• 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 12: Interception

It would take Sunset’s organic guests a little more time to get coordinated than the near-instantaneous hookup she’d used to step into the realm. She moved immediately to the fastest-computation track, which her timer indicated gave her twenty-one subjective hours until her friends arrived.

Twilight Sparkle appeared beside her in a flash of light, frowning slightly. “Something’s bothering you,” she said. “Did something go wrong with the ponies you were bringing?”

“Not… exactly,” Sunset began. “It happened last night. Trixie not going, Amber Sands instead. I can’t think of any reason Starlight might bring the captain of the guard except if she thought I was some kind of security threat. Doesn’t it seem odd?”

“I… guess so.” Twilight shrugged. “What are they going to do to us in here? This is the realm. We’re immortal, aren’t we? Our minds are… well, they’re still stored in that charging pod. But that means we’re safe. They could kill us in here and nothing would happen. And they won’t, because ponies aren’t like that.”

No, they’re worse. They rewrite thousands of minds to change them into their teenage army, and shape the rest into processors they name after an Element of Harmony.

But she didn’t say that out loud, there were more important things to do. She needed to understand this festival a little better if she didn’t want to look like she was as new to it as they would be.

Sunset set her GIO to twenty-one hours, then set off down the lane. She felt something warm touch her skin, and was only slightly surprised to see Twilight holding her hand.

The girl blushed a little, avoiding her eyes. But she still spoke boldly enough. “It’s… normal to take a companion to the festival,” she said. “Don’t you—course you don’t.”

“I thought you didn’t either.” Sunset felt a grin spreading across her lips. She didn’t actually pull away from Twilight. “Maybe that’s not the only thing!” She took off running.

The tent city looked like something out of Equestria’s past now, only a better, fictionalized version. Massive buildings, thatched roofs, shining torches. The streets were so packed with people that she had to dodge and weave between them, taking in their differently colored robes. If anyone paused long enough to look at her, they would see the clasps around her own and back away, nodding politely.

She stopped in front of a set of stalls, where artists wove together bracelets and other jewelry out of colored string and gemstones. Hey, humans do use gems. But that wasn’t what interested her about it. “What are they doing, Twilight?” She knocked the book out of her hand before she could lift it towards her face. “No, don’t read about it! Just think! Maybe there’s something in there, something you’d remember if you tried.”

Twilight glared at her for a second, then relaxed a little and looked back to the stalls. She stuck her tongue out, biting her lip a little. “That’s, umm… oh!” She beamed, and suddenly she was the one pulling. She took Sunset all the way up to one, and the line of people outside parted around them. They didn’t seem to be reacting to Twilight, but they saw Sunset.

“Tell them you want, uh… bracelets! For the festival. You can use purple and lavender for yours, and get them to do orange and red. I’ll take… ruby, and you can take an amethyst.”

The artisan at the front of the shop was an elderly woman, her skin wrinkled so much that she could barely see her eyes. Except for her glasses, which magnified them almost to parody. Her hands were tiny and quick-moving, though she stopped what she was doing as Sunset approached. Behind her the cart was packed with spools of ribbon, and tiny drawers filled with stones.

“I assure you, my cart is quite in order!” she said, her voice quivering. “I’ve violated no regulations!”

“N-no.” Sunset raised one hand, palm out. “I’d just like… some bracelets. For the festival? Isn’t that… that’s what we do, right?” Where were you the day they were handing out eternal youth? Maybe you don’t want to be young.

“Really? Oh, sure.” The woman pointed to a set of wooden camp chairs, apparently a waiting area. People scattered from in front of her as Sunset made her way over, but she did her best to ignore that. The artist asked for her colors, and she repeated what Twilight had told her. Her friend sat down beside her a second later, still grinning. “I haven’t had a date at the Remembrance since I was in high school! Or…” Her expression darkened, and she looked away. “I think he… I think maybe he didn’t show up.”

“I did,” Sunset said, taking her hand and settling it back in her lap. “Though… don’t forget, we’re here on business. This is research.” She leaned back, watching the artist work. Her hands moved incredibly quickly, braiding together different shades of the colors she’d mentioned. Despite looking organic, her precision was mechanical. Even here. “Do you think Brad will be here?”

“The knight,” Twilight repeated, a little annoyance seeping into her voice. She pulled her hand free, folding her arms. “The knights have a ritual role in the Remembrance. They have to be with the king all night.”

“Oh.” Sunset winced. “I already said yes to going with you, you know. You can relax.”

Twilight pouted, but she did seem to relax.

“I noticed you didn’t look that up either. Unless you’re doing that… ensemble computing stuff again.”

“Nope.” Twilight smiled slightly. “I… think the Remembrance was important to me when I was younger. My family used to go every year. It wasn’t about soldiers back then, something else… I don’t remember what.” She trailed off, expression distant. “Then… after the war, it wasn’t about soldiers either. It was about remembering all the people who died. So… many people. More than live in Equestria now a dozen times over. Earth had lots of people on it… not so many anymore.”

“Yeah.” Sunset sighed. “I noticed. And I… still don’t really understand. Your race seems so… enlightened, most of the time. But then I see the way your organics and the Tower get along, and it reminds me of life before Equestria. All the different races… and maybe you’re not enlightened after all.”

“Done!” the old woman exclaimed, extending a little piece of wood with both bracelets suspended inside. “Miss… uh…”

“Natasha.” She took the red one by instinct, but Twilight scolded her.

“No! Purple. I get orange. And can you grab that one for me, I can’t touch it unless you…”

Sunset took both bracelets from the old woman, who retreated from her hand as though it might burn her. “Thanks to the kind woman of the Order,” she said, her voice low. There was no payment exchanged, though many of the people here were paying.

“Now, here.” Twilight interrupted her thoughts, taking the purple bracelet and opening it with both hands. “I’ve got to put it on. Your right…” She took Sunset’s hand, sliding it on delicately with thin, soft fingers. “Now… you do my left.”

The cloth was soft, and woven so tightly together it was almost indistinguishable from a single strip of fabric. The gemstone on it wasn’t large—wouldn’t have been worth a dozen bits in Equestria. But it was just enough to catch the light. She slipped it onto Twilight’s hand. “I don’t think we’ll be showing the ponies this part.”

“No,” Twilight agreed, her face reddening a little. “Probably not. They’re…” She stepped backward. “I shouldn’t have… sorry, Princess.”

“No.” Sunset caught her hand before she could get away and vanish. She was on the edge of it now, she could see that plain enough. “Don’t go, Twilight. We’ve got a little time to see this together. Show me, then I can show them.”

“Kay.” She gestured, and a thick tome appeared in one of her hands. “But trying to remember things is making my head hurt. I’m reading up on the rest of this as we go.”

Sunset caught the title out of the corner of her eye, it was a travel guide.

“So, the Remembrance goes on for exactly forty subjective days, compressed into one real day. Very few people attend for more than a few hours, though… the extra time gives citizens the opportunity to meet with their house lords. Or for a deployed force like us in a time of war, the king. There are…”

And they went. Twilight didn’t know that much more than Sunset— Sunset could’ve read the book if she wanted. But Twilight clearly enjoyed being useful, so there was no reason to take that from her. Sunset let her take her on a tour through the festival, which had twelve symbolic spots spread across a recreated city from Earth transformed into medieval style. Basically everyone there was in costume, and many of them were even speaking in antiquated language. Just a filter—Sunset switched it on while she went with Twilight.

She didn’t have an entire day to enjoy it all, though. Her hours were running down, and soon enough they were almost gone.

“The king is up there,” Sunset said, pointing towards a brightly lit castle filled with light and activity. “That’s… the last stop? Just in time, we’ve only got a few minutes.”

“We can’t,” Twilight said, pulling her arm back away from the path. It was hard—she had to fight traffic, since everyone at the festival was obviously going that way. “Once we see the king, that’s over. Meeting with him is what sends us back, and we can’t return. There isn’t enough room on the servers for everyone who wants to be here.”

“Oh.” Sunset sighed, but soon enough they were out of the flow of people. She waved down a horse drawn cart, ignoring the frightening look of the creatures as they started to move. In the last few hours, she’d eaten several human treats, picked up eleven more gemstones for her bracelet, and held Twilight’s hand an awful lot. She had a purse now too, packed with coins. She didn’t know what they were, but apparently her permissions from Tesla let her get basically as many as she wanted.

“So remember, when you go through with the ponies, don’t get more gems. You can’t take those off your bracelet, they’re the ones we got together.”

“Okay.” Sunset felt Twilight settle into the cart beside her, and soon enough they were moving. There was plenty of room for another two humans inside, but the driver had taken one look at Sunset’s robe and was already begging to take her, no money involved.

“When you get out, you can get it printed if you want. The… gems will be fake, it’s a huge waste to fab those. But plastic is almost as good. You can wear it until the next festival.”

“Printed…” she repeated. “I guess it makes sense Builders have a way to take things with them. Otherwise they wouldn’t want to keep everything in here.”

Twilight nodded. “You got printed. Your bat friend. And maybe… maybe one day you’ll get them to print me.”

“Yes,” Sunset said. “Of course I will. When this war ends… they’ll be grateful, right? I get… paid?”

Twilight shrugged. “Tesla isn’t following most of the rules I’ve read about. I’m pretty sure he doesn’t have to. The whole system just does whatever he wants.”

“Well, I’ll make him pay me. And… maybe I can get one of those bracelets. Be a pony again for a bit.” Her eyes widened suddenly, and she stared down at her hands. “Wait a minute, Twilight. We’re in the realm right now. I could change myself into a pony, couldn’t I? I have permissions and unlimited discretion and… whatever it was Brad showed me.”

“You could,” Twilight agreed, her voice straining a little. “But that might be awkward.”

“Why? We’re in Equestria… and I’m being a diplomat! Wouldn’t it be polite of me to try and speak to our guests… on their level?”

“Maybe… except that coming here made them human.” She pointed off the cart, towards the bottom of the hill.

At that moment, Sunset realized the alarm on her GIO was going off, and probably had been for the last several seconds. Twilight had distracted her so much that she hadn’t even noticed. She pressed it off with one hand, following Twilight’s gesture with her eyes.

Not far away, a pair of figures had appeared on the road into the city—a set of figures she somehow recognized.

There was no mistaking them for anything other than ponies—Starlight Glimmer had already flopped back onto four legs and was trying to walk on her hands. Amber did a bit better, and after a few seconds of stumbling, she corrected herself, offering a hand to help Starlight to her feet.

“Teleport, now,” Sunset muttered. “Twilight.”

And suddenly, they were at the bottom of the hill. There was no flash of light as with pony teleports, no smoke like Trixie’s. They were just at the road outside the city, scattering a little dirt as they arrived. Sunset nearly fell backward with her seat abruptly gone, but managed to catch herself. She probably wouldn’t show off her “natural” human abilities by falling on her rump. “Sorry I… didn’t time your arrival as well as I would’ve liked. Hopefully the transition was painless.”

“Painless.” Starlight Glimmer looked much as Sunset might’ve imagined her, transformed into a human body. She stood taller than Sunset herself, with bright purple hair with pinkish highlights. That didn’t make her stand out that much compared to other humans, who even in this medieval simulation loved slight departures from the ordinary range. She was dressed in a white robe in the same style as Sunset’s own—the white here signifying not even an initiate, but a hopeful or a supporter of the Technocratic Order.

The captain of the Normandy guard was stockier than either of them, with a sword and a shield that looked quite threatening. Violence was disabled during the festival, but it would sure look imposing.

“Welcome, welcome.” Sunset took their hands one at a time. “I’m sorry, I… had no idea it was going to make you human like that. I guess I should’ve expected… we don’t have any ponies in the system. There probably aren’t settings for it. I should’ve written something myself.”

Starlight Glimmer’s grip was weak, and she looked like she might fall over at any moment. But she didn’t seem upset by the change. Just a little disoriented. “It would’ve been helpful,” she agreed. “But I’m guessing it wouldn’t be easy for you to fix now.”

“Nope,” Sunset agreed. “Unfortunately not. You’ve already wasted a ton of time getting oriented. If you have to repeat the process, the festival might be mostly over.”

Starlight and Amber shared a meaningful look. Amber shrugged. “Fine with me.”

“Well then.” Sunset straightened, collecting herself. “Here, I got one for each of you. It’s a good thing they’re adjustable, because I got them extra long.” She removed a pair of plain bracelets from a pocket of her robe. These were simple white thread, and she tossed them rather than putting them on herself. “You’ll wear these until we’re done. You’ll notice everyone here is wearing them.” She held up her own wrist, with its eleven colored stones.

“I like your colors more,” Starlight said, pulling her own tight.

“Don’t even think about it,” Twilight said, folding her arms. But Starlight Glimmer couldn’t hear her, or see her. The guard, Amber, almost seemed to react to the sound. She turned her head slightly, almost in the right direction. But there was still a crowd here, maybe she’d heard something interesting from one of them.

“Yes, well… perhaps next time you can come a little earlier, and pick out something that suits your taste a little better. Those are plain, but we’ll collect gemstones as we walk that way.” She gestured. “I think you’ll enjoy it. There’s food, and music, and dancing, and… everything a festival should have.”

“I don’t understand how that’s possible,” Amber Sands said, her voice mildly disturbed. “You promised that there would be no physical changes to us, yes? How can we taste and smell? How can we touch? I’ve used… I mean, I know what VR is like. It should be sight and sound only.” She held out one hand, touching her thumb to each of her fingers in turn.

Damn you adapted fast. I couldn’t do that when I first got here. Maybe it was an automated gesture.

Sunset glanced slightly to Twilight for help, and again was struck with the way Amber seemed to be able to follow her gaze. You shouldn’t be able to see that! Was something wrong with the copresence?

Twilight was already flipping through one of her books, and she settled somewhere after a few moments of searching. “Got it, here. Just say this—”

And Sunset did. “The chair you’re using is more than VR. It isn’t screens over your eyes, it’s using… non-surgical electromagnetic stimulation of your brain. It’s simulating your senses. The precision might not be 100%, since we’ve never used it on ponies before.” Sunset stopped repeating. “Let me know if there are any problems, I’m sure I’ll be able to help. New technologies tend to make mistakes early on.”

“Sure,” Starlight Glimmer said. “But we didn’t come here to stand around.” She spun, until she was facing up the street, towards the largest crowds. “What are… those people doing? It looks fun!”

A few hours passed. There could be no accelerated time anymore, not with organic visitors on the other side. The simulation itself still had those tracks, but they weren’t required.

It didn’t matter how many people were actually attending at the moment—the crowds always looked exactly thick enough to seem busy, without being so thick that they couldn’t walk straight to any destination they wished.

Sunset Shimmer took them from one station to the next, explaining human customs that Twilight had taught her about from the reference materials. Her visitors—Starlight Glimmer in particular—seemed entranced by it all. She tried all the food, imitated all the dances, and even participated in the more childish activities like doll-decorating and face painting. Thus, she spent half the festival with tiger stripes painted on her face almost as wide as her grin.

Amber Sands, on the other hand, seemed as though she were always on the verge of nausea. She frequently seemed to be muttering to herself, particularly when Sunset got distracted and stopped watching her to do something with Starlight.

They made it through most stages of the ritual without anything strange happening, though. Amber and Starlight collected gemstones, and even ended up in conversation with plenty of fellow festival-goers along the way.

But then they were alone. Sunset hadn’t even noticed it happen at first—the crowd moved on towards the King’s pavilion, and the three of them lingered back. What happened to Twilight?

Her companion was suddenly not there anymore, and neither was anypony else. Except for her two guests. Where’d you go, Twilight? Are you that sour?

Twilight didn’t respond.

Starlight did, though. “It’s been an interesting month, Natasha,” she said, as though she were about to announce something important. “I wasn’t sure exactly where you’d lead us on. All over the place. And this…” She gestured at the retreating crowd, and the light pouring from the king’s pavilion. “This festival is awesome! Timing must’ve been just perfect for you, being able to show us this.”

“I don’t understand.” Sunset couldn’t keep a hint of nervousness from her voice. “We’re not done with it yet, there’s still… the last stop. I’m not sure what you’re talking about.”

“I think you know,” Starlight said, getting up and circling around their table. Her grin was probably meant to look intimidating, but it was hard for Sunset to see past the tiger pattern on her skin. “Or you’re about to be reminded.” She glanced to the side. “Go ahead, Amber. Tell her.”

The guard captain stopped muttering to herself just long enough for her to get up and wander over. “You’re not the only one who isn’t what she seems,” she said. “I’m a changeling. A changeling created with the mind of one of the Federation’s most accomplished hackers.”

Sunset’s eyes widened. She took a step back, summoning the emergency console with one hand. Nothing happened. Her hand made the sign of alarm, but the interface remained invisible.

But something happened anyway. The guard’s outline fuzzed, her expression grew paniced, and she vanished.

Somewhere far away, she could hear something like thunder rumbling over the festival. Buck me. I wasn’t the one tricking them. I just let a hacker directly into the largest gathering of Builders in Equestria, with full diplomatic permissions.

“She didn’t know if it would work,” Starlight continued, pacing around her. Her eyes watched the spot where Amber had been, but she didn’t come back. “But I had full faith in her abilities, and you can see that faith was rewarded. Amber Sands has created a pocket for us. Your friends in the Tower will not be able to bail you out this time.”

There was another rumble from far away, and this time an entire tower of the king’s castle went crumbling down. A few warning messages appeared in the air in front of her, blurring away into gibberish she couldn’t read.

Starlight nodded slightly to Amber. “That’s impressive, keep that up.” Then her eyes settled on Sunset again. “Jig is up, ‘Natasha.’ I’ve figured it out.”

Sunset could feel tears streaming down her face as she retreated a few more steps. Her back smacked up against something invisible in the middle of the road, and she could go no further. She didn’t look away from her accusers, only paused to wipe her eyes with the back of her arm. “P-please. Whatever you’ve come to do… just do it to me. Don’t hurt them. These people have been… nothing but kind to me. They don’t deserve to suffer.”

“Suffer?” Starlight sounded confused. “We’re not making anyone do that. I just wanted you to admit you were Sunset Shimmer.”

The sound of Sunset’s own name would’ve stopped her heart a few days before. But now that she was looking down the festival grounds, now that she could see crowds running screaming, and the sky of spectacular stars all faded, she found that seemed a minor thing. “Yeah, whatever. But why are you doing that? You’re knocking the castle down! Maybe… maybe really hurting people. I don’t actually know the rules, but those screams sound real!”

“It was easy,” Starlight continued, as though she hadn’t even been listening. “Once we heard how you talked, it was only a matter of finding ponies who might’ve visited their world. Clover was gone of course, but there was…” She stopped, looking confused. “Wait, you admit it?”

“Yes!” Sunset turned away from her, pushing past until she was standing directly beside the hacker. “Whatever you’re doing, stop it right now. Stop attacking people who don’t deserve it.”

“I’m not attacking anyone!” Her eyes were just as panicked as Sunset’s had been moments before. “That isn’t me! Starlight, I’m trying to get us out! I think… I think there’s some kind of attack going on. And maybe the tweaks I set up to trap Sunset with us might’ve kinda… sorta… trapped us.”

A few seconds later, and the force against Sunset’s back vanished. Amber collapsed onto her elbows, breathing heavily from the effort.

Sunset looked between them, her mind moving rapidly. But still one-to-one with the outside world, since being with these two stuck her at true speed. “Normandy is under attack,” Sunset repeated, staring at the castle as it shook and rumbled again. Whole walls seemed to be tumbling down, and the crowd had either fled or just abruptly vanished.

But we won’t, because we’re only interfaced here. We aren’t running on the realm, so we won’t be shut down for an emergency. What would happen to Starlight’s and Amber’s organic brains if they were abruptly yanked away from this place?

Whatever part of her thought it would serve them right was a very small part. It could live with the part that wanted to know how Starlight had figured out not just that she was a pony but exactly who she was.

Not right now. “There are… access points,” Sunset said. “Locations that force commands to be run in the event of some kind of serious emergency.” She pointed down the road. “For this simulation, it’s probably the entrance to the road.” She made the gesture of alarm with one hand again, trying to summon her interface, or even Twilight. Nothing happened.

“Then we need to go,” Starlight said. She started running, and tripped immediately on her face.

Sunset was beside her in an instant, pulling her gently to her feet.

“This isn’t over,” Starlight Glimmer said. “When we get out of here… I still want to know what kind of weird spying you’ve been up to. Celestia will find out about this.”

Sunset winced. “I’m sure. But let’s escape first.”

Jackie took in the scene in town square in an eyeblink. It wasn’t just her hardware giving her the advantage here—she had always been able to read a crowd.

Bree had worked her way to the center of a large gathering, or more likely they had formed around her. And they were not happy. The sound of their objections all blurred together into nonsense, but she didn’t really have to tell them apart individually to know what bothered them.

The nearest of them turned briefly as she approached, and the miner’s face went from joy to skepticism at her presence. He actually pointed to her. “She has called her allies here!” he bellowed, and a few of the nearest ponies turned to stare at her instead. “She uses her magic to fight against Celestia’s will!”

Jackie very quietly switched into combat protocol. She reached down, undid the button clasp on her satchel, so that the accelerator rifle was within reach. She didn’t draw it yet, though. Even a fool could tell when a weapon was being pointed at him. “You’re going to back away from me, friend,” she said, her tone low and dangerous.

And he did. Mobs were like that—strong when you targeted them all, but weak when you poked at individuals. There was a price to doing that, though. As she bought herself enough space to squeeze through to Bree at the center, she did it at the price of inflaming them to increasingly senseless rage.

There would be a tipping point, eventually. If these ponies were anything like humans, then eventually they would stop screaming and start breaking things. There were few windows to shatter, no cars to smash, but there were a few vulnerable ponies.

“You don’t understand!” came Bree’s voice from the center of the mob, predictably pitiful. “We’re about to be attacked! This device is going to shoot them down! If we don’t keep it working, we could die! Seaddle has already fallen!”

“More lies!” roared someone else, a female voice this time. “None of Princess Celestia’s cities could fall. That thing is probably going to target us. Maybe it’s calling them here! If we don’t remove it, then the dragons will be here!”

“She has a bat,” pointed out someone else. “Maybe she wants her old friends the griffons to come eat us!” There was some wicked laughter there, though Jackie didn’t get the joke.

Neither did Bree, from her face. But Jackie didn’t wait any longer. She pushed through the last ring of opposition, then directly into the center of the enemy mob. There were dozens of eyes on her now, and the calls to punish her instead were growing. “Maybe the newcomer corrupted her! It’s only since the bat got here that she’s been such a handful!” and other such nonsense.

Jackie banished it all, though she kept her IFF sensors running. If anyone in the crowd moved towards violence, she might know it before the ponies themselves knew.

Bree looked bad. She’d been pushed around, half her body was covered in mud, and there was a little blood mixed in. She’d managed to protect her machine, though that might just be because none of the earth ponies was close enough to touch it.

Frostline and her family were nowhere to be seen—probably loading into the safe room right now. Bree had nopony.

“You,” she said, her voice barely carrying above the crowd. “Come to gloat? You were right… want a medal?”

“They’re not rational,” Jackie answered back, in English. “You can’t treat them like this is a Tower university and you’re defending a thesis. You can’t convince a mob with logic.”

Even as she said it, she kept half an eye on one of the larger bullies in the mob. He was a massive earth pony, big enough that even a human would look a little scrawny. He wore a tight vest probably meant to make his muscles seem larger as they stretched it. “No more talk,” he said, his voice low and slow. Not one that Jackie would be able to intimidate. “We’re going to end this.”

A cheer ran through the crowd—the cheer of a group of civilized people working themselves the last few steps towards barbarism. She could practically hear the rustle of the lynching rope already.

“We’re going to push this down the mountain, where it belongs. We know where the others are… we get rid of them too. Then we decide what to do with her.” He pointed at Jackie. “Letting a unicorn live here was bad enough. We thought a freak would be safe, but no. She corrupted Motherlode even without magic.”

I have to stop this now. The invading army would put an end to all this, but it was too slow. Still a half hour before its earliest projected arrival. All their defenses would be in ruin before then, and she herself might be in broken pieces with them. It’s okay, I’ve got a recorder. They can’t break that. Maybe they couldn’t, but someone would still have to come out and find it. Who would care about a criminal who knew too much?

Jackie turned away from Bree, stepping up beside the earth pony. As she activated the CQC program, faint trails of activity appeared in her vision. Those more likely to produce violence glowed brighter, creating ghostly projections of the attacks to come. She saw the first blows—smaller earth ponies that intended to grab her as she came forward.

There was only one real way to end a mob.


Jackie struck the first one a quick blow right in the throat, sliding out of the way of the second pony’s thrust and tripping him so that he crashed into the mud at her hooves. She smashed herself deliberately onto his back, driving him deeper as she crossed beside her instigator.

Ponies gasped, screamed, pointed… and a few backed away. They hadn’t actually crossed the threshold to violence yet, and yet she’d done it without a thought. Neither pony was dead—the first one was gasping, but the second was only dirty. But they’d probably never seen a real warrior in their lives.

Even so, the miner dwarfed her. His name matched his cutie mark: Roc. He was the strongest, most traditional stallion in Motherload. It looked like his shoulders could lift up the whole city if he wanted.

“Now you deserve it,” he said, without emotion. “You admit you are a traitor. We all could see it from your wings, but now you betray yourself.”

“No, you are.” She abandoned all shred of realism, used the speakers as loud as they would go. So loud her voice distorted and blew out a little at the upper end of the register. Several ponies staggered back, and house windows rattled. “You’re trying to tear down the defenses when our enemies are only minutes away!” She pointed to the sky. “Forget your stupid religion and watch. They’re coming to burn Motherlode. This pony here, the one you hurt, she’s trying to save you. All you have to do is wait and see—when the monsters come, her guns will shoot them down.”

A few of the crowd backed away—those on the edge, those who weren’t quite ready to commit to violence. They stared at her with horror on their faces, glancing back to the two ponies she’d slapped down like nothing.

Roc took a step towards her, bending his forelegs back so that the joints cracked one at a time. The message was obvious. “You’re our real enemy,” he said. “I’ll make sure you can’t hurt anypony. Can’t call none of your friends here. Everypony, watch. Do likewise.”

The little numbers next to his body approached a hundred percent probability. Then he attacked.

Even her threat detection was unprepared for just how fast he could move. She dodged out of the way, but not so fast that he didn’t catch one of her wings. The terrible force of his charge snapped it like the plastic it was made from, spraying a few spurts of lubrication fluid as it went.

Jackie felt no pain in combat mode, but her little self-diagnostic system lit up with the errors. Several of the ponies nearby reacted quite differently—ponies turned away in horror, a few retched their guts out onto the dirt. Maybe the nearly-clear hydraulic fluid could pass for blood.

Roc seemed not even to notice. He spun around to face her again, eyes narrowing. More like an enraged bull than a person.

Time slowed. Combat projections revised. Measured specific force exceeded five hundred newtons per cubic centimeter. This body is not constructed to survive that acceleration. Would you like to call the legionaries for support?

Sure, why the hell not? She thought. Her body was still frozen, Roc turning rapidly to face her again. His face still had a near 100% combat prediction scrawled across it.

Well, Jackie? How much do you want to live?

Enough. She snatched the rifle out of her saddlebags, firing it once straight into the air. There was no silencer, only the roar of the hypersonic slug as it blasted upward. Ponies screamed, and many of those who hadn’t already fled scattered at the noise.

Roc did not, however. His eyes never left her, even as she pointed the gun at his chest.

“I will kill you,” she said, no longer shouting. “I will defend myself. Get out of here.”

“You think your magic frightens me?” he bellowed. “We’ve fought bats before! We know the old legends—you’re all shell and no flesh.” He charged again.

Jackie knew how fast he was moving this time, and so she wasn’t taken by surprise. She aimed, then fired once directly at one of his legs. Maybe that would teach him to leave her alone.

The hypersonic slug hit him too fast even for her vision sensors to register. He stumbled for a moment, blood sprayed from his leg—and he kept coming. It should’ve blown the limb clean off, but instead it had only taken a small lump of flesh away. He was still charging.

Jackie dove out of the way, nearly losing the rifle in the process. She kept her other wing folded, and this time she righted herself with all her limbs still intact.

Full automatic.


“Stay away!” she yelled again, and this time her voice did rise. So loud that even Bree was hiding behind her gun. Stupid engineer, aren’t you going to help me? It’s just the one pony now, we could take him together!

But probably not. He was thick enough to snap her in half. And apparently bullet resistant too.

Roc charged again. This time Jackie took no chances—she aimed for the head, the entire eleven-round spray the gun could fire before the barrel turned red and needed to cool.

She saw blood, a pony bearing down on her—then something smashed into her. The force snapped limbs, turning the world upside-down as she went flying through the air. Her eyes turned into a siren of warning messages. Limbs were leaking, others were broken, there was a shock warning on her head. The vision from one eye had started flickering. She could barely see. Something heavy and unmoving was weighing her down.

From her one good eye, Jackie watched as Bree’s autogun began to whirl. It’s quad-barrels aimed high into the air, then fired one after another. The ground shook from the blast, and it wasn’t the only one. Her pressure sensors could feel others more distant, firing almost at the same time.

Self-diagnostic report complete. Unit is critically damaged. Report back to qualified Technocratic Order engineer of third elevation or higher.

Right arm destroyed.
Left arm critically damaged.
Right leg seriously damaged.
Left leg damaged.
Right eye destroyed.
Digestive simulation critically damaged.
RTG intact.

And there was less than a second’s delay before more sirens rang in her ear.
Alert. Airborne targets detected near your present location. Seek shelter immediately.

Jackie tried to do just that, and felt only mild spasms from her legs. She wouldn’t be seeking anything anytime soon.

Bree’s face appeared near her one good eye, staring at something out of her field of view. But then she braced against the ground, and something rolled off Jackie.

“We have to… get to cover,” Bree said, her voice clear despite everything else. The microphone in her body must still be working even when everything else failed.

Bree lifted her, and Jackie felt herself flung over something warm and pony-shaped. She could still hear the cannons as she was carried down the mountain.