The Temporal Horror

by Tsunogami

First published

Do not ask how the mechanism works, you may find the answer...disturbing.

Nearly 400 years before the return of Princess Luna, Celestia is made aware of the presence of a damaged weapon, a remnant from an ancient battle, fallen from the heavens and forgotten on a world it should never have been near.

A short story based on an idea from the Revelation Space novel series by Alastair Reynolds.

What lies frozen

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The ground under her cold hooves trembled as yet another great fountain of lava hundreds of meters high pierced the column of dark ash billowing out from the blackened, broken peak of the snow shrouded volcano looming over the landscape to the south. The angry red glow providing an appropriate counterpoint to the half hidden vermillion disk of the sun which hovered along the opposite horizon, its glow radiating out over the barren icy plain stretching endlessly northward as far as a pony could see. This far north the sun never seemed to truly set this time of year. This effect, Princess Celestia found not only strange, but perhaps an indication of deeper not yet fully understood truths about the world. Despite her best efforts she could only change its location in the sky by a tiny amount, nothing like her abilities from her capitol city in the center of Equestria. It seemed the further she went from her palace the less effect her power had over the glowing orb. Though it only really became noticeable in distant lands such as these.

The regal looking alicorn barely bothered to glance at the fiery display of Nature’s power as a frozen wind whipped her mane repeatedly over her face. Although a quick bit of energy from her horn could deal with the wind, she found herself still enjoying the experience as it was so refreshingly different from the coddled life to be found in the gilded halls of the Canterlot Palace. She had been out here for most of the day now waiting for the members of the research party to finish their meticulous excavations into the glacial ice she was now standing on. Though the process took long enough to make most other ponies bored, she had plenty of other things on her mind, like for instance, what she would tell her subjects back home when they asked why she had suddenly gone north of the Chrystal Mountains for a single day without any real explanation. Other than reminding them of her passing interest in the state of scientific research in the arctic, and a desire for a brief vacation, she had no convenient excuses, and the ones she did have were not very good on their own.

In fact, her sudden interest in this area, or rather in this precise spot, was far more than simple curiosity. Ever since King Sombra had taken the Chrystal Palace and its surrounding city with him when he was sealed away, Celestia had maintained standing orders that she be immediately notified if any unusual artifacts or magical occurrences were discovered or reported anywhere near where the ancient imperial capitol had been. What she had not expected was to have a report of such a discovery come from north of the mountains. This was not a location many ponies had ever been to, due to its permanently frozen climate and near inaccessibility from being on the other side of the great range of mountains separating it from the rest of Equestria to the south. Nonetheless, ponies had come in small groups to discover what they could of unknown lands and in doing so had come across something truly unique.

When Celestia had received the notification, it had simply stated that a geological survey team had discovered what appeared to be a stubby tower of jagged, what looked almost to be fractured, metal sticking out of a glacier on the lower slopes of an active volcano. They had refrained from contact with it in any way per her standing orders and were awaiting her permission to proceed further. Their description and included sketches completely failed to resemble anything in her past experience, which was considerable, as she had already been alive for over thirteen hundred years before the banishment of her sister and establishment of modern Equestria now over six hundred and forty years ago.

Celestia was not one to ignore strangeness, or anything out of the ordinary in her kingdom. Doing so in the past had nearly always led to regrettable mistakes. Having made some quick preparations and hasty appointment rearrangements she teleported herself in increments across the Equestrian landscape. She wished she could have done it all in one go but not only did the process require great magical power but it was very dangerous to teleport to a place not directly visible from a pony’s starting location. Even Celestia did not think she would survive materializing inside a mountain or some similar mishap. It only took her a few hours of travel to arrive at the described location anyway, and once there and having confirmed the presence of the noted formation, she ordered the excavation of the object to begin immediately.

“Ahem- Um, excuse me, your highness…If you would like, we have now provided direct access to the main body of the object.” One of the researchers working on the excavation said as he walked up behind her.

Even after seeing her spend an entire day around them, not acting at all threatening, these ponies still treated her as if she would order their imprisonment if they breathed near her in the wrong way. It was behavior that still managed to frustrate her despite a dozen regular pony lifetimes worth of dealing with it.

It had been hard, even for her, to remain patient during the lengthy process of melting a vertical rectangular pit down alongside of the object. The ‘object’ as it was simply referred to, for they could not settle on any better name for the thing, had proved to be, as they expected, mostly under the ice. The broken stubby tower, tilted at a slight angle had turned out to be the end of a thick shaft of glistening metal over ten meters long with an oval cross section that slowly tapered from a meter and a half at its broken end, to just under a meter in diameter at its base. Just as the shaft reached its thinnest point it suddenly flared out as it connected to what seemed to be a large elongated ovoid structure some five meters across and over twenty meters long. Its exact dimensions were debatable as most of it was still surrounded by ice.

The overall shape reminded Celestia of the oblong airships that were so popular among the more affluent of Canterlot City society, but with a thick bar jutting out of one side. It had been the broken tip of this bar that had first been seen sticking out above the ice. The fact that the end was broken made Celestia rather certain that originally the bar had connected to something else, but weather or not that something was larger or smaller that the object present was impossible to tell for sure. Though the fact the bar was growing larger in diameter before its terminus made Celestia think that whatever this thing had been connected to, that had been the larger piece. Where this main body now was, nopony knew.

As Celestia approached the dig site and the glistening shards of metal tipping the end of the shaft were glowing red in the dual reflected lights of the sun and distant lava fountain she noticed that all seven of the other ponies who had been doing the excavating were now standing above ground well away from the 15 meter deep trench they had spent so much time working on. This was a surprise because every other time she had spent down in the trench the other ponies had shown no desire whatsoever to be anywhere else but as close to their object of interest as possible, lest some discovery be made when they were not present. In fact, all their tents had been set up down in the excavation to keep them out of the ferocious windstorms that had a bad habit of blowing up out of seemingly nowhere.

“What’s the matter Doctor?” Celestia asked gesturing a foreleg toward the rest of the team some distance off. “I’d think they would want to be here to see me try to work out its properties.”

“Heh, its strange… you see Princess… lately, as we were melting away the last few centimeters of ice off of its surface many of us, me included, began to feel…well, queasy- is I suppose the best way to put it. We began to feel a little ill, almost dizzy, like our immediate surrounding were…moving around slightly. A very odd sensation, hard to describe. I apologize for our reluctance but the farther away from it the better we feel. If you want us to come with you back to the trench we will of cour-“

“Don’t worry, that wont be necessary.” Celestia said, cutting off the demure bowing and scraping that she was sure would soon occur.

“Although I am not sure what’s going on, I will not place my subjects in any danger, real or imagined, that they are not comfortable with. Though I am curious now to see if I experience this sensation for myself. I will continue on my own then if its ok with you.”

“C-certainly princess, go right ahead.”

Leaving the nervous pony behind the Alicorn of the Sun spread her wings and with a bit of magical assistance glided down the roughly five story deep shaft. The light, already dim at the surface became near enough to night time at the bottom as to make little difference. As she reached the bottom she looked up and traced the metal bar, still half encased in ice down its length to where it reached the main body of the object which bulged out into the open space of the shaft.

The way the light reflected off its surface was subtle, but once noticed could not be compared to anything else known in Equestria. Not only did a light source shown onto its surface be reflected repeatedly out to either side and in different shades of colors but seemed to be reflected repeatedly into the distance infinitely in rather the same way as the effect caused by standing between two parallel mirrors. Except here there was no other reflective surface behind her, so what may be causing the effect was beyond her understanding.

Celestia had to admit that she did indeed experience a bit of an odd sensation as she drew close, not the dizziness described by the survey team but almost a…warping, as though everything in the immediate vicinity was somehow being bent toward the object. Her body itself didn’t feel all that different but her mind did seem more aware that something was off. As she stood and stared at its oddly glassy metallic surface she raised a hoof and gently touched the object. Nothing. Although her hoof tip did slide around with startling ease. No matter how lightly she pressed her hoof to it, the tip wanted to slide in some direction or another, almost like there was absolutely no friction. She had to hold her hoof still on the surface to keep it from slipping around.

She couldn’t help herself from taking a second to sniff the object. Just to see if anything came of it, but no, it smelled of nothing more than the icy air surrounding her.

Deciding on a somewhat more serious approach she lit her horn and expanded a gentle magical field slowly outward until it made contact with the object. As soon as contact was made however, her controlled magical discharge was disrupted and the glowing field disappeared with a faint ‘pop’ so suddenly that it startled even her.

Taking a quick glance upward, Celestia noted that despite their earlier reluctance some of the survey team had come back close enough to peer over the edge of the rectangular pit fifteen meters above her. No doubt, she thought to herself, some, if not most of these ponies were convinced that she knew exactly what this object was and why it was here. When in fact, she had no idea whatsoever. It hadn’t taken her long to decide though, that it had nothing to do with King Sombra, whatever this was, it was from a time far older than that of the unicorn Tyrant. Every random object so far found near these mountains that came from the days of the Empire were only ever under a few meters of ice, and here the thing had been buried ten times as deep. Not to mention that as it currently sat near the end of a glacier which was slowly melting back up the mountain slopes it was only logical to assume that at one point it had been buried much deeper.

Frowning back down at the uncooperative metallic surface Celestia began to weave further layers of arcane protection about her body and mind, some of the spells only she knew of and intended to keep as such. This was not a time to be any less protected than absolutely possible. She didn’t know if her next attempt would be any more useful than the previous one, but the nature of what she was planning, though not the most complicated of spells by far, and easy enough to create that little time would be wasted if it proved fruitless, was by its nature a bit dangerous because without proper protection it could put a pony’s horn at risk. Celestia had decided to try a material identification spell on the object. This would require direct contact with her horn if anything were to come of it. Material or substance identification spells, were, by themselves, quite basic and taught to many a young pony in schools across Equestria and were very useful in daily life. Any pony so trained could simply touch their horn to any number of material substances such as various metals or stones or even plants and know, or rather in a way, feel, exactly what they were. The spell could also help determine to some extent if an object being investigated was hollow in any way and weather or not it contained anything. Very useful for finding gems in mineral pockets that. What made things a bit more complicated for Celestia was that she had to find a way to protect herself from all kinds of unknown dangers with other complicated spells while still allowing this one basic spell to work properly.

After standing still for a minute or two making sure that all her magical protection was in place and doing what it was supposed to, a period of time in which any of the ponies still watching her from high overhead would have seen her do very little aside from making her horn glow, she tipped her head forward and ever so gently touched the tip of her horn to the dark, oddly reflective surface.

The sensation was different from anything else she had experienced in her life. In all other cases the spell had worked almost instantly, if the object in question was a wooden box full of gold bars, a vase full of flowers, or a sleeping pile of kittens she would have known so immediately without needing to open her eyes thanks to this spell. This time though it was as if the spell was being resisted or at least inhibited in some way. At first she had felt nothing and had wondered for a second if she had prepared her magical fields wrong in some way when ever so slowly she began to be able to feel the…material, her horn was in contact with. In a way it was metallic, but impossibly dense, and more finely formed than any other metal she had come across. It was almost as though the material was made of an altogether different form of matter that could be constructed out of much finer structures than anything nature would or could provide on its own. Her awareness of the material spread out slowly from where her horn made contact with all the alacrity of cold molasses. She felt as though that awareness was being guided out along a practical infinity of pathways both along the material’s surface and down into it.

Almost as soon as she began to worry that the whole thing was composed of nothing but this unnatural, almost impossible to penetrate material and that she would be standing in the same spot for days trying to force her magic through the entire object, her consciousness suddenly punched through the stubborn layer like piercing thick rubber with a thin needle.

Her legs nearly gave out from under her as she attempted to comprehend the interior. There were thousands, no, millions, of what appeared to be tiny little fan-blade like objects. But instead of simply perceiving them like the spell was supposed to do, she found herself actually able to watch them in her mind’s eye as though she was truly looking through the outer wall of the mechanism. Yes, it was a mechanism to her now, not just the object it had been a moment before, she understood that now, somehow, though she had no idea why. She could watch the interior functions themselves but dearly wished she couldn’t. All of the tiny glittering blades spun about the interior in maddeningly corkscrewing, intermeshing formations, and the closer she looked the less sense their trajectories made. There was something deeply wrong about their movements, as though they cycled through more space than there was and made transient formations out of more volume that there could be. It almost felt like a far more complex form of the visual illusions and drawings of impossible solids she had come across in a few books. Something that at first glance appeared plausible but upon closer inspection defied all possible logic.

At some point while watching the sickening threshing, gyrating motion of the tinsel like machinery, Celestia became aware of a…presence. Not a consciousness, but rather information. As though she had just spent time in a lecture hall observing a class. Yet she had no memory of learning the information now contained in her mind, she was simply only now becoming aware of it’s existence. She thought for a moment that she ought to be quite worried. After all, something had managed to get through all her carefully laid layers of magical protection and put knowledge directly into her brain. But the knowledge itself, contained the message that this was a normal transfer of data when direct contact is made between any neuroconductive material, and the magnetic monopole lattice of the device housing. Celestia had no idea what any of that meant other than not to be afraid of it. But as she began to investigate all this new information she did become afraid. Very afraid.

The race of beings that had built the device were not the same as thoes who had designed it. The first were old, they had been gone from this world for hundreds of thousands of years before Celestia and her sister had been born. Yet thoes who had originally conceived of its design had been thousands of times older still. An impossible aeon of time to understand, even for an Alicorn millennia old. Though it was the younger of the races who had somehow learned, or been taught how to build such devices, and much worse, turn them into weapons.

The hypometric weapon, as the builders had described it, had never been conceived by its original designers to be turned into a machine of destruction. In fact, thoes oldest ones had never really planed to invent the thing in the first place. It was simply one of a number of disturbingly unpredictable and in many cases extremely dangerous weakly acasual technologies created as an outgrowth, a byproduct, of their scientific experimentations into the nature of time. These experimentations were undertaken somewhere between their second and third millionth year of space faring civilization, as to the exact time period, the histories were unclear. The interior of the device could somehow be isolated from the causality of the external universe allowing for its interior to transition from a one to a two temporal dimensional state forcing it to become infinitely parallel with its own immediate existence. The problem though, and what eventually led the later builders to be able to use it as a weapon, was that this temporal effect had a disturbingly nasty habit of jumping outside of the machine’s own metric isolation when the fourth-dimensional vectors of the kinetic energy of its myriad rotating components was modified too abruptly. When this occurred, anything caught within the boundary of the volume of space-time of the external universe where a single dimension of time was expanded into two by the hypometric machinery was instantly forced to travel back along its own timeline. Or at lest that is what would happen mathematically. However, due to time travel into the past being impossible because of the immediate causality violation causing a disruption to the informational integrity of the universe, all quantum information, perceived as matter and energy to all physical life forms, is instantly erased from the affected volume of space.

The later race, or more acutely, their machines, the ones who had purposely built the device in an attempt to convert its horrifying behavior into a useful weapon had learned the hard way just how dangerous it’s use could be. It was not unlike trying to control a snake by holding onto its tail. It had a frightening habit of generally being extremely unpredictable in its behavior and of even turning its own field effect back onto itself with massively unpleasant consequences. Celestia was somehow able to “remember” experiments where, in trying to delete an apple-sized chunk of a test target from reality, gaping spherical volumes the size of houses suddenly appeared in the side of space stations killing hundreds. She even recalled a few cases where the field function deleted part of the hypometric device structure itself causing the blades to fall out of alignment and collide with any matter in the vicinity. As the mass of these internal components was near that of compressed neutronium, the same material found in the cores of neutron stars, and were rotating at nearly the speed of light even post kinetic discharge, the energy release was phenomenal. Celestia watched in awe as the largest moon of a cold gas giant slowly yet inexorably disappeared into the blinding glare of an explosion that would, for a few hours at least, outshine the system’s own sun.

And here she stood next to such a device on her own world. With a sudden backwards jerk of her head she disconnected her mind from the machine. Just a moment ago, she was sure she had remembered what the thing was actually called but all the vast knowledge and understanding of reality she had known only seconds before was fading away like fog under a rising sun. But one thing remained oddly clear to her. That the object in front of her, now so seemingly cold and lifeless presented an impossible to fully grasp danger to her entire world and every pony on it. There was no way possible to get rid of the thing but she could try to forget.

“Are you alright Your Highness?” called a shaky voice from above.

Without answering, Celestia shook her head slightly and with a few powerful beats of her wings she swiftly elevated herself up and out of the icy pit. Landing in front of the lead surveyor she gazed about the dimly lit frozen landscape feeling the icy breeze play with her mane and listening to the distant roar of the volcano. A new snowstorm was appearing on the horizon and would be over them within the hour.

“We are leaving. Now.” Celestia said flatly, not looking at any of the survey team.

“Leaving? Bu-but princess, this is not the first snowsto-“

“This has nothing to do with the snowstorm. We are leaving.” Celestia repeated.

With a great magical effort Celestia enveloped the whole small mountain of shattered ice piled a few dozen meters from the edge of the pit and began to pour it all back down the hole as fast as she could. A day’s work of excavation by two dozen unicorns being undone in a matter of minutes by a single alicorn. She also took the effort to pull up large sheets and chunks of ice from the surface of the glacier making sure that there would be more than enough ice to not only fill up the pit but easily cover over the top of the broken metal shaft.

“P-Princess what are you doing?” stammered the pony standing next to her.

“Saving all of our lives.” Celestia said quietly as the last of the ice rained down onto the large mound where the pit had been.