• Published 22nd Jan 2014
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Human After All - Nicknack



Lyra discovers ancient mysteries in the Everfree Forest; one of them tasks her with helping him rebuild his lost civilization.

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Chapter 1

Hoof after hoof, I ran through the dark humidity of the Everfree Forest. On any other day, I would’ve loved to stop and take in the sights: fronds as big as bedsheets, drooping vines as long and sturdy as ropes, and—my favorite—the cool little bioluminescent mushrooms that glowed blue in the dark nooks and crannies beneath tree roots.

All of it blurred past me that afternoon. I was running late. I hated running late.

It was kind of ironic, since I was a graduate student in Canterlot University’s archaeology program. My whole field dealt with stuff that’d happened in the distant past. The fact that I could be late to anything I was researching always boggled my mind.

To be fair, that day—the last Thursday in October—I wasn’t late for some sort of archaeological dig, or exploring the ruins in the Everfree. Those were all about ten miles south of me; my current route through the underbrush led me towards a piece of living history, somebody who lived deep in the forest.

And I was late.

The ground beneath my hooves broke up into uneven roots and rocks, so I slowed down. Painstakingly, I cantered over the uneven path, which only grew rockier as I drew nearer to my destination. Luckily, the rocks got smoother and flatter as they replaced the plants of the forest; after a certain point, I could run on them like they were one of Canterlot’s less-maintained cobblestone streets.

Before I sped up to an all-out gallop again, I checked my saddlebag for the fiftieth time. I still had my cargo: a small, heavy chunk of moissanite. Two weeks ago, I’d started with just the name—“sounds like poison-ite”—before I learned it was a stupidly rare mineral. It’d taken me a trip to one of the mining cities far to the north, but I did get it.

Traveling wasn’t exactly frowned upon in my field. Student rates for trains and airships were cheap, so as long as I kept up with my current graduate thesis—studying ruins of a society that used to live in the Everfree—I could pretty much go wherever I wanted.

That afternoon, my trek ended when I reached a familiar cave. The inside smelled wet and earthy, and it would’ve been pitch black after fifty feet if I hadn’t brought my torchstone along. With a tiny effort of magic, the smooth, walnut-sized crystal glowed like a bonfire; after that, I only had to levitate it behind my head.

I walked down the natural slope of the cave’s main chamber. It went on for about three hundred feet, and little pools of water gave the whole place a cheese-like appearance. Like every time I passed them, I noted how my torchstone didn’t show their bottoms. If they all connected to a massive underground lake, that would have been interesting; however, it definitely wouldn’t be the strangest thing below the surface of the Everfree.

At the bottom of the slanty pool room, I ducked into a short hole in a wall. It was only two and a half feet tall, but it quickly opened up into a room whose rock walls were oddly smooth.

Or at least, they would have been oddly smooth had they’d been made of natural rock.

I put my torchstone away once I exited the small tunnel. For a moment, everything went utterly black—the sort of darkness that could only be found deep below the earth.

Then, a tight grid of bright yellow squares illuminated both me and the floor around me. I looked up, trying to find the source of the lights; like every time, I couldn’t find it before the room went dark again.

A dead, female voice cut through the silence and spoke to me in an ancient language. I caught my name—Lyra—near the very beginning, but everything after it sounded like gibberish. My best guess was that it was a pre-recorded greeting; given the lack of tone, it definitely felt like a machine was talking to me.

After the square lights and rectangular greeting, a hexagon of white lines appeared in the rock wall of the fake cave. Two halves slid away from each other to form a blindingly bright hole; after blinking away some reflexive eye watering, I walked forward and stepped through the entrance to my friend’s home.

For an entrance, the first room was fairly harsh. Bright light blinded me, the place smelled like ozone, and the floor itself was just a metal catwalk. The domed ceiling above me meant I was at the very top of a huge, white silo; however, calling it a “huge silo” was like calling a tornado a “big breeze”. I’d seen farm silos before, and none of those went down for miles on either side of a very narrow catwalk.

I blinked to make sure my eyes were adjusted to the oppressive whiteness, and then I started walking forward. At the end of the catwalk was a fairly thin glass tube, about five feet in diameter. When I got close enough to it, another hexagon appeared in the crystal-clear glass; after the trapezoidal doors split apart, a wafer of golden light materialized.

Before I stood on it, I took a deep breath—like always. It’s light, my instincts balked; even though I’d seen weirder things done with magic, an elevator platform made entirely out of energized light was a little harder to trust than something I’d been born with. With a shake of my head, I remembered all the times before that it’d supported my weight and stepped on to its strange, translucent sturdiness.

The disc began its descent as soon as the doors behind me hissed closed. Since the elevator shaft was a huge glass tube, I saw metal support beams and other catwalks rise past me. It gave an immense sense of height to the tube I was in, which clenched my gut as I realized now I was trapped on top of a disc of light, and if the power went out…

I tried not to think about it.

The music helped with that. Like the light squares at the entrance, I couldn’t tell where it came from. I’d endured music lessons when I was younger, since my parents thought a golden harp on my butt meant “musician”; from what I remembered, the soft, string music sounded like it was written with a vocalist in mind. I couldn’t sing, so I hummed along and bobbed my head as the disc went further and further down.

During my little musical interlude, the elevator passed into a more solid portion of the underground facility my friend lived in. The glass around me turned to a familiar white metal—the whole place was built out of it—and every four seconds, I passed through a ring of lights set into the tube.

Eighteen rings later, with a hiss and a hexagon, the elevator let me off at my destination. I could tell, since I recognized the giant, black symbols painted on the wall nearby. Ancient writings, I mused, but as I stepped into the black floor of a huge, white-metal hallway, something about that definition didn’t seem right.

The whole place was quiet and empty—the music stuck to the elevator—so I didn’t feel bad as I galloped through it. Even though I knew the right directions, it was still a far way to my destination; it’d go faster if I ran, and I was running late.

I ran past dozens of hexagonal doors; set into the wall above each of them was a long, black sign. Most of them were dark and dead, but the few that weren’t had glowing, bright red letters set into their face. I’d asked about the signs once; from what I’d learned, they explained what was in the room inside, and red meant “critical”.

One time, I’d tried to enter one of the dead-signed doors. It was apparently a tricky process, and by the time I’d forced my way inside—with due diligence to archaeological practices, of course—my friend had been inside, waiting for me. After the shock wore off, we had a long, awkward conversation about “boundaries for my own safety”.

It was easiest just to stay in the parts of the facility I’d been specifically given access to. Technically, it was my friend’s home, even if it was a huge, subterranean home where he lived alone and never really entertained guests.

Finally, I got to the door beneath amber letters that spelled out “CSMF Maintenance Control Room”—roughly translated, anyway. That’d been my first time in the facility, when I’d had a quick “tour” of the place. In hindsight, it’d been mostly directions about which intersections to turn in, but it was functional and technically inviting, which suited the tour guide splendidly.

The door opened for me, and I walked into a warm, dim room that was only lit up accidentally from glowing computer screens at the far end. From what I’d had explained to me, they were similar to the analytical machines I’d seen in Canterlot University—just smaller and faster.

To my left and right, shelf-like desks lined the walls. They made a wide, central aisle that led to the back of the room. Compared to the dead, black screens on the sides of the room, the six glowing rectangles in front of me looked like a beacon of life—especially given the pictures and symbols that flashed across them at breakneck pace.

From the chair in front of them, a distant, yet slightly amused voice spoke: “You’re late.”

“I…” Earlier that day, my planned lunch had things growing on it; since I wasn’t a biology major, I had to stop at a restaurant quickly before heading into the forest. Time went by quickly underground; if I skipped lunch, odds were good I’d be hungry for the whole afternoon and evening. I didn’t know if there even was any pony-suitable food down there; still, my only response for tardiness was a quick, “Sorry, Jesse.”

He chuckled blankly. “I’ve told you seventeen times now, don’t worry if you’re late by a matter of minutes or hours. Days, I might worry about, but only slightly. You’re reliable enough to get here eventually.”

Jesse stated the whole thing in a detached monotone that made me wonder about the differences between us. On top of everything else, there was a language barrier between us—he’d only started speaking to me out loud after I brought him an Equestrian language textbook. If he’d been a pony, I would’ve thought he was cold; with Jesse, I compared him to the metallic greeting that I received up on the surface.

Maybe that was just how humans talked.

I grinned at the back of his throne-like swivel chair; once again, I felt the huge, surreal sense of where I was and who I was speaking to. In my field, discovering an ancient city would be huge news; discovering an ancient city that was inhabited would be legendary.

Of course, I could never put anything on paper. My superiors at Canterlot University were pretty easygoing, but they’d need evidence if I came back with stories of Jesse and his home. In the nine months we’d known each other, Jesse had been stringent about not letting me leave with anything physical; at first, he’d been weird about me taking notes.

So really, all I could do was study Jesse and his lost civilization for my own interests. The ambitious side of me screamed at the notion—I’d never get anywhere in my field if I didn’t put out research papers about my studies—but the student inside me told my ambition to shut up. The whole reason I was an archaeologist was because I loved history; not everything I learned had to go somewhere.

Back in the maintenance room, I probed for information. “So, what are you up to?”

Jesse’s arm rose up over the back of his chair, and he pointed a finger at the screens one by one. “Facility energy output monitor, manufacturing sub-facility controls, deep mining status, security cameras, point defense system—offline, since I’ve got a little green guest with me—and research probe findings. So… the usual.”

I blinked a few times. “Uh… yeah, I never leave home without my… probe… defense… thing.” Jesse stayed silent, so I walked over to him. On the way, I whipped out my notepad and began taking notes. “But… mining? Why do you need ten-point-three pounds of moissanite if you’re already mining?”

“Sharp…” I thought I imagined tinge of warmth in his voice. “But I’m mining far below where moissanite forms. I suppose I could just manufacture silicon carbide in a laboratory. But I’d have to recalibrate the thermocouples, and it was hard enough to get them set up for all the diamonds I needed…” He scoffed and swept his hand around, gesturing to the half-dozen empty chairs sitting at unused desks. “This facility was never designed to be ran by one man alone.”

My ears drooped at the reminder. Jesse was always working, which just made me all the sadder at how his entire home—he always called it a facility—seemed like it was coming apart at the seams. Early on, I’d offered to help with fixing things; that had been one of the few times I’d seen Jesse smile. Then, he’d said no.

“You did bring it, right?” He cut through my idle musings. “The moissanite?”

“Yeah.” I nodded. “You were right, it was a rare mineral, but… I found it. Eventually.”

“Eventually?”

It was tricky to balance the truth with my desire to not make a big deal out of it. It had been difficult, but if I said that, I might not get any more jobs to help. “I had to go a few towns over before anyone had even heard of moissanite, but things got easier from there.”

“Well…” Jesse began. After what I hoped was rummaging around in his coat pocket, his hand and forearm appeared over the top of the chair. He held something clear that glistened in the soft glow of the monitors. “I hope this makes up for your troubles. Just don’t go crashing any economies with it.”

I reached out with my magic, and he let me grab the shiny rock. After bringing it over for a closer look, I realized what it was: diamond. A huge, already-cut diamond. Without any sort of jeweler’s training, I didn’t know its value; given how heavy and clear it was, I couldn’t imagine it’d sell for anything less than a small fortune.

And he’d just given it to me. All I could manage was a whispered, “Thank you…”

“Don’t wear yourself out over it…” I could almost see one of his tiny grins he sometimes made. “It was a production error from before I started my mining project. I mixed up schematics from a journal; I was trying to get a five-meter drill segment.”

I chuckled, still incredulous. “Happens to everyone, I guess.”

Jesse, as a rule, didn’t respond to my humor. During the ensuing silence, I put my diamond into one of the pockets in my right saddlebag. I watched the back of his chair for a moment, while he continued working on whatever it was he was still doing.

It gave me time to think about what he’d just done. Without even a second’s thought, as part of an accident, he’d used his race’s technology to give me something that could probably pay for my whole family’s meals for a year.

It was why I believed in him.

On top of my academic curiosity, the main reason I kept coming back to Jesse was his constant, relentless machinations. He wanted to rebuild his home after an eons-old event he’d only vaguely referred to as “The Chaos War”. Whatever it was, it predated Equestrian history, which went back several millennia. But regardless of when he started, Jesse’s plan wasn’t selfish—he told me himself, once he had everything back online, he’d use his technology to help Equestria and save his own race.

I wasn’t certain on the details of it, but given everything he’d shown me, it was impossible to not believe him. Heck, it was inspiring; despite everything he’d been through, despite the mountain of a task in front of him, Jesse always kept carrying out his plan without ever doubting himself or losing his conviction.

Compared to that, spending a few weeks hunting down a chunk of rock was nothing, and I was happy to do whatever I could to help.

The most important thing, I felt, was something that Jesse had clearly forgotten how to do. As noble as his intentions were, he had the social skills of a baked potato. I didn’t know how long he’d been shut away in his home, but I’d only ever seen him up in the forest once—nine months ago, when he’d saved me from a pack of timberwolves. Part of me wondered if he just gave me little chores to do because he was lonely.

Regardless, I felt like we had the basis for an oddly symbiotic relationship. He kept plugging away at his plan, and—while I wasn’t even coming close to doing an equal share—I made sure that, when he went to Equestria, he’d be able to do so without causing a scene. From there, things would only get better—no more sickness, no more hunger; just a brand new paradise for everypony.

After smiling at the back of his chair for a few more moments, I broke the silence again to get him talking: “So, how goes saving the world?”

Jesse made a sound to respond, but he was interrupted when a yellow triangle popped up on one of the screens. He leaned forward, pressed some buttons in a rapid, clicking manner, and then sat back. “It could be better. Want to see my big drill?”

“Uh…” I blinked. “Sure.”

His chair swiveled around and he stood up, which was a relief, since talking to the back of his head got old after a while. That wasn’t to say we were well-suited for eye contact; Jesse was tall, almost twice my height, so he had to look down at me like I was tiny.

Like his plan, Jesse’s clothes were constant—he always wore solid black under a billowing, white lab coat with big pockets for the various tools and devices he used in our ventures throughout his home. Under his coat, his arms and face were the same shade of caramel brown; for hair, he had a thin beard and a huge, shaggy halo of dark-brown hair.

Through all that, the thing that always drew my attention were his ice-blue eyes that shimmered and burned with whatever inner fire drove him.

Jesse didn’t pat me as he walked past to lead me wherever we were going; that had been a humiliating habit before he broke it. I kept a wary eye on his hand as he held it out behind him and waved me forward. “Come, then. The elevator awaits.”

I turned around and followed him, and in turn, I pulled my notepad through the air behind me. My curiosity beamed through in a smile as I got excited to see where we were headed.

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