Lacquered wood. Polished brass. Vented steam.
These three things represented the pinnacle of the modern era, an era that shaped and defined Twilight Sparkle's library. Former library, since it had now been refashioned into an observatory that just so happened to contain a lot of books.
You would be forgiven for not noticing, however, for all of the books that got in the way.
Towering shelves of expensive treated woods stood testament to the vast fortunes their owner had at their disposal. Monstrous printing presses drank ink like an addiction and devoured gluttonous volumes of paper to keep the shelves up with the times. Other tomes were sufficiently aged and wizened to keep the shelves timeless.
The bookshelves created a lot of dust though. Bad news when you had a little dragon assistant around with sinus problems. The owner’s insurance policy didn't cover 'flamethrower sneezes', or 'pyrotechnic hiccups'.
Those shelves stacked high and far, curved around each other cyclically. There wasn’t an obvious pattern that they conformed to, however, they were random and haphazard, and interpreting them was an exercise best left to the individual -- a rorschach ink blot in mahogany. Some ladders bridged gaps between levels as others stretched further still to the upper echelons, creating a perverse three dimensional labyrinth scaled only by the hardiest of explorers, or the shrewdest of librarians.
It was rather a shame about the roof, actually.
Once a stunning dome of baroque stained glass that filtered sunlight down onto a reader below, it was now a jutting series of copper plates, already tarnished to a harsh green whose electric corruption spilled into the stale dust-filled air of the library below. The dome of the new copper ceiling had been entirely mounted on railings, with a slit added to accommodate her latest invention, providing an unobstructed view of the vastness of the night sky at whatever angle she wished.
Twilight Sparkle had, really, invented two things of monumental significance, as she often did quite unintentionally. The Telescope came first, and now an Observatory in which to house it.
Certainly, ponies had invented crude facsimiles of this device before. But never to this scale, never to this degree of precision. It was like comparing a crude walking stick to a jewelled sceptre by dint of being able to rest your weight on both.
The housing of the thing was as long as eight of its creator pressed nose-to-tail, and as wide at its fattest end as three more Twilights to mark its diameter. It needed to be, to house the lenses and other optics, at least four of which were larger than their maker herself. Each delicate, polished lens was even more expensive than the finely polished silver mirrors between them. The housing had to be two thick, solid inches of brass just to support its own weight.
Which made it an utter nightmare to move.
Its creator, a purple unicorn covered in scorch marks and sticking plasters, with neat midnight bangs cropped at right angles, sat in a red velvet seat at the Telescope's control hub, staring down its eyepiece. The scorch marks were, at least for now, hidden beneath a set of hardened synthetic-leather overalls she wore with all the decorum of a ballgown, with a white cotton blouse where the overalls ended and she began, for modesty. It was a horrid pain to wash.
The eyepiece provided a distant look into nothing-in-particular, out into the aether. Nothing of interest, yet, at least. It would need to be calibrated for its true target.
Whatever that may be.
She called into the bell of the brass speaking tube beside her, which ran far down a monolithic bookshelf and deeper still through the floor below, like a creeping brass vine ambling its way down a cliff-face to lay its roots.
"How are the boilers, Spike?"
A little rattle raced back up the tube in response, a reply from the bowels of the boiler basement.
"We're getting two bars of pressure, oh Captain my Captain!"
"Just Twilight will do, as always. Thank you, my faithful assistant. All right, that should be enough..."
Twilight Sparkle, Royal Philosopher in Residence, stared at her collection of wheels and levers. Three elongated brass levers, polished to a shine, ended in black, spherical rubber knobs. Pipes of superheated steam, fed up from Spike and the boilers, awaited her guidance with the pull of these levers.
"What should we do with this beautiful brass behemoth, Spike? Where do you think we should aim it?"
"You could look for that mysterious tenth planet?" her faithful draconic assistant offered, "the one that you said is throwing out the orbit of the ninth one, but nopony can seem to find?"
Twilight seriously pondered that for a moment, looking deep into the eyepiece and past it out into the solar system. It would be powerful enough...
"Next time," she declared, as much for her own benefit as it was for Spike's. "I wouldn't know where to aim the Telescope yet."
"You could... try and see what Roman's rings are made of?"
"Or I could just predict that they're obviously rock and ice, like everything else out in the aether. What's something nopony else could do without an instrument this precise?"
"Hit the wrong lever and crush themselves?"
"Not helping, Spike."
"Well, there's a full moon tonight, so there's going to be plenty of light to see by?" His tone was uncertain. Rightfully so.
Twilight Sparkle massaged her temples with her hooves. "Spike, that will make other things more difficult to see because of light pollution. It's like going into a theater pit with a bright lantern to see the celluloidtography better."
"Oh. Wait, that wouldn't work? Is that why they have it so dark in there? I thought it was just so you couldn't see what they put on the popcorn to make it taste like that. Or what the ponies in the back row were doing."
Okay, so, Spike may be wrong, but she couldn't blame it on a lack of insight.
"It's going to make it exceedingly more difficult to see anything but the moon tonight, Spike. I guess... no, wait, Spike, you're a genius!"
"I am?" The pipes between them did a good job to mask his confusion, but not good enough.
"The moon, Spike!" Twilight explained, hoof pressing the catch on the handle closest to her and wrenching it vigorously back towards her. The Telescope ground on its thoroughly-greased rails as the steam forced it to comply with simple physics. Twilight's chair slowly spun with it. "We could map it! The vast oceans! The mountains, the crevices! We could prove that Equus isn't the only aetherial body with topography!"
"Yay is right!" Twilight giggled excitedly, much in the same way another pony would after staying awake for a few hours too long, being sustained by at least four cups of coffee too many. "Where should we start?"
Spike hesitated. "Oh, uh, are you asking me for real, or asking just to be polite? Surely, I don't mind either way, but–"
Twilight rolled her eyes, lamenting the fact that her number one assistant couldn't tell just how magnificent the gesture was through the pipes.
"No, my faithful assistant, I want your honest input on this. Where should we start?"
"How about... the left side? Since that's going to get the darkest, first?"
"Brilliant!" Twilight agreed enthusiastically, pulling the lever furthest from her until the Telescope’s gaze hit the side of the moon just so.
Twilight let out an annoyed grunt. Very unladylike but, well, sometimes so was she. "It's harder to tell from such an oblique angle. I forgot to remember the moon isn't flat, it curves like Equus does. I'm looking at this edge almost side-on."
"Still, though, what do you see? Is it like you expected?"
"It's like a desert up there. A seemingly endless white desert, with pearl sand."
"I didn't think you were the poetic type, Twilight?"
"I'm not being poetic. It really is like somepony took all the pearls that ever were and will be and hurled them into orbit after a thorough round with a mortar and pestle, and it all just stuck together."
"So, sandstorms, huh?"
Twilight's head pulled back from the eyepiece long enough for her to shake her head vehemently before realizing that, again, Spike couldn't see her, and feeling rather silly about it.
"There's no atmosphere up there in the aether. The air just gets thinner and thinner like... well, you've been up in the balloon, Spike, you know. But that means, because there aren't really mountains, that there mustn't be any tectonic activity up there either. It's entirely dead, in every sense of the word."
How wonderfully morbid. Her map had suddenly become a guide to a geographic necropolis.
"So, it's probably really cold then, huh?"
"Probably. Certainly nopony could survive up there, not for more than a few seconds."
"Huh. So, no new libraries for you on the moon, then?"
A dangerous gleam appeared in Twilight's eye. One that spoke a simple statement that began with inspiration, and ended with the infamous phrase, ‘or die trying’.
"No, Twilight," her assistant chided after a long moment of contemplative silence. He knew her too well.
"A mare can dream, Spike."
"One mare's dreams is another dragon’s nightmares."
"Point. But there's... blue? Spike! I see blue!"
"Is it a sapphire? Is the moon made of gems?"
"No... no it couldn't be..." Twilight murmured, gingerly pressing down another lever. The Telescope twisted minutely with it, narrowing down and isolating a fuzzy patch of blue right at the edge of the moon. It was about the size of a pinhead at her current magnification, maybe smaller, but it was as visible against that blanket of whiteness as even a single gold thread would be on blackest felt. She centered the Telescope dead on it.
"It definitely can't be a gem. If the moon is tectonically dead, there wouldn't be anything to create them, let alone push them to the surface. I need to get a closer look."
Drat. Three levers: Horizontal, vertical, and the one she really didn't want to use so lightly: Magnification, in the center.
Magnification would slide the mirrors on their mountings fitted to tracks within the body of the telescope itself. Those mirrors were fragile, delicate things, and the sheer force of the steam she was channelling... wasn't.
A small nudge, just the smallest of gestures. Timid as a mouse, or perhaps even timid as a mouse who had spotted cheese on something which appeared decidedly spring-loaded, Twilight pushed the middle lever up.
Nothing cracked. Nothing shattered. Just the soft slippery grind of mountings on their lubricated tracks. The Telescope played its part masterfully, and the view of that mysterious patch of blue on the endless white got larger.
Using a nearby dune for scale, she estimated that the blue patch was at least the size of a pony, possibly larger. Not much larger, though. It was moving, too, or at least part of it was. Like it was caught in a breeze.
A breeze obviously nonexistent on the moon, unless everything modern science and philosophy had gone so far to hypothesize was wrong.
Twilight Sparkle eyed that accursed middle lever again.
"You're going to make me use you again, aren't you?" she muttered darkly at it, away from the speaking tube where Spike couldn't misconstrue her statement.
"So, what is it?" Spike sounded giddy now, or at the very least excitably curious, like Twilight had been moments before.
Now, now she just felt sick. Had she unintentionally just destroyed the results of decades of insights with a chance little discovery at the moon's edge?
Only one way to find out.
Twilight steeled herself as she reached for that brass lever. A bit more confidence, which she felt was entirely undeserved, accompanied the gesture. If she admitted it to herself, she was emboldened by the possibility of proving herself wrong, but as a scientist she refused to acknowledge any bias she might have. Especially bias this potent.
Mirrors slid home and locked into their new positions. Twilight dared look through the eyepiece again.
Something was broken. She had broken something with the levers, that was the only explanation.
"We just dropped below two on the dial, Twilight. You figure out what it is, or am I going to need more coal?"
"I think I broke the mirrors, Spike. We're obviously catching the reflection of somepony's apartment with this, somehow. That's the only possible explanation, besides the obvious."
There was a tentative silence. Did she sound panicked? Hysterical? When her assistant replied, it was with the tentativity of one who was walking on eggshells, certainly. "Well, what's the obvious then?"
"Spike, the only other possibility is that the telescope is not broken, and there is a mare on the moon."
Another long silence. She awaited Spike's answer with trepidation.
"Well, that can't be right. What do you think's broken?"
"I don't know! I definitely haven't seen this pony before. I'd have remembered her! So I can't tell where I'm getting this interference from!"
There was another long pause. It was a rather diplomatic silence this time, one that came from the pregnant pauses that gave birth to carefully worded sentences, sentences laden with the subtext ‘and please don't bite my head off for saying this’. "Why? Why would you have remembered this pony in particular, other than her being on the moon, apparently."
Twilight tried not to take offense for reasons she didn't quite understand, and failed. "And just what do you mean by that, mister?"
"Well, I mean, you've never really been good with remembering names. Or faces. Or, ah, voices."
"That's not true! I'm very good with remembering ponies."
"Oh yeah? How about this: Give me the names of two of your High School teachers."
Twilight opened her mouth, grinning at the tube rather smugly. Spike cut her off.
"Wait! Let me finish. Give me the names of two of your High School teachers that never gave you a B+ or lower."
Twilight's mouth clamped shut, and the pleasant warmth of smugness turned frigid cold. "Grudges should count for something."
"No. No they really, really shouldn't." The monotone imparted by the brass tube medium layered on Spike's deadpan snark in a way that really got to Twilight. "Face it. You're just not the social type."
"To be fair, I graduated when I was thirteen, Spike. High School was a very long time ago."
"Same question, but University."
"I was only there for three years!"
"Uh-huh. So why would you remember this pony, this specific pony?" There was an understandable dubiousness to his voice. Twilight liked to imagine him leaning against the tube, now, skeptical expression on his draconic face, arms folded tight across his chest.
"Well, for one thing, she must be the tallest pony I've ever seen, except for The Princess herself."
"Oh, yeah? What else?"
Twilight's eye pressed to the Telescope again, watching the faintest of sighs part the lips of the mare on the moon. A curious gesture, if there really was no atmosphere up there.
"I don't think I've ever seen a pony this lonely before."
Not even in the mirror.
Twilight Sparkle looked at the wheels and levers in front of her. A lever might be too much... the wheels gave her a lot more fine control over the movement. Maybe if she got a closer look...
She did one full revolution of the wheel. That should be enough to... to...
Do absolutely nothing.
A bemused eyebrow shot up on the unicorn's face. Had she really made the fine tuning so fine?
Another full revolution. Another.
Twilight's eyebrow shot down low with its twin into a knotted ball of frustration. A dozen more full revolutions of the wheel resulted in no changes. She was about to grab a wrench – possibly to fix something, possibly to whack the wheel until it chose to work – when Spike's voice rattled up the tube.
"Alright, the boiler's back up above two bars of pressure again. See if you can't get a better look! I'm releasing the catch now!"
Spike had shut off the steam feed to build up more pressure. That's why turning the little metal wheel hadn't... wait.
Too late. The steam pushed through its path of least resistance, up through the valve that fifteen full revolutions had opened. Twilight's hoof danced across the wheel, desperate to undo what she had just done, but she couldn't outrace the surge of pressure she had just unleashed.
The soft grinding of tracks became a dull roar, more like a freight train on its tracks, as the mirrors focused closer on the anomaly Twilight had targeted.
Her blood froze like ice in her veins as she watched in rapt horror down the long brass tube. It kept zooming in, closer and closer. She had been just off-center, so the Telescope instead caught a patch of ground directly behind the mare on the moon as the mirrors slid dutifully onwards.
Hoofprints left in the lunar surface. Hoofprints left in the moon dust. This wasn't an anomalous reflection, and her Telescope certainly wasn't broken. There really, truly was a mare on the moon!
There was a shear grinding, like the sound of ripping tinfoil blasted through a megaphone. The Telescope rapidly zoomed out, back past the mare, back past the mountains, until she was no better off looking through it than she was using her naked eye. Then glittering cobwebs as a resounding, shattering crash rattled out of the long brass housing of the Telescope.
Her Telescope certainly hadn't been broken. Before.
Below, in the basement, Spike plugged his ears with cotton wads to escape the screams of the mare far above, amplified and echoed down the brass tube beside him.