• Published 6th Sep 2018
  • 1,423 Views, 136 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.

  • ...

Chapter 14: Eve

The Crystal Empire was not for her as it was for the ponies all around her. As Sunset Shimmer passed through its glittering streets, she did so from the seat of a six-wheeled all terrain extended deployment vehicle. There were six passenger seats, and all of them were occupied.

In a way, this was as much mythology to her as anything she’d first heard about the Builders and their civilization. Unlike her trip to Earth, the Crystal Empire was everything she had imagined. An entire city built out of the magically resonant substance that had given the place such an aura of legend about it.

But in many ways, her time with humanity had spoiled some of the magic for her. The Crystal Empire had streets that were bright day or night, without smoke. They had warmth through the coldest winters, food that prepared itself. Carts that slid along the ground without ponies to pull them.

Now she saw that all those legends were true, but so what? Every simulated city in the Realm had those things, and they were only a reflection of the true civilization that had come before, now destroyed. But there was no denying the humans were capable of it.

She could feel frustrated eyes on her from her fellow passengers—Xavier the engineer, a few scholars in plain robes, squires in their simple armor. Sir Bradley’s whole household was here, and clearly didn’t want to be.

“What makes you think we can serve the tower best from here?” asked a female to a squire her own age, with her hair long and purple on one side of her head, and buzzed short on the other. “Did good King Richard send you a command that we didn’t hear?”

“Yes,” Sunset said, without explanation. Then she looked away. She didn’t have to argue with them. If she’d gotten her original way, they wouldn’t be here either.

But Bradley isn’t so bad.

So far passing through to the Empire had happened to her practically in a dream. The trickle of ponies behind her had become a flood as the Federation attacked, but not one of the zombified people dared follow them. At least, not that she’d heard.

“I’m not sure anyone did take them over,” said one of the other squires over local radio. “That sounds like an excuse to me. They’ve been waiting all this time for a way to fuck us up, and look they found one. It’s not my fault I conquered your whole country, honest! We were forced into it!”

“They’re committed to the ruse if that’s what it is,” Xavier said. “That must be half their population turned into ponies. They’re not like us, Jesse, they can’t just get a hot-swap into another body. Those people are stuck for life. Unless you think their conquered civilization is going to be volunteering to undo all their magic. That’s why the monarchs imposed that rule in the first place—to prevent a coup.”

The squire only grunted, sparing one last angry look at Sunset before turning to the window and staring out at the city all around them.

The Crystal Empire was larger than Canterlot, Sunset could see. Rather than an organic outgrowth of civilization over thousands of years, this place was obviously planned. The streets were arranged every thirty degrees along a central axis, with buildings perhaps a dozen stories tall, gradually getting smaller as the distance from the palace increased. How much don’t we know about our own history? Maybe we weren’t all that different from the Builders ourselves, once.

Sunset had heard such mysteries before, all tied up with an ancient city called Carcosa. She knew Celestia had been born there, along with her sister—the last of the Alicorns. But she hadn’t ever been able to extract more. If only she could’ve told me where it was. Maybe then Sunset Shimmer would be in Twilight Sparkle’s hooves right now, helping to defend Equestria.

She felt a little guilty considering that. Sunset reached back down, her grip tightening around Twilight’s necklace. It was true, many of the Builders would not have suffered if they never met her. But they would’ve remained ghosts forever, instead of recovering… as ponies. What would the others have said if they could speak to her? Sunset had no idea, because Tesla had not allowed her to remain in contact with them. Her ponies were back on Earth, and would be until she satisfied the terms of Tesla’s deal.

“What happened to Tesla?” Sunset asked suddenly, startling everyone in the car to staring at her.

For a few seconds they just looked to one another, apparently unsure exactly who should be the one to respond to her. Eventually Xavier answered, though it earned him some dirty looks. That they want me to see. They could use private radio to say how much they hate me. “My father went dark the instant of the attack, along with the Seers. The Order has its own troops, and I’m sure they’re looking for him. Our king didn’t give Sir Bradley that responsibility.”

Sunset nodded, looking away. She dared to let herself hope, though she should’ve felt guilty for it. If Tesla died, then anyone who knew of what she’d done would die with him. She wouldn’t be a hostage anymore, and neither would Jackie.

“Wait, you said… it happened the moment of the attack?”

Xavier nodded. “Far as I know. Maybe he was one of the first targets. We lost… an awful lot of hardware. I don’t think I’m at liberty to go into specifics. I’m sure he would be a valuable prize to a monster like Samil.”

There were a few dark mutterings from around the car.

Or he was part of it, Sunset thought. Richard did suspect there was something rotten in his empire, didn’t he? Maybe Tesla was a traitor too. She still felt like she was in a daze. Through all this, the one constant in her mind had been that the humans were here to help Equestria. But if that was no longer the case, then… she needed to find her parents in the refugees, or find out what had happened to them. Thank Celestia she was an only child, and wouldn’t have any brothers off dying in the war.

“Sunset, we’ve arrived at the capital. I believe you should come with me to represent the Tower to the princesses. Richard himself will remain in an undisclosed location from here on—his life is worth far more than ours. But our presence here means there is someone to represent Tower interests.”

Sunset hesitated. Had she been talking to anyone but Brad, she wouldn’t have said what she was thinking, just let events unfold naturally. But he had shown her nothing but kindness since their first meeting. He deserved better. “I forgot to tell you—while I was taking my pony guests to the festival, they confronted me. Starlight Glimmer figured out I used to be a pony, and she even knew who I was. She has certainly told Celestia about me by now. We have… a bit of a rocky history. You probably shouldn’t take me.”

The car came to a gentle stop a few moments later. There was an Equestrian blockade around the massive palace grounds, with a few strange-looking objects that she realized with shock were mounted guns. Equestrian guns, made from shiny brass with little crystals protruding from the ends. A crowd of ponies started forming around their car, mostly guards. None of them did anything violent. They were probably expected.

“King Richard will send only me, then. He does not like the idea of overlapping your reconciliation with our formal diplomatic contact. But he commands that you meet with Celestia within the week. Whatever your history, you must put it behind you in this time of war. Princess Celestia will understand and sympathize with that need.”

Sunset felt a surge of quiet relief, though it wasn’t to last. She wouldn’t have to meet Celestia now—but that meeting would not be much delayed. An ancient weight, one she’d almost forgotten about, settled itself firmly on her shoulders. She had always known she would have to meet with the sun princess again. But it was supposed to be after she had transformed into a being of power. You wouldn’t tell me where Carcosa is, you wouldn’t share Starswirl’s secret spells, and I did it anyway. I went over your head. That’s what she’d imagined she would say. But not anymore.

Sunset Shimmer had no desire to conquer Equestria now. The dragons seemed committed to that without any of her help.

“Hey, Xavier.” Sunset sat up again, removing the necklace from her neck. “I have… a personality simulator matrix here, but it took serious damage in the attack. Can you fix it?”

Xavier took the offered crystal from her hand, and removed a tool with his. Something with a wide flat base and a transparent gridlike surface. She couldn’t see what he was doing, but under the tool the internal mechanisms of the crystal seemed to become transparent. He turned it over a few times, then handed it back. “Nope. Those one-man crystals are a civilian gadget, they aren’t built to be repaired. Nothing I can do.”

Sunset almost screamed her frustration, except that he was already going on. “If we hadn’t… gone on this little detour, I would suggest just printing a body for the person in there, I can see the core is intact. But we don’t have the raw materials to make a body.” He turned to one side, gesturing at the cargo area in their truck.

Sunset hadn’t paid much attention to it, not when she had been so distracted by their arrival here.

It was mostly weapons, but Xavier rose from his seat and removed the cover from what was unmistakably a computer of some kind. “Microrealm. It isn’t as exciting as the real thing, and we don’t have highband. But if you put them in there, at least you could stay in touch over radio, visit when you’re charging.” He slid the cover shut again. “I’m guessing that’s some kind of… mission advisor?”

She’s the shackles of my guilt Tesla wrapped around my neck. But she was also a friend, a friend who might not be trapped for much longer. She basically died to get us out of that base in time. We’d have been… Sunset didn’t even want to think about it. If they’d been stuck in the Realm when those mind-controlled humans arrived, their bodies could’ve been crushed to dust. “Sure!” she said, maybe a little too quickly. “I mean yes, that’s what she is. A mission advisor. I’m sure she won’t need many of your resources.” She looked around, a little apologetic.

These people—Sir Bradley’s household—probably intended to “live” in that server when they weren’t needed in the real world. That was why they could deploy in this little truck, without beds or kitchens or any of the other amenities of life. Dock and charge in their seats, and they could be somewhere much more comfortable until needed again.

Xavier shook his head. “We didn’t have time to sort out our usual support staff. It’s nice and roomy in there. Just a few forks and some cobwebs.” He put out his hand again. “I could do it now, if you like? We don’t have orders yet, and the master may very well be in talks for hours.”

“Sure.” Sunset didn’t throw her friend, even if she trusted her aim perfectly. She walked all the way over, handing her gently into Xavier’s outstretched hand. She watched as he went to work at the single seat of a workbench, slicing through the crystal with a glowing knife that filled the air with foul smelling smoke. The other staff slid into their charging ports one after another, each settling into a blank expression as they went to… the place Twilight was going.

A few seconds of cutting, and he’d removed the object he wanted—a dark metal cylinder the size of a thimble. He didn’t touch it with his hands, sliding it into a plastic sleeve apparently made for it. “Your advisor is brave riding around in one of these,” Xavier said, tossing the rest of the broken necklace away. “But I suppose there are people in the realm who say the same thing about us. Deploying anywhere is just too much of a risk.”

Sunset shrugged. “She’s brave, for sure. She’s the only reason I made it out of Normandy.”

Xavier opened the server-rack again, exposing the bright blue machine with its glowing crystalline interior. A wave of heat hit her from the inside, along with a hiss of cooling solution. “I suppose you’ll want to be in to say hello?” he asked, removing a shroud from an interface port the perfect shape to accept Twilight’s new plastic-case-wrapped self. “You’re both new to our sim, so you’ll be in the same place. Maybe… give the others some space. They know you’re the reason we’re here, and they’re not happy. Might give you a hard time in there.”

“Hard time,” Sunset repeated, her voice distant. “Just watched my country get invaded by the allies we invited to save us. I don’t think they could do anything to me.” Though some part of Sunset wished they would try. She had become a powerful hacker in the Infinite Realm, even without her army of slave minds. Only Tesla himself had been able to stop her from escaping to Equestria. He wouldn’t be waiting inside that server.

Sunset Shimmer settled into the nearest empty chair, then leaned her head back to contact the docking port. Looks like you didn’t have to remain a piece of junk for as long as you thought, Twilight. Hope you’re okay.

For the second time in only a few weeks, Jackie found herself in a body she no longer completely understood, and didn’t even really want. But where the pony body she’d been given had at least been constructed by someone who knew all about ponies and how they worked… this wasn’t.

“Those programs should… be enough to compensate for the increased resistance to the original motors you’re still using. They should also simulate pressure when I used a thaumic reciprocating servo instead.”

“That sounds… crazy.” Jackie shifted on her hooves, putting her weight on the mechanical foreleg only skeptically. The hyperstable plastics had been replaced with brass and steel. They might actually be stronger in some ways, but they were also much heavier. “Your motors aren’t as efficient,” she said, taking a few delicate systems. “Computer here says I have to…”

“Stop every few minutes for the capacitors to recharge?” Bree shrugged one shoulder. “That’s an RTG for you. Can’t turn them to a higher gear. Though I noticed yours looked a little banged up.” Bree still looked exhausted, but transitioning to a more familiar topic had revitalized her enough to speak intelligently. “Guess the system probably went into safe mode. Tighter thermal tolerances, emergency shielding closed… even less efficient.”

“Yeah,” Jackie said. She didn’t really understand what Bree was saying about the device, but in many ways, it didn’t matter. The point was that she couldn’t move as much, and there was no avoiding that painful reality. “So you want me to fight off the griffons in Motherlode… with a broken body that I can only use for a few minutes at a time.”

“Not just you,” Bree said, a little annoyed. “Frostline and Cirrus are going to be up in the air, screening us with a nice fog. Make sure we don’t get reinforcements by accident. And we might be able to do something about your systems… you’ve still got an induction charger for docked use, I saw it. I just need to… remember the modulation, then… painstakingly count out the right number of wires. We could use a thaumic couple.” She giggled weakly. “You’re going to have the most expensive body in the world when we’re done. That’s the forth mithril part. My mom could sell that metal in wedding rings that would go for as much as a few houses, probably.”

“That’s very thoughtful of you,” Jackie said. “You can have it back once we make it to Normandy. Then I’ll get a new human body, and you can salvage everything from this one.”

“I won’t be doing much salvaging from prison,” Bree said. Then her expression brightened. “And we won’t be going to Normandy. Canterlot was attacked… by the Federation.”

The weight of that statement left Jackie wordless for nearly a full minute. She remembered the humble farmpony who had given her an apple on her first day, talking about her big brother in the market. Then she thought about what the Sons of Barsoom might do to their little farmhouse. They wouldn’t even need to slow down while they slaughtered everyone.

“W-why?” she asked. Her voice felt thin and reedy, even worse than it had been with her damaged voicebox. “The Federation, of all people…”

“Because you think they’re the perfect good guys who do no wrong?” Bree rolled her eyes. “They’re no different than the Tower, Jackie. In many ways they’re worse. The Steel Tower is governed by algorithm, it runs according to reliable, replicatable systems. But the Federation is made of organics and organics are fallible. The radio didn’t go into detail, but…” She fumbled around on the desk, lifting a scroll of paper. “I transcribed what it said, in case there was some kind of code. None I saw, and nothing you would see that I wouldn’t.” She stepped back. “Now that you’re working, I’m going to bed. War in the morning. I’d suggest you should sleep too, but… so long as you’re not moving, that should let those capacitors charge. You should be able to get fifteen straight minutes if they’re all intact.”

Query, local solid-state emergency storage.

Energy storage at 66%. Critical damage to relay seven-nine. Seek repair immediately.

As though she didn’t already know about that. “Make that ten minutes,” Jackie said. “Apparently I lost one. Roc really fucked me up.”

Bree nodded. “Ten minutes. Practically an eternity for a synthetic.”

“Maybe a knight,” Jackie countered. “I’m a hacker. A civilian hacker.”

But Bree didn’t argue with her, and Jackie didn’t chase after her. She made her way over to the mirror, looking once more at her reflection.

Not good. Bits of fur had been ripped away, her wings were just bare plastic interface covers, one of which had bits of physical damage covered over with pony bandage. Her face itself was intact, though her puffy ears and slitted eyes now looked out of place. For all she had complained about being a pony, all she’d hated it even, at least the body she’d worn before was designed to look like one of them. She was a monstrosity now, a slapdash assembly of spare parts. I should really learn to take better care of myself.

Another, darker thought came. The same one that always did. “Why bother? I’m not alive.”

But what about Bree? Jackie settled down onto the ground in front of the mirror. There was no reason to waste energy pretending to need a bed. All she had to do was configure her comfort settings, and she could ignore the stitches in her skin and damage all over her body. There was no more need for a constant reminder of her soreness and pain when she couldn’t do anything about it just now.

Within the tiny local storage of her mind, she could be human again, in a tiny room that lacked any access to the outside world. She couldn’t tell Sunset what she was about to do, couldn’t beg her to somehow get a quicker rescue here. But after what just happened in Normandy, she might need the help herself. I hope she got out okay.

Maybe if she hadn’t been broken to pieces she might be hoping for a Tower defeat. That way she could fade into the background and be forgotten, free to live her life however she wanted. But now… she’d never pass as a regular pony again. The best she could hope for was that they’d take pity on her and not look too closely. I have to get back for repair.

But first Bree wanted her to risk her life again to save Motherlode. After its ponies had just attacked them, after feeling incredibly unwelcome for the last week. She wasn’t exactly in a very helpful mood.

She could only hope that all her bluster about what she could really do with a rifle was still true. If this body isn’t up to the challenge, those griffons are going to rip me to pieces. More pieces.

Jackie’s little dream-space wasn’t much, really. There was little limit on space, but without an external simulation server the amount of reality that could be visible at any one time was limited. Most people she’d read about—and whose advice she had followed—suggested a tiny interior space with no windows and no sight-line longer than twenty feet. So she’d picked herself an attractive little bedroom, like something that might’ve been an upper loft in one of the A-class cities, where space was so expensive that closets could cost a month’s wages.

She sprawled out on the bed, a laptop resting in front of her. She could use it to play any of the media she’d brought, which would be enough to watch basically forever. Brains were quite a bit bigger than movies.

But she didn’t watch any of it, just turned on some quiet music and made her way to the window she wasn’t supposed to have. She pulled open the blinds, looking down at the nighttime city.

Here she could see the limits of her single brain stretched to breaking. So long as her speed of thought wasn’t allowed to slow to devote more cycles to render, which was almost always the case, she would get something like this. A city made of blocks, with blobs like cars rolling in the distance.

But why did the sky look so good? She remembered setting it to a video file, a simple recording that would do a passable simulation without requiring that much processing. But there was no way it was meant to look that good. It was like something she might’ve seen in the Infinite Realm, a thousand little subtle shades of white, orange, and yellow. Off to one side, a little mediocre shower vanished behind a blocky building.

“I must be losing my mind,” Jackie thought, turning back to her laptop. She checked to see if she’d released the time-lock, which would probably mean that scene was burning through hours until morning with great rapidity. But no… it was still firmly locked, with the customary explanation point that would require SUDO privileges to enable.

She carried her laptop to the bench beside the window, wedging herself in so she could look outside and verify her runtime statistics for herself. The familiar interface came up, showing her one-to-one ratio and the slow charge building in her functional capacitors.

The phone on her wall started ringing. It was an ancient thing—corded, a relic of the design more than something that was meant to be used. If this apartment was used in a better simulation, it might connect with the buzzer downstairs, which would tell her when she had visitors. My antenna is broken. Jackie dropped the laptop, freezing almost still. The screen cracked right down the middle, but she didn’t care. Jackie reached out, pulled the phone off the wall. “Hello?”

It was a woman’s voice, distant and distorted. Like it was coming in from great distance. Her words were difficult to separate for the first few seconds. “Can you hear me?”

She nodded, though of course the speaker wouldn’t be able to see her. She lowered her voice to a whisper. “Yeah, I can. Who the hell is this? Did you slip a transponder into my body without me knowing about it?”

But even as she said it, it seemed a poor explanation. This body had been built by Sunset Shimmer’s designer, using the same designs she meant to use on her “princess.” There would be no secret receivers inside.

What external signals am I receiving?

Long-range transmitter critically damaged. No incoming signals.

“Do you know where you are?” came the voice again, a little more distantly.

“I’m dreaming,” Jackie answered, reflexively. “Until morning, when I have to go out and fight.” If this isn’t a message, then it must be self-generated somehow. Had she written a program to send this message? But if she had, she should’ve been able to remember it. She couldn’t.

“Don’t wake up,” said the voice, sounding even more distorted than before. She could no longer be sure that it was female, or even human. The words were Equestrian, not English. “You think… place for you. Don’t… not just Motherlode.”

“Sure.” Jackie held the phone at arm’s length, right over the receiver. “I’m going to hang up now.”

There was no response. A few more seconds of painful static, then a ringtone.

Well after that adventure I should be able to fight for Motherlode just fine. Her sarcasm didn’t make her feel much better when there was no one around to appreciate it.

She spent the next several hours reviewing her combat programs, changing her human simulation to one based on her current body so she could practice moving. The idea behind Bree’s programs was tricking her head into thinking that her new limbs worked the same way as the old, but that illusion would go only so far. Steel was heavier, and the motors didn’t respond quite so fast. She would still have perfect precision, just not any advantages in speed.

But she couldn’t run any kind of real combat practice, for the same reason she couldn’t have more than a simple room. At least she didn’t get any creepier phone-calls along the way.

Then the sun came up, and the ponies locked away in the shelter with her started getting up. Bree remained asleep—perhaps unsurprisingly after the number of hours she’d been working.

True Silver was the first one over. “Moire, you’re… together again!” She eyed the blank spots on her back. “Sorry about your wings. I remember Spring saying she couldn’t fix those.”

Jackie sat up, though she was careful to move as slowly as possible. She wanted to stay as close to full charge as she could, which meant slow, weak movements. “She probably could’ve, but they never worked. I couldn’t fly, remember? They were part of the reason why.”

“Oh.” True Silver looked away, eyes pitying. And Jackie couldn’t blame her—she couldn’t even imagine what an organic would see looking at her. “It doesn’t hurt, does it?”

“No!” She rose, pushing a concerned hoof away. “No pain at all. When I get to safety, they can fix me as good as I was.”

“Did my daughter tell you…”

“About Normandy?” She nodded. “I’m sure the humans evacuated safely. We’ve become experts at it by now, after all the wars we’ve had to survive. They’ll still be somewhere.”

“Maybe so, but… I don’t think we can go with you there anymore. There’s a broadcast coming through from the Crystal Empire, Princess Luna. She says that everypony who’s in danger should flee up there. I think we’ll go there instead.”

“That makes sense,” Jackie said. “Even if it isn’t…” Even if it wasn’t where the Tower had gone, they would be bound to still be in touch with pony civilization. She could bring Bree there, and that would be as good as rescuing her. They could pick her up whenever they wanted after that. “We can talk to the captain of the Nightbreeze when she gets here. If Canterlot has been… conquered… then I don’t think she’d even want to go back that way.”

“Good, that’s good.” True Silver looked relieved. “I’m sorry things didn’t work out. You worked so hard to rescue us.” She lowered her voice. “You should know I don’t expect you to go out there and take on a dozen mercenaries on your own. You’ve had time to get to know my daughter… she gets possessed of certain notions and… well, doesn’t let go. They’re not always reasonable. Often, they aren’t. Here you are half-broken, legs all taken apart…” She shuddered as she said it, face turning a little green. “What does she think you are, an Alicorn? You’re not that.”

“No,” Jackie agreed. “But I’ll… take a look, see what’s out there. If it looks like I can help, I’ll help. If not… I won’t die pointlessly to save ponies who hate me. I’m just not that good a person.”

True Silver nodded solemnly, then walked away.