• Published 30th Apr 2016
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MLA: Perihelion - Starscribe



Living in Equestria proves to be more dangerous for Second Chance than she could've possibly imagined. Now an old enemy has followed her from an Earth destroyed by war. Can she save Equestria from suffering the same fate?

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Chapter 1

Second Chance looked upon the vastness of the great ruin and almost lost her breath. Massive lengths of stone rose at odd angles, each one as thick as the Golden Oak Library and coated with mossy growth. The ancient stone surrounded her and her fellow explorers, casting strange geometric shadows on the grass.

“You think it’s much further?” Sweetie Belle’s voice echoed strangely through the stone, her question splitting into a dozen different choruses. The unicorn was dressed much as Chance herself, in thick cloth and sturdy saddlebags that would resist spilling their contents.

Apple Bloom was the first to answer, though she stood out from the other fillies about as much as anypony could. Thin metal supports ran along her spine and down each of her legs, her body wrapped in soft padding but also tied tight into the exoskeleton.

Her new exoskeleton was made from polished aluminum, with slim motors and servos worked seamlessly into the construction. Instead of an awkward heating coil it had only a little blue tank on the back, albeit a tank covered with explosion hazard stickers.

Apple Bloom walked with none of the weariness her friends seemed to show, practically bouncing as the servos did most of the work. Of course, it was hard to see where the earth pony magic ended and the machine began. Both could’ve explained her endurance. Chance, on the other hand, was quite certain her cheerfulness came from the cutie mark on her flank, the apple-shaped gear and wrench that only hinted at the intellect underneath. “Shouldn’t be much further.” She gestured up with one hoof, and the metal moved right along with her body. “We have to be near the center by now, right?”

Chance walked a little slower than the others, levitating her rugged little tablet in faint gray magic. She saw the formation from the air, position calculated thanks to Scootaloo's valiant effort in the little airship that was even now soaring above the ruins. “Only thirty meters this way.” Chance flicked her tail, correcting their path.

“Thirty meters,” Sweetie Belle echoed, her steps slowing a little so that she shoved Chance’s shoulder with her flank. “If you’re wrong, I want the rest of what’s in your canteen.”

Chance answered by twisting sideways, flicking her saddlebags open. “Take it anyway. I don’t need it as bad.” There was no water around them, no streams or rivers that might’ve given them relief. Still, she was a little more active than Sweetie Belle. Twilight’s chores had made sure of that.

Something shimmered green and her last canteen emerged, levitating the short distance towards her friend. Sweetie might not be nearly as good with her magic as Chance, but at least she could handle basic unicorn levitation. Without the strength of earth ponies or the coordination of the pegasi, a little magic made life much easier.

“What are we lookin’ for, exactly?” Apple Bloom didn’t sound thirsty, servos grinding cheerfully as she cantered in the direction Chance had pointed.

Sweetie capped the canteen, returning the empty plastic to its place. She answered before Chance could. “A powerful Precursor artifact, obviously. Didn’t Truth say it—”

Apple Bloom cut her off, sounding annoyed. “I don’t mean why are we here, I mean what are we looking for here?” She gestured all around her. “Is the artifact right here on the ground?”

Chance shrugged, trying to remember what Twilight Sparkle had told her about the place. She didn’t remember, but fortunately, she wasn’t restricted to purely biological memory anymore. “Let me check.”

She stopped, letting her eyes lose focus. After having her implants for months now, she had plenty of practice getting used to the way she had to unfocus her mind, calling upon the command interface.

Ready. The text appeared along with a voice, faint and obviously artificial. Military strains like her Neuroboost were capable of far more, such as overlaying her entire world with tactical information, or creating false-color projections for targets concealed by active camouflage.

Chance didn’t say the command out loud, though novice users often had no other choice. She might be new to using this strain as a pony, but she had used Neuroboost for her entire adult life. It wasn’t that hard to remember how. Activate sensory recall, sound and projected image only.

Input time or record flag.

Flag: Twilight’s Precursor Ruin Lecture

Command accepted. You may use the cancel command to suspend playback at any time, or the exit command to return to the main command interface.

“Chance?” She heard Sweetie Belle from beside her, and realized both of them were staring at her.

“She’s doing it again.” Apple Bloom suppressed a giggle, though the effort seemed to be a little bit of a strain for her. “Just let her finish.”

Chance ignored them both, as a large screen appeared in the air atop their faces. It depicted the world exactly as she had seen it the moment she had activated the sensory recording. Twilight’s lab formed in the air, with soft wooden walls and the faint sound of distant machinery.

The massive bulk of Truth the OMICRON Core rested against one wall, his surface always illuminated with a faint glow now that his power didn’t depend on coal. Thick shelves had been erected along the entire wall, each cubby marked off with a different element or compound. Many were filled, stacked high with metal ingots or carefully wrapped packages. A few had stranger things, sensors or microprocessors Truth had made but not needed to use.

Twilight stood by her desk, surrounded by books. There was a map on the table in front of her, which she gestured to several times as she spoke. Twilight Sparkle had changed far less than Chance had over the last few months. She hadn’t grown an inch taller, nor had her fur lost any of its luster or its color. Twilight was, after all, a near-immortal Alicorn. “The Starlight Flower was discovered in—”

Fast forward ten minutes.

Light moved along the floor as Twilight gesticulated wildly, waving her hooves about in the air. Another second, and her voice returned to normal. “Despite the stories, nopony’s ever been able to find their way in. The stone resists magic, so even unicorn explorers weren’t able to teleport inside.”

Chance watched the view droop from the screen, filling with bright green limbs and a wooden floor. “So there’s no chance we could get in?”

Twilight shook her head. “No chance at all, my little apprentice.” She levitated a book off the table, for Chance to see. A strange circular pattern had been sketched there, in Twilight’s hoofwriting. The words were not Equestrian upon the edge of the circle, nor were they English. Even so, Chance could read them. She bit back her excitement, forcing her eyes back to her hooves.

It worked; her teacher didn’t even seem to notice the brief surge of recognition on her student’s face. “I visited with Rainbow a few months before you came to Equestria. She had really enjoyed spending time with Daring Do, and thought maybe she could make a few discoveries of her own…”

Chance saw something strange on Twilight’s face as she reviewed the memory, and smelled something different too. Probably would’ve been more familiar if she had still been human. “We couldn’t get in. Spent three whole days out there.” She gestured to the drawing. “I tried just about every spell there is, including a few destructive unmaking spells. Nothing worked.”

She closed the book, setting it down on the desk and rising to her hooves. “That’s why I think it’s a perfect first destination for your little crusade. Less than a day away, without any danger of you actually getting in.”

Chance couldn’t feel her ears droop, but she remembered the way they had, the way Twilight’s words had sucked the enthusiasm from her. Her guardian seemed to notice too, because the virtual screen filled with lavender coat and feathers.

“Don’t think of it like a failure! It’s an opportunity to be responsible, particularly with your friends. If you’d seen some of the things they’d tried…” Twilight shook her head, and the tight hug ended.

“But we might get in!” Chance heard her own voice insist. Unlike other videos or recordings of herself, it didn’t sound strange to her. It was, rather, her own voice exactly as she heard it. “It’s not impossible! And if we get in… there’s a human artifact inside!”

Twilight smiled sadly. “Some ponies think the Starlight Flower is a Precursor artifact. There are other theories too, though. Some ponies think the whole thing was made by Alicorns. After… some of the things I’ve learned, I think the latter group are probably closer.” She gestured towards Truth. “Humans were never much for magic, but the whole place radiates it. You’ll sense it when you visit… the stone that made the thing feels like a conjuration spell, which might be why—” She stopped, gazing pointedly at Chance.

Her own voice answered with a bored, rote recitation. “The third law of magic—the cost of modifying a spell cast by another is the factorial of the variance between the caster’s nimbus and your own.” Chance rolled her eyes, creating a brief blurring on the screen.

“Yes!” Twilight beamed. “Don’t underestimate the fundamentals, Chance. Ponies who master the laws soon master the universe.” She stopped, looking expectant. Chance didn’t answer, forcing Twilight to continue: “Taken from Thaumic Philosophy Volume One, written by…”

“Starswirl.” Chance groaned. “Obviously. Even Sweetie Belle knows he wrote the laws.”

Discovered the laws,” Twilight corrected. “Ponies don’t write natural laws.”

Truth spoke from the wall, though his voice carried well. The OMICRON Core could do strange things with sound as its intellect grew, bending the waves around objects and making them echo from nearly anything in its presence. “That statement is not entirely accurate, user Twilight Sparkle.”

End Playback. The screen and phantom sound vanished from around her, as abruptly as they had come. She didn’t need to listen to Truth debate philosophy with her mentor. The OMICRON Core seemed to take perverse pleasure in debates with her teacher, though Chance couldn’t imagine why. She was grateful it didn’t give her such a hard time.

It was hard to judge exactly how much time had passed. The Neuroboost could rapidly increase the speed of thought when it was called upon to do so, though no organic brain could tolerate it for long. The implants knew these tolerances, and would never risk user damage.

Her friends had spread a blanket on the ground, though the dirt was already mostly clear and the growth here short enough that it didn’t interfere.

There was a plate on the ground between them, empty except for a single sandwich. “Where’d you two get this?” She walked up to the edge of the blanket, looking between her friends to the plate and back again.

Apple Bloom grinned. She hadn’t removed the exoskeleton, but it didn’t stop her from sitting on her haunches and grinning proudly up at Chance. “Apple sandwiches! Granny made ‘em for us! This one’s yours!” She pushed the plate towards her.

“You set up lunch?” Chance didn’t sit down, not with their time so limited. She did levitate the sandwich up to her muzzle, sniffing at it. It did smell like apples, though not as much as she had feared.

Chance bit into the dark, crunchy bread. The vegetables were so thick inside that she almost couldn’t close her mouth on it, all fresh and juicy enough they practically gushed. The apple proved to be the faint sweetness of apple butter, tying the whole thing together but not overwhelming it as the whole chunks of apple Chance had expected.

Even after nearly a year in Equestria, Chance was still having trouble getting used to the food. If her friends never tasted algae crackers, Chance would count them lucky.

“We never know how long you’ll take when you get like that,” Sweetie Belle squeaked. She had already eaten her sandwich.

Chance blushed, hiding her face in the sandwich. Eventually she answered, swallowing another delicious mouthful. “I went over everything Twilight told me, but… I didn’t take notes like I should’ve. You girls probably know how long-winded she can be…”

Apple Bloom nodded sympathetically. “Yeah. Must not be easy to be learnin’ all the time, on top’a all the learnin’ we do at school.”

“I don’t mind.” Chance looked down at her hooves. “Back where I come from, I’m used to being able to learn something as soon as I want to know it. Just ask a computer, and it’ll tell you everything there is to know. Equestria doesn’t have those, but Twilight’s kinda like one.” She walked past her friends, setting the rest of her sandwich back on the plate as she passed.

“Where are you—” Sweetie Belle hurried after her. “Chance, we’re not in that much of a hurry. We can finish lunch!”

“We have to be back in Ponyville by nightfall.” Chance glanced briefly at the tablet again, and the clock in the corner. “It’s a three hour flight back. It took an hour to hike here, so… we only have another hour before we have to go. No more waiting.”

“Really?” Apple Bloom hurried up beside her, wiping her face with the back of one hoof. There was impressive dexterity in her and the exoskeleton both, to allow such fine motor control. “Guess we better find this artifact thing!”

“Starlight Flower,” Chance muttered, stopping on the edge of the carved circle.

“Yeah, that.” Apple Bloom took a few moments of brushing with hooves and tail to clear the dirt and dust from the raised circle of carved stone, revealing the design beneath.

The center of the circle had a stylized moon, or maybe a squashed eye. Many stars dotted the space around it, melting gradually into words. Chance grinned, walking around the circle and muttering to herself as she read the largest writing, furthest from the center. “Contra vim mortis non crescit herba in hortis.” Her smile widened a little. “Glad Truth didn’t hear that, probably screwed up the pronunciation pretty bad.”

Her friends both stared, uncomprehending. “What does that mean?” Apple Bloom already looked like she was running out of patience.

Chance’s smile faltered a little. “I think this thing is a seal. Lots of old seals have their mottos on the outside, right? See anything familiar about the symbols?”

The other unicorn filly leaned in close, so close her eyes were only a hoof or so away from the surface. “Is it… the language your ponies use? The symbols look familiar!”

“The symbols are familiar. But the language is different. Latin is thousands of years older than Federation Common.”

Apple Bloom didn’t look any more satisfied. “What’s the motto say?”

Chance’s throat constricted a little, and she had to take a big breath before she could answer. “Loosely translated, it says… ‘No matter how hard you look, you can’t find a cure for death.’”

“It does look like Luna’s cutie mark in the middle.” Apple Bloom gestured, then looked back up at Chance. “Did you ask her about this place before coming out with us?”

Chance winced, then shook her head. “I didn’t know! I don’t see her every night anymore, so I try not to bother her with little things.” She reached out, scratching at the seal with one of her hooves. Well, she tried to, anyway.

Her hoof couldn’t even clear the space above the seal before striking something solid in the air. A shimmering field of blue energy flickered there, rippling up into the sky.

“Well.” Apple Bloom glared at the field. “That’s gonna give us trouble.” She turned, exoskeleton whirring and hissing as she braced herself on the ground. Spikes exploded out the side of her forehooves, anchoring her into the ground.

“I don’t think that’s gonna work.” Chance’s voice was matter-of-fact. “My mom said a shield like this held off a whole changeling invasion for days. Just one pony isn’t enough.”

“We’ll see.” Apple Bloom leaned back, then bucked with all her might. Metal strained as her hooves slammed into the surface of the shield. Blue energy filled the sky in a wide blue cylinder that continued to glow for nearly a minute after the little earth pony dropped sideways to the ground and clutched at apparently pained hooves.

“Well, that sucks.” Chance looked around the shield, brushing away the dirt near her, but couldn’t find any switches or obvious runes to break. “I don’t suppose you know any shield counterspells, Sweetie.”

“One.” The filly looked nervous, shuffling uneasily on her hooves. “I mean… I’ve heard about one way. It’s not a spell exactly, but…”

“Wait, you know a way in?” Apple Bloom looked doubtful.

“Hey, I’m a unicorn too!” She stomped one hoof, and seemed to grow a little more confident. “It’s not a spell, but… all these shields work the same. They’re only made to protect ponies, so they can respond to the way ponies around them feel. If everypony feels good, like safe and stuff… they’ll turn off. At least… that’s how the one in Rarity’s safe works…”

Chance’s eyes widened, and she found herself suddenly not wanting to know what occasion had taught Sweetie Belle this information.

“Is that useful?” Apple Bloom’s expression was unchanged. “We’re runnin’ out a time, we’re somewhere strange and a little bit scary. We’re not gonna be able to just make ourselves feel good just cuz we want to!”

Again, it was Sweetie Belle who answered. “Well, that depends. You girls feel like a song?”

Chance grinned, moving a little closer so she could hear better. Chance had been singing with Sweetie Belle for over a year now, as part of the Jr. Ponytones. They didn’t perform as often and their sets were never as ambitious, but it didn’t matter. Hearing Sweetie Belle sing was always a treat.

“Thank goodness Scootaloo is flying,” Chance whispered, gesturing for Apple Bloom to get closer too. She didn’t really understand how the magic worked, not like Sweetie Belle. She couldn’t start it like the other unicorn could. Once Sweetie actually started singing, it didn’t matter.

Her voice was clear as she sang, echoing around the strange stone pillars. Chance didn’t know the words of the song she had chosen, some kind of folk lullaby. After a few bars, she found they came anyway. Apple Bloom joined in, harmonizing with them and visibly relaxing with the words.

Even after experiencing this strange magic half a dozen times, it felt alien. She knew how to move, she knew what to say, and she felt the calm filling her.

Eventually the song ended, leaving all three of them a little sleepy since that was its intention. Nevertheless, Sweetie Belle leaned forward with one hoof, and nothing stopped her. Her tired eyes grew proud. “See? That… wasn’t so hard.”

Apple Bloom nodded. “Ah forget you can do that.” She leaned to one side, glancing at Sweetie’s rump. “Seems like you should’ve earned that cutie mark a’ yours by now.”

“Yeah.” Her ears drooped a little.

“Let’s… try to stay relaxed.” Chance crossed the shield, walking onto the now unprotected carving. “How long will the shield stay down?”

“Few hours?” Sweetie shrugged. “It would probably take a unicorn to reset it if they wanted it back sooner.”

“Well, the ones who built this place would’ve needed a way in.” Chance stared down. ”Since this is the only opening, and…” She gestured up at the massive stone pillars above them, growing at their strange angles. “There aren’t any markings on those, it’s got to be here. I figure it’s probably an elevator. We switch it on, and it’ll take us down into the ruins.”

“Makes sense.” Sweetie Belle walked onto the center of the carved circle, sitting down on her haunches. “Let’s go!”

Chance blushed. “I don’t… I’m not completely sure about how to get in. But I’m sure it’s on here!”

“I’ma finish mah sandwich.” Apple Bloom turned, walking slowly away. “I’ll help when I’m done.”

Chance called upon the pattern-recognition in her Neuroboost, soaking in every inch of the carved circle. There was more Latin here, woven delicately into the carving.

The Latin was fairly simple, and she translated to herself even as she read. “The infinite stars shine forever. Should one fall, the sky will not be poorer long, for there remain as many as before.” Around what might’ve been Luna’s cutie mark were near-endless stars, though their positions didn’t seem to matter.

Chance scanned the stone with her tablet, and learned it was stone. She sent a radio ping through with the help of her Neuroboost on as many frequencies as she had, without effect. She even tried the ‘mage sight’ spell Twilight had taught her. In the vision her horn gave her, she saw a faint shimmer around all the stone, indicating they were magical somehow. If they were part of a spell though, the nimbus that radiated from it was far too weak to read.

In the end, it was not Chance who solved the riddle. It was, rather, Scootaloo.

The little pegasus’s voice came in over the radio clipped onto Apple Bloom’s exoskeleton, sounding bored. “Hey, did you ponies figure it out yet?”

Apple Bloom whimpered, twisting around to speak into the radio. It was a small device, about the size of a hoof but curved into an oval. The back had a clip, and the front had only a grill to permit sound to enter and escape. Primitive it might be, but it was also one of the most advanced radios in Equestria.

There were perhaps two more advanced, one running all the way to the top of the Golden Oak Library, and the other strung into the rigging of their airship.

Apple Bloom sounded as embarrassed as Chance felt. “We’re working on it! We think we found the entrance, but… we haven’t found a way to get it open yet!”

Scootaloo’s voice dropped into a low mutter. “Horseapples!”

“Huh?”

Their friend ignored the question. “Truth just called. He said right about now you’re running out of time and you won’t be in yet. He said…” She groaned. “He said he saw Twilight’s drawings. The answer is Aleph-null.”

Chance’s eyes lit up. She dug into her saddlebags, removing the knife folded there and flicking it open.

“What? Apple Bloom looked between Chance and the radio, confusion growing. “What the hay is that?”

Sweetie shrugged.

The stone had already proven itself unyielding under their attack. None of her magic had been able to cut it. Still, Chance hadn’t ever tried to trace a pattern between the stars before. She searched, and her pattern-recognizing Neuroboost highlighted the ones already grouped into the shape she would need. Chance lowered the knife, and found the blade sank nearly a full centimeter without resistance. She drew, tracing a letter not all that dissimilar to a capital N, and the zero beside it.

“Please tell me it didn’t work.” Scootaloo’s voice sounded annoyed. “If Truth really figured it out before us, we’re gonna be hearing about this for a week.”

As if the ruins heard her, a deep groan came from beneath them, as the ancient stones ground against each other.

“Sorry Scoots.” Apple Bloom sounded sympathetic. “Looks like it’s going down.”

“We’re going to drop out of radio contact,” Chance called, hopping onto the little circle of stone. “This much rock will block our little transmitter.” It was only a few hooves down, and not going very fast. Sweetie didn’t join them right away, fumbling with something in her own saddlebags.

“Better hurry!” Apple Bloom looked up, their friend already nearly a full pony’s height away. “We’re going down!”

Sweetie Belle jumped about then, dragging a thick rope behind her. The rope tripped her as she jumped, and she landed in a tangled heap. “Dang.”

Chance tried to hide her smile as she reached out with her magic, extricating her friend from the length of rope before they could get much further. “Good thinking! We might need to climb out if the elevator won’t go back up!”

Apple Bloom looked skeptical. “Have either of you ponies ever climbed a rope? The only pony I’ve ever seen do it was mah’ big sister. No offense, but she’s a real strong earth pony.”

Sweetie Belle was undaunted. “It still might be useful! Like, if ponies come by, now they’ll know we went down!”

They were accelerating. Scootaloo said something, but her voice stretched into static before fading away entirely. There were no gears or shafts set into the stone all around them, just rough cut stone without strata or apparent weakness.

Chance gulped, wondering just how deep the shaft would go.