The Maretian

by Kris Overstreet

Chapter 175: Sol 305

Previous Chapter Next Chapter


“You break one of those,” Fireball said, standing between Starlight Glimmer and the rainbow crystals, “over my dead body.”

“Will you just move over? Seriously.” Starlight snorted as she worked her way past the self-appointed guardian of beauty. “I need to get a close look at them. Besides, it’s not like they’re going to run out. According to Mark’s photos, they’re spreading.”

That was true. Careful examination of Mark’s photos of the rainbow crystals over the previous three or four days had shown that, somehow, whatever caused the shimmering colors that rippled through the crystal was spreading through the rest of the crystal- at a rate, more or less, of a row of crystals converted every three days. It wasn’t an even growth; large crystals, the size of Starlight’s barrel, took several days, but crystals the size of Mark’s thumb or smaller seemed to change overnight, possibly faster.

Mark had taken another photo just before Starlight activated the magic field projector for a three-minute dose of ambient magic. He’d take another photo afterwards to see if any crystals had changed visibly from the exposure. In the meantime, Starlight needed to probe the crystals to see if there was some sort of enchantment in the things, and time was running out. They needed to rebuild power in the batteries too badly to run over schedule on the projector.

Starlight gently pushed the cocoon aside so she could get right up next to the crystals. She noticed that the cocoon had left a sort of shadow of unaffected crystals behind it, although it had obviously shrunk since the day of the magic blast that created the rainbow effect. The infection, or whatever it was, spread inward as well as outward.

She took a deep breath, concentrated, and focused her vision into and through a crystal, looking for an enchantment array, if one existed.

And… well, there was something there, but it wasn’t any kind of array she’d ever learned about in her obsessive study of magic.

An enchantment array was above all orderly- usually a circle, but sometimes triangles or more complex geometrical designs were involved. Complex enchantments might have rings or layers of designs, intertwined or concentric, overlapping or entangled. But, if you were patient, you could see the sense of the design, and with knowledge you could work out what the thing was meant to do.

Staring at the enchantment within the rainbow crystals was like making sense of a restaurant-sized pot of spaghetti. Or possibly worms, since parts of it seemed to be moving just past the edge of Starlight’s focus. And when she looked at another crystal and then back to the one she’d been looking at before, it’d be all different.

It made no sense. Absolutely, positively, no sense.

And then the sight was taken away from her, as the magic field was shut down. She refocused, concentrating her reserves, and looked again… and the spaghetti lines were still there, mocking her with their disorganization, with…

… with their chaos.

“Hey, Starlight?” Mark’s voice cut through her thoughts. “Mind moving out of the way? I don’t think you want a photo of your ass in a scientific study.”

Starlight didn’t mind the crass comment. She had an epiphany and she was ready to use it. “Give me a suit,” she said. “Time to call home.”

AMICITAS: Amicitas calling Baltimare, use suit SG for response, over.

ESA: Baltimare calling Amicitas, over.

AMICITAS: I need to talk to Discord, right now. Over.

ESA: Please repeat last message, over.

AMICITAS: SG - Repeating, I need to talk to Discord. Over.

ESA: TS – Are you crazy? You know we keep Discord as far away from any space center as possible!

DISCORD: And it’s so impolite of you. I mean, here I am, one of your dearest and truest friends, and you won’t let me help.

ESA: TS – How are you doing this, over?

DISCORD: Oh, Twilight, you really don’t want the answer to that question. It’d only irritate you. And Celestia knows you’ve been so busy of late, with the launch of Angel Eleven. It’s in all the papers, you know.

AMICITAS: Discord, there’s this weird enchantment or something here. Have you kept up with the news from here? Over.

DISCORD: Oh, Fluttershy tells me this and that over our weekly teas, and then there’s game night with Spike, Big Mac and Rainbow Dash, and of course the reforming tyrants support group with Queen Chrysalis.

ESA: TS – He made that last one up. Chrysalis is on Concordia performing retrieval duties for the Angel probes. Over.

AMICITAS: Fine. We blasted Dragonfly’s cocoon with all the raw magic we had to energize her enough to come out. It more or less worked, but it turned the quartz behind her into these color-changing crystals, and the effect’s slowly spreading. There’s a really ugly enchantment that looks like all the crawling worms in the world turned to mana and took over each crystal. Know anything about it? Over.

DISCORD: Sorry, not my work or my knowledge. I can’t even see the universe you’re in directly- Twilight already asked. All I can tell is that where you are order and chaos are the same thing. Dependence on initial conditions mitigated by quantum indeterminacy. Dull, dull place, literally deathly dull. But I could…

ESA: TS – Discord? Could what, over?

AMICITAS: Discord, comms check, over.

DISCORD: Would you like a guess?

AMICITAS: Affirmative, over.

DISCORD: Ask your friend what he knows about “emergent properties”. Not usually my field of chaos, but I do like to diversify now and then.

AMICITAS: Roger “emergent properties.” Thank you, Discord, we appreciate the help. Over.

DISCORD: Oh, it is so delightful to be appreciated! It’s something I get so very seldom. Well, must be back to my duty of spreading random acts and curious coincidences around the land! Ta-ta!

ESA: I think he’s gone, over.

AMICITAS: No, he’s not, over.

DISCORD: Yes I am. Over.

AMICITAS: Thanks to you both. Amicitas out.

“Dictionary,” Starlight said as she pulled her suit away from the mud puddle beneath it. “I need to make sure I have this word exactly right.”

Five minutes with the computer later, during which time the others sat and waited out of sheer curiosity, she said, “Chaos tells me to ask you about ‘emergent properties.’ That is right, yes? Properties that come out of something?”

“Um.” Mark shifted on his feet. “Where you come from there’s a person named Chaos?”

“It’s hard to explain,” Starlight said. “It’s more like there’s a person who is chaos. Chaos isn’t the right name, but one of his titles is ‘Lord of Chaos.’ He makes impossible things happen at random around him- really, really impossible things.”

“He’s evil,” Cherry Berry said, looking frightened. It occurred to Starlight, idly, that Cherry didn’t let herself look afraid that often during their stay on Mars.

“He’s a pest,” Spitfire grumbled.

“He’s scary,” Dragonfly whispered, crouching as if she expected him to come out of thin air at any moment.

Fireball shrugged. “Not meet him,” he said.

“Ooooookay,” Mark said, looking around him in total confusion. “But how much do you know about chaos as a force of nature?”

“What? Chaos isn’t nature!” Starlight insisted. “Chaos is… opposite of harmony? Chaos is broken! Ponies try studying chaos, and it drives them mad! Chaos even carries around little cards warning ponies not to study him anymore!”

“So, that’d be nothing,” Mark said. “Okay. I’ll try to keep this simple. Humans are the only species on my planet that can express abstract thoughts in the form of language and pass them down from generation to generation. There are a lot of other animals that are close- whales, some squids, elephants, gorillas, chimpanzees, parrots- but they don’t quite get there. And for decades, human scientists wondered why.

“Then we figured out that, contrary to everything we’d expected, our brains weren’t specifically designed to be intelligent and self-aware. Conscious thought is a by-product of the complexity of our brains. Even now, we’re totally incapable of pointing to a cluster of neurons and saying, ‘That means he thought X.’”

“Okaaaaay… so are you saying the crystals think now?” Starlight asked.

“No, no, no,” Mark said. “I’m saying that consciousness and the ability for abstract thought are emergent properties. They’re unexpected products of an incredibly complex system. You can’t predict them based solely on the pieces of the system itself. It’s how the system works together that creates them.”

“I don’t see the point,” Starlight said.

“Let me give you an example,” Mark said. “About, oh, forty years ago, some scientists took a bunch of little robots with the ability to rewire their own internal circuitry- don’t ask me how, I’m not a roboticist. The robots also had a radio receiver. If the robots could accurately detect a broadcast at a certain frequency, it got a reward. But the scientists didn’t tell the robots how to do it. They just stood back and let the robots start guessing. The ones who came closest became templates for the next generation of robots, and so on. And by one hundred robot generations- they made new robots every other day or so.- the robots had become able to detect that signal ninety-eight percent of the time, without confusing it for another signal or detecting it when it wasn’t there.

“But here’s the thing. They looked at that last generation. The robots had about a dozen different ways to do the same job. Absolutely none of them were the way any human designer would have done it. A couple of them, so far as the scientists could tell, shouldn’t have worked at all. And for half of them, the scientists simply could not tell how it worked. The robots had created a solution by pure random chance- several solutions, all of them the product of guesses and misfires and junk program loops and a tangle of circuits and code nobody could figure out.”

Mark shook his head in frustration. “I’m mangling the story,” he said. “I haven’t heard it since college. But that’s emergent properties in action. Randomness leads to order, depending on how you look at it. But even the simplest of rules, allowed to run, can produce unexpected results. In fact, all life on my world comes from simple rules allowed to run for a very long time.”

The ponies all shifted their weight on their hooves enough for the sound of scuffed soil to crackle through the almost silent cave. "Are you saying," Starlight asked in a shocked whisper, "that humans- that your whole world- is based on chaos?"

"I told you," Dragonfly said, "a Free Forever universe."

"Well, it's based on a lot of things," Mark said. "Chaos is just one way we explain it." He cocked his head and added, “But what does that have to do with anything?”

Starlight told them what she saw in the crystal.

“Aaahhh,” Mark said, when the explanation was complete. “Your friend Chaos was explaining how the rainbow crystals work. Your blast must have accidentally laid a random enchantment on the crystals. And at least one of those enchantments is self-replicating.”

Starlight looked at the crystals again, a bit horrified. “They’re… they’re alive??”

Mark considered this. “Starlight, I don’t know about ponies, but humans have been discussing it for hundreds of years, and we’ve never been able to come up with a definition of life that satisfies everybody. But the crystals obviously aren’t alive. No respiration, no eating or excreting, no reproduction. The enchantment might qualify, but only if computer programs are alive.” He brightened and added, “We have sci-fi stories about that, y’know.”

“That doesn’t make me feel better!”

Mark shrugged. “The question is, will it do any harm?" He pointed to the light sources in the ceiling. “What happens to the sun lamps when the rainbows get up there?” He pointed to Fireball. “Can he eat rainbow crystals safely?”

“Not gonna try,” Fireball said firmly. “We go back deep in cave, cut all crystals I need through launch, take to Hab soon. After that, not a problem.”

“And finally,” Mark said, “will the rainbows have an effect on the plants? We know they don’t actually glow by themselves, at least not in the visible spectrum…”

Starlight nodded. “I see where you’re going,” she said. “This is a job for science.”

“Yep,” Mark nodded. “Magic science.”

Author's Notes:

For those who asked about Discord, now you know.

I no doubt botched the explanation of emergent properties. The example I mention is in one of the volumes of The Science of Discworld, the first three of which are worth the read... the fourth, sadly, demonstrates the decay of Sir Terry's powers in his last years, plus a lack of coherent scientific theme.

But no, we're not done with the sparklies, oh no indeed.

Next Chapter: Sol 307 Estimated time remaining: 11 Hours, 53 Minutes
Return to Story Description


Login with