• 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 11: Message Authentication

“We repeat the Royal Decree—do not travel into or anywhere near Seaddle in the near future. The Western fleet is unable to protect civilian air travel into the cities anywhere near it. Any evacuating should attempt to secure transportation to the current refugee staging area, Ponyville. Please consult with your local constabulary if you require directions for evacuation.”

Jackie sat towards the back of the Motherlode miners in the Mudcap Saloon, listening to the quiet barking from the radio. It had a remarkably new look compared to everything else in the room—and she suspected she knew which pony had put it there.

The Equestrian radio technology looked a little dated, but it clearly got the job done. She could hear miners muttering to each other—about how the princess would deal with it, primarily. “Equestria can’t fall while Celestia leads us,” said an older stallion, the current owner of the mine. His name was Crabapple, and Jackie hadn’t met a single pony who hated her more. “She’s immortal, and perfectly wise. Maybe the ponies of Seaddle were losing loyalty to their princess. Some time subjugated to griffon masters will teach them to give her the respect she deserves.”

“Celestia protects,” a mare beside him entoned. Several of the others joined in, chanting like some religious ritual.

Bree slammed her empty mug down on the table in front of them, glowering at Jackie. She’d had that expression for the last two days, ever since True Silver had been convinced to leave. Jackie had half-expected her to try and knock her unconscious again, or worse. But she hadn’t done anything violent, not yet.

“You see why I wanted to protect them,” Bree said. “These people are… insane. They think they can pray to their political leaders and have them answer. They think they can’t lose a battle so long as they’re waving the right flag. They don’t even have weapons.

Frostline drank a little more carefully—though she had a shot of something, unlike the ale that Bree was drinking. Her coltfriend Sandstone had a cup of something else, and occasionally they would swap. So far Sandstone didn’t seem all bad. A little slow for Jackie’s taste, though she was mostly sour about not being able to pursue Frostline herself.

Not yet, anyway. Once I get a few repairs to this body, though… She should probably ask Sunset to tweak the libido on this thing while she was at it. The settings in the first generation needed some revision.

Jackie could’ve made her own field-alterations, but she hadn’t yet. So far, the frustration had just been more motivation to pursue a little harder. And she was afraid that if she tampered with any of it she’d see them as animals again, and feel gross for all the little fantasies she’d had in the last two weeks.

“You can’t save the world on your own, Spring. You’re not a princess, not one of the Elements of Harmony. Ponies like us don’t change things, we just stay out of trouble and survive.”

Bree laughed bitterly. “You say that now. But if you’d seen me before. I changed all of Equestria ten years ago. They’re still telling stories about it in Canterlot.”

“You can do better from Normandy,” Jackie said. She hoped she sounded neutral and polite as she said it. “You’ll have all your old resources, Spring. Manufacturing gear, specialists, teams of clerks…”

Bree’s voice got darker, and she answered in English. “I won’t do any good from the inside of a cell. That’s what’s waiting for me if I go back. You must know… you’re the warden, right? Here to arrest me for violating the king’s orders. You don’t have to be coy.”

“Weird,” Sandstone said. “What language is that?”

But Bree ignored him. Jackie did too. She used English herself—if Bree didn’t want to tell the others what she was saying, then Jackie wouldn’t make her hate her even more by going over her head. “I don’t know what you did wrong, and I don’t really care. You’ve already talked about all the bad stuff I did. If I’d come to arrest you, I could’ve brought more than one gun. You might’ve been armed for all we knew. Hell, I could’ve come with a dozen legionaries. This isn’t an arrest.”

Bree shook her head. “That just shows how little you know.” She got up, leaving her empty glass behind. She switched back to Equestrian. “I’m not thirsty. The rest of you have fun.” She stalked off, slamming the door open and smashing it closed again behind her. Jackie could practically hear her hooves stomping all the way back.”

“She’s even meaner than usual,” Sandstone said. “Why is she so upset? She barely leaves her house, why would she care about Motherlode?”

Frostline shook her head. “It’s not our place to judge. Spring was having a really hard time when she got here. Living in Motherlode… helped her put her life back together. The locals treated her better than they did me, or you Moire. It makes sense she wants to give back. But she can’t force her kindness on them. If they want to push us away, then… I’m glad we’re leaving. They’ll finally have the pure little town they wanted.”

“We’re not that bad,” Sandstone protested, his voice meek. “I’m glad you’re here, Frostline. And I haven’t been bad to Moire, have I?”

“No, but you’re the exception.” Frostline’s eyes narrowed. “How long did you have to hide our relationship from your parents?”

The colt’s silence seemed to be all the answer she needed.

“I’m going to go talk to her.” Frostline rose from the table, turning to go. “Don’t do anything stupid while I’m gone. Sandstone, Moire isn’t real, so don’t get any ideas.”

“W-what… does that even mean?” But Frostline didn’t answer, just stood up and hurried out the door after Bree.

“What does she mean?” Sandstone asked, staring at Jackie with renewed interest. “You’re… not real?”

“That’s one way to say it. She means I’m not organic, and she’s right. Don’t worry about it…” Jackie trailed off, her eyes losing focus as her vision highlighted with an incoming high-priority message.


She stood up, ignoring whatever Sandstone had just said, gesturing out the door. “We need to go. Right now.”

“Sure, uh… fine. Frostline, wait!” They hurried out the open door together, and only made it a few steps before they caught up with the pegasus. It wasn’t as though she’d been gone for very long.

“What is it?” Frostline asked, mostly looking to Sandstone. “Did they throw you out? That seems a little extreme, even for the Mudcap.”

“No.” Jackie gestured down the path. “We’re about to be attacked. Not next week, not even tomorrow. In the next few hours.”

“Really?” Frostline took off, hovering in the air beside her like a nervous bird. “I’m going to warn my mom. You… you can tell Silver Spring.”

“But how do you know?” Sandstone asked, frustration obvious in his voice. “You were listening to the same radio we were!”

“I did,” Jackie insisted. “You don’t have to listen to me. Go home if you want. But I would get to shelter if I were you. Put your family somewhere they won’t get hurt.”

“Should we warn the village?”

But Jackie was already galloping down the hill. Her body wasn’t as precise as it had been—a week of labor had been hard on plastic joints made for stealth service, not pulling a cart uphill twice a day. But she ran anyway, correcting as best she could. So long as she didn’t stumble off the cliff, she should be alright.

She caught up with Bree about halfway down, obviously not walking with any great hurry.

“Now what do you want?” Bree asked, glaring at Jackie.

She tried to ignore the bitterness. This was too important. “Motherlode is about to be attacked. The Order just messaged me—we have enemy ships moving here, about two hours out.”

“Enemy ships?” Bree looked up, as though she’d been jostled back into consciousness. “What kind? Dragons, mercenaries, changelings…”

“They didn’t tell me,” Jackie said, walking a few steps past her down the hill. “Your family has a safe room, right? We need to get that place stocked. I dunno how long we’ll have to hide.”

“Fuck hiding.” Bree sped up into a gallop of her own, skipping a few of the switchbacks with careful jumps right when they got closest. “I’m prepared for this. Motherlode will be fine.”

Jackie wasn’t sure how that could be, but she didn’t argue. She’d already done enough to upset the engineer. She did compose a message to Tesla. She wasn’t sure who else she could send it to, since the mission had apparently come from the top. He hadn’t said a word to her about it all this time. From the sound of things, that hadn’t changed now. It was only the automated systems that were different.

“I have located your missing engineer. Brigid has become a fully organic pony, she’s lost all her implants. She is reluctant to leave with me. An evacuation ship would make this much easier. Make sure any ship you send has room for at least five natives.”

She sent the message off, and honestly didn’t expect much of a response. But by the time they made it back to True Silver’s home, she got one anyway. It came wrapped in all the right certificates—Tesla had written it himself.

“Fleet deployed, no evacuation possible for at least two weeks, possibly longer. Will update.” And that was all. No snarkiness or judgement there—but then, what had she expected? She was working for the man. It shouldn’t matter that he had invented so much of the technology that ran her world.

So much for that. If Jackie wanted out of this mess, they would have to do it themselves.

She hadn’t been able to keep pace with Bree on the way down. As a result, she was already rolling up the hill away from the house by the time Jackie got there—tugging the massive brass AA-gun with her.

True Silver watched from the open workshop doors, but didn’t actually try to stop her.

Jackie settled in beside her, out of the way of the cart. “We should probably get to safety,” she said, more matter-of-factly than anything.

“After I set this up,” Bree said. “Maybe Motherlode’s population are too primitive to appreciate their defenses. But if there isn’t coverage over the center of town, then we’re vulnerable. They can leave it alone for a few hours.”

“I guess…” Jackie glanced back towards the house. “Does… True Silver know?”

“Nope.” Bree grinned at her, daring. “Why don’t you go back and tell her?”

She had to. And by the time she did… Bree would already be too far gone for her mom to stop. Not until she finished deploying the defenses, anyway.

“You don’t have to fight me,” Jackie muttered. “I’m trying to help you, stupid.”

Bree glared. “Then act like it.” She sped up, and even with her sturdy earth pony frame, she obviously struggled with each curve.

Jackie didn’t go help her, but darted back towards the workshop.

True Silver’s blacksmith shop was always clean and well kept. The forge was cold today, she was apparently working with hammer and anvil alone on a piece of dull metal, the hammer strapped to her hoof with an elaborate harness. She never used her horn—Jackie had never seen her levitate anything in the entire time she’d been there.

“What changed in Motherlode?” she asked, removing her foreleg from the harness and stepping back from her anvil. She wore only an apron, and her body dripped with sweat. She had to be the fittest unicorn Jackie had ever met, of either sex. “Spring seems pretty determined to get her little invention into town.”

“Nothing,” Jackie said. “I heard over the radio… Motherlode is about to be attacked. Probably in the next few hours. She wants to get her defenses ready before then.”

“Oh.” Silver stepped away from her anvil. “And she’s going all the way… I guess there’s time. Maybe you could help me get everything ready. You’ve told Frostline already, I expect.”

“Yes,” she said. “But I’m not sure how useful I can be. I brought a weapon, but I can’t defend this city. I’m just one pony, and I’ve never killed anyone before.”

“Fight… no, you misunderstand.” Silver gestured into the house. “Help me load up our safe room. There are some old cans in there, but… I don’t open it often to service. If I’m being honest, I half expected a mob to show up at our door over my ‘unholy magic.’ That meant nopony in town could see it.”

“Oh, sure.” Jackie followed her inside—through to the underground pantry. Silver pulled on a dented can on a top shelf, and an entire stone wall slid away. It was all mechanical pulleys and grinding gears.

The inside was dark, and True Silver walked past her, wearing a little gas miner’s lantern like those that many of the townspeople wore in Motherlode. She touched the flames to a few candles, illuminating a fairly large space. It was an entire basement floor cut from the stone, and looked quite a bit larger than the house upstairs.

“There was a mine here, a generation ago,” Silver explained. “Instead of just capping the whole thing off, I put a door in, and made some furniture for it whenever I had a little extra time.”

There were a few bunk beds against the stone wall, some simple tables and chairs. Lots of empty shelves. “Let’s start making trips to the kitchen. And… fill up some new water jugs from the well while we’re at it. What’s going to attack us?”

“Dunno,” Jackie answered, honestly. “But I bet they came south after Seaddle. I’m guessing that city has already fallen, or it will soon.”

She spent the next half hour or so rushing about the house, carrying everything True Silver directed her to bring to one of the empty shelves. It wasn’t exactly a luxury bunker, like those she’d heard about built right before the Great War. But it had space, and thanks to their forewarning it would have enough furniture for everyone. Not that I need much. I could hide in a closet for years if I needed to.

She could, but Bree couldn’t. If that pony died, then her mission was over. She’d never get her freedom then. This would all be for nothing. We don’t have to hide that long. The Nightbreeze will get here in five more days. People have lasted way longer than that in bunkers before.

“Well, that’s all the heavy stuff,” True Silver said, sweating from the effort of the bed they’d just carried in. Jackie had torn the fur on one of her forelegs, but it didn’t hurt. She was just a machine. “You should go and… find Spring. She was proud of how those machines don’t need her there to work. Remind her of that, and tell her she can wait out the fight here. You might… want to warn Motherlode there’s an attack coming, while you’re at it. Wait… nevermind. You’re a bat. They’ll probably accuse you of bringing the enemy here. Still might do that, by the way. Hopefully Spring’s defenses do what she thinks they do. We didn’t exactly test them first.”

“Do you think you’d have better luck? She’s your daughter, Silver. And she doesn’t like me very much anymore. I’m not sure if you noticed.”

“I noticed,” Silver said. “But I really do think you’ll have a better chance of convincing her. Being independent is very important for her. If I try and persuade her to do anything, she’ll do the opposite. I used to be able to force her when she got disagreeable—but she’s all grown up now. If you think you can force an earth pony to do anything, more power to you.”

“Probably not,” she admitted. “But if you think I have a better chance. I don’t want anything to happen to her because she was out protecting ponies who should’ve protected themselves.”

“You said we had two hours, right? We still have half that time left. I’ll come looking for you if you’re not back in thirty minutes. Bring her back before then.”

“I’ll try.” There was one thing Jackie needed to grab before she left—her rifle. The accelerator hadn’t seen much use since she arrived in Motherlode, and had just sat with her other belongings in the little spare room.

She slung it over her shoulder, then slipped out the back door, turning up towards Motherlode. It was already growing dark, many windows lit by only feeble lights. But even just a little moonlight was more than she needed—she could see perfectly so long as there was enough light for a night-vision camera.

At a glance, she could see that Bree had finished climbing the hill. She started to run, turning sharply around each and earning herself glares from the earth ponies.

“Sunset Shimmer are you there?”

The question took a few seconds. Eventually she earned her response. “You sound worried, Jackie. Is something wrong?”

She nodded, mostly by reflex. “I just got a message that I’m going to be attacked. I think Tesla put me into the automated system or something. I was hoping you might be able to get some more details for me.”

She was nearly halfway up the hill before she finally got a reply. “I don’t have permission to dig into things like that, but I asked a knight. The new captain of the guard told me that there’s a raider fleet of griffon mercenaries moving south from Seaddle. It looks like the city is basically taken now—overrun, with only a single pocket of resistance holding out. And I can tell you for myself how griffons behave in a war. They like to demoralize the enemy. Raid every town they can, kill a few, carry off a few—that way the ponies who live there won’t want to resist. They’ll probably try to do that to every town they pass along the way. You’re right in their path.”

“Could they be heading for Motherlode intentionally? Everypony here is always reminding me that we’re the only source of mithril.”

“I… guess,” Sunset answered. “Griffons don’t have much use for mithril, though. They don’t have the technique for working it. Only a few ponies in the whole world can. But I suppose… they might want to seize the mine. Make sure you all keep digging for them. Are you okay? You could head back if you don’t feel safe.”

She’d made a few new friends now, and it didn’t seem right to leave them for dead. Frostline had been nothing but kind, and even Sandstone was alright. True Silver had been as supportive as a pony could be.

“Not until my mission is over,” she sent back. “Bree thinks of herself like some kind of hero now. I’ve seen it before. But this isn’t the Realm. She’s trying to get herself shot.”

“Well don’t you get yourself shot. You can’t save everypony. Anyway, I’ve… got a thing. Let me know if there’s anything I can do for you.”

She’s got a thing, Jackie thought, turning it over in her head. Sunset Shimmer was making new friends too, it seemed like. She didn’t know why that made her so jealous. Her interest in Sunset had taken a steep dive the moment she’d been transmogrified into a pony.

But she couldn’t let that distract her. She focused on the center of town, and the crowd of ponies growing there. All staring at Bree. Great. Let’s see if I can stop this from going south.

Could she save an engineer against her will? Only one way to find out.

There was no visual sign in the Tower camp that anything had changed. If Sunset had lacked the senses to see beyond her body, she might not have known. Certainly the pony guards patrolling around the walls couldn’t know.

Sunset Shimmer lingered for a few more seconds, with all her AR settings disabled, looking at the plain camp with its slightly denser crowd of legionaries. Even then, she’d seen thicker patrols quite regularly. This could be like any other day.

“You should come over,” Twilight said. “They’ll be here any second. It would be weird if you’re as confused as everypony else. You’re showing them something you know and appreciate, aren’t you? Something you’ve seen your whole life. You’re not doing a very good job pretending.”

“I’m not trying to hide,” she admitted though her voice was for Twilight’s ears only. “Well, not very hard. If they figure it out, then good for them.”

“Good for them.” Twilight appeared behind her. Her outfit had changed—the dress was shorter, and the blouse no longer went all the way to her wrists. Sunset felt her cheeks getting warm, though she knew that was just an illusion. As fake as anything else about herself. Twilight settled one hand on her shoulder. “Not so great for you when Telsa realizes you’ve blown your cover. I can’t predict what he’ll do.”

“Nothing good.” Sunset Shimmer took a deep breath, settling one hand on a tent-pole. It was polished metal, same as all the others, and the whole tent shook slightly under her weight. “Fine, fine. A quick look. I kinda wanted to enjoy it with them, though.”

She made the switch, bridging from a neutral layer to the full Remembrance overlay.

The camp was transformed. Any trace of the other side was gone—the divider not far away became a precipitous cliff, with a gorgeous view over the ocean far below. The tents had transformed to something she could’ve seen in old-town Canterlot, with fancy wooden fences and stone side walls with wooden accents. Sounds and smells and voices dominated, with lights seeming to funnel her deeper, towards a palace of tents and stone in the distance. The king’s quarters, along with his knights. I wonder if I’ll see Brad tonight.

“You’ve been missing out.” Beside her, Twilight Sparkle was stained with the multicolored torches that lit the rest of the campsite, along with the impossible sky overhead. Even Princess Luna in her days of glory could not create such a show—an array of galaxies paraded overhead, with shooting stars and many moons and even stranger things if she kept looking.

“So… you can see all this?” Sunset asked, clutching briefly at the necklace that was Twilight’s home. With Twilight so active, it became uncomfortably hot to the touch, or probably would’ve been if she was organic. “Even though you’re banished?”

“It’s a festival,” Twilight said. “Every citizen is entitled to see it, regardless of their criminal record or their threat to the Tower. I… can’t interact with it, though.” She reached out longingly for a distant food cart, rolling by. “I can smell those churros, but not taste them.”

“I’ll eat some for you later,” Sunset promised. “Then you can borrow my memories.”

But there was no time to continue that conversation. Her vision had just lit up with a message, sent by the exterior guards. “The two pony guests you have been expecting have arrived. Would you like us to escort them to you?”

“No,” she sent back. “There is a tent prepared for them in the engineering subsection. Meet me there.”

Sunset switched herself back over to reality, and felt immediate relief as the world returned to normal around her. The dark sky overhead was just a sky, without any impossible shapes dancing in it. No starships, no many planets, no towering buildings that were both historical and not.

“Do you think… when this war is over, do you think they’ll let me be a citizen again? Instead of… trapped in here? Not that I don’t enjoy serving you, princess. But I would like to do other things sometimes. Like attending the festival when you don’t want to.”

“Sure,” Sunset said, gesturing with one hand and summoning the line that would guide her to her target. She could’ve waited in that tent, but that would’ve made it look like she didn’t have other things to do.

She didn’t have other things to do—Tesla’s endless meetings were winding down. She’d explained almost every aspect of pony society multiple times now. Mostly she was on call for random questions, which might come from anyone in camp. They wouldn’t know she was answering—but when someone wanted to know what ponies used instead of leather, or how large an average town could be expected to be, she would type out the reply and send it off.

She’d even answered a few military questions. It was more than clear to her by now that the Tower wasn’t here to invade. King Richard would never allow it.

She reached the tent quickly, but not so quickly that she couldn’t already hear Starlight’s voice from inside. “I think we’re going to wait until Natasha gets here,” she said. “No offence to you, Mr…”

“Xavier,” he said. “And wait no longer, she’s just come in through there.”

Sunset slipped inside, and was unsurprised by the ponies she saw there.

Starlight and the guard captain, Amber. Not Trixie, who she still thought would’ve appreciated the festival a little more. But then again, maybe not. Our magic is more impressive than hers.

The tent itself was one normally used for sleeping, but on account of the festival it hadn’t been hard to get some space. Not one body would be tucked away recharging on a night like this.

The pods looked a little like chairs, but chairs that could fully enclose around a pony body, with attachments to cover the face and hooves at various points. She could see why her visitors were intimidated—once inside, it looked like they’d be completely trapped.

“Natasha.” Starlight turned, nodding politely to her. “This thing is… not what I was expecting. I thought you said it wouldn’t be terrifying.”

“I did,” she said. “And… it’s not.” She walked up past her, over to the chair. “Twilight, get me the specs on this thing.” And she had them by the time she was standing beside it.

“You know about the way our own people work. Your description of ‘scooping out brains’ is pretty gross, but not the most inaccurate way to put it. This doesn’t do any of that. You sit down here, then it connects to you non-invasively.”

“Morpheus chairs are light as a feather,” Xavier said, slapping the plastic side with one callused hand. “I remember using one in VR arcade when I was a kid. Doesn’t even use any needles. Good thing too, I was terrified of needles back then. Doctors are the worst, you feel me?”

For an engineer, he had a casual way of talking with their pony visitors. And it seemed to be working.

“Yeah,” Amber said, approaching one of them and poking it with one hoof. None of its parts lurched out to grab her—and they wouldn’t. It had to be put on manually. “I don’t see any danger here, Starlight. You said humans lack magic, yes? If something goes wrong, you could just teleport us out of here.”

“I could,” Starlight said. “So long as they’re telling the truth about not having any needles.”

Sunset rolled her eyes. “Starlight Glimmer—when have we ever lied to you? What harm have we done to Equestria in the last two weeks?”

She had no answer to that. Sunset pressed on. “You really think we’re going to declare war against Equestria by attacking a few ponies visiting for a festival? These things are sacred to the Tower. There are all sorts of rules about requiring everyone to attend, even prisoners and children. It’s a great honor to let you attend.”

“Alright, alright.” Starlight put out one hoof, defeated. “You’re right, it doesn’t make sense. I think all this talk of the invasion is making me paranoid. The army is out somewhere at the second front, and here we are having a festival.”

“The Remembrance,” Xavier said, his voice low and reverent. “It’s not as frivolous as it sounds. We celebrate this day because it’s the last time we’re going to be together. We’re immortal, ponies. Many of us have been together for subjective centuries, or longer. But for all that, we know we will not all come back from war. So we remember our lives together one last time, and pray to God to guard us until we return.”

“I see.” Amber stared at him, doing nothing to conceal her fascination.

Starlight still looked unconvinced, but she climbed into the seat anyway. “So… how does this thing work? You switch it on, and it lets you bring us to your world?”

“Yes,” Sunset said. “That’s the simple way. You’ll be able to see and hear everything we can. But it doesn’t work for taste, or… anything but simple touch.” No need to go into detail there. Jackie probably would have, but she was fortunate that the mare wasn’t here. “It’s almost instant. Once we get it on you, the thing closes, then… bam. The hardware will orient you, that takes a few minutes. Then you’ll meet me at the festival.”

She and Xavier helped Amber and Starlight get into the machinery—a simple enough process, since they weren’t resisting. She had Twilight to coach her through the whole process, even though it was clear the machines hadn’t been designed for ponies originally. They didn’t fit as well as the documents said they should.

“Alright,” Sunset said. “Just don’t try to leave without telling the computer first. You’re not a prisoner, but it won’t know you want out unless you say so. Just ask and it will let you go.”

“Great,” Starlight said. “Just what I like hearing before a party. ‘You’re not a prisoner.’”

They couldn’t see her anymore. As the lids closed over their pods, they wouldn’t be able to hear either.

“Thanks for sticking around to help,” Sunset said, lowering her head respectfully to Xavier. “You’ve really gone above and beyond for this one.”

He grinned back. “For Sir Bradley? I’d move any mountain. And he likes you, so I assume he must know something I don’t. Nothing should go wrong, but I’ll use the charging pod here in case something does. You might want to stick around too. Even if it isn’t as immersive as overlapping all the different layers of reality.”

“Yeah.” Sunset walked into the charging pod across the way. No fancy hookups here, just two cables. She felt a brief release of pressure, then nothing.