Twilight Sparkle hummed happily as she scanned the clipboard in her canvas-covered hoof for the thousandth time and paced. Ponies trotted to and fro around her and the gentle murmur of their conversations blended with the low humming of the mana crystals - powering up slowly in the final test of her newest experiment. The four large crystals twisted slowly in the arcane flux shield arrays set at ley line intersections while tracery lines of silver, gold and salt directed the energy toward the complex and beautiful spell sigil arranged in geometric perfection around each carefully positioned control station. Even the ceiling of the vast cavern had been inlaid with lines and containment spells.
One of the technicians gave her the most cursory of bows as he weaved his way through the stations encircling a rounded depression in the stone floor that held the most complex four dimensional spell sigil known to ponykind. There, multiple layers of spells - each changing slowly over time - would pierce the veil between worlds while other spells would report on the worlds found and provide feedback to the main spell. On a raised platform along one of the curved walls of the cavern, the main control could 'key' any world found to an easy-to-remember series of magical pulses. This was the genius of Twilight's design - perfect dimensional recall.
Somepony cleared their throat behind her. Twilight glanced up, her face breaking into a huge smile. Her five Ponyville friends had come - though her smile faltered somewhat at their obvious discomfort.
"Twilight, are you sure about this?" Rainbow Dash fidgeted with nervous energy and unconsciously pushed against the tough canvas belt around her barrel and wings. Twilight's other friends also looked uncomfortable in their protective wear - from Rarity's scrunched nose to Pinkie's hoof-tip dance in her rubber-coated canvas booties. With so much magical energy and such delicate spells, even minor busts of magic could ruin months of hard labor. Thus, all unicorns (and alicorns) were forced to wear inhibitor rings, every pegasus (and alicorn) was grounded and every earth pony (and, yes, alicorn) were forced to wear booties while near the delicate machinery. Twilight herself wiggled her wings in the strap and gave her polychromatic friend a calm smile.
"Yes, Rainbow. Just think - we can finally retrieve somepony sent to one of these worlds! Ponies interested in pan-dimensional studies can test their theories without jumping blindly into what could be a volcano." Twilight sighed, offering the rest of her friends the same smile. "Just think of the worlds that could be waiting just a spell away."
"Ah don't know, Twi." Applejack adjusted her hat for the thousandth time, obviously a nervous habit due to the arcane shielding around her hooves. "Ah just don't see th' point ta all this - don't ya think we've got enough problems here on Equestria ta go galavantin' around other planets lookin' fer more?"
"Be that as it may," Luna's sudden voice caused everypony to jump and the five mares hastily dipped into bows as she delicately walked between the lines inscribed on the rough stone floor, "Celestia and I have been striving for better dimensional travel ever since the destruction of the few remaining Magic Mirror portals in the Discord Wars. To be able to return to these far-flung worlds once more - not to mention the potential retrieval of any pony lost to the whims of fate - is worth the small investment of bits."
"Beggin' yer pardon, Princess," Applejack roughly tipped her hat toward Princess Luna, "Ah still don't see th' use but if y'all think it's worth it, Ah suppose it is."
"No pardon necessary, Dame Applejack." Luna waved a hoof towards a raised dais surrounded by eye-twisting lines of entwined gold and silver. Even now, unicorn and earth pony technicians were adjusting the complex machinery beneath the structure. "It is not often ponies pierce the veil between world but when such an thing occurs, it is most devastating."
A pony in protective gear trotted up to the group before questions could be asked and whispered something into Twilight's ear - who burst into a huge grin and almost snapped her wing restraints in joy. She nodded and turned to her bewildered friends. "Sorry girls, but it's almost time to begin the first test. We have a planet that seems to be life supporting and it'll take me some time to get into my protective gear."
"Twilight?" Fluttershy's voice was surprisingly loud for the shy mare and the gasps from her other friends caused one of Luna's eyebrows to rise in curiosity.
"No time, girls! Be back in a few minutes!" Without waiting for an answer, Twilight turned and galloped away - towards a small group of ponies dressed in hazard suits standing around a small curtained-off section of the cavern.
Luna cleared her throat in the stunned silence. "I take it Princess Twilight never specified who would be going during the first test of this marvelous spell?"
The first thing Twilight noticed as the spell faded and her body fully rematerialized was the cold. Not just any cold, a biting cold that cut through her protective gear and pelt with an intensity that bordered on painful. Next, sound. The howling and mournful moan of never ending wind. And then -
"Gah!" Twilight's wing shot up, covering her eyes as the white glare stabbed into her skull. It was all she could do to bite back a sudden whimper. The cold, the glare, the howling wind - even the Crystal Empire had been less harsh.
"Twilight, your heart rate's shot up and we're reading a dangerous dip in your body temperature." Luna's voice held the distinct echo of long-range telepathy. Despite the distortion, her concern was evident. "We're activating the-"
"No!" Twilight shouted into the howling air and with a flick of her horn, a bubble of calm air appeared around her. It did nothing against the glare and only slightly better against the freezing cold but she squinted into it regardless. "It's fine - I'm fine. The change was surprisingly drastic, that's all."
"Twilight, this world need not be explored. You've proven your spell, let us bring you home."
"I'm fine Luna. Really, I'm - sweet Harmony." An icy wasteland lay around her as far as her eyes could see. Ice, packed by decades or centuries of weight into a surface as hard as stone. Ridges of looser snow were all that broke the monotony of white that stretched from horizon to horizon. The wind whipped ice crystals from these ridges into streams of soft white that raced along the ground. With tears in her squinting eyes, Twilight could only shiver and stare at the stark beauty.
"Twilight? Twilight, respond." Luna's voice held an edge of fear in it despite the calm tone.
"I'm here Luna. It's ... it's ice. Ice as far as the eye can see. Worse than the Crystal Empire's borders. Worse than anything I've seen." White ice, blue cloudless sky - cold, bright and the sun doing almost nothing against the cold. "There's nothing. Wait. There, miles away - a blocky shape."
"Twilight, the recall spell only works a few miles away from the point of entry."
"I know Luna." Hefting the heavy bag of survival gear save a bright, glowing crystal to mark her way home, Twilight trotted off into the wind. "I won't be long."
An hour of trotting later and the constant communication with Luna suddenly cut out. Twilight was only halfway to the structure - and structure it surely was. Even from this distance, Twilight could see the telltale signs of purpose in the angles and strange shadows in the strangely still light. She stepped back until she could hear the near-panicked voice of Luna.
"- respond Twilight, please for the love of Harmony respond."
"I'm here Luna, safe and sound."
"Oh thank the stars - you gave everypony a heart attack."
"I'm sorry everypony, I was a few steps out of the range of the spells."
"We must maintain constant-"
"Luna, I'm halfway there - I'm going to walk the rest of the way." Twilight dropped her survival bag to the ice, ignoring the yell of disbelief from Luna. She began pulling various items from the bag as she spoke - noting how weak her magic seemed to be getting as she first levitate and then resorted to pulling with teeth. "I've set a guide crystal at the point of entry, I'm going to place pitons to lead me back to this point and while I don't have enough rope, Ah've 'ot enough to stahrt my return trip e'en ih a hurricane whips up aroun' meh."
Pitons, rope, food and cooking, medical supplies, mana crystals -
"Twilight, this is Celestia."
"Prin-Celestia?" The calm voice of her mentor broke Twilight's concentration and she dropped the lantern she had been holding to the ice in surprise.
"Twilight, I won't stop you - I know that you'll take every precaution and when you become focused on a task it's very difficult to stop you from carrying it out. But I want to ask you - can you make it back even if the worst comes to pass? Not 'think' you can, can you make it back to me, to us?"
Twilight raised her head towards the shape on the horizon. The horizon, the sun hanging motionless in the sky, the wispy hint of clouds that hung so far away they were more mirage than real - all this fell away. A long run but not impossible. A hard crawl - but not impossible. Twilight turned and looked behind her. Towards home. The glint of the guide crystal still shown clear to her rear.
"Then may Harmony guide you. Please return to us, Twilight."
"I will Princess. I promise you."
A bust. A bust on a short wooden pillar. Twilight stared at the strange creature, trying to wrap her mind around ... everything. A few poles with guidelines sinking far beneath the ice, this pillar and bust and nothing else. Not even the constant communication from Luna to ease her mind. Nothing else.
Reaching one hoof out, Twilight tapped the bone-like material. It didn't feel like bone - more like Bakelite or Barkesine. The figure it depicted was strange to her as well. A flat face with a beak-like protrusion, small tufts of fur above the deep-set and tiny eyes and rounded ears set at the sides instead of on top of the head. The withers and chest of the figure depicted clothing very similar to Equestrian fashion - which almost made the plastic statue seem even more alien than it perhaps would have been.
And that was all. The pillar was hollow wood, edged in metal. The poles looked to be made of metal as well as the guidelines. And that was all. From horizon to horizon, ice and snow. And this small pillar of wood with a plastic bust of some unknown and probably long-dead creature. Nothing else.
"There's nothing." Twilight sat, her mind still struggling with the information it had been given, and placed her head against the cold surface of the pillar. The hollow pillar. Hollow ... "Hollow?"
Within seconds, a folding shovel was brought down against the wood and a chunk of snow was pulled away. The pillar extended deep under the ice and snow. Beneath the bust, masonry and ash - a chimney! Twilight took a hard chunk of snow and dropped it down the hole, counting. One - thunk. One second, maybe less. Estimating the gravity to be Equestrian standard gave a distance of, say, thirty to forty feet.
"Forty feet." Twilight looked down. Forty feet below her was a space where some creature once stood, perhaps the same creature that now gazed lifelessly out from a plastic monument - forever trapped in ice and snow. She smiled. "I can do forty feet."
With a flash, Twilight disappeared from the ever-present shine of the surface and reappeared in darkness. Her horn burst into light and she gasped. A red banner with a golden symbol was the first thing she set eyes on, hanging limply as it was against a wall. Nearby, a cold metal stove nearly covered in snow spilling in from two broken windows. Twilight stood on a table in the center of the small room, the pressure wave from her teleport having knocked a great deal of miscellany onto the floor. Other than the table, banner and stove, little else was notable.
Twilight carefully stepped off the table and onto the floor, avoiding the containers still spilling their contents. Everything was mundane from what she could tell. Old food, a tea kettle, the cold stove - a strangely shaped but still familiar phonograph player. It was a survival hut. A place of last refuge for a people long passed. Even the door was cracked and shifted from the weigh of snow and ice bearing down on the small wooden home.
So focused on the surroundings, Twilight didn't see the book until she had stepped on it. Gripping it in her teeth, she placed it gently on the table and nosed it open. The language was strange but the style was familiar to anypony that had ever been to one of Pinkie Pie's parties. A guest book. The list was woefully short for the size of it but there were still so many names listed in at least three different language styles. Twilight reached into her still-shut saddlebags, pulled out an ink well and quill and, with shaky mouth, carefully marked her name in Equestrian on the end of the list.
That task complete, Twilight dropped the quill to the table next to the still-full ink well. Everything was covered in snow or frost - even the papers of the book had been stiff with cold. She took a few steps and rubbed one hoof against the red banner hanging limply in the still air of the hut. Even it was cold.
With a flash, Twilight disappeared from the small, wooden hut.
"Twilight, this is Return Base Equestria - please respond."
Twilight heaved a sigh of relief as the mental connection between her and Luna was reasserted. The clouds that had been so wispy in the distance had brewed into a terrible windstorm and it had taken her several exhausting hours of slowly working her way along the pitons she had planted with her shield growing harder and harder to maintain before she had made the few small miles from the abandoned and buried hut back into range of the recall and communication spell.
"I'm here Luna," Twilight said. Her voice was ragged but she could feel her magic slowly begin to push back against the wind more effectively. "There's a windstorm here and my magic has been spotty at best. I think this planet lacks a developed magical field."
"Twilight, this is Celestia. Why didn't you report this earlier?"
"Sorry Celestia. I didn't really start to feel the effects until I was already on my way to the hut." Twilight pulled herself upright and took stock of the situation. The wind whipped ice had made visibility close to nothing and even the bright light of the guide crystal was lost in the grey-white mist that covered everything but as low on magic as she was, Twilight could feel the center that was her entry point.
"I'll tell you about it when I get back. I want to get as close to the point of entry as I can before we recall." With a final look behind her, Twilight began to trot towards the vague near-warmth that surely was the point of entry.
"We will be waiting with quarantine and hot cocoa."
"I'll need to be kept cool - this planet is an ice ball and the temperature difference-"
"We are aware Twilight. We have everything under control on our end - just return to us safely."
"I'm already on my way."
Twilight flipped through one of the many books set near her bedside, wincing as raw flesh touched the dry paper. The effects of her trip were still apparent - pink and furless ears and nose, eyes still damaged by snow blindness. But despite the painful process of regrowing those parts of herself lost on her trip, a smile graced her face whenever she spoke of it.
A knock on her door caused her to lift her head and she set aside the large tome she had been reading - some treatise on extraplanar exploration written by a long dead magus.
"Twilight, here's your newspaper and lunch." Spike - decked out in a nurses outfit and pushing a trolley filled with dishes - carefully guided himself and his load around the stacks of books topped with empty tea cups and sundry.
"Thank you Spike." With a burst of light from her horn, Twilight levitated the various pieces of her meal and new reading material to her side. "Tomorrow, I should be cleared to get out of bed on my own and thank Harmony for that."
"Yeah, maybe then we can clean this mess without you having a conniption fit about getting it out of order." Spike crossed his arms and frowned at Twilight's sheepish grin. He had gotten used to the pink of her new skin and the patchiness of new fur around her eyes and no longer had the heebie jeebies whenever she smiled.
"I'm sorry Spike - the trip to Iceworld really made me want to study how such a thing could possibly happen. Imagine, a whole world locked in ice."
"Well, at least the part you saw."
"True," Twilight put hoof to chin in thought. "It very well could have been an outlier case - but any random point on a random world ought to showcase at least a mean average of that world."
"Like the Crystal Empire?"
"Spike, the Crystal Empire is an outlier but the weather conditions on Iceworld were so much more extreme than anything on Equus that the average world temperature has to be lower than-" Spike put his claws up with a grimace. Twilight had been in lecture mode ever since she had been released from quarantine and it had taken Princess Celestia pulling rank to force the excited alicorn to take some well deserved rest.
"Okay, okay! Geez." With a sigh, he hefted himself carefully up on the side of her bed. "I'm just saying that you can't draw concrete conclusions from a single sample size."
Whatever the reaction he expected to get, having the alicorn wrap him in her hooves and nuzzle him was not among them.
"Aww, you look so cute when you get scientific!"
"Well, look at it this way, Spike. Why would there be a hut in the random middle of nowhere in the harshest conditions on that one planet?" That brought Spike's own claw to his chin in thought. Twilight pushed one of the many books laying about her bed into his hooves - opened as it was on a story well-known to all Equestrians. Six figures cowering under the vague horse-like shapes of clouds. "From what I can gather from historical similarities on Equus, it's probable that the creatures of that planet lost their magic field during some cataclysm that locked the sun in place. Without the sun's movement, there was hatred and fear enough to create windigos and ... well, end result."
"Huh. I guess it's a good thing we have Princess Celestia and Luna to look after the sun and moon."
"Exactly. We just have to make sure it never happens to us and remember those strange creatures that fell before." Twilight looked out one of the many windows of her bedroom. The sun was shining bright in the sky and in the distance, she could see the serene towers of Canterlot rising up against the blue sky. A shining beacon of warmth.
"Hey Twilight, are you alright?" Spike's question brought Twilight back to the here and now. Around the little dragon in his nurse outfit, plates of Twilight's favorite dishes still steamed. Books filled the rest of the bed surface save for one spot. There, a small patch of red cloth sat - remarkable only for the unknown history that it represented.
"Yes Spike. It's sad ... I wonder what those creatures were like. I wonder-" With a hoof, Twilight stroked the red patch. "I wonder if they even knew what was going on."
"McMurdo Station, this is overflight NOAA-3. We're over the estimated ground zero location. Visibility is limited but we see nothing when the storm allows. Our readings are picking up some anomalous readings but there's no physical change, over."
"NOAA-3, this is McMurdo. We'll get the science team to go over those reports. IceCube probably had some reading malfunction - why would anyone want to detonate a nuke over Antarctica anyway? Come on back, over."