Nine: Whether Thither Weather
Caprice and Alexi stood by the pond. The basin was more than half empty, the water evaporated into the hot air, now somewhere in the haze that blocked the sun above.
Caprice pointed with her hoof at a whitish rime that had formed as the water had evaporated. She bent her head low and sniffed at it; Alexi could hear her stomach gurgle when she did so.
As he watched, she bent her neck very low and gave the crystalline deposit a brief lick. Caprice smiled, then gave it several more licks before raising her head. "Salt. Minerals. Mineral salts!" She thought for a moment. "You should really give this a try, It. Is. Soooo. Good." Her head down, Caprice began licking the thin ridge of salts in earnest.
"Caprice?" Alexi was just a little surprised to see his peach princess licking the ground; his human expectations conflicting with his animal reality. "Is... is this safe? I mean, it is the ground and such and..."
Caprice lifted her head again, licking her muzzle and smiling. "I'm a pony, Alexi. Ponies do this."
"When in Rome, do as the ponies do, I guess." Alexi lowered his head and gave a tentative lick to the pale mineral crust. It tasted good. It tasted better than good. It didn't taste salty, exactly. It tasted sweet, somewhat like sugar. He found himself licking the salt rime almost desperately, hungry for the taste of it. It was astonishing to him just how much he needed it, how much he wanted it.
After some time, the minerals finally began to taste salty to him. The curious, sugar-like sweetness began to fade, and the salt taste slowly became oppressive. Only then did Alexi find the will to stop licking the deposit.
Caprice was staring at him, smiling. "Your body knows what it needs, Alexi. Wasn't it amazing? Did it taste sweet to you at first, too?"
Alexi nodded. "It was like sugar at the beginning. It didn't taste like salt at all. It was like I couldn't get enough of it. I've never experienced anything like that before. But at the end, the taste was just salt, and then it was enough." Alexi thought for a moment. "We need to collect this and keep it safe, somehow."
"That's a very good idea, but I don't see how. If your team makes it rain, it will rain, and we have no way to keep a collection of salt deposits dry. We have no buildings, not even a tent." Caprice looked around. "We don't even have trees."
"Confound those damnable crates!" Alexi stared angrily at the twenty wooden cubes. "We have no way to open them! Inside could be anything, everything! Salt, construction materials, some magical way back to civilization, anything!" Alexi stomped a hoof in frustration. "They sit right there, mocking us all, and no way to open them! I want to kick that Windfeather over and over. I am ashamed to be a pegasus, thinking that he is one of my kind."
"I've been working on that problem, Alexi." Caprice took one more lick of the salt rime and raised her head again. "The unicorns constantly practice. Every one of them can now get their horns to glow, and most can move small objects, at least a little. I've been having the unicorns work with fine control, too; weaving small ropes out of grass stems using only their magic. Other unicorns have been working on raw power. There are three, Ocean, Lightning and Boeing, that can project enough force that they can actually push each other around bodily. Just a few feet, but still."
"Lightning? The little colt that follows me around? The would-be pony wizard?" Alexi seemed surprised; he had been sure that Mr. 'Flash' was all talk and nothing else.
"Yup! Turns out that he really does have some decent power behind him. I don't think he's going to have anyone calling him Gandalf anytime soon, but I have to say the colt is surprisingly dedicated." Caprice came close and rubbed her head against Alexi's shoulder and neck. "Mmmnnn... I am so glad you are back, safe and sound, Alexi."
"I am glad of this too, minun pieni ponini." Alexi nuzzled Caprice in return. "So what do we do about the salt issue, then?"
"I guess we do what wild horses do; lick our fill and then find more later. I don't see any alternative at the moment. However..." Caprice looked back at the stacked crates "If our unicorns can just master fine control combined with raw power, then I'm betting they can pull those nails right out of the crates, and open them right up. Even if the damn things were completely empty, at the very least we would have crate-sheds to store things in."
"You don't think they could be empty, do you?" Alexi had a vaguely horrified look on his muzzle.
"No, of course not!" Caprice licked an errant bit of salt from Alexi's lip, a not unpleasant feeling, he thought. "I don't think Windfeather had much say beyond getting the Royal Unicorns to leave, and they did that reluctantly as it was. I seriously doubt he had any control over how those crates were packed. I suspect he was acting on anger, at the limit of whatever authority he had been given."
"This makes sense, I think." Alexi seemed relieved. "Then why do we not get the rest of the herd to take their fill of salt, before we consider making clouds and rain? The salt is here, let us use it."
"See, that is why the great Alexi is leader!" Caprice grinned and trotted off; midday was time for yet another feeding for little Buttermilk, and by now the foal would likely be fussing and driving Pumpkin to distress.
Pumpkin galloped across the dry grass for a few dozen feet, then called out to Buttermilk. "Come on, you can do it, come to me! Come on!" Buttermilk began walking, so Pumpkin stomped her front hooves to encourage the foal. Buttermilk moved to a trot, which was better, so Pumpkin stomped once again. "Come on! Run! Run to me!" Finally, Buttermilk quickened her pace, arriving next to Pumpkin.
Buttermilk didn't like to run very much, but nevertheless it was Pumpkin's desire to run with with the little foal. Pumpkin had been trying every day to get Buttermilk to use her legs more and more, and hopefully, to enjoy running.
Pumpkin groomed and kissed the little unicorn for her effort; Buttermilk nuzzled her back. Pumpkin started walking, and Buttermilk began following her. She picked up her pace, to a trot. Buttermilk sped up to stay even with her; Pumpkin tried edging forward a little faster. They were rounding the little hill that was one of the four hills of Base Camp, the hill that Alexi had chosen to sleep on. Buttermilk was now cantering, the staccato three-beat gait clomping and swishing through the brown grass.
Suddenly, Pumpkin came to a halt. Buttermilk ran on past her a ways, slowing, unsure of what she should do. Making a soft, plaintive sound, the little foal turned and trotted back to Pumpkin, looking at her for some sign of reassurance.
The woody stem rose only eight or so inches from the dry grass, but there was no mistaking it. The stem bifurcated twice, with leaves that Pumpkin remembered seeing pictures of on the hypernet, and from old media. But there was another place she had seen something similar, and that was the dead, dry garden just as one entered the San Francisco Conversion Bureau building; the woody stem almost certainly had to be some kind of tree.
"Look, Buttermilk! I think it's a tree. It's a baby tree!" This was a wonderful discovery for Pumpkin; back in the bureau her favorite daydream was one of running through a grove with her own foal one day. Until now, she had been unsure if she would ever see a tree again, that perhaps all that existed here was grass and low plants.
"NO! Don't eat it!" Buttermilk nibbled at one of the leaves; she was not at all close to being weaned yet, but the tiny unicorn did mouth leaves and stems. Buttermilk never actually swallowed them, she just liked to work her little teeth over them. Pumpkin grabbed Buttermilk by the mane and pulled her back, then gave her a nuzzle and a kiss to comfort her confusion.
"Come on! We need to tell Caprice and Alexi! It just has to be a tree, I know it!" Pumpkin started back around the hill, Buttermilk following her.
It took Sweetpepper to confirm it; but the woody plant was indeed a tree. The golden colt could not tell what kind of tree it was, but it was enough for everypony that it was a tree at all. Hopefully, it would be a fruit tree; this was what everypony was hoping, of course. It was decided to replant it, very carefully, in the center of the space where the four hills defined Base Camp, so that it would be easy for the earth ponies to tend it.
Soon many earth pony hooves began to dig out the soil around the tiny tree, while others dug up the ground at the center of Base Camp. Gently, the small tree was lifted from the soil, and carried by Sweetpepper to its new home, where it was placed gently in the ground. Soil was packed lightly around the roots, and water carried by mouth for it.
The earth ponies gathered around their new tree, their first tree, and did their best to show it what love they could. Some sang to it, others told it stories and jokes. On Earth, this would have been ridiculous; in Equestria, it was proper agricultural practice.
While the earth ponies were busy with their new 'Town Tree Project', Alexi was busy teaching the pegasai his trick of climbing and gliding. Over the next week most had mastered the method; only a few were still having trouble getting the shallow glide angle right.
Alexi himself found that he felt much stronger than before. He could climb for a much greater distance before needing to glide, and almost every day he needed to glide less to rest. Droplet, His flight team leader, was an eager student; she wanted to get to the business of making rain as quickly as possible.
Over the next week, the pegasai increased dramatically in strength the more they used their wings for power and thrust instead of merely gliding. It was becoming embarrassingly clear to everypony that perhaps the primary reason for their lack of ability to fly high in the air was essentially that they had been too afraid to actually try. It seemed that the wing muscles of pegasai were particularly prone to atrophy, but also equally able to grow strong again with regular use.
"It seems so obvious now, Caprice." Alexi woefully explained, one night as they readied themselves for sleep. "This is a world where natural abilities matter. That is life, here. On Earth, it is years of study and debt and maybe there is job, and maybe there is more debt. But in Equestria, what matters is what a pony can naturally do."
Caprice cuddled in for a bit; it was still terribly warm, even at night, but she liked to be close to Alexi for a bit before sleeping, despite the humidity. Alexi nuzzled her cheek and continued "If we had been mere children, we would have tried to fly, not thinking of any consequence, and we would have flown. But, because we were cautious adults from a dangerous world, our wings became weak as we refused to try, waiting for some teacher that would never come. I feel ashamed. Day one, I should have been flapping like a pigeon aiming for a bald head. It is great shame for all of us."
"Alexi, you must remember that this is all new to you, to everypony. This is a brand new life, in an entirely new world; everypony here has dealt with this new existence with extraordinary courage. You, especially." Caprice was proud of Alexi; despite being thrust into a new world only a day after his Conversion, he had from the start thought not of his own plight, but always of those around him. This is why she had chosen him, back in the Bureau, and he had only shown his selflessness the more as time went on.
The next day marked a turning point for the pegasai; over the past week they had become strong enough that all agreed that it was about time to make a unified attempt to reach the haze layer, all together. Of the thirty-two pegasai, twenty-five were considered strong enough fliers now to attempt this goal. If enough of these capable pegasai could make it all the way up to the haze layer, they could stomp out a large and solid platform from the mist to act as a Sky Base from which to construct clouds.
Alexi had some thoughts as to how the manufacture of clouds might be improved; many of the newfoals remembered having seen Equestrian pegasai clearing smog from the skies of earth. They recalled groups of the flying ponies working together to drag vast funnels of smog behind them, peeling away some of the damage Man had done to his world.
Perhaps a similar technique could be used to make truly large concentrations of mist, constructing large and dense clouds that could affect equally large areas. Or perhaps there might be some means to cause the haze to collapse into clouds, or even some additional pegasus power they had yet to discover. There were many possibilities, but none of them could be done by exhausted ponies. First, they must have a base in the sky, to rest and recuperate on.
"Alexi?" Caprice pulled away; the heat and humidity made too much closeness sticky and uncomfortable after a while; worse, if their coat became too damp, it simply wouldn't dry out during the night.
"Yes, my peach princess?"
"There just may be something I can offer you for your group flight attempt tomorrow. The unicorns have been working hard all week on it. If they get it done in time, please... be kind to them. They've really tried very hard." When Caprice looked at him with those huge green eyes, Alexi could never say no. "I will be an angel - see, I have the wings for it!" Alexi extended his feathers and waggled them. Caprice gave a soft laugh.
Down the hill, late into the night and on into the morning, Lightning, Boeing, Ocean and several other unicorns used their horns diligently, the tiny fairy lights from their efforts concentrated on entwining long, dry strands of grasses together. They also used their teeth and their hooves, as best as they could, looks of deep concentration on their muzzles.
Their work did not look very good, and for that they felt ashamed. But even so, what they were making just might be useful, if only they could get it all done in time. Each one wanted their leader, Alexi, to be proud of them, and each hoped that Alexi would not scorn their efforts, however poor. For a week they had been working, just as the pegasai had been working, for the big attempt on the sky.
Although the unicorns could not follow where the pegasai were going, they wanted to prove that they too could be useful to saving the herd. "No... no! Come on Boeing! It twists the other way, like this..." Lightning used his magic to bend the twisted stalks, fighting Boeing's efforts. The two magics tussled with each other, the woven strand wriggling like an enraged serpent.
"Come on, dudes, seriously." Ocean had never been a surfer; the seas of Earth were far too poisoned for such things anymore, but he had devoured the idea of what it must have once been like, and adopted the surfer attitude as much as he possibly could, as taken from ancient media.
"Like, we're all one herd, right? So be righteous already!" Ocean made up for his lack of proper understanding of real surfer lingo with sheer enthusiasm. Boeing and Lightning blinked, not entirely sure what Ocean was saying, but getting the general idea even so.
"Sorry, Boeing. I'm just tired. I didn't mean to grab it away like that." Lightning released his telekinetic hold and looked down.
"It is alright, Lightning. We used to get this way back at the drone division, when crunch time came. I'm used to all-nighters." Boeing gave a weary grin.
"See! Now that's being righteous, my little pony dudes!" Ocean swung his blond mane out of his eyes with a toss of his head.
It was going to be a long night.