• Published 27th Oct 2013
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The Celestia Code - iisaw

Princess Twilight Sparkle discovers a centuries-old mystery hidden in the Royal Archives.

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11 Accept No Substitutes

Chapter Eleven
Accept No Substitutes

"Well," I said, looking west to where the sun neared the horizon, "I think that's all we can accomplish today. General, will we have the pleasure of your company, tomorrow?" Please say no, please say no, please say no.

"The captain and I will remain in the city tonight."

Worse than I had expected. "I'm afraid we don't have much in the way of provisions. I don't even know what you eat besides..." I left it unsaid, but we both knew what I was referring to. What else did changelings eat when they weren't sucking the love out of poor, deceived ponies?

"We sometimes enjoy flesh." She said the word with a hiss as if she were imagining the taste. Eww!

"We don't have any of that to share," I said, striving to keep my revulsion from showing.

She chuckled low in her throat. "No matter. We have our own... provisions."

"Oh?" I hadn't seen any saddle bags, and I was curious, despite myself.

The general nodded to where the four smaller changelings stood, waiting. "They will nourish the captain and myself."

"What?!" I couldn't stop myself from reacting, and the instant I saw the general's lips twitch, I knew she had deliberately been probing me. I got hold of myself and said, as calmly as I could, "I'm afraid that we ponies find cannibalism distasteful, so you will forgive me if Jigsaw and I return to the library to dine alone."

The general actually laughed out loud at that. "Oh, nothing so crude, princess! In fact, I think you will find this very interesting. It is something that I do not think any outsider has ever seen before."

She certainly knew how to get my attention.

She turned to face the drones and began to dance. No, really, that's the best way to describe her movements, even though they weren't anything like any dance I'd seen before. Two of the drones responded, moving and stepping in patterns that matched or complemented the general's. They moved nearer and nearer to each other until their horns were nearly touching. I felt—something. Not like magic of any kind I knew, but definitely an energy of some sort. After a few moments the general lifted her head and stepped back. The drones sank to the ground, clearly exhausted.

"Aaah," the general sighed with satisfaction.

The captain repeated the whole procedure with the remaining two drones, while I observed closely and Jigsaw scribbled furiously in her notebook.

Afterwards, the general dismissed the drones, and they flew off, fairly unsteadily, in the direction of the changeling hive.

"Thank you, General," I said. "That was very interesting indeed."

"My pleasure, Princess! And now we can spend the evening together, getting to know one another better."

Oh, goodie.

= = =

After dinner, we lay around the fire going over our findings of the day.[1] I soothed and coaxed the little books I had found back into some semblance of flexibility while Jigsaw showed me her sketches and notes. Her drawings were really exceptional. "I'll go over them in ink when we get back to Canterlot," she told me. "They'll look even better then."
[1] With the exception of the cornucopia building, of course.

"May I ask why you are so interested in a failed civilization?" the general asked.

"You don't think there is any worth in studying the past?" I replied.

"We have our traditions," she said. "Stories of past victories, of tactics and tricks that have served well. Such things are worth remembering. But the ponies of this place were failures. They died out or fled. What can you learn from such as they?"

I bit my lip for a moment. I had to force myself not to go into my standard tirade about the value of all knowledge. "If we discover why they failed, it might help us to avoid making similar mistakes."

The general considered that for a moment. She motioned at the books in front of us. "Statues, old walls, and trash will tell you that?"

I really clamped down on the anger that had risen in me when she'd pointed at the old books and said "trash." I took a deep breath and slowly let it out. "Each piece, alone, might mean little, but, together, a larger picture can be built up. It's a method that has been proven again and again."

"I see," the general said. "But it still seems like a great deal of trouble to go through for such uncertain gain."

Jigsaw jumped into the conversation. "Some of us enjoy the process for its own sake. Isn't there something you enjoy doing, just for the joy of doing it?"

The general smiled. "A few things, yes. Though, perhaps, you would not appreciate or understand them... as I do not understand your 'archaeology.'"

"I would like to try to understand," Jigsaw replied.

She seemed to be having better luck at communicating with the general than I had, so I contented myself with half-listening to them talk as I opened one of the books.

The smaller one, bound in red embossed canvas, turned out to be a foal's picture book. My spells had restored the colors of the illustrations somewhat, but they were still slightly faded. It was the story of a young colt, who wanted to make a special gift for his mother on her birthday. He tried many different things, always failing in humorous ways, until he finally asked his grandmother for advice. That's when the racist propaganda started.

It was startling. The book had been so simple and pleasant until then. But wise old grandmare imparted the following wisdom to the little colt:

"Unicorns do not make, my dear! The lesser races make and we take!"

"How can I do that, Grandmother? I am so small and weak."

"With magic, size does not matter. Our wise leaders have given us the means to take all that we need! Come, and I will show you."

The opposite page was a picture of the two of them walking through the city. I flipped to the next page—and then hurriedly flipped right back. I looked up, but Jigsaw and the general were still deep in conversation and hadn't seen the cartoony, but unmistakable, picture of the interior of the cornucopia building.

I needed to get rid of the changelings.

I set the book aside, yawned and stretched. "Oh, my! I'm pretty worn out from all the excitement today. I'm sure the rest of you are tired, too. Shall we turn in?"

They all looked at me, Jigsaw with a puzzled expression.

Okay, so I'm not the most convincing actor in Equestria. I hurried on. "General, I'm sure you won't take it amiss if I put up my shields as I usually do. I'll be using a double enclosure technique, which will take up quite a bit of room, so you may find it more comfortable outside?"

Yes, it was pretty lame. But I was improvising on the spur of the moment. Even if the general didn't believe me, I hoped she'd take the hint that the ponies needed some alone time. What I didn't expect, was that Jigsaw would be the one to object.

"You can set the shields to let me in, right? Because, I'd kinda like to keep talking with the general for a while." Jigsaw flicked the big bug a look and then stood up. "We can go outside so we don't disturb you. Maybe walk around a little."

I was stunned. This was the pony that had been so terrified of the lone changeling that she'd wanted me to kill it? She was seriously proposing to take a casual stroll around the dark ruins with one of Chrysalis's chief thugs? I was speechless for a moment, and then, "I... don't... uhmn... do you really think that's a good idea?"

Jigsaw bit her lip and looked away for a moment. "Yes, I think so. They're not like us, Twilight... but they're not stupid. The general would have nothing to gain by harming me."

Before I could reply, the general stuck her own oar in. "What she says is true. I would give you my word... but we both know my word is worthless. I would betray any oath if to do so would gain advantage for my hive."

"Uh... If you're trying to reassure me, that's not helping," I said.

"Honesty is valued among ponies, is it not?" she said as she rose from the floor.

"I'll be fine, Twilight," Jigsaw said. "We won't—"

"Wait." I got up and walked over to her, my horn glowing to life.

Jigsaw shied away from me slightly. "What are—"

"Hush," I said, a bit sternly. "Stand still. I need to touch you for this to work."[2] I tapped her poll with the tip of my horn. "There! Now I'll be able to tell where you are for the next few hours. I will also know if you become upset, afraid, or angry... and I'll be able to... respond." I turned to the general. "Have a nice walk."
[2] I didn't, of course. That was a lie for the general's benefit.

I settled back down and picked up my book, trying not to grind my teeth. Jigsaw stood where she was for a long moment and then walked away, the general following her. When they had gone, I looked up. The captain was laying about as far away from me as possible while still being in the rotunda. I sighed. I might as well go through with the rest of the charade.


She flinched. "Y—yes, Your Highness?"

"Could you please move out into the hall? I'm going to set up the shields, and they will pretty much fill the room."

She scrambled up and darted through the doorway. Out of the light of the fire, I could only see the eerie blue of her eyes in the darkness. I felt a little guilty for causing such fear in her. But I guess that was the whole point of my "demonstration", wasn't it? I couldn't have it both ways.

I shoved aside the growing fear that I was messing up the whole expedition somehow and began raising the shields. Precision work was even better than deep breathing exercises for calming me down. I wove in the exception,[3] specifying a female unicorn, which might have been too particular, but it took more concentration, which was good for me right then.
[3] A matrix designed by my BBBFF, BTW.

The second, outer shield was more in the way of a responsive energy shell, with a few additions based on what I'd improvised the morning the changelings had surrounded us. In theory, it would allow me to create new spells, even when under an abjuration. I was pretty sure I wouldn't use it, but it was good to get practice casting it, as I was sure I'd be experimenting with it when I could do so in more controlled circumstances.

I rolled out the city map and put a couple stones on it to hold it open. I moved my saddlebags so that it was hidden from the hallway where the captain was and cast a simple linking spell. Two marks appeared on the map: a horseshoe for Jigsaw and an X for the general. They were in the street outside, moving slowly away from the library. I mentally traced a boundary of a few blocks radius. If they got further away out than that, I'd teleport out to check on them.

With that done, I went back to the foal's book. Yes, the illustration was definitely the interior of the cornucopia building. What's more, it was just as Jigsaw and I had found it: no magical horn—just an empty pedestal.

I would have smacked my head into the book with angry embarrassment if it hadn't been so relatively fragile. Every time I made an unwarranted assumption, it came back to bite me. Because it was called a cornucopia, I had assumed it would be a curled ram's horn, like in the legends. But it had been named for what it did, not what it looked like.

In the book, the grandmare showed the colt how to use the device. She stood before it and held a strong mental image of what she wanted, in this case, a fresh apple. "May I have an apple, please?" she said, and one appeared on the pedestal.

That was about what I expected. Magical synthesis of food from hydrocarbons, based on existing patterns, was pretty impressive, but I knew it was perfectly possible in theory.

Then, in the book, the colt tried asking for a necklace for his mother. I expected a series of comical, ugly results, looking like a young pony's bad drawings of a necklace. But, again, my assumptions were way off target.

The colt got nothing. On several attempts. Then his grandmother advised him to think of how much he loved his mother, imagine how beautiful she would look wearing a fine necklace, and to try again. That time it worked. The last page was a large drawing of the colt hugging his mother, who was wearing an exquisite, bejeweled choker. Yes, it was a child's book, simple and cartoony in its style, but the last page had been drawn with a great deal of care, and it was obvious that the jewelry was much more detailed than could be imagined by a young pony.

Magic just didn't work that way. Without conscious guidance, an exact template was needed. Was the foal's book an exaggeration? Or was I missing something? All very possible. But the only way to find out for sure was to get my hooves on the cornucopia, and that wasn't going to happen as long as our changeling keepers were shadowing us.

That thought made me glance at the map. Jigsaw and the general were only a street away, and no longer moving. I looked over at the hallway and saw that the captain was lying in the doorway, alert but still and silent. I sighed. I could just whip up a hard shield around the city tomorrow, flinging out our unwanted guests, so that we could get on with our investigations. I could—but there was a chance for something to come out of this situation. An understanding? Maybe an alliance? Whatever it might be, it would be worth a little[4] frustration, even if just for the outside possibility.
[4] Okay, a lot.

I decided to look through the second book and found a ledger of debts and payments that were, oddly, enumerated in hours and grouped by "item." I went through it looking for patterns, but found nothing immediately obvious. It had many names and cutie marks noted, and a couple of lines that were abruptly truncated with the words "debt forgiven," but nothing else of interest.

I put the ledger aside and thought about brewing a small pot of tea. There was no way I was actually going to go to sleep until Jigsaw came back. I glanced at the map again: They hadn't moved. Well—maybe just a little. The horseshoe and the X were nearly overlapping. I squinted at the map thoughtfully. No signal had come from the tracer I had put on Jigsaw that would indicate she was fearful, but—there was something there. Something not quite right. I cursed myself for not specifying broader limits on the spell when I had cast it, but I had only intended it for an alert, not general surveillance.

I got up and walked through the shields. The captain leaped to her hooves and backed away from me. I almost winked out right there, but I reconsidered for a moment. If I suddenly popped into existence right next to the general without cause, she would know I was a lot more nervous and affected by the situation than I was comfortable revealing. They were only a street away. I could walk.

"I'm going out for a short while, captain," I said to the cowering changeling.

"I will accompany you, Your Highness," she said.

"No need. I won't be long."

"I... my orders..."

I really felt sorry for her. Who knows what would happen to her if she disobeyed her orders? So—purely for the selfless motive of helping her out of her quandary, I slapped a small gas-permeable shield around her.

"I've drunk a lot of tea tonight, and there are some things ponies prefer to do in private, Captain. I'll let you out when I come back. Please feel free to tell your... superiors that you were prevented by me from following your orders to the letter." I trotted out the door to the street.

I decided I would brew up a pot of tea to share with her when I got back. Maybe I could get her to relax a little. Did changelings drink tea? I knew that Chrysalis had when she was disguised as Cadance, but did they like it? Well, I could find out.

I went around the block the long way, thinking I might just take a peek around the corner without letting Jigsaw and the general know I was there. If I was being a silly worry-wart, I could just back off without disturbing them. I didn't want to derail what seemed to be the beginnings of a promising understanding between our species, after all.

When I got to the corner, I heard no conversation, but, rather, muffed noises that sounded very like some sort of struggle. I brought up three offensive matrix patterns as I stepped around the corner—and froze, my jaw dropping in shock. There, half-way down the block, was Jigsaw, passionately kissing—me!

= = =