• Published 18th Nov 2020
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Hand of the Ancients - Starscribe

Lyra is convinced that the ancient Horn of Celestia is the key to unlocking the true history of her race. But the tower isn't what it seems, and neither is she.

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Chapter 2

Lyra Heartstrings probably wouldn’t have been able to say what she was expecting from the ruin of a pre-Equestrian civilization. What little of this period in history was known was thanks to the handful of objects that had come with the first settlers in Equestria. There would be pottery, a few worked copper objects, and probably a star-worshiping religion.

Yet their history contained another civilization—or else the same one, seen from another angle. Ponies who built incredible armor that could resist the fire of a dragon, ponies who could change the seasons of an entire planet instead of thousands working to keep a few towns safe. Ponies who needed only a few powerful earth ponies to feed an entire city.

Lyra belonged to the latter camp, and apparently she wouldn’t be returning home disappointed. The ponies who built the Horn of Celestia had obviously been the magical experts, who could do almost anything they wanted with their incredible spells.

Their spells were so fine and well-worked that Lyra couldn’t even sense the magic flowing into the light that came on as they moved from one room to another. She couldn’t sense the incredible fire-magic that must be keeping the outside at bay. Because the interior of the tower was perfectly comfortable, and completely blocked out the sound of the wind. Only a gentle whirring followed them from room to room, like a stray breeze that wanted to see what they would do.

And the things these ponies had left behind.

“Dead end,” Bon Bon said, making it only a step inside before she turned to go. “It’s just another one of those rooms with a light box.”

She meant the little square set into the wall over their heads, with its rapidly flashing lights through several colors. She wasn’t sure what it meant, except that the ones who lived here apparently enjoyed the pretty colors.

“Wait.” Lyra moved past her into the center of the room. Down through the clear material was a shaft that vanished into the gloom—maybe even further down below them than the Horn stretched up into the sky.

“What?” Bon Bon asked. “Be careful, you’re losing your audience.”

Muffins was already wandering away down the hall, apparently bored by the dead end.

“Come back!”

Lyra stomped one hoof on the clear surface, and it didn’t budge even a little. As sturdy as the metal the rest of the tower was made from. “This is the center of the tower. I think it must be an elevator.”

“An elevator,” Bon Bon repeated, her expression dubious. “In a tower built before we discovered electricity?”

Lyra shrugged. “They had magic. Maybe… this box thing is a control.” She approached slowly, frowning. “Gimme a boost, sweetie.”

The earth pony flushed a little at the request, but she didn’t refuse. Just stood right up against the wall in front of her. “You better be right about this, Lyre. Or I’ll remember next time we’re together.”

Lyra resisted the temptation to think about what that might mean, just used her friend to prop up her legs so she could reach the square—and it changed.

It had looked only white from the floor, but straight on—there were messages here. There was an image of the tower set beside the words, depicted with stunning detail—except that it was much too large. The image she was looking at was at least twice as tall as the actual tower, with a pair of fat, rounded buildings near the bottom that were barely even connected.


“Sweet Celestia, it is a control.” Lyra leaned forward, squinting. It was just like the buttons in any elevator, except there weren’t buttons. Was she supposed to…

She touched “Museum.”

The square flashed bright red in front of her, bright enough that even Bon Bon noticed, and she twitched away reflexively. That meant Lyra fell onto the ground with a thump, even as a faintly disapproving sound filled the room.

Then came the voice.

Lyra had imagined what a voice like this might sound like. Ancient Ponish was a dead language, so dead that nopony knew how it was spoken. The vowels in particular were a mystery with constant argument between various scholarly circles. In an instant, Lyra learned all the answers to them.

“You are already on the Museum level. Would you like to go somewhere else?”

“Incredible!” Time Turner exclaimed, staring up at the sloped ceiling of the elevator—where the sound had apparently come from. “Was that a gramophone recording? It was so clear!”

“He sounded nice,” Muffins said, sitting down in the exact center of the elevator and waving up at the ceiling with one wing. “Hello! Would you like to be friends with us?”

“You understood it,” Bon Bon said, still crouched low. As though she expected a crossbow bolt to go whizzing over their head at any moment. But of course none did. “What did it—”

“It said we’re on museum level,” she said. “And… it wanted to know if we’d rather go somewhere else.”

“Museum level,” Bon Bon repeated. “You mean some metal on the wall and locked rooms? Not much of a museum.”

“Well…” Lyra gestured over to the wall again. “Go back, let me try something! I think I know how it works.”

This time when she touched the white surface, the entire thing lit up. “Command Deck selected,” said the room, and the door slid closed in a rush of air.

Bon Bon jumped for it, hammering against the metal with one hoof. “Buck it, a trap! Time Tuner, help me get my—”

Then they started rising, and all four of them were so startled by the acceleration that they couldn’t move. Lyra had expected it, so she was the first to recover, watching as the metal tube through the floor rapidly slid away. Not just the floor—the walls were transparent too. She could see the outline of doors whizzing past, probably each of the sections she hadn’t chosen.

One of these isn’t different from the others. They’re all going to be full of valuable magic to bring back to Equestria.

One thing Lyra knew—the next set of monsters that tried invading Canterlot were bucked after they got back.

Bon Bon hadn’t even finished extracting her tools from their saddlebags before the floor slid into place, and the door that had trapped them inside hissed open. “Command Deck,” it said, as light flooded out from inside.

“It’s an elevator,” Lyra declared, grinning smugly at Bon Bon. “Looks like I get to decide—”

“Whatever,” Bon Bon said. “It shouldn’t have been. None of this makes sense.”

She was right about that. Lyra had never felt a lift in her life that could move that quickly or that smoothly.

There was no maze of hallways and tiny rooms outside—but a single huge chamber, rather like the one they’d seen in the entryway. Mostly the space was occupied by densely packed rectangular objects, set in three perfect rows and with just enough room to walk between them. They towered overhead, perhaps as tall as two ponies. They were also all flashing red.

Except for one. Lyra wandered down through the hallway to the end of the room, where a glass box was set into the floor. Its interior surface was fogged over, like a thick cloud had been trapped inside. Writing floated in the interior space, as though it had been engraved there. But it was moving.

ISS Equestria in Ultra Deep Storage.
Storage sequence broken by Unknown Fault.
Begin startup sequence?

Yes No

“I don’t like the look of this.” Bon Bon was the only one who’d followed her all the way across the room. Time Turner and Muffins were investigating a set of boxes piled by a circular window on the far side of the room, apparently uninterested in the glass shape. “I guess it’s safe to assume you can read everything here?”

“I can read that,” Lyra agreed. “But I don’t know what it means.” She repeated the message, translating as best she could.

Bon Bon looked as confused as she felt. “Sounds like… it’s asking a question. You think maybe that square right there is like the one in the elevator? You touch it and it answers you?”

Lyra hadn’t even noticed, but there was another of the glowing squares—set above easy reach, but not so high that she’d need help to get to it this time.

“But what is a startup?” Bon Bon went on. “That doesn’t seem like… should we be starting anything? I wonder if this is as far as we should go. This much magic… the whole Academy might want to be here. Or… it could be something dangerous, something that’s going to defend itself at the expense of Equestria.”

“Or… maybe this is the button that opens the vault,” Lyra countered. “Startup is going to ‘start up’ returning our magic to us. Giving everything back our ancestors left behind.”

Bon Bon shook her head. “I… don’t know about that. But this is your field, Lyra. Just think carefully before you touch that. It isn’t just us who pay the price if something goes wrong. That’s what I’m here to remind you.”

Lyra stared down at the square for a long time, considering carefully

All Equestria might suffer if she made a mistake here. But everypony will benefit if I’m right. The Horn of Celestia wasn’t going to give up her secrets otherwise, Lyra was sure of it. She would stay a mystery.

If I give up and go home, some other archeologist will be the one who controls this project. She would be lucky if they even put her on staff for the second mission.

The only reason Lyra had any grant money for a mission like this was the last invasion. The defense budget never ran out. But if Equestria really thought she had something… they would take it away.

This is my baby. I tracked it down. We got through the magic, not some stuffy academics who never leave Celestia’s school.

Lyra reached up, and touched the part of the square labeled “Yes”.

Lights that had glowed bright red from all around them went suddenly green, as every one of the dark towers of glass and metal lit up. She heard what sounded like a hundred little fans spinning up, and a huge blower from overhead.

Something far below them began to shake and rumble, like a tornado rampaging through a city hundreds of miles away. It was low, and barely loud enough to shake their hooves. But if they’d been closer…

The glass in front of them flashed once, then began to rapidly fill with text speeding up so fast that she almost couldn’t see it moving. The letters and numbers were a blur, so densely packed in the three-dimensional space that she couldn’t imagine what could be so important.

Then they ran out, and the whole thing went white again.

Bon Bon watched from beside her every moment, eyes on the nearest row of metal towers, as though she expected a monster to come out from inside.

“ISS Equestria online,” said a voice from in front of them. As it spoke, the glass shape seemed to get lighter and darker in tune with the voice—like the glass itself held a soul trapped, and it was calling out to them for help. “Vessel status report:

Years in deep storage: 2863.45
Automatic repair: Nominal
Reactor: 8% reaction mass remaining
Medical: 32 decaliters SOMA
Weapons: 33 Antigrain warheads, 18 metric tons FLAKK
Crew: 2 EQ2.04

1 EQ3.04

1 EQ4.04
Central Computer: Nominal

But you already knew the last one, Ma’am.”

Until the very last of what the glass had said, Lyra had been beginning to doubt her ability to understand this particular dead language.

“Uh…” She hesitated. Her pronunciation was bound to be off since she’d only had a few words to copy. But she tried. “Did you… talk? To me?”

“Most certainly,” the voice answered. “Welcome aboard the ISS Equestria. You must be the crew I’ve been waiting for.”