• Published 5th Jun 2018
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Meliora - Starscribe

Earth is only just recovering from a war that almost wiped out the pony descendants of humankind. But when the Alicorns fail them, the survivors turn to an unlikely source for aid: Jackie the bat pony.

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Prologue: Antrozous

The world basically ended when Charybdis finally rose from the sea.

Ancient writers of the human world had long speculated about such abominations, and the reign of madness and ecstasy they might bring. Those ancient writers had foreseen the destruction that they would bring to every nation, as their servants rose and brushed aside the organic life like dust in a breeze. There were no Elder Signs, no supernatural means by which the desperate defenders might easily overcome. Their enemy outnumbered them, had greater weapons, and far greater unity of purpose.

Had the ancient writers of humanity survived to that day, they might’ve been amazed to see their far-future descendants triumph in the end, casting the Eldritch Horror and all its servants into Outer Darkness.

The war had been terrible—every nation of Earth had either been destroyed, or else unified in one common body. Only united with every great power, and at least one they hadn’t even known about, had they survived.

There was much celebration on that day, with equine and human alike rejoicing that the ancient enemy was banished forever, and the planet was theirs. The party that followed lasted for weeks, and resulted in the utter depletion of the planet’s supply of drinkable alcohol.

But after the parties were over, the funerals were held, and the dead buried, life had to go on. Ponies along with the last survivors of the ancient races lived together in the great city of Axis Mundi for years without complaint. It had, after all, been built to survive an indefinite siege. The height of magical craft had been used to construct it, and there were many empty rooms thanks to the war. That city grew into a megalopolis never seen on Earth before it, and as the population expanded they built new suburbs, spreading across the Sahara mile by mile.

A generation passed away in happiness there, united by their common bond. The next generation rose on stories of the terrible war, and the cooperation of their parents in defeating it. Even so, there was a little friction among them—the ancient humans, much slower to breed and more dependent on their infrastructure, left the city in that age, or at least most of them did.

Then their children rose, inheriting the city in their place. And with them, the peace wasn’t to last. They knew nothing of the desperation that had been a constant reality in the lives of their grandparents. They had not been raised on the promise of death for even minor crimes, as evidence of possession by the Outside. So, crime again became a serious problem in Mundi, as the poor and dispossessed took what little power they could.

The megalopolis of Mundi might have been the best way to defend the planet’s population, but it also put everyone in constant contact with each other. There was no place for the developing pockets of independent cultures to go, only more city. While this next generation did not have the cooperative spirit born of desperation, they also lacked a practical understanding of how to survive outside their perfect magical city, where all aspects of life were managed and provided for them. In many ways, they were the most technologically advanced society that the planet had ever seen.

A few brave souls ventured out anyway, first as individuals, but eventually as small caravans, in search of ancient homelands and a better life. Terrible stories came back in their place, stories of traps and horrible magics the Outsiders had left behind as they swept across the planet. Some budding new societies were wiped out by entirely mundane causes—starvation being chief among these. A few succeeded at building new homes—outposts that were not more than a few days journey from the city, often located in the empty (but still functional) ruins left by their defending ancestors.

Another generation passed away in Mundi, and the situation got worse. Murder returned to the city, and riots became a more frequent occurrence as friction continued to ferment. Though many ancient cultural divides had been long forgotten, they had new divisions to create prejudice. Often the chief among those was race, given the unmistakable difference between the species and the clear advantages and disadvantages possessed by some over others.

Nopony could’ve said for sure how the divides rose, or upon which lines the castes of the city were informally separated. Even the Alicorns who ruled it, doing their best to keep the city unified and prevent widescale violence, couldn’t have said for sure. But how the hierarchy formed didn’t really matter.

What mattered to Jackie was that bats ended up on the bottom.

In the old days, she wouldn’t have cared what other ponies thought of her—in those days, she had her wife, and nothing else mattered. They could face the world together and nothing it could do would leave an impact. All she really had to do was wait and the situation might change again in her favor.

Jackie herself wasn’t even all that effected by the change, given her position of prestige in the city. She didn’t live in squalor, but near the core, a section of the tallest arcologies in the center of the city, where the most important ponies spent their lives.

At first, Jackie dismissed the strange looks she got at parties, particularly since other guests would explain on her behalf how important and respected she was, and that would be that. But as the years went by, Jackie stopped getting invited to those parties. As before, it didn’t really matter to her—she’d always loathed them anyway, and the clubs closer to ground level always had more interesting people to meet.

Fast forward a century or so, and suddenly she wasn’t allowed in those places either. It didn’t matter how much money she had, though in truth it was less than she should have had. Ezri had always been better at managing their money. Jackie could have gone to the rulers of the city, since she was one of the few who could get an audience with one of them without anything more than a whim on her part.

But she didn’t really want to see Alex anymore. If you all hadn’t been captured, I could’ve brought Ezri back instead of saving your dumb asses. In some ways, it was the Alicorns’ fault her wife wasn’t still alive. It didn’t really matter that Ezri had been okay with dying. It was the principle of the thing.

So it was that Jackie found herself at a truly underground club, one that was so many stories under the city that the rocks were hot to the touch. The bar itself was located at the dead-end of a particularly dirty looking tunnel, which branched into many identical square rooms. They had been ancient food-storage caches, during the days of the war when nopony had known if they would be able to grow food forever. Some had feared that Charybdis would try to starve them out.

That hadn’t happened, so decades worth of food for their much-reduced population had been left to sit—and rot—in the dark. By the smell of the club, some of it was still nearby.

The lighting was dingy, which was fine with her (and apparently most of the other patrons). There were few species here—mostly bats. Changelings had “talents” that were more practical to the needs of a decadent populace, so they didn’t form the bottom of the social ladder enough to get dumped here. Besides, they had their hives, and queens to look out for their needs.

It was a shame—the only places Jackie might go to meet more changelings no longer let her in.

The music was all right—Jackie had lived so long that it all blurred together in her ears—so long as it was loud, and the beat was fast enough to dance to, that was what mattered. But the drinks, the drinks were truly awful. As she sat by the bar, she watched other bats come in one after another, before passing their crystalline credit-counters over the bar to receive a measly portion of a drink she was pretty sure was a mix of fermented mangos and minotaur urine.

This bar—the Soundwave—was her new favorite spot, despite all its flaws. Going deeper underground could only make things worse.

She knew every bat here by name, knew some of their families, had slept with a few. Not as much as a younger version of her probably would have, though. Just like music, sexual partners grew samey over the years. And no bat could ever keep a relationship as fresh as a changeling.

One of her new friends—a refugee male named David—took the seat beside her still panting from exhaustion. He worked in one of the new datamines, and ever since he’d been arriving a few hours later and sweating like he’d been flying for days. The smell hardly registered over the existing rot-scent, but Jackie had to feel bad for him as he raised a hoof to order.

“Wait.” Jackie rested her hoof on his, pushing it back down. “You’re drinking on me tonight, David.” She looked up at the barkeep. “Bring him the blue stuff.” One glance behind her told her the rest of his shift had all come with him, probably out at the same time. “Actually, bring the whole bottle. Join us, boys and girls! Let’s have a little fun.”

There were a few new faces within the crowd—most of these declined her offer, ordering something else anyway. A few moments later the barkeep returned, carrying the glowing blue bottle in one hand with a little reverence. Jackie couldn’t read any of the writing on it, but that didn’t matter. She knew the taste, and she wasn’t going to be having any of that awful mango stuff tonight.

“What’s the occasion?” David asked, watching as the barkeep removed slightly dusty shot glasses from under the counter and started pouring. “And what is this stuff? What kind of ‘magic’ makes it glow?”

Jackie took her own glass with ease, knocking it back as though it were nothing. It helped that she had an immortal constitution, along with more mass than anyone else in here. The only ponies who could drink more than she could were Alicorns. “Nobody have more than one. Seriously, this stuff will fuck you up if you do. If it can do it for Commander Worf, you know that little pony body of yours is screwed. I’m guessing you have work tomorrow…”

“Commander Worf?” David raised an eyebrow. He was certainly the only one in the room who would understand what she had just said. “You can’t possibly…” He leaned closer, squinting at the bottle. “God, it is, isn’t it? Where did you get Romulan ale?” He had to grip his own glass in both hooves, but he managed to get it down without spilling. “Damn. It’s like electricity going down.”

“Try glamour sometime,” Jackie muttered. Whatever he said next was drowned out in the appreciation from the other bats near the bar, at least all those who had tasted the drink. Like anything she took from the dream world, it was more an ideal than the real thing. It tasted better than any liquor could. It could still give them wicked hangovers if they drank too much, though.

The mine workers spread out to their tables, though David and a few of his friends remained close by. “How did you get this stuff?” he asked again. “There was no such thing as Romulans… were there?”

She shrugged. “No? Yes? Maybe? If there were, they’re fucking dead now. Just like everything else smart in the galaxy.” She set down her glass, pushing it over for another. She refused any of the others, though most of them were taking it slow with the drink. They savored something expensive enough to be rare for them. “I got it from the Dreamlands. Like lots of stuff. You could too. Almost everybody in here could.”

“I did the dream stuff, like you said.” David sounded unconvinced. “Lucid dreaming was cool and all, but… making things real? Seems hard to believe. And I mean, what doesn’t these days, but even more than usual.”

She shrugged. “It took me like… a thousand years to figure it out. But I’ve met a few other bats who could do it. First few times, it was a total accident… it’s making it stick that’s the real trick. I could teach you. Well, maybe not right now. You’d need to read those books I gave you. Practice for like… a century. Then we could talk and see where you were.”

David swore under his breath, taking another swig from his drink. “I wish I knew when you were being serious.”

“Always,” she answered. “I’m completely serious, especially when I’m not. And when what I’m saying doesn’t make sense, that’s only because you’re new here and you don’t have all the pieces. You’ll work it out.”

They sat in silence for a long time then, with Jackie mostly listening to the music, as well as all the gossip being shared around the bar. She liked to be kept abreast with what was happening to the bats, just in case. At last she’d heard, her own apartment was still owned by the princess and so she wouldn’t be forced to move no matter what happened. But the other bats weren’t so lucky. As she listened, her expression grew tenser at the rumor of an upcoming measure to force bats to live underground. No doubt they’ll buy up people’s houses for way less than they’re worth and dump them down here to the caves.

On some levels, it didn’t make sense to her how a society that had overcome so much could fall into its old habits after only a few centuries. On the other hand, she’d lived long enough to know that people never really changed. Individuals changed, but people never did.

“Maybe I know more than you think, Dreamknife,” David said. She grimaced at the name, before realizing that he was staring at her, probably waiting for a reaction. He grinned. “Ha! So, they weren’t bullshiting me. You are her, aren’t you?”

Jackie took a sip of her drink. “What makes you say that?”

“Oh, I don’t know,” David said. “How about your bottomless wealth? How about the way you know everything about everything? How about how much magic you have? You can do things that not even the oldest and most experienced bats can do, the ones who teach at the University. Things they say are theoretical. Plus, you’re like an inch taller than me, and I’m the biggest bat I know.”

“In more ways than one,” Jackie said, hoping to put him off-balance. Being nude could do that for refugees, and indeed his ears flattened a little to his head. David was among those she’d been intimate with, though they had agreed quickly that it wasn’t going to work out. Men never worked out for long.

“Admit it, you’re her,” he went on. “You’re the immortal from the ancient days of the apocalypse, when there were still human ruins out in the world. From before they cast translation spells on newcomers. From before Charybdis.”

She frowned. This conversation was getting perilously close to her losing her favorite drinking spot. “What if I was? What difference would it make?”

“Because…” He lowered his voice, leaning close to her ear. “Because we’re done with this fuckin’ place, Jackie. Not just me, lots of us. Probably… half the bats in the city are done. And we need a leader.”

“You want to rebel?” she whispered back, her voice low. “I’m not going to help you kill people.”

“No!” he exclaimed. “We want to get out. Make a city of our own, somewhere so far away that Mundi and its fucking racism will never bother us again.”