Twenty-Five: The Book Of Memories
It was the simplest of ideas, but sometimes the smallest things can be the most important.
The book sat on the low, intricately carved table. The tome was heavy, because it was large, but also because it was filled to the bursting with scraps of paper, preserved leaves and flowers, small patches of cloth and sections of ribbon and twine, and other little keepsakes pressed and sewn with thread into the thick, hoofcrafted paper.
The book had fifty pages, and each page had a tab which stuck out from it. Each tab was staggered, the first one starting at the top of the page it was a part of, each successive tab positioned slightly below the last, until the last tab, at the end of the book, located at the bottom of the page to which it was part. Seen from the side, the tabs formed a little staircase that ran up the pages of the book when it was closed; if a pony the size of an ant existed, it could have climbed from the table to the top of the book using a staircase of page tabs.
Renaissance had thought of the idea of tabs; now lipping tabs were the standard for all books in Summerland Village. Because of the page tabs, any pony could read any book; and books had ceased being the primary province of unicorns alone. To flip a page required only the easiest lipping, teeth were not even required - well, unless one was skipping to the middle of a thick and heavy book of course.
He had come up with the idea after seeing his wife Droplet struggle with a book in the new library one afternoon. She had asked him to assist her with the magic of his horn; suddenly the gulf in basic abilities became strongly evident to him. Even if each of the pony races had their own special importance, abilities and magic, the brutal fact was that knowledge, writing and reading, were vastly easier for a unicorn than for a pegasus or an earth pony. And it didn't have to be that way.
Ren remembered concessions made to the handicapped on Earth, to make their lives less troublesome, to make some things the abled took for granted even possible. There could be no equality in Equestria if something as primal as being able to read a book was a great burden -or even impossible- for some ponies.
So it was that all books in Summerland now had lip tabs on them, even blank books used for keeping memories.
The paper had come from the ever expanding Horsewood forest. The Horsewood now surrounded Summerland county like a tall green ring, claiming more and more of the cracked desert as it grew. Part of the Horsewood reached the base of the growing peak of Only Mountain.
Only Mountain was a pretentious name; the peak was barely 400 hooves high. Still, the rocky cliffs could be seen for miles, all of them started from the original rock found by Ocean. Over time, many more rocks had been added to assist with the mountain; Only grew now on its own, and nopony knew how large it might one day become.
The new library had been built from the self-renewing quarry there; it was an impressive stone building that looked rather like the keep of a castle. That design had also come from Ren.
Buttermilk bent down over the book and took a tab from the middle in her teeth. Carefully she lifted the pages by the strong tab, opening the book to page 24. "We could put it here, mommy. This is the beginning of our recipes, so it fits!" The yellow unicorn filly looked at her mother expectantly; the placement did make sense.
"Great!" Caprice lifted the hoofmade ribbon with her teeth and tried to find an open place to attach it to the page. Page 24 was covered with small strips of paper covered with lists of ingredients and instructions for cooking on them; Miriam's Bureau Haycakes, Pumpkin's Blueberry Muffins, Blueberry's Pumpkin Muffins. Those last two always made her laugh. Her sister and her little colt were quite the whimsical pair.
Buttermilk had needle and thread ready, floating in the air, captured within her horn's field. Caprice placed the ribbon down between the muffin recipes, so that it only obscured part of them. Looking at it, she dipped her head again, and lipped the ribbon to straighten it slightly. "There! Your turn!"
The thread wriggled in the air, glowing with arcane light, and darted into the eye of the needle after only a few tries. Buttermilk's eyes were squinting with concentration. Her daughter had gotten so much better with her control in the past year. Caprice smiled with pride; she enjoyed simply watching her daughter accomplish things.
The thread whipped through and Buttermilk caused the needle to move toward the page. "Mom, could you lift the page slightly for me, I don't want to get the page under it!" Caprice bent down and complied, lifting page 24 up at a roughly forty-five degree angle. Oops! The ribbon slid down the incline of the page and into the cleft of the spine. "Thorry!" Caprice said, mouth full of page tab.
Buttermilk moved the needle and thread, still captured in her glowing field, close to the ribbon. Her tongue popped out of the side of her muzzle as she concentrated even harder. Caprice was impressed to see Buttermilk's field encompass the ribbon, at least partly, enough to lift it back to where it had fallen. The ribbon quivered, but it remained.
Slowly, carefully, Buttermilk drove the needle through both the ribbon and the page, shifting her head slightly to see the underside of the paper as she worked. She repeated the process several times, until the top of the ribbon was sewn to the sturdy, thick paper. Buttermilk pulled the needle free of the thread, and stuck it in the red pincushion that Droplet had made for them as a gift for Hearth's Warming.
Now came the difficult part; Buttermilk struggled to tie a knot in the end of the thread and pull it tight to the ribbon. It took her a while, but she eventually accomplished the task. "Wow! Very good! I'm impressed!" Caprice nuzzled her daughter, and gave her yellow mane a shake with her teeth. "You're getting so good!" Caprice pouted, her face a mask of sadness "Pretty soon you won't need me anymore. All grown up, and I'll just be useless and forgotten. Boo hoo hoo."
"Mommy!!!" The exasperated unicorn was used to this ploy "I'll always need you, mommy. You just do that for attention." Buttermilk rolled her eyes, but laid her neck across her mother's crest in a pony hug. "Don't be so silly. Mommies shouldn't be silly."
Caprice reveled in the closeness. "Is that a rule now? Mommy can't be silly?" Caprice pulled back and crossed her eyes "How about this, is this OK?" She hung her tongue out the side of her mouth and swung her head back and forth, causing her tongue to act like a pink pendulum.
"MOMMMYYY!!!" Buttermilk hated that. She claimed it freaked her out. "STOP THAT! EWWW!" As usual she had her eyes tightly shut, and was shaking her head in disgust.
"I canth underthand you, I'n too dumn. Helt! Helt! I'n dumn now!" Caprice leaned at a disturbing angle, her tongue dangling disturbingly.
Buttermilk slammed her hooves down on the table, shaking her head "STOP IT! STOP IT! STOP IT!"
Caprice straightened up, laughing. Buttermilk frowned at her, but then joined in laughing too. "Bad mommy! You need to behave!"
"Yes, yes, I suppose I do. But it's really hard, sometimes, sweet Buttermilk, especially because...." Caprice looked very serious as she trailed off; it was clear that something terrible was wrong.
"Because what, Mommy?" Buttermilk felt worried, what was going on?
"Bethuz I'n all dumn now!!" the scary mommy face was back in full force, and once again there was a tantrum and laughter.
Caprice and Buttermilk had won the ribbon at the Summerland First Annual County Fair; they had made a strawberry layer cake that had placed third. They were very proud to have won at all; baking did not come naturally to either of them, so third place was a major success. Especially against ponies like Teaspoon and Grassdancer.
The Fair had been held as part of the celebrations leading up to Goodbye Earth Day. Cirrus and Boeing had both determined that, based on the projections that had been made of the growth of Equestria back before they were converted, The fifth year since Arrival Day in Summerland would mark the last day for their old planet. Unless something strange had occurred, their fifth anniversary would roughly coincide with the final moments of the Earth.
Not a pony in the community felt any sorrow in this; instead it was a special event - the last unpleasant reminder of their 'difference' from any other Equestrian would be gone, erased forever. Their last embarrassing tie to their former existence would be eliminated. It felt like being able to finally bury a shameful past.
The pale pink foal ran into the room. She skidded to a stop, barely missing the low table with the book. In an instant she was on the table, her hooves dancing all over the book in an effort to lick Buttermilk's face like an overexcited puppy. "MOMMMM!!" Buttermilk whined, trying to back away while turning her head from side to side "STRAWBERRY'S DOING IT AGAIN!"
Strawberry kept trying to lick Buttermilk, her little white tail rapidly swishing back and forth "MAKE HER STOP!"
Caprice got up and snagged her other daughter's tail and pulled little Strawberry away from Buttermilk. With a practiced flair, she made a jail of her legs, holding the little pink ball of excitement steady. "She just loves you, Buttermilk. You're her big sister and she just wants your approval. You know that."
'Well I wish she'd be less... kissy about it." Buttermilk wore her sulky face, using her foreknees to wipe her muzzle dry.
"She can't help it, Buttermilk. She's only a few months old. She doesn't know any other way to express her love." Caprice began grooming her new foal; after four years of trying, she had been afraid that she wouldn't ever be able to conceive at all. Then, when she had just about given up, along came little Strawberry.
Strawberry was her little darling, especially now that Buttermilk was becoming increasingly independent and absent much of the time, off playing with her friends; the colony had experienced a constant rise in population thanks to the eternal summer. Cirrus had never been able to crack the secret of winter, so the cycle of being in heat never truly ended. Two thirds of the mares had foaled over the last four years; the village had become a very noisy place filled with the shrieks and giggles of many fillies and colts at play.
Many of the old pavilion cottages had been replaced with permanent structures; Renaissance, Boeing and Gasket had helped work out how to construct proper Equestrian thatched-roof houses, now Summerland looked less like an abandoned colony and more like one of the holoprograms about 'Your New LIfe In Equestria' that were shown in the Bureau long ago. From some locations, especially near the new fountain, it was easy to imagine that Summerland Village was just a normal part of Equestria.
To make that illusion more complete, when the ponies had worked to pave the dirt paths with stones they had extended the cobbled road, curving it all the way around the northwest hill, so that the abrupt end could not be seen. This had become Hopeful Road; it existed just so that the villagers could imagine that it led somewhere, anywhere.
Some ponies liked to pretend Hopeful Road led to Canterlot, straight to the princesses. Others imagined that it led to Manehattan or to Hoofington, or to any other city that they could remember from their days back at the Bureau, when they had been learning about Equestrian geography. It was a silly notion, perhaps, but it was also strangely comforting to many. Useless it might have been, perhaps, but not pointless.
Overall, the villagers of Summerland were happy; they had more than enough food (not a few had become a little portly, in fact) perfect weather (the population boom was proof enough of that), and water to spare. The discovery that it was possible to dig wells and reach unlimited underground water had freed the pegasai from vapor hunting; the floating city of Cloudcastle was enormous now, and sported a new racing arena constructed low enough that ponies on the ground could watch as well. Some among the 32 pegasai had found themselves to possess a competitive streak, and flying was exciting to watch, and to participate in.
The books in the crate library had been studied meticulously; the citizens all spoke only in native Equestrian. They celebrated Equestrian holidays - at least those that had any application to their lives. Winter Wrap Up was pointless without winter itself; the Running Of The Leaves was also without meaning absent Fall. But the Summer Sun Celebration had been held annually since their second year, and they had built a proper Solar Plinth that resembled, as closely as possible, the one depicted as belonging to Celestia in several of the books from their library collection.
Nightmare Night had become a favorite as well, now that there was a population of fillies and colts enough to enjoy it; the adults spent the weeks preceding the holiday making candies and treats to be able to hand out. Celebrations during the year helped everypony feel connected to the distant rest of their world.
In every way, Summerland Village had become a model community; they upheld the Equestrian values of honesty, kindness, generosity, loyalty and laughter. They made a religion and a politic of friendship; if there was a problem, there was always one solution - love. The ponies of Summerland had everything they needed to live - almost.
That 'almost' bothered Caprice more and more as the years had passed. Her worry had begun the day she had been trying to help her sister, Pumpkin, figure out how it could be that her foal, Blueberry, had been born an earth pony instead of being a pegasus like herself. While the answer was almost certainly that the Conversion process had altered Pumpkin's unborn child separately and uniquely; trying to work out that answer had caused Caprice to study a chart on Equestrian genetics.
This in turn had led her to think about the issue of inbreeding.
152 ponies - the starting population of Summerland - was simply not a large enough gene pool to survive. In time, successive generations would burn themselves out as genetic flaws accumulated, at least if Equestria was anything at all like Earth with regard to such matters. The village would end up inbred and eventually sterile, with the entire population one day dying out, the fire of life snuffed from lack of contact with the outside.
The minimum viable population for mammals is generally considered to be between 500 and 1000 individuals; some studies Caprice had read long ago when she was human suggested a number closer to 5000. One hundred and fifty-two initial colonists was not even close enough to survive for more than a few mouthfuls of generations. They were happy now, but Caprice knew that collectively, they had no future.
She had discussed this with Alexi one night in their new thatched-roof cottage, as they lay on their extra-large cloudbed (the old one having gone to Pumpkin, downstairs.) Alexi had no answers for her, but he had begun thinking about the problem. Caprice had made a point of wishing out loud, so that Alexi could hear her, that some means might exist to allow their colony to be discovered. Making wishes in front of Alexi now made sense to her.
Making wishes come true was what Alexi did, after all, and by now, Caprice had absolute faith in her husband.
That is what had resulted in the Unicorn Beacon. It was a crazy notion, a silly idea, perhaps, but it caught on perhaps because it offered a more rational hope than a paved road that went nowhere.
Lightning led the Beacon, which Cirrus and Boeing had jovially referred to as 'Summerland SETI.' Once a month, most of the unicorns would get together and form a circle on the top of Only Mountain, now the highest location as far as any eye could see.
Together they would try to focus their magic to call... Anypony. Anywhere. Somehow. They didn't know what they were doing, and the books on magic for unicorns supplied in the crates had not been overly useful; the only spells offered were of the most basic and practical sort. They had mastered spells for dealing with fabric, or shaping wood, or healing wounds, but the sort of high level magic needed to reach beyond an infinite horizon were not included.
So they did their best to invent a spell. They named it the 'Ping Spell', and it amounted to shouting, as loud as they could with their minds, everywhere at once, in as powerful a burst as they possibly could.
Whenever the 'Ping' was cast, every pony in Summerland heard it in their minds and felt it in their bones. It did have a more practical use; pegasai could be sure of never becoming lost however far they roamed from Summerland County. The Ping always guided them home. The longest anypony could theoretically be lost would be one month.
Using this, large distances of the desert had been explored. The pegasai had made it all the way to the 'forest' that had been spotted when they all had first arrived. It had indeed once been a growing stand of trees, but without rain, the stand had died, and tall dead trunks were all that remained. Nevertheless, the pegasai had collected dessicated pinecones, shriveled apples, and acorns, in the hope that somehow, some spark of life might have magically survived. Astonishingly, it had, and several new types of trees had joined the expanding Horsewood.
An attempt to reach the distant 'mountain' in the opposite direction had failed; it was just too impossibly far away. Distance was deceptive on an infinitely flat plane, and however far away the faint mountain was, it was too far to reach with current carrying capacity. They simply could not carry water enough to reach that far. The mountain might as well have been the moon.
In the evening of the Summerland First Annual County Fair, Lightning and Ocean put on a little show; while they had no means to make fireworks they could levitate burning stakes of wood; spinning and dancing in the sky, the result was entertaining and well received. The Summerland Village Orchestra - a pretentious name for eight ponies that liked to beat on drums and plink on hornmade lyres - provided music, and a general sense of community and good will provided the fun.
"You know," Alexi reflected on the show as the family strolled home. He had been listening to their children going on excitedly about the not-fireworks. "It is amazing how two unicorns tossing burning logs with their minds can be the best show I've seen in ages. What is the magical secret of this Equestria we live in?"
Caprice thought for a moment, as she studied her family; Alexi, Buttermilk, Strawberry, Pumpkin and Blueberry. "Community." She decided. "The magic is community. We aren't out to judge or control or demand or reject. We're just happy we're all together."
"So, two unicorns flipping kindling is entertainment because we have no standards, then?" Alexi laughed.
"No." Caprice seemed strangely serious. "A lovely show by Lightning and Ocean is fun because all they wanted to do was to make us happy, and we were willing to let their love matter more than our picky tastes."
"My peach princess seems strangely philosophical tonight. Is there something bothering you, my love?" Alexi was concerned. Caprice was seldom like this anymore.
"No. Yes. I... I just have a funny feeling, that's all. Like... like every moment is so precious, and I don't want to lose it." Caprice walked in silence; Strawberry trotted up and grabbed her tail. Strawberry liked to hold her mother's tail in her mouth whenever they went walking, somehow it comforted the little foal. Caprice had reasoned that it was the pony equivalent of humans holding hands; her little filly just wanted contact.
"Caprice. We will not lose anything. What could happen? We are in the middle of an infinite desert with no threats. We control the weather, and our resources constantly replenish. There are no dangers. Everything will be fine, and as for your concerns about our future population, well, someday they will find us. Of that I am sure!" Alexi wasn't sure, but he wanted to be; he wanted to believe such things for Caprice.
"Maybe, in a way, that's exactly what I am afraid of." Caprice opened the door to their sprawling thatch-cottage. Sometimes she missed the small pavilion tent they had lived in for a year and a half; it had been so... cozy... all crammed into one room, always in contact with each other.
Alexi had nothing to say to that, so he let the matter drop.
Pumpkin and Blueberry said their goodnights and went into their rooms beside the kitchen. Alexi, Caprice, and their two daughters climbed the curving stairs up to the second floor. Caprice tucked Buttermilk in, only to find Strawberry trying to wiggle under the covers. Buttermilk, for once, didn't object and let Strawberry snuggle close to her. "I... feel it too, mommy."
"Butter? What do you mean?" Caprice felt a strange chill run down to her withers.
"Don't let it change, OK? I like it the way it is." Buttermilk licked her sister behind the ears, a surprisingly motherly gesture.
Caprice didn't know what to say. "I'll... try, sweety. I'll do my best. Goodnight, to both my little ponies." She kissed her two daughters sweetly, and finished tucking them in. "Night-night, mommy!" Buttermilk snuggled close to Strawberry in the dark.
Alexi was already in their cloud bed when Caprice returned. She climbed in next to him and snuggled as close as she could, feeling the sheer solidity of him, the warmth of him. "Alexi?"
"Mnnn...yes... my darling princess." Alexi was only half awake, it had been a long day.
"Maybe tomorrow, we could go on a picnic together, out near South Lake, all of us. Could we do that?"
Alexi adjusted his body so that Caprice fit more neatly into the small of his back. "We could get a big basket full of tasty goodies and..."
"No... No. Not like that." Caprice nuzzled Alexi, drinking in his scent. "Maybe we could just... eat the flowers and... the grass out there."
"No cake? No pie? No daisy sandwiches? No fruit?" Alexi found this odd indeed.
"N-no. Just... Just what is there. I want it like... when we first arrived. I want to taste the flowers. I want the taste of grass." Caprice spoke so softly.
"I don't think the children will like that very much, but we'll see what we can do." Alexi let himself relax again. Creating the cloud bed to share with Caprice was the best thing he ever did.
The moon sang sweet songs of night over the sleeping Village of Summerland. The new town hall, still under construction, gleamed under Luna's moon, the stones that made up the unfinished walls glowed blue-gray in the pale light. The library stood quietly, it had been the first stone building the villagers had constructed. Three dozen thatched cottages were divided by paved roadways, the stones had been laid by teams of hard-working unicorns levitating materials brought in carts; these had been pulled by sturdy earth ponies all the way from the quarry in Only Mountain. The two stone wells, with their buckets, stood at opposite ends of the village. A big red barn had replaced Sweetpepper and Goldrivet's old pavilion tent; now it dominated the sprawling farm to the north.
The stars shone brightly over the new fairgrounds. The grounds were really just a big corral with simple seats and some of the old pavilion tents repurposed, but it was the current pride of the community. The grass that had filled the wide, empty space had been trampled flat by hundreds of hooves.
The night was dark and quiet and lovely. The fairgrounds were empty and dark, until the light appeared.
A tiny ray of luminance rose up from the middle of the fairground. The streaming brightness grew stronger, tiny sparkles appearing in the shaft. More tiny beams began to rise from the soil, reaching to the sky. The shaft of light expanded to dozens of hooves in diameter, a sparkling, shining column of light splitting the night, illuminating the fairground pavilions, spilling through the gaps in the corral fence.
Tall shapes began to coalesce in the column of light, tall moving shapes, each with a horn on their head.