Gwenhwyfar Boik was a librarian with a secret.
Her Scottish grandfather - and he insisted on being recognized as properly Scottish, and not Northeuropean Zone - had once told her she had paper for brains and ink for blood and he had meant it as a compliment. That was how compliments sounded from old Eachann, like ten parts of insult with a speck of something decent if you looked hard enough.
And the old bastard was right enough, to be sure, for Gwen - she preferred Gwen in word and print because who in this day could hope to know how to say 'Gwenhwyfar' when you were standing in line with ten dozen impatient souls behind you all pissing mad that the lady in the front had some crazy name that was holding things up - Gwen was books.
She loved the feel, the weight, the smell of old tomes covered in the dust of ages and with the little stains that told of unknown mystery readers who hadn't the sense to not snack on Nanobars while they were handling precious things - Gwen thought that there were books and then there was the world, and the world was there for the books and not the other way round.
But nobody made books anymore, not proper books, everything was on the hypernet, wasn't it? All digified and encoded and transmitted and compiled, what counted as a novel now was a movie once without a letter or a paragraph to be seen, and what counted as writing now were text messages in the kiosks arguing about the movies. If it didn't have a 'holo' prefixing it, it wasn't worth the spit to get it wet and if it weren't electronic it wasn't worth the bother.
But books lasted. That was their great power, their secret magic. Books were survivors. Oh, like any species, individuals would be lost to the predations of time and mold and carelessness and outright uncaring - not to mention the occasional burning - but books as a life form survived, and multiplied, and some even became immortal like the heroes of old.
The Worldgovernment had made a project - with the help of the Royal House of Equestria, of course - to fund the preservation of human knowledge in the new world. The creeping barrier changed everything it touched, and electric things died within its perimeter, so that the only things that could be assured to remain unaffected were things made of Equestrian materials.
The ponies already had records, a simple enough technology, very like the kind that humans had made long ago - flat disks of material with grooves engraved upon them that would make a needle vibrate out a recording of sound. Teams around the world were busy transferring digital music to Equestrian blanks, the glories of digital perfection being sacrificed for simple survival.
But books were better.
A letter was a letter, a word was a word, a symbol was a pattern and there was no loss within a book. A 'K' written a thousand years ago would still be a 'K' a thousand in the future, if the book were kept dry and safe, and properly stored. Gwen had eagerly joined the Literature And Arts Survival Triage Team - oh those government types loved their acronyms, didn't they. LAASTT. Last. Last chance to make silly acronyms to be sure, but the name didn't matter, what mattered was the work, the effort to save as much of the writings, music and artworks of Mankind as would be allowed before there wasn't anything to save anymore.
As much as would be allowed. Now there was the catch, there was always a catch, old Eachann was ever reminding anyone who would listen, which wasn't many being as he was not the most pleasant of people to run into in most any circumstance, and the catch was that not everything Humanity had created was suitable for the refined and delicate tastes of the pony folk. Oh no, everything to be saved had to be approved, and there was so much of it that it would take a blooming goddess to read it all and sift the wheat from the chaff - not that there was wheat anymore, of course, but good sayings didn't really need relevancy as long as everyone understood the meaning - so it was a great boon that there happened to be one available and willing to the task.
The name of the goddess was Luna, or at least that was the translation of it - Gwen had heard the Equestrian word and it had sounded like a goat choking on a candy-wrapper, so she'd never tried to learn it - and Luna was a dark and mysterious one make no mistake. She was a pony, of course, but like her sister goddess, different from the ordinary pony folk. She was tall as could be, taller than a man if you counted the horn - she had a horn - and her mane and tail were made of starlight and twinkles and nothing so common as hair.
Silver she was clad in, silver hooves and a silver crown, and well they looked on her, and some kind of frontspiece too, with a half moon upon it, dark as she, and made of no one knows what. Her eyes were cyan, blue green and clear as gems, and her pony coat was dark as midnight, Prussian Blue, Gwen had thought it, but her speech was fine and dignified and with a clear sense of antiquity and insight.
A good thing she was a goddess too, because even with the advent of the Hypernet and the virtual world still there languished endless warehouses of ancient books, more than anyone could read in a thousand lifetimes, if anyone cared to be bothered, which none were, except of course for Gwen and those like her, few as can be.
The princess Luna - she didn't prefer to be called a goddess to her face, but there was little doubt of what she and her sister were after the little demonstration they gave following the Three Day War - would be led to some vast repository of mouldering tomes - nobody cared for books properly anymore - and she would stand there and smile.
Then she would dip her grand head, and her horn would glow with the light of the faeries and quick as can be she would dissolve into ten thousand little swirls of dark and sparkles which would dart like how bees were described, back when there were bees, and zip and sweep through all the books, in and out of them, making each tome glow for a moment and hang in the air, then drop again. A minute later, the little clouds of starlight and darkness would swarm back and gradually build her form until the princess stood again, smiling, as if it were the most ordinary thing in two worlds to dissolve oneself and then reform.
And then, presented with an array of hundreds of old, mechanical typewriters hooked up to electronics distant enough that magic could not touch them, the keys would sound like a million hailstorms and the title of every single book that had been in the warehouse would be listed, judged and found either wanting or worthy, and a note for each one as to why or why not.
It mattered not one bit the language or the number of books. The dark princess toured the planet with her entourage, some human, some pony, all from the ranks of the elite, blinking in a flash of light from one place to another - teleporting they called it, like something from a science fiction novel. Round and round she went, attending to the project, seeing that the right books got through and the bad books were sent to weep with the vanishing earth.
But there was another side to her, for she was a wily goddess, and not entirely in league with her sister. That she might one day be in trouble was her problem she claimed, in the end she was sure she could find peace with her sibling. What was important, she claimed, was the work.
And the work was secret, hidden from the eyes of the day. Princess Luna had her own project, and Gwenhwyfar Boik was a part of it.
It was called the 'Underground Bookmobile', a play on Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad that helped enslaved men, women and children escape the ancient American south. Once, long ago, when proper libraries mattered and existed, powered vehicles would roam the land bringing books to communities without a library of their own. These vehicles were called Bookmobiles and from them a book could be borrowed and kept until the next time they rolled through, and a fine thing it was, and a fine world it must once have been that would fund such a thing for the benefit of its people.
The Underground Bookmobile would not take all books. There was triage even here, but of a looser sort than that demanded by Celestia of her sister. Books about weapons, about bombs and murder and slaughter, about how to make and maintain the tools of death - these were just as forbidden by princess Luna as by her sister the sun. Banned also were books of hatred and bigotry and cruelty, and books that showed the evils that Man was capable of.
Neither princess wanted future generations to find any reason to despise or fear the descendants of the Newfoals, and they saw no reason for Equestrians to think poorly of Humanity or of Earth in the endless ages to come. The Earth would be gone, forever, and Mankind as a species with it, and there was simply no point in preserving anything negative about a world and a species that would soon cease to be, and would never be again. It was like any funeral, really - a man could be the most hated sot in all the county, but when it came time to lay him in the ground, his most bitter enemies would say the sweetest and most charming things about the wretches' rotten life, and why not? He could do no more harm, and it didn't do, to speak ill of the dead.
But there were stories that were not dangerous, nor hateful, which otherwise failed Celestia's narrow test, and which Luna and those that followed her, felt should be preserved for some day, one day, when perhaps Celestia might be brought to a more open form of mind. Stories that made errors of their time and place that should not be damned to extinction purely because of a single chapter or a narrow viewpoint that was once the common truth but later was found to be vile.
Mary Poppins had been saved this way, despite the desperately racist parts within the otherwise charming story, and likewise the works of Roald Dahl, such as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory - though to be fair, only the later version was preserved, where the Oompa-Loompas were no longer African Pygmies enslaved by Willy Wonka.
The Underground Bookmobile had rescued not only literature, though. There were reference works, scientific tomes, and selected historical documents too, so long as they made no mention of contentious or dangerous and forbidden subjects. The historical study of war, was especially forbidden. There were ungentle and unmutual species within Equestria such as the Dragons and Gryphons and others who already presented a political threat of some sort to the princesses, and nothing could be allowed that might give them any ideas or advantages.
It was easy to understand such censorship - a kind world of endless plenty had no use for the struggles of creatures in a universe of scarcity and hardship, and indeed knowledge of such matters could cause great damage to such gentle souls. Still, the cosmos in which Earth lay was a rare one, perhaps unique - a universe devoid of magic, yet possessed of life. The princess Luna clearly worried that her sister would one day regret her strict policies on what could be brought over, and there were hidden places deep within Canterlot, sealed chambers that could outlast endless ages, where dangerous things could be safely kept. Such were where the libraries of the Underground Bookmobile would be preserved, just in case.
Perhaps the most controversial works that Gwen had to deal with were not matters of ancient human history and struggle, but instead of the struggles of the current age. There was contentious concern regarding preserving how the great escape to Equestria had come to be, and how it had come to pass that the population of an entire world could even be rescued at all. Equestria was deadly to all earthly life, and only the princesses' Great Barrier allowed Man any time whatsoever to hope to be transformed and thus survive. Without the Barrier, the earth would have become a dead and sterile globe the very same day that Equestria had first appeared.
Celestia and the Worldgovernment both agreed that there was no time to record nor preserve current history. The world was ending, and there was no time for making records. It was a time of desperate action.
Luna and some of the Underground felt that the record of the transformative migration of humanity to Equestria was the most important sort of history, and should, almost certainly, be preserved somehow. Gwen had once seen the two princesses in quiet and restrained argument about the issue. For the ancient and reserved beings, their faintly harsh whispers must have been akin to a human match of screaming and throwing things about. Contentious... indeed.
One of the Underground had just recently brought in a shipment of papers, books, folders and romball drives that had been stolen from the Worldgovernment archives. Who had managed to acquire the illicit haul was unknown, and desperately wanted to remain so. They had unloaded the stash on pallets, and left it covered by a simple tarp, then placed boxes in front to hide it further. This was what Gwen faced today. It would be necessary to comb through the material, virtually all of it classified beyond any common label of the highest security, and determine what, if anything, would be worth presenting to her majesty Luna.
Gwen had cracked her long, bony fingers and dug right in. The romball drives would need machines to read and possibly print out their contents, and there would likely be some strong protection on what was there. That could wait for another time. Gwen began to search through the stacks of folders and documents. They were mostly financial reports involving the six-hundred or so families that effectively ruled the earth as the WorldGovernment. These were the great barons of industry and commerce, and in any other age, such folders would have been a revelation of the highest order. But at the very end of the world, it no longer mattered who really ran things, or the why, or how of it all - their global dominion was rapidly coming to an end, because soon enough, there would be no globe to rule.
There were some documents that would, were the world not ending, surely have brought the entire planet to civil war and revolution. Gwen's jaw dropped when she spied the supposedly nonexistent original report on the MonsanDow- SinoPont Universal Genetic Modification of the wheat plant - this claimed to be the actual truth behind the tragedy that had killed all wheat, everywhere on the planet, leaving only dead, grey, profoundly inedible stalks that could never biodegrade. The stated goal was to have rendered all wheat, globally, into a product that could be completely owned and ruthlessly controlled, but which also would have been capable of growing in any climate, and which could produce yields beyond comprehension. Three small genetic errors had ended wheat forevermore, starving billions.
There were files on the Great Collapse - the financial collapse of the world that had driven civilization to the brink. Gwen scanned the folders, noting which of her suspicions were confirmed, and even some shocking surprises she hadn't considered. It had ultimately all just been simple greed, nothing more, just mindless accumulation of wealth that had nearly put paid to civilization. That fact was no surprise at all. What shocked her was how completely complicit the famous old nations of history had been in the process. Truly, any politician could be bought.
Gwen picked up a damaged tome very different from the tidy-looking Worldgovernment folders and files. A small stack had slid to the side, revealing the worn volume. It was an overstuffed and stained laboratory notebook, crammed full of notes and torn bits of paper. 'Curious', she thought, as she turned it over and examined it. The whole thing was wrapped in multiple, large rubber bands, then bound with some sort of industrial sticky tape. It looked like it had been dragged behind a jitney caravan for a week.
Gwenhwyfar was a fool for secret books and diaries, and this decidedly looked the part. Instantly, the tattered and strangely bound up volume captured her interest. The rest of the pile could wait. The expected collusions and debaucheries of the usual suspects were really of no value now. It would not matter to history, truly, which nation had sold out to which wealthy family when. When the Collapse hit, only Iceland had not sold its national soul, and that prideful fact had not saved it from the global collapse one whit. Now there were no nations, just production zones. The true story of how that had been permitted to happen was just as sad and as meaningless as the fiat capital that had tossed the fate of the world into the dumpster of history. But this thick, bulging little notebook... who knew what genuinely astonishing history it contained?
The printed title was already mysterious.
Umbra-Cosmik-Magik Clearance ONLY
Ultimate Sanction For Loss Or Exposure
Gwen swept the fallen lock of dark hair out of her face and sat down amidst the pile of folders, reports, and romball drives, and set about trying to open the fat bundle that was the notebook. Her initial attempts were unproductive, so she was forced to stand up again and fetch a pair of scissors and an exacto knife. A snip and a cut later, Gwen was finally able to open the slightly scary notebook to look inside.
Something fell out, a photo, printed on 3D refractive replipaper. It showed a woman, perhaps about 36, with shoulder-length red hair and glasses. She was standing in front of a wall-sized flatscreen, wearing a lab coat and had the sort of nervous, affected smile reserved for licenses and mug shots. Gwen turned the photo over, the shadows shifting within the image as she did so. On the back was written the date and the useful identification '-ME!'. That was helpful.
Another sheet of replipaper fell out, onto the floor. It was a computer-assisted design diagram of some kind of truly bizarre device. The thing was twenty-sided, with curious ports and holes on all the faces. Odd looking tubes and structures poked out of some of the holes. The vertexes of the icosahedronal machine had strange 'Y' shaped protrusions. It looked like a virus. An examination of the sheet suggested it was supposed to be as small as a virus... it was a nanotech device. It was number three of six such devices, all of which were supposed to work together somehow. There was wording describing a biologically and thaumatically active organic suspension.
In the corner of the diagram were several warning symbols relating to the nanomachine described by the design sheet. Biohazard. Thaumatic Radiation Hazard. Gwen flipped the sheet over to find a printed description of what the machine was and did, and she found she couldn't follow much of what she read. It was a nanosurgical device.
Now that was strange. Nanotechnology had fully bloomed during the worst of the Great Collapse. It had been touted as the great salvation of humankind, but there had been problems. Soon, it was clear there would be no Diamond Age, no essentially magical future of mechanical pixie powder constructing houses while you watched, or granting immortality from within your bloodstream. The little machines were not magic. They needed power, and lots of it, and that was a problem, because most of the world's resources had already been giddily spent like some sailor's paycheck on shore leave. Oil was all but gone, what was left took more energy to get at than the energy it could provide. Nuclear power had left the Japanese people as wandering gypsies forever barred from ever setting foot on their homeland again - and they were not alone in the world in that regard. Solar and wind were not enough for everyone, and the demand just kept growing.
But even that was not the main problem. Nanotechnology generated heat when it did its microscopic magic. A great deal more heat than could be economically dealt with. It simply cost too much to use nanotech in every regard. And in medicine, it had very limited applications. The dream of using nanosurgical devices to construct a new arm or spleen or body from base elements was fundamentally impossible. The little machines moved, and movement was heat, and the heat was so great that it cooked living cells even as they tried to construct or repair them. The main thing nanotech turned out to be good for was manufacturing a simple, edible foodstuff from human waste.
It had taken fifty thousand years of human existence, but for the very first time in human history, every human being went to bed fully fed. In that sense, it was the golden age of mankind, nineteen billion people, all of them fed and watered, every day, no matter what. Taken by itself, it was the greatest achievement in history, an age worthy of pride. That the majority of humankind lived in favelas built of ruin and scrap, and had no job, no future and no hope was almost insignificant. War had been conquered. Hunger had been slain. For the first time in history, all of humanity lived in peace, more or less, and knew not want of food nor water.
What little Gwen could make of the schematic in her hand, it was the design of one unit in a working nanosurgical system that had no problem with heat at all. The solution to the problem made Gwen gasp, because in an instant she realized what the device was, what it represented. It was one of six nanomachine designs that ran not on inducted power, not on tiny specks of nuclear fuel, not on chemical energy stolen from the blood. The nanomachine ran on thaumatic energy. It was a human device that used Equestrian physics to power it, sidestepping the earthly limitations of physical law like a microscopic ninja avoiding detection. It was a truly extropic machine.
It was potion. It was part of the conversion serum that the Bureaus used.
Gwen's hand shook slightly, as she realized what she held. This was a notebook written by one of the people who had created the conversion serum. This notebook likely held the untold story of how the serum was developed, at the least, it described how it worked.
It was probably the most dangerous notebook in the history of the world.
There were so many groups and organizations that would literally kill to possess such a thing. The Human Liberation Front would do anything - anything at all - to own it. The complete details on how conversion serum functioned! It could give them the means to create a counter to it, even a sort of inoculation against it. In the hands of the HLF, humanity could have the choice of ponification for survival stolen from them, all to satisfy the ideology that it was better to die proudly on two legs, than to survive on four.
The PER, the Ponification for the Earth's Revival, if they had the book they could crack the secret of making 'potion' themselves, and would not be forced to steal it however they could. They would take the choice of staying human, regardless of the consequences, away entirely. They would convert everyone, everywhere, against their will, to save them. They would take away the basic human right to commit suicide from Man, and force even the most unwilling into a vastly extended life of equinoid abundance and contentment, whether it was wanted or not.
Gwenhwyfar Boik was a reader. She knew history, she knew humanity. If anything defined the human race, it was the freedom to make the most terrible and self-destructive of decisions, both individually, and as a species. The PER would take that most essential freedom away. Princess Celestia had been quite clear from the very beginning. Conversion had to be a free choice, it should never be forced on any person, for any reason.
And there were others, too, that would want the secrets of the serum. There were factions within the Worldgovernment itself who would have uses for a transformational weapon, perhaps bent back against the Equestrians themselves.
This was, absolutely, the most dangerous notebook that had ever existed.
And here it was, in Gwen's hands, as she sat near the loading dock door of a warehouse filled with books, doing the clandestine work of one of the princesses of Equestria, behind her royal sister's back.
The smart thing to do would be to burn it. Burn the notebook right now, immediately. That would be the right thing. The longer she waited, the greater the chance something could happen. It was a miracle that it had come to her, and a second miracle that it had not been noticed for what it was.
Or, maybe she should use one of the special Equestrian scrolls in the lock-box. They were there for emergencies, courtesy of princess Luna herself. Just write a message, and sign on the provided line - that completed the spell, and the scroll zipped off in a burst of green fire, straight to the princess of the night herself. It was possible to add attachments, they would be carried off by the scroll. She could send the notebook to Luna, directly, where it would be forever safe from all the factions of humankind. It was too dangerous to keep, no matter what.
It was also the single most interesting notebook that had ever existed.
The rest of the team wouldn't be back until morning. She was entirely alone in the warehouse. It wasn't like the HLF or the PER were just going to burst in for no damn reason. There were authorized Blackmesh patrols around the warehouse to protect it, just in case. She had eight hours, at least.
The history of potion itself, by someone actually involved in the creation of it. The world was changing, the human species was changing, and potion was at the heart of every single event that was happening right now. It was the most dangerous notebook to be sure, and the most interesting notebook to be double sure, and the most historically important notebook in the history of the human species without a single doubt.
Gwenhwyfar Boik looked left and right, as if she were being hunted. It was a silly thing to do, but... the sheer magnitude of this! There were all kinds of security clearances - but she had read things, tinfoil hat things - and she had heard of the words 'Umbra-Cosmik-Magik' before. She had thought the term a hoax. Little green men from beyond and all!
But, there were creatures from beyond, weren't there? They were right here, right now. They weren't green, not all of them, anyway, and they certainly weren't men. But they were alien beings, and not just from outer space - they were from another universe altogether, a different space. They didn't need saucers or ray guns. Pegasai flew naturally, and unicorns could cast all the beams of force they could imagine from their horns.
Umbra-Cosmik-Magik was real. And she had the opportunity, right here, right now, to learn the deepest secrets of the planet.
Gwen's fingers fumbled and shook, but there was no stopping them as they dug into the bulging notebook. She began to read. Not even wild earthponies could have dragged her away.