• 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 5: Volans

They had their first death the next day.

Jackie had known something awful just like that could happen—that somepony would be stupid and avoid her instructions and pay the price. Sydney wasn’t just empty land, it was the site of a terrible battle. She fully expected some of the wreckage of that ancient conflict to linger on, ready to rip its claws up through history and tear apart the unwary.

She made her way to the edge of the crater, where someone had dragged out the body. A bat had been electrocuted, most of his body burned so badly that his original color was now lost, and some of his bones emerged from crispy flesh.

Jackie took a longer moment to look past him into the crater. A fissure opened into the earth here, a fissure that was fifty feet wide at is widest and almost a quarter mile long. Past the initial layer of stone, she could see torn metal and stray cables hanging loose. This was the wreckage of Earth’s most advanced city, Midgard. The last great home of humanity, or at least their more modern form. The so-called Enduring Ones had been Charybdis’s first target before the war, back when city states still thought they could survive apart.

Midgard’s fall had demonstrated the futility of that choice, even if it had cost the most powerful nation in the war. The organic residue of whatever method Charybdis had used to tunnel down was all gone now, only sparse piles of vaguely shriveled flesh. Jackie almost couldn’t blame this stallion for wanting to go investigate it—she wanted to see what was down there herself.

“Tell me what happened,” she said again, to the pony’s friends. Two of them, both stallions about the same age, and both with minor burns. They had apparently been flying behind their unlucky companion, so his death had given them enough warning to change course. She could see the shell-shocked guilt of the survivors in their eyes. You’re gonna need some therapy when this is over, kids. But she didn’t say any of that—it wasn’t her responsibility.

“We know you said not to wander off,” said the taller of the two, a muscular stallion named Milton. Aside from the two of them, it was only the rescue unicorn standing nearby—the one who had teleported the body up for possible treatment. Needless to say, it was too late for that. “But we didn’t plan on going very far. Just wanted to see…”

“If it was somewhere we could live,” Edwin finished. “It looks a little like Mundi, doesn’t it? Big opening in the ground like that, all those machines poking out of the edges. Like an abandoned city. Seemed like a good idea at the time.” He kept glancing back to the uncovered body of their friend. The unicorn had brought a black cloth, but Jackie had told him not to use it. These stallions deserved to see the consequences of their curiosity. Everypony else who walked close by would see it as well, and maybe her ponies wouldn’t wander off and get themselves killed so quickly next time.

“We couldn’t live down there even if it wasn’t booby-trapped,” Jackie muttered, glaring at the two of them. “You don’t know how many ponies died. It’s fuckin’ haunted. And it wasn’t built for ponies, anyway. It’s a shitty place to live.” She had planned on salvaging the place, eventually. Once her own ponies had somewhere safe to live, had crops put in, and were starting on industry with Athena’s help. Then maybe they could use the ashes of Midgard to fuel a rebooting industry.

This death would put a stigma on that.

“Tell me how it happened again. Real slow.”

“W-well…” Milton hesitated. “There was… resistance. The further down we got, it felt like flying through slime. Then it got hotter, and…”

“And you kept going,” Jackie muttered, with far less sensitivity than a leader probably should’ve showed to a pony who had just lost a good friend. It’s not any more their fault than it was the one who died. They paid the price of their stupidity.

Yet there was something more troubling in their description, something she hadn’t noticed as they began. It didn’t sound like a trap after all. Milton’s description sounded like what it was like to fly through a live thaumic conduit. Something Jackie had done only one time and did not intend to repeat. She’d almost died when she tried it, too.

If there’s a live conduit coming from Midgard, that means something is still running down there.

Jackie knew almost nothing about the Arcane Network, except what a tourist might read over in the pamphlet while they flew down here on a plane. Where many other nations had used the human sciences and electricity as the foundation of their industry, the nation that had once been here had taken a different technological path. That path meant magic for almost everything. Magic lights, magic cooking, magic transport. Magic vehicles. The Arcane Network was what produced, gathered, and transported that magical energy across the continent of Australia. But how much of it could still be working after so many years?

Crystals don’t rust, and spells don’t decay like capacitors do. It was possible, though not likely, that more of the infrastructure might’ve survived.

“I want you to go back to camp,” Jackie said, turning back to face the hapless thestrals. “You should go to every gathering of ponies and explain what just happened. Tell them what it felt like to fly into that thing, so they can avoid doing it like you did. I’ll have somepony around to dig a grave for your friend here.”

That was probably too harsh a punishment as it was. But if she wasn’t harsh with the first ones to disobey here, there was no telling how many more ponies might die in the next few days.

There shouldn’t have been thaumic conduits going down into Midgard. Their central compiler didn’t need to transport magic that way. It was a curious thing, particularly since the nation that had used the Arcane Network had been the very next to fall, after the Enduring Ones. So, who set up a new conduit leading into the ruins?

Somepony worth investigating, that was damn sure. And Jackie knew how to do that without getting herself grilled alive.

But not today. Today there was the difficult task of picking the site for their new settlement. Jackie took a few of the most skilled engineers and surveyors from among the bats and flew over as much of the surrounding countryside as possible. They memorized, they made sketches and charts, they talked about water and runoff. The climate had transformed a great deal in many thousands of years, though it was hard to say what had caused the transformation here.

It was wetter in Australia then it had been when she vacationed here as a kid. And there was so much more green. Indeed, the whole coast seemed to be gradually drowning in a jungle, not a single tree of which looked like a native species. Like an ancient eco-terrorist had decided to transform the climate of a continent. With practically the whole species living in a single location, they wouldn’t have had much opposition. Now the huge trees went on as far as she could see, many of which towering nearly three-hundred feet.

“This strain seems particularly well-adapted to the climate,” said a pegasus named Sky Meadow, a professor of various ecological subjects who’d had a hard-on for communist revolutions. After actually participating in a revolution, Jackie hadn’t heard any more rhetoric from her. She seemed almost relieved to go back to talking about nature. “There’s significant suggestion of thaumic interaction between the trees. See the bioluminescence along the topmost leaves. I would love to bring some seeds back to the lab.”

“We don’t have a lab,” Jackie said, turning to her structural engineer. The bat stallion was a refugee, one who’d been working in a Datamine since returning. But he’d been an engineer before that, and he was the best she had right now. “We can’t build a city on the beach.”

“Brazilians had it right,” he answered in English. “It’s just like the Amazon. Slash and burn. We can pick somewhere with good drainage for fields, then burn it. Once we get a sawmill going, we’ll have more wood than we know what to do with.

“Seems premature,” argued Meadow. “We can go further inland if we need to. The jungle has to end eventually. Eventually it must reach a point where the water demands can’t be sustained, and it will be replaced with scrubland. We can build there.”

“No,” said the engineer. “We need the water too, professor. Wheat doesn’t grow well in deserts.”

They kept arguing, but Jackie hardly heard it. She saw something moving in the trees below, something that was calling to her. The pull of a debt she owed, yanking on an invisible chain. So soon? I thought you’d wait until they elected me president.

“Don’t go anywhere,” Jackie said to the small group, pointing above them at a low curtain of clouds. “Keep talking. I need to check on something. Don’t follow me.”

Jackie dropped into the trees without waiting to hear if they had acknowledged the order. She hadn’t ever been the kind of pony who took things slow for the benefit of others. The pony who had made Jackie merciful and kind was dead now.

Once she was in the trees, Jackie could feel the magic that Meadow had speculated about. There was real magic here—though less concentrated than a thaumic conduit, it was still tremendous. Enough that even with the sky completely obscured in canopy, the entire forest was lit with a faint blue. Not just the trees themselves—many small creatures glowed. The squirrels that glided from tree to tree, the massive jungle cat she saw reclining on a large branch.

And, of course, the deer. Voeskender had not changed in the single day that had passed since the last time Jackie saw him. He waited patiently beside a stream, nibbling on a sparse patch of grass that grew there. Jackie couldn’t quite tell just how present the deer was in the world with her, and how much was Jackie seeing through reality into the Dreamlands. Probably a little of both.

“Hey,” she said, waving a wing as though she were meeting a friend for lunch. Not that she ate any of the grass—Jackie was a bat with standards.

Images flashed into her mind, so overwhelming that she was nearly blinded with them. She saw a city—not the one that her engineer had imagined, but something entirely different. Her bats didn’t burn the jungle down, they built their houses in its branches. She saw them coax the trees with new magic, growing them into shapes they desired. She saw deer coming to populate the ground, living in their tribes in those parts of the forest that bats didn’t need. It was all there—water collecting from the sky, vast orchards of mangos and other fruit in the trees. Magic provided in abundance to light their homes and power everything they needed.

She looked into the future and saw another direction this civilization might take. Not the crystal skyscrapers that had once dotted the continent, but… something else. Certainly, a professor like Sky Meadow would’ve seen it as preferable.

Jackie didn’t care either way—so long as her ponies were fed and got to live successfully. This was something radically different—instead of a concentrated megalopolis, that same population would have to be distributed across the entire continent.

The vision ended, and she felt the will of the god upon her. This was what it demanded in payment for helping these bats to escape. It didn’t want Athena just building another city here—it wanted something that would serve its needs better.

“Okay.” Jackie didn’t really have much of a choice, in any case. A debt to a god did not leave room for negotiation—when that favor came due, it would be paid in whatever method the divine creature demanded. Today, that meant changing the course of a civilization.

By the time she turned back to look at the spirit, he was gone. The vision he’d shown her was fairly clear, though—she’d seen it vividly enough to see the spells they would use to change the trees.

Now how the fuck do I explain to all those city bats and industrial workers that they’re about to turn into hippies?