Sunday, January 19, 2014

A Meeting in Africa (2014) Chapters 1-2

A Meeting in Africa

© 2014 (*)

by

Jordan S. Bassior



Chapter 1:  "I Presume?"

The woman rode her horse along the riverbank.
She was tall and lean, her hair graying-blonde, worn in a single long ponytail at back under her Stetson.  Muscles like whipcords worked under her khaki shirt, her jeans tucked into her high riding boots.  Holstered to her harness was a scoped bolt action carbine; two pistols in smaller holsters at her hips, a hunting knife sheathed at her belt.  Level blue eyes surveyed her surroundings, taking in the African rainforest.

She rode like she was born to the saddle.  She barely had to use the reins, controlling her horse with subtle motions of her thighs, with occasional low sounds.  She and her horse – a big chestnut mare – moved like a single centauroid creature.

The mare saw something on the bank.  Its ears flickered, went back, its motion changed.  Instantly the woman was aware of it, guided the mare away, leaning and making calming sounds.  The mare sidestepped, and the great crocodile watching from the water moved forward slightly, then subsided in frustration.  The woman’s right hand, which had gone to one of her pistols, relaxed and rebuttoned the flap.

“Not much further, Breeze,” she woman said soothingly, “then we’ll be at her camp, out of this Godforsaken jungle and safe from the crocs and whatever else is out here.”  It was as much for her own benefit as that of the horse.  She’d been in some pretty strange places in her life, but she never liked a close forest which permitted a stealthy ambush.  

The forest opened up ahead.  She and the horse both felt freer as the sunlight shone directly down on them.  A cooling breeze blew, welcome to her sweating face after the forest’s humid confines, though it was still hot even by the standards of the American Southwest in which she had spent her childhood.  

She knew it would get cooler when the sun set, but the last thing she wanted was to spend the night out on the African savannah, which she knew to be haunted by lions, hyenas and other predators.  They were far from civilization, and there were too many creatures who might imagine Breeze their dinner.  She knew the horse was just a horse, ordinary Equus equus, but that didn’t mean that she thought of her as any less of a friend.  Horses, of one kind or another, had been among the best friends she had ever known.

There, on that rise!  A low mound rose over the military crest, parked slightly hull-down.  She approved of the positioning:  she had never formally served in any military, but had been in over a hundred desperate fights all over this world – and some other places – and understood why the good Doctor had chosen to site her vehicle in such a location.  Maybe she can help me, she let herself think.  Heck, she might even believe the real story.

But no.  That was far too much for which to hope.  Simple assistance – a clue – would be more than enough to reward herself for her troubles in traveling this far off the beaten path.  And she wouldn’t help matters by revealing too much, by being taken for a madwoman.  Though I’ve heard some mighty strange things about her, too, she reflected.  Some of the things they say about her are even stranger than what they say about me.

As she rode up the hill she could see more and more of the vehicle.  It was the size of a large double-decker bus, but wider and squatter.  Its sides were painted in tawny yellow-brown and black dazzle camoflague, and atop and forward was a structure which seemed suspiciously like a weapons turret, though no armament actually showed.  Atop that was a cluster of communications antennae, and what looked like a phased-array radar.

Wow, she thought.  That looks more – well, military – than I expected.  The thought cheered her.  This was a barbaric and dangerous territory, and she’d too often had to deal with well-meaning fellow-scientists who were still mentally living in multi-cultural fantasy lands, even after they’d spent years in Third World hellholes.  She obviously ain’t one of those fools.

She was almost up the hill now.  She could see the vehicle’s suspension – twelve balloon-tired roadwheels, in large wheel-wells.  The bottom of the chassis was high off the ground.  All-terrain with a vengeance, she realized.  She means business.  This sweet truck can fight or run, over almost any ground.  Wonder how often she finds it necessary?

One hatch was open on the side.

Standing in the doorway was the woman she had come all this way to see.  She was young, somewhere in her twenties, and of average height, with frizzy orange-red hair and rimless glasses.  Her face looked highly intelligentl, but her eyes were hard, and under her shirt and shorts rippled unusually-powerful looking muscles, as if she were a body-builder.  No, the rider corrected herself, observing the long smoothness of her lines.  Nothing muscle-bound about her.  She's an athlete, and a very dedicated one.  Stronger’n me, and I ain’t exactly some fragile flower.

Above, the rider saw the muzzle of a rifle poking out from a second-story gunport, pointing right at her head.  Huh, she thought.  I thought she worked alone.  I sure hope that’s a friend of hers.

There was little she could do about this now.  The sniper had the drop on her, and all the ways she could think of to dodge or slip under that rifle’s field of fire would have the distinct disadvantage that an alert sniper could put at least one slug into her before she would have time to get to safety.  Less’n I drop behind Breeze, she thought, and knew as she thought this that she could never use her mare so cruelly.

I’ve been in worse pickles, and I’m still kicking, she told herself.  Might as well just go forward.

She rode right up to the woman, alighted nimbly from her horse, keeping her hands well clear of her holsters.

“Dr. Elizabeth Thornberry, Ah presume?” she asked pleasantly.  “Ah’m Dr. Anderson.  Megan Anderson.”


Chapter 2:  Comvee

The red-head's face relaxed.

"Delighted to finally meet you in person," she said in an unusual accent, in which Megan detected Australian, upper-class British, and several other strains.  They shook hands.  "My friends call me Eliza.  But come inside -- it's not entirely safe out here right now, I'm afraid."

"Ah need to stable mah horse," Megan explained.  "You said you had a stall free, but Ah don't see ..."

"Bring her around back," said Eliza.  She produced a complex-looking remote control, pressed some buttons.  The door behind her swung closed.  She pressed another combination, and servomotors whined from the rear of the immense all-terrain vehicle.

Megan led Breeze by the reins.  The chestnut mare shied at the strange noises coming from Eliza's truck, and came close to bolting when the end of a loading ramp struck the earth.  Megan calmed her with soft noises and her own evident lack of fear, but Breeze looked suspiciously upward as her mistress led her to the ramp.

The ramp slanted to a cargo hatch about a quarter-way up the side of the vehicle.  From within came cool air and a melange of odors different from those of the savannah outside.  Breeze's nose wrinkled, then she drew her lips back in flemen.  She pulled back from the lip of the ramp, made agitated sounds toward Megan.  She refused point-blank to take a step further, no matter how Megan tried to soothe her.
Megan knew better than to try to lead a scared horse up a narrow metal ramp.

"Mind if I help?" asked Eliza.  "I'm good with animals -- I've made a scientific study of their signaling systems."

Megan looked at her dubiously.  A lifetime of experience with animals left her skeptical of the claims of scientists compared to those who worked with them daily.  But then, if the stories were true, Dr. Thornberry was a hands-on kind of scientist, so -- "Sure.  She's gentle enough, just watch out if she gets real scared."

Eliza nodded, then stepped up slowly to Breeze and made a equine-sounding series of sounds.
Breeze's eyes went wide, her ears went back and then forward, and she stepped back a full pace and regarded Eliza with what looked like amazement.  Then, without a murmur, she followed Eliza up the metal ramp.

Megan was amazed, too.  She had rarely heard any other human being mimic equine vocalizations so perfectly.  What was more, the complexity -- she hadn't heard anything even remotely like that since ... but Breeze was just a normal horse, though a smart one for her species.  

She would have said what she was seeing was scarcely possible, save for the fact that Megan Anderson had seen much stranger things before she was out of childhood, and some fairly strange things after.  It had left her with an unusually broad definition of the possible.

Megan followed Eliza and Breeze up the ramp, laying a last lingering look on the sun-drenched savannah.  Nothing was moving out there save a lazy circling vulture, but if Dr. Thornberry said there was trouble coming, Megan was not inclined to disbelieve her.  Eliza Thornberry had the air of someone not easily frightened.

She noticed as she climbed and entered that the cargo ramp was massive: evidently made of some sort of armor plate.  The edges of the hatchway were a foot thick.  She rapped the hull and was rewarded by a dulled ringing -- she'd heard the same against the glacis of an Abrams main battle tank, though this was thinner.  Composite armor, she thought, probably the British Chobham variety we borrowed for our own vehicles.  Her mobile base is an armored personnel carrier.

She'd seen this design somewhere before, in some technology magazine or news report, but she couldn't remember at the moment.

The cargo bay was huge, comprising easily a fifth of the interior space of the big carrier.  There were all manner of objects, including what looked like a folded ultralight aircraft and a minisubmarine, and of course lots and lots of crates of all shapes and sizes.  One compartment door had "Danger: Explosives!" painted over it, and since the door was unusually heavy-looking, Megan reckoned the warning was meant seriously. This melange of equipment and stores was bolted by chains to thick eyelets on the floor and walls.

"Over there's the stable,"  Dr. Thornberry said.  "Two stalls with adjacent feed and tack compartments, running water, and travel slings, so Breeze won't fall down when the comvee goes bouncing over the landscape.  She should be all right, short of penetration of the cargo bay."

"Penetration?" asked Megan.  "Your vehicle's heavily-armored -- what kind of opposition are you expecting?"

"I've had some trouble with some poachers," Eliza said.  "They're connected to the local Marxist guerillas -- they've got some heavy weapons, though nothing my big metal lady shouldn't be able to handle, provided I'm at the wheel.  But we need to haul out quickly, before they can come up in force.  Don't worry -- they can't get through her skin with anything short of an ATGM from most aspects, and she's got enough compartmentation and damage control gear to ride out more than a few RPG hits, even if they penetrate.  And she has teeth too  -- enough to give them something to worry about when they're trying.

It occurred to Megan that Dr. Thornberry had a somewhat worse relationship with the natives than was normal for purely scientific expeditions, but then it was a bit late for her to have second thoughts about traveling with her.  If they were already in bandit country, she was lucky they hadn't jumped her on the way in; she couldn't count on more such luck should she try to run now.

Megan finished squaring Breeze away -- put away her tack, set up her feed and water, did some cursory work on her mane and coat, which had accumulated some nasty burrs and a couple of unpleasant life forms from the rainforest.  Dr. Thornberry excused herself and went off to see to her vehicle.  As she finished working on Breeze, she could hear a deep thrumming vibration running through the deck, as if very powerful engines were idling.  They didn't sound precisely like any internal-combustion engine she'd ever heard before.

Suddenly she remembered where she'd seen the basic design for the vehicle.  There had been an article in an old Military Technology International magazine she'd read two decades or so ago.  The Bentley XM9000 "Land Master," a large armored personnel carrier proposed as a mobile command post for the British Army's "Special Action Force," their version of the American G. I. Joe Special Forces unit.  She remembered that it was controversial because the power plant was ... wait, no.  Thornberry was a private scientific researcher.  She couldn't possibly be running this thing off a ...

An intercom on the wall squawked.

"I'm ready to roll, Dr. Anderson," Eliza's voice came.  "Make sure your friend Breeze is secured for travel, then come up front to the control room.  Second level, all the way forward, you can't miss it."

Megan fumbled for and pressed the transmit button.

"Breeze's ok.  I'm coming up now."

She opened the hatch forward, stepped through, closed it.  She noticed that even this internal door was an inch thick and made of some sort of metal.  There was a central compartment with hatches on all sides and a spiral metal stair headed up.  She climbed, opened a door, stepped through to find herself in a sort of lounge or conference chamber, with a big table and a several swivel chairs bolted to the deck.  Magazines, mostly on zoology and geography, were strewn over the desk.  Two laptops were tied to the table.  There were strong smells here, of slightly-overripe food, of sweaty scientist -- and of something else, the something else that had spooked Breeze coming in.

She opened the forward hatch, stepped in.

The control cabin was large, with big all around windows made of some very thick but still highly-transparent substance.  There were four seats.  The two front ones were occupied.  One by Dr. Eliza Thornberry -- the other by the something else.

The something else was somewhat smaller than a man, very stocky and very hairy.  He smelt of an incongruous mixture of musky not-human maleness and ... shampoo?.  He was clad in a pair of shorts.  He was frantically working controls with both hands and one of his feet, all of which, Megan saw, were equipped with serviceable thumbs; his head leaning toward flatscreen monitors displaying complex systems diagnostics.  As the door hissed open and Megan stepped in, he looked back at her with an expression of some alarm.

He hooted and grunted a complex series of vocalizations, which were neither any human speech nor any Megan had ever heard from her admittedly-limited experience with apes.

"We don't have time for that," Eliza said to the ape.  "We have to get going now.

The ape nodded and returned to his controls.  As Eliza moved forward toward a free seat, she looked over his shoulder and noticed that one of the displays was labeled "MAIN REACTOR CONTROLS."  Hmm, she thought with all the calm she could muster.  Looks like Dr. Thornberry went with the original design on that.

"Welcome to the cockpit of the Comvee Mark Five," said Eliza to her.  "Sorry for the bother right now, we're in a bit of a hurry.  This is my partner and best friend, Darwin ..."

The ape glanced back and ooked.

"... and Darwin, this is Dr. Megan Anderson, of Texas Agricultural ..."

"Freelance contracting with them, actually," Megan clarified.

"Oh, what's a little tenure between friends?" asked Eliza, grinning a bit madly.

"He's a bonobo," Megan realized out loud.  "Pan paniscus.'

"You are correct," said Eliza cheerfully.  "You have passed your subspecies recognition test!"

"He's operating the controls of a nuclear fission thermocouple -- a SNAP reactor!"

Darwin grunted and ooked.

"Yes he is," affirmed Eliza, chuckling at something.  "Darwin, engage to main power supply!"

The ape selected an option, pressed a button.  The quality of the thrumming changed subtly.

Megan was both impressed and slightly concerned, but she figured that Dr. Thornberry probably knew what she -- or her ape -- was doing.

Eliza pressed a series of buttons.  A display changed in front of her.  Megan recognized a map of the surrounding terrain, with the Comvee Mark Five at center.  There were a number of red icons appearing on the monitor, mostly forward and to the right.

"Oh, blast," said Dr. Thornberry.  "And here I was hoping for a peaceful trip.  Better run on sensors,"  She pressed a button.  Big armor plates slid shut over all the windows, cutting off their direct view of the outside.

It was not a moment too soon.  What sounded sort of like hail pattered off the steel plates, only no hail ever fallen ever bounced away with the distinctive whine of deflected high-velocity rifle rounds.  Megan had heard those many more times in her life than any sane woman would have wanted, and she was hearing them again.
Darwin hooted in alarm.  Eliza said a rude word, pressed another button.

Megan heard servomotors working somewhere above.

Darwin hooted louder.

There was a tearing-metal sound from above.  It was not actual metal tearing, of course.  It was the sound of a high-speed rotary machine gun.

On Eliza's monitor, she saw blinking red dots flying toward the Comvee from the bigger red icons, becoming bracketed by highlights and then the highlights blinking and the red dots were vanishing.  It was a pretty display, and might have pleased Megan had she not been all too aware that she was looking at the control screen of a ground-based close-in-defense system.
"
You've shot your bolt," said Eliza savagely.  "Not good enough."  She pressed another button and something whined above.  "Uncapping main turret," she said.  "Darwin, take the helm.  Hold ready to reverse off the crest at my command."

Main turret? Megan thought.  So she'd been right about what the vehicle was sporting on its forward hull.
"
Scanning ..." said Eliza, working several controls.  "Locking, loading HE ... Firing!"

Pumf ... pumf ... pumf ... pumf!  Something coughed loudly overhead.  "Direct hits," Eliza said with satisfaction.  "Darwin, roll!"

Darwin pulled on his wheel.

Megan could feel the great vehicle trundling backward down the hill.  The motor was surprisingly quiet -- she guessed it was something like electric drives in the wheel wells, possibly multiple independent ones for redundancy against combat damage.  That had been the original British Army idea, anyway.

As it did, there were wham! noises from ahead, and metal rattled off the bow.  Shrapnel, Megan thought numbly.  They've brought up mortars!
"
Hah!" chuckled Eliza.  "A second late, no prize!"  She gripped her own control yoke, turned to Darwin.  "Okay, transfer helm!"

The bonobo toed a button, and Eliza worked her own yoke.  The Comvee slewed around in a vast curve.  She moved a lever, and now they were turning forward.
"
Darwin, arm smoke grenades," said Eliza, as they began to pull away from the hill.

Darwin ooked.
"
On my signal ... Fire one!  Fire two!"" Something hissed from behind.  Eliza waited, then bore her foot down on the throttle.

Bounding smoothly over the savannah, the Comvee pulled away at what had to be at least forty miles an hour.

To Be Continued.

(*) Megan Anderson  © Hasbro.  Eliza Thornberry, Darwin, and an earlier version of their Cool Car © Nickelodeon.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Why I Hate Technologically-Static Fantasy

"Why I Hate Technologically-Static Fantasy"

© 2014

by

Jordan S. Bassior  


TV Tropes is a lovely site, in part because it has terms for almost everything one encounters in fiction.  One such term is "Medieval Stasis," which it defines as being

a situation in which, as far as the technological, cultural, and sociopolitical level are concerned, thousands of years pass as if they were minutes.

This describes much fantasy fiction.  Whatever technologies they had a couple thousand years ago, they have now:  this and no more.  Whatever cultures existed then, with whatever artistic, literary and musical developments, are pretty much what they have now, with perhaps the specific elements having changed in a non-progressive fashion (some being forgotten and new ones devised).  Whatever social and political systems existed then are what exist now, only the personnel having changed.

Such a situation is not characteristic of actual human history.  While it is true that technological change was very slow before the invention of agriculture and the consequent appearance of towns containing many thousands of people who could easily exchange ideas, once the first towns did appear (no more than around 10 thousand years ago) human technology began to advance quite rapidly on milllennial timescales (if that doesn't sound like much, consider that during the preceding Paleolithic, human tool kits barely changed from millennium to millenium -- more like what one encounters in Medieval Stasis fantasy).

The invention of writing speeded things up further, because now any major scientific developments could be recorded and made available to future generations as a base on which to build.  Writing appears around 6000 years ago, and since its invention there has been no millennium without significant scientific and technological progress.  Even a fairly stagnant culture such as that of Ancient Egypt progressed, both due to internal creativity and due to diffusion from other culture-centers (think the Hyksos invasion and the adoption of chariots, or the wars with the Hittites and the adoption of iron weapons), on millennial timescales.

The invention of alphabetic writing (and simplified ideographic systems such as the Chinese as usually applied in practice), which occurred around 3000 years ago, resulted in another acceleration of human progress.  Now, not merely priestly scribal specialists, scholarly aristocrats and merchant princes; but also gentries, merchants and the better sort of artisans, could make use of writing to record and transmit information to future generations.  Starting from around 2500 years ago, it is safe to say that technology, culture and society began to register signfiicant changes on a timescale of centuries rather than millennia.

This is often obscured by our perspective standing on the heights of a global industrial and information age civilization, looking down on the pre-industrial ages and seeing them all as "low tech."  For instance, one might accurately point out that people started using "swords" around 5000 years ago, and kept on using them all the way through the World Wars (Japanese officers carried katanas into battle as late as Okinawa), and that therefore nothing much changed in terms of personal weaponry until the invention of handguns a bit over 500 years ago.

That conclusion, of course, is wrong.  It ignores incremental and sometimes revolutionary improvements in technology, which over time can reach a point such that the earlier examples of that technology are far inferior to the later ones.

To take the example of the sword, the earliest swords -- forged over 6000 years ago -- were made of fairly weak bronze alloys which were not strong enough to enable multi-foot long blades:  any broadsword made of the early bronze alloys would have bent or broken at the first contact with armor or an opposing weapon, and after a few strokes have become a useless mass of twisted metal.  Thus, they were usually designed as "sickle swords" -- weapons with long hafts supporting relatively short sickle-like blades, reducing the stress experienced by the blade at impact and hence allowing it to survive through much of the battle.

Metallurgy advanced, even before iron smithing was developed.  The swords of later Bronze Age times were made of better alloys and by smiths who better grasped the capabilities of their materials.  These were recognizably similar to modern designs -- though the hafts were still longer and the blades shorter than any swords which we would design today.

When iron smithing was developed, around 3500 years ago,   it became possible to lengthen and sharpen the blade.  An iron sword could survive a whole battle with only minor damage if skillfully wielded (one reason, in addition to the expense of forging them, why swords were the weapon of military professionals was that amateurs would inevitably break them).  These longer and sharper swords became increasingly useful, and hence both tactically and culturally important.

Iron smithing is complex and there was progressive development in the art from early Classical through Modern times.  From the Celtic broadsword of around 2500 years ago to the Roman shortsword of around 2000 years ago to the Germanic broadsword of around 1500 years ago to the Medieval longsword of about 1000 years ago, to the Renaissance rapiers and  katanas of around 500 years ago, there was a steady technological improvement.  Swordsmithing probably reached its apex ~ AD 1500, but there has been incremental improvements even since then -- for instance, the average cavalry saber of AD 1900 was technologically superior to all but the finsest scimitars of the early Modern era.

I chose to focus on swords because they are both an iconic technology of fantasy (as in "sword and sorcery") and because they are the sort of technology which tends not to be lost in periods of social disruption such as barbarian invasions (quite the contrary:  weapons technology usually advances rapidly in times of general war!).  I could have picked any of a number of other technologies, both military and civilian, with which to make my point -- but I'm writing an essay here, not a textbook.

Swords, of course, while beautiful weapons, are not one of the basic human technologies.  The lives of most people in a society -- even of the urban dwellers, and even of the literate urban dwellers, would not be much affected by whether their warrior elites fought with swords, spears, axes, clubs, or their fists (though there are some in-obvious cultural effects:  for instance, the transition from bronze to iron weapons resulted in a transition from god-kingship based empires to urban republic based ones, because the cost of good weapons was now within the reach of the middle classes).

Instead, let's look at a really basic technology -- agriculture.  It was the transition from hunter-gatherer horticltural ways of life to agricultural ones which triggered civilization in general:  even primitive agriculture can support around 100 times as many people in most areas as can advanced hunting and gathering.  (This -- the "Agricultural Revolution" -- is a change so immense that even most fantasy writers sit up and take notice of it).  While some towns of a few hundred to few thousand inhabitants were possible in really favored areas (usually at rivermouths or lakefronts allowing multiple kinds of hunting, fishing and gathering), large towns of several thousand or more were impractical before the development of farming.  This started around 12,000 years ago, and by around 6000 years ago had reached the point of what we would consider small (though poorly-organized) cities in Egypt and the Fertile Crescent.  This is what we term the "Neolithic" to "Cuprolithic" period, because stone and other found-material tools were the basis of crafts technology, though by the end of this age they were being supplemented by copper for specialized crafts application.

Farming fundamentally changes the cultural game.  Hunter-gatherers live in fairly small numbers and with only limited social specialization:  every man has to know how to hunt and fight; every woman how to gather and practice crafts.  Limited numbers limit the size of the "social brain" which can consider problems.  Limited specialization limits technology because few can become real experts at anything.  Large projects are impossible:  one needs numbers and organization to build a Pyramid, or a Stonehenge.

With farming, population sizes can grow.  What's more, even though for economic reasons most people (90-99 percent, depending on the society) must farm as a full-time occupation, some people can instead study a craft specialty and make this occupation their primary source of income, trading their products to other people (including farmers and shopkeepers) for their (literal) daily bread.   Because they depend upon this specialty, they get very good at it.  What's more, they have an incentive to at least incrementally improve the practice of this craft.

The prices of specialization, unfortunately, are social inequality and anonymity.  Everyone in a hunter-gatherer community is roughly equal: at most, some families may be favored because of close kinship with a chief or shaman, though in small groups everyone is kin in any case.  As the village grows into the town or city, one is no longer "Jeff" nor even "Jeff the Potter," one becomes merely "a potter" or "a farmer," dealt with by ritual according to one's class and occupation rather than as a unique individual.  And if one's craft is more expensive, specialized and in demand, then one's status is higher -- the jeweler sneers at the potter, who sneers at the farmer.

Of course, the highest status occupations are those of priest and warrior.  The priest is important not only because he intercedes with the gods (even if they don't exist, this promotes social peace and harmony) but also because he normally has mastered some craft specializations of immense value, such as medicine or mathematics.  The warrior is important because he is much better at fighting and killing, a training which can be applied against foreign foes and dissident citizens alike.  The ordinary farmer may mumble cantrips or brawl with clubs or even hunt with spears, but farming is a full-time occupation most times of the year:  the farmer does not have time to master priestly or warlike skills, even if he is so inclined and there is no actual prohibition upon such studies.

Technological progress widens this divide.  The Neolithic warrior has only the advantage of skill over the Neolithic farmer (and in really primitive cultures is probably a farmer himself):  his weapons and armor, such as they are, are better by only a thin margin.  The Bronze Age warrior uses weapons which are functionally quite different from hunting weapons or farm implements, requiring the mastery of very different skills to use them, and his weapons and armor are expensive.

But the Bronze Age warrior also has a wider margin of superiority over the barbarian raider or rebellious villager:  his helmet, breastplate and shield can repel the arrows and spears of his foe, while his well-forged spear or sword can go right through their furs or leathers.  Due to the human desire for self-preservation, his mere appearance on the field, angry and hungry to kill, may put his foes to flight -- read the Iliad for a fairly-accurate depiction of such morale effects.

Hence, warrior elites appear beside priestly elites, and both become socially dominant.  They usually support each other in this dominance:  the temple sends forth warriors to enforce its demands for tribute to the gods; the temple consecrates a king to lead the warriors.  The threefold order known to medieval political science has appeared:  "those who work, those who fight and those who pray."  (For variety, compare the Eastern Indo-European Aryan concept, where there is a fourth fundamental class -- "those who trade.")

Generally speaking the specialized classes -- the priests, warriors, and elite merchants/artisans -- hold themselves above the mass of the people, who are farmers.  The exact balance of status varies from civilization to civilization, but usually two highest classes are the priests and warriors, in that order (often, priests and warriors come from the same families); and the merchants/artisans form a class between them and the farmers.

Organized by the priesthood and with this organization enforced by the warriors, the early civilizations develop irrigation and transportation systems which allow much greater crop yields per acre, and the transportation of the agricultural surpluses to the cities where they enable further urban growth.  One main functional difference, in fact, between a town and a city is that a mere town is usually able to subsist from its own surrounding farms, while a city requires a large agricultural hinterland, and must have the power or wealth to compel or purchase the surplus needed to survive, let alone grow.

The important invention which enables the growth of cities is writing, which enables larger-scale and more precise forms of social organization.  Writing, for instance, makes regular tax collection less disruptive, as specific taxation amounts or rates can be set, and enforced, upon citizen and subject alike.  It also makes it easier to organize large projects, such as the construction of irrigation networks or monuments.

We are now squarely in the historical realm emulated by most modern heroic fantasy -- a world of cities, farmers, wilderness, priests, warriors and kings.  On this most basic level -- the level of the peasant farmer and his relationship to the social elites -- human culture doesn't change all that much from around 4000 BC (the appearance of proto-writing)  to around AD 1750 (the dawn of the Industrial Revolution).

And this gets to the heart of why I hate medieval stasis fantasy.

Though it is usually glossed over by the more superficial fantasy writers, the fact is that this sort of  traditional agricultural civilization is built firmly on the foundation of a downtrodden peasantry.  What's worse, up to a certain limit (the point at which the agricultural workforce is so put-upon that it cannot grow, or even maintain its numbers), the civilization works better the more downtrodden the peasantry.  This is because the larger the taxes extracted from the peasants, the larger and more capable becomes the specialist classes who produce the goods and services which provide the civilization a competitive advantage over its rivals.

Now, there is a basic incompatibility here between economic and military needs.  Though the warrior elites provide officers for military organizations, they are not large enough to form complete armies, especially for the purposes of garrsion, engineering, and main battle duties.  The military must recruit for this purpose.  Since pre-industrial cities are unhealthy places save for the elites (until the 19th century AD, they were population sinks -- their death rates exceeded their birth rates, requiring constant attraction of new population from the countryside), this means that the (literal) rank and file of one's military must be recruited from the countryside.

But if one's peasants are to be enlisted in the army and trained to war, then this imposes a limit on how severely they can be oppressed, since past a point a militarily-competent peasantry will revolt.  There is a solution, a solution which provides a significant competitive advantage to any civilization which adopts it, and which consequently has been adopted by most pre-industrial civilizations.  It is a solution so horrible that it is one of the darkest stains in our history as a species.

That solution is slavery.

What one does is to degrade a mass of people -- they may be either war-captives, purchased foreigners or one's own economic failures -- below the status of peasantry, to the status of property.  They are almost always explicitly denied the right to wield weapons, or allowed to do so only in the service of elites.  They are used to perform the heaviest and most unpleasant agricultural or mining labor, often of a sort which causes rapid physical deterioration.  Some elite slaves may also be used for the less desirable sorts of crafts or scribal work -- there are even cases of slave-soldieries, though such often cease to be slaves save in name in a few generations.  And, of course, some slaves become favorites of members of the elites, and may enjoy a precarious comfort from such relationships (which often include routine availability for sexual degradation).  The Roman Empire is the (literally) classical example of a civilization based on a large slave underclass, and their dependence on slavery was one of the roots of their ruthlessness, since ruthlessness is necessary to manage a large workforce of slaves.

What a pre-industrial technological stasis means is that this horrible system, where most of the population is condemned to a dreary, short and unpleasant life as subsistence farmers -- and a large minority of them cease to be even human, in social terms -- is eternal.  One may defeat this or that Dark Lord who wants to make things even worse (perhaps by enslaving or slaughtering everybody), but not even the Good Guys are doing anything toward any long-term overall improvement in the surrounding society.  Indeed, to some extent the popularity of Dark Lords in this sort of story is to paper-over the essential hopelessness of the societies being presented -- because however bad things normally are, one can get behind fighting off the guy who wants to tear everything good down.

Real history can be pretty depressing.  There is a tendency for the same, stupid things to happen over and over again; a repetition of cruelty and oppression, fanaticism and witch-hunting, one disaster after another as civilizations rise and attempt to build something beautiful in the world, only to go down before barbarian invasion, climate change, or the exhaustion of local resources.

But there is one inspiring thing about our history.  No matter how bad things have sometimes gotten, there is an overall rise in civilization and technology, a path leading upward to the transcendence of this or that human liimitation, to the stars.

Absent this path, history -- and life -- are hopeless.

I prefer fantasy which does not block this path in the name of nostalgia.

END


Monday, January 6, 2014

A Horse Isn't A Horse, Of Course, Of Course


"A Horse Isn't A Horse, Of Course, Of Course"

© 2014

by

Jordan S. Bassior 


I've come to the conclusion that there is no way that the Ponies are genus Equus (the one including our world's extant horses, donkeys and zebras, and numerous extinct varieties).  My reason for this conclusion are the existence of gross anatomical differences, even between the Earth Ponies and real horses.  (I mention the Earth Ponies because they are the Pony race which is physically most like actual horses).

Let us consider the physical dissimilarities between the Earth Ponies and real horses.

The most obvious change is that the skull has undergone modification similar to that involved in the transition from prosimians to humans. The cranium has greatly expanded to accommodate a much larger brain.  The length of the jaws has been reduced, more in mares than in stallions, but extremely in both sexes.  The eyes have increased in size and moved forward, allowing a field of binocular vision almost as wide as humans (and consequently reducing peripheral vision, though not as much as in humans).

We do not know exactly what real spoken Equestrian sounds like, but it is a reasonable assumption that there has been modification of the voice box, lips and tongue to allow for more complex vocalizations than in real horses.  This is a relatively minor modification compared to the ones mentioned above, but as in humans implies some changes both to reflexes and learned behavior, to avoid having ingestion interfere with respiration (in plain language, choking on their food).

A real horse is capable of fine manipulation only with the mouth, lips and tongue.  The Ponies can use their hooves for feats of dexterity exceeded only by primates and proboscideans among our land mammals, and this despite the complete lack of any additional toes (modern equids have only a single greatly-expanded toe on each limb, from which the hoof -- an enlarged fingernail / toenail, depends).  The two most obvious mechanisms are gecko-like suckers and telekinesis, and they may use both.  For what it's worth, Pony hooves are much more flexible than those of real horses.

One gross anatomical difference which you may have not noticed because you take it for granted in yourself is that the Ponies have much greater flexibility of their limbs, especially their forelimbs, than is the case in real equids.  In particular, their shoulders appear to have almost the full degree of freedom of motion found in primates, and their wrists can bend like ours, allowing them to oppose their hooves and grip objects "two-handed."  The price which they must pay for this is that they would be somewhat slower runners, with less running endurance than is the case for real horses (the stiffer limbs of a real horse make running easier than it would be for a Pony).

All these modifications tell me two things:  higher intelligence, and a higher place on the food chain.  The intelligence requires a larger skull to contain the enlarged brain, and allows smaller jaws (Ponies cook most of their food).  It also provides a huge advantage for manual dexterity, as the sapient Ponies can build and use all sorts of tools to enhance their survival, reproductive prospects and overall comfort.  Being smart, Ponies can engage in coordinated defense tactics against would-be predators, and make and use weapons which make them far more deadly in combat, which means that they make far more difficult prey.  

Literally, Ponies are more likely to turn and fight than to run from predators of equivalent sizes, compared to real-life equids, and more likely to be successful at such a tactic.  Real equids have two ways of dealing with predation:  they can run (their primary defense) or they can turn and fight (they are fiercer than you might think looking at domestic horses, which after all have been bred to be our symbiotes).  Fighting for an actual equid is extremely dangerous against, say, a lioness -- though zebras will sometimes do this.

Because the Ponies are sapient, they can choose to carry weapons into dangerous country, or develop skills (such as the Pony equivalent of martial arts) which make them truly deadly fighters.  They can fight smart, outwitting an opponent and taking advantage of its weaknesses.  If they do choose to run, they can use their superior intelligence and agility (the more flexible forelimbs would allow them to easily change course even at a full gallop) and use terrain to their advantage.  And of course they can gang-up against their foes, hitting them from all sides until they either flee or are slain.

A wide field of binocular vision is advantageous in fighting.  It means that one can easily gauge the exact distance to any object within a certain range (based on the distance between the two eyes involved).  In humans, who are naturally good at this sort of thing, it lets us throw rocks and other objects (knives, javelins etc.) with great accuracy (this is in fact one of the things we evolved specifically as humans -- we are much better at this than are the other great apes, and it's one of the human abilities we tend to take for granted because it is so easy for us to accomplish).  We have seen in-canon that the Ponies can do this -- they use missile weapons such as crossbows and they can kick objects toward a foe with great accuracy (Applejack frequently demonstrates this ability in the action episodes).

That's the Earth Ponies.  If we proceed to the Unicorns (who have grown a whole new external organ, the horn) and Pegasi (who have an additional pair of limbs, their wings, which are externally similar to avian wings -- which is to say a structure deployed by a different evolutionary Class, Aves -- but have some major internal anatomical differences) we see even greater anatomical differences.  There are also the Flutter Ponies (reduced size, wings apparently deriving from the design employed by a whole other phylum -- the arthopods) and the Sea Ponies (who are more fully-aquatic than ceteceans, as they can breathe underwater), but these two groups seem to have gone extinct in modern times.

One less obvious difference is that all three living kinds of Ponies seem to have significant psycho-kinetic aptitude and employ it routinely in their life processes.  In addition to their subtle magic, the Earth Ponies may use telekinesis to aid in their manual dexterity (making them the most efficient magic-users of all three kinds, since doing this does not create an "aura glow," and an "aura glow" screams to me of wasted energy) -- the other two breeds also do this, but are less adept at such manipulation. Unicorn telekinesis is blatantly obvious; I'll merely mention that it seems to be mostly channeled through their horns, which are clearly organs mostly used for that purpose rather than for physical butting or goring.  Pegasi flight must be largely telekinetic levitation and propulsion, as their wings are far too small to support any such ability, and moreover most pegasi appear capable of very great flight speeds.  You will also notice that a really fast pegsus (such as 20 Percent More Awesome herself, Rainbow Dash) generates a streamlined force field over her body; this can clearly be seen in the episode "Sonic Rainboom").

All these differences force me to conclude that the Ponies have moved out of genus Equus entirely, and require their own genus name.  If we're going to go with the show, a good generic name would be Cabalminusculus, a composite Latin term meaning, literally, "little pony."  There are at least three species contained within Cabalminusculus, these being C. equus (the Ponies), C. asinus (the donkeys) and C. zebra (the Zebras).

Since the three known Pony kinds are fully interfertile, they are obviously at most separate subspecies, rather than species.  My proposed subspecies names are C. equus terra (Earth Ponies), C. equus pegasus (Pegasi) and C. equus unicornus (Unicorns).  The obvious fourth "kind," alicorns, are really a different phase of the species C. equus:  we know in-canon that alicorns can appear from Unicorns or Pegasi, and can probably appear from Earth Ponies as well.  From supplemental material, we know that alicorns and unicorns appear to be interfertile, and I would suspect that they are interfertile with all other Ponies.

Members of the Pony species are probably only partially interfertile with members of other species within the genus.  We have seen "mules" in-canon (for real equids, mules are the cross between a horses and donkeys, and are usually infertile).  We do not know if Ponies and Zebras are interfertile.  Zecora seems uninterested in attempting the experiment.

Now, the discerning may have noticed that I have used terms like "change" and "modification" rather than "evolution" here.  The reason is simple.

I don't think that the Ponies are naturally-evolved, either as a species or as a genus.

I think that they were Uplifted, from natural equid stock.

But that's a whole other discussion.

END.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

"Feeling Adrift" (2013) by Jordan S. Bassior


(direct sequel to "A Meeting by Moonlight")


"Feeling Adrift"

© 2013 (*)

by

Jordan S. Bassior


After looking at the Moon long and lovingly, then lowering it for the night, Luna retired to the relatively small snack room that both of them preferred to any of the great formal dining halls of the Palace. and long sat there. The servants moved very quietly around her:  it was plain to them that she was not in a mood to be disturbed.  She was glad when they left.

Luna sat there, eating corn chowder with little crescent-shaped crackers, and sipping hot chocolate.  She only peripherally-noticed the taste of her meal – her mind was very far away, in times when her life had been very different.

I’m sitting here in a palace, she thought to herself.  I’m the Princess of the Night in a kingdom run by magic and technology which has just gone through its Industrial Revolution and will probably start building its first real computers in a few decades  I just put away the Moon for the night, which I do every night, so why does it suddenly feel so strange?  And before that I was a madmare living alone on the Moon, for a thousand years.  And before that I was the Princess of the Night, in the same kingdom, only it was more like being a medieval queen, like something out of one of those swashbucklers we’d see at the drive-ins.  And before that, my sister and I were wandering heroines in a world riven by chaos.  And before that, we lived in a mystical house, older than known history, in a post-apocalpytic wasteland.  And before that …

Before that had been the life she had relived for a moment, when she had been talking to Twilight Sparkle, when Luna had been Moondreamer and Twilight had been Dusk Skyshine and everything seemed so damned simple because the Universe all made sense and magic and demons were safely relegated to the pages of mythology and weird fiction.  Simple, she thought wryly.  I was the world’s top astronautical engineer, and the fate of all Ponykind depended on my designs.  Most people in that age wouldn’t have considered her life “simple.”

And before that …?

Her mind reeled as it flitted across all her past lives, her other lives, all the people and things she had been, all connected through the matrix of her oversoul.  Ponies.  Humans.  Far less describable beings.  Some in appearance would have terrified the little ponies.  Some would have terrified them in personality.  Some terrified her, from the point of view of her current personality.

There were those insect things, that mated only once, to their true loves, and then immediately afterward ate them.  She shuddered.  Ugh.  I don’t want to be one of those again.  Yet she also remembered they had been noble, tolerant and kind; and had saved a galaxy from a race that looked like shining humanoid angels and practiced a philosophy of great generosity among their own species – and considered all other life vermin to be exterminated on sight.

The Universe was far stranger than the Ponies imagined.  Stranger than Moondreamer had ever imagined.  Except when she thought specifically about it, stranger than she imagined, in her incarnation as Princess Luna.

And her oversoul itself … the Cosmic Principle Luna … it had never been exactly evil, but it was enthusiastic about destruction, in ways which were alien to any lesser self she had been in a long time, save perhaps for Nightmare Moon.  She remembered the thrill she had felt streaking across the skies of a doomed timeline, eradicating existence in the wake of her wings as innocent little ponies below ran and screamed and then were not, and had never been.   I didn’t know what it was like to be a pony then, she told herself.  I’ve changed.  Even my oversoul may have changed. 

But still she felt the sheer joy of being a nigh-omnipotent Cosmic Concept, a force of darkness that could swallow the day forever … she shoved it back.  That was dangerous, she knew.  The desire to duplicate that precise sensation in this more-limited, albeit immortal incarnation was why it had been so easy to become the Nightmare.

Did Moondreamer enjoy destruction? she asked herself.  She remembered some of the things she’d designed – robot rockets that carried sunfire bombs in their noses – and had to admit that she had.  Oh, those rockets had never been used – the doom had come to the Age of Wonders in another form entirely, and Moondreamer would have been utterly-horrified had even one of her rockets been launched in anger.  But the abstract pleasure of knowing what the rockets could do – the clever controls and the steering engines, to make sure that they would fly straight across half a world to land within a few hundred feet of their aiming point – yes, she had enjoyed that.

But Moondreamer had enjoyed other things more intensely.  Laughing with her sister as they ran together, foals racing through a quiet park.  Building soapbox racers with Dusk Skyshine, when she was a filly and he a colt, and the world seemed big and wide and open and the good times destined to last forever.  Standing side by side with her husband Dusk on a promontory, watching the moonlight drift down over a quiet little coastal town as the sea washed the shores, being happy with his warmth against her.  Knowing his touch, his nuzzle, his caress, the feel of him within …

She shook her head.  That, too, was dangerous, though not because it reminded her of Nightmare.  Quite the opposite.

It reminded her of a bright dream now gone forever.

She had not been entirely alone the long millennia since.  She was no wanton, but her heart was not made of stone, and there had been a few she had deemed worthy.  And she had known love …

… but not as she had with Dusk.  There was no way she could.  No other stallion could ever rival Dusk:  his mind, his cold courage in war, his warm heart in peace.  None ever would.

In the past I’ve gone centuries without thinking of Dusk!  Well, decades.  Years.  Months?  Well, at least I didn’t think of him all the cursed time!  Why, now, am I so overwhelmed by these memories, these emotions, that should have lain safely buried alongside all the other relics of a time forgotten by all save us immortals?

She knew the answer to that, of course.

Because he’s back.  Because he’s  right out there, just a short flight away in Ponyville.  Because I was just talking to him.  He’s so close I could touch him!  I was touching him!  I was holding him, right in my forelegs …

But that was not precisely correct.  Which was the problem.

Her, she corrected herself.  I was holding her.  Not Dusk Skyshine.  Twillight Sparkle.

She doesn’t remember who I was.  But now she knows.  I mean I pretty much told her, didn’t I?  Maybe someone else might have missed my hints, but not him.  Her.  That mind, brilliant and beautiful like an ice moon shining in the light of a blue-white star, one of the few mortal minds to match mine incarnate.  I could never fool Dusk for very long, she thought, smiling at the memories.

Plus, I think I slipped up on a few pronouns.

Damn.

Why couldn’t I have been one of those bug queen things?  Then I would have wooed and won my love, mated, killed and eaten him, and borne him a thousand larvae, and happily spent the rest of my life composing poetry to his cherished memory.  Then, feeling like this would have been normal.

I didn’t even bear him one larva – um, foal.

Moondreamer and Sundreamer had both been sterile.  That, Luna knew now, had been part of a pact she had made with Celestia before they had taken those forms.  At the time – clever cold Cosmic Alicorn who still thought ponies were just one step above basal chordates – it seemed like a wise decision, a way to avoid emotional contamination while performing her experiment.

Now, she knew better, and she mourned the foals she’d never borne for him.

“Your soup’s getting cold,” someone pointed out to her.

In her present mood, she would have screamed at any servant who had dared to so interrupt her thoughts, but this was no servant.

It was her sister Celestia.

Which reminded her of the complication, of why she should not have let Dusk know who they had been to each other.  Dusk was her long-lost husband, but Twilight was someone else’s special student.

Celestia’s student.

And Luna knew that she might have just seriously interfered with Celestia’s lesson plan.

Hellfire.

“Uhh …” Luna said brightly as she looked up at her magnificent white sister.  “I’m … uhh … not very hungry.”

“Now that’s original,” Celestia commented, sitting down beside her.  “I’m going to have an omelette and some little cakes.  May I take the liberty of joining you?”

“Well … you have.  I mean, yes, of course,” replied Luna, recovering her manners.  Servants brought the food.

Luna watched as Celestia began her breakfast, somehow managing the impossible feat of eating heartily and daintily at one and the same time.  Celestia was so calm, so graceful, so beautiful.  Celestia outshone her in every way, both metaphorical and literal, a fact which had once greatly bothered Luna.  These days she just accepted it as an immutable law of existence.

Celly would never be as confused as I am, thought Luna ruefully.  Though I’ve seen her angry.  And I may see her angry again.  Really soon.

“So,” said Celestia, leaning forward a little.  “You seem rather lost in thought this morning.  Did anything … interesting … happen last night?”

“Um …” said Luna, shrinking slightly away, wings tightly folded around herself.  “Yes.  It did.  I, uh …”

Celestia waited patiently.

“I visited Twilight Sparkle,” Luna said.  She fell silent.

“And how is my faithful student doing?” Celestia asked.  “Is she well?”

“Oh, heh, yes.  She looked … um … healthy.  She was watching the Moon through a telescope, and I joined her and we … talked a while.”  There.  That had been easy enough to say.  “About the Moon, and other things.”

“Well, that’s nice,” said Celestia cheerfully.  “You should spend more time with Twilight Sparkle.  She’s a very special pony.”

“Yes …” said Luna.  “I know. Very special.”

“And …?”  asked Celestia, peering intently at Luna.  “Oh, Lulu.  We’ve known each other thousands of years in this incarnation, not to mention millions of times longer in others.  I know something about your meeting bothered you.  You can never keep up a mask before me.  You can tell me.  I won’t bite your head off.  Or any of your other extremities,” she said, smiling.  “What happened?”

“Ah, well …” replied Luna.  “I … it’s a bit embarrassing.”

“Did you two leap together in an explosion of insensate lust?” asked Celestia, utterly deadpan.

“What!  No!  I’d never – I’m not that forward, and besides he’s a she, and – it wasn’t like that!  And, um, I don’t think Dus – I mean, Twilight, would.  Not suddenly, like that.”

“I didn’t think so,” said Celestia.  “I know Twilight.  And Dusk was a shy pony too.  If I remember correctly, it was Moondreamer who first kissed him.  At Sundreamer’s urging.”  She grinned at the memory.  “You were both so sweet and clueless.  Not much more than foals.”

“Sister!” protested Luna.  “We were twins then!”

“I was twenty-eight minutes older,” said Celestia.  “Don’t you forget that.”

Sundreamer never let me forget that.”

“No,” agreed Celestia with a broad smile.  “She never did … Do you know one of my favorite things about you, Lulu?”

“I don’t show it much when I get muddy?” asked Luna.

“You’re really easy to tease,” Celestia corrected her.  “So what terribly scandalous thing happened?”

“Um, after we talked … I was telling her about Moondreamer and the Age of Wonders … I got a little emotional … well I was sobbing, if you must know … and Twilight nuzzled me a little, to comfort me.  So I hugged her,” Luna admitted.

“Oh dear,” said Celestia.  “We’d better hope that Sunny Day doesn’t find out about this.  It’ll be through all the gossip rags!”

Luna glared at Celestia.  “Don’t you dare.”

“I wouldn’t,” said Celestia.  “Not really.  Though I might let it leak that you had been clandestinely wed to the ex-husband of the half-sister of Chrysalis, if I thought it would keep the bubble-brains in Canterlot from speculating too deeply about our real secrets.  But, really, sister … this doesn’t sound very secret.  Or terrible.  Or even mildly scandalous, really.  I’ve hugged Twilight more than once myself.  She’s rather warm and fluffy.  And really sweet.  Hugging Twilight Sparkle is pretty tame stuff on the scale of Vile Deeds.”

“You know my feelings about Dusk,” said Luna, a slight huff in her voice.  “It wasn’t just a hug. To me.”

“Oh, Lulu,” said Celestia.  “You’ve always been so serious.”  Then her smile grew kinder.  “Yes.  I understand.  I always did.  Sister, I’m actually glad that you went out of  your way to spend some time with her, without some excuse of saving the world or a holiday or some other public event.  She really likes you.  She’s thought of you as a kindred spirit ever since that Nightmare Night, you know.”

“Really?” asked Luna.  “She never said …”

“Of course she didn’t,” pointed out Celestia.  “She’s Twilight Sparkle.  You know.  Deadly calm, when facing down a dragon or alien invasion. Utterly lost, when it comes to normal social situations.  She’s shy, just as he was.”

I’m shy,” pointed out Luna.

“By some standards,” allowed Celestia.  “Most ponies don’t even notice you’re shy because you utterly overwhelm them.  But you are not as shy as is Twilight Sparkle.  Why do you think I’ve had her spend almost three years now studying the magic of friendship?  She’s going to need to become less shy, when she Ascends and assumes her rightful place in this kingdom.”

“Will that be soon?” asked Luna.

“Yes,” said Celestia, smiling happily.  “She’s come along even faster than I’d hoped.  Discord … Chrysalis … Sombra … they didn’t mean to, but they’ve actually done me favors by testing her so very close to destruction, much closer than I ever would have dared to take her myself.  She’s just like Dusk, when things get tough.  Ice-cold, fearless, mind like chromium steel.  Her magic is incredibly strong – she could give you a run for your money, sister.  And all this is before she Ascends.”  Celestia’s eye misted slightly..  “This is her best incarnation yet.  Better even than Clover the Clever. I think she has the potential, in time, to surpass her teacher.”

Luna smiled back.  Then her smile faded, as she remembered her real sin

“I … I may have said something to interfere with your training program,” she confessed.

Celestia blinked, then tensed.  Slowly, calmly, she spoke.

“What did you say?”  she asked.  A stranger would have assumed that Celestia was calm.

Luna shrank from her.

“Well, I might have let slip … let her know … that ….”

Her voice faded almost into inaudibility.

“Let her know what?”  The stress was barely discernible.  Through the window, the light flickered, as if the Sun had been briefly obscured by a cloud.  It hadn’t.

Celestia looked up with annoyance, concentrated a moment, and the flickering stopped.  “Kludged astrophysical model,” she muttered to herself.  “Should never have –“  Then back to Luna.

“Well, I think she knows now that I used to be Moondreamer and she was Dusk,” Luna admitted.

Celestia sighed.  “Oh, that.  Tartarus, Luna, I thought you’d told her about unstable time loops, or the true nature of our Cousins, or the Shadows Outside, or something similarly sanity-blasting.  Which you shouldn’t, sister, because she hasn’t yet begun her really advanced studies, and I don’t want her path of development to be disturbed.  But she already knew about reincarnation, at least as theory.”

“You’re not mad?” asked Luna, in waxing hope.

“Of course not!” said Celestia.  “Sweet sister, I knew you were going to tell her eventually.  Yes, it’s bound to confuse her emotions a bit, but I imagine that’s something you both can work out for yourselves.  Whether you want to be friends, or lovers, or avoid one another – it’s up to you and Twilight.  I’m Princess of the Sun, not Princess of Running Everyone Else’s Lives For Them.”

“Thank you,” said Luna.  “I was worried – you’re protective towards her …”

“Well of course I am,” said Celestia.  “I love Twilight Sparkle as if she was my own daughter.  She’s one of the finest beings I’ve ever known, in any life.  I’d be very cross with anyone who meant to hurt her – not that very many ponies could hurt her now, as far as she’s come now in her development.  But I know you wouldn’t hurt her.”

“Oh, no!” said Luna.  “Not on purpose!  I’d tear myself to pieces first!”

“Well, I trust then that there shall be no self-dismemberment in the offing, my dear and overly-dramatic sister.”  Celestia smiled.
After a brief expression of annoyance at the mockery, Luna smiled back.  Then her face sobered.

“Before you came in … I was thinking …” Luna trailed off.

“I’m not going to tell you that’s a dangerous pastime,” replied Celestia.

“I was thinking about my past lives,” Luna said.  “About all that I’ve been … so many forms, so many personas, so many times and places.  And I was wondering if I really am still Moondreamer, or if she was someone completely different with whom I just happen to share an oversoul.”

“That’s an unresolved philosophical question among us even at the Cosmic level,” observed Celestia.  “I’d say that you and Moondreamer are a lot alike, more so than you are to the you that time you were a blobby asexual thing that formed temporary organs at will, and ate everything not its own kind – what was that called – shoggoth?  You and Moondreamer are both female, both ponies, both smart and sarcastic and sweet and a little bit shy.  You’re both capable of all kinds of love.”

“But …” said Luna.  “I always feel kind of lost, an alien, whoever I am.  Wherever.  Whenever.  It’s been worse this incarnation, though.  First, when we were wandering together, and everywhere we could see the ruins of the Age of Wonder – I would feel Moondreamer within me all the time, sad at what had become of her hopes.  Then I adjusted to it – we were needed, especially after we founded Equestria.  I kept busy.  From Moondreamer’s point of view, it was as if I was the heroine of one of those old fantasy novels.  It was fun back then, being Princess of the Night.  Especially in our old castle. 

“Until I went insane.  Which I suppose means I wasn’t having as much fun as I imagined.

“But now … after being mad for a thousand years … I know it’s only been a single millennium I was gone, but things have changed so much.  And … I can see that they’re changing back, back to something that is so similar in some ways to the world that was.  I see factories and steam trains, clockwork and airships, happy healthy well-fed ponies who are starting to be comfortable again, and I see that the Long Night is lifting from this world,” Luna explained.

“You’re welcome,” said Celestia.  “I’ve been working very hard this last thousand years to achieve exactly that outcome.  Don’t worry, I’ll bring Equestria back all the way, and even beyond what the Age of Wonders achieved.  I could do it faster, but I have to let the little ponies discover most things for themselves, or they’ll never grow into the great race they have the promise to become.”

“I know,” said Luna.  “You’ve done a wonderful job.  But … when I see these things … I can feel Moondreamer stirring in my memories.  And she sees so much that is familiar in this … so much that makes her happy and proud … proud of the little ponies, proud of her big sister.

“But she also sees a lot that is different.  Alien.  Not bad – the ponies of Equestria seem nicer, happier, somehow more innocent than those of the Age of Wonders …”

“They are,” affirmed Celestia.  “Also my doing, in part.”  She frowned.  “Though I may have to start toughening them up again – the dimensional barriers we put in place seem to be weakening now, and when I figure out how to shift our microcosm back to relativistic physics again, they’ll be open to the whole rest of the Universe.”

“Don’t get me wrong,” said Luna.  “I love them.  Especially some of the young colts and fillies.  There’s this one sweet little pinto colt, fearless little fellow … he’ll make such a fine stallion someday.  And this fireball of a pegasus filly – tiny little wings, uses them like an outboard motor on her skateboard …”

“…Oh, I know her,” Celestia interrupted, smiling to herself.  “And her friends.”

 “But their culture – it’s not the same as it was before the Fall.  Maybe better, yes I think it’s better, but it’s different.  Subtly wrong.  And I feel all the time as a stranger to them.  The more so because it’s a world now of mechanized power and industry and transportation, just like it was when I was Moondreamer.  But it’s not Moondreamer’s world. Do you understand?”

“Yes,” said Celestia.  “I sometimes feel what you feel.  It’s just,” she explained, “that for me it happened gradually, and I had a hand in making it.  But yes, it’s changing.  Faster and faster, each century.  Which is what I’ve always wanted to see, but … it can be hard for me too, sometimes.”

“What do you about it?” asked Luna.

“Live each day.  Raise the Sun.  Make decisions.  Fight monsters.  Make friends.  Fall in love, now and then.  Mourn my loved ones when they perish.”  She looked bleak.  “Which they always do in the end, and far too soon.”  She smiled.  “Though you won’t, at least not until you’re ready to leave this world.  And maybe some others won’t, now.  You’ve met Cadence – and Twilight’s close to Ascending.  And there are others who show promise … maybe, soon, we’ll have many friends who won’t be leaving any time soon.”

“There is the Cosmic level …”

“I don’t really like the Cosmic level,” said Celestia.  “Not any more.  They’re cold, inequine – we’re cold and inequine in that form.  They don’t know love and friendship the way we do down here.  They can’t easily change.

“But sister,” said Luna, “it’s what we really are …”

“And what we will be again, inevitably,” said Celestia, “because this world, this species, it’s all an eyeblink on the scale of Cosmic time.  I know.  But … I also know that what I do and feel here and now changes me – I think for the better – and that some of that change will be copied into my oversoul when I finally end this incarnation.  It changed me, being Star Catcher, and Sundreamer and now Princess Celestia.  It changed you, being Moondreamer.  And then Princess Luna.  And for the better.  You’ve become a really good being, dear sister.  Have I told you that often enough?”

Luna felt too choked to say anything.

“I know how you feel,” said Celestia.  “You look at yourself and your surroundings, and you wonder Why am I here?  Why am I me, instead of all the other beings I could be, me in this particular place and time?  And sometimes you feel alone, and you despair.  And you wish you could be some awesome inequine Cosmic creature that never doubted itself, that never knew normal fear, that never knew normal love, never knew regret, or sadness.  (Though I think we lie to ourselves about that, even when we are in our fully Cosmic forms).

“But you are who you are, here and now, and that’s whom you have to be – for as long as you think you can still do some good in this world.

“I know you often feel adrift.  But you’re not adrift.”  She moved beside Luna, put a wing over her, held her to her side.  Luna closed her eyes and enjoyed the loving warmth. 

“You have me, your sister.  And you have Twilight, if you want her:  I know that she wants to be at the very least your loyal friend.  And you have a whole nation out there who will in time come to love their Princess of the Night as they do their Princess of the Day.  And if they don’t, then it’s their problem, not yours.

“You’ll feel adrift again sometimes.  We all do.  But if you remember that you are well loved, well-needed by all of us, you’ll never want to leave this world.  Never fall into Nightmare again.

“You have a wonderful future here again,” said Celestia.  “And you are Moondreamer’s future – you should remember that.  You’re not exactly her, but you’re not exactly alien to her either, and I think she’d be happy to know what she became.  And Dusk would be proud of you too.”

“You think so?” asked Luna.

“I know so.  Because Twilight is what Dusk became, and Twilight greatly respects you.”

“That phrase – ‘greatly respects’ – it’s what I told Twilight,” Luna mused.  “How I said I felt toward her.”

“That’s because it’s true,” said Celestia.  “You greatly respect one another.  That’s how it always works between friends.”

“But I feel more than just friendship,” Luna said.  “I can’t forget who she was – who we both were.  It feels so strange – and I fear to let her know, because when she does she may fear me, despise me, see me as some sort of perverted, monstrous immortal molester, seeking to corrupt the innocent.”

“You know,” pointed out Celestia, “you’re thinking too much like Moondreamer now.  No, not in the sense that you’re attracted to Twilight because she was Dusk – in that you are assuming that Twilght would see your attraction as perverted.  One of the ways that Equestria is a nicer place than was the World of Wonders is that it accepts that real love need not be only between mare and stallion.  I’m sure you’ve noticed that, walking through dreams.”

“Yes, I have …” said Luna “Wait, you think that …?”

“Well – I think that Twilight is attracted to stallions,” Celestia said.  “Most mares are.  Otherwise ponies wouldn’t continue the species.  Though, really, I don’t know how much she’s thought about the matter.  I’m fairly sure that she’s never had a lover – if nothing else, I’d read about it in one of her friendship reports – and she’s something of a prude, like you …”

An indignant snort from Luna.

“… so I doubt that she gives herself to random strangers.  Or are you saying that you do?” Celestia asked sweetly.

Luna glared.  It seemed as though she should be able to logically reverse the jibe upon her sister, but somehow she could never think of the right thing to say when Celly teased her on such matters.  She can make me dance like a puppet when she wants, Luna thought ruefully, and for far from the first time.”

“Of course,” said Celestia, “I happen to know that you are mostly attracted to stallions.  In fact, I don’t think I can recall you, in either of your pony incarnations, wanting mares.  So, really, you’re in uncharted waters as regards Twilight, as well.”

“I know,” groaned Luna.  “I don’t even know what I want.  What can I do?”

“Just be her friend,” Celestia said.  “It doesn’t have to be a big dramatic pageant.  Just stop avoiding her, seek her out some more, and talk to her.  I think she’ll warm to you.  She must have warmed to you – she let you hug her, after all.  She wouldn’t have done that if she thought you were some kind of perverted immortal monster, now would she?”

“I see,” said Luna.  “What if – no.  I’ll try.”

“Good,” said Celestia.  “And then hopefully you’ll feel a bit less lost, when you have more friends.  Especially old friends.”  She got up.  “Well, I have duties.  Boring petitions to read, confusing court cases to hear, maybe a monster to save from a victim, who knows, maybe the day will surprise me!”

“And I need sleep,” admitted Luna.

“Then fare well for now, dear sister,” said Celestia.

“Fare well.”

There was no one else in the room now, but Luna no longer felt as alone.  She ate the cold soup and toast – she’d eaten far less tasty things on time-lost battlefields back in the day – and smiled to herself.  She had a loving sister, and maybe she had made a loving friend.

She was no longer adrift.

END.

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(*) Hasbro owns copyright to Celestia, Luna, Twilight Sparkle, and in general the characters and settings in this story.  Sundreamer and Moondreamer are my OC's.