Six: Little Schoolhouse On The Infinite Prairie
Caprice studied the carefully arranged selection of plants that Alexi's scouting party had returned with. Sweetpepper, the golden-yellow earth pony that had been so knowledgeable lay nearby on the flattened grass. The wide space between hills that was 'Base Camp' had so completely been pressed down by hooves and bodies that it had become a floor of packed stems.
"Hmmm. This one here -" Sweetpepper waggled a hoof to indicate a feathery-leaved plant specimen "looks like it could be wild carrot. If so, that could be a wonderful addition to our diet. I never appreciated carrots the way I do now as a pony." This seemed to be almost universal; the different senses of the equinoids found many foods strikingly more delicious than they were to the human tongue. Carrots, for example, tasted both sweet and spicy to Equestrians - such that they were considered a favorite treat at the Conversion Bureaus.
"Of course, I can't be sure, and if I am wrong..." Sweetpepper looked unhappy. "Well, the fact is that wild carrot and poison hemlock look similar, at least according to what I have read on the hypernet. I've never seen either for real, of course, because, well, Earth doesn't have them anymore. So I'm working from ancient images here, and old articles."
Lightning, the violet unicorn colt that had taken to following Alexi around, sniffed at the plant. "Hey - when I was at the Bureau, I remember one of the holos they showed us said that 'within the boundaries of Equestria, there is no sickness and nothing is poisonous.'" The colt gave another sniff at the plant. "But then I overheard a native -one of the teachers, right?- and he talked about having a cold once. So maybe the holo was wrong. But maybe he had the cold on the Earth side or something."
"Leafshine told me something similar." Sweetpepper looked up at Caprice. "She said that inside the actual boundaries of Equestria, nothing was poison. You could eat anything that grew without worry. But she also said not everything was tasty, and some things could give you a stomach ache - just not kill you." The earth pony pushed at the leaves of the suspect plant with an idle hoof. "Outside Equestria, though, just about anything could happen. She said that there were endless dangers. I wish I knew what being 'outside' or 'inside' Equestria really meant."
Caprice was puzzled. "I thought all of this IS Equestria. I thought once we stepped through the Barrier, everything was Equestria." She looked around at the small group assembled to examine the fruits of Alexi's expedition. "Anypony? What exactly is... Equestria?"
"I... might be able to answer that." It was the bright blue pegasus mare that had explained the lack of pegasus education to Alexi. She had started calling herself 'Droplet' since then; the experience of discovering something about pegasus abilities had meant something to her. "I... kind of paid a lot of attention to the holos. I suppose I was kind of a nerd, back when I was human. I really wanted to know everything I could. It didn't seem like anypony else did, though."
Lightning looked down, embarrassed, he had spent more time chatting with a girl in the classroom than actually paying attention to the instructional holos during his time at the Bureau. He was not alone in this reaction.
"Go on, Droplet, what do you know?" Caprice gave the mare a smile.
"Well, the holo was kind of confusing, really. Equestria is the whole 'world' or whatever this place is, yet it also seems to just be those lands that are under the direct control of the princesses. Their... 'country' more or less. You see, there are these places that they don't control -I don't know how big those lands are, or where, or anything like that- but the places they don't control are dangerous. It's like they have dominion over everything, except for certain areas where they don't."
"Can you elaborate, even a little?" Caprice felt even more confused now.
"Ok. There's this place called the Everfree forest, right? They showed it on the holo, made a big deal about it." Droplet nervously flapped her wings. "Inside the forest, it was like our Earth used to be. Plants and animals grew and lived on their own, without any work by ponies to make it happen. Even the weather worked like on Earth, all by itself. That was described like it was really scary and wrong, like that's not the way normal Equestria works."
"So, inside Equestria, we ponies have to make Nature work, but in places like this forest, it works on its own. Is that it?"
"I think so, Caprice. But in the Everfree, there were also dangerous beasts -monsters and creatures that could kill or eat us. The basic message was 'don't go in there'." Droplet pulled her wings tight against her body.
"Then we have a way to tell whether or not we are inside or outside of the princesses dominion, and that will tell us if we can eat anything we want or not!" Sweetpepper seemed very proud of his thought. "If we have weather happen, then we have to be careful, but... if weather never happens, then everything is safe!"
"So far," Caprice looked up at the perfect, clear sky, slowly turning to evening "there's been no sign of any weather. I haven't seen even one cloud. Anypony? Has anypony seen a cloud?"
Droplet, Sweetpepper, and the others of the small group looked at each other; nobody had seen a cloud, the sky had been a constant, empty blue.
"We've only been here two days, though." Droplet had a point. "Well, going on three, I suppose, if you count our arrival at Welcome Town."
"If only they'd brought back the roots of this one, I think I could tell you for sure." Sweetpepper poked once more at the suspect plant.
So far they had identified five of the six different plants that Alexi's team had brought them. Dandelion was easily recognized; on the way back the scouts had found a large patch hidden behind a hill; after an impromptu feast, there was little to bring back to base camp. Sweetpepper had identified one of the plants as a plantain leaf; he had suggested that this was a treasure of a find, because of the root vegetable underneath.
One of the plants Sweetpepper felt pretty sure was celery, another excellent find. Daisies were found; this was a treat that most of the ponies recognized from their meals at the Bureau, along with dandelion. There was one plant that nopony could identify; tiny leaves on a short, slightly woody stalk. Alexi had found it entirely by accident. "I'm sorry... it's just not something I've ever seen." Sweetpepper sniffed the tiny, wilted sprout. "Not even on the hypernet."
Once again, Alexi, Caprice, Pumpkin and Buttermilk spent their night on a hill overlooking Base Camp. This was their second night since the abandonment, yet they felt in reasonable spirits. Alexi's scouting trips had found many useful things; they now had at least four new plants they could feel safe about eating, and two others to consider. They had found something fundamental about how to be a pegasus, something that thirty-two of the ponies thought personally important. Although the pegasai had no idea as to how the ability to make small globs of floating water specks might be useful, it was a beginning. "At least we can water the crops, if you don't mind it taking all day!" Alexi had joked.
Among the 152 ponies that made up their herd, 32 were pegasai, and 41 were unicorns, including little Buttermilk. The remaining 79 were all earth ponies. Caprice had a theory about that.
"Remember how it has been described that the Equestrian races make up a kind of caste system?" Caprice was laying slightly apart from both Alexi and Pumpkin, the night felt warm, and it had become less comfortable to cuddle. "Earth ponies, with their ties to the land are kind of like terrestrial peasants; growing and harvesting food. The unicorns are like the middle class, doing all the fiddly work thanks to their general ability to levitate and manipulate objects. Pegasai are like lesser nobles or something; they make the weather, supposedly. Finally the Princesses rule."
"Speaking of the unicorns, minun rakkaani, did you have any luck unlocking the secrets of magic today?" Alexi yawned, as princess Luna's moon rose into the sky.
"No. Not a one of them knew anything useful. Some had been trained in basic levitation; they could move small objects. In the Bureau, they had practiced with cups and bites of food and such. One of our unicorns could open and close doors really well back then. But as for doing spells, nothing. It may be that the Earth government deliberately requested that spells not be taught Earthside; I can see some reasons for that." Caprice grimaced; Buttermilk was hungry again, and sometimes her little teeth indicated her eagerness. Caprice tried to sooth the tiny foal; the little unicorn finally settled into a less aggressive suckling, one with less sharpy-ouchness involved.
"I am sorry to interrupt; please continue my most lovely of mares." Alexi knew how to sweet talk a girl, Caprice thought happily.
"Anyway, if Equestrian society is built on three pony races that each depend on a unique and utterly necessary ability set, then the distribution we are seeing here makes a lot of sense. You need more farmers than anything else in an agricultural society, skilled craftsponies and makers are next most important, and the group you need the fewest number would be... well your group, actually." Caprice rested her head on the knees of her own outstretched forelegs.
Alexi swished his tail to cool his own underside. The air was very moist, so the hot summer night made parts of his body feel sticky. "What should I lead my troops to do tomorrow, then, Caprice?"
"I've been thinking about that, actually." Buttermilk moved to Teat Number Two and proceeded to chow down, once again Caprice grimaced slightly, this time giving the little foal a bit of a bop on the head with her nose. "If she keeps biting me, I don't know what I'm going to do. I feed her whenever she's hungry; it's just that she's always so eager when it's feeding time. I'm starting to get sore."
"Sis, I've got an idea about that." Pumpkin had been laying very quietly; Caprice had thought her asleep. "I had a game I liked before I... left home. It was about raising horses. Kind of weird, huh? I ended up being one, and I'm going to have one." Pumpkin thought for a moment. "Well sort of, anyway. We're sort of like horses... more or less. But anyway, the horses in the game always fed their babies standing up. You always feed Buttermilk laying down. Maybe it's harder for her or something."
Caprice considered the concept. "I don't want to move now, but I'll try it. Next time, I'll try feeding Buttermilk while standing. It's worth a shot, anyway. Thanks, Pumpkin."
"Sis, call me sis!" Pumpkin needed so much to feel like she belonged.
"Of course, dear sister! Thank you sis." Caprice smiled at Pumpkin. It was such a small thing, just a word, but it seemed to mean so very much to her. Pumpkin lay her head down again, but Caprice could see the edge of a happy smile on Pumpkin's muzzle.
"Anyway, Alexi," Caprice turned back to her stallion. "I've been thinking about a lot of things and there is something I want you to check on tomorrow, and everyday, actually. I want you to keep an eye on the water level of the ponds and lakes."
"Do you think we will run out of water?"
"Let's just say I kind of have a concern. We have lots of water, now, but... where did all that water come from? Are there underground springs or... was the water just there when the land was created? It could be important. Just keep an eye out, OK?" Caprice gave Buttermilk a few loving licks to make up for the nose bump.
"Anything for my peach pony. And what will you be doing tomorrow, if I may ask?"
"I am going to try to start a basic magic class for the unicorns, I think. They need to start learning how to use those horns of theirs. If anything is going to help us in the long term, it is going to be their potential. Unicorns got us here, unicorns are probably what can get us out... or get things done that we need done."
"Always thinking ahead is my Caprice." Alexi rolled onto his side, the grass felt cool in the warm night air. "You are the real power behind the throne of Alexi the First." Alexi's big grin was met by one from Caprice in return.
Day after day, for the following several weeks, a routine of sorts emerged for the 152 citizens of Base Camp. The pegasai spent time each day in two classes; Spray Ball Making and Flying Lessons. Since nopony actually knew how to fly as a pegasus, the latter was a bit of an issue, but it was made up for with understanding brought from the human world.
Many among the ponies had some idea of the basics of flight and aerodynamics. One of the unicorns had worked, for a time, building government surveillance drones; he gave several lectures on the concept of lift, the dangers of stalling, and even the concept of flaring during a gliding landing. One thing that bothered him, and several other of the newfoals, was that flight should not be physically possible at all; clearly magic of some sort was involved.
The wings of pegasai were vastly too small to support them using the physics known to Earth, and even if their wings had been some horrific size, dozens of feet across, their muscles would never have been able to provide enough power. There was concern that the laws of aerodynamics themselves might be fundamentally different in Equestria; and if so, all the lectures on terrestrial flight would be essentially useless.
In the end, they would need to learn from scratch, on their own, through experimentation.
The first efforts involved gliding. Pegasai would climb to the top of a grassy hill, open wide their wings, and run forward trying to gain what lift they could. Although they suffered a few tumbles, and a few bruises, they were fortunate, and nopony was seriously injured. In time almost all the pegasai could glide down the hills, and began to have a great deal of fun with it; Caprice, watching Alexi's 'Flight Team' told him that it looked like laughing children playing with sleds on snowy hills from old media, climbing back up and gliding down again, over and over. Alexi had put Droplet, the pegasus mare that had helped when they had originally discovered water glob making, in charge of the flyers, freeing him for other things.
Caprice enlisted the would-be 'Pony Wizard' Lightning to lead the unicorns in magic practice. Here the goal was simply to get anything to happen at all. Half of the unicorns could not even cause their horns to glow; of those that could, only a few could lift small objects into the air.
One intriguing solution to the ability gap had been developed; one unicorn capable of engaging their horn would touch horns with another, incapable pony. The unable unicorn tried to concentrate on the feeling of energy produced by the more capable partner, this seemed to help them 'find' whatever it was they needed to do inside themselves. Caprice had gotten the idea remembering how little Buttermilk had almost bathed in the arcane energies of their transport from Welcome Town; clearly the horns could act as sensors in some fashion, as well as transmitters of energy.
Sweetpepper showed an innate talent for teaching the earth ponies how to garden. He was calm, patient, and very enthusiastic about making things grow. Alexi's scouting missions brought back more and more specimens; digging with their hooves, they were able to return with mostly intact plants that were assembled into a growing tiny farm.
The earth ponies first ate a patch of grass very low to the soil, then began to dig furrows with their hooves. It was slow and difficult work, but in time they had prepared a small plot of earth. The intact plants that Alexi's scouts brought back were carefully replanted, and watered using mouthfulls taken from a nearby pond. The suspect wild carrots had indeed turned out to be carrots, and this brought much joy to all of the ponies; their diet was gradually getting better.
Using the skills that Sweetpepper taught them, the earth ponies had begun to duplicate Leafshine's sunflower stunt; the transplanted celery, dandelions, plantains, wild carrots and daisies grew strong and tall within days. They also grew astonishingly larger than the samples they had come from, an effect that left the earth ponies both proud and filled with wonder at their developing abilities.
But something odd had been happening all this time, unnoticed, and it was only discovered because some of the scouting ponies wanted to travel again in the direction of the seeming, distant, mountain.
The faint mountain wasn't there.
Alexi and his scouts scanned the horizon, checked the angle relative to the pile of still unopenable crates, but there was no sign that any mountain, however faint, had ever existed. The same was true for the possible distant forest that had been noticed early on. In fact, the horizon held nothing at all now, nothing but a white haze.
That is when they noticed, for the first time, that the sky was no longer truly blue. The sky was now a faded shade of what it had been. Indeed, it was almost white. This had happened so gradually that nopony had noticed. There were no clouds; it was just that the entirety of the sky was pale, faded, and covered by a perfectly even white haze.
The answer was found in the ponds; Alexi had been keeping track of their depth as Caprice had suggested, and already they were half full and dropping. The ground was becoming dry, and as the third week since arrival ended, it was clear that the grass was drying out too. Patches of brown now interrupted the previously lush green, and the hot summer was increasingly becoming unbearable.
"Alexi..." Caprice was very worried. "The land is dying."