio was on the way in. I want to wait and see if the Lights will die down. For now, it’s just not safe.” He pointed to the scrolls he’d been poring over. “Look. Feather Point reported bad weather moving in. Past that, there’s NO reports due to the interference. Once we take off from here, we need to be able to to follow the ranges, and right now I’m not sure we can.”

Pasture gave Featherprop a skeptical frown. “Any delay is unacceptable. I must insist that we continue.” Belatedly, he noticed the furtive glances they were receiving from around the lounge, and he beckoned Featherprop down a hallway and stepped into an empty room. The doctor’s voice dropped and took on a pleading tone. “Featherprop, it’s imperative that we go on. The medicine... as I told you before, it’s perishable. We are running out of time. In less than a day it will become useless.” The Unicorn checked his watch, as if to make sure he hadn’t miscalculated. “Celestia’s hooves, and I have yet to examine a single patient. Please, we need to go.”

Pasture did not mention that while the Pegasus had come into the warmth of the Aerodrome’s terminal, he had spent a fruitless and exhausting quarter of an hour attempting to strengthen the preservation spells on the vials, all to no avail. Featherprop’s question from earlier in the night, seemingly innocuous and silly, took on a deeper, more ominous connotation: “Have you noticed that magic doesn't seem to work as well?” The illusion of control was slipping away from Pasture, and with it went his self-control. A desperate edge crept into his voice, “Remember, please remember what we discussed. Too much is depending on our success tonight.” He placed a hoof on the younger stallion’s shoulder, giving it a reassuring squeeze to try and convince the worried Pegasus of his sincerity.

Featherprop was indeed moved by the sudden emotion Pasture was displaying. It was almost unnerving and he felt a twinge of guilt, but shook his head and resolved to stand firm. “I’m sorry, but without being able to receive a signal, there’s no way to know if we’re staying on course.”

Pasture’s eyes cast about the room as he sought for some way to persuade the pilot to relent. A map spanning an entire wall caught his eye. He trotted over and studied it, then pointed and asked, “This is Fairflanks, correct? And over here is Fetlock Falls? Why, that’s hardly half the distance we’ve come already. If we made it this far just fine, why can we not get there?” It’s so simple... why does he have to act as though it’s complicated?

The Pegasus stepped up beside him and pointed to a sawtoothed line highlighted in white that slashed between the two towns. “Because of the Frostmanes, that’s why.” The little peaks on the map did not, could not impart the true scale of the Frostmane Range.

Namesake of the territory, the Range was an obstacle of prodigious size and width, dominated by knife-edged ridges and full of blind valleys with treacherous winds. Featherprop shuddered as he recalled exactly why he treated them with such caution. In many of the passes, there was stark evidence of pilots who had failed to respect the combined might of terrain and weather: Broken wings and scraps of metal and fabric, left to decay after rescue teams had searched for survivors. “On a good day, we could pick our way through the Frostmanes. At night or in the weather? No way, it’s impossible. That’s why we need to go this way.” His hoof traced a northeasterly path that followed the Freezewither Valley, over the village of Feather Point, and passed through a gap in the sawtoothed lines before bending sharply to the west. “There’s a range at Sheltie’s Meadow that ca– might guide us through.”

Pasture was certain he could hear a moment of hesitation in Featherprop’s voice, and suggested, “Would you consider at least making an attempt? If it’s truly impossible, we should soon know. There’s no reason we can’t decide to return at that point, is there?”

Featherprop’s ears flickered in surprise; he had been trying to avoid listening to the very same temptation in his head, and he wondered if Pasture could tell. The idea of departing into worsening weather made his pinions stand up, but at the same time it was a tempting way of trying to mollify Pasture while keeping an escape route open– as long as they were over the Freezewither, they could drop down and return if the ranges failed. He wrinkled his muzzle and hedged, “It might sound good, but to me it sounds more like a way to waste a lot of fuel.” Though he temporized, it was hard to ignore his nervouse desire to go ahead and take the chance. There are lives on the line.

Pasture snorted. “And who do you think will be paying for that fuel? I remind you, I’m authorized to incur any reasonable expense.” He nodded towards his saddlebags and the scroll peeking out the top. “I think that qualifies. And you don’t know that conditions will be too poor to continue, do you?”

Featherprop stepped awkwardly from hoof to hoof as he tried to balance his tenuous sense of caution against the dangers faced by the Ponies in Fetlock Falls. He searched for a way to defend his reluctance without having to actually say No, but under Pasture’s penetrating gaze he found himself unable to marshal his thoughts. “Well, Feather Point is reporting bad weather coming in from the west, that much I know.”

Pasture’s ears twitched forward as he watched the nervous dance of Featherprop’s hooves and heard the defensive tenor of his voice. He could feel the momentum of the conversation shifting in his favor and pressed further, “But if Feather Point’s radio can be heard here, then won’t the range be useable as well?”

Damn, I don’t have time to explain radio theory. The question was deceptively simple, but an accurate answer would be anything but. While Pasture’s logic seemed sound, it didn’t reflect the reality of flying under the Lunar Lights, let alone into weather where ice and winds made a mockery of any plan. Featherprop felt as though he were being backed into a corner. Why is it so hard to put it into a few words? Why can’t I make him see? “Well, probably... but I don’t know if we can pick up the next range at Sheltie’s Meadow.”

Pasture gave a slight nod and smoothly said, “Well, of course if we can’t pick it up, then we can turn back, correct? But if it does work, then we’ll have saved a lot of valuable time, won’t we?” Softening his voice, Pasture drew on all the paternal condescension and wheedling skills he possessed. Several decades of directing and cajoling research assistants and younger colleagues had gifted him with a well-developed persuasive repertoire. And compared to the headstrong interns at the REMMA, Featherprop was predictable and easily led. He could see that the young pilot was wavering, and swallowed a surge of guilt as he took a different tack. “Didn’t you say you know people in Fetlock Falls? They’re depending on us.” He half-expected such a blatant emotional appeal to set the Pegasus against him, but he was frantic to continue, at any cost– the threat of failure was too strong, there was too much to lose. For everyone involved.

The mention of the Ponies of Fetlock Falls stung Featherprop deeply. In a moment, the arguments he had been trying to organize in his mind fell apart, each seeming more cold-hearted than the last. Damn him, that’s not fair!

Featherprop hated having his heartstrings tugged at, and most of the time he was able to ignore emotional manipulation. This was different, though; Pasture’s words struck him like a physical blow. The Unicorn’s calculated arguments fed a growing sense of dread that he, Featherprop, might be holding an entire town’s fate in his hooves. It was a final bale of hay on the wagon, and he felt his resolve crumbling.

Driven by his fears, Featherprop reluctantly reconsidered the situation. In theory, the trip to Feather Point wouldn’t be a big risk, for they’d know of problems long before they got into the mountains. A little voice in his head whispered, That’s how things always look until they become unsafe, and his ears drooped. He was already worn out from arguing with Pasture, and now he was beginning to argue with himself.

Batfeathers. Well, we can turn back, can’t we? If it gets bad before Sheltie’s, we’re coming back, I swear to Luna. Lowering his head, he spoke with a low voice, “I... I guess. It’s been a while anyway. Let me check the reception, and if it’s getting better we can think about launching. But remember, if it’s bad we’re coming back, no arguments.” He was relieved to see Pasture nod briefly in reply.

A sudden thought flitted through Featherprop’s mind: I wish Espresso were here. She’s always good at dealing with situations like this. The mare’s hard-headed nature had stopped more than one bullying client cold in his tracks. But she wasn’t here, and this was not a situation he was prepared to handle. Like a leaf in a stream, Featherprop quietly gave up and let himself be swept along.

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

Just like I said, “There’s weather moving in out west.” But what do I know? I’m just a pilot, all I do is fly in weather like this day in, day out. Featherprop wallowed in bitter self-righteousness for a few moments, then forced himself to put it aside and pay attention– he’d had to transition to blind flying, and it was time to get serious.

It had begun as a few white wisps flashing past the windscreen, and then the world outside went gray as they entered the clouds. The landing lights did nothing more than create brighter patches of gray, while snowflakes became vivid white streaks as they flew through the twin beams. Featherprop turned them off, leaving the strobes to offer ghostly flashes of illumination. Through his ‘phones the tone of the Fairflanks range were still clear, with only the occasional interruption from the Lunar Lights to mar the signal. At one point he was certain he had seen a self-satisfied grin on Pasture’s muzzle, but when he turned his head the Unicorn looked dour. This is still a bad decision. How on Luna’s Moon did I let myself do this?

As they entered the clouds, they began to encounter a series of bumps and sudden rushes of vertical movement. The collision of an irresistible airmass and an immovable mountain range created turbulence miles downwind from the Frostmanes, and they were flying into the very beginning of it.

Pasture felt his stomach clench at each one. With no outside references the random motions were confusing and unsettling, and suddenly he was thankful that he’d had no time for more than a hoof-ful of oats earlier. Forgetting about the intercom, he grumbled, “Uncontrolled weather... ludicrous. What good is the Weather Bureau if they won’t keep to a schedule?”

“They can’t, really.” Featherprop’s response startled the Unicorn, and even the Pegasus was surprised at the sharpness of his tone.

Pasture covered his surprise with a prickly reply. “Well of course they can’t– there aren’t any Weather Teams to even try, are there?”

The pilot shot a hooded glare at Pasture and started to open his mouth, then clamped his muzzle shut and snapped his eyes back to the panel. A minute later, he muttered, “There used to be.”

Pasture was once again caught unprepared. “Used to be, what? Why aren’t– well, where are they now?”

Featherprop sighed and regretted opening his muzzle. The story was one he’d had a hard time believing in the beginning, and he felt certain Pasture would call it ludicrous. The Unicorn’s attitude towards the Frostmane had him pinning his ears back, though, and he was tired of it. Cloudsdale never cared for me, why should I care to spare them some embarrassment?

“Because they failed.”

The doctor twisted in his seat and blinked several times before replying. “A Weather Team failed? Are you saying that a flight of Pegasi couldn’t control the weather?”

Featherprop frowned. Talking about the old Weather Teams left him feeling like his flank was exposed to timberwolves, because it sounded crazy to anypony from Equestria proper– on par with those Ponies who believed in hairless monkeys. “It wasn’t for lack of trying, Doc. When the Territory started growing, Cloudsdale sent a few teams up here.” He looked upward in thought. “The Meteorological Expeditionary Unit posted several Weather Teams to the Territory: One in Trottinger, one back in Fairflanks, one covering Flank Harbor, and a scouting squad on the west coast at Pone, mostly just to get a read on incoming systems. The others were supposed to handle diverting the worst of the weather around the populated areas, but they never could.”

He hesitated, unsure of whether it was right to continue. As a colt he’d stumbled across a brief mention of the Frostmane Division Weather Teams in a book about cold-weather operations, but had nearly been suspended for asking about it. Since then, he’d never discussed it openly with anypony– Espresso knew a little of the history, but as an Earth Pony it never really concerned her. She thinks we’re all prima donnas anyway, probably thought they were just slacking. He’d even sought out a few of the Pegasi in the Frostmane who were old enough to recall that time; to a Pony they refused to talk about the Teams.

Featherprop saw Pasture looking at him expectantly and sighed. “The Weather Teams had the same problems with flying that I do– it takes a lot more effort just to fly up here, and the weather is much rougher than down south. When they tried to ride herd on incoming systems, they couldn't keep it together. The storms just rolled right over the Teams and blew them away. A few even went down after taking a shot of lightning...” He shook his head. Lightning management was one of the most important things a Weather Pony learned.

“When the teams started getting hurt, Canterlot got involved and looked at what was happening. They found the teams weren’t able to affect the weather at all, and demanded they be recalled before anypony got killed. The top brass in Cloudsdale were furious. They wanted to keep it quiet, so they disbanded the entire division.”

Without him realizing it, a wistful sadness had filled the Pegasus’s voice. Weather flying had been one of his early dreams, along with being in the Wonderbolts, of course. His failure to earn a Weather Team commission had stung deeply, and had been at the root of his decision to leave Cloudsdale. He sighed, “No one in Cloudsdale ever talked about it. I actually got in trouble for asking.”

The Frostmane Division was never mentioned in school; after seeing a passing reference to weather operations in the Frostmane, Featherprop had asked the Academy's librarian about it. She curtly told him that no materials regarding it were available to students, and if he ever asked again that she would be informing the headmaster. That odd moment had stayed with him, and after finding box of old records at the Flight Center and piecing together the Frostmane Division’s history, he’d immediately felt a connection with those Ponies– like them, he knew what it was to face something much, much larger than yourself and have to fold up. It was only after he’d come to Trottinger that he came across the truth about the problems the Weather Teams had faced– both in the Frostmane and in their lives afterwards.

“If you’ve spent time around Pegasi, Doc, you know that most of ‘em don’t really care for losers. When the Weather Team members went back to Cloudsdale, they were probably blacklisted. Most of them never flew for an official Weather Team again– they got shuffled to backwater jobs and laid low. There were a few that didn’t give up and formed their own for-hire Teams. Have you heard of the Storm Riders, based in Dodge City? I found some of their names on a old roster back in Trottinger. Then again, if you’ve heard of them I probably don’t need to tell you how they’re viewed in Cloudsdale.” ‘Mercenary’ isn’t usually used as a compliment. Still, it doesn’t help that old Silvercloud hams it up a bunch just to poke ‘em in the eye. He watched the Unicorn, trying to gauge the doctor’s reaction to his wild tale. He was surprised to see that Pasture was watching him back.

Pasture’s years as a researcher and administrator had exposed him to plots and intrigues against which Featherprop’s little story paled in comparison. What interested him more were the telltale clues in the young stallion’s behavior: It was obvious the pilot believed what he was saying was true. Beyond that, it was plain as day that the pilot was holding back– there was more to the story. Determined to draw it out, Pasture spoke in a measured, neutral tone, “Featherprop, you haven’t told me why they failed.” The reaction of the Pegasus to that emphasis was interesting: Hmm, sudden easing of the leg, ears attempting to fold back, pupil expansion... What is he hiding?

The Unicorn went on, “When I was preparing, I was told magic would be harder to marshal up here, but I attributed that to the environmental conditions– it is always harder to concentrate and direct magic when in a state of discomfort or under stress.” Pasture spoke evenly, tamping down the disbelief he felt, and watched. “Do you remember asking me an unusual question earlier, about using magic? Well, the answer is, yes. I have noticed magic is harder to use, but I attributed it to the weather, to stress, to any number of factors. Are you suggesting there is more to it?”

Featherprop glanced at the Unicorn warily, looking for signs of ridicule or dismissal, but found none. He spoke guardedly, “I’m not an expert, but I know what I feel in my wings. It’s not the same up here, Doc. Magic... if it works, it’s a lot weaker.”

Pasture’s rational mind revolted at the thought, but he forced himself to press on. “If that were true, though... I’ve never heard about this. Magic is considered ubiquitous throughout the Equestrian territories. Why not in the Frostmane as well?”

“You’re asking the wrong Pony, Doc. You’re the one who should know, aren’t you? I mean, horn and all? I don’t really use magic, I just fly. It’s harder up here, but... I don’t know how it makes a difference.” Featherprop was surprised at how calmly Pasture was contemplating the subject– he had expected the Unicorn to call him crazy.

Pasture’s impulse was to reject this notion of ‘inconstant magic,’ as he quickly labeled it. He would have rejected it outright, except for the fact that he had no satisfactory explanation for his own experiences. And he could not deny the quickening of his pulse, a thrill he had not felt in years– a growing sense of discovery which made his horn tingle, the feeling of newfound knowledge... and academic credibility. Already, his mind was toying with the idea of field research. He tried to temper his excitement with skepticism. “The idea is intriguing, though preposterous on the face, but it’s also outside my areas of study– I’ve never had to deal with magic not being a constant. If any of this has merit, why wouldn’t it already be known, at least in Canterlot?”

Featherprop shrugged. “Why would it? The Frostmane started out as an Earth Pony settlement, and most of the folks here are still Earth Ponies, so they don’t notice it missing. And the Frostmane is... well, it's got a tiny population. I think Phillydelphia has more Ponies than the whole Territory. If anything, it’s part of why the Frostmane is such a backwater. There’s at least some who’ve come up, then decided to pack it in and go back home.”

The Unicorn persisted, “But what about you, and the Unicorns and other Pegasi here? Doesn’t it bother you?” Pasture, used to his academic surroundings, was baffled by a place where knowledge was not easily transferred or acquired. This is like pulling teeth out of a dragon’s mouth.

The Pegasus blinked a few times as he considered the question. “Well, we’re pretty rare in the Frostmane. Pegasi, I mean. And Unicorns too, I guess. I think mostly we get used to it. There’s so much else different up here, it doesn’t stand out when we first arrive. Look at yourself, Doc– would you come up here if you didn’t have to? The only ponyfolk who come to the Frostmane are the ones who don’t mind a hard life. It’s rough, it’s dangerous, the seasons don’t run right, and it stays dark for months at a...” He paused and stared at the panel, then exclaimed “Oh, Luna, no!”

Pasture looked at him in shock and opened his muzzle to ask if he had taken leave of his senses, only to be silenced by a frantic waving of the Pegasus’ hoof.

With a string of oaths, Featherprop futilely twisted the knobs of the radio back and forth. Come on, come on, where did you go? Don’t do this to me, please... While they had talked, the tones of the Feather Point range had faded into the static, and now only the warble and pops of the Lunar Lights could be heard when he increased the sensitivity. Giving up on Feather Point, he tuned to the frequency for Sheltie’s Meadow and slowly scanned back and forth, straining his ears for a hint of the tones. Yakwhiskers, did Sheltie’s go down? Without either range, navigation was impossible. His chest spasmed with a burst of panic, and he nervously glanced at the windows, seized by the ominous sensation that looming peaks were crowding close around them. How long ago did we lose the signal?

He wanted to kick himself for getting so distracted. Most of the time, reacting to the changing tones of the navigational ranges was a subconscious habit, where he didn’t really notice them. Now, it had left him uncertain of their position or what effect the winds had been having on the aircraft. Stupid, stupid, stupid, STUPID! His emotions coalesced in a burst of anger and he brought a hoof crashing down on the glareshield above the radio and shouted inarticulately, completely forgetting his wide-eyed passenger for the moment.

Even before the Pegasus’ violent outburst, Pasture had realized something was wrong– there was a distinct tang in the air. Fear. The doctor suddenly remembered the peculiar, nose-curling scent he had detected when first entering the aircraft. Finally, the static and interference in his ‘phones registered and he asked a question that was not helpful. “Where are we?”

“I don’t know,” the embarrassed pilot snapped. He reached out and harshly twisted the volume knob until it hurt his ears; he could see Pasture cringing. “Hear that? That’s the sound of not knowing where we are.” Despite his agitation, he managed to stop himself from adding, That’s the sound you hear before you smear yourself across a mountaintop. His chest felt tight and short of breath, and his heart felt like it was going to burst as adrenaline flooded into his system. With nowhere to flee and nothing to fight, he fought to stuff the useless instincts back down and take stock of the situation. Don’t know where we are, don’t know if we’ve been drifting, don’t know how fast we’re moving over the ground. He snatched up his worn chart and pored over it, looking for the highest peaks in the area. His heart skipped a beat when he saw a five-figure number next to several arrow shapes on the map: THAT high? Discord’s Horns, I don’t know if we’ve got enough to get up there!

He ignored a questioning look from Pasture and took the throttles in hoof, pushing them all the way forward. With a surge, the nose tipped up and they began to climb. A vivid memory flashed through his mind, of his Gryphon instructor cuffing him on the ear as a rasping voice echoed in his head: “Two things you can never have enough of, Fledgling: Fuel and altitude. When in doubt, climb. Say it, Cub! What do we do?” At the time he had hesitated, earning a further cuff on that knocked his ‘phones off. Now, without thinking, he spoke it clearly and quickly. “Climb.”

Pasture started at the sudden, emphatic word from the Pegasus, then scowled. After having been ignored for long minutes, the Unicorn was in no mood to be snapped at by a Pony who seemed to be on the verge of a breakdown. “Pardon me?” His words dripped with a cold, dismissive tone that brooked no backtalk. I don’t care how little I know, somepony needs to take this situation in hoof, and it’s not the madpony over there. Featherprop’s bizarre outburst and sudden silence worried him, and he was determined to exert some control and keep this situation from spiraling out of control. Celestia knows, I can’t fly this beastly contraption.

Featherprop, however, had gathered his wits and was working to focus on the immediate problem. He took a stared intently at the gauges, and there was a determined energy in his voice. “Sorry. We’re in a bad situation here– we’re not on the range anymore, not on any range. The only way to stay safe now is to climb above the terrain. There’s peaks all around here, really tall ones, and I have no clue what the winds have done to us. Without the range, we’re lost.” Shaking his head, he tuned to yet another range frequency, Fetlock Falls itself, in the hope that the anomalous conditions would work in their favor as they proceeded. He prayed to Luna that the interference would subside soon. “We need to go as high as we can manage to stay above the peaks. You might feel lightheaded. The air is going to get pretty thin, but don’t breathe more than normal- that’ll just make it worse.”

Pasture’s haughtiness evaporated as the severity of the situation sunk in. “You mean... we’re really lost?” The Pegasus nodded grimly. Already, Pasture imagined it was taking more effort to breathe and unconsciously began to hyperventilate– unwittingly making himself more susceptible to the thin air.

For Featherprop’s adapted physiology, the altitude would be a snap, and he continued to dwell on the deeper problems they faced. Lost. The fatal word echoed in his head. Such a simple word didn’t seem to convey the sense of terror he was desperately trying to fight off. One more link. Luna, this is how it starts... The gauges blurred as his eyes watered, and he swallowed hard but failed to get rid of the taste of bile that suddenly filled his mouth. Don’t think that way, ‘Prop. Focus. Climb, find the range, get to the airport, and finish this Celestia-cursed trip. He picked up his chart and tried to formulate a plan, but the worn page kept blurring.

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

Far later than usual, Espresso remained behind her desk, working. Or, at least, she was trying to work. She had hoped that burying herself in the annoying details of running the station, such as working through the daily backlog of bills, receipts, invoices and flight logs that Ponies like Featherprop never gave a moment’s thought about, would keep her mind away from the misgivings and worries that had engulfed her all evening long. Her ears flickered in annoyance; rather than distract her, the mundanity of the work was giving her mind even more time to dwell on the dangers and risks Featherprop was facing. Or creating.

With frightening clarity, her hindbrain drew up a multitude of disasters: Bad weather that would force the flight to end prematurely in Fairflanks, Pasture having a panic attack on the flight, Featherprop pulling some mad stunt and scaring the mane off of the doctor (thereby causing a panic attack), or even a cargo door being left open and Pasture’s precious medicines tumbling out of the hold while Featherprop pulled some mad stunt, scaring the mane off of the doctor and causing him to have a panic attack. Espresso shook her head to dispel the absurd image of a barrel-rolling Twin Trotter and groaned.

Of all the pilots to have on duty tonight... But the instant the thought formed, she felt a pang of regret. The stress of the evening wasn’t Featherprop’s fault, and in truth he hadn’t ever lost any cargo in flight. In flight. She sighed and forced herself to try and think a kind thought about the poor, lazy, witless.... This isn’t working, she groaned to herself.

There were few things in her life that got her hackles up as quickly as Featherprop. He had skill, but seemed to lack ambition. No, assertiveness. He nearly always buckled under her glare, but he had an annoying tendency to spring back and find ways to work around her instructions. Though he could be intensely focused, that focus tended to be on non-productive things, like sleeping. Or drinking her coffee.

And if there was one thing Espresso had no use for, it was a lazy pilot who drank her coffee. In the past, she’d found indirect ways to gently (and not-so-gently) encourage several aspiring aviators to transfer to other stations. Not that they were bad Ponies, she thought, just useless. But so far, she hadn’t found a good enough reason to do the same with Featherprop. She chalked it up to his being conscientious when he was on the job. At least, when he doesn’t work himself into a frenzy worrying about what-ifs. The young Pegasus had the occasional bout of overcaution, though when she was feeling charitable Espresso could understand why. Right now, though, charity was not at the forefront of her mind.

Enough about him. If I’m going to obsess over this stupid contract, I may as well do it while going OVER the contract. She shoved the accounting mess into a disheveled heap and, reluctantly, hoofed over the Flying Service’s copy of the thick contract. Earlier she had rushed through, but now she felt a need to understand exactly what she had put the company on the hook for. And Featherprop, a voice in her mind reminded her. She waved a hoof as if to dispel the thought; reading the contract was supposed to take her mind off the frustrating Pegasus.

And in a way, it did, though not in the way she had wanted. As she read through clause after clause that looked totally unfamiliar, she felt like bucking herself out the door. Why didn’t I put my hoof down and really read through this before signing it? Though she doubted the REMMA would try to do anything illegal, that was no excuse for failing in her duty. As she read, very little seemed out of place; for the most part it was straightforward and unambiguous. Several paragraphs seemed to have been removed; there were gaps in the sequence, and a few pages were written in a different hoof. Should be fine, she thought with relief, this copy is countersigned by Pasture, so we’re covered.

Suddenly, she stopped. The back of one page, she saw, was laced with a spidery, blotchy pattern. Studying it, she could see that it was hoofwriting, though there were frequent gaps in the text. She flipped the page over to see if text on the front side, but the two sides were completely different– it wasn’t ink bleeding through from the front. It’s from a note, she realized, Somepony wrote a note and set half the contract on top of it. Intrigued, she tried to make out what it said. There were several paragraph numbers, but when she hoofed through the pages to check them... They’re the ones missing. A pang of worry knotted her gut as she set about trying to decipher the patchy text.

Health Min ... ry … ests we del ... para ... 3.26i, 13.2b(2 .... 1 ... emove all refer ... Y887 Infuren … demic …ock Falls. Relea ... ormation wil ... onsidered unt ... ositive identif ... utbreak h ... tablished. Advise Pastu ... elease of info ... quires pri ... proval, Minis ... st adamant.

Puzzling over the fragmentary message, two half-words jumped out at her: “Infuren … demic.” Beneath her tan coat her face blanched as the doctor’s deflective description of the situation came back. Gasping for air, she could only think, Infurenza! He wouldn’t tell us... With the context of secrecy, Pasture’s vague references became perfectly clear. They didn’t want anyone to know, he wasn’t telling anyone. Not even... Her eyes widened and she jumped to her hooves and hurried down the hall. He deserves to know... he has to know so he can stay away from anypony!

Unlike Featherprop, Espresso was as close to being a native ‘Maner as an Equestrian Pony could get. While Featherprop might know about the fear Frostmane natives had of the Infurenza, for Espresso it dredged up an old, deeply held terror.

As a filly, she had suffered through Infurenza for a week, drifting in and out of consciousness, and as the days wore on her doorway had seen a stream of visitors. Though they were careful to smile on the occasions she was awake, the morose tenor of conversations that floated in from the hallway beyond were not lost on her. Deep down, she had known: They thought I wouldn’t live.

Forcing herself to stay at a canter, Espresso hurried toward the radio shack. This was not her first trip to the dimly-lit space this evening– several times before she had found her hooves carrying her there, only to lamely ask Ether Watt about weather updates or reception. The last time she had pestered Ether, the harried Earth Pony had nearly bucked her out the door and implied there would severe consequences if she came back. Now, though, she had an important task for the radiomare.

Somehow, Ether Watt heard the creak of the opening door over the sizzle, whoops, and squawks of the various sets she was monitoring. Winter was the worst; entire shifts at the console were filled with the cacophony. Blasted Lunar Lights, gimme a bright sun anytime. Without turning, she gruffly called out, “Hay hay, stay outta the shack!”

Espresso, silhouetted in the doorway, rolled her eyes. “You don’t even know who it is.”

Ether swiveled around, squinting at the bright light streaming in. “Yes I do. Nopony else has been pacing up and down the hallway for the last three hours, nopony else has poked her nose in here three– no, four times now, and nopony else has tried to cook me with my own gear! If you want me to do something for you,” she gestured at the workstation behind her, “the least you could do is bring some coffee.”

Espresso held up a defensive hoof. “I haven’t asked you to do anything!”

“But you will. Why else would you be in here?”

“Ether, I don’t–”

“No one ever comes in here unless they want something.”

“Ether, now that’s–”

“When it’s quiet, no one bothers. But when they want something, oh, the knocks on the door are like–”

ETHER!” Espresso had by now taken a few steps into the room, her ears pinned back and head thrust forward as she roared at the stubborn radio operator in frustration. “I don’t have time for this.” Seeing the other mare’s eyes open wide and her ears droop, she forced herself to gently say, “I need to reach Featherprop in Fairflanks before he leaves, it’s important.”

Ether straightened up slightly and tossed her dark-blue mane before giving Espresso a triumphant I told you so look. Her look turned regretful as she glanced at the console and shook her head. “The Lunar Lights are awful tonight. I might be able to reach them on the Horse set,” she nodded at an antique sending key, “but even then, I can’t say for sure.”

Espresso looked pained. “Fine. But hurry, please.”

Ether Watt grumbled and held out a pad and quill. “Message?”

Espresso rolled her eyes as she said, “Are you... Just have them tell Featherprop to contact me, okay?”

With a quiet grumble, the radiomare scrawled out a hasty message and held it up for Espresso’s approval: “FFS REQ HOLD FETLOCK SPECIAL – HAVE FP CONTACT TTR.” When Espresso nodded her assent, Ether sighed dramatically and settled at the console. “This is going to take a while,” she said, looking back and forth between Espresso and the door, “and it’s noisy in here, so...”

Feeling a surge of relief, Espresso took the hint. “Thank you, Ether. I’ll come back in a while.” She turned to leave, glad to get away from the wearying noise.

“Don’t bother,” Ether said. The blue Earth Pony was already hunched over the key, one hoof pressed to an earphone and her eyes squeezed shut in concentration, alternately keying and listening, trying to discern a reply from the random bursts of noise that filled the channel. When light from the hallway spilled into the room she called out, “If you do, don’t come empty-hooved!” Knowing that it would have Espresso rolling her eyes put a smile on her face for a moment.

As the door closed, she the smile faded and she turned back to the tedious task of sending the message through the storm of interference.

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