Can You Hear Me Now?

by Starscribe

Chapter 1: Text Messaging

Today was a completely ordinary day for Lyra Heartstrings, just like thousands that had come before. She woke up earlier than she wanted to but later than her roommate would've liked, enjoyed an almost warm breakfast that had been left for her and headed out to the park with her lyre for another day as a "freelance musician."

It was a real job! She could make some good bits on a nice clear day like this, at least enough to keep her going between real performance gigs. It was an enjoyable enough existence, even if some days could be dull. Sometimes she would get up early and take the train to try her luck in Canterlot instead, but today wasn't one of those days.

No, today was one of those days when she played all day with little to show for it. Half the time it seemed like the spot she had picked for herself in the park was too far away from anypony else to actually attract hoof traffic. But she didn’t mind, not really. More time alone meant more time for her to practice, and for her mind to wander onto those subjects that concerned her most. For Lyra, that usually meant her thoughts would stray to the Equestrian Precursor Society, of which she was the head of the Ponyville Chapter (and also the only member).

The society’s central tenet was a belief that an ancient and powerful race had once dwelt in Equestria, and helped ponies make the transition from primitive clans to civilization. The evidence was everywhere, if you looked for it! There were artifacts, ruins of structures, a great deal that conventional archeology could not explain. The society’s founder, one Dr. Greymane, had conclusively demonstrated an object predating equestria itself was electrically powered, with a complexity greater than any Equestrian machine ever built.

But all those years ago, Celestia had put a stop to the experiments and returned all the artifacts to the Royal Canterlot Archives, and the society had to make do with what they could find. But Lyra had inside sources now, and from them she had already learned some interesting things. Such as the name of the beings. Precursors were what the Society called them, but the beings had apparently called each other “humans.”

She wanted to know more; she wanted to know everything! But her source had been tight-lipped of late, and she had learned nothing new. All she had left was her speculation and imagination. One of the other major tenants of the society was the belief that the Precursors would, when Equestria had reached sufficient levels of harmony to be their equals, return and share all their incredible magic and technology. Lyra was positive that it would happen in her lifetime, and had met at least one pony whose mere presence helped substantiate that belief. Not that the filly would ever admit it.

When it was finally getting dark, and it came time for her to pack up her lyre, she began the trot home somewhat sullen. She was so absorbed in her own thoughts that she hardly noticed the obstruction until she kicked it with the edge of her hoof, causing it to skitter across the gravel path and land in the dirt not far away. There was still enough light to see by, and Lyra was curious. Somepony must’ve dropped something when they came through the park today. Squinting a little in the reduced light, Lyra lifted the object in her magic and blew on it to clear away the dirt.

What she saw had no parallel in any object she knew, and given her natural predilection to jump immediately to the Precursors and all their inventions it was quite natural she immediately thought of that strange group. She lifted the object closer as to better inspect it. It was perhaps two hooves in length and maybe one wide. The back was metal and plastic, though the lines and curves were so fine she couldn’t imagine any craftspony capable of reproducing them. Pony machines favored gold or brass, but this metal was darker than either. The front of the object was a single smooth panel of glass, as flat and perfect as any window but obviously much thinner and stronger, since her kick had produced no visible damage.

Were there any buttons? She turned the object over in the air, but found nothing except for a single round area that was raised slightly above the surrounding plastic. Some quick probing proved that it was not a button at all, but some sort of stylus that ejected with the aid of a miniature spring when she put any pressure on it.

Perhaps a pony concerned with empirical evidence and the scientific method would have been more skeptical of this unusual find. Lyra had no such qualms however, and knew without a shred of doubt that she had discovered a human device. How the object had come to be here didn't matter to her, nor did she even consider who it might belong to. What she should have done was take the strange machine to City Hall and leave it at the lost and found, as she would have done had she discovered anything else left in the park. Had the object been a huge sack of bits, she wouldn't have even thought about keeping it for herself.

But it was so much easier to be honest about something you didn't really care about. Though it pained her, though it filled her with guilt, Lyra popped her lyre case open and quickly levitated the little machine inside. She closed the case again, looking around furtively to the eyes she was sure were watching her.

There were no eyes watching her, and no angry voices shouted at her for her theft. Only the chirping of the crickets sounded around her, completely unchanged for the awful thing she had just done.

It's not so bad, she told herself, as she started walking. I'll just take a look at it at home, and bring it to Mayor Mare tomorrow! That won't be such a big deal... It's too late for anypony to be looking for it anyway! However reassuring that thought, it did not stop Lyra from practically dashing through Ponyville, stopping at random and circling her house three times before she actually went inside. It took that long to be sure she wasn't being followed.

* * *

Lyra shared a rental house with another mare, and her roommate had already made dinner. It was one of the ways they shared responsibilities, since Lyra rarely came home before dark and Bon Bon almost always did. Lyra usually considered it a fair trade for some of the household chores she did in exchange, which were easier for a unicorn than an earth pony anyway. Tonight though she couldn't help but be a little harsh with Bon Bon, who was at that moment watching the oven as her signature desserts cooked. The table was already set, some sort of vegetable soup still steaming as it waited for them.

"Hey Lyra," Bon Bon said, smiling weakly at her from across the room. "Dinner's ready."

Of course, Lyra didn't really care about eating now even if she hadn't had anything since lunch. Still, she couldn't afford to let Bon Bon suspect anything was different with her behavior. She was already concerned enough that her friend had an "unhealthy obsession" with her involvement in the Precursor Society. However painful it might be, she would have to sit through dinner the way she always did and pretend nothing had changed.

She might be a decent musician, but she was a terrible actress. Lyra practically drank the soup, ignoring the minor burns she was causing to her tongue. She had finished the dishes before Bon Bon had even started on desert, and was shut in her bedroom before twenty minutes had passed.

There were no locks in the house, but Lyra trusted her roommate to knock if she wanted to come in, and by then she suspected she could have the little machine stowed. So Lyra opened the case, carefully set the precious instrument aside, and removed the artifact in the delicate grasp of her magic. For what felt like at least an hour she turned it over in the light, examining every shape, every curve. It was hard to guess at what this strange machine might be for, since it had no buttons she could see. Was it meant to purify water? Maybe it could change the weather without needing to manually tailor each of the clouds!

Yet whatever it was, it seemed designed to have some sort of input. The pen-shaped object was missing the precise cuts that would make it useful as a quill, but maybe the device could somehow register what it wrote without needing ink! She tried this, levitating the stylus through the air over to where she kept her sheet music. She turned over a few pages on her desk to the blank sides and traced her name on the page. The machine showed no sign it was being interacted with, made no sound and emitted no light. She tried tracing a few different things, shapes and words of all kinds. Then she thought to try poking the different sides of the machine with the stylus, growing a little more frustrated and forceful than she probably needed to be.

This too had no effect, as she pressed to the rougher faces of the shape. Yet as she neared desperation, Lyra pressed the stylus to the single flat surface she had taken for the back and found a brilliant glow issued from the whole flat surface at once. Frustration melted away at once, and she studied the screen intently, trying to make sense of what she saw there.

The screen centered around little bubbles of text. It seemed almost as though she was looking at a conversation between two ponies, where the different colors represented the different speakers. What interested Lyra most was the white box at the bottom of the screen, along with a green button with the Equestrian word for "send" on it.

Could this be some sort of communication device, allowing its user to send letters without scrolls and ink and delivery ponies? The words on the top confused Lyra for several minutes, until she made the connection between the first blue message describing "Robbie" and the word "Robert." Could that be the name of the pony the owner of this machine was writing to? It didn't sound like much of a pony name.

Just like this didn't look like a pony machine. It was a Precursor's name! If this thing really did what she thought it did, she might be able to write a letter to a human! There were ponies in the Precursor Society who would kill for a chance like this, and she was one of them! Now that the opportunity arrived, she found herself overwhelmed. So little was known about humans, little enough that most ponies considered the Precursors an unsubstantiated myth. Nevermind the ruins throughout Equestria and elsewhere. Nevermind the artifacts, or (most alarming) the anachronisms within pony society itself!

The Precursor Society to which Lyra belonged believed that humans were a race of perfect harmony, of magical might that made ponies look like foals. The "Precursors" had lived among ponies in the ancient tribal days, until they had seen so much pony suffering that they couldn't stand to be around it anymore. So they had left Equestria behind, vanishing beyond the stars until ponies became advanced enough to be their friends.

The chance to make friends with one of the Precursors, one of the humans, was the granting of Lyra's fondest wish. Yet she had to be sure. No matter how much she wanted it to be true, she had to be sure. That had to be her message. So she touched on the white part of the screen, wondering how this glowing surface could know what she wrote on it. That question was immediately answered as the screen changed before her eyes. It was as though the screen had become a miniature typewriter, with each letter of the Equestrian alphabet displayed for her to choose from. Like a typewriter, it also had a "shift" that could be used to choose whether you wanted big letters or small ones.

Yet she was also painfully aware that this conversation was clandestine. Humans, according to her inside source, had chosen not to reveal themselves to the ponies of Equestria. If she let on that she was a pony, that might be the end of the conversation. Worse, she had no idea how this machine had come to be here! She couldn't imagine a human ever being mad about anything, but surely they would feel significant enlightened displeasure at the thought of their magic coming into the hooves of ponies before they were ready for it.

Lyra composed her message, and when she was sure it could not be improved, she touched "Send." The screen flashed briefly with the word "translating," and the text of her message shifted and changed before her eyes. Her amazement with the builders of this machine only grew. Not only could they send letters without paper, without dragonfire, but they could build a translation spell right in? Eventually the screen flashed briefly, and her little message was added to the bottom of the screen, confirming it had been delivered.

Satisfied that she had done all she could for the night, Lyra began her nightly routine of preparing for bed. She didn't expect anything before the next day, so it wasn't hard to set the little machine aside while she went through her nightly routene.

Her certainty wasn't such that she didn't give the machine one last glance before she actually got in bed, though. She quickly became grateful that she had, because the screen had changed. The human had responded!

Had the human on the other end been sitting there waiting for the message all this time? Even dragonfire didn't get you a reply this quickly. Then again, dragonfire still meant you had to use quills and ink. There was no such requirement this time. Besides, it wasn't as though the messages were very long. She was beginning to notice a strange pattern on the other end. Did humans not use punctuation or capitalization? Maybe it was just the translation spell built into the machine, dropping the meaning it didn't understand.

The response was predictable enough from what Lyra "knew" about humans. Naturally a species as harmonious and friendly as they were would be eager to make as many friends as possible. She even knew the human's name! How many ponies in the Precursor Society could say that? "Lyra," she responded, unsure of what the translation spell would make of her name. Proper nouns could get badly mangled by magic like that. Then, because she couldn't help herself, she added. "You're human, right?"

Lyra flipped off the light and climbed into bed, but she took the machine with her, holding it in her magic and watching for any sign of a response. She didn't have very long to wait.

At that point, Lyra had finally wrapped her head around just how instant the communication was. It seemed no sooner did she send a message then the screen would flash with a reply. She found herself imagining that she wasn't sending letters at all, but having a conversation with a human who was really in the room with her. She even imagined a voice for him, albeit somewhat confused by the lack of punctuation. In her mind, 'Rob' had to be a male name. The fact he talked about school made him a colt, or whatever passed for a colt among humans. She couldn't ask, since that was the sort of thing any other human would be expected to know. She subconsciously corrected the text as she read it, to better conform with her idea of all Precursors as wise and intelligent beyond pony capacity. It didn't seem right that the translation spell would ruin the writing this way.

"I haven't been to school in a few years. I'm a musician, so there wasn't a whole lot for me to learn in school. Mostly just practicing on my own."

"Oh, okay. I love music! Do you play in a band?"

"I have, but not for a while. I prefer to play solo."

"That's so cool! What do you play?"

"The lyre! It's my special talent, and I've got the cutie mark to prove it!" Lyra's heart seized in her chest as she pressed the Send button on that last message, but no amount of frantic tapping on the screen would stop it. The "translating" message appeared, and shortly after the text of it joined the others. So much for staying secret. All that effort to keep her identity a secret, and now she'd said something that would give her away! Humans didn't have cutie marks, because their special talents were everything.

But even as her breathing raced and she began to glance around the room for a place to hide the machine, the "phone" as the human had called it, the screen filled with new messages and relief flooded into her.

That was one fear settled, and the conversation resumed much as it had been before. She was getting better at figuring out what her conversation partner was meaning and the emotion behind his words. It wasn't so hard really. Besides, it seemed even in ignorance this young human cared far more for Lyra. He was so sensitive to her curiosity that he seemed far more interested in talking about himself than asking her questions which she might not be able to answer. She toyed with the idea that Rob did know he was talking to a pony, even if he had pretended that he didn't. That was the kindness of the Precursors, that even the young cared more about others than themselves. Or so she told herself.

"What does she do?"

"Mostly she's away from home talking to people more important than me. But everybody else says she's the Admiral of the Lunar Fleet, or something else impressive sounding. But I don't see what the big deal is, since we're not at war anymore."

Lyra gasped, unsure of what she was reading. War anymore. They hadn't been at war with Equestria, had humans been at war with each other? No, that couldn't be it. She refused to believe it. Yet she couldn't ask for confirmation, or else reveal that she didn't know something she should. If there was a war, she figured even a colt ought to expect her to know about it. So instead she wrote: "If you want her to spend more time with you, why don't you ask?"

The next reply was a little longer in coming. "Yeah, I guess I should. I can't believe I'm talking to you about this Lyra. I don't even know who you are. I don't know how old you are, or where you live. Where are you? I live in Luna-3, since that's where all the military people are. It's boring. There's almost nobody here my age."

That was a question she couldn't answer, except with a lie. She took some time thinking of her response, wondering if she ought to own up to the theft and admit to what she really was. It wasn't as though the secret would last for long, once she returned this phone to its real owner. The guilt for stealing this machine even for a night was burning her up inside. It was too much to tell a lie on top of stealing. "I live in Ponyville, but I grew up in Canterlot."

So he didn't believe her. That would have to go into her notes, since Lyra had personally thought humans were so honest that they had no concept of lying or deception. Still, she wasn't going to insist. Maybe that was a little dishonest, but at least she had tried! Sleep was entirely forgotten and Lyra's horn grew sore from using so much magic. Eventually she propped the phone sideways up against the wall, pressing the buttons with the stylus in her mouth to give her magic a break. She felt nothing of the tiredness, no matter how late it became.

Eventually though, her conversation partner said, "Can't talk now, it's time for school! You can message me again after class if you want. Cya!"

Of course, by then it was the small hours of the morning, and Lyra's exhaustion had finally begun to catch up with her. She would be hard-pressed to wake up at anything even resembling a reasonable hour now. Still that was no reason not to try. It only took a moment to slip the "phone" into her desk, where it wouldn't be seen if Bon Bon came in to wake her up personally. The chances of that would be pretty slim, except that there was no telling how late she might sleep in.

I can't believe it, she told herself as she lay awake in bed. I talked to a real-life human! Nevermind all the old arguments about whether they existed, those hadn't held any water for Lyra in the last few years. But there was so much else to think about! As she conversed with the young human on the other end, she couldn't help but feel the personality coming through in his words. For all she thought she knew about humans, it was hard to imagine one of their mothers leaving a child without the attention he needed. Rob had also talked about wars, and not trusted her when she tried to admit what she really was.

Much of what she thought she knew would have to be revised. Still, this would probably be the most important development for the precursor society since she had been born! Assuming she could find a way to contribute the evidence for examination. Lyra resolved to copy down everything from her conversation in the morning, word for word. Once she had to return the little machine, there was no telling what further meaning she might glean from a careful study. It was going to be difficult to find the time to perform tomorrow with as eager as she was to get to work.

* * *

As it turned out, Lyra did not return the machine called a phone when the morning came. Instead, she was far too tempted by the messages waiting for her when she awoke, which Rob had sent for her during the night. She slipped into eager conversation, learning everything she could from Rob while saying as little about herself as possible. Just because she had resolved not to lie to him didn't mean she had to draw attention to the incorrect assumptions he was making.

She learned what she had already begun to suspect, that humans seemed to be living on the surface of the Moon. They had built enormous domes of glass and tunneled deep into the stone there, forming caverns and tunnels that supported populations as large as Canterlot. This fit perfectly well with Lyra's existing theories, since it served as evidence of their incredible power while also answering the awkward question of where they had gone. Their power had been so great that even the Mare-in-the-Moon had been no danger to them. Lyra resolved to purchase a telescope and begin her search of the lunar surface as soon as she had the time.

She learned that humans stayed in school for about as long as ponies did, and the subjects they studied were incredibly advanced. Lyra hadn't even understood the names of half of what Rob was studying, but hadn't been brave enough to ask. She learned they had great enclosed ships, which could fly you not just into the clouds but up past them, faster than the fastest pegasus. They seemed to be able to access information almost instantly, because whenever Lyra mentioned something Rob didn't know he seemed able to find out within seconds. He hadn't understood what a "gramophone" and "records" were at first, but then that seemed to suddenly change and he again refused to believe her. "Nobody uses those anymore," he had insisted. "Not even on Earth. They haven't been used for hundreds of years!" How could she argue?

Lyra figured that "Earth" must be the human word for Equus, their planet. Yet that also made little sense to her, since he often made frequent reference to a war that had taken place there before he was born, and he seemed to imply that humans had been fighting one another, not any of the other races. Yet Lyra knew there had been no large wars anywhere on Equus in her lifetime, and some time before that. Some minor infighting in the Zebra clans perhaps, and the constant squabbling of Gryphon families over dominance in their kingdom. But that hardly seemed to equate with the conflict Rob described. Maybe they just define war different than we do, she had thought. Maybe to humans, a war is like a big debate. And the debate had been over whether to leave the ponies behind. The human faction that had decided ponies weren't ready for human contact won, and so they all went to the Moon!

It was true many of Lyra's theories would be needing revising. Even some of the doctrine of the Precursor Society would need updating after this. But that made enough sense. The Precursor Society relied largely on a hoof-full of artifacts, many of which were so old they predated Equestria's founding. Even with the fantastically long lifespans a race as advanced as humans must live, their societies were bound to change in that much time just as pony societies did!

Yet for all their apparent differences, she learned that there was also much she shared in common with this voiceless speaker from the sky. Rob loved candies of all sorts, milkshakes, cakes, and just about anything else a young pony ought not to be allowed to indulge in. He loved playing games with his friends in the "Arcology," which Lyra took as a fancy word for park. He even shared her love for music, and played the piano in his spare time. This made Lyra just giddy to think about; though she had restrained herself enough not to say something like; "It must be really easy to hit the right keys with hands instead of hooves!"

It did not take long for Lyra to honor her original promise and become friends with this human colt named Rob. As hours turned to days she began thinking less and less of their conversations as research and more the exact sort of contact she would have with any of her friends. She thought less and less about how to frame her questions so they weren't suspicious and more about what the colt would think about everything she told him about her day.

For all he talked about his friends at school, the longer they stayed in contact the more Lyra began to suspect that Rob didn't have very many other people to talk to. His mother was never around, and according to him there weren't many other kids his age in school. "Only this one girl," he had explained. "Girls are boring. Not like you Lyra, you're okay. I mean other girls. She doesn't want to do anything fun." That was why Rob was so willing to talk to her, even though he didn't know or believe who she was, he was so desperate to have somepony to talk to that he was satisfied with not knowing as long as she listened with compassion.

* * *

Lyra hardly thought about the consequences of "finding" the Precursor device as possessing it became her routine. Life went on.

Just another breakfast with Bon Bon, with idle conversation about their lives. Usually Bon Bon talked about work, about the ponies that had come into Sugarcube Corner and the new dessert ideas she had. Lyra would speak about her musical career, or about the gossip she had overheard while performing in public. She knew better than to bring up her involvement with the Equestrian Precursor Society, with as mixed as Bon Bon's reactions always were.

Her late nights were beginning to wear on her, and she practically dragged her hooves into the kitchen that morning, collapsing into one of the chairs and nearly dozing off before Bon Bon could nudge her. "Pancakes are getting cold," she said, a little peremptorily. There was nothing strange about that; they had moved away from home at the same time, and lacking parents to keep an eye on either of them meant they had to look out for each other. Lyra did the same for Bon Bon when she grew a little too obsessed with a recipe in progress, or upset when something she had been baking ended up a flop. "You need to spend less time up late writing music, Lyra. It's not good for a pony to get so little sleep."

"Oh, I'm not composing, I'm writing letters." Her distant friend hadn't needed to go to school last night, as it had been some sort of educational break. As a result, there had been no artificial limits on their conversation, and they had spoken until night had come on Luna-3 and he had to go to bed. Funny how the human enforced his own bedtime, but she would stay up all night talking to him.

"Every night for a week?" Bon Bon raised one eyebrow. She also took pity on Lyra and scooped a small stack of the hay-based pancakes onto her plate, and provided a liberal helping of her special homemade syrup before sliding it all back toward her friend. "I didn't think you knew that many ponies."

Lyra felt as though her head had been crammed full of cotton in her exhaustion. She scarcely even realized she was treading dangerous conversational territory. "Oh, it's not to a bunch of ponies, just one. Well, not a pony. Just one person. But yeah."

Bon Bon rolled her eyes as she took her seat again. "Don't tell me you've been writing EPS letters for a week. The postage must be crazy! Besides, can't you do that during the day? All the meetings are during normal hours, when reasonable ponies are awake."

"Because the lunar colonies are eight hours behind us and Rob only gets free time before evening classes," she explained, her mouth full of the delicious pancakes. The sugar was waking her up, albeit slowly.

"Oh, okay." Bon Bon rolled her eyes. "That makes perfect sense." For as strange as the remarks had been, she seemed nonplussed. "Who's Rob? Somepony I should know about?" She leaned across the table toward Lyra, practically leering at her. "That explains it. You've been up writing love letters to your special somepony!" Then she nodded, as though saying so settled the issue completely. If only Lyra had accepted that answer.

"Is not!" She lifted the fork in her magic, gesturing forcefully into the air. "Rob's not even a pony, he's a human! He's just a colt! A kid, I mean... that's not the sort of stuff we talk about! He tells me about life on the lunar colonies, where all the humans went when they disappeared all those years ago. He tells me about all the amazing magic humans have up there. No, not magic. They call it technology. But it's just another word for the same thing. Like this amazing machine I found that I've been using to send messages instantly, all the way up to the Moon! The letters go so fast that I hardly have to wait before he's already written me back!" She went back to her pancakes, stuffing her face full of them so she would stop talking. That was probably for the best, considering all the stupid things she was saying.

Bon Bon was staring now, her leering expression gone. If anything, she seemed concerned. "You're not serious," she said, her tone suddenly becoming more even and measured. Like someone talking to a pony that had just lost a family member, careful with every word so as not to stimulate any painful memories. "Please tell me you don't really believe any of that."

"Y-yeah..." The mint mare got up abruptly. "I mean no! Of course I don't! Hehehe." She turned, and bolted suddenly for her room. This was it. She'd really done it this time. She hadn't just told Bon Bon lots of important stuff about what she had learned talking with Rob, but she had told her about him! About the device that let them communicate, the one she had "found" without returning.

Lyra was not one overly fond of thinking things through. This situation was no exception. All tiredness gone, she barged into her room and scanned for the nearest pair of saddlebags, not caring that the closest ones she found were the formal ones she used to carry her instrument and music to fancier occasions. She stuffed the phone inside, along with a wrapped package of cookies she had been saving, a blanket, and her binder full of notes on all the conversations she had shared with Rob. She didn’t even bring her precious lyre, not wanting to subject it to danger with her. She scarcely took the time to lock up the saddlebags before taking off at a run through the kitchen, past a Bon Bon that had been stunned completely to silence.

* * *

There wasn't much thinking to be done now; Lyra ran. She galloped through Ponyville, too fast even to give greeting to the ponies she knew. Their quizzical glances followed her all the way to her destination: the borders of the Everfree. She didn't pause to think how incredibly stupid it was to go into the Everfree without knowledge of its paths. She didn't think of how unlikely it was that Bon Bon had believed a word she said, or of what the consequences might be. All she could feel was dread that she might soon lose her only connection to the most important thing in her life, the only thing she had ever really cared about.

It was enough to push her into crossing outside of Ponyville and into that dense and frightening woodland. Of course the Everfree wasn't so bad during the day so long as you stayed on the path. Lyra was in control of her senses enough to know she could never leave the path, and so she continued to gallop along it until she ran out of energy to run. She slowed to a canter, and then to a trot, and eventually to a desperate walk. There was no guessing just how far she had come before she felt too weak to keep going and had to stop for a break. Curious, she removed the phone from her saddlebag, looking to see if she had received any new messages from her distant friend. But no, he was asleep now, and the screen was exactly as it had been the night before.

And it was true, she really had tried to understand everything Rob explained to her about how the phone worked. Apparently it had features well beyond those she had first guessed at. For instance, it was not limited to a single destination, but could communicate with hundreds of different people in different locations. It stored media, like the recordings on a record but far more sophisticated. According to Rob, it was able to record something he called "video", moving pictures accompanied with the sound of what had been happening at that time. It had "games," though most of these seemed to require precise timing and dexterity her hooves couldn't match and her control of magic lacked. There were virtual versions of card-based games she already knew, although the "face-cards" had human kings and queens instead of pony royalty.

Lyra didn't play with the phone's other features much though. The first time she had tried, it had taken her several hours to get it to return to her conversation with Rob. What was worse, it seemed to be losing power, and she knew nothing of how to recharge it. The other features drew power far faster than a brief glance at the screen whenever it vibrated with a new message.

It was far from quiet in the Everfree, even on one of the magically-warded paths. Still, that didn't mean she couldn't get something done while she was out here. It took specific concentration not to think about how hopeless this stupid situation was. It wasn't as though she could live out here with the phone. She had a pack of cookies, and no knowledge of how to live off the land. In Equestria proper you could always eat grass, but in the Everfree? There was no guarantee she wouldn't take in a fatal dose of some deadly toxin.

But she had plenty to occupy her mind other than the futility of her situation, such as all her collated notes on the human society that lived on the Moon. She had diagrams and sketches based on the things Rob had told her, drawings of the great flying machines that could leave the air of a planet behind or even journey into the depths of space and travel to one of the closer planets, which Rob called Mars. That was where he believed Lyra lived, even though he hadn't figured out how her messages were coming to him so quickly.

"I looked it up today in school, where Mars is right now in its orbit it should take 8 minutes and 48 seconds for messages, but you sometimes get back to me in less than half that time. I know we have the Ansible for instant communications, but I thought only high-priority military messages used it. Maybe mom could send messages through it, but I'm a civilian like anybody else. Your messages are coming with an off-colony origin code, but the computer can't tell me what the code means."

She had restrained her desire to be honest with Rob then, even though to her the answer had been obvious. Of course there wasn't a delay when the messages only had to go so far as the moon! "You never believe me!" was all she had said, and truthfully. She had to wonder what he thought about all the strange-sounding things she had said over the last few days. Whatever it had been, he obviously hadn't been dissuaded from sending messages.

Eventually he did return, and the phone vibrated with their conversation again. It was more fun to talk than sit around conserving her chocolate chip cookies.

It was easy to settle into the old routine, despite the strange circumstances of the afternoon. Lyra was happy to tell Rob her cutie mark story, even if she omitted the part at the end where she actually got the mark as confirmation that music really was her special talent. Not out of dishonesty either! Rob just didn't believe her whenever she talked about pony things, or acted like he didn't. Of course Lyra had her theories about why that might be, her current favorite being that humans weren't allowed to talk to ponies. But as long as he could pretend that he didn't know, he could talk to her like she was just another human and not get in trouble for it.

The next thing Lyra knew, it was late afternoon and she was feeling both hungry and thirsty. She hadn't brought water, and all the sugar in her "rations" combined with the sun had hardly done her any nutritional favors. So she had to start walking, listening all the while for the sound of water as she cautiously made her way back in the direction of Ponyville.

* * *

She hadn't expected ponies to be looking for her so soon. She heard the hoofsteps moving down the path toward her, but found herself suddenly frozen. Instead of jumping for cover, perhaps abandoning the path in favor of the nearest trees, her body stiffened and she became absolutely rigid. The phone was exposed, floating in the air next to her in the grip of her magic! No doubt the ponies that had come for her were from the guard, come to take her away for all her heinous crimes. Bon Bon was her friend of course and there was no ill-will between them, but she was also an Equestrian citizen and had a civic duty to the princesses!

To her utter horror it was indeed one of the princesses that rounded the bend, with Bon Bon closely in tow. Even their local Princess Twilight Sparkle was a fearful sight for Lyra, with the awful knowledge of her crimes and the evidence hanging in the air beside her. Of course, even worse than the thought of the consequences of her stealing was the thought of not being able to talk to Rob again. The phone chose that exact moment to vibrate and flash briefly with another message, some inane comment about how boring dinner was.

Twilight noticed her before Bon Bon did, and stopped abruptly. Her friend continued long enough that she bumped into the princess from behind. Her worried expression shifted briefly to embarrassment, then to anger as she saw what had stopped the princess in front of her.

"Lyra!" She closed the distance suddenly, her frustration growing more pronounced. Not that her tone didn't convey that feeling rather effectively. "You can't imagine what you put us through today! Running away this morning... do you think you're a filly or something? It's not-"

Princess Twilight Sparkle silenced Bon Bon with a gesture, then met Lyra's eyes for the first time. Lyra had never seen a member of royalty angry before, but this had to come pretty close. Twilight did not have to yell for her displeasure to be communicated. What was worse, she had looked immediately to the phone, and noticed what Bon Bon hadn't. "Miss Drops, would you wait here for a moment? I'm sure you have a great deal to say to Miss Heartstrings, but I need to have a private word with her first. Make sure she understands the enormity of what she's done."

Princess Twilight's voice was so serious that Bon Bon's anger was stilled, replaced with a look of satisfaction. Even if she was being asked not to stick around for the actual discipline, it seemed the fact Twilight promised discipline was enough for her. "Of course." She lowered her head respectfully, unwilling to meet the princess's eyes.

"Let me take that water first." Lyra hadn't noticed until now, but her friend was wearing some sort of survival kit on her back, like something out of search-and-rescue. Twilight removed the water with her magic, and offered the bottle to Lyra. This mercy seemed to annoy Bon Bon a little, though Twilight didn't give her the chance to say anything about it. "I'm going to send you back to Ponyville. Miss Heartstrings and I will join you in a moment. You can inform the ponies there to call off the search."

It was impressive magic to teleport such a great distance, even more impressive when you were teleporting somepony else. Lyra couldn't even move herself across a room! But Twilight was the Princess of Magic among her other titles. Before Bon Bon could open her mouth to protest, she was gone with a faint pop and fizzle of magic.

"I won't help you deal with her," Twilight said, matter-of-factly. "You really worried one of the ponies closest to you, and you will have to figure out for yourself how to repair the damage you caused." Twilight sat down on the path across from her, watching almost impassively as Lyra gulped down the water she had provided. "Though I have to admit, as far as running away you did a pretty awful job. I'm curious to know what you thought was going to happen when it got dark. If you wanted to hide away somewhere without supplies, you could have at least picked somewhere safe."

Lyra took the bottle of water as her license to take as long as she had to to compose her response. She was thirsty enough that she didn't put it down until it was empty, and she set it on the ground at her feet. Then, seeing the princess had done so, she sat down, lowering her eyes out of respect. “I... didn't really think about it," she admitted. "I just had to get away. I told Bon Bon about the phone by accident, and I thought somepony would come to take it away." She lowered the little device in her magic, resting it on the ground next to her. "Like now, I guess."

It was hard to read the expression on Twilight's face. It wasn't anger anymore, but it wasn't quite compassion either. Pity? "You know what it's called. My apprentice tells me she didn't give it to you, or tell you anything about it. She only ever gave you the music player, is that right?"

Lyra nodded, holding up the phone a little. "This belongs to your apprentice?" At a nod, she went on. "I hope you'll tell her how sorry I am!" She stood up, taking a step closer to Twilight. It was hard to be so direct with anypony, least of all royalty that had absolute authority as your judge. But this would be her only chance to speak her mind on this, she knew. If there was any chance that she could stay in touch with her friend, it would have to be fought for and won right here. "Look, I know it was wrong to take it. I didn't steal it from her or anything, I just found it lying around. I meant to put it in the lost and found the next day, but... There were messages on it!" She turned on the screen then, holding it up so Twilight could see and using the stylus to rapidly scroll through her conversation with Rob. It went on for hundreds of screens.

"I already sort of learned how to use Precursor magic after your apprentice gave me the music, so I figured it out that same night. It didn't seem like there would be any harm in sending a letter through the machine. Somepony else had already tried!"

The pity was gone now, replaced by surprise and an expression of deep concern. "You've been using it to communicate with humans this whole time." Her voice wasn't angry exactly, but it did fill Lyra's mind with the image of a parent that had just discovered their foal had accidentally burned down their house. She found herself feeling suddenly guilty.

Not guilty enough to get her to stop talking. "Human, not humans. Just one. This colt named Rob was the one the previous owner had been talking to, so I thought it had to be okay. Anyway, I got to know him really well. He doesn't have that many friends since he moved away, and his only family is his mother who's always working. He doesn't have anypony else to talk to!" She took another step forward, a few tears streaming from her eyes. "Please don't make me stop talking to him! It wouldn't be right to take somepony's friend away!”

Twilight gestured forcefully for silence, and Lyra obeyed. She took the phone from Lyra's magical grasp, holding it before her eyes and flipping rapidly through the messages. It was hard to imagine she could be reading them all so fast, but her eyes were moving. Who knew what incredible things a princess could do? Lyra cried silently to herself, unable to watch. Bon Bon's anger was nothing compared to this.

Her eyes were closed, so she did not see Twilight coming until she felt the gentle embrace around her. That was enough to bring the crying on again. The gesture was not one of intimate friendship, but the love of one of Equestria's monarchs, personified in compassion even though Lyra was grossly in the wrong. If she had harbored any doubts about Twilight being a "real" Princess, they was gone now. The gesture did not last for very long, just long enough for Lyra to stop crying.

"I'm going to tell you something," Twilight said, her voice much calmer than it had sounded so far. "A precious, important secret. Do you understand? You can't tell anypony."

She nodded. "I've kept your apprentice's secret."

"I know." Twilight swallowed, as though bracing herself for something. "I wouldn't tell you if it wasn't for all you've done for her. See... There are humans, but they live in an entirely separate universe. Neither world is prepared to know about the other yet. A few ponies do... And a few humans do... But that's how it has to stay, until Princess Celestia decides otherwise."

"So you're saying... I shouldn't have sent the message. I'm not allowed to tell them about Equestria. I'm not allowed to tell other ponies about what I learn."

Twilight nodded. "There aren't very many humans or ponies who know, it just isn't time yet." Her voice softened. "It's going to happen soon. In less than ten years, probably. But until then... you have to say goodbye." Lyra watched Twilight levitate the phone to the ground in front of her. "I'll wait here while you do it... but I have to read the messages before you send them. Is that okay?"

She nodded. It was more than she ever could have hoped for. She started crying again, barely able to hold the phone still in her magic as she typed out her farewell with the stylus.

She had hoped that Twilight would read so quickly and take the phone away from her before the response arrived. Either that, or maybe Rob would've been away for some reason, unable to respond to her message. It would have been easier if she didn't have to see his last words to her, the last she might hear from him in years. Perhaps out of compassion for her, perhaps as part of her punishment, Twilight didn't move to take the phone away until the last vibrations had died down.

Twilight took the phone away from her very gently, and didn't say a word as she finished crying. It was getting dark before she finally finished, collecting herself and meeting Princess Twilight Sparkle's eyes. "I'm sorry," she coughed, still a little hoarse. "I'm ready for whatever consequences you have for me now. I deserve it."

The princess shook her head. "I'll expect you to apologize to my apprentice for not returning this sooner, and to all the ponies you worried back in Ponyville. But other than that, I think you've suffered enough." There was a brief flash of light all around them, and suddenly Lyra found that they were standing on the little dirt road that led from Ponyville to the edge of the Everfree. "I really am sorry that you can't talk to your friend anymore. Just... Be patient. It won't be much longer. A few more years. That isn't so bad, right?"

Lyra looked up, watching as the sun sank down below the horizon. The stars were coming out now, and the moon was already bright. Maybe not in this world, but in another not so far away, she had a friend who lived up there. "Not so bad," she repeated. And she meant it. A few years wouldn't be all that long.

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