Instead of being packed into the cargo hold with the other help, Sunset got a cabin all to herself on the return voyage. Well, it was assigned to her, but she invited a certain stallion to share it with her just like their tent. Some part of her wondered if Daring Do had put the two of them together like that all along, after noticing their friendship during the trip over—but that was stupid. There was no reason for an important pony like her to care.
Sunset did a lot of stupid things during the trip over, but nothing teenagers before her hadn’t been doing for thousands of years. It got easier the more Flash Sentry healed, and it wasn’t as though there were many other distractions. Her one worry—the same worry as many girls in her position, probably, Flash dismissed with confusion.
“Moonrise, you can’t. That… only happens once a year. The chances of anything happening at a different time are… tiny.”
I think I’m going to leave this part out of my stories of the other world, Sunset thought later that night, when she’d made her way to the deck to watch the stars. They’re probably better off not knowing I had a boyfriend. Maybe Flash would leave his dreams of being a stupid guard behind. I have to tell him the truth. He can’t decide for himself if he doesn’t even know.
“Hey, Moonrise.” That was Polaris’s voice from behind her. She was in costume again, as she always seemed to be around other ponies. So far as Sunset knew, only Gangplank knew the truth about her. Her identity was kept secret from everyone else. “Can you talk?”
“Sure.” Sunset didn’t even turn, just kept leaning over the railing, staring off into the blackness.
“I’ve been thinking about what you said,” Daring Do said. “Your questions about how to bring magic back to somewhere without it.”
“Oh.” Sunset hadn’t brought the subject back up again, not since the first answer. She didn’t need to hear that her quest was hopeless a second time. “Yeah.”
“I bring my whole library out on extended digs like this. Lots of these old ruins are connected… we like to think in modern Equestria that we’re the only united ponies there ever were, but the past isn’t black and white. There’s gray back there, and lots of the stories we think we know are really just retellings invented by the ones who stayed.”
“The victor writes the history books,” Sunset said.
“Victor of…” The “bat” shook her head. She had a book under one leg. Sunset could read the gold embossed title of the faux-leather cover. “SECRET SPELLS OF STAR SWIRL.” That name never leaves me alone. “If there’s one thing you learn being me, it’s never discounting an investigation. Most of Equestria thinks I’m an adventure novel. Well, that’s good enough for everypony. We all put on our masks. I wonder what mask you’re wearing.”
She flipped the book open in front of them, for Sunset to see. There was the horseshoe mirror, exactly as Sunset remembered it. The Equestrians even had the right period of its opening correct, with a precise chart of the phases of the moon and the procession of the equinoxes.
“I see you recognize this.”
Sunset nodded weakly. There was no point lying. Besides—if there was one pony unlikely to reveal her secret, it was one who had her own to hide. Sunset knew who she was—any destruction done to one could be returned. I’ll make you go down with me, Daring Do. I swear to god. “Maybe.”
The bat’s eyebrows went up. “You know what every magical dead-zone on Equus has in common? It’s how I figured this out…” She snapped the book closed. “They’re wastelands. Nopony lives there. Not more exotic creatures, either. Yaks don’t want to be there, deer don’t want to live there, or buffaloes, or even the dragons. Plants barely even grow.”
She lowered her voice, eyes down on the deck. “I’ve been to two of them. It’s… horrible. All the color drains out of the world. The music loses its harmony, food loses its taste. Even lifting your hooves gets hard. Remembering who you are, what you’re doing there. Your cutie mark barely matters. Princess Celestia decided not to put up any official warnings about the one in Equestria, or even to acknowledge its existence. Ponies avoid them on their own. They’re terrible places.”
“I don’t understand…” Sunset took a deep breath, counting to five as she inhaled. Watching her words hadn’t ever been something she was good at. “What are you trying to say?”
“Long time ago, Star Swirl caught all kinds of monsters. Nopony else at the time could beat them, not even the princesses. So what did he do? Banished them somewhere without any magic, so they couldn’t threaten anypony ever again. Their abilities would fade, they wouldn’t have a way to get back.” She tapped the book. “Almost nothing is known about the other side. But I’m guessing there might be… civilization there after all. Ponies on the other side, living in…” She shuddered. “I can barely imagine. Spending your whole life… probably didn’t even have a cutie mark.”
Was she crying? No, Sunset wasn’t crying! She wouldn’t do that, certainly not where anyone else could see. She nodded reluctantly. “Maybe somewhere like that exists. So what if it does? So what if someone wants to bring the magic back?”
“I still don’t know if it’s possible,” Daring Do said. “I hate to be the one to give you bad news Moonrise. But I wasn’t lying. Nopony even knows why dead zones form in the first place. The best theory I ever heard was that they’re sites of… ancient, terrible battles. Nopony knows what fought, or why. But the world gets scarred forever after that, and magic doesn’t come back. But it really doesn’t matter. No ordinary pony could do it. It’s impossible. There’s only one pony who might know more, but she’s not good about answering questions.”
Sunset knew what Daring Do was going to say before she said it.
“Princess Celestia is an Alicorn. She’s the oldest pony alive. She was there when some of the ruins I explore were built. Nopony even knows for sure just how old she is.” Now the pony in front of her was looking frustrated. It was a good thing there was nopony else on the deck with them, because she raised her voice a little. Behind them, swells crashed into the side of the boat, raining down spray and foam on the deck.
“She sits back on her throne and says nothing while we debate over questions she could answer from her memory. She lets ponies spend thousands of bits to dig up garbage dumps, then stands by and lets a pony like me discover an artifact that could really hurt ponies if it got into the wrong hooves. I’ve never understood her way of doing things.”
“I might know something you don’t,” Sunset said, after a nervous silence. “Through the portal, I think… our worlds might be connected. I don’t know how, don’t know why… but when I got here, there were posters with my name on them, my picture. I think… a pony who looks like me… got into trouble. I joined this expedition mostly because it was the fastest way out of town.”
Daring Do actually laughed. “That’s why your mane is coming in red. And… why you don’t like ponies seeing your cutie mark. You could really learn a thing or two about having a good pseudonym. Lucky for you, I’m one of the best. I might be able to teach you a few things. But you already seem to understand the basics. Pick somewhere to live that’s far from the ones looking for you. Change your appearance… we can work on that. But here’s a third one—”
She leaned in closer, lowering her voice. “Don’t be a criminal. Thing about hiding when you’re guilty, your behavior gives you away. I’ve been watching you this whole trip. I thought at first you were here to steal from me. Maybe Dr. Caballeron sent you, to make sure that the artifacts wouldn’t make it back to Equestria. Doesn’t matter where you go, a guilty conscience always weighs you down.”
“Not sure what to do.” Sunset sat back on her haunches, looking up at the sky. “You’re right about one thing. I’m… I’m not ready to go back. What if Celestia forces me? There’s so much magic here, I don’t know if I’ll ever want to leave.”
“We could…” Daring Do hesitated just a second. “You did save my life. I could give you something in return more valuable than a percentage. I could call in a few favors, get us a private meeting with the princess. How about you tell her the truth? Bring the stallion, she’ll like that. Tell her you’re here, why you’re here… and don’t be afraid anymore.”
“Unless I was afraid for good reason,” Sunset muttered. “And she throws me in jail.”
Daring Do shrugged. “In my experience, the story doesn’t usually go that way. Ponies go through dark times, but the good ones always end up doing alright in the end. Are you a good pony, Moonrise? Or a bad one?”
“I’m not good at coming up with fake names,” she answered, chuckling. “My real name is Sunset. Sunset Shimmer.”
“Yeah,” Daring Do took the offered hoof anyway. “I figured that out. But it’s good you told me. It isn’t for me to decide when you share that with Celestia. Just… give me an answer when we get back to shore. If you want to take your bits and go, I won’t stop you.”
There was one other pony for her to ask. Daring Do was clever, resourceful, and well-informed. But she was still someone that Sunset had barely talked to. If she was going to go around spilling her secrets, there was someone who mattered more.
She waited until the next day, until early in the afternoon when shore had come into view and they’d already packed up the cabins. Sunset and Flash were on a lower deck—there wasn’t much of a view, and the fumes of the ocean were worse. But Sunset had insisted. It was somewhere they could go for privacy.
“I dunno what you could want to tell me,” Flash said, after several minutes of Sunset waffling back and forth and not admitting to anything. “I think I’ve figured you out pretty well after a whole expedition together.” He settled one wing across her back, possessively. Warm, delicate feathers. Sunset smiled at the feeling. It was nice to be close to someone.
“Really?” One eyebrow went up. “What did you figure out, Flash? Cuz’ if you just mean what bits I’ve got… that isn’t that special. I’m sure there are books about that.”
Predictably, the stallion’s ears flattened and his wings folded, scent changing to embarrassment. “You don’t have to say it like that. Even if there’s nopony who can hear…”
“I’m serious! What do you think you figured out? Because… I’m willing to bet you don’t know. That’s why I want to tell you. I wasn’t sure how close we would… it’s only fair. You deserve to know. What you do after I tell you…” She shrugged one shoulder. “Guess that’s up to you.”
“Okay.” Flash sat up on his haunches, relaxing a little. They passed a pony cargo ship out on the water, moving much slower than they were. It had huge metal cargo boxes, just like a ship on Earth might’ve had.
Strange how much we have in common.
“Well, I know you’re not very good with magic. I think you… might’ve grown up in one of those… weird enclaves? No offense, but… you just don’t know very much. Maybe you ran away, made it to civilization. And I’m glad you did.” He leaned forward, rubbing up against her. “You’re better off here. Ponies are meant to live together.”
Sunset chuckled. “I did run away from somewhere to get here. It’s just… not an enclave.” She hesitated, glancing around them one last time. The shore was approaching rapidly, and with it any chance for her to tell him somewhere safe. It was now or never. “What if I told you I was from further away, would you be upset?”
Flash shook his head. “Moonrise, I don’t care where you’re from. A pony isn’t their past, they’re what they do in the present. You’re brave, you’re smart, and you’re a great cook. How much more could I want?”
Now her cheeks were burning. Sunset tried to ignore the flattery, as best she could anyway. But just because she knew rationally that she shouldn’t be influenced didn’t mean the logic would jump from her body to her brain.
“I’m… not from your world, Flash. I’m from so far, you’ve never even imagined where I’m from.”
“Is that why you wanted to go adventuring with the Royal Archeological Society? Expedition to… wait, that doesn’t make sense. You wouldn’t learn more about ponies far away. You should’ve stayed in a city. You were recruited in Canterlot like I was, so…”
“I don’t know why this is…” Sunset began. “But… I think maybe… I think maybe your world and mine have some similar people. There was another pony here with the same name. I don’t know where she went, but… she left me with her mess.”
Flash raised an eyebrow. Now he was really watching her, seeming genuinely nervous. “A pony who…”
The Chrysanthemum thunked loudly against the shore, rocking slightly to one side. Sunset wobbled, but didn’t fall over. Flash had moved out of reach, but for once it didn’t matter. Sunset’s coordination had improved considerably since her arrival months ago.
“I think she was… a criminal. I dunno, but they were putting up wanted posters all over Canterlot. That’s why I left. I didn’t want them to mistake me for her.”
“Wanted posters…” Now Flash’s eyes had gotten wide. He backed away from her, spreading his wings. “You’re a criminal?”
“No! It wasn’t me, Flash! I don’t even know what she was supposed to have done! I’m not from here!”
“Right.” He lifted into the air, landing on the railing and glaring down at her. “You’re her evil clone, or… maybe she’s yours. Moonrise, you know I’m trying to get into the Guard, right? I’m going straight up to the castle as soon as we get off the train. They already accepted my application.”
“Flash, I didn’t do—”
“No!” Flash landed in front of her, holding up one wing. “I know what the oaths say, Moonrise. When I go in that castle, I’m going to promise to protect Equestria. To uphold justice, to turn in evildoers… you need to stop talking right now. You need to stop, because if I know any more…” He lifted into the air again. Were those tears? He was a very large pony to be crying, but… yeah, he was crying. And Sunset was crying too. “I don’t want to turn you in. I can’t if I don’t know. Probably… we won’t be able to…”
“I’m not a criminal!” she said. “I’m from another world, I already told you! I’m from a place where people walk on two legs, where they eat meat, drive around in metal cars, where horses are a hobby and nobody has seen magic in their lives! Nobody even believed it was real, that’s why I—”
“I thought we mattered, Sunset. I thought… I thought you cared.”
“I did!” she said. “I do! I’m not—”
“You’re not acting like it,” Flash said. “I think… I think I liked you better before you saved everypony. Back when I thought you were like me. Not some… some criminal hiding from justice. You could’ve at least told me the truth.”
But he wasn’t listening. Flash took off, flying across the water and into the city. It wasn’t like he had anything to wait for—like the laborers, he’d already been paid.
Sunset watched him go, crying quietly to herself. Why didn’t he listen? Why doesn’t anyone listen? On Earth they hadn’t believed her about magic. But she spelled everything out in plain language, and he seemed determined not to hear.
Sunset found Daring Do as the Chrysanthemum was unloading, waiting in the back as she signed things off and dealt with dock officials. Only when they’d moved off did Sunset emerge from between the cargo boxes.
“What is it?” Daring Do asked, eyebrows up. “You look… upset.”
“I’ve been thinking about your offer,” Sunset said, sniffing. “I’ll, uh… I accept. Get me a meeting with the pony princess. I need to get this over with, not hide.”
“Okay,” Daring Do said. “Wait here while we unload. You can ride with me into Canterlot. You can talk to her after our presentation. Might go better that way, if you tell her who you are right after we’ve all said how helpful you were.”
“Sure, whatever.” Sunset turned away. She didn’t much care how it went. But at least she could get it over with.