• Published 19th Jul 2012
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The Best of All Possible Worlds - McPoodle

The philosopher Voltaire finds himself in the most-frustrating place imaginable: Equestria

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Chapter 2

The Best of All Possible Worlds

Chapter 2

If Equestria was the bright and shining aggie in the eternal marble collection of planets, then Earth was a cloudy that had accidentally been dropped in the dust and given up for lost.

Its inhabitants believed for the most part that they had an all-powerful protector like the Sisters, but apparently He was either shy, busy, or highly devoted to the cause of supporting His humans’ right to free will, because He was a lot less obvious in his actions compared to Celestia and Luna.

Left thus to their own devices, the humans of Earth invented hundreds of languages, experimented with every form of government imaginable and became quite skilled in the obscure art of propelling metal objects at great speeds into other objects.

On a Midsummer’s Night on the continent of Europe, in the capital of the human kingdom of Prussia, four horses rapidly pulled a large carriage through the moonlit streets. One look at the royal seal mounted on the sides of the carriage caused the few humans walking the streets after dark to scatter to either side, bowing low just in case the King was paying attention. The name of the city, by the way, was Burr Linn, presumably referring to a very cold river (the Burr) that had formed a steep cut through a shelf of hard rock (a linn). The carriage had come from the city of the royal palace: Potsdam. The author has not yet learned the details of the incident involving damming the Burr River with pots that gave this city its name, but assumes it must be a good one.

A human inside the carriage removed his watch from the inner pocket of his coat and consulted it. “I cannot be certain, Your Majesty,” he said, “but I do not believe that Monsieur Jordan will be awake at this hour for this mysterious surprise of yours.” The man wore a great green coat over several other layers of clothing, with only modest amounts of gold trim and white lace. He had a prominent nose (for a human) and thin eyebrows and lips, with his graying hair hidden beneath a powdered white periwig that was somewhat askew. In relation to the king, he was the court philosopher, but before gaining that position he was merely a writer of plays and other subversive works, such as his accounts of the scientific and philosophic thoughts of the English. He was born with the name François-Marie Arouet, but nowadays he was universally addressed by his pen name. He was drunk, although he knew better than to show it.

“Oh Voltaire,” said the King lightly, “surely you know by now that my court knows to keep my hours, especially on a concert night.” He emphasized this point by waving a flute he clutched in one hand. “Besides, President Maupertuis and I planned this surprise well in advance.” This king was Friedrich, the second of that name to rule the land of Prussia, and referred to by Voltaire as “Friedrich the Great”. He wore a bright blue coat, with a great deal more gold trim and white lace. His face was dominated by his large blue eyes, which appeared to effortlessly absorb everything that happened around him. He also wore a powdered wig although, being eighteen years younger than the man he considered his teacher, he might have looked better with his own natural hair. He was also drunk, and didn’t particularly care who knew it.

Voltaire found the watch’s key and proceeded to wind it then raised the watch to his ear to hear it tick. He noticed that the ticking coincided with the rhythm of the hooves of the horses trotting outside. A piece of clockwork in a clockwork universe, he mused.

A silence settled over the inhabitants of the carriage. The King suddenly noticed the flute in his hand and put it in a case, then pulled some letters out of a diplomatic pouch and tried to read them by the light of some flickering candles mounted on the back wall.

There were two other humans in the carriage besides the king and the writer. The one sitting next to King Friedrich took this moment to speak up. “Monsieur de Voltaire,” he said in a soft voice, “I noticed you reading a book during the intermissions of the concert tonight. May I ask what it was?” This was Count Francesco Algarotti, an essayist and amateur scientist. His coat’s color was similar to the king’s, but without the trim or the lace. He was the man responsible for King Friedrich’s art collection. He had decided not to drink tonight.

Voltaire put his watch away and looked over at Algarotti. “It was Gulliver’s Travels, by Dean Swift. This must be the fifth or sixth time I have read it. Have you heard of the work?”

“Only by reputation,” Algarotti replied with a thin smile. “Is that the fabulous tale about the sailor who discovers a land of tiny men?”

“Among others,” said Voltaire. “I am currently reading about Gulliver’s adventures with the Houyhnhnms, a race of talking horses.” He carefully refrained from mentioning the race of barbarous humans named Yahoo that the Houyhnhnms kept as slaves. “I wonder,” he said with a smile, “what the general reaction would be if the horses of Europe began to talk?”

“Preposterous!” exclaimed the fourth human in the carriage. This was Pierre Louis Maupertuis, president of the Prussian Royal Academy of Sciences—a position that had been offered once to Voltaire at a time when he was unable to take it. Maupertuis was famous for an expedition he had led to the far north of the world to prove that the Earth was slightly flat on top instead of being perfectly round or slightly pointy. He had a broad face with cheeks slightly mottled from the effects of frostbite. He also wore clothing reminiscent of an arctic explorer’s, so that none might forget his contribution to the History of Science (and yes, he used that phrase frequently—capital letters and all). He was currently in possession of the carriage’s bottle of wine, which he had been sipping from at frequent intervals throughout the trip.

“Ah,” Voltaire sighed ruefully. “Well if that is the learned opinion of the great Flattener of the Earth, then I would be a fool to pursue the matter further.”

Maupertuis had long suspected that everything that Voltaire said about him was a veiled mockery. He was usually justified in this belief. On this occasion, he looked at the writer with suspicion for a moment, but then smiled slyly and looked outside.

“I suppose they would have to be paid,” King Friedrich speculated.

“Paid?” asked Maupertuis.

“The horses,” explained the King. “If they started talking, that is.”

Now it was Maupertuis’ turn to sigh.

“Yes,” said Algarotti, “but consider that if horses could speak and understand us, then drivers would no longer be necessary, so there would be a slight cost savings from that.”

“I had not thought of that,” noted Voltaire with surprise. A moment’s thought, though, brought him back into his usual sarcastic mood. “It would in some ways be similar to the amateur pickpockets who lost their positions after the invention of gas lighting,” he said brightly. Having won the argument in his own mind, he moved on. “If I may change the subject, dear Algarotti, I also observed that you were reading a thin volume yourself. Would you care to share the name of that work with us?”

“Not at all,” the art lover replied, producing the book in question and passing it over to Voltaire. “It’s a philosophical treatise by von Leibniz called Monadology. I believe you may have heard of it?”

Voltaire tossed back the book as if it were bound in white-hot iron, causing Algarotti to laugh. “A very unfortunate work, that,” Voltaire said. “I shudder to think of the harm it has unintentionally done to the world since its publication.”

“Oh come now!” Algarotti said in mock disappointment. “The philosophy it outlines is called ‘Optimism’ after all, and I see nothing wrong with having a positive outlook on life.”

“The title of that philosophy is very misleading,” Voltaire explained wearily, as if he had covered this point thousands of times in the past (and he had). “A more accurate name would be This-is-the-best-of-all-possible-worlds-so-I-am-forbidden-to-do-anything-to-make-it-a-better-place...ism. I believe precisely the opposite.”

“Somehow I don’t think your name for it will stick,” King Friedrich said with a laugh.

The carriage came to a stop, and Voltaire looked outside. He saw a three-story brick building and, standing in front of the door, Monsieur Jordan.

Charles Étienne Jordan was King Friedrich’s Inspector of the Poor for the city of Burr Linn, assigned to improve the welfare of the penniless. His appointment was one of the first real signs in his reign that the King did not resemble his ancestors, who were more fond of oppressing peasants than helping them. The Inspector was a short man and, lacking a wig, his head of black hair was easily visible. He had dark bushy eyebrows, a thick black beard, and sad hazel eyes. He was currently doing his best to stifle a yawn. “Welcome...Your Majesty,” he said, bowing low as the King exited the carriage. He remained in that position for several seconds, so that he might not do his king the dishonor of seeing him and his drunken friends falling out of the carriage and stumbling about as they tried to regain their footing.

As Jordan straightened up, he saw a second coach pull up next to the carriage. Jumping out of this vehicle were a half-dozen of King Friedrich’s bodyguards.

“Jordan!” the King exclaimed once he reached his servant, slapping one meaty hand upon the man’s shoulder. “Do you have everything prepared?”

“Yes, Your Majesty.” Jordan suppressed a sigh, and glanced uneasily over at Voltaire. “Ever since noon, Your Majesty,” he did not add. If a king told you he was going to arrive at noon but didn’t actually show up until after 10 p.m., then you were not going to remind him of that fact. That was how Monsieur Jordan had managed to keep his head attached to his shoulders through the reigns of both Friedrich II and his disastrous predecessor.

“Excellent!” exclaimed King Friedrich, turning to face the philosopher. “Can you guess where we are?” he asked.

Voltaire took in his surroundings as he sought to regain his equilibrium. This was an area of the city he was not familiar with. He believed he saw a graveyard a few blocks to the north. The buildings surrounding their destination were abandoned. The reason for this was clear to anybody with ears: the screams emanating from the building. Voltaire had once made the mistake of touring Charenton when he was a young and foolish man and so knew exactly what manner of torment was being prepared for him. “It is an insane asylum,” he observed sourly.

“Correct!” exclaimed the King. “Isn’t it a good surprise?”

“No, to be perfectly honest,” Voltaire said quietly.

“‘No’? Do I hear one of my subjects contradicting me?” King Friedrich asked warningly. Everyone in the vicinity who was not a king imagined they felt executioner’s axes lightly touching their necks at that moment.

“This is a place of suffering,” Voltaire said weakly.

“This is a place of research,” the King corrected him firmly. “By studying the mad, we can learn why this has happened to them, and one day find a way to prevent it. Besides, the mad do amuse me so!”

“Could I perhaps skip the visit?” Voltaire asked desperately.

“No,” replied the monarch. “You see, I am allowed to say that word. You’re also not allowed to pout, so stop it at once! Now follow me, everyone. Jordan here has arranged the Grand Tour for us.”

As he approached the building, Voltaire felt an odd feeling of foreboding (this on top of his general disgust at the notion of enjoying the suffering of those who don’t deserve it). He looked back longingly at the carriage, where the driver was brushing down the horses. For a moment he wished that one of the four was the Pegasus of ancient myth, so he might jump on and escape from this impossible king he was bound to, a king he felt he had partially created.

As he crossed the threshold, he felt a strong feeling of unreality. He had read fantastic stories about young men who had ignored ominous signs and crossed into the realm of the fairies; they had felt what he was feeling, and if they ever returned to the world of mortal men, it was hundreds or thousands of years later.

~ ~ ~

Once inside, Voltaire discovered the others gathered around a painting that was mounted on one wall of the entry hallway. The painting was labeled “The Garden of Eden”, and looked to be several centuries old.

“Lucas Cranach the Elder,” proclaimed Algarotti proudly. “Early to mid-Sixteenth Century.”

The background of the painting showed several vignettes involving a young naked couple and an old man in robes, respectively Adam and Eve (the first humans created by God) and God himself (I don’t believe I’ve mentioned yet that this particular god was not given the most creative of names by his creations). Regrettably, the author does not have in her possession the full story of Adam and Eve, so the matter of why the disembodied head of God was using His fire vision in the painting to glare angrily at the pair of humans trying to cover themselves with bushes will remain forever unknown.

The foreground of the painting depicted a number of animals, mostly in pairs. Lions lay peacefully beside cows, deer, sheep, geese, peafowl, horses, and a lone unicorn. On Earth, this last-named creature is entirely fictional, and so was depicted as a white mane-less horse with a curving horn as long as it was.

Well that’s entirely wrong, Voltaire thought to himself. It should be shorter, with a little triangular horn. Then he tried to figure out how he could possibly know what a unicorn actually looked like, and felt ill at ease.

~ ~ ~

The party ascended to the second floor, where most of the inmates were being kept. Two rows of cells lined the wide hallway, each covered with a large thick door with a small window to look inside at the inmates, and iron bars embedded in each window to keep the inmates from getting too close while you were busy looking at them. Everything was illuminated by sickly yellow candlelight. Voltaire’s feelings of uneasiness increased.

With the asylum’s attendants supplemented by the king’s guards to protect the visiting group from harm, Jordan opened the door of the first “attraction” for the night.

At the far end of the darkened cell, a large man who was chained to the wall stood up. He was so tall that he had to bend his neck to keep from bumping his head on the high ceiling of the room. In the dim moonlight, he looked as if he were covered with hair. He fixed the group with a commanding stare from his glowing yellow eyes.

“I would advise the group not to look Ivan straight in the eyes,” Jordan told them, raising a hand to shield his face.

“Whatever for?” asked Algarotti. “The glow is surely a trick of the moonlight.”

“You shouldn’t look,” Jordan explained fearfully, “because Ivan can turn those he catches with his gaze into any animal he pleases.”

“You believe this madness?” the King said with that same note of warning in his voice.

“Uh...of course not,” Jordan hemmed. “It is simply that Ivan, like many of the patients, is set in his delusions, and we find it the safer course to indulge his beliefs rather than challenge them, as doing so makes him very upset.”

This statement was a lie. Jordan had prepared it and was now saying it because he knew that King Friedrich was leading Prussia into a grand Age of Reason where misery would be abolished and everyone would live happily ever after. The real reason why Jordan didn’t look at Ivan, though, was because he did not want to be turned into a newt.

“Well he certainly is intimidating,” admitted Maupertuis, taking a swig from his bottle.

Voltaire reached over and took the bottle, then tossed back a drink himself.

“Ivan is generally acknowledged as the ‘king’ of the asylum by the other inmates,” said Jordan, as he led the group back out of the cell.

“He is but the current king, for now,” King Friedrich said mysteriously.

“That was a Siberian, was it not?” asked Maupertuis. “What is he doing here, so far from home?”

“He was one of the Potsdam Giants,” the king answered grimly. “It was my father’s idiotic notion of how to create an unstoppable army: beg, borrow and steal the tallest men in the world to man it, and on seeing them, your enemies will be too terrified to resist. Never mind the fact that the lot of them didn’t know a thing about fighting, and some were so tall that they suffered from brittle bones! I disbanded the troop as soon as I was crowned, but it appears the methods Father used to ensure their loyalty was too much for some of them.”

~ ~ ~

The next inmate they visited was crouched in the far corner of his cell, studying a drawing. Voltaire noticed that the walls of the room were entirely covered with coarse paper, and every inch of this paper was covered with drawings. Voltaire saw drawings of simple buildings, drawings of tools, drawings of flowers and common animals, but mostly drawings of ponies. Lots and lots of ponies.

Voltaire’s breath caught in his throat. The feeling of strangeness that he had sensed ever since leaving the carriage was concentrated in this place, was coming from this place, from the funny little man in the corner with the lopsided grin. Voltaire looked at his companions, and saw that none of them were feeling what he was feeling.

Algarotti wandered away from the others to examine the inmate’s bed stand. He poked curiously at a rubber ring six inches in diameter, which seemed to be floating an inch above the small table.

“What have we here?” Maupertuis asked brightly, peering closely at the drawings.

The little man turned around and looked with confusion at the speaker.

“Oscar only knows German,” Jordan explained.

I should note that all of the conversations to this point were in the language known as French. This was the native tongue of Voltaire and Maupertuis (and Monsieur Jordan). German was the native tongue of King Friedrich and the rest of the Prussian people. (And Italian was the native tongue of Algarotti, but we won’t be hearing any of it in this story, so you don’t need to know that.) The members of the king’s retinue were conversant in at least three languages each, of which two were French and German.

Maupertuis repeated his question in German.

“These are my visions of another world,” the little man answered in a thin, piping voice. “The unicorns are the dominant race.”

Voltaire, who had been studiously trying to avoid looking at anything in the room, glanced over for a moment at the drawing nearest him, of a little pony unicorn with exactly the proportions that he had earlier thought to be correct. He saw then that nearly all of the ponies were in fact unicorns, and all the buildings and tools were scaled to their size.

“Have you ever heard of a book called Gulliver’s Travels?” he asked Oscar uneasily in German. He reasoned that a civilization of magical unicorns would easily be able to enslave any number of Yahoos, and began searching the drawings for any human figures. He was relieved to find none.

“I never heard of it,” Oscar said.

Algarotti meanwhile picked up the rubber ring and examined it. It had numerous cuts and what appeared to be bite marks on it. He then raised it up and deliberately dropped it. It slowly floated down to rest once again on a bed of air.

The King looked about him in annoyance. “You abandoned your former project, Oscar,” he said. His German was noticeably worse than his French. “You promised you’d make me a pair of seven-league boots, and instead you have taken up cartooning. And a very odd style of cartooning it is, I will add.”

Voltaire took a closer look at the drawings. He noticed that the lines never met or crossed, leaving tiny gaps on the paper instead.

Interspersed with the drawings in the center of the room were large black ovals. As Voltaire turned his head, the blackness in the ovals turned with him, like hundreds of animal eyes following his every move. Voltaire closed his own eyes then, and hoped that the king would not order him to open them.

Meanwhile the inmate was complaining in his penetrating voice. “I never promised you seven-league boots,” he said. “I promised you a way to travel anywhere in the world in an instant. I have the travel part down (but not yet controlling the destination), thanks to my magic pencil...”

As the inmate started to pull something pointy out of a fold of his clothing, one of the guards panicked. “He’s got a weapon!” he cried out, and in moments Oscar was buried under a pile of men beating him senseless. Algarotti took advantage of the moment to slip the rubber ring inside his coat.

An object bumped against Voltaire’s shoe. He looked down to see the pencil: a quite ordinary cylinder of graphite inexpertly wrapped in paper tape. He reached down to pick it up.

The moment he touched the pencil, the awful feeling in his gut disappeared.

Voltaire shook his head, clearing it of the superstitious mutterings that had been filling it, and placed the pencil next to his watch. Imagine thinking that the Houyhnhnms were real! he reproached himself. Of course Swift’s book is a work of fiction—the satire is too obvious to be anything else.

Then he looked over at poor Oscar. “Are we quite done?” he asked loudly.

The guards froze and looked down guiltily at the defenseless man they had been battering.

King Friedrich sighed. “Yes, it’s time to get this over with.”

~ ~ ~

Jordan led the group down to the cell at the end of the hallway and opened the door.

“My dear colleague Voltaire,” Maupertuis said sweetly, “I have spoken with the inhabitant of this cell, and I do believe he is the cleverest man in all of Europe, cleverer even than you! He told me that your story about Newton discovering gravity from an apple hitting his head is a complete and utter lie, and that your book The Age of Louis XIV was the work of an imbecile.”

“He called himself cleverer than me?!” Voltaire exclaimed. “I’ll have to have a word with him!” And so saying, he stepped into the cell.

It was empty, save for the bed and the paper crown and bottle of port which were resting on it.

The door behind Voltaire suddenly shut, and he heard the sounds of uproarious laughter.

“Welcome to your new home!” cried the King.

“What is the meaning of this?” cried Voltaire, wheeling around.

“Isn’t it obvious?” asked King Friedrich. “You have taken leave of your senses, and you are being kept here until they come back to you. You should be grateful that I’ve named you king of the asylum.”

“I don’t understand,” the writer protested.

Maupertuis handed the king a small book open to a particular page, from which the king proceeded to read out loud:

Micromegas, learned scientist living on the star Sirius, composed a book about the insects of his country that was very curious but that got him into some trouble. The mufti of the country, a great hairsplitter and very ignorant, found in his book statements that were suspect, ill-sounding, rash, heretical, smacking of heresy, and prosecuted him vigorously: the question was whether the substantial form of the fleas of Sirius was of the same nature as that of the snails. Micromegas defended himself wittily; he got the women on his side; the trial lasted two hundred and twenty years. Finally the mufti got the book condemned by some jurists who had not read it, and the author was ordered not to appear at court for eight hundred years.

“That mufti,” the King yelled through the bars, “is me! Admit it!”

“I...I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Voltaire protested. “I have heard of this Micromegas, it is true, but it is an anonymous work. Anybody could have written it.”

“No, only you could have written it,” said Maupertuis. “It stinks of your particular breed of contempt. How dare you write a work ridiculing your king!”

“It’s the work of an evil genius!” proclaimed King Friedrich.

Voltaire just couldn’t resist the lure of being called a genius (of any sort) and told the truth. “Well, alright, I wrote it,” he said. “But the king being mocked is obviously Louis XV of France, not you! And the true target of the work is a certain world-flattening, presidency-stealing idiot and his band of sycophantic followers!”

The others stared at him through the bars in shock.

“Perhaps I shouldn’t have said that last part out loud,” he admitted.

“We’re heading back to Potsdam, fellows,” the King said to the others. To the newest inmate he said “I’ll come back for you when you give me good reason to.”

Voltaire laughed loudly at the departing company. “Alright, Your Majesty, I’ll freely admit it: you’ve got me. Best joke ever! Now let’s go out and get drunk! Your Majesty? Your Majesty?! What does the port mean?”

“Everybody knows how much the English love port and, well, you always were a little too fond of the English,” the voice of Maupertuis drifted back to him.

“I hate port!” Voltaire said with a pout as he sat down on the bed.

~ ~ ~

Jordan came back to the cell a half-hour later. “Is there anything I can do for you?” he asked. “Other than letting you go?” he added apologetically.

Voltaire sighed from his place at the back of the cell. “I don’t blame you, Monsieur Jordan,” he said. “We are all King Friedrich’s puppets in the end, you especially. I’m surprised he hasn’t made you dress in motley and bells yet. I would appreciate it, however, if you got me a lot of paper, a pen and some ink.”

“Of course,” Jordan said, and raced down the hall.

He came back ten minutes later with the requested writing materials, a lit candle to see by, and a small table. With a burly attendant present to ensure that the prisoner did not try to escape, the door was opened and the objects were placed within the room.

Voltaire sat quietly the whole time. He had seen that the cell was equipped with chains, and he did not want to force Jordan to have to use them.

“Thank you, Monsieur Jordan,” he said at last through the door once it had been shut.

“Will you be needing anything else?” his captor asked.

“No, I think you can finally get some sleep.”

“I’ll see you in the morning then.”

“Good night.”

As Jordan and the attendant walked away, he heard Voltaire muttering to himself. “Now what would be the best language for abject groveling? ...German. Definitely German.”

It was nearly one a.m. before Charles Étienne Jordan was finally free to go to sleep. Waiting for him in the little bed next to his own was his ten-year old daughter, Jenny.

“I’m sorry we couldn’t celebrate your birthday today,” he said sadly.

“That doesn’t matter,” she told him with a brave grin. “Am...” She hesitated for several seconds before continuing. “Am I going to get my wish?”

The elder Jordan sighed. “I’m not sure that the King will return tomorrow to see your painting of him. But if he doesn’t, I’ll take you to see the cleverest man in all Europe.”

Not clever enough, though, to stay out of a lunatic’s cell, he added to himself.