• 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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Chapter 4: Curasoae

Jackie could feel the eyes of dream on her as she passed through the sleeping world, as tight as the promised bond she had paid to make this road. Where before she had been free to drift between worlds, now she was tethered by the debt. She could feel herself straining against it, entirely in vain. Jackie would have to be careful how many promises she made, or else find herself as much a slave to her oaths as she would’ve been to the supernal.

She brought up the rear down the astral road, keeping her eyes open for stragglers. Most bats had the right instincts to stay on the path, even if they’d never used the magic before. She suspected many who had never had the chance to use their powers would be newly-inspired by the experience, and curious to return here. Most would never have the power to visit in the flesh, but that was for the best. To walk the Dreamlands was far more danger than it was worth for most things.

Roads like these were the safest way to travel long distances, though their stability was directly proportional to the power used to create them. Since this one had been made by one of the Morpheans, it was about as strong as it could get.

It felt like weeks of walking, though that was just the typical distortion of time of the Dreamlands. Jackie spent her time in quiet contemplation, watching the strange constellations overhead. Voeskender’s road took them through astral heights she had never visited before. The power of those beings surrounding her on all sides was an ever-present reminder of just how far the Dreamlands extended. It wasn’t just the dream world of Earth, or only their universe. All creation shared this space—the vastness of the multiverse was within reach. Assuming you had the right map.

Eventually she emerged into reality, onto a moonlit beach thronging with frightened ponies. Most were watching the opening in the sky behind her, as though they expected an army to surge onto the beach behind them and drag them back to slavery.

Instead there was a flash of light, a column of brilliant green that shot straight up into the sky and illuminating the beach for miles. The ground at their hooves was covered with a rolling wave of moss and lichen, as the Voskender’s elder forest grew from nothing. It would not survive the absence of his supernatural energy long, but that didn’t matter.

Jackie could feel the Morphean’s attention on her still, however distant. It would make itself known when it wanted to collect on what she owed. That might be tomorrow, or it might be a century from now. It knew about her immortality, so wouldn’t feel the pressure to use it before she died, and his investment of power was wasted.

The crowd of panicked ponies had gone completely silent, watching her with awe. A few of them bowed, muttering things like “secret Alicorn” and “Dreamknife.”

She ignored them all, taking to the air and lifting high enough that she could see all of them. The moonlight only helped her vision—a quick count told her there were twenty thousand ponies here. About two thirds were bats. Only a tiny fraction of those living in Mundi. But it’s a start. When the bravest make somewhere stable to live, we can rescue the others too. If they want to leave.

“Ponies, listen!” Jackie shouted, projecting her voice across the crowd with some simple magic. “Welcome to Sydney Harbor. Or… where it used to be. Almost all of you have spent your entire lives in Mundi, so you will be unfamiliar with seasons and climates other than the desert. This climate is called humid subtropical, and it’s the place I’ve chosen for our first settlement. It might not be comfortable out there, but it should be livable out in the open until we can get shelters constructed.

“There are some supplies on the end of the beach there—the wooden crates. My assistant, Reprise, will dispense food. She’s the seapony in the fancy metal suit. Do what she says and don’t cheat, or you get nothing.”

She landed on the ground, waving one wing dismissively. “Organizing primitive societies isn’t really my field. Your leaders will have to deal with that. Oh, and one more thing—don’t wander off too far. It might not be safe if we get further out. It’s probably better if you stay close for now.”

The mob began to disperse. Some ponies made their way to the tree line, where Jackie and Liz had unloaded a fraction of the supplies. There were dozens more crates like that back in storage, but she was still waiting on the help to get them all back. Even Jackie’s magic had its limits.

A surprising number of the ponies seemed in no rush to do much of anything at all. Many made their way to the water, running along the sand, splashing in the surf. Enjoying a freedom their lives in Mundi had never given them. Jackie smiled slightly to herself as she watched. Ponies had died today, and ponies would probably die in the weeks to come.

But as she watched the clustering of little family groups along the shore, she found it hard to care. I don’t care how long it takes—I won’t let this place turn into another Mundi.

I should probably help Liz with the supplies. The seapony was hardly experienced with numbers like this. And she had expressed trepidation even around Jackie once they got onto land. The fish might be a refugee, but she was still a seapony—most of them got nervous around ‘songless’ ponies, whose emotions they couldn’t know and whose honesty they could never judge with confidence.

Indeed, as Jackie made her way to that end of the shore, she could see the filly backing further and further away from the crowd. She’s not a kid. She’s another of Alex’s victims. Or maybe the last of Mystic Rune’s. How long had she been a seapony? Jackie wondered. Reprise hadn’t been willing to tell her.

Yet as she watched, a familiar bat emerged from the crowd—Hat Trick. Jackie hadn’t seen her during the exodus, though she supposed the construct was old enough to know her own way through the Dreamlands. She couldn’t hear them, but from Liz’s body language she looked like whatever the construct had said helped her. A few seconds later, and a few more bats joined them, helping Liz distribute foil-wrapped packages of emergency rations.

Jackie arrived a few moments later, slipping past the crowd and nodding to the seapony.

Liz’s exoskeleton wasn’t like the powered armor worn by soldiers. It seemed like it had been made as light and stable as possible, holding her tail and providing her with a false set of back legs that did most of the work of holding her up. The suit wrapped around her gills and much of her back, providing a dribbling curtain of water that refreshed itself from the clear tank mounted under her belly.

Jackie still wasn’t sure if the machines were entirely technological, magical, or somewhere in-between. It was an impressive design either way, enough to let Liz walk around surrounded by ponies with minimal effort.

“How are you holding up?” she asked, slipping in behind the booth beside her. “If you need to slip out into the water for a few hours, you just say so.”

“Maybe…” Liz hesitated, glancing to the side. “When we’re finished giving all this stuff out, I will.” She was still singing, though Jackie couldn’t hear the regular tunes anymore. Her words all sounded musical, but she couldn’t feel exactly what each new sound meant.

Like all those whose apparent age didn’t match their true experience, Liz seemed much better with her magic than a pony her age would’ve been. Her horn kept glowing without dimming as she passed out thousands and thousands of wrapped foil packets.

“Only eat one cracker each day,” she said, every time the line moved. “Each of these is food for a week. Eat one square as each meal. You’ll probably need to drink much more water than you’re used to, since you won’t be getting any with this. Also, they taste awful.”

She repeated it by rote, sounding bored, but Jackie could see a little of the same excitement in her she felt.

“Did any seaponies come with you?” Reprise asked, during a few moments of downtime an hour later. “I haven’t seen any yet, and I’ve been looking.”

“No,” Jackie answered. “I don’t know what conditions are like in the lake, but Athena controls all the exoskeletons. Even if there were a ton who wanted to leave, they’d be stuck. But there probably aren’t very many. Most of them have already gone. Don’t like living with ‘barbarians.’”

“Yeah.” Reprise sounded distant. “I thought I wouldn’t either. But it’s strange… you seemed so normal while we were on Alpheus. But now you feel like them. Even an immortal like you never learned how to sing?”

“Nope,” Jackie shrugged her wings. “It’s biology more than magic, and I don’t have the right organs in my brain. Whatever it is you can all sense, I can’t. Hopefully you’ll get used to being around us.”

“Probably.” Liz turned her attention back to the line. “It’s stupid pony stuff talking, right? If I think about it like a person I realize it doesn’t make sense. You felt safe, but you didn’t really change, so you must still be safe. And if someone without songs can be safe to be around, then lots of people can be. It’s just about connecting that with the emotional parts of my brain.”

“You’ll get it,” Jackie said. “I think. Your sister spent years in the ocean, and I guess she chose to retire out there too. Some ponies just fit better in different bodies.”

“Hold on,” Hat Trick had seemed to be focused mostly on dispersing the food-packets, but evidently that wasn’t the case, because she looked up from her crowbar. “Your sister isn’t retired, is she? Princess Archive is…”

Fictional,” Liz cut her off, her voice harsh. “At least as long as I’ve been around. Lonely Day hasn’t even been on Earth since I got back. We spent most of a century on a starship, and before that it was training out in the belt. The only thing she’s princess of is a little colony called Alpheus. I guess she does an okay job, I don’t know. Too much of a small town for me.” She looked away, back towards the crowd. The line for food had gotten much shorter now, and plenty of the bats had moved off to claim some space for themselves in the trees. There were no tents—not enough for this number, anyway.

“That is… inconsistent with the information I had,” the bat said, sounding almost amazed. “She said Mundi didn’t make sense… but the fake was so convincing…”

“That’s computers for you,” Liz said. “Yeah, she’s gone. I didn’t really learn the details, because fuck the whole thing. I just know my sister used herself up saving the planet. There wasn’t enough left to rule the whole thing afterwards.”

“Is all this true, Dreamknife?” the bat asked. “Not that I don’t think you believe it, Liz, but…”

“Yes,” Jackie interrupted. “I went out and saw Alpheus for myself. Nice little place, lots of water. Might visit again in a few centuries. Once they’ve put in the casinos and roller coasters.”

The bat sat back on her haunches, subdued. She spoke very quietly, so that the crowd all around couldn’t hear. “That is… troubling. All our planning for this rebellion relied on a Mundi led by a distant and apathetic Archive. Our flight should have forced her to confront conditions in the lower city. She was supposed to prevent a military response, take control back from the artificial intelligence. But if she isn’t even on the planet…”

“Too late now,” Jackie said, tearing open a foil ration packet and swallowing one of the crackers without chewing. It didn’t taste as bad going down that way. “We’ll make this work, somehow. Mundi might just give us up for dead—I know tons of ponies who think it’s straight up impossible to live out here. Or maybe they’ll just tighten security for those still stuck there and forget about us. Athena won’t be sending an army to bring us back—she wants a rival for Mundi.”

The bat grinned. “I think we can give her that.”