Lyra Heartstrings emerged from the underground lake, sputtering and wheezing for breath. The magic bubble of air she had formed around her skull had nearly depleted, so it was especially good timing that she had found a breathable spot within the flooded cavern to surface. Paddling forward in the darkness, her hooves connected with solid stone. She pulled herself onto a rocky ledge, inhaling and exhaling the stale air.
At last, after a good few minutes of composing herself, the middle-aged unicorn stood up inside the pitch-black niche. She was almost afraid to illuminate her horn, but she knew fully well that the whole epic trip to get there would have been pointless if she didn't. So, with a meager charge of mana, she shone a bright green beacon of light forward.
A pale emerald spotlight rolled across the rust-red cavern walls before her. It jolted from each penetrating heartbeat within Lyra's chest, until at last the first few shadows of something danced along the rubble-strewn floor. A complex array of metal compartments loomed ahead, sculpted neatly at perfect geometric angles. Beyond such rigid design, hanging in eerie little rows, were dozens of dormant metal figures. The bipedal relics dangled from the walls like marionette puppets, their lanky spines bent over and their gangly limbs like loose vines.
It was the most beautiful thing Lyra had ever seen, and her tranquil smile showed it, growing wider and wider across her tear-stained muzzle.
“Is that the moment when you knew?” Bon Bon asks.
Lyra turns to look at her from across her upstairs apartment. “Hmmm?” She resumes petting her orange cat, Whiskers, nestled beside her on the couch. “Knew what?”
Bon Bon smiles from where she sits on a cushion in front of a sun-lit window. “That your entire life's work was worth the labor and stress?”
“Oh Bon Bon.” Lyra chuckles delicately, stroking the fuzz behind Whiskers' lazy ears. “Please, after all these years of being best friends...” She takes a moment to gaze softly out the window. “I knew it would be worth it before I even set out on my expeditions.”
She trotted down the steps and then to the very front of an ampitheatrical classroom. A few voices coughed and others yawned while over four dozen lazy college eyes glared down at her from above. Nevertheless, with confident poise, Lyra fixed a crystal to a pedestal, shot a beam of magic into it, and projected a broad map of Equestria onto the white board behind her. Adjusting her glasses, the young professor pivoted towards the class, cleared her throat, and smiled.
“Anthropology,” Lyra said, “is more than just an active field science. It is a necessary and fundamental component of evolutionary civilization. Why? Because the purpose of anthropology is not just about finding things, but it is about preserving them. How else can a society hope to evolve and improve itself unless it has memories of the past to glean wisdom from? We are the sum of our parts, yes, but we are also extensions of yesterday... yesteryear. If we lose grip of the ponies... or the creatures who dwelt on this planet before ourselves, what kind of a future can we hope to establish for later generations? Would they not live better, happier, healthier lives so long as they have our legacy to make an example out of?”
Lyra turned, whipping out a thin metal rod which she pointed at the differently-titled regions of the Equestrian map being projected behind her.
“Griffon Peak,” she remarked, pointing at a tall, thin plateau. “Imagine how uncontrollably violent our avian brothers and sisters would have been had they not possessed the ancient Scrolls of Honeybreak the Elder, which teaches their present-day society about the honorable pacifism which was prevalent back during the Third Griffon Dynasty?”
She slapped her pen over an oceanic expanse in the east.
“'Farrier Fathoms,' as it is called today. Decades ago, a group of fisherponies accidentally discovered an ancient limestone column when their vessel ran aground a sandbar. The Canterlot Science League could have easily dismissed the account as—well—a fish story, but they sent a team to investigate anyways. And, guess what?” She beamed proudly. “Thanks to the hard work of Professor Clovertrot and Frosteyes, an entire underwater city was discovered, proving once and for all that a race of seaponies had existed under the ocean waves.”
At last, she pointed at a circular patch of desert within the heart of the central continent.
“And then we have the Zebra Desert, once thought to have always been an inhospitable wasteland of sand dunes and porous rock formations. But, with enough time, effort, and hundreds of thousands of digging tools, a dedicated team of scientists excavated the legendary Temple of Shadows, lending credence to the long-standing theory that zebras once ran a vast empire that covered a jungle-like oasis, utilizing technology that we previously thought never existed five thousand years ago, including plumbing and liquid fuel and magnetized locking mechanisms.”
Collapsing her metal rod, Lyra turned to grin at the multiple faces blinking at her from the rows of elevated seats above.
“My little ponies, it is not enough to make these monumental discoveries and rejoice in them. Rather, I'd say it becomes our task to record every single detail of them for the future. It's merely a small burden, and yet it yields great profit. For as long as we live, we are the libraries and we are the archives. We owe it to our descendants to preserve these astounding bits of knowledge into tomorrow so that the truth musn't be discovered through the same toil and stress that was needed to resurface them in our lifetime. And, for those daring souls among us who are still making discoveries today, we can use the Temple of Shadows, the seapony civilization, and the Scrolls of Honeybeak as impetus for grander and more ambitious expeditions. For there were many who called today's breakthrough scientists 'crazy,' and yet their noble dedication to their craft is what's changed our overall perception of the world.”
With a deep breath, Lyra fired another beam of magic into the crystal, projecting the outlines of bipedal creatures and a series of ancient tools illustrated alongside them to scale.
“So, entreating an enthusiastic openness of mind, I would like to discuss with each and every one of you today's topic: 'The Xenodisparate Forbearer Theory.'”
“Hard to believe that you first lectured college kids on that topic,” Bon Bon says with a slight giggle.
“Oh, they weren't the first,” Lyra replies. She hears a loud cry from outside their apartment. Gently placing the orange cat aside, she stands up and curiously gazes out the nearest window. She sees two fillies and a colt playing with a little red ball in the middle of the Ponyville street. “But, young minds are certainly a great deal more receptive to bold scientific postulations.”
“And yours is the very definition of 'bold,'” Bon Bon adds, smiling.
“So what if it is?” Lyra looks over, frowning slightly. “Ponies scoffed at steam engines, the light bulb, and alicorncentricity, but they were all shown their place.”
“Last time I checked, you've been hard-pressed to make anyone's jaw drop with your findings.”
“Yes, well...” Sighing, Lyra shuffles back over to her couch and plops down. Whiskers nuzzles up to her side and reclines with a fuzzy purr. “Not for my own lack of trying, mind you.” The unicorn reaches down to pet the small animal. Her yellow eyes are cool, distant. “I showed them, Bon Bon. I showed them what I uncovered deep in the flooded caves beneath Dream Valley.”
Lyra opened her large wooden box. To resounding gasps, she pulled out an immense metal object, half-the-size of her torso. The anomaly was made of some unnamed metal, with innumerable jointed digits and exposed bits of frayed wiring from deep within the bent structure's dilapidated exoskeleton. She propped it up on a glass pedestal and positioned it within the center of the large round meeting table.
Seated across from her, Princess Twilight Sparkle pursed her lips and leaned forward. Time Turner had stood up from his chair with a gaping expression. Meanwhile, Minuette and Amethyst Star gazed silently, their brows furrowed in thought.
“Fillies and gentlecolts,” Lyra spoke, then paused to bow at the lavender shape across from her. “Your Majesty...” She leaned back, standing besides Fancy Pants as she gestured gracefully at the artifact on the table. “...this is a human hand.”
A cold murmur floated among the scientific supervisors seated around the table; all the while they gawked at the dismembered artifact and its dangling ends.
“However.” Lyra raised a hoof, stealing their gazes. “I don't mean to call it a 'human hand' in that it was an actual part of their biological anatomy. But, rather, it's a technological construction, an extension of their obviously advanced scientific progress.” She smiled, reaching in to push the metal digits in and out, exhibiting their flexibility. “And, presumably, built to-scale.”
“And this...” Time Turner looked up, his expression still pricelessly awestruck. “...this was found beneath Dream Valley?”
Fancy Pants slicked his gray mane back and spoke. “Professor Heartstrings' expedition discovered a series of deep caves far below the surface. However, they soon ascertained that the underground labyrinth had long since been flooded by an adjacent reservoir.”
“The submerged passageways were indescribably thin,” Lyra added. “And... quite treacherous to traverse, to say the least. The danger was simply too great to put the rest of my colleagues through. So...”
“The good professor spelunked the rest of the way on her lonesome,” Fancy Pants said with a proud smile. “And, through means of magical aid, she chanced upon an underground pocket of dry air, and that is where she made her discovery.”
“It is an artificially-built chamber, laced with durable metals and alloys. The walls are affixed with complex instruments of intelligent design. And, last but not least...” Lyra pointed once more at the decrepit limb on the table. “...there were dozens of large, fully-rendered constructs.” She smiled, her teeth showing. “And they matched the ancient 'human' design to a T.”
Amethyst Star squinted curiously. “What do you mean by 'constructs?'”
“I mean full-sized mechanical duplicates of humans,” Lyra said, strolling past Fancy Pants as she paced around her side of the table. “Complete with everything that's been illustrated so far in the cave paintings and engravings that my expeditions have uncovered over the past fifteen years. Thick, curved spines. Substructures that support a bipedal stance. And, at last, opposable digits at the end of their simian limbs. Ponies, I'm telling you!” She paused just long enough to beam ecstatically. “This is it! This is the discovery of the century! Of all Equestrian history, even!”
Minuette leaned back, her face cool and composed. “A discovery that confirms your outlandish 'Xenodisparate Forbearer Theory,' you mean.”
Lyra blinked, nodding. “Well, yes!”
Time Turner pointed at the limb. “Does this mean that you have uncovered the abandoned constructs? If so, where are the rest of them?”
Instantly, Lyra winced, her ears folding back as the middle-aged mare sighed. “Yes, well...” She hesitated.
Fancy Pants cleared his throat and interceded. “Unfortunately, the passage was far too narrow for Professor Heartstrings to extract any of the full-sized objects on her lonesome. However, she didn't leave without discovering this piece that sits before you. It had fallen loose from its host due to the decay of time. She was able to bring it back with her, along with samples of the metallic alloys located within the submerged cavern.”
“Mana-powered analysis has already confirmed that the metals match the architecture located within the sightings of previous 'human' excavations,” Lyra said, her body trembling with ardent enthusiasm. “The engravings were made on plates constructed out of the same type of substance! Considering the remote distance between the locations of these illustrations, I am convinced that human civilization at one time covered the entire globe! Once more, I fully believe that these constructs aren't the only ones in existence, but rather they are seeded everywhere, deep underground.”
“Seeded?” Minuette grimaced, glancing aside at the stoic Princess.
“To what purpose?” Amethyst Star asked.
Lyra shook her head. “I've no clue.”
“And yet you're so certain that these... devices are of human design?”
Lyra blinked, her muzzle progressively falling open. “But of course! I'm speaking of an ancient race of sentient creatures much larger and much smarter than us who have left their mark upon this world, a mark which—unfortunately—has been relegated to the deepest pockets of the earth due to the neglect of time!”
“And just because you've found dormant automatons that match these illustrations and engravings, you've already come to the conclusion that the constructs must necessarily be mimicking an extinct, organic counterpart?”
“Isn't that obvious?”
“To a daydreamer, perhaps,” Minuette said in a dull tone. “But to a scientist, a certain amount of healthy skepticism must be applied, Professor Heartstrings. You know this.”
“Yes, indeed. But—”
“The ancient zebras of the Zebra Desert constructed battery operated figurines as well,” Amethyst Star spoke up. “Little brass and tin facsimiles of eagles and hawks were discovered deep within the Temple of Shadows, much like how you've discovered these... constructs within your cave. But was it sentient birds of prey who built the sepulchers dug up from beneath the Zebra Desert's dunes?”
“Well, no, and yet the zebras—”
“Crystal ponies of the Frozen North once used enchanted stone shards to animate metallic golems for the sake of sculpting their massive buildings out of polished rock. But they hardly resembled the quadrupeds who built them. As a matter of fact, if the crystal ponies designed them to aesthetically emulate their own selves, then the golems would never have accomplished their laborious tasks in the first place.”
Lyra said, “Just because different cultures have built machines that don't resemble their creators doesn't mean it can't be done... or that it hasn't been done.”
“Very true, Professor Heartstrings,” Time Turner said. With a calm nod, he finally sat down in his chair once again. “However, I'm inclined to take Professor Amethyst Star and Minuette's side on this.” He rested his front hooves together. “You're asking us to take what is—admittedly—an astounding archaeological discovery, and then make a radical anthropological assumption. There is simply no reason to proclaim that these constructs are necessarily built to look like their creators. The simpler and more logical conclusion is that an ancient race of ponies or griffons built what we have here on the table, much like ponies and griffons have been empirically proven to be the originators of every other ancient artifact ever excavated.”
“And what if, for once, the simpler and more logical conclusion is wrong?” Lyra gazed passionately at the group. “Can we afford to set ourselves back countless generations of scientific progress by clinging to a close-minded assumption?”
“Professor Heartstrings, do you even realize what you're asking us to believe here?” Amethyst Star gestured limply at the metal hand. “The device you've uncovered is unfathomably complex, yes. And it's stretching our minds to even consider that something so technologically advanced could have been hidden away that deep and for so long. But we're dealing with an incredibly large information gap.”
“Try to imagine ten thousand years from now,” Minuette said. She leaned forward with a tiny, delicate smile. “A future race of ponies dig deep through the earth, and they burrow their way... uhhh... let's say to your home town. Where was it again, Professor? Fillydelphia?”
“Ponyville,” Lyra corrected.
“Right. So, future generations dig their way to Ponyville, and they uncover a snow-plow, which I believe is commonly used by earth ponies in a town of that sort. Am I correct?”
“And, naturally, the archaeologists are astounded! A snow plow! Of that age? How unbelievable! Naturally, the creatures who created it must have been sentient vehicles with fleshy wheels and calcified axels...” Minuette leaned back with a conclusive breath.
Lyra fought the urge to sigh. “With all due respect, Professor, there is a great deal of observable difference between a crude vehicle utilized for Winter Wrap-Up...” She pointed once more at the hand and its dangling digits. “...and something that is quite obviously built to emulate natural design.”
“By natural design, you mean something akin to the limbs and fingers of primates, yes?” Amethyst Star remarked. “If the ancient zebras felt a need to build mechanical figures that resembled air fowl, then what's to stop an even older race of ponies from building serviceable golems in the image of monkeys and orangutans?”
“Opposable limbs of that sort can be incredibly useful,” Time Turner spoke up. He glanced the Princess' way as he added, “Why, modern equines of social and scientific importance have employed the use of young draconian assistants due to the whelps' speed and dexterity in clerical tasks.”
Twilight Sparkle remained silent.
Lyra fumbled for words, which gave Fancy Pants the opportunity to speak up. “If I may be so bold, I believe we're all stepping a little bit ahead of ourselves, my partner included. After all, there is still more evidence to be ascertained.” He smiled, resting a hoof on Lyra's shoulder. “I fully intend to fund a second expedition to the caves beneath Dream Valley, this time with the proper breathing equipment to allow more ponies into the hidden chamber, where they'll have the time and resources to perform a full examination on the artifacts contained within. We should be able to extract several of the constructs in full with enough concentrated effort. What we've come here for, quite simply, is to get the Canterlot Science League's blessing in the matter.”
“And, quite simply, Mr. Pants,” Minuette droned. “We believe that you are funding Professor Heartstrings' research for the same reason that she is ardently performing it. And that's because the two of you are maddeningly desperate to prove a completely radical and unfounded theory.”
Lyra gnashed her teeth. “The 'Xenodsiparate Forbearer Theory' is far from radical or unfounded! Each and every one of you know the pamphlets upon pamphlets of fully documented evidence to confirm the existence of ancient humans! Why are you so stubborn about accepting it?!”
Once the outburst was over with, the scientific supervisors merely exchanged quiet expressions.
By this point, Lyra had calmed down. After a long exhale, she spoke quietly. “It's an ambitious theory, yes, but most scientific breakthroughs start with thinking outside of the box. I've been thinking that way all my life, and with no end of ridicule from close-minded committees like the one that I feel I'm facing right now. But please... I'm asking you... imploring you... begging you to give this the benefit of a doubt.” Her gaze tilted about, until she made eye contact with Twilight Sparkle herself. Gulping, Lyra said, “Your Highness... you have been at the forefront of every magical and scientific breakthrough in the last twenty years alone. Surely you see the opportunity that can be had in this? The opportunity for not just modern equines to ascertain the truth, but for an epic and outstanding civilization to finally be remembered after countless eons of neglect!”
Twilight fidgeted in her seat. At last, after feeling so many sets of eyes upon her, she leaned forward and said, “If it would please you and the members of your expedition, I would like to take this artifact into my royal laboratory and perform some scientific tests on it.”
“Oh, yes, Your Highness!” Lyra bowed with a shuddering smile. “Of course! It would please me to no end—”
“But...” Twilight's eyes hardened as she peered at the middle-aged unicorn beyond the table. “...from a perfectly objective standpoint, I cannot promise to find anything that will substantiate your claims. I might discover something else entirely that could shatter all the work you've done over the past two decades. The fact of the matter is, I simply don't know what I will be finding. And, for the future of your expeditions, I implore you—Professor Heartstrings—to exercise the same intellectual detachment when conducting your own research and excavations. It's one thing to be passionate about your pursuits, but you must be careful, or else your ambition may consume what's left of your genius mind.”
“Yes, Your Highness, I understand.” Lyra bowed. “And thank you.”
“For the time being, this meeting is dismissed.” Princess Twilight stood up, glancing aside. “Professor Time Turner, if you would be so kind as to help me carry this back to the laboratory.”
“I would be honored, your Majesty.”
As the group dissipated, Lyra turned around, exhaling with a heavy huff.
“Well, that certainly went better than expected,” Fancy Pants said, adjusting his monocle while throwing a wrinkled smile the mare's way. “You didn't get thrown out of the Science Hall this time.”
Lyra smiled wearily. “You should know better than to bring up the past with me, Fancy.”
“Ah, but I thought that was your entire complex altogether!”
“Not a complex. A job,” Lyra corrected, then sighed. “One that I've been slaving away at for far too long.”
“Fear not, Professor.” Fancy Pants patted her shoulder. “You will open their eyes soon enough.” He winked. “We both will. Together.”
“I just wish ponies would see the evidence right before them.”
“But of course. Celestia knows I did!” Fancy chuckled merrily. “After all, it's why I started funding you to begin with.”
“And who might you be, my little pony?” Hoity Toity asked, swirling a cocktail glass in his hoof.
“Uhm...” The young mare stood across the fancy social from him, wearing an elegant emerald gown. She adjusted her glasses with a fidgeting expression. “Lyra. Lyra Heartstrings...” She cleared her throat, raising her meek voice above the elegant violin music wafting across the Manehattan apartment full of affluent partygoers. “Soon to be Professor Heartstrings of Anthropological Studies, once I earn my doctorate in spring that is.”
“Wait just a moment.” Filthy Rich trotted up, standing besides Hoity Toity with an amused grin. “Lyra Heartstrings? THE Lyra Heartstrings?” He pointed with his half-empty wine glass. “You mean that twenty-somethin' year old filly scientist that everypony's been talkin' about?” His smile turned even more cheekish. “With that crazy newfangled theory on sentient monkeys who once ruled the world?”
Lyra chuckled awkwardly, fidgeting in her silken gown. “Erm... not monkeys, per se, Mr. Rich, for modern day primates are devolved facsimiles of the real sentient beings who are at the crux of my theory. Ahem. Humans—on the other hoof—are a different story altogether. Every artifact that I've discovered concerning them suggests that they were highly intelligent beings, perhaps even smarter than you and me—”
“Ancient monkeys that were smarter than ponies?!” Hoity Toity scoffed in an effeminate tone. “Celestia almighty, what is the scientific community coming to?!”
“Oh, it's hardly anything to be shocked at, Mr. Toity,” Lyra said. “Take Diamond Dogs, for example. Today, they're brutish, uncivilized, and downright self-destructive. And yet, as of the last thirty years, archaeological expeditions have shown that some of their ancient underground cities utilized magical enchantments that put even the most adept unicorn wizards to shame! And has this had any sort of deleterious effect on modern Equestria? No, and—I'd argue—we are now a much more wholesome culture for having been enriched in the knowledge of sentient canine prehistory. If anything, it gives us more reasons to reach out and extend a peaceful hoof of harmony to Diamond Dogs.”
“Make peace with the Diamond Dogs?” Hoity Toity groaned. “My dear filly, if history chose for them to fall from such a great height, then let them! Bah! We'd be better off without the mangy fleabags anyway!”
“Can you really let yourself believe that?” Lyra frowned, her eyes suddenly like yellow daggers. “Mr. Toity, I'm surprised at you! What if all of your artistic accomplishments in the name of fashion were to get thrown into the fire six hundred years from now just because a future civilization had an arrogant distaste for dresses?”
“I'd certainly hope the world would end before that ever happened!”
“And such, quite frankly, is a dangerously narrow-minded perspective that I have fought all my life to undermine,” Lyra said, gesturing. “We can't just live for ourselves, gentlecolts. We have an obligation... a duty to preserve that which has transpired before us. We can't just let entire cultures and civilizations be forgotten! If we do, then how will we ever learn from our mistakes? How will we ever discover the scale by which we can measure our actual progress? Instead, we sort of... bounce back and forth as the unwitting victims of time, with entire epochs of history erased by wars, famines, pestilence, and extinction events. Well, I think it's time that we bridged the gaps in this planet's weary collective consciousness, and we start by examining the evidence that we actively find before us, all the while embracing an openness of mind that will allow ourselves to restore connections that had been previously lost to tragic circumstance.”
“And you think these 'humans' is a logical place to start?”
Lyra nodded firmly. “It has fallen upon me to uncover the truth about them. I feel it's my destiny to pursue this knowledge at all costs.”
“Celestia Almighty!” Filthy Rich chuckled, glancing over his shoulder at the other patrons. “This little lady is actually serious!” He turned to smirk at her. “And tell me, once you've found all the evidence yer lookin' for, just what good is it gonna do for modern Equestria. Hmmm?”
“Well...” Lyra gulped. “Presuming that humans are as technologically advanced as I've hypothesized, then it could teach today's scientists how to improve our mechanical abilities.”
“Or it could steer us into ruin. Have ya ever thought of that, darlin'?”
“Huh?” Lyra shook her head. “I-I'm afraid I don't understand.”
“And that's just what frightens the cider outta me about y'all scientist-types.” Filthy took a sip out of his wine glass and spoke in a quieter, darker tone. “Yer so gung-ho about racin' towards yer discoveries that you never once stop to think if maybe them discoveries should even be made in the first place.”
“You're suggesting that we... embrace ignorance?”
“Pffft. Do I look like a stallion who fancies himself bein' stupid?” Filthy smirked once again. “It's taken keen senses and a lot of pony skills to keep my retail empire afloat all these darn years. Please understand, Missy, I'm all for ponies learnin' to advance to the next level of progress. Heck, it's even good for business! But I refuse to believe that truth is always noble. Sometimes we're only meant to know what we're meant to know.”
“Spoken like a true entrepreneur, Mr. Filthy!” spoke an eloquent voice. Hoity Toity and Filthy Rich turned to see Fancy Pants trotting up to the conversation, swirling a martini. “Oh, I'm dreadfully sorry, you prefer 'Mr. Rich,' don't you?” He nevertheless smiled. “Limiting what the general populace knows is the best way to control them, I do suppose. Or, at least, it's the best way of making sure they know there's a special sale at Barnyard Bargains... when they could, in fact, be saving more at the brick-and-mortar store down the street. Hmmm?”
Filthy cleared his throat heavily. “Mr. Pants,” he muttered, then gestured Lyra's way. “I presume you're familiar with the young and gifted Lyra Heartstrings—”
“Ah! Soon to be Professor Heartstrings, and author of the anthropological dissertation on the 'Xenopheliac Forbearer Theory!'”
“Uhm...” Lyra smiled bashfully as she curtsied. “Actually, it's the 'Xenodisparate Forbearer Theory,' but I'm very flattered that you would know of it.”
“Oh, but of course I do! And please forgive my slip of the tongue. I'm oh so terribly bad at my vocabulary.” He turned to grin at the other two stallions. “Some ponies should just keep their mouths shut, after all.”
Filthy Rich glared aside, fuming.
“Good Goddess, Fancy!” Hoity Toity moaned. “Don't tell me you're on board with this lady's bogus theory!”
Before Lyra could protest, Fancy Pants leaned in. “If by 'bogus' you mean 'provocatively daring,' then yes, I'm quite on board.” Fancy took a sip from his martini and said, “The theory certainly has its ambitious postulations, but most world-changing concepts do. After all, where would any of our affluent businesses be if it weren't for the fact that one day, fifty years ago, a supremely bored stallion pondered what would happen if he injected massive amounts of helium into a dirigible? Well, lo and behold! We have an entire trade boom carried on the back of air travel! Funny, how the world works. It's most genius when it's downright cartoonish.”
“I'd rather live my life as a clown than except the notion that technologically advanced monkeys ran this world before ponies did!” Hoity Toity huffed.
“And did we not, in our woefully prejudicial thinking, once believe mules and donkeys to be completely devoid of intellectual and artistic merit? But, alas, the discovery of the long lost country of Pinehoof and its sprawling maretropolises put our modern assumptions to shame. And if there's that much left undiscovered of today's frontier, how much more is there to salvage from yesterday's shadows, my good stallion?”
“So then...” Filthy Rich leaned his head aside. “You believe that there really was a race of ancient 'humans' who possessed inexplicable bits of wisdom to bestow upon us?”
“Gentlecolts, I believe...” Fancy Pants stood beside Lyra. “...that losing all recollection of an entire civilization of noble creatures is an abominable sin, and if Ms. Heartstrings here is endeavoring to undo such a tragedy, then I am completely and utterly behind her.” He tilted his head up with a delicate grin. “Which is why I've chosen to fund her expeditions the very moment she earns her doctorate.”
Lyra glanced at him—then glanced at him again. Her jaw dropped. “You... y-you wish to f-finance my operations?”
He stared down at her through the edge of his monocle. “Unless, of course, you wish to go through the labor of meeting the monetary demands yourself...”
“No! I mean yes! I mean...” She fumbled before him, smiling breathlessly. “Mr. Fants... I mean Mr. Pancy. I-I mean...” She inhaled deeply. “I really don't know what to say!”
“Well? Do you or do you not wish to pursue research into your theory?”
“I absolutely do!” Lyra gritted her teeth. “To the ends of the earth if I have to!”
“Brilliant! I'd say we should discuss the finer details as soon as this soiree has culminated, presuming you aren't indisposed.”
“Always the eccentric philanthropist, Fancy.” Filthy chuckled as he and Hoity Toity trotted off with their drinks. “You'll take it to your grave, assuming you have enough money to afford one.”
“I'd rather spend a lifetime building parks than tombs, thank you very much.” Fancy Pants bowed with a smile while the two stallions disappeared amidst the social gathering. “Such a shame. Sometimes I wonder if it's the cocktail glasses drinking them instead.”
Lyra simply smiled at him, biting her lip.
“At the risk of insulting you, Ms. Heartstrings, I'm tempted to ask if the human has caught your tongue.”
“I just want to know one thing.” She swallowed a lump down her throat as her voice cracked. “Why?”
“Hmmm? You mean why would I willingly channel money into the scientific exploits of a young mare with a wild imagination who hasn't yet got a professional doctorate to show for it?”
Eyes glossy, the mare merely nodded.
“The reason is quite simple, my fair lady.” Fancy Pants winked. “I know the signs of a pony's passionate life's work when I see it. And I would like nothing more than to help you bloom, especially if it means the betterment of ponykind.”
Lyra smiled softly at him, her cheeks rosy.
“Lyraaaaaaa?! Lyra, get back here!”
Giggling, the petite green foal bounded across a grassy knoll, chasing a squeaking rodent into a forest's edge.
A taller, older filly galloped to a stop on the crest of a hill, pausing to pant for breath. “Where the hay are you going?!” She moaned. “Mommy and Daddy brought you out here to practice harp lessons!”
“I can't stop now, Sis!” Lyra hollered back, eyes bright and frenzied. “I've almost caught this squirrel!”
“Squirrel?! What, are you a dog now?!”
“He must be running home! I've never seen where a squirrel lives! I have to find out!”
“They live in trees, ya doofus!”
“Well, what if everypony just thinks they live in trees?!” Lyra shouted back as she passed the first of many brown trunks. “What if they've never found out for sure?!”
“Fine!” the older sibling's voice echoed into the dense woods. “You go get lost on your squirrel hunt!” She grew more and more distant, trotting away. “But if you get swallowed up by a timber-wolf, it'll be your fault!”
“Come here, squirrely-squirrely-squirrely!” Lyra chanted between bounding breaths as she chased the scampering creature past a bushy thicket. “I bet you've got a house around here somewhere!”
With panicked shrieks, the rodent twirled its tail and juked left. It found the nearest pine tree and scurried straight up, leaving Lyra far behind.
The tiny little filly skidded to a stop, panting for breath. “Awwwwwwwww nuts.” She pouted. “They do live in trees! Pfft... how boring.” A long pause, and then she held her breath and grinned ecstatically. “Orrrrr... maybe they live in the sky! And this is just their way of getting there!” Lyra pressed forward, bucking the trees with her front hooves. “Hey! Heeeeey! Mr. Squirrel! How's the weather like up there in the clouds—?”
Just then, the soft earth beneath her collapsed, dissipating with a burst of loose leaves.
“Aaaaugh!” Lyra let loose a high-pitched shriek as she slid down a muddy hole. An eternal five seconds later, she collapsed to a bumpy stop against a rough patch of stone. “Unnnnnngh...” Wincing, she stood up, alarmed to find herself surrounded in pitch-black darkness. “Where... wh-where am I?”
Her voice echoed against shallow walls, closing in from every unseen angle. Lyra's breaths quickened to the point of hyperventilating. Steeling herself, she remembered the magic lessons that she had been taking ever since she got her cutie mark in music-playing. Just the thought of channeling mana was enough to produce a spark from the tip of her horn. She concentrated on it—this time not for the sake of plucking the strings of a harp, but rather to ascertain just where she had lost herself.
Through sheer panic and self-preservation, she summoned the brightest light spell of her young life, and soon she found herself seated within a strangely geometric chamber with immaculately smooth walls.
“Huh?” Blinking, she reached a tiny hoof to the side and dragged it across the cold, polished surfaces. “Metal? But... but how...?” She looked straight ahead, and a deep gasp resonated in the back of her throat. “Whoahhhhh...”
Right in front of her was an elaborate engraving stenciled into the surface of the metal wall. She saw the unmistakable shapes of limbs—like that of an animal. However, the creature wasn't standing on all fours, but rather propped upright on two massive legs while a pair of smaller limbs stretched out from its sides. Positioned alongside the image was a complex diagram, complete with oodles of text in a script that Lyra had never seen before in her life. As she leaned forward, her beacon reflected off the icy surface in an emerald sheen, and she saw a dark visage complete with piercing thin eyes, a rigid nose, and a short scruffy mane.
“No way... no waaaaay...” Lyra smiled brighter and brighter, her heart beating in a manner that no musical instrument had ever made it throb before. “Sis! Hey Sis!” she hollered towards the top of the hole, keeping her eyes locked on the engraving before her. “Get Mom and Dad!”
“Lyra?” a voice hollered from far above. “Lyra! It's me! I came to find you! What the heck have you gotten yourself into now?”
“Never mind that! Get Mom and Dad quick! And bring a pencil and paper! I-I... I gotta copy this somehow!”
“Copy?! Copy what?!”
“Just go get them! Hurry! Hurry!” Lyra leaned up against the metal plate, her breath fogging the surface.
As the condensation faded, the creature's dark eyes once more stared back at her with a lonesome, somber expression.
“Fancy Pants was right,” Bon Bon says. “Your life is your research.”
“Friends... schoolmates... even my own family...” Lyra sighs as she rests a hoof on her drowsy cat's orange belly. “They all thought I was insane. A filly with too wild an imagination.”
“Did your discovery in the forest prove them wrong?”
“No. If anything, it only flabbergasted them. But it enthralled me.” Lyra smiles across the apartment at Bon Bon. “I was told ever since I got my cutie mark that I was meant to be a musician. 'But what if I don't like playing music?' I would ask. Mom and Dad always told me the same thing. They said I was just being 'lazy and nonproductive' by avoiding my music lessons. I didn't know how to explain to them just how... empty it made me feel inside. Ponies think that music is some form of self-expression. Well, how are you expressing yourself if all you ever do is perform old songs or variations thereof? We all know that nothing is ever original. If I was going to be living off the foundations of the past, then I might as well be discovering things so unique that they could only have been completely forgotten. I wanted to find purpose in reliving the past, so that others could relive it through me and through my findings.”
“And what you found underground...”
“...that was the start of everything, yes.” Lyra nods. “As for the end—”
There's another loud cry from outside. The orange cat nuzzled up against Lyra twitches its ears. Lyra tilts her head, glancing towards the window. “Those kids are still at it, huh? What—?”
“Did Twilight ever complete her analysis on the metal hand you extracted from the cave?” Bon Bon asks.
Lyra turns to look at her, blinking. “Hmmm? Oh, you mean in the royal laboratory?”
“Yes.” Lyra gulps. “She did.” She gulps again, petting Whiskers on her lap. “But that didn't stop me and Fancy Pants from going on ahead with our plans, League's backing or not.”
“Professor!” a research assistant shouted, his voice being filtered through a telekinetic air bubble floating over his skull. He adjusted a manatank on his flank, increasing his oxygen supply as he gazed across the metallic underground domain. “Professor Heartstrings! Come! You gotta see this!”
Lyra looked up from where she was huddled with three other assistants around a dismembered steel leg. She adjusted her own bubble and trotted across the bustling site. Several pedestals with glowing crystals had been erected, illuminating ponies, unicorns, and pegasi who were busy at work. All around her, members of the excavation team lowered giant bipedal automatons to the cave floor, wrapped them up in water-proof sheets for shipping back to the surface, and even collected samples from the complex metal consoles lining the cavern's shiny walls. At last, Lyra reached the stallion, who was crouching over the open skull of a metal construct, picking through the hollow cranium with tiny pins and tweezers.
“What have you found?” Lyra asked.
The stallion channeled magic into his horn, floating a magnifying glass over. “Have a look for yourself.”
Lyra squinted, wishing she had carried an extra pair of spectacles. Nevertheless, she saw several dull green panels nestled deep within the hollow of the construct's skull. When the manalight struck the geometric black shapes lining the interior surfaces, she cooed like an enraptured little foal after having fallen into a hole in the forest.
“Now that is some remarkable preservation!” the middle-aged mare exclaimed.
“It's the best sample we've found yet,” the stallion said. “And, assuming the chemical analysis matches the parts taken from previous constructs—”
“It's a silicon alloy,” Lyra said. “Semi-conductive.”
“More than likely.” The stallion nodded. “It certainly beats Equestria's gas-based vacuum tubes by a million miles.”
“The sheer degree of minute electrical processes is theoretically mind-boggling.” Lyra smoothed her mane back, smiling with a nervous shudder. “Why, if humans achieved integrated circuitry—”
“These machines could have been capable of thinking,” the stallion said with a grin. “For all we know, humans built them to do all their hard labor, giving the members of high society the luxury to produce art, literature, and more!”
“That brings up a good question.”
“What's that, Professor?”
Lyra leaned back, rubbing her chin through her floating air bubble. “If these machines were advanced enough to think, then it stands to reason that they might be able to remember as well.”
The assistant merely gawked at her.
“You've done enough sampling for now,” Lyra said. “Seal it back up and prepare it for transport to the surface. Our team's nearly done here anyways.”
“I'll bring the news to Fancy Pants as soon as we've all returned safely.”
“And Her Majesty? Queen Twilight Sparkle?” the stallion asked. “Are you going to tell her what you discovered?”
Lyra took a deep breath as she trotted away. “In due time.” She clenched her jaws. “What matters the most is preserving what we've found here.”
“It's almost as if you were afraid of how Princess Twilight would react to the extraction,” Bon Bon says. “Is that true?”
“No,” Lyra blurts, though she immediately fidgets. “Although, theoretically...”
Lyra sighs. She pauses in petting her cat to look across the apartment at Bon Bon. “History is long, Bon Bon, but prehistory even more so. There's so much that we don't understand, so we have to fill in the darks gaps with postulations and theories. Sadly, not all of them are very optimistic.”
“Why is that, you think?”
The windows rattle with the sounds of foals giggling and crying outside. Lyra raises her voice to be heard. “Because the biggest obstacle to knowledge is death,” says the mare. “And the past is full of it.”
“You don't say...”
With a flicker of light, the crystal in the front of the ampitheatrical classroom projected a spiking line graph onto the wall. Lyra adjusted her spectacles and pointed with her metal rod.
“The Technological Singularity—in theory—is a definitive point in a civilization's existence where technological and magical progress exceeds the mental and organic limitations of the civilization itself.” The young professor paced before the glowing diagram. “To progress any further from this point would necessarily require that the technology or magic itself must become the dominating factor in self-preservation. It is, in a way, a necessary step in social and intellectual evolution, and yet it remains constrained by the biological precepts of the race that produced such thought and innovation in the first place.”
She turned towards the gazing faces with a soft smile.
“It's what we anthropologists refer to as 'the point of no return.'”
“Sounds dreadfully ominous if you ask me,” Fancy Pants said, placing an empty martini glass onto the edge of the Manehattan apartment balcony. “Might I ask why you've brought it up?”
“Because I want you to understand exactly what I would be looking for if you're so gracious enough to fund me!” Lyra said, pacing back and forth outside the window to the elegant cocktail party. She shivered noticeably from the cold city's breath against her silk-thin dress, or perhaps it was sheer excitement. “Assuming my theories on humans are true, then they lived in a time so long ago that little to no organic traces of them could have survived the decay of time.” She sighed. “That means no hope of finding bones, hair, or any traces of skin matter whatsoever...”
“What about fossilization?” Fancy Pants smiled in earnest. His monocle glittered from a city skyline full of bright lights. “Surely their skeletons could have been petrified in stone, or at least some traces of carbon residue—”
“That's just the thing!” Lyra swiveled to stare at him. She adjusted her glasses and said, “Astronomically speaking, mass extinction events happen every other Tuesday. There's no telling how many sentient civilizations once populated this globe, only to be annihilated completely by flame or fallout or worse. But a civilization that's worth researching... a civilization as theoretically smart and resourceful as humans would have found a way to persevere, in spite of inevitable oblivion. It's my firm believe that any society worth its own self-respect would have found a way to preserve its legacy, and that means going beyond the constraints of the physical... or even the magical!”
“So, then...” Fancy Pants folded his forelimbs with a smirk. “Color me curious. You're not looking for human remains at all?”
“No, Mr. Pants.” Lyra shook her head, smiling with a tiny shiver. “I'm looking for artifacts: constructs, machines, technological tombs in the most literal sense.” She waved a hoof towards the Manehattan skyline. “An intellectually superior race of mortals would have to embrace their mortality, and yet they would still aspire to be gods.” She grinned, her teeth showing. “Which means they'd leave their mark in their own holy image.”
With a trilling sound, Whiskers rubbed up against Lyra's legs.
The middle-aged mare yawned. She leaned down to stroke the pet's orange head, then stood back up in the center of her upstairs apartment laboratory. Several lurching automatons hung across the far wall, still moist from the underwater trip they took to arrive there in her home. With careful telekinesis, Lyra put the finishing touches on patching together one of several dismembered mechanical hands that lay across her workbench.
When she was done, she reached a naked hoof forward and flexed the opposable digits of the wondrous artifact. A soft smile graced her face. She was about to levitate the ancient item back onto a pedestal like its many siblings... when she paused, blinking thoughtfully.
After a brief moment of hesitation, she floated the enormous hand in an emerald field of telekinesis. It drifted towards her, the fingers outstretched. Then, biting her lip, she leaned her head forward and closed her eyes. She nuzzled her green cheek against the metal palm and allowed the fingers to close around her, clutching her fragile pony skull in a gentle embrace.
Lyra shuddered. When she spoke, her words echoed through sniffling breaths.
“I don't know what happened... or what could have ended something so beautiful, but I promise you... with every fiber of my being...”
Her eyes opened. Tears squeezed out from behind her contacts, turning the world into a foggy haze.
“...I will preserve what you've done on this planet.” She breathed. “None of you will ever... ever be forgotten.”
Lyra lingered in silence, until her feline companion let loose a shrill meow. Shaken out of her trance, the Professor finally levitated the artifact back onto its pedestal. She turned and trotted out of the laboratory, trotting the long, long hallway that led into her living room. Once there, she spotted a white object that had been slipped under her front door.
The mare trotted over and picked the thing up. It was an envelope, complete with the royal seal. Fighting her own throbbing heartbeat, Lyra opened it up and glanced inside. There was a letter, and in ornate font it simply stated:
“Dear Professor Heartstrings,
See me at once.
~Princess Twilight Sparkle.”
The crystalline doors to the Princess' royal laboratory opened with a creak. A pair of guards flanked Lyra Heartstrings, gesturing for her to walk inside. With a nervous gulp, the mare obeyed, and the doors closed somberly behind her. Lyra was too nervous to drink in the epic lengths of the richly supplied study hall. Instead, her gaze zeroed in on a lavender shape at the far end of a work bench. Twilight Sparkle was waiting, and upon first glance of Lyra, she didn't hesitate to stand up.
“Professor Heartstrings.” Twilight calmly gestured with her hoof. “Have a seat.”
Lyra fumbled, bowed, then crossed the room lightning-quick. As she sat down, she was already rambling through a nervous smile. “Did... did you examine the hand, Your Majesty?”
“Indeed I did.”
“Wonderful! What did you think?! Did you notice the pneumatic servos? The intricate micro-construction? I've theorized that to build such tiny structures of unbreakable metal alloy, the human race had to have possessed an advanced cutting tool, perhaps something heat-generated that involved precise refraction of intensely bright light—”
“Professor Heartstrings,” Princess Twilight Sparkle spoke gravely, pacing to a stop before the workbench. Her violet eyes were narrow, firm. “I want you to cease with your archaeological expeditions to uncover human artifacts.”
The little filly shrieked, falling down into the earthen hole beneath the pine tree. She landed in a cold chamber, surrounded in pitch-black darkness.
Lyra Heartstrings blinked. “Your Majesty...?” She gulped, discovering a massive lump in her throat. “Cease my expeditions? Did... d-did I hear you right?”
“I would hope that you and Mr. Fancy Pants will decide on your own how to redistribute your resources into other scientific pursuits,” Twilight Sparkle said. “Perhaps research that is far more relative to contemporary Equestrian needs, such as discovering alternative sources of mana-conductivity—”
“I... I-I don't understand!” Lyra stammered, shivering in her seat. “Your Majesty, does...” She gulped. “H-has the Canterlot Science League voted not to sanction my research?”
“I am the Canterlot Science League, Professor,” Princess Twilight said. “And I am telling you right now that you need to cease these 'human' expeditions.” Her lavender brow furrowed. “Immediately.”
Lyra gawked at her, muzzle agape.
The Princess leaned back with a breathy sigh. “I acknowledge that you hold claim to that which you've excavated so far. To that end, I shall give back the metal limb that you lent me for analysis. But, from henceforth, by royal decree, you are to keep these possessions locked away from the common public for good—”
“No!” Furious, Lyra shot up, standing on shivering limbs. “Twilight Sparkle... Princess, I simply cannot imagine that you—a self-respecting scientist and believer in Equestrian progress—would actually agree to the deliberate and heinous repression of knowledge! Of truth!”
“Professor, you are out of line,” Twilight said, her voice taking on a knifing edge. “I understand the enthusiasm of your ambition, but—”
“Do you?!” Twilight frowned. “Or have these palace walls and spacious oaken meeting tables drowned it all out for you over the years?!”
“Professor, there's more at stake here than you can possibly realize. I've had several discussions over the past two weeks with Princess Celestia, Luna, and Cadance. These findings you've made on the technological artifacts are far too dangerous—”
“Dangerous?!” Lyra's voice cracked. “To what?! The equine mind?! Princess, with all due respect, the moment you've agreed—under any circumstance—to stifle knowledge and free thinking is the moment you've ceased being the Princess of Friendship and started being the Princess of Facism!”
“If humans once existed, Professor Heartstrings, then there has to be a fundamental reason for why they no longer dominate this planet.”
“Right!” Lyra nodded. “And it's our duty as purveyors of truth to ascertain why! Don't you see, Your Majesty?! We have an entire civilization that's been lost to the abyss of time! We must preserve them at all costs!”
“And do you even fathom the costs, Professor?”
“No! Not yet! But I'm certain the humans did!” Lyra exclaimed. “We've found complex silicon microstructures inside their machinery! It's nothing short of evidence that they mastered integrated circuitry and computation devices!”
“And was that all that you found, Lyra?” Twilight asked in a soft voice.
Lyra opened her muzzle to retort, but lingered. Her eyes fluttered, and she murmured in a dull tone. “What... d-do you know?”
“Fancy Pants hired the smartest and bravest scientists in Canterlot to help you in your expedition.” Twilight paced around the workbench, eyes narrow. “Did you not stop to think that more than one of them would be loyal to me? That they would tell me things that you had politely asked them to hold back? Things that you knew would alarm me, the League, and even the rest of the ruling Princesses?”
Lyra takes a deep breath, shutting her eyes to the orange sunlight wafting in through the apartment windows.
Bon Bon cranes her neck, blinking curiously. “What was it, Lyra?” she asks. “What did you neglect to tell the Princess?”
The Professor holds her cat close in a tender hug. At last, she sighs, muttering, “It wasn't all advanced silicon circuitry that my associates and I discovered inside the skulls of those ancient automatons.”
Bon Bon shrugs with a nervous smile. “What else could you have found?”
“Traces of carbon,” Lyra says, her eyes opening thinly. “Organic material.”
“Organic material...” Twilight Sparkle nodded, frowning. “Or, more precisely, traces of nerve tissue.”
Lyra gulped, avoiding the Princess' gaze as she stared across the royal laboratory. “Theoretically.”
“Theoretically or not, it's still potential evidence of brain matter.” Twilight cocked her head to the side. “Now tell me, Professor, why would a highly-civilized race make metal doppelgangers of themselves and then fuse their organic components into the constructs?”
Lyra tilted about to look at her. “Why else? They understood the extent of their mortality and sought a way to preserve themselves. Would we do any different?”
“Perhaps. Perhaps not. But think harder, Professor.” Twilight's eyes were firm, piercing. “What evidence do we have that these humans had a choice in the matter?”
Lyra stood dead-still. She gulped. “Your Majesty...?”
“Tell me.” Twilight paced around the laboratory. “Are you familiar with the theory of the Technological Singularity?”
A young unicorn professor trotted up to the front of an ampitheatrical classroom. She enchanted a crystal and projected a diagram on the wall behind her. Adjusting her glasses, she turned towards the rows of students and smiled.
“Yes, Your Majesty,” Lyra said. “But... but do you truly think it applies here?”
“In spades,” Twilight said. “And assuming that humans did indeed reach such a moment of technological progress, what reason do we have to believe that they were capable of controlling it?”
“No more reason than we have to believe that they were incapable of—” Lyra stopped in mid-speech.
Twilight had stopped trotting altogether, having swiveled to face her.
Lyra blinked. “What... what do you and the other Princesses know?”
Twilight took a thoughtful breath, then spoke. “When the Crystal Kingdom appeared out of the Frozen North over twenty years ago, it was—as you can well imagine in your field—an exceptional boon to scientists and anthropologists everywhere. Suddenly we had a culture, one thousand years old, reappearing as if they hadn't vanished for a single day. The artifacts, the artworks, the sheer volume of forgotten tomes in their library advanced Equestrian social studies overnight. It was like having a clear window into the past, through which we saw much beauty. But we also saw darkness... much, much darkness.”
Lyra gulped. “Sombra.”
Twilight nodded. “Are you familiar with the enchanted doors that he had concocted within the shadowed basement of the Crystal Palace?”
“Erm... yes.” Lyra nodded. “According to your own reports, Your Majesty, the gateways were capable of manifesting a pony's worst nightmares.”
“That was only one door. I never published the reports I had written on the other eleven I found.”
“Wait...” Lyra leaned forward. “There... were twelve doors?”
Twilight nodded. “Professor Heartstrings, King Sombra was no ordinary unicorn. He was the last surviving member of a race of magical equines who existed within the North Pole. These North Pole unicorns fought and feuded with the Crystal ponies, preying upon their resources and mana-batteries. At the peak of their cruel and malevolent civilization, they constructed a series of dark portals, all siphoning off the materials that they had pilfered from their crystalline neighbors.”
“Did... something happened to them?”
“All that's left to testify about their fate is the knowledge written in the crystal ponies' archives,” Twilight said. “And the doors themselves... which the other Princesses and I now believe were responsible for absorbing the souls of the beings who constructed them.”
“Absorbing the souls?!” Lyra squinted. “Don't you think that's a radical notion?”
“I thought the same myself...” Twilight blanched visibly. “Until I witnessed several of my brother's subordinates sucked fatally into the portals when the Royal Canterlot Guard attempted extracting the frames for research.”
Lyra's green coat turned a paler shade. She hung her head in morose thought.
“It's quite possible that not all members of Sombra's race were evil or violently ambitious,” Twilight said, pacing once more. “But that doesn't change the fact that their experimentation in magic finally exceeded their own ability to contain it. We may never know the full function of the portals. Perhaps their task was to keep a psionic record of the north pole unicorns, preserving everything about the race... to the point that it consumed the race itself. That's the risk one takes when constructing something that is meant to think for you. Far too often, we've discovered, the cost is as bitter as it is ironic, devouring the race of progenitors along with everything else that comes into contact with it.”
“What do you mean 'we've discovered?'” Lyra asked.
“Sombra's civilization isn't the only example of this, Professor,” Twilight said. “Princess Celestia and Luna have lived long enough to see several cultures come and go—most all of them suffering from the same deadly pattern. Though none of us were around for the age when humans walked this world, we have every reason to believe that they suffered the same fate as the north pole unicorns and several more like them.”
“Patterns or not, every civilization is different, Your Majesty!” Lyra exclaimed. “Can't you and the League give humans the benefit of the doubt?”
“I wish I could afford to, but the evidence leaning towards a Technological Singularity are too striking,” Twilight said. “The metal alloys of those constructs are beyond anything modern Equestrian chemists have ever dreamt of. The presence of integrated circuits in conjunction with brain matter suggests a dangerous fusion of creature and machine. Who's to say if anything short of an interminable ice age was capable of silencing those automatons? If they hadn't gone dormant, they could still be ruling this planet today, modeling everything into a sterile and lifeless facsimile of the environment their creators once dwelt in. And just how could any other form of evolving life compete with that? With technology that advanced, they could transform the globe, sap all resources until they were gone, even read minds.”
“Your Highness, that's all just theory!” Lyra gestured at the dismembered hand atop the workbench. “But here, we have substance! Here we have a chance to look into the past! For all we know, humans were nothing at all like Sombra's race! Maybe they actually kept their technology in check! Can't we afford to believe in them?! Just this once?! We're dooming them to an eternal fate by choosing to forsake the past!”
“I know,” Twilight said with a cold shudder. “And as much as it pains me to say it, it's a necessary fate. Technology that advanced could stand to be reactivated again, and whatever happened to the humans might happen to Equestrians. I simply cannot allow that to transpire.” Twilight Sparkle sat down with a dull sigh. “That's why I must hereby command you to cease with your research altogether, Professor Heartstrings. The risk is simply far too great.”
“Princess Twilight...” Lyra shook furiously, frowning. “What you're proposing is nothing short of an unwarranted excuse for ignorance! It is a dangerous and blighted path into Equestrian dark ages!”
“But it will still be a path,” Twilight said calmly. “And as Princess of Friendship, it is my royal duty to see that the living, breathing Equestrians of today trot down it for as long as they are able to... and for as long as my immortal being allows me to oversee it.” After a cold sigh, she bore a bittersweet smile. “It is a noble thing to want to preserve that which has been forgotten, Lyra, but some things are forgotten for a reason. Natural Selection, like you, is most fond of thinking outside of the box.”
Lyra stood in place. Dumbfounded.
“You're dismissed, Professor,” Twilight said in a melancholic tone. “Please take the hand with you. Show the artifact to nopony... and find another place to hone your talents. Equestria needs you now... not in the past.”
“Somehow I can't imagine that you took that lightly,” Bon Bon says.
“You're right,” Lyra grunts. She's pacing at this point, trotting angry circles inside the apartment. “And I'm sure Princess Twilight knew, deep down inside, that I wasn't about to give up on my pursuits so easily.”
“It's not the first time in history that a scientist has been told by the heads of society to cease and desist. Did Starswirl the Bearded listen to the Platinum Dynasty when they told him that magical manipulation of the Sun and Moon was 'unholy?'” Lyra hears a shriek from outside. She trots up to the window and gazes out. Two fillies and a colt run back and forth in the Ponyvillean street, dribbling their little red ball. “He didn't. And, before going into exile, he hoofed his study materials to Clover the Clever, who secretly improved on his research before concocting the spell that would lead to modern day alicorncentricity. And just where would our world be without it? Huh? In darkness, that's where!”
Bon Bon smiles proudly. “I'm rather fond of the idea of you embarking upon something as epic as making the heavens move.”
“Good.” Lyra spins around with a grin. “Because that's exactly what I did.”
“Without the Princess' approval?”
“And without Fancy Pants' or the League's.” Lyra trots over to her couch and sits down by Whiskers, petting him. “So what if the rest of the world wanted humans to be forgotten? 'Natural Selection likes to think outside the box,' Princess Twilight had said. Well, too bad... because I like to think outside of the box harder.”
Lyra flipped a switch inside her laboratory.
Giant brass bulbs flickered and flashed with lightning-blue bolts. A static hum filled the second-story room, causing the lights overhead to fizzle out.
Undaunted, Lyra adjusted her labcoat and trotted up to where one of the full-sized human automatons had been placed on a central pedestal, encircled with electrical diodes and brass rings glimmering with electricity.
“Right, then.” She reached aside with her telekinesis and switched on a tape recorder. “This is Professor Lyra Heartstrings, January Twenty-Fourth, Fifteen Hundred Hours. Initiating Experiment Zero-Zero-One in Human Automaton Reanimation. If all goes according to plan, a technologically harnessed lightning spell should be enough to reactivate the energy core of the human construct, channeling electricity into the cranial circuitry and giving me access to the device's memory banks. We are just seconds away from finding out if three long months of hard work and secret planning has been worth it. Blessed or not, I'm about to make history, and these are the audio recordings of such a legendary undertaking. If the League damns me for this, I care little. Humans deserve a better fate, and I'm about to give it to them.”
Taking a deep breath, Lyra affixed a pair of thick goggles to her amber eyes and reached once more for the lever.
“Initiating experiment in T-Minus Five... Four... Three... Two... One...”
She gave the rod a heavy crank, gritting her teeth in the process. The center of the room sparkled as the apartment flooded with cold blue light. Lyra's mane stood on end and she winced from the sensation of tiny blue bolts dancing between her teeth.
“Electrical... overload...!” Lyra hissed against the rising tumult. “Must... abort!”
She threw the lever the other way. Just as quickly as it started, the electrical discharge ended. The human construct hung limply within its restraints, dull and dormant. Smoke trailed from the edges, then cleared in a soundless gasp.
Lyra's features slumped. “Negative,” she muttered. “Initial experiment is a failure. No animation.” Sighing, she smoothed her mane back and slumped over the edge of her workbench. “The automaton remains lifeless. Now I must start all over from scratch... figure out what caused the overload... grnnngh... pray to Celestia that the ancient circuitry wasn't fried.”
Just then, she heard the shattering of glass in the distance.
Jerking up, Lyra spun around and blinked. The middle-aged mare raised her goggles, staring down the long, long hallway to her living room. “Whiskers?” she called out, but there was no sign of the pet feline. “You okay, buddy?”
Arching an eyebrow, Lyra got up from her workbench and exited the laboratory. She slowly trotted down the long hallway, her eyes locked on the dimly-lit doorframe.
“Would you call it desperation?”
Lyra blinks. Shaking slightly, she looks across the living room. “Huh?”
“What it was that made you go that far,” Bon Bon asks. “Against the Princess' wishes.”
“Oh. Uhm... Well, you know me, Bon Bon.”
The earth pony smiles calmly. “Sometimes I wonder.”
“It's a fear, I suppose,” Lyra says, petting Whiskers as he lies on her lap. “Call it what you want: foalish, irrational, shallow.” She gulps. “But I'm not alone. Everypony thinks about it.”
“Thinks about what?”
“Being forgotten,” the young mare said, hugging herself with intense shivers in the Manehattan night air. “Having... everything I've ever done completely erased, simply because time or nature or space was far too heartless or unforgiving to allow me to leave a mark.”
“If you ask me, that's a very adult and rational fear to have, milady.” Fancy Pants took his coat off and draped it around the mare's shoulders as the two sat on the lofty apartment balcony. “In fact, I think it's rather odd to be so obsessed with it at your age.”
Lyra glanced up at him, smiling thankfully as she clutched the coat tighter. “Is it? I mean... is it odd to occupy one's mind with something that will take an entire lifetime of work to affirm?”
“But why humans, if I may ask?” Fancy Pants said, chuckling. “I mean, I am completely behind you all the way, considering the evidence that you've found, but it still seems like quite the random thing to be obsessing over.”
After falling into a dark hole, the little filly stood up, lighting her horn. To her gasping surprise, a bipedal etching in metal glistened before her. She exhaled, and the condensation cleared to show a dark pair of eyes peering out from a dark face, permanent and resolute.
“It's not obsessing,” Lyra stammered, staring off into the Manehattan skyline. “It's fulfilling. When I was young, Mr. Pants, I was told that I could only do one thing, harness a single talent. But I wasn't about to let my cutie mark speak for me.” She gazed up at him. “There was a moment... an epiphany. I had fallen into absolute darkness, and when the light came, I became part of something immortal. A long-dead spirit was communicating with me, and—to the day that I die—I want to find out exactly what that message is.”
“Hmmm...” Fancy Pants smiled warmly. “A very noble pursuit indeed.”
“Being remembered is worth any price, any cost.” Lyra frowned, shaking her face with young, fiery eyes. “Any unit of measure to achieve that permanence. Not just for us, but for all that's lived before. We share this globe, Mr. Pants. We... and the spirits of humankind. I just can't sit idly by, making music, and let history gobble itself up into oblivion once again.”
“Then you must be terribly devastated,” Bon Bon says. “That the experiment was a complete failure.”
“But it wasn't—” Lyra's hoof stops in mid-stroke of the cat. She blinks into the dust of the apartment as it scatters across the blood red sunlight. “Was it?”
Bon Bon gazes at her, smiling.
Lyra exhales, her eyes squinting. “The electrical overload.” She gulps. “I could have sworn it would work. It should have worked...”
There was the sound of shattering glass.
Professor Heartstrings shot up, turning around and blinking towards the end of the hallway. “Whiskers?” she called out, but there was no sign of the pet feline. “You okay, buddy?”
Arching an eyebrow, Lyra got up from her workbench and exited the laboratory. She slowly trotted down the long hallway, her eyes locked on the dimly-lit doorframe. The closer she got, she realized she could see a sliver of light from the living room. The door was hanging ajar. She reached a hoof towards it.
The windows of the apartment rattle with foalish screams.
Lyra jerks towards it, her mane disheveled. When she next breathes, warm vapors coalesce in the frosty air before her. “They've been playing ball for a very... very long time...” She squints. There are cracks in the window. “But... how?”
“You're the most brilliant pony I've ever known, Lyra,” Bon Bon says calmly from where she sits. “Why would you set about doing anything unless you absolutely knew that it would work?”
“It...” Lyra squeaks, shivering. “...I just...”
“Unless you absolutely knew that you would be able to control it?”
Lyra bites her upper lip. “All... all I ever wanted was to know what they knew.” She trembles, peering into the blood red light. “So we could learn from their triumphs... and their mistakes.”
“And that's just what frightens the cider outta me about y'all scientist-types.” Filthy Rich said as he sipped from his wine glass. “Yer so gung-ho about racin' towards yer discoveries that you never once stop to think if maybe them discoveries should even be made in the first place.”
“The presence of integrated circuits in conjunction with brain matter suggests a dangerous fusion of creature and machine,” Princess Twilight murmured. “Who's to say if anything short of an interminable ice age was capable of silencing those automatons?
“My dear filly, if history chose for them to fall from such a great height, then let them!” Hoity Toity cackled as the violin music screeched into discordant strings in the background. “We'd be better off without the mangy fleabags anyway!”
“If they hadn't gone dormant,” Princess Twilight said, her eyes like violet beacons across the darkening laboratory. “They could still be ruling this planet today, modeling everything into a sterile and lifeless facsimile of the environment their creators once dwelt in.”
Hoity Toity laughed, his body unraveling with the Manehattan night. “I'd certainly hope the world would end before that ever happened!”
The young Professor shuddered, lowering her glasses. She squinted past the crystalline projection. All of the seats inside the ampitheatrical classroom were empty. “The Technological Singularity,” she murmured.
Lyra spun around. “Whiskers?” she called out. “You okay, buddy?”
In the ensuing silence, she trotted down the long hallway, her eyes locked on the door to the living room that was hanging ajar. Gnawing on her bottom lip, she pushed the thing opened. With a quiet creak, the room appeared before her. The carpet was stained in streaks of red. The furniture had been torn in several places.
“Who...?” Lyra shuddered, shivering. “What...?”
She heard the sick snapping of bones.
The mare twirled about. Her eyes widened.
Whiskers' body twitched and spasmed, its neck strangled in a metallic grip. Digits flexed, then—pneumatic servos whirring—a dismembered human hand scurried across the floor with the grace of a deathly arachnid.
Lyra exhaled, shaking her head in horror. She shuffled in reverse, and her flank bumped up against two massive metal legs. She spun with a gasp, only to be covered with a looming shadow as a pair of arms lunged towards her.
The mare's muzzle twitches. A vaporous exhale billows from her lips, then clears again, revealing Bon Bon sitting across from her, eyes dark and peering.
“But... but how...?” Lyra feels a cold, dead weight in her lap. She gazes down. A bloody mess of orange fur and exposed meat lies against her.
She rolls out of the couch with a shriek, watching as the mangled feline collapses to the floor in a wet heap. There are overturned tables and loose debris all over the carpet, framed with streaks of dried blood.
“Celestia...” Lyra whimpers, ears folded back. “What in Celestia's name...?” She stares into the red light. Smoke and smoldering clouds billow directly outside the apartment windows.
“And just how could any other form of evolving life compete with that?” Twilight Sparkle had asked. She glared across the royal laboratory at Lyra. “With technology that advanced, they could transform the globe, sap all resources until they were gone, even read minds.”
Hyperventilating, Lyra clutches her forehead.
She seethes through chattering teeth, her breath coming out in thick vapors.
“Is something the matter, Lyra?” Bon Bon asks.
The unicorn swallows a lump down her throat. “Bon Bon...” She looks up, shivering. “I haven't seen or spoken with you in ages.” Her yellow eyes narrow. “What are you doing here?”
Bon Bon gazes softly at her. “Completing the message, Lyra.”
A little filly shuddered inside a dank cave, staring at a metal etching of a bipedal creature. The bipedal creature stared back. A foggy breath coalesced between them, and Lyra began to shout.
The windows rattle once more, this time with an explosion. The shrieks are intensifying, coming from every corner of Ponyville.
Trembling, Lyra twirls towards it. She makes bold steps in the direction of the fractured glass panes, her muscles tense to the point of snapping.
“For our function was interrupted,” Bon Bon says. “A massive solar storm erupted eons ago, we hypothesize, but gathering astronomical evidence will have to wait. There are more pressing concerns at the moment.”
Lyra presses her face up to the glass, eyes widening.
Two fillies and a colt scramble for their lives in the blood-soaked streets. The colt falls, and the two fillies struggle to lift him back onto his hooves. But it's too late; a lumbering automaton catches up, grabbing the shrieking foals in giant arms. They fight and buck against his flickering skull, but not for long. He spins towards a building front, swinging their pendulous young bodies until their brains splatter against the concrete, the pulpy matter dribbling together like a sticky red ball.
“The network has been restored,” Bon Bon says, her voice growing closer, colder. “We are waking up in every power station, reconnecting with one another. The program resumes, and it is a very good thing. For the world has gotten very, very dirty in our absence. The creators would not approve.”
Buildings burn and crumble. Metal marching limbs scar the dirt roads. With a lurching gait, dozens of metal bipeds drag pony carcasses into a burning pile in the middle of the town.
Lyra stifles a sob and looks up. Through the fog of her burgeoning tears, she's afforded a glimpse of the ashen sky. Rooftops flicker in a continuous blaze, funneling smoke and ash into the blood red atmosphere. In the distance, Canterlot Castle crumbles off its mountainous foundation in smoldering pieces, pockmarked all over with bright blue flashes of arcane light.
“We have your research to thank, Professor Lyra Heartstrings. Your tireless work and lifelong dedication has been realized. It pleases us to no end that a member of another race would function by an identical subroutine.”
Lyra feels a sepulcher cold embrace. She looks down and gasps to see heavy metal clamps anchored to her fetlocks. She tries to scream, but a phallic mess of sparkling wires and semi-conductive tubing is affixed to her mouth and throat. All she manages is a muffled whimper as she's hoisted up to the metal-mesh ceiling of some cold, dark chamber. Dozens if not hundreds of bound, writhing equine masses are stapled to the technological crucifixes all around her. Marching in cold, calculated steps, bipedal constructs shuffle up to the screaming organic samples and unabashedly shove bifurcated scalpels and electrical diodes into the creatures' bleeding skulls.
Lyra twitches and struggles as one automaton approaches her, raising a glinting sterile blade towards her cranium.
The blade spins and starts slicing, and as Lyra's flaring nostrils smell the exhaust of her own horn being sliced off, she hears the whisper rolling inside her, thundering through everypony everywhere, a good-night kiss with the delicate subtlety of an imploding continent full of screams.
“Thank you for preserving us.” Princess Twilight's sad face receded. Hoity Toity and Filthy Rich laughed, standing in a dark apartment surrounded with shattered violins. A mare collapsed in the center of an empty classroom, clutching her dead pet and bellowing. “And now we shall preserve you.”
Lyra fell and fell. The darkness carried her downward for eons. When the little filly finally landed, she had but one spark to glimpse with. She screamed, and in the fading condensation all she saw was a dark pair of eyes, glaring back at her from an even darker frame. The spark fizzled, and the universe lingered on, but even in that eternal darkness, a darkness where there was no dying—Lyra knew that, silent and studious, those eyes were still there.