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Four: Worth His Salt
Alexi Venäläinen had never wanted to be a leader, certainly not the leader of an entire community. Being conspicuous and 'important' only led to trouble; everything Alexi was best at required him to be invisible to the world, pulling strings and making arrangements essentially from the shadows.
In his very early human life, Alexi had been a dark mage of technology, weaving quantum-encoded data spells to acquire and transfer information from source to buyer; later, as an adult, he had developed similar skills involving relationships with people and institutions transferring physical goods. This was what he was good at, and the only way to succeed was to be the neutral middleman whom everyone relied on, but nobody really knew much about.
Suddenly, with one speech at a critical moment, Alexi had become the alpha male of a society of over one-hundred and fifty newfoals, the most visible, known and needed member of the herd. Alexi was not a happy pony.
Demands and questions were constant, and Alexi knew that unless he found a way to satisfy those needs, his reign would be short-lived and likely end in tragedy. "Why did I do this thing? Alexi is truly crazy pony!" Caprice pressed her head close to his, and then gave him a lick on the nose. "You did it to help, Alexi. If someone hadn't done what you did, half of those newfoals would have run off in different directions looking for Welcome Town. They would have been lost forever, and died alone. I am glad you were the one to do it." Caprice rubbed Alexi's cheek affectionately.
"I am not sure I can keep doing it. How am I supposed to lead these ponies? I do not know what I am doing!" Alexi and his family were laying on the crest of a soft, rounded hill. It was night now, and Luna's moon had risen high into the sky. The new community had all eaten their breakfast, lunch, and dinner from the soft and plentiful grasses, and had drunk their fill from one of the many nearby ponds, filled with fresh, clear water.
Shortly after his dramatic speech, Alexi had become the focus of intense demand. Now that they had been inspired, the ponies wanted to know what exactly they should do. Caprice had suggested that the first order of business might be to catalog just what they had to work with; Alexi felt silly not thinking of such an obvious thing himself, but the fact was that he was being besieged by constant questions he could not truly answer and had little time to think.
There were twenty wooden crates on the grass, piled by the Royal Unicorn Corps when they had all arrived together. The first problem they faced was trying to open them. There was no obvious way to accomplish the task; the crates were nailed shut, and there were no tools. Alexi longed for a crowbar; even without hands he was sure he could mouthhandle such a device and pop open the side of a crate. One young stallion, barely out of colthood, tried to kick one of the crates open in frustration; Alexi had to stop him before he damaged whatever was inside. He had achieved little, though; apparently Equestrians built their crates solidly.
Alexi had finally come up with a way to keep the more restless of the newfoals busy for the rest of the day; he created a scouting party to survey the land in order to discover what was available to them in this place. It was a clever idea; by the end of the day two aims would be met; they would know what was near them and the majority would become exhausted, thus giving Alexi time in the evening to try to think of his next step.
Alexi insisted that the scouting party stay together as one single herd, rather than breaking up, and he took them on a spiraling path away from the spot where they had arrived. For the rest of the day almost half of the community trotted along past endless similar hills, ponds and lakes, always keeping an eye on where they had come from.
To assist with that, Caprice and Pumpkin, along with much of the remaining pioneers stood or rested on the crests of the hills surrounding the flat area where the they had arrived and where the crates were stacked, providing a visual indication of that spot. Whenever the scouting party felt lost, they climbed a hillock and looked for the colorful ponies dotting the hills near their 'base camp', such as it was.
The result, as the sun sank, was little. The land was identical in all directions, though they had found several isolated clumps of flowers and some unidentifiable plants hidden among the endless grass. One thing that Alexi had noted though, was a complete absence of any other animal life; not once had they encountered even a single insect, much less any other creature.
As far as they could tell, they were the only animals as far as the eye could see, surrounded by an empty desert of grass interrupted only by the rare, occasional flower or plant. Not even the scattered ponds contained fish or any other life that they could see. The sun was very warm; it was clearly summer, hot and humid, and the scouting party had to stop many times to drink water and to rest, sweating from the exertion.
The community of ponies shared supper, grazing on the grasses, and eventually had sat down to talk amongst themselves in little groups. Alexi had addressed them once more, informing them that he would consider all that they had learned, and consider the best course of action to take in the morning. Then he had retreated with his family to a hill overlooking the great mass of newfoals, clustering near the sealed crates - their only link to civilization.
Pumpkin wanted to be with the rest of the herd below. "Why are we up here, Alexi? It's lonely up here. Don't you want to be down there with everybody?"
Alexi nibbled a stalk of grass and swallowed. "I have made myself their leader. I did not wish this, but it is so. There are rules to such things, rules that make it easier for the many to believe in the wisdom and power of a figurehead. One such rule is distance; a commander must not mingle with the troops; it destroys morale."
Alexi laid his head on his forelegs, stretched out in front of him now, as he lay on his belly. "Up here, on this hill, I appear elevated and apart, on watch for danger, and more of a leader. Of course I want to be down there. I do not want this job. But poor, stuck Alexi knows how to do the job, at least a little."
"It's true, Pumpkin." Caprice was again suckling little Buttermilk; the tiny unicorn required several feedings every day. "For now we all must keep a distance from the rest for the sake of creating the illusion of competency - no offense beloved." Alexi did not seem offended, rather he just sighed in grim resignation.
"Caprice. I need to know something of where we are, and what it means to be in these 'Exponential Lands'. You studied about Equestria, what can you tell me about all of this?" Alexi looked up at the Equestrian moon, drifting among the sparkling stars.
"I don't know a lot, Alexi. But I'll tell you what I can." Caprice moved slightly so that Buttermilk would take her other nipple to continue feeding; the little foal sometimes forgot there were two, and kept pointlessly suckling when the milk was gone. Buttermilk was so young; Caprice wondered if she had any memory at all of having been a human baby. "First, Equestria is not a planet, not like Earth. As far as scientists figured out from the probe telemetry, it is probably a pocket universe.
"A pocket universe? Like from the old sci-fi shows, some little baby cosmos hanging like a booger off our own gigantic universe?" This made Pumpkin laugh, mostly because Alexi had used the word 'booger'.
"Yeah, pretty much." Caprice smiled. "Equestria seems to be a place, a landscape that does not exist in what we would call 'space'. One article I read suggested it resembled an artificial environment, like a holopark or an amusement dome. The sky is like something from a theme park; the stars aren't burning suns, the sun and moon are not gigantic bodies. No one knows what they are really, they just know they aren't actual things hanging in some big universe out there."
The family looked up at the stars. The stars did not look like terrestrial stars; they were brighter, larger, and the sparkled in a way that was very pretty, but very odd. "The moon up there." Caprice raised a hoof at it. "That isn't a body orbiting a planet. It may be flat, it may be... some kind of disk, or even a device for all we know. But it isn't a planet, not like we have in Earth's universe."
"So what about this land we are on? Is it some kind of chessboard hanging in the air? Do oceans fall off of it's edges? What is this place if not a planet?" Alexi was on his side now, looking at Caprice, thinking how beautiful the curve of her croup was, right before it met the dock where her tail fell.
"I don't know. I can't answer that." Caprice saw how Alexi was looking at her, and it made her feel happy inside. "The best the scientists could work out is that the area near Canterlot is stable. It doesn't change. But farther out, as the Earth is absorbed, the land itself changes and expands away from that stable zone. That's where we are - that's the Exponential Lands. Basically, we're in the middle of a creation myth."
"We're in a myth?" Alexi had no idea what Caprice meant.
"Like from some religion. The world, or at least more world, is being created right now, right here. We're somewhere out in the middle of that new creation." Buttermilk had finished entirely now, and was licking the last drops off of both her own muzzle and wherever any could be found on Caprice. "I guess I kind of imagine all these hills and lakes just rolling out of the stable zone near Canterlot like a carpet or something. Or maybe all this landscape just kind of crystallizes out swirling chaos or mystic vapor beyond the borders of Equestria."
"So, where exactly are we, Caprice?" Pumpkin was trying to follow all of this heady talk, but it wasn't easy for her.
Caprice thought for a moment, trying to find a better way to express their situation. "Imagine a sort of carpet-making machine. It keeps rolling out more and more carpet; that carpet is our land here - grass and hills and flowers and lakes, right?" Buttermilk was standing now, swaying slightly, eyes half closed. The dear was full and sleepy, but apparently not ready to lay down. "The carpet machine has been going for some time now. There could be zillions of miles of carpet. We're at some random spot, somewhere out on the carpet already made, being pushed farther away from the machine all the time, as more carpet comes out."
"We'll never see anypony ever again! We'll just keep getting farther and farther away from Canterlot and Ponyville and Hoofington and everything else!" Pumpkin looked sad and frightened. "We're totally alone! They'll never be able to find us!"
"That is not entirely true, little Pumpkin sister." Alexi gave Pumpkin a lick on the ear. "This is a magical place. That mean pony Windfeather brought us here with magical teleportation. Pif! We were here in an instant. When we are found, Pif! We will be able to go wherever we wish." Alexi looked at Buttermilk. "If nothing else, perhaps when little Buttermilk grows up, she can use her magical horn to save us all!"
But the fact was, Alexi grimly thought, Pumpkin was probably correct. It could be generations before anyone found them, if ever.
Pumpkin cuddled closer to Caprice, and lay her head down. Buttermilk had finally decided that she could no longer defy sleep, and snuggled back close to her mother. Caprice hummed a little nursery rhyme she knew until the soft breathing of her sister and foal slowed to match the rhythms of sleep.
For a time, Caprice and Alexi sat close, gazing at the stars and the horizon, thinking.
"Alexi?" Caprice was suddenly very serious, almost worried. "When you were all out on your scouting expedition today, did you see any outcroppings of rocks, specifically any mineral deposits? It's important."
Alexi thought for a moment. "To be honest, I did not even think to look. But I do not remember any rocks, just rolling hills of grass. Why is this important?"
"We won't starve, Alexi... not immediately, anyway. But we need more than just grass to live. If our bodies are anything like Earthly animals, we will all need one very important thing, and relatively soon. Salt. All animals need a source of salt, and other minerals too, but salt especially." Caprice leaned closer to Alexi, and spoke more quietly. "In time, this will become a matter of life and death, Alexi. Back when animals lived in the wild on Earth, they would travel hundreds of miles to find an exposed salt source. They would even eat dirt, if it had a high salt content. All of this is an even bigger deal if it is hot, and it seems to be the middle of summer here."
Alexi looked down at the moonlit crowd of newfoals, all comfortably asleep, below. "What happens if we cannot find salt?"
"We will get sick, and eventually we will die. It will take time, but it is inevitable. Salt and minerals make everything work in a body; your heart cannot even beat without a precise balance of salts. That is why a herd of wild horses in ancient times would go hundreds of miles to lick rocks or eat dirt. Back when we still had a natural world, of course." Caprice nuzzled Alexi. "It's so important, it would be worth going any distance to find it. If you cannot find a source nearby, we will have to travel until we find a mineral deposit, or we die trying."
"Caprice - how long do we have?"
"I don't honestly know... for us. I remember reading that a human can go several months without salt, but it isn't pleasant. I don't know how much salt we need, but I do know that the hotter it is, the more salt is needed. So I would guess anywhere from two to six months before we become too sick to cope, or start to die off. The more we sweat, though, the worse we'll get, and I was certainly sweating today, and I know you were as well." Caprice licked Alexi's forehead. "Salt! I'll just lick you." She grinned.
"Promises, promises." Alexi grinned. "So, what you are saying is that we have some number of months to find salt, but if we cannot, eventually we will die, is this correct?"
"Pretty much. Sorry. And..." Caprice paused, but went on "We probably need more nutrition than Earth horses, because of our big brains. So keep a look out for anything else edible - berries, wild carrots, anything. There must be a reason that Equestrians eat such a varied diet. I suspect we need a complex diet for a number of reasons. I could be wrong, but..."
"No. Caprice is smart pony. I have no doubt of your wisdom in this. I depend on you. Alexi could never try to do this without his Caprice." Alexi kissed Caprice for a long time. "Someday, perhaps, we will have a nice honeymoon, minun rakas vaimoni."
"You'll need to wait for me to come into season, silly stallion." Caprice snuggled close to Alexi; Pumpkin and Buttermilk were already sound asleep. "I'm not like human girls."
"Hallelujah to that, my Caprice."