• 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 10: Reciprocation

Sunset Shimmer wondered quietly to herself where all the ponies who weren’t on duty this shift had gone to leave their barracks so empty. Regardless of how the showpony had done it, the space was more than large enough for their small group—maybe a dozen ponies and a handful of humans.

Sunset Shimmer ignored the refreshments but enjoyed making herself available for small talk with Trixie’s stagehands. They were an interesting group—a pair of young unicorn stallions she’d apparently picked up as fans when they were younger. Now they got to help produce the show they’d enjoyed as kids.

“We’re not supposed to tell you how the tricks work,” said Snips, the shorter of the two. “But during the teleport bit at the end—”

“You’re not supposed to tell her,” Snails, the taller, hissed under his breath.

“She’s not going to tell anyone! Will you, Natasha? Humans don’t even like magic tricks.”

“If humans didn’t like magic tricks, why did they all come to the show?”

“Oh.” Snips looked away. “Yeah, I guess I shouldn’t say. Sorry Miss Natasha.”

Sunset only laughed. “It’s fine. I think a show like yours is best enjoyed with the mystery intact. It’s more interesting to try and figure out how Trixie did it. Without much magic, I noticed. That’s an unusual style for a unicorn.”

But as enjoyable as it might’ve been to make random conversation with the ponies who made Trixie’s performance possible, there wasn’t much to be learned there. What Sunset really wanted was to spend more time around the one called Alexi Colven.

There was plenty of opportunity—whatever the differences between the two of them, the ponies didn’t seem to notice. They generally stuck to their own groups, leaving the little pocket of humans on their own for Trixie or Starlight to entertain.

“I heard something interesting today, Alexi,” Trixie said. “From Lyra… I guess you two are friends or whatever.”

“You could say that,” the admiral said. “I think she’s closer to my son than to me. But certainly, we’re friends.”

Trixie barely even seemed to hear her. “I heard that you grew up on the moon. That your family still lives there. Is that true?”

Obviously not. There’s no magic out of the atmosphere, nothing could survive.

But Sunset kept quiet, and that was probably the wise choice. “I grew up on Earth,” Alexi said. “I was thirteen when… I moved. And it was right into a young cadets’ program, not exactly ‘growing up.’ That was my sister more than me—you should talk to Kim—Second Chance, I mean. Talk to her if you want to know what it’s like to grow up there.”

“That just doesn’t make sense.” Trixie sipped from her glass—which was probably something strong judging by her tone of voice, and her decreasing tact. “If you were Natasha, maybe it would. She’s a machine, right Natasha?” She didn’t wait for Sunset to answer. “But you’re alive! I can feel it.” She touched the side of her horn. “Maybe not like Starlight. She’s told me all kinds of things about how magic interacts with humans. But it does interact with you, doesn’t it? You’re like… griffons or minotaurs or yaks. Smart, but not very magical. They need magic to live, and you should too.”

“We don’t,” Alexi said, looking over at Sunset like she expected her to explain. But Sunset had no idea what they were talking about.

Trixie was right—all life required magic to exist. There had been experiments around the turn of the century, teleporting plants and such up into space. Even protected from the harsh vacuum, they all died. It was assumed that the effect on animals, let alone ponies, would be even more pronounced.

“Until we met you, humans didn’t even know magic existed. The tachyons that make it possible are extremely rare in our home universe—almost undetectable. But not quite, because they’re the primary agents in opening a Hawking rift.” She glanced to the side. “You’re a scientist, aren’t you Natasha? Maybe you can explain. I know the Tower borrowed some of our work with the Einstein-Rosen bridge.”

There was something political there—but nothing that made it sound like she didn’t think Sunset was a person. Sunset’s thoughts accelerated, and she glanced desperately over her shoulder. “Twilight? Can you help?”

“Looking it up right now,” she said. Twilight had given up her tablet computer for mountains of books—they were really the same thing, but she said she liked the feel of paper better. The effect of half a library just appearing wherever she happened to be never failed to make Sunset smile.

“Yes, here it is. Life on Equus requires ‘magic’ for almost all its essential functions. It’s like oxygen to you. But life on the Earth side doesn’t depend on it. I’ve got one paper here speculating that exposure to any amount of the stuff might have ‘long-term mutagenic effects’, but it was so expensive to produce that that was never seen as a risk.”

“Humans don’t need magic,” Sunset said simply, nodding to Trixie. “Equus and Earth took different—”

“Evolutionary paths,” Twilight supplied, helpfully.

“Evolutionary paths,” she repeated. “There was so little of it over there we learned to live without it.” And I almost died from it when I got there. Sunset still remembered those first few hours, wandering desperately through a gray wasteland. It felt like the worst possible dream—without any magic, her mind slowly slipping. It was a small miracle the Tower had found her in time.

“Twilight has been looking into it,” Starlight said, settling down on the couch beside Sunset. There was barely room for the two of them, even though the sofa could probably seat four. It was a good thing Sunset’s body wasn’t that heavy, or it might’ve buckled under the weight. “What magic is doing to humans, I mean.”

“Well of course she would.” Trixie got up. “She never knew to leave well enough alone, did she? If they learn magic, how will we put on shows anymore?” She wandered off in a huff.

“The same way, I expect,” Sunset muttered, as soon as she was out of earshot. “Doing so much without magic is almost more impressive.”

“I’ll tell her you said so,” Starlight said. “And I’m sorry if she’s a bit… disagreeable. I think she’s had a few too many glasses of cider. Somepony should cut her off.”

“Has Princess Twilight learned anything about…” Alexi hesitated. “Human interaction with magic? That sounds like a fascinating subject.”

“Not humans.” Starlight seemed to relax, though maybe she was just happier to talk about a subject that wasn’t connected to her increasingly-drunk friend. “We haven’t been experimenting on anyone. But the Federation people brought over vats of algae, and they didn’t mind giving us some. Studying it has been… interesting.”

“Really?” Alexi asked.

“Yes.” Starlight didn’t need much to get her going. “I’m not a biologist, but the ponies who looked it over…” and in a few sentences she’d completely lost Sunset’s attention. Probably she had something interesting to say about the growth of cells being regulated while within the magical field, and increased yields, and increasingly obscure terms for things she didn’t understand.

“Is that making any sense to you?” she asked Twilight.

“Not really,” her digital friend answered. “I could look it up, but I think that’s further than we need to go. There’s a war on.”

But Sunset listened politely anyway, until even Starlight had drifted away, and she finally had a moment alone with Alexi.

“Your sister is a pony, isn’t she?” Sunset asked, as casually as she could. “What is that like? Having family who aren’t the same species anymore… must feel weird.”

Alexi laughed. “It was weirder the first time I saw her. Honestly, the difference in age caught me a little more off-guard. You expect your own sister to always be the same age, you know? Once she gets dosed… that’s supposed to be it.”

“Uh…” What the hell is she talking about now? “Oh, because I’m from the Tower. Yeah, I… I guess we don’t age.”

Alexi blinked. “I guess you don’t, but… nevermind. I wish I could’ve seen her a little more. But this war… it doesn’t give us what we want. She has to go fly off and help ponies somewhere, because they’re all she cares about now. Nevermind that we’ve been searching all this time for somewhere to live without radiation. It’s right here, but… off she goes.”

“Yeah.” Sunset looked away. “That sounds like it would be hard. Being stuck in this stupid camp, basically doing nothing, while everypony else is out there saving the day. Having to depend on them to save you, when you know you could save yourself just fine.”

“Everypony,” Alexi said, in English. “That’s cute. I don’t know if I could get away with that one. Maybe I’ll try at a staff meeting and see if anyone calls me on it. Speaking of which…” She rose, lifting one hand in a polite salute. “I think I’m going to get going. There are a few things I need to get done before bed, and some of us need sleep. We can’t all run on nuclear fuel.”

“I just have a battery,” Sunset said honestly. “We don’t all run on nuclear fuel either.”

Alexi laughed. “Well, good talking to you, Natasha. Hopefully that’s all we do once we finish saving Equestria. I rather like it here—I’d like it if we didn’t fuck up this planet quite so badly as our last one.” Then she left.

Sunset didn’t linger too much longer. There was only one thing she had left to do: find Starlight. “Hey,” she said, nudging her gently from one side. “I don’t mean to bother you…”

Starlight was basically hiding in the corner of the room and hadn’t spoken to anyone else in the last few minutes that Sunset had seen. She was emotionally exhausted, apparently. “I’m not bothered!” She sat up, her eyes narrowing a little once she saw who it was. “What are you going to trick me with now?”

Sunset didn’t know what to say to that—so she ignored it. “Tomorrow might be a good day for a tour of our camp, if you still wanted it. Equipment is all done, and there’s a festival scheduled. Apparently most of the legionaries are going to be deployed, so they’re going to send everyone off. You could see Tower humans the way they see themselves.”

“The way they see themselves,” she repeated. “That sounds interesting. I… I might invite Amber Sands too, if that’s alright with you. Do you have three headsets?”

“Well… well no,” she admitted. “It’s more than headsets, as it turns out. “There’s this whole… chair, basically. Makes you think you’re really moving, lets you walk around and explore the Realm as though you were one of us, but then you can get up and leave no problem. They’re kind of a pain to set up, so they only made…”

“Well, that’s no problem.” Starlight lowered her voice to a whisper. “I don’t think Trixie is going to be coming. I’ve seen her when she drinks this much… she’ll be too hungover. But I’ll come, and Amber should be there, and… we’ll have a great time!”

“Sure.” Sunset nodded. It was a little disappointing not to have the showpony. She still didn’t know why Starlight would want the captain of the guard. “Festival starts in the afternoon. Maybe one o’clock Ponyville time? I’ll wait for you near the gate.”

“It will be good to have something to celebrate,” Starlight said. “After today… well, we’ll see you then.”

Sunset wandered from the tent a few minutes later, crossing back to the Tower side of Normandy as soon as she could.

“So… what did you think about ‘real’ humans?” Twilight asked. “Not as bad as you thought?”

“That one… wasn’t,” Sunset admitted. “But I don’t know if she was more peaceful. I think they’re all predators. She was just… a kinder predator, who cared about her family.”

“That doesn’t sound like much of a predator.”

Sunset stopped, glaring at Twilight. She’d appeared perched atop a pile of books, just beside one of the plain tents. Sunset hadn’t been able to stand any of the more colorful skins for Normandy itself, not all the time. It was sensory overload.

“Well, I was one of them once, wasn’t I? Before you… reconstructed my mind.”

Sunset took a step closer, lowering her voice. She wasn’t worried anyone would be watching her. The guards would leave her alone, and she wasn’t speaking out-loud. Copresence would make sure of that. “You remember something? About who you were?”

“No,” Twilight admitted. “But I don’t want to. I like who I am now. If I went back to what I was before… I might be a ghost again. Not… caring about the world around me. No friends, no purpose. I like working with you.”

“I like working with you too, Twilight.” Sunset wrapped her arms around her in a tight hug—and she felt real. It was a good thing the copresence program could keep her real body from moving, or else she’d probably look like an idiot.

“But I don’t think it has to be black or white. If you want to learn about your old self… the Tower probably has records. They scan everything. They probably know who you were. I could look into it for you, if you want. So, you won’t have to see.”

“Well…” Twilight let go of her, then faded away. Only her voice remained. “Let me think about it. We have bigger problems right now.”

“They’re not going to let you set this up, sweetheart.” Jackie could hear True Silver’s voice even as she approached, and she listened carefully.

“It’s the least invasive deployment I’ve built,” Bree said, gesturing to a massive object on the ground in front of her. It had been wheeled out of the barn on a low cart, and even at a distance Jackie couldn’t have said what it was. Mostly brass and steel, with intricate gears and springs and rotating pendulums. But there were a series of long, hollow rods near the surface, clustered close together in what was unmistakably a weapon of some kind.

“They can just cover it up with a tarp and pretend it isn’t there. Nopony minds the other ones… this one isn’t any different, and it’s less than half the size.”

“Except you want this one in town’s square.” True Silver rested one hoof gently on Bree’s shoulder, but she was also aware enough to notice Jackie’s approach.

“Moire! I see you have the supplies I asked for. No trouble at the general store?”

“Not this time,” she agreed, her voice dark. “But it’s all here.”

“Good, good.” True Silver gestured past her, towards her own open workshop. White smoke rose from inside, which meant she’d been in the middle of work when… whatever this was… had started. “Just get that settled, and I’ll be done with you for the day.”

Jackie nodded, walking off towards the open workshop. But she was still listening carefully. This was one aspect of her life here that Bree had been unwilling to speak about. Jackie guessed it was part of the reason she wasn’t willing to leave Motherlode. Maybe now she would find out.

“The invasion has already started,” Bree said, and from the sound of metal grinding together she was probably adjusting the machine somehow. “If Motherlode thinks it won’t be one of the first places raided, it’s insane.”

“I agree with you,” True Silver said. “That’s why we have a panic room. Whatever happens… we’ll be safe. And Frostline’s family too. You’re always up there… you’ll give us plenty of warning, won’t you?”

“Yeah,” Frostline said. “We’ve been keeping an eye on things. But there hasn’t been anything to see yet. Just some smoke from the north, and… whatever’s going on up there.”

“We can’t protect them against their will,” Silver said, her voice gentle. Jackie didn’t hear the rest of it as she wheeled the cart into her workshop, settling it into place and unloading the ingots of raw materials into their designated places.

By the time she emerged, the complex little block of machinery had expanded into something like a little turret. It had settled legs onto the ground around it, sinking them into the earth, with a spinning head of four barrels that rotated around in lazy circles, pointing up at the sky.

What the heck is powering that? Jackie stared openly at what she realized now had to be an anti-aircraft gun, which lacked any kind of controls for an operator.

“Look, it isn’t that scary, is it Frostline? It’s just… one machine. It’s all internal, so there’s nothing for anypony to freak out about. How much smaller do they want?”

“I think they want things exactly the way they know,” Frostline said. “Your mom is right. This thing is new. Ponies don’t like new, Motherlode ponies least of all. You’re an earth pony, you don’t understand that as well. But the rest of us know pretty well, don’t we? Don’t you, Moire?”

Jackie stopped walking just beside them, eager for a closer look at Bree’s machine. Her engineering talents didn’t seem to have taken much of a hit by becoming organic. Is that another bit of evidence that she still has a soul? Or maybe that’s her special talent. Ponies talked about that a lot, but even Sunset’s explanations had been pretty vague. At one moment it sounded like she was talking about puberty, but the next not at all.

“I don’t think you can set up a gun in the center of town without someone trashing it,” she said. “I’m pretty sure if I tried to sleep in the center of town someone would try to roll me off the mountain.”

Bree made several unsatisfied sounds, shaking her head. “You’re underestimating them, you all are. They want to survive this war as much as anyone. They’ll… they’ll appreciate us once the first attack comes this way, and we survive it.”

“They probably will,” Silver agreed. “But for that to happen, we need to make sure they don’t try to hurt anyone. A big, spinning machine… they’ll ruin it. Unless you think it can help protect Motherlode in lots of little pieces.”

“No.” Bree slumped down, ears flattening. She looked away. “It can’t. I guess you’re right. We’ll… just have to keep it here. Maybe we can fly it into town at the first sign of trouble. Hopefully we can get there fast. If we don’t have full coverage, we might as well not have defenses at all.”

“There’s another way.” Jackie realized she was probably going too far—that little voice in the back of her mind warning her to shut up was screaming now. But she’d already started, and they were all looking at her. “If Motherlode doesn’t want to be safe… you could come with me. All of you.” She flicked her tail back towards the dock, way up the hill.

“In a week’s time, the ship I came on is due to come back. I’m bound for Normandy—that’s the human center of things in Equestria right now. The safest place you could possibly be. I’m sure they’d be willing to take you there. I know they’d take your worries about safety seriously, Silver Spring. And not judge you or your family for being pegasus, Frostline.”

There was a few seconds of silence, except for the steady clicking of the turret every time it came back around.

It was True Silver who spoke first. “Do you know something we don’t, Moire? I thought you were an engineer, not… not with the Guard.”

“She doesn’t,” Bree said, apparently recovering. “She doesn’t know anything about it. She’s just afraid of living on the frontier. You know how I was…”

But Bree wasn’t making a convincing case. “I do,” Jackie said. I’m not going to get another chance. If the engineer won’t come with me, I’ll have to force her. For her own good. And Jackie’s own, though she wouldn’t admit it.

“Look, I’m probably not supposed to tell you any of this, but Bree and Frostline already know.” She glanced up the hill, making sure none of the locals were watching. They weren’t.

“We shouldn’t listen to her, Mom!” Bree interrupted, reaching for Jackie. To her mother it would probably look like she was just pushing her back—but she was going for the neck. There was a mechanical override there, one that could shut down a prosthetic for servicing.

But she’d already done that once. Jackie reacted instantly, opening her wings so fast that Bree stumbled backward, unable to reach. There was a slight crack from one of her wings, as one of the supports gave under the unexpected force. But there was only a little pain—like the soreness from a long workout. It would only be strong enough to remind her that her body needed repair. She could shut it off later.

“I’m human myself,” Jackie said. She bent down, and popped off one of her forelegs. “Don’t worry, it doesn’t hurt. I’m… mechanical. My whole body is. That’s how I can do as much work as an earth pony—why I don’t eat much, don’t need to sleep. I was sent from Normandy.”

True Silver stared at the empty socket, occasionally glancing down to the fallen limb on the ground in front of them. Her mouth opened and closed several times, but no words came out.

“I saw the day she got here,” Frostline supplied. “I didn’t really know what it meant. I thought maybe you had the best fake limb ever. Like… the best peg leg.”

“I do,” Jackie said, picking up the limb and letting it snap into place. She was still watching Bree, ready for her to strike—but the teenager’s expression had gone dark, cold. Hopeless. “My whole body is a peg leg. It’s called a full prosthetic. Bree here used to have one too. I’m not… sure what changed that. I guess Equestria did.”

“We shouldn’t talk about this out here,” True Silver said, finally recovering. “Ponies would overhear. Let’s get your device back into the lab, sweetheart. We don’t want any accidents happening to it while we’re not here to keep an eye out.”

Bree nodded, though her expression had become unreadable. She glared at Jackie with anger so hot it practically melted the brass of her gun, then turned away and started pushing it.

Another minute or so later and they were all inside Bree’s lab, with the door securely closed and the blinds drawn across the windows. There was plenty of electric light to keep the barn lit, but that was it.

“So explain exactly what you mean, Moire. You want all of us to… leave Motherlode, is that right?”

Jackie nodded. It wasn’t just True Silver who was attentive to her now. Frostline was listening just as carefully, her wings constantly twitching and adjusting. “There’s an airship coming back here in another week’s time, the Nightbreeze. It brought me here—and I’m sure it would take all of you back with me. The captain was… reasonable.”

“But there’s no reason for us to leave!” Bree exclaimed, her voice on the edge of fury. Her mane seemed to lift into the air a little around her, though that was probably the humidity. “I know what she’s gonna say, Mom! She’s been trying to convince me all week. But she’s wrong about saying Normandy is safest. Motherlode is far, far away from important targets. We’re so high up in the mountains that no army can get here, only airships. The griffons have those, but we’re prepared.”

She smacked one hoof against the brass launcher. “We’ll blow them out of the sky, and they won’t make the mistake of sending a second fleet. We just aren’t worth it. You don’t attack an enemy when you stand nothing to gain. They’ll think Equestria reinforced a worthless target and move on.”

Jackie shook her head. “I’m more worried about the opposite. Seaddle was attacked today. I don’t know what happened there—whether we won, or lost, or whatever. But I’ll let you know. I can get updates from the war effort back in Normandy.” She walked over to the wall, settling down beside the radio platform there. Bree hadn’t repaired it yet, though she’d opened up the assembly and tinkered with it a few times. Large parts of the wooden case were still charred from the last fire.

“What I don’t understand is: why do you care?” Frostline asked. “Spring is the one you came for, and I guess the rest of us are afterthoughts. Why, though? She’s really smart, I guess that. But there are smart ponies all over Equestria. You could’ve gone anywhere to find those.”

Jackie wasn’t really watching her face, though. True Silver showed none of that confusion. There was resolve on her face, getting stronger each time she glanced at Bree.

“I think True Silver knows,” Jackie said. “And Silver Spring too. I’m not surprised they didn’t tell you. It’s not my place to tell you either. But… Silver Spring called for me, with this.” She smacked it with a hoof. “Maybe she didn’t realize who would come when she called, but here I am.”

“A hacker and a con artist,” Bree interrupted. “Fermenting petty rebellions and building cheap exploits for sale on the gray market.”

“I don’t think that’s fair,” Silver interrupted. “Con artist? Moire has worked hard ever since she got into our home. Look at that cart. She pulled it, so you could focus on your work.”

“No. She pulled it so I would give in to what she wanted and come with her. I knew her in my life before, even if she never knew me. I always knew she would get herself into trouble deep enough that she would attract real attention. I’m guessing she was sent on this whole mission because she finally got caught, and prosecuted.”

Bree’s words only confused Frostline more, who looked between the two of them as though she thought she was going crazy. But Silver ignored her.

“Well… you have your cutie mark now,” Silver said. “So I can’t force you. But I agree with Moire. The earth ponies of Motherlode have been resisting everything we’ve ever done here. Now that there’s a war on… look, I have family in the Crystal Empire. My dad’s side… they’re jerks. I’ve never felt less welcome in any house in my life. But their manor will be safer than living here. Maybe Frostline and Cirrus can find somewhere that will appreciate their hard work a little more.”

“One more week,” Jackie said. “That’s when we would need to be ready. And we shouldn’t spread around that we’re planning it, or else we might attract the wrong sort of attention from the ponies here. The Nightbreeze can’t evacuate everyone.”

Bree glared around at them all, though mostly her anger seemed focused on her mom. Then she turned, and stormed out of the lab. Jackie heard the house door slam another second later.

“She’ll come, don’t worry,” Silver said. “I’ve known Spring for almost a decade now. She gets very attached to her projects, and frustrated when she can’t control every aspect. After all the time she invested in her defenses, not seeing them used is going to be hard on her.”

“I’ll talk to my mom,” Frostline said. “And… well, there’s a stallion in town. Maybe he’d run away too. We’ve always talked about it. A war is… the best time for something like that. A new start like in the stories.”

“Sure,” Jackie agreed, though at this point she had no idea what they were going to do to pay for all these tickets. I hope you’re as rich as everyone thinks, True Silver. Because I only bought two. “Just don’t let the rest of the town know. I know they’ll be thrilled to see me leaving. But the rest of you… probably not. Even if they’d never admit it.”

“I’ll talk to Spring,” True Silver said, turning to go. “Thanks for sharing all this with me, Moire. We appreciate your trust.” She left.