• Published 6th Sep 2018
  • 849 Views, 134 Comments

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.

  • ...
9
 134
 849

Chapter 13: Initialization Vector

Jackie’s world faded back in slowly, like someone turning up a dial. She queried her internal chronometer in a panic, and discovered to her horror that 21 hours had passed since she had last been conscious.

She opened her eyes.

Jackie was strapped down on a heavy metal workbench—the one from the barn, though they weren’t in the barn now. The ceiling above her was stone, and the steady glow of electricity illuminated the world around her.

System diagnostic, she ordered.

Diagnostic complete. Right arm, left arm, right leg, left leg, disconnected for servicing. Digestive simulation not found. Damage detected to RTG shielding. Reducing output to prevent radiation leak. Computational acceleration no longer possible. Long-range transmitter offline. All other systems nominal.

She’d really been beat to shit by that earth pony. An organic would certainly have been killed by some of those blows. But despite all that, she felt nothing like an organic after a battle. There was no crushing soreness all over, no pain and wishing she was dead. Those feelings were all symptoms of healing, something her body could not do.

“You didn’t need to strap me down,” she called out into the room. “You took all my legs off already. Where was I gonna go?”

Even her neck was clamped now, so that she couldn’t turn to either side. She could only look up, hoping that someone would hear her.

And somepony did. Bree emerged from the gloom, with a pair of goggles over her eyes and what looked unmistakably like one of Jackie’s dissected legs in her grip. “You’re back online. That’s good.”

“Can you, uh… sit me up? I can’t see anything but your face and the damn ceiling.”

Bree shook her head. “That’s probably for the best. I’ve, uh… well, I’m in the middle of this. I’d have left you shut down, but I need your feedback on my results.” There was something subtly different about her, though it took a moment for Jackie to tell what it was. Nothing physically, but… She doesn’t look smug anymore. If anything, she seemed to be acting guilty.

“My feedback is put my damn limbs back where you found them. Whatever you’re playing with, stop.”

She shook her head again. “Sorry, I’d love to, but… no I wouldn’t. I don’t leave jobs half finished, Moire. You’re not leaving that chair until I’m done with you.”

“Jobs half…” She trailed off. “My repair kit. You’re fixing me.”

“Well… the damage was way too expensive to just fix you. That kit had enough parts for maybe one leg, and you had… serious damage. The fight wouldn’t have been so hard on you, except it seems this body was already worn down. Can’t imagine why.”

“Oh, I can think of some two-ton reasons why. They’re carts, and I had to pull them up a hill twice a day.”

Bree laughed nervously, holding up the limb into Jackie’s field of view. “Well, I’m trying to fix you. See this?”

It wasn’t just her leg. Jackie saw now that much of it had been replaced. The fur was removed, and the plastic exoskeleton that kept it in a generally pony shape. The mechanisms within had been grafted hastily to a contraption of brass and gears, with little bits of silvery metal wrapping around tiny crystals. Mithril.

“I see your mother is helping you,” she said, a little louder. “True Silver, are you there somewhere?”

Another voice answered, coming from far away “Moire? She’s awake?”

“Not for long!” Bree called back. “I turn—I woke her up, so we could test something. I’ll knock her back out as soon as we know if it’s gonna work or not.” Then she looked back. “You better hope it does, Jackie. Otherwise you’re going to have two legs that kinda-sorta work, both in back. You’ll be lucky if you can roll around until we get you back to the tower for servicing.”

“Then I hope it works,” Jackie said unconvincingly.

True Silver emerged a moment later, looking a little sick. “You’re right about this being unpleasant, Silver Spring. Ponies’ insides are meant to stay inside.”

Bree shook her head. “Don’t worry, these aren’t her insides. Our friend Moire here is all right there.” She pointed towards Jackie’s head with a hoof. “Her body is just a tool. She can easily get another, and she isn’t in any pain.”

Silver lowered her voice a little. “And this is… this is how you were? Before you came to Motherlode?”


“Yes. But I was more careful. I never got myself hurt enough that I needed makeshift repairs in a bomb shelter.”

The rest of Jackie’s memories came rushing back. “Motherlode! We were under attack, weren’t we? Griffons were close, maybe already on us. I saw your turret doing something…”

“Yes,” Bree said. “And we shot them down! Or… I think we did.” But her voice only sounded darker.

“Griffons can fly,” True Silver said. “There were survivors. Motherlode… doesn’t have any royal guards. We had to hide.”

“I could’ve protected you,” Jackie said, and she moved to get up again. Well, tried to. The command didn’t leave her brain, and her body remained exactly where she was, tied down. “Put me back together, I’ll deal with it.”

“You’ll fight two dozen griffon mercenaries on your own?”

“Yeah, why not? I scored fifty-one thousand orcs in the LOTR sim, on the Black Gate. I can do two dozen mythical creatures. I have a few spare magazines for my accelerator in my saddlebag.”

“We’ll see,” Bree said. “I don’t think it will be fast enough. It’s taken me the last… while… to get this one leg working. At least, I get green when I connect it. But you need to be conscious for the test to mean anything.” She leaned forward, and slid the skeletal limb into place. The first three inches or so were all original, sans fur and with the plastic shell melted in a clean line. The rest was not, however. Jackie saw no reason why it should’ve worked.

Right arm connected.

And she could move something. She couldn’t feel the air on her fur, but position was there. She looked, and the leg waved around a bit. She rotated around as far as she could, and watched as gears turned and cables tugged. Gonna have to stay out of the mud with a leg like that.

“Celestia above, you did it,” Silver whispered, patting Bree on the shoulder with one leg. “My little engineer.”

“Looks like motor control is good…” Bree said, the widest smile spreading across her lips. “Now, just one more thing.” She moved the leg down a little, pressing the flat of the hoof against her own leg. “I need you to push on me. See if the sensors in there are working. You should feel resistance just as though it was your real leg.”

Jackie obeyed, and sure enough she felt the resistance. There was no sense of touch on this limb, not even on the bit of skin in the hoof that ponies used for most of what they did. And from the look of things, Bree hadn’t tried to substitute her graspers either. But that didn’t matter—it was working. As a substitute limb, it would do. “I feel it.”

“Excellent!” Bree took a step back, facing True Silver. “We’ve got more limbs to make, Mom. If we want to get Moire here back on her hooves.”

“Shouldn’t you…” Jackie hesitated. It wasn’t often she spoke against her own self-interest. But she couldn’t think of any other way to say what she was thinking. “Isn’t Motherlode under attack up there?”

“Off and on,” Silver said. “But what can we do? We brought down their ships. Most of the griffons are lost in the mountains now, they won’t be finding their way here anytime soon.”

“You just said you could fight a whole army,” Bree said. “Well, you’ll get your chance. If we fix you.”

“Or we just hold out for… four more days,” she said. “Evacuation ship should be back around. The Nightbreeze. We can… get back to Normandy.”

She wanted to call back to Tesla, to report what had happened—but that wasn’t going to be possible anytime soon. I hope you can handle things on your own from here on, Sunset. Good luck.

“I’d prefer both,” Bree said, after a pause. “From what we can hear, seems like they’re mostly… looking for the ponies who shot down their ship. But eventually they’re going to get bored of that, and turn on the town. I killed a lot of birds, I suspect they’ll want to return the favor. Better you stop that.” She leaned forward, grinning. “I’m going to shut you off again, Jackie. These sensations are unpleasant, and you would be better off not being conscious for them.”

Jackie shrugged. “Alright. I assume you’ll be waking me up when you put on the other three legs?”

“Not one at a time,” Bree said. “When the others are done. And there are some tweaks I’d like to make. None of them will leave you able to fly, unfortunately. Your body just isn’t designed for it.”

She shrugged. “I don’t need to fly to shoot. But… my gun needs fur to grip to. I hope you plan on putting it back.”

Bree laughed. “There’s enough undamaged sensor mat for three of four. And I scavenged servos from both of your wings, so… congratulations, you’re going to wake up an earth pony.”

She rolled her eyes. “Does it look like I care?” She did, though. She hoped Bree couldn’t see that as she switched her off.

She lapsed into consciousness again after another day or so. This time she was sitting in an upright position, with her torso still tied securely to the workbench. There were all four of her limbs, spread out on the table in front of her.

Three of them almost looked normal, except that she could catch the obvious seams in the fur where Bree had cut. There was no perfect 3D fabrication here, but old-fashioned stitching and thread. I’m going to be able to feel that once she connects them, huh? The right “arm” she’d seen before looked almost the same as it had earlier, except that the leg-shaped plastic had been replaced in places and covered with plain cloth. There would be no skin or fur sensations from that, but at least it wouldn’t get filled with dust or look like a skeleton limb to the average pony who saw it.

She smelled Bree before she saw her, as strong as any of the barns she’d ever visited as a child. Bree had a tired look on her face, and her mane had been swept back with sweat. Her goggles were perched there, and it looked like a tired crust had grown up around them.

The general glow about the cave had been replaced with a light that centered around them alone, coming from a naked Edison bulb on a wire. “Finished,” she said, her voice wavering. “At least… I think so.”

Jackie could see the working area now. It seemed like most of the crates in the shelter had been taken for table space. Thousands of little gears and bits of metal were strewn about, along with parts she recognized as from her own body. The digestive unit, both wings hacked to pieces for wires and parts, and the remains of her emergency kit. Bree had salvaged everything for parts, but her accelerator rifle itself.

“Thanks for all this,” Jackie said, avoiding her eyes. “When I first woke up, I thought maybe… well, maybe you’d gone all mad scientist on me. You wanted to fuck with me after getting your mom to agree with me about evacuation.”

Bree smiled feebly. “Thought crossed my mind.” She picked up the first limb, the one covered with cloth instead of fur. “Except you saving me back there. The mob… I swear they would’ve killed me.” She spoke with shock, as though her words were even amazing herself. “Not broke my physical unit, but actually killed me.”

“I had to kill one of them to do it,” Jackie said. “And… maybe die myself. You saved me too, so we’re even.”

Bree laughed. “That’s an awful lot to care about your mission from Tesla. You were in as much danger as I was.”

“Because I’m just trying to get you out,” Jackie said. “Like I’ve been saying. I… think it’s pretty shitty what happened to you. Framed for trying to take over Equestria.

Bree laughed again, but this time there was nothing of humor in it. Her voice turned into a distant squeak, barely audible even to Jackie’s mechanical ears. “That, uh… I wasn’t framed. That story’s true. Probably… everything you heard is. Ponies do like accurate history books. If anything, they were nicer to me than I deserved.”

“Uh…” Jackie watched, frozen, as she retrieved another limb. One of her back legs this time. “Why?” It was the only thing she could think to ask. “I’m no boy scout, Bree. I’ve done some things I’m not proud of, you know that. But trying to conquer a whole country?”

“Does it matter?” Bree leaned in close, and there was another harsh click as the limb attached. This one had minimal modifications—as soon as it was back in place, Jackie found she could feel the polished metal surface of the table she was resting on, along with everything else. Including the damage to the exterior case, and the stitches in her fur.

“I, uh… wrote a program for you.” Bree emerged with a sheaf of paper, settling it down on the table beside her. “I couldn’t input it, since I don’t have any interface. Your repair kit only had the direct-link cable, and I don’t have a cortical recorder, so…”

“Yeah.” Jackie brushed it aside. “And I’d say it matters. You might be Hitler, or you might have thought you had a reason. Makes the difference between evil and just misled.”

“I didn’t attack civilians,” she said. “I wasn’t Hitler. I just wasn’t Gandhi either. Some Equestrian soldiers died, not many.” She sat back, leaning tiredly up against the table with Jackie’s remaining two limbs. “Do you have any history in that brain of yours?” She didn’t wait for her to answer. “Do a search on what happens when a more sophisticated culture encounters a simpler one. Go on.”

Jackie didn’t have to search to know the answer. “That’s… why people were always afraid of aliens, weren’t they? Even if they were well-meaning, we might get decimated. Nastier diseases, cultural forces… I never really understood psychohistory.”

Bree laughed again, her voice hollow and bitter. “Before the war, there were a few uncontacted tribes on a few islands, and down in South America. Their cultures were dead, their histories were gone, and they were trapped in little squares of nature reserve. That’s what I saw in Equestria’s future.”

Jackie glowered. “So you wanted to be Cortez.”

“No!” Bree smashed one hoof against the table, so hard the metal dented. A faint voice—Frostline’s—echoed from far away down the tunnel. “Is everything alright?”

“Fine, fine!” Bree called, switching back to Equestrian. “Go back to sleep!”

“Okay.”

She waited a few more minutes to say anything else, replacing Jackie’s other back leg in comparative silence.

“It was wrong,” Bree finally said. “I know it was. But I wasn’t trying to be a conqueror. I wanted… wanted to do things differently. Absorb them all into the Tower as quick as I could. Like we did during the war, you know. We saved, like… almost a billion people that way.”

“Saved,” Jackie repeated. Now her tone was dark. “Some of them might feel different about that.”

“Right, right.” Bree stopped a foot away, with Jackie’s last leg balanced on her back. She was quite adept at it, her coordination just as good as any of the native ponies Jackie had ever seen. “It was wrong. I don’t think I deserve this chance. The Federation agent who stopped me could’ve killed me, but she didn’t. Equestria has… this prison. Tartarus—reserved for the worst offenders. I thought maybe she wanted me sent out there. But… instead she did this.” She held out Jackie’s mechanical leg, next to her real one. “It took me a long time to figure out why.”

Jackie’s last foreleg clicked into place. She flexed it in turn with all the others, and found they weren’t responding correctly. They twitched too far, overcorrecting or undermoving. Only the completely reconstructed leg was working as she expected. Right, the program. I’ll need to recalibrate each of them. She could probably figure it out herself, given enough time. But Bree was one of the Tower’s best engineers. She knew more about synthetic bodies than anyone, except maybe Tesla. “Why?”

Bree smiled. “Same reason they haven’t had any real wars in a thousand years. Somebody’s got to be first to forgive. Might as well be you.”


It should’ve been a simple run out to the system exit portal. But there were so many other things that should’ve been simple. Sunset should’ve been noticed by now, or her diplomatic guests. If they were under attack, wasn’t there a system in place? Protocols, contingencies, something? Maybe so, but Sunset could no longer access that system to find out anything about it.

“Can’t we just wait for Amber Sands to let us out from the Equestrian side?” Starlight asked. “She’s out there now, I think. She vanished, anyway. Can’t she just pull the plug?”

“I doubt it,” Sunset said. “For you especially. There’s an interface with your brain, right? You have to shut that down gracefully. You don’t want to just go ripping your head out of something like that. Most of your head doesn’t like being zapped.”

“Oh.”

Sunset and her guest had taken several hours to make their winding way down the path. It was early morning outside. While there was no longer a crowd to slow them down in their trip, Starlight Glimmer was basically just as clumsy as she’d been upon arrival. She could walk, but every time she tried to jog ended in another fall. At least without Sunset holding her all the time.

At least they didn’t get tired in here. They could run through the eerily deserted streets of the festival without panting for breath, without their muscles burning, or without the cuts and bruises from Starlight’s many falls.

“I don’t… understand what happened to everyone,” she said. “There were thousands of humans here. Where did they all go?”

“I…” Sunset hesitated. “I don’t know where they went. But I know that… whenever there’s an emergency, a realm server will shut down. Their locations are… really secret, even from me. That one had, like… a million people living on it. It will stop running to avoid damage from an EMP, or… well, you don’t care about any of that.”

“I don’t know what most of that means,” Starlight Glimmer said. “And you shouldn’t either, Sunset. Unless you’re still trying to act like that isn’t your name.”

They were about halfway there. They ran through the sixth stop, set up as a stylized Japanese zen garden of sorts, except that the patterns were on water. To complete this part of the ceremony, they’d had to step from rock to rock, and reappeared on the opposite shore if they fell in. They stumbled around it this time.

“It’s my name,” Sunset said. “And if you’re asking how I know, just talk to Second Chance. She knows about ponies from living with us, right? I know about humans because I lived with them.”

“And… became one of them,” Starlight Glimmer added. “Because of Starswirl’s spell, right? It transformed you when you went through the mirror.”

Sunset laughed, and a little of her old bitterness slipped in. “That would’ve made it easy. No, there was no… magic. I used Clover’s spells to travel to Earth, the same ones Celestia locked away in the forbidden section of the library. Along with most of the other valuable magic.” She lowered her voice, and slowed a little without meaning to. “Maybe you know my frustration. I notice Celestia shared her magic with Twilight Sparkle—she’s an alicorn. And you’re not.”

Starlight Glimmer stopped too, pulling free of her. Just outside of the trail, their simulated world was falling apart. The distant city hadn’t crumbled like the castle, so much as transforming itself into the outlines and suggestions of a city. Blocky polygons without definition, just like the school Sunset had been trained in.

“Is that why you ran? Celestia wouldn’t make you an Alicorn? After talking to her, I always imagined it would be something… bigger. Something more important. A princess’s apprentice abandons her because of… selfishness? No.”

Sunset shoved past her, grabbing her by the hand and dragging her back onto the path. Only five more stops to go. The temperature was dropping rapidly ahead, as they transitioned quite smoothly from a Japanese isle to a mountain peak. The fifth stop was a trial to climb it. But there were gondola cars they could take down, or up if they didn’t want the gemstones. “If it was just selfishness, then why not just let me have it? Celestia trained me for years. I learned everything about her magic. About the spells that maintain Equestria. I deserved to join her.”

Starlight Glimmer had nothing to say to that, and for a time their voices were swallowed by the howling mountain wind. There were no other sounds until they boarded the automated gondola car, and it started humming down the line.

There were screens inside, screens depicting Normandy from various cameras. It was made to show the way celebrations were taking place in both worlds at once—and the cameras were still running.

The camp was in absolute chaos. Legionaries rushed about, carrying huge crates of cargo, loading into aircraft, tearing tents apart like they weren’t even there. The one shot of the other side of the camp was even more chaotic.

How are there so many ponies here? There were hundreds of them, by the look of things, maybe thousands. Some of the ponies were wearing baggy clothes, or trying to drag along human weapons. It was such a patently absurd thing to see that Sunset actually laughed. “That is… the cutest panic ever.”

Starlight Glimmer glanced up from her seat at the screen, eyes widening. “Sweet Celestia, they’re all… trying to break the failsafe spell? All at the same time? Why would they think they could escape? After… seeing so many transformed, they can’t still think it’s our religion, can they?”

Sunset Shimmer didn’t answer. A painful static struck her suddenly in the side of the head, and she dropped to her knees on the ground.

System recalibrating, said some text that appeared before her eyes.

She suppressed a scream, badly, hands clenched into fists. This isn’t supposed to hurt!

Twilight Sparkle’s ghostly form appeared beside her a second later. “Sunset! Sunset, are you okay?”

Starlight Glimmer was beside her at the same moment, one hand on her shoulder. “What’s… happening to you?”

“I’m… fine,” Sunset said, and in another moment the pain passed. Her vision fuzzed for a few more seconds, before resolving into clear lines. Twilight hadn’t disappeared. “Twilight, what did you do?”

“Twilight?” Starlight Glimmer turned, and she gasped. Her eyes locked unmistakably with the exact place Twilight was standing. “Princess, you’re here? Thank Celestia, you wouldn’t believe…”

Twilight raised a hand, and Starlight Glimmer fell abruptly silent. “There’s an attack going on in Normandy. It must’ve had some impact on you as well, because I lost network access. I made a few modifications to my storage mechanism… bypassed a few safeties so I could short the transmitter… guess it worked.” Her smile faltered a little, and her body fuzzed away again. This time she was the only thing that looked unreal. Sunset grasped for her, and found only empty air.

“You… broke yourself?” Sunset asked. She didn’t know the technical side of how Twilight’s necklace worked, but it didn’t surprise her that she did.

Starlight Glimmer backed up, her eyes getting wider. “You don’t sound like Princess Twilight.”

Sunset clambered to her feet. The gondola had nearly arrived at the base of the mountain, but it no longer mattered. Sunset could feel her system access restored, in a hundred evacuation alarms. She called up the last one, and its text filled her mind.

“EVACUATION CODE MAJESTIC. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.”

Sunset had no idea what that code was, but her mental query was immediately answered. Twilight had undone Amber’s hack completely. “Majestic is to be invoked in the event of an attack by Federation troops within Normandy. All civilian personnel digitally evacuate to orbital platform VEGA. Military personnel board any available ships and disperse. Further commands to follow.”

Sunset Shimmer had learned all that in the space of an instant. Time seemed to catch up with her as Twilight’s form flickered again. “My power relay is…” Her voice faded out. “Mind is safe. Solid-state storage. Just bring me to a technician. Get out...” Twilight reached a hand towards Sunset, before winking out like a candle.

I have command access again. Sunset didn’t need to return to any failsafes anymore. And were those tears on her cheek? Could robots cry?

The gondola thumped back into place on the ground, a second before the entire mountain above them vanished. The cable was still halfway there, and they were yanked forward. They started scraping along stone, as some of the windows shattered.

“What in Tartarus is going on?” Starlight Glimmer wailed, clutching onto a seatback for dear life.

Sunset wasn’t going to be helping her now either. She reached out into the air, and called up her command console. It appeared in bright red, with bold text above it reading “Emergency commands only.

“Diplomatic mission failed,” Sunset Shimmer said, her voice cracking. “Eject all remaining participants.”

Command executed successfully.

Starlight Glimmer didn’t have a chance to argue again. She vanished in a flash, and then the whole world went with her.

Sunset had no need to gracefully disengage, like Starlight. She immediately awoke in her charging pod, and jerked out so fast she could hear the whine of protest from the interface cables. Xavier was nowhere to be seen, along with anyone else. One of the pods was already empty, and she could hear a few faint noises coming from the other one. The mechanical sounds of Starlight being ejected.

“Tesla, what the hell is going on?” Sunset asked. She could feel full network access now, granted to her by emergency permissions.

There was no response. No “message refused” notification, so apparently, he’d received her call. But not even a few words of encouragement. He must be fighting this, somehow. Too busy for me. That means I have to get out on my own.

And she had to help Starlight Glimmer out, too. Having a pony get trapped in here and possibly die during an attack would not sit well with Equestria or her.

She could hear the evacuation in full swing outside. The constant roar of ionic engines passed overhead, along with the occasional burst of gunfire. But for an attack on Normandy by its other half, this was barely anything. Where were the explosions? The fighters strafing across the camp, the drones? She heard plenty of ships, but they all sounded like they were leaving.

She reached down for the necklace she was wearing, pulling it out of her robe and turning it over in her search for damage, but she could see nothing. What did I expect? Even so, her repeated pings to the hardware reported only: “Critical damage detected. Seek repair from a qualified technician. No user serviceable parts inside.”

I’ll fix you, Twilight, Sunset thought, squeezing the little necklace tightly in one hand. Thanks for saving us. She slipped it back under her robe and out of sight. Guess I’ll have to make it on my own for a bit.

With a final hiss, the interface pod holding Starlight Glimmer finally opened, dumping the pony within unceremoniously to the ground. Lifting vertically like that would have been helpful for a two-legged human, but… Starlight just smacked onto her face again.

Are you okay?” Sunset asked, reaching out to help her.

Starlight Glimmer’s horn started glowing, bright enough that Sunset knew she must have a powerful spell ready, even if she no longer had the senses to read it. “Don’t touch me!” Starlight called, her voice plainly terrified. “I don’t know what’s going on here, but as of now… I obviously can’t trust you.”

“Fine, fine!” Sunset pulled back. “I know what you saw is confusing… but we don’t have time to fight right now. Hear that outside? That’s an evacuation. We’re under attack.”

“I don’t hear an attack.” Starlight Glimmer took off at a gallop, right past her and out the tent doors.

Sunset followed behind, emerging into an early morning camp in disarray. It was much as she’d seen it from inside the realm—soldiers were grabbing everything they could, jumping into evacuation ships or just clinging to the outside.

The other two sections of camp were no better. The camp gates had been blasted apart, and ponies were flooding in. At a glance, Sunset recognized many of them from Ponyville itself. They too had belongings with them, but not much. Maybe the command was wrong! Maybe Ponyville was attacked by the dragons, instead of by humans? But if that were the case, why not say so? It wasn’t like they couldn’t invent new evacuation codes on a whim.

Strangest of all was the Federation side. It didn’t look like they were attacking the Tower—their mounted guns sat quiet, and their war hardware was all gone. So were almost all of the people. What few humans Sunset saw were standing completely still, rigid as statues. Their eyes were glazed, and they completely ignored the ponies all around them.

Starlight Glimmer had been frozen right along with Sunset, taking in Normandy. “Evacuating Ponyville,” she muttered. “There’s Amber, she’ll know what’s going on.”

Starlight started running, and Sunset ran after her. Amber Sands was standing in a large group of guards, instructing them as though she knew exactly what she was doing. Her voice came into earshot as they neared. “Discord says we’ll have the way out soon! Just make sure everypony is ready to go through as soon as he opens it!”

Discord?

Sunset might’ve found her legs unsteady by now if they were still organic. Her whole world was being ripped out from under her in the space of a few minutes—hacked from inside the safest place in existence. Ponyville evacuating from an attack that didn’t seem to be happening. Twilight might as well have died to get her out. She was completely on her own.

“Amber, what happened?” Starlight asked, as she closed the last few steps in a bounding gallop. “What’s going on here?”

But Amber Sands wasn’t the one who answered. Instead a yellowish unicorn gathered near the front of the group fixed her eyes on Starlight. Where have I seen that hair before? But the mystery solved itself, because then she spoke, and Sunset instantly recognized her voice. Ada, Samil’s assistant.

“Star Admiral Colven ordered a total evacuation. Apparently, there was some kind of… hack, or… I don’t know, sounded like paranoia to me. But she said we all had to use the Equestrian bracelets. It was supposed to… protect us from something.”

Amber Sands finally noticed them, and gestured Starlight over. “That’s about it! The admiral is already out… but that’s the end of the good news. All the Federation troops who didn’t use the spell… and that’s all of them that were deployed when my s—when Colven’s command went out… they all went crazy. Troop carriers flew straight off to Canterlot, all of them.” She flicked her wing towards the camp, and the many humans just standing still. “These people are… they didn’t obey in time. They’re being mind-controlled too.”

Sunset felt a chill grip around her throat. Mind magic being used on the biological humans, just like she’d used it on the digital ones. It was a familiar plan. Someone is using them to attack Equestria.

All her worst fears were confirmed… except for her own involvement. Her help wouldn’t be teaching the Tower to better take over Equestria. The others were doing it. “By who?” she found herself asking, loud enough to carry over the crowd.

“By humanity’s pet monster,” said a voice from beside her. There was a faint crack of energy, and suddenly someone was standing beside her. The same human-shaped creature she had recognized in the castle. “They really should’ve seen him for what he was. Ah, well. The price of not having any magic.”

“Discord.” Starlight Glimmer stopped beside her, looking panicked. “Luna sent you here to evacuate everypony?”

“Luna,” he repeated, amused. “No, not her. But I’m not here for the scenery.” He snapped his fingers, and bits of all the nearest buildings started ripping right off the walls. Huge chunks of concrete, lengths of molten-orange rebar, entire shattered windows. They rose up from all directions, shaping themselves into an arch nearly ten meters tall and just as far across.

The air within flickered for a moment, as though it were one of the junctions between realms. Then the ruined camp on the other side vanished, replaced by an expansive grassy field covered with bits of morning frost. In the distance Sunset could see a city rising behind it, one large enough to challenge even what the Builders made. The Crystal Empire.

“Now I suggest you all start moving,” Discord said, not looking the least bit exerted by the magical effort he’d just spent. Sunset stared at the size of the rift in shock, her mind spinning at how incredible his power must be to create it.

She had read the accounts of his reform in depth by now, at least as she could get her hands on them. Even still, she could barely comprehend what she was seeing. How can we lose with Discord on our side?

It didn’t matter, losing wasn’t the question right now. Survival was.

“Take only what you can carry!” Starlight Glimmer shouted, her voice clear even over the confusion of the mob. “We don’t have time to gather supplies. Just go!” She stepped aside, and the mob began flowing through. Starlight didn’t go through herself though, and neither did Amber.

Starlight spared her one last dark glance, then abandoned her to help with the evacuation.

Sunset might’ve done exactly the same thing, except for a vehicle rolling its way over from the Tower side of camp. It was a little armored car, big enough to transport twenty legionaries sitting down or a hundred by racks.

Ponies scattered as it got close, and Sunset ran out to meet it, ignoring the satisfied yellow unicorn’s words as she left. Why couldn’t you be one of the ones who got mind controlled, you jerk? You don’t deserve to be a pony.

The car stopped right in front of her, its eight huge wheels spraying mud all over her and anypony else who was standing too close. The driver’s door banged open, and Sir Bradley leapt out.

He wasn’t wearing robes anymore, but the slim full-body armor of the knights. He lacked the sluggish momentum of the Federation troops in their armor, and carried a huge rifle instead of a sword. “Sunset, there you are! Our king has sent me to retrieve you. I’ve been scouring the camp for you… we must evacuate.”

He put out his hand, and Sunset almost took it. She might have, if it wasn’t for the crowd of terrified ponies behind her. I can’t leave them now. Who cares what the king says. Equestria is being invaded. Canterlot is under attack.

Sunset Shimmer had gone to the human world for power, and she was going to use it. “I will,” she said, stepping back. “With them. It was… noble of the king to send you after me. But I can’t go.”

A dozen different expressions seem to flick across Sir Bradley’s face. Sunset recognized the expression of someone who was using accelerated time. Maybe questioning Richard right now, for all she knew. What would he think of her refusal?

“You cannot survive outside of our facilities for long, Sunset,” Bradley said. “Your body is a civilian model, it isn’t made for field operation. Your charge will last seventy-two hours, and then you’ll shut down.”

As the message came in, Sunset found the world slowing down around her. The knight had forced her to accelerate along with him. And her quicker thoughts brought another realization. It wasn’t just a generator she would lack if she went with the ponies. I can’t bring Twilight back without a technician. She’ll be trapped in her crystal until I get back with the tower.

Can you give me a portable generator?” she asked, her tone desperate even if her body was still frozen. “Canterlot has been attacked, Brad. My home. Aren’t we supposed to be helping them?”

If the knight had to stop to think, his pause was imperceptible. “Richard says I can go with you. But if I do… Sunset, I’ll be bringing my entire household. Are you willing to trust the Equestrian defenses with their lives as well as yours?”

Time caught back up in a roar. Distant explosions shook the mountains, and Sunset watched her second castle collapse of the day. Canterlot was far away, but she could see its walls crumbling even from here.

“You don’t have to go,” Sunset said. “Please, if you’re worried, stay with the king. I just want a power source.”

“I can’t do that.” Sir Bradley took her hand in his, forcing her to meet his eyes. “I must protect you. With your people or mine, but somewhere.”

“Then with mine,” she said, barely a whisper. “Come on.”

He gestured, and someone inside the car reached across to slam its door closed.

All over the camp, the humans were waking up. They stirred slowly, noticing the crowd of ponies. Then they started moving. They didn’t draw their weapons, just started shambling forward, mad rage in their eyes.

“Guards, keep them back!” Amber shouted over the screams, and armored ponies appeared from the crowd, forming a perimeter around the evacuation.

“We’re coming through too!” Bradley shouted, louder than any organic ever could. “Make way, people! Car coming through!”

Sunset Shimmer walked along beside him. She caught one last glimpse of Canterlot in flames before she passed through the portal to the other side.

Join our Patreon to remove these adverts!
Join our Patreon to remove these adverts!