• Published 6th Sep 2018
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The Sunset Campaign - Starscribe

Sunset Shimmer dreamed of bringing her knowledge back to Equestria, but not as an invader. If she wants Equestria to survive, she's going to have to help the humans save it—without helping them become its new rulers.

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Chapter 1: Turing Complete

Sunset Shimmer came through the portal last, with the other members of the Technocratic Order. They would be arriving in this new world at the end of the group, once the legionaries and the knights had secured the other side.

She didn’t exactly have clear memories of her trip across last time. She had drifted in a space her mind did not clearly comprehend, felt incredible pain, and then arrived in the Builders’ world. The process of travel had transformed her into one of them—at least, by the time she woke up. There was some part of her that wished the reverse would be true of her arrival in Equestria. Maybe she and all the other humans would be ponies when they arrived, and the war would turn out to be entirely fictitious.

She walked out of the other side of the portal, down a flat metal ramp and into scorching sunshine—and she did it on two legs.

Still, Sunset slowed as she made her way down, eyes scanning a familiar horizon. She’d never been here, but she recognized Canterlot in the distance, and the many other mountains in the Canterhorn range. There was no deception here—Tesla hadn’t promised her lies in order to trick her into cooperating. I’m home.

“Keep moving,” grunted an annoyed voice from behind her—one of the many technocrats in identical robes. She hurried on, muttering an apology for blocking the way.

Then she realized where she was standing. A city of sorts—or the start of one, with a great invisible line down the center.

The half nearer to her was the more familiar—with the various Builder bodies wearing either legionary’s armor, the thicker powered-armor of the knights, or the robes of technocrats. There were stretched canvas tents, folding equipment, and legionaries busy setting up camp. Many of them stood with their rifles at the ready, not quite aiming at the other half.

She expected ponies over there—this would be a joint military camp, right? The Equestrian army would be assembling, and they’d go to war against some new enemy together. But the ones on the other side of the line didn’t look like Builders or like ponies.

It was their imperfections that stood out first. After so long among the Builders with their perfect bodies, it was strange to see irregularity again. Faces that weren’t perfectly symmetrical, balding heads and the wrinkles of aging. Like the ponies that she had spent her whole life around, only they weren’t. They were still shaped like Builders—two legs, two arms, predator’s faces and tiny eyes. Taller than she was, taller than—she immediately looked down, worried that she’d lost her companion.

But if the trip across had done anything, it seemed that it had persuaded Jackie to move even closer to her, standing right beside her leg with wings spread in obvious agitation. She still wasn’t very good at hiding her feelings, even now.

“Jackie, what the hell are those?” She nodded across the way, to a gray-eyed woman in a black and white uniform. She seemed to be directing the other faction of Builders, because she spoke with a voice of confident command.

“Those?” Jackie seemed confused by the question at first, at least until she followed Sunset’s eyes. Then she started laughing. Well, laughing over the radio. Their whole conversation had been silent so far. “My god, I can’t believe you can’t tell. Those are real humans, Sunset. The kind that I used to be. The kind with real blood and real sex and all the other great things that come from being alive. Sweat and piss and sleep and… the whole package.”

Sunset’s eyebrows went up. “Those are the things you’re using to sell it.”

The bat pony relaxed, one of her self-satisfied grins returning. “It might not sound that great from here, but think about how satisfying it is to finally get some sleep after a long day. Nothing we do quite captures that feeling, does it? All the imperfections make being alive worth it, you know?”

“You, attaché,” said an unfriendly voice. “Tesla is waiting for you.” He pointed in the direction of their camp, somewhere deep into the identical tents. “Find him quickly. Transport to the native capital is waiting, and he wants you on it. Haul ass.”

Sunset Shimmer wasn’t exactly happy to have one of the soldiers talking to her this way so soon after returning home. She needed time to soak it in, and she wasn’t a soldier! But the word capital stuck in her mind, and instantly any annoyance melted away. The soldier could be as crude as he wanted if she got to see Canterlot again.

“Not you,” he said, sticking out a hand to stop Jackie as she made to follow. “The native model is supposed to stay behind. I had explicit instructions.”

Jackie didn’t argue—apparently she had the same idea of their odds of winning that as Sunset did. “Bring me back a postcard,” she said, her voice flat.

“You’ll get to see it, I’m sure,” she responded over the radio again. “I’ll try to bring back information on what the hell is going on.”

Sunset left. Unlike all the old ways of finding someone, she had the transponder system, which told her exactly where Tesla was waiting. She jogged straight there, without feeling even a hint of tiredness. Even outside the Infinite Realm these bodies had advantages.

There was a vehicle waiting for them—a hexacopter, larger than any other single craft she’d seen since stepping out of the portal. It looked a little like it had come through in different segments, then been assembled here. There was a row of inward-facing seats against each wall, most of which were occupied by legionaries. Except for the back seats, where technocrats in white robes marked with a single red symbol carried heavy-looking packs.

“Here, Natasha,” said Tesla near the front, gesturing at the space beside him. “I have questions.”

Sunset winced as she heard the fake name, but she couldn’t exactly argue with the logic. If one of the soldiers walking around Equestria had a pony name, particularly one that had been known by as many as had known her, their little trick would be discovered.

She reached up, squeezing her necklace with two fingers, and heard a voice from within. “Your world is amazing, Sunset.”

“Just wait until you see Canterlot.”

Sunset nodded to Tesla, hurrying over to take the seat beside him. The door slammed closed behind her, and all the propellers started to spin. She had the feeling it was loud enough that it would’ve hurt, except that her ears just washed it out, making it seem as though the voices of the soldiers and technocrats were at ordinary volume. “I’m going to need information.”

Tesla answered on a private radio channel, and she immediately switched to it herself. “The capital was just attacked, Natasha. You can’t see the fires from this distance, but you should be able to once we get closer.”

“Canterlot? No way. We’re near the center of the continent.” Because that protected us so well before.

Tesla reached into midair, plucking a few images from nothing and tossing them to her. They stuck in the air as though they were still in the Infinite Realm. They were video files, and each one played when she looked at it.

She watched from inside the throne room as a massive dragon ripped through the ceiling, shattering centuries of priceless stained glass as it went, before the camera was crushed by rubble and went black. There were several more angles, including one running through the garden beside a group of Royal Guards, staring up at the sky as an airship dropped firebombs.

The longest video by far was marked simply “Richard,” and seemed to be taken directly beside Celestia. It was so strange to view the princess from an angle over her head, but there was no mistaking it. She watched out someone else’s eyes as they fought beside the princess of the sun.

Richard was a mighty warrior, up there with Flash Magnus and Leo the Bold.

Tesla’s expression grew satisfied, but he didn’t rush her as she watched. He didn’t say anything until she finished the last video. “As I said, your capital was attacked. I require information about the ones attacking it. They are the ones we will be opposing during this campaign, and it is my responsibility to ensure that our troops are prepared to meet them.”

“We better hope there aren’t very many of these.” Sunset scrubbed backward through the footage, until she found a clear image of the dragon. She’d been through Builder school now—she knew the Datamancy required to select only the dragon, removing the background. She highlighted the runes on his body, even though they were already glowing.

“Stars and stones,” Sunset swore, once she’d finished copying over all of them. “Uruz… shash… Hagalaz…” She shivered, and might’ve had to fight back her stomach if she could still get sick. Even looking at magic this dark would’ve caused discomfort in the past. But she felt nothing now. Of course I don’t.

“Yes yes, I’m sure it’s impressive.” Tesla waved an annoyed hand through the air. “But you need to focus. Explain this to me. Thoroughly.”

The sound of rotors outside seemed to stretch, from a shrill whine to a dull, constant hum.

“You just… I thought Datamancy couldn’t bend time outside of the Realm?” Her mouth didn’t move as she spoke, though. Neither did her hands, though she wanted them to.

“Perception can be altered,” he explained, his voice sounding as though he were trying to be patient with a child. “Your body cannot move and most field models are not designed with the heat dissipation in mind to continue for long. But the trip is not long and I intend to be informed when we land.”

Sunset explained. Tesla wanted to know everything, but at first she ran up against the limits of her own education several times. Dragons were rare and dangerous creatures, and not much was known about them in Equestria outside of the dates of their migrations and their roles in past wars.

But she could be more useful explaining the dark magic. “This spell made him basically unkillable,” she finished, after what felt like hours of grilling. “But it wouldn’t have lasted much longer. Another hour, maybe two, and he would’ve died. It’s strange… dragons live so much longer than ponies, it’s hard to imagine why this one would’ve been willing to die. The glory of killing Celestia, but… he wouldn’t be around to enjoy it for long. I don’t understand the strategy of it either. They weren’t going to capture Canterlot with three ships. What happened to those?”

Tesla replaced her dragon image with another sequence, though this one was from far away and turned jagged on the edges from digital zoom. “Two were destroyed, this one got away. An Equestrian airship followed it.”

Sunset tried to get a good look at which of the Solar Fleet’s ships had followed, hoping to get a better idea of their chances, but no luck. If anything, Tesla seemed eager to show her as little as possible, because he banished all those images and replaced them with a few more. Like before, these were taken from the video.

“What about these creatures? I take it these are more common than the dragons?”

“Yes.” Sunset spent what felt like several more hours explaining griffons and goblins to Tesla, though at least she could provide more satisfying information on their culture and capabilities.

By the time she finished and the sound of the rotors went back to high-pitched whining, Sunset was panting and it felt like waves of heat were rising from every breath. She twitched, and this time her hands responded. She held one out, feeling hot air blow past her fingers.

“I’m… out of breath,” she said, and was a little surprised by the fear she felt. “I thought we didn’t get that way.”

“We don’t,” Tesla said. “Time is only a matter of perception, Sunset. Think quickly, move slowly. Your brain, like all computers, produces heat, and more of it when calculating more quickly.” He seemed completely unaffected, though he had been thinking just as quickly as she was. How could he do that? But even as he spoke, he seemed to abruptly lose interest, turning to stare off at nothing.

Sunset didn’t need to know the first thing about the Infinite Realm to know something more important than her had just taken his attention. So she relaxed, using a bit of basic Datamancy to make the reverse wall vanish and give her a view of the outside.

Her timing could not have been more perfect. There through the steel was Canterlot, almost exactly as she remembered it.

The fires were new, along with the cursory damage to a few buildings. If she had wondered whether or not the footage she saw was real, she no longer had to—the roof of the throne room was indeed caved in, with a huge pile of rubble rolling over the gardens. She thought she could make out the repair work already underway, though it was hard to be sure from this distance. It might just be ponies there to gawk.

Sunset gripped the necklace again with two fingers, hoping that Twilight was looking. “That’s Canterlot. Except for the attack, I mean. Where I grew up.”

They were circling above the city, passing over many of the taller buildings and gawking pony faces beneath. She hoped the pegasus ponies had enough good sense to stay away from them—if they chased, they might get sucked into the propellers.

But she saw no sign of followers getting close—there were royal guards in the distance, but they seemed to be keeping the crowds back.

“It’s beautiful,” Twilight replied, her voice awed. But then, she didn’t exactly have lots of memories to compare against. “It’s like one of those old German cities. Medieval buildings upgraded over the years. That’s a lot of ponies down there.”

“Everyone,” Sunset thought back. “Except us, I guess. And a few ambassadors. But something must’ve gone wrong with them, or else we wouldn’t have been attacked. I wonder what would change with the dragons since I left.”

But she didn’t hear Twilight’s reply, because Tesla shook her by the shoulder. From his annoyed expression, he’d been trying to talk to her for at least a few seconds now, and she hadn’t heard him.

“Child, come back.”

She blinked, let go of her necklace, and her eyes focused on him. “Sorry, I was—”

“I don’t care.” He waved a hand. “It’s expected that everyone in my organization will be connected. We each have many sources of information and must manage them all. But don’t forget we’re going into a warzone. If I were one of the dirtborn, I would’ve had cyberflux in your arm already and you’d be scrap metal. If you’re having trouble, write a program to get your attention when anything happens around you. Plenty of my scribes use them, and they’re far more experienced than you are.”

Sunset had already tried to apologize. All she could do was nod, feeling her face flush.

The wall on the other side of the hexacopter was still transparent, so she could see the grassy field, and the ancient statues. There were soldiers gathered outside, shuffling around with relieved expressions.

“Since you weren’t listening, let me begin again. There’s been a change of plans.” They landed with a rough thump, almost dislodging her from her seat. The magnetic restraints kept her in place until a few seconds later, when everyone else already seated started moving.

“You saw the footage—you know that our great king requires medical attention. Unfortunately, he’s become possessed of… some rather absurd notions, and wishes for… someone else to perform the repairs, someone not associated with any order.” At that moment, one of the scribes in white robes sloughed off his pack, letting it down on the steel deck in front of her with a thump. He looked even more annoyed than Tesla.

“The royal maintenance program,” he said, offering a little glowing wafer. Sunset recognized it as one of the latest variety, the holographic disks that stored data permanently by etching glass. “I’m not happy about this, Tesla.”

“Neither am I,” he said, nodding towards her. “Go on, take them both. There is an adorable little zoo animal in pretend armor waiting outside to take you to the king’s temporary quarters. You will go there, and you will repair his body. I suggest you master what that crystal contains on the way.”

Sunset took the crystal first, flicking it over in her hands before hiding it away in a pocket. There was no need to plug it into any access ports—merely being in proximity was enough for her to sense its contents.

Her eyes widened as she realized what she was feeling—a space that dwarfed the one on her necklace. It was as big as Celestia’s whole school for gifted unicorns, filled to the brim with classes and machines and programs for fixing damaged bodies.

Sunset Shimmer had not previously understood how the Builders’ immortal bodies worked, but she soon would.

The one in white robes—whom she now recognized as a medic—cleared his throat in annoyance, hefting the pack in one hand. Not just a pack, but a field-surgical reassembly apparatus, precisely 110.3 kilos and equipped to take any body short of someone who’d been hit by a nuke and return them to working order.

Sunset took it in one hand, feeling the enormous strain. Her arm took it easily, but the sudden imbalance nearly made her fall over onto her face. Only Tesla catching her other arm with both of his prevented that. Instead of falling all the way, she fell so that her head was inches away from his.

The engineer held her in his vice-like fingers, and his voice came in over private radio. “Do not forget our conversations. While in Richard’s presence, your life hangs in the balance. Don’t think for one second he would spare you. Ask him about the way he punishes the digital smugglers if you don’t believe me.”

Then he helped her rise, and smiled a smile as friendly as any human could. “Go on then, Natasha. Our noble king needs you.”

Activity swirled outside the hexacopter—Sunset couldn’t possibly follow all of it, so she didn’t even try. Each group of people had their own false-color highlights, illuminating their roles and suggesting what parts of the ground she should avoid. As a result Sunset probably looked like an expert dancer, dodging out of the way of legionaries as they emerged with crates of gear, or stepping back just in time to avoid a stretcher with a soldier covered by white cloth resting on it.

With a shrug of her shoulders, Sunset pulled the pack into place. Her arms could lift its enormous weight on their own, but considering it weighed almost as much as her whole body, that weight would be better distributed.

Her own target lit up in gold, and not just because he was wearing bright gold Solar Guard armor. She stopped in front of him, grinning politely. “Spear Point! I think you’re supposed to take me to the king. You… are waiting for me, aren’t you?”

“They told you my name?” the guard asked, raising an eyebrow. He hadn’t taken off his helmet, and watched the activity around the helicopter with unveiled suspicion.

Horesefeathers. They hadn’t, obviously, but she knew him well. Living in the castle meant that she had plenty of time to get to know most of the regulars. “Yeah,” she lied lamely. “Sure did.” Then she stuck out her hand. “I’m, uh, Natasha. I’ll be the king’s doctor by the time we get upstairs.”

At least, she certainly hoped so. She was learning as quickly as she could, watching the lectures and mentally completing review problems. She was panting scorching hot air again, probably burning through her power supply. But just like the storage medium didn’t need to be wired for it to be in use, Sunset’s own body would remain charged so long as she stayed near Steel Tower machines. And she was learning why even as she spoke to him.

“You’re weird,” Spear Point said, staring up at her hand. It was much closer to his head level than it was to hoof level. By the time she realized that, he was already turning away. “But that’s none of my business. Come with me. Canterlot Castle can be confusing to newcomers, and that’s without the wreckage of an attack.”

She followed him into the west wing, stooping a little as they entered. But mostly that was for the pack high on her shoulders—Canterlot Castle was built to accommodate Alicorns, and she had no worries about being able to fit inside it.

As she had expected, the castle was on the edge of tearing itself apart. Soldiers ran up and down the halls, escorting diplomats and ushering work crews and trying to make sense of what had just happened. They passed a crowd of court supplicants, muttering in angry voices about the delay to their petitions to the crown.

But in some ways, it was exactly the castle she had left behind. Her return would not be quite as triumphant as she expected.

Would Celestia recognize me? Did she ask the builders about me? Part of her feared she would—but then some other part didn’t mind that so much. Maybe she wanted to be punished for what she’d done, so long as she could be a pony again at the end of it.

But she didn’t see any sign of any princesses during her walk. Just lots of diplomats, and ponies who stared at her as though she were a dragon herself.

Eventually they came to a door with a single human outside and a pair of pony guards. He stood at rigid attention, holding his rifle in both hands as though he were expecting an inspection. His body was bulkier than hers, made more so by the thick armor he wore under his cloak.

Stars and stones, I recognize him! She’d seen this knight once before, searching for his stolen sword. He looked older now, braver. His body was scorched in places, but he didn’t seem to care.

“Your king is inside,” said Spear Point. “As we agreed, this room has no windows, no other entrances. You will not be disturbed. His clothing is being repaired by the royal seamstress as we speak.”

“That’s… great,” Sunset muttered. “That’s real great, thank you Spear Point.” She walked past him, went for the door, but the armored knight blocked her.

“I know you,” he said, eyes narrowing. “What are you doing here, Sunset?”

Of course he does. Unlike ponies, Builders’ memories were perfect. He would remember her as clearly as she knew him. Sunset tensed briefly at the use of her name, something that Spear Point would certainly remember too—but he hadn’t reacted. He moved back against the wall, and if anything he looked bored.

He doesn’t speak English, stupid.

“I was sent as a… doctor?” She tapped her backpack with one hand, using English too. “Ask the king, ask Tesla. I’m the one they called.” For some reason. I only know as much as I figured out on the way up here.

Through that door was the ruler of all mankind—the one who had stolen Jackie’s life away. The one that had saved his species from extinction. He was more of a lion than a pony, a predator of the greatest danger. And if he discovered what Sunset had done to his people, she would be his next victim.

Sir Charles Gray shook his head, annoyed. But he stepped out of the way. “If you try to do anything to harm our king, you will be dead before you finish,” he said. “You have my word on it.”

“I’m a doctor,” she said again. “Well, I am now. Kinda? Look, I don’t want to be here either. I’m just doing what Tesla told me to.”

She reached for the handle again, but this time the knight didn’t stop her. She pushed it open, and stepped into the small room.

There was only a single candle inside, and a bed that wasn’t quite large enough for the one resting on it. This room looked like it might’ve been used to house a griffon, based on the scratching post and smell of meat eaten long ago. That smell didn’t bother her anymore, somehow.

A figure sat beside the candle, facing away from her in the gloom. Even across the room, she could see the terrible damage to his body. The skin of his arms had melted away in places, revealing the musculature beneath.

If you were organic, you would be begging for death with injuries like that. But for their bodies, pain was only another kind of information. It could be switched off, and would be whenever it got inconvenient.

“Are you the one I asked for?”

“Yeah,” Sunset squeaked. “I mean, I think so? Tesla sent me, and he didn’t seem happy about it. I’m not going to be as good a doctor as his.”

“That might be,” the king said. Then he turned around.

Sunset felt herself stiffen, as she was struck with the same impression she’d felt once before. She had seen the statue erected to honor this man, on the grounds of a school. But looking into his eyes—this man was to the other Builders like an Alicorn was to a pony.

His green eyes looked into hers, weighed down with the wisdom of terrible suffering. He was easily the largest human she’d ever seen, seven feet tall with arms thicker than her neck. His beard had been burned off in places, and the skin beneath had turned black.

“I saw what you did,” Sunset found herself saying. She set the pack down on the ground at her feet. Shut up shut up shut up. But just like with Princess Celestia, she couldn’t shut up. “When you fought alongside Celestia. You saved her life.”

He chuckled, resting one hand on the sword sitting next to him on the huge bed. Strange colors danced along its edges, like the flames of dragonfire frozen in place forever. Sunset had seen melted armor and swords in museums, relics of the last war with dragons. The king’s sword was only scorched. “I think we saved each other. Call it a cooperative effort.”

“Why?” Sunset Shimmer advanced on him, having to look up into his face even though he was sitting down. “You’re a predator. With the princess gone, you could’ve expanded your kingdom. You wouldn’t have had to hurt her, even. You would be innocent when you took Equestria for yourself.”

King Richard tensed visibly at her words, clutching one hand into a fist. “I suppose I did wonder if you were the one I asked for. That’s an effective demonstration, thank you.”

“Why?” she asked again, advancing on him. “Why didn’t you?”

King Richard reached to one side, lifting the sword, turning it over and running one melted finger along the blade. “Strength alone is not reason to act, Equestrian. There have been many with power over the years. Many act because they can, not because they should. Why do you think I rule mankind?”

She spluttered—none of her ideas of an answer seemed like wise things to say.

“Because I rule them best. I am the reason that humanity survives. It was my watchful eye that discovered the corruption in the UEF. I developed the technique that made mankind immune to unwitting corruption, to decay itself.”

He leaned towards her, eyes burning. “Tell me another man or woman could do what I have done.” A transmission appeared before her—and unlike the simple videos she’d been sending back and forth with Tesla’s scribes, this one didn’t wait for her approval. She was swallowed by a memory.

She saw a Builder city before the end of their world, spectacular glass skyscrapers and a sky full of flying vehicles. Green parks and avenues of trees, millions of people.

Then she saw something terrible appear in the central transit station, something her pony instincts recognized much better than her education among the Builders.

It was a hole in the universe, ripped by the worst outsiders dark magic could call. Tentacles of the abyss tore their way through a Builder train-station, turning everything they touched into mindless slaves or willing soldiers.

Then she saw Richard’s army, led by their armored king. They were immune to the Outsiders’ touch as only Alicorns could be, and they contained it. She watched the brutal siege in seconds, as thousands of the king’s men fought and died beside him. Until the sun rose on a scarred city, with streets filled with the dead. And the human authorizes locked King Richard in irons.

The vision ended, and Sunset was left with her mouth hanging open. She had no response to the king’s anger now.

That seemed to satisfy him. “Perhaps now you are wise enough to wonder: why wouldn’t I prefer to summon one of my skilled doctors? They would treat my wounds more effectively than you could. This is true.” He leaned close to her again. “But I can sense the corruption, Sunset Shimmer. My sensors suggest nothing, but my soul shudders. Tesla and I knew we had created a humanity immune to the Outsider’s unwitting influence. That does not mean they can’t give themselves willingly.”

“You know who I am,” she finally stammered. “Where I came from. You think I wouldn’t—”

“That’s right,” he said. “I think very highly of the Equestrians I have known. They wouldn’t have sold themselves to our enemies—no, not the dragons, not the goblins and the griffons. The ones who strangle joy and bring the night that never ends. Am I wrong?”

“No.” At least this time she didn’t have to think about it. “I wouldn’t do that. I’m not Princess Luna. I won’t ever be like her.”

Richard laughed again, apparently relaxing. “I wouldn’t say that too loudly. She’s just down the hall, I think. Marshaling the army.”

Before sunset could make more of a fool of herself, the king nodded towards her pack. “Perhaps we can continue this conversation after you treat me. I’ll be appearing beside Celestia in a few minutes, and I think Equestrians would be better off seeing a king that doesn’t look like he was just barbequed.”

She nodded hastily, and finally went to work. The pack opened at her touch, revealing all the tools she would need to complete her assigned task. She began to work, cutting away the damaged flesh and control circuits and replacing them one at a time. What would’ve been a struggle even for her unicorn magic her hands could do easily, as precise as any tools she’d ever seen in the hooves of the finest craftsponies.

“I don’t know what Tesla will have you do,” King Richard said, his voice unaffected by his position. “I could take you for myself, but that would spoil your usefulness. I don’t believe we will get another opportunity like this.”

“You’re the king,” she said, matter-of-factly. “Just throw whoever you think is bad into the dungeon.”

This time his laughter seemed genuinely amused. “Isn’t there still a class on legal theory for all our new converts?” He didn’t wait for her answer. “No, I can’t. Due process demands evidence for a crime. When you have a minute pull up a history database and search for the Magna Carta. I suppose Equestria may never have needed to limit the power of its monarchs, if you only ever had perfect, immortal rulers. Earth’s history is more… colorful.”

“Finished, um… Your Highness. At least, I think so. I’m new at this…”

He rolled over, staring up at her. “Humanity will not sacrifice its soul to survive, Sunset. Even against the Outsiders. We will survive because we refuse to do that. Our principles, our ethics will be why in a thousand years this war is just a memory, and we have spread to the distant stars.”

But if you do, where does that leave us?

“I have a feeling about you, Sunset Shimmer,” said King Richard, when the job was finished and she had put his broken body back together again. “I think you have sensed what troubles me, or you will soon. When you do, I want to know.” He reached into nowhere, removing an invisible sphere of data. A program, wrapped in a protocol so secure she’d seen it only once before. Around the knight’s digital sword.

He tossed it to her, and Sunset caught it in one hand.

“Do not run that program until you discover something you want me to know. It’s an exploit that’s been lurking in our mesh-relay subroutines since… god, I don’t even know. But the thing about a zero-day is that we only really get one use. Do not contact me in any other way—no petitions, no hints that you might be my eyes. Understand?”

Sunset Shimmer nodded, tucking the little program away into her necklace. It wasn’t very large—Twilight wouldn’t mind. It was the one place she could think of that would be so uninteresting to Tesla that he wouldn’t check.

She was no longer worried about Richard taking over Equestria. “I think I changed my mind about him, Twilight. I think he might be a good king.”