• 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 16: Input Buffer

Sunset Shimmer didn’t really want to go, particularly when she would have to leave Twilight behind. But there wasn’t any choice—she was supposed to represent the Tower now. She’d already done much to test the patience of King Richard, and Sir Bradley deserved better than to be left alone. But as she rose from where she’d been docked into the charging port, Sunset couldn’t help but feel naked without Twilight’s necklace around her neck.

There was nothing to bring with her, really. She had no weapons, and wouldn’t have known what to do with them if she had.

She shrugged on a set of plain robes, then stepped out into the frigid air of the Crystal Empire.

Brad’s armored car had parked surprisingly close to the city, close enough that they could’ve been mistaken for one of the many merchant carts that probably should’ve been here. But she wouldn’t get to sate her curiosity about the return of the Crystal Empire today. Apparently she was needed in the refugee camp.

It wasn’t hard to find—there were thousands of tents stretching away from the city, organized into orderly elliptical shapes with camp common areas in the middle. Equestria might not have all the amazing technology that the Tower or the Federation could bring, but at least their ponies could act with dignity in a difficult situation. That was an accomplishment on its own.

She was surrounded by staring ponies the instant she stepped away from the city, growing denser the further she got. There were thousands of refugees out just now, many of which still clinging to shirts or shorts or hats. Any makeshift clothing items they could find. They didn’t speak Equestrian either as she listened, but quiet, fearful English.

It was hard not to feel sympathy for the human equivalent of herself. If ever the Federation had made themselves difficult to empathize with, seeing thousands of terrified ponies could cut through that real quick.

She might not have known where to go in the expansive refugee camp, except that she had Sir Bradley’s beacon, pointing her deeper into the maze. From the look of things he was located at the very center of the growing Federation section, because she caught what were probably supposed to be dirty looks pointed her way by many of the ponies watching her. Even after being transformed they could apparently tell a Tower citizen when they saw one. Or else they’re just using logic, since they’d know that a federation citizen wouldn’t be safe here. But the mind control doesn’t work on me.

That was strange—Equestria had its own golems and automatons, or at least the legends did. Shouldn’t creatures governed purely by commands be more susceptible to mind control than real, living people? Unless it was magic. Magic could’ve caused it.

Sunset tried pinging Jackie again, more out of habit than anything else. It would’ve been good to have someone to vent to after everything—but as usual, she got a “User Not Found on Mesh” response. I hope she’s okay. Maybe Sir Bradley could help her find out what had happened to her friend. Once they dealt with the Federation…

The meeting was apparently scheduled to take place at one of the camp centers, which had real wooden roofs, though no walls. It reminded Sunset a little of public parks, with each camp having its own in the center. Closer to the Crystal Empire ponies had been using these as markets, gathering-places, schools… but here, there were huddled crowds of frightened ponies, sleeping on benches, tripping over their own hooves, and generally making themselves as useless as possible.

But her destination hadn’t been changed into a makeshift sleeping area. There were no royal guards passing out blankets, no kitchens, just a handful of ponies looking like soldiers but carrying strange guns instead of armor or spears. They had real jumpsuits too, with the little moon and star symbol Sunset knew to associate with the Federation Navy.

There were only two other ponies under the wooden canopy, two ponies and a single Knight of the Steel Tower.

Sir Bradley waved enthusiastically as Sunset approached, walking over to the perimeter and whispering something to the guards. They stepped aside for her—though from the look of things they’d already planned on doing that. How many other Tower people could there really be to let through?

But instead of walking inside with dignity, instead of making a show of how calm and collected she was for the watching ponies, Sunset practically fell into his arms. It was a kind of strength she couldn’t get from Twilight, because Twilight was the one who needed strength from her.

Brad didn’t flinch, didn’t reprimand her. He just held her, neither too firmly nor too loose. If she hadn’t already known his body was artificial, she wouldn’t have guessed it then.

“I don’t understand what we’re supposed to do,” Sunset sent over private radio. Not that either of the ponies would’ve listened to them. If the Federation people couldn’t listen in back when they still had their machines, they certainly wouldn’t be able to hear them as ponies. But still she kept quiet, if only out of habit.

“Keep going,” Brad said. “That’s what humans do, Sunset. We keep walking, even when the storm washes away the whole world behind us. It’s the storm that’s afraid of us, not the other way around. We’ll make it pay.”

But it didn’t feel like they could make anyone do anything. She almost said as much, but the longer she remained there, the more self-conscious she felt about being held. However much she needed this, it wasn’t the time.

“If you’re quite done over there, we have important things to discuss. More important than… whatever that is. Honestly your emotional simulation is a waste of time. I don’t know who wrote it.”

“No one.” Sir Bradley broke away, turning to face the yellowish pony with a dark expression on his face. “Ada, that’s who’s in that sleeve, right? For someone who claims to understand how we operate, you’re more ignorant of the Tower than a child would’ve been. Ignorance of your enemy only serves him.”

“Stop right there,” Starlight Glimmer said. She glanced between them, her expression almost as dark as Brad’s had been. Then again, some of her suspicion was for Sunset. “We don’t get to have petty arguments anymore, we left that luxury behind in Normandy. Ada, you said you had a suggestion for us. Whatever your plan is, let’s hear it and move on. There are a lot of new ponies here who need to get situated and not much time to waste.”

Sunset followed Sir Bradley over to the low table, though both of them were too large to sit at it. To her surprise, Bradley removed the massive rifle from his back, then dropped to his knees in front of it. With no gun of her own, it was easy for Sunset to do likewise. At least she could look a little dignified.

She couldn’t help but hold herself tense. Starlight Glimmer knew what she was—and she was watching her. It was only a matter of seconds until she revealed what she knew. Yet the pony remained silent. After a moment of uncomfortable eye contact, she looked away, her secrets unsaid.

“Yes, fine.” Ada sat down on the other end of the table, apparently having not noticed. “I’ll be quick. As part of the treaty with Equestria, the Federation was given information about all previous contact with your world. There is a device currently stored in this place, one that may be of use to us.”

She lifted a tablet computer onto the table with her mouth, controlling it with surprising dexterity for someone who’d only been a pony for a few hours. Unless the spell does something similar to what the Tower did to me. Maybe it rewired her brain. It was a shame it hadn’t rewired her brain to be nicer.

The tablet filled with a large image scanned from a pony book, one that Sunset Shimmer recognized instantly from her own personal study.

It looked like a mirror, a mirror in the shape of a horseshoe. But that appearance was deceptive—the magic involved was immensely complex, relying on the primacy of the equinoxes and the various flows of ley lines. It was also entirely mythological, believed stored away in the Crystal Empire’s ancient vaults.

Sunset Shimmer had wanted to find that mirror long ago, when she determined to make her own trip across to the world of the Builders. But she hadn’t been able to locate it, and had to settle for Clover the Clever’s ancient prototype instead. Apparently the stories of its location in the Crystal Empire were accurate after all.

And here we are, in the right place. “Are you familiar with this?” Ada asked.

Starlight Glimmer nodded. “Vaguely. There were… some attempts made to activate it. Somewhat unsuccessful.” She glanced briefly at Sunset, but if either of the others had noticed, they didn’t react.

Fortunately for the Federation, it wasn’t just Ada here. Alexi Colvin sat beside her, apparently calm in her oversized naval cap. Despite the total failure of her military leadership only a few minutes before. What else is she supposed to do? She’s trying to help. “We believe the problem was one of insufficient energy,” she explained. “Establishing a stable Hawking rift requires immense energies that your civilization would be incapable of producing. Err… no offence.”

“What does it do?” Sir Bradley asked from beside her. “Forgive me, I’m just a soldier. I don’t see why we should be talking about… whatever that is… unless it offers some tactical advantage. The Federation Army has gone completely rogue, the navy is powerless to help until they develop a vaccine. The rest of the Tower’s expeditionary force is either destroyed or in hiding. An invading army is pressing north towards us every minute. What does that do that will make a difference with any of that?”

“It’s a gateway,” Ada said. “One that we could use to receive reinforcements directly from Earth. From your faction, mine… both. How else do we fight a rogue army than with one that’s obedient to commands?”

“Point of order,” Admiral Colvin interrupted, raising one hoof. “The entire Federation army isn’t compromised. The Sons of Barsoom remain entirely free of corruption, thanks to the help of their OMICRON core. We still have access to their full capabilities, and we can call them back whenever we need them.”

“How many?” Bradley asked.

“A few hundred.” Colvin looked away, her voice noncommittal. “I’d rather not get into specifics. But it isn’t all of us, that’s the important part. The majority of my soldiers are around us. They are… perhaps not as useful as they would’ve been. Our equipment is left behind, and we’re still figuring out how to walk. But only a small minority of the army failed to obey my order.”

Sir Bradley looked to Sunset, as though hoping she might have some clever argument to force Alexi to talk. But she could only shrug. “Star Swirl’s mirror is here,” Sunset said. “And you have a way of turning it on.”

“We do,” Alexi answered before the scientist could, removing a satchel from the ground and opening it. Inside was a cylinder of dark metal, covered on all sides with deep red warning messages. Some of them weren’t even English, but in some kind of symbol that her own artificial eyes interpreted and highlighted in bright red.

Extreme danger—solid state antimatter storage device. Do not tamper.

There was more than just the warning. A little fence appeared around the cylinder on the table, one that Sunset knew as surely as she knew the sun was warm that she wouldn’t be allowed to cross.

Apparently Sir Bradley could see something similar, because he stumbled back away from the table, eyes widening in shock. “Where the fuck did you get that?”

“It was running Normandy,” Alexi said, a slight smile appearing on her face. “Would you prefer I leave it behind for Samil? And since we have this, every airship he has, every tank—they’re running on borrowed time. Once their hydrogen reserves run dry, they’ll stop. There’s no way for him to get more.”

Starlight Glimmer followed their gaze to the object. She squinted, maybe trying to read the dense English text. But if she knew any English at all, it wasn’t enough. “Should Equestria be worried about… whatever that is?” She tilted her head to one side. “What is it, anyway? No, not you.” She stuck out a hoof. “I want to hear your ‘enemies’ explain it. I know they aren’t going to get creative with the truth. No… no offence to either of you.”

She seemed to be expecting Sunset, but Sunset didn’t have a clue. The warnings were so serious that hardcoded restrictions would not let her touch that thing, wouldn’t let her approach it, and probably wouldn’t let her shoot it if she tried. Something so important that it defied even the longstanding Builder civil war.

Sir Bradley was on his feet again, taking a few nervous steps back. “That… that is antimatter.” When Starlight didn’t react, he went on, a little slower. “It’s… the most efficient energy storage in the universe. If that container is full… then it’s a bomb. If something happened to damage it, not one pony in this city would have a chance to blink before they died.”

“There hasn’t been a containment accident in human history,” Alexi snapped. “We’re not stupid, knight. The definition he gave is accurate enough, Starlight Glimmer. It is an energy source. Terribly dangerous if misused. It is the final escalation that even we did not use on each other. And won’t here. But Ada is more familiar with your magic than anyone, and she believes we can use it to power your artifact. If she says so, I believe her.”

Starlight Glimmer stared at the cylinder. “How… far from the Crystal Empire would that thing have to be for ponies not to be at risk?”

“At least… twenty kilometers,” Alexi said. “But they aren’t in danger.” She rotated the cylinder around, so that a series of bright green lights pointed towards them. “There are several layers of redundancy in the magnetic bottle. If even one was compromised, we would already be seeing warnings. It can store its contents safely for a decade without maintenance, I assure you. It is resistant enough to radiation that we could bring it across a Hawking Rift. No pony is in danger.”

“I’m not sure Cadance will agree,” Starlight said. “She may want to take that… anti-stuff… into the vault for safekeeping until it’s needed. Having it out here where there might be an accident… or where we might be attacked unexpectedly. It’s like leaving the Elements of Harmony sitting abandoned on a park bench, then being surprised when one of them goes missing.”

Alexi frowned. “Just so long as Cadance will let us send a technician to go with it into the vault. If something does go wrong, we want someone nearby who can do something about it, not a bomb waiting to explode.”

“Several technicians,” Ada corrected. “Because they’ll need to start connecting it to that portal of yours. There’s some fairly finicky engineering involved, and a very limited supply of spare parts. Maybe one of the robots would volunteer—”

“No,” Bradley cut her off. “But we do think this is a good plan, don’t we Natasha?” “We do think it’s a good plan, don’t we?”

Sunset winced, wishing he’d waited to ask the question before he confirmed they were in support. “Reinforcements might be good. But I don’t know how the mirror will respond to people like us. I know about that thing—I can tell you about it when this meeting is over.”

“Tentatively,” he added hastily. “We’ll want to see this thing when it’s finished before we agree to switching it on. As I’m sure Equestria will as well. You have far more lives at risk right here than we do.”

“I will speak to the princesses,” Starlight said. “But we don’t have a lot of good options. I have a feeling they’ll support you.”

“It will probably take about forty-eight hours to get everything set up,” Ada said. “So choose quickly. That army marching towards us aren’t going to go any slower. And if my former supervisor decides to take his army and march north before we’re ready for them… well, we don’t want that to happen.”

“None of us do,” Alexi added. “Please, Starlight. Urge them to decide quickly.”

The Nightbreeze didn’t stay on the ground long, just as Sea Legs had promised. The longer they stayed, the more griffons appeared from the village and sky around them, and the more nervous the crew became. In the end, only a handful of the ponies she had seen living in Motherlode managed to board in time. Or—more accurately—only a handful of those who approached the ship made any attempt to board it. Most ponies who got one look at the bat ponies operating it turned right back around and retreated to where they had been hiding.

Racist till the end I guess. There was some part of her that wasn’t disappointed to see them retreat. If they hated bats that much, then they didn’t deserve to get rescued by them. But there were some who boarded anyway, mostly the families with children. Sandstone’s relatives, for one. A handful of the younger ponies in town, more desperate for a way out than they were for spiritual purity.

Soon enough they were in the air again, rising so rapidly that her hastily reconstructed body started to wobble and shake under her. She’d already pushed hard just to make it to the Nightbreeze, it was all she could do to hobble around on the deck and wait for it to recharge.

At least there was a little schadenfreude in watching how the refugees responded to a ship full of bats. Even those who had been brave enough to flee with them had a nervous, flighty look on their faces, as though they thought they might be put back into chains at any moment. They all huddled together in one corner of the deck, blocking traffic and making sailors curse and go around them.

Captain Evening Star herself emerged from her cabin to deal with them. Like all the sailors, she didn’t wear a cloth uniform anymore, but armor made from thin sheets of silver metal. It was a little like medieval plate and chain, but didn’t seem as heavy or to restrict her movement quite so much. If that were steel, it wouldn’t protect her at all, but the dents and scratches suggested it had protected her many times.

“Alright everypony, listen carefully because I’m only going to say this once. Any of you who thought we would be taking you north to the pony refugee camp, you’re about to be disappointed. The griffon fleet is patrolling the skies, making it impossible for ships to pass.”

Jackie, Bree, and the others were not mixed in with the crowd of Motherlode locals, who kept as much distance from them as they did from the crew. She watched the ponies shift unhappily, some of them rise to an angry alertness. Was there about to be a riot? There were just over a dozen ponies it looked like, many of them looking abused or still wearing their chains.

The sailors apparently took that risk seriously as well, because several appeared from all around the ship, closing in silently, blocking off routes of escape.

Evening Star continued on, either ignorant or uncaring of their reaction. “But there isn’t anywhere in Equestria we’d consider safe to take you. I can’t leave some innocent civilians to die in a village that might be raided tomorrow. So you’ll have to come with us. There’s a… a town Equestrians don’t know about. One that we’ve never permitted outsiders to see. We were already traveling south to rejoin with the Lunar fleet, so we’ll drop you off there. You’ll be safe there until the war ends, assuming we win it. If we don’t… then getting this involved guarantees we’ll burn too.”

She headed off a few questions from the other passengers, mostly demands about being dropped off in one city or another. Evening Star denied them all with the brusqueness of a general, then, “You’ll all be given quarters to share. You’ll have to hot-bunk with members of my crew, but seeing as you’re day ponies and they’re not this shouldn’t be too much of a problem. Just sleep when it’s dark and you’ll always have a bed. Sea Legs will help you to your quarters.”

They began to disperse. Whatever riot that Jackie had felt forming couldn’t survive the strength of Evening Star’s will.

But while many others, even True Silver and the other natives, dispersed below decks, eager to get some rest and a hot meal at last, Jackie remained right where she was. Bree went with them, though she stayed at the back of the crowd as well. Hopefully there would be separate quarters for them than the rest of Motherlode’s citizens.

“You.” Evening Star stopped only a few feet away, looking her up and down with a swift, critical eye. “Some agent you are. You’re falling apart.” Her glowing eye-piece flashed, and she stumbled back, eyes widening. “Sweet Celestia, you’re… that can’t be right. It says here that you’re…”

“Completely artificial?” Jackie supplied. “A robot?” She could only imagine what Evening Star’s soldiers thought of that. But at the same time, she didn’t much care. It was hard to care about anything as emotionally drained as she was from the village. “It’s not wrong.”

Despite all her strength and willpower, Evening Star seemed to hesitate at this news, her covered eye darting over the display that Jackie couldn’t read. Eventually she nodded. “It says here you’re… something called a Tower Automata. Not a person at all, but a simulated… I think we should continue this conversation in my office.”

And they did. Jackie was all-too eager to get out of earshot of the sailors, given she already looked enough like a freak for them to avoid her. She didn’t sit down this time, there was no sense in that. Evening Star’s computer was active and constantly updating, with a stack of printouts beside it. They looked like strategic information at a glance, updates to troop movements and that sort of thing. But Jackie didn’t want to look out of place by going over to investigate.

“I don’t understand how you can’t know what I am…” she began. “Aren’t you a Federation citizen? Not knowing about the Steel Tower… that’s like not knowing about the Soviet Union. Bigger, since the Tower massacred way more people than they ever did. Even more than Mao, and let me tell you that is an accomplishment.”

Evening Star didn’t remove her armor or do anything else to relax as soon as they were in her quarters. She didn’t sit down either, just stared at Jackie and occasionally lifted some tablet or another off a counter to press a few things.

“Federation… no,” Evening Star—Hayden—said. “Nothing like that existed when I… found my way over. But whatever it is, you’re sure not convincing me by suggesting that your faction killed more people than Mao. Are you threatening me?”

Jackie laughed, holding out her mechanical leg. “Look at me, Hayden. I’m literally held together with string and prayers at this point. I’m one of the Steel Tower’s victims. I should be a Federation citizen too, but I happened to be in their territory when the war broke out. Bombs were falling, the outside was getting poisoned… they found another way for us to ‘live.’ You might want to be careful what you believe from that headset if it’s telling you that I’m just an automaton, though. Individuals of the Steel Tower have artificial bodies, but not artificial minds. Actually only the Federation has cracked that particular nut. Depending on your religion, I’m either the same Jackie who got downloaded into the Infinite Realm all those years ago, or else I’m a near-indistinguishable copy of her. Not a robot, or an automaton.”

“Depending on my… religion.” Evening Star slumped into her chair. “What the buck happened to my planet? There’s history in my computer there, but none of those files are accessible. Someone protected them all.”

“Welp, I can give you the short version or the shorter version.” Jackie sat down across from her. “First, though. The ones with me… I assume you’ll give them the same treatment as the other refugees? Take them to this secret village of yours…” Her right foreleg lurched suddenly under her, and she winced, her other limbs correcting as it suddenly couldn’t bear any weight.

“Of course,” Hayden said. “The village elders are going to be livid with me, bringing in a few dozen refugees. There’s a very high chance they won’t ever want to let any of you leave. If you were bats, you could be inducted, but…”

“I was a bat until a few days ago, don’t you remember?” But Jackie wasn’t really making that argument. The idea that a group of local primitives could contain her at all was almost funny, but she wouldn’t laugh aloud. “Whatever, that’s their problem. That they’ll be safe is good enough for me.”

“They’ll be safe,” Evening Star said. “As safe as anything in this nightmare.” She slumped back, looking distant. “Luna’s return was supposed to unify Equestria. It was supposed to bring peace that lasted forever. But even she wasn’t strong enough to fix this.” She looked back, eyes narrowing. “No one else will tell me what happened to Earth. Will you?”

“Sure,” Jackie said. “How much do you know?”

It took a few hours, despite her promise that it would be the “short” version. It was easy enough to summarize things, but less easy to keep it brief when Hayden kept asking questions. And she answered as best she could, until the bat was finally satisfied.

“My God,” Hayden finally finished. “We came that close to destroying ourselves, over… our immortality cure? Either put people in machines, or put machines in people… how is that such a big deal? Seems like they’d work together well… this Nanophage stuff would make a person better able to compete with one of you artificial people, and the Federation’s AIs would work well in the Infinite Realm.”

Jackie shrugged. “The conflict started before I was born. Both sides have hated each other as long as I can remember, and more the later it got. It started out as a cold war, but… cooler heads didn’t prevail this time. Kinda weird when you think about it—both sides had beaten Humanity’s real enemies. Disease, time itself. They both could’ve done so much. Before the cold war became a hot war, we were sending out these unmanned interstellar probes. How much longer before we could send people? We’ll never know, because we fucked ourselves hard. And here I am, just another victim.”

“Just another victim,” Evening Star repeated. “Except I saw you down there, Jackie. You’re no victim—you fought your way to my ship, step by bloody step. I’d guess you were built for it, or your body was. But considering how badly you’re falling apart, that’s clearly not the case.”

She nodded. “I was honest with you when I told you my mission, Hayden. I was sent to retrieve a Tower engineer. I have her now, and I’d like to bring her back to Normandy. Finish my mission, earn my freedom.”

Evening Star shook her head. “Normandy is held by the enemy now. You can’t go back.”

“I heard… a little. Over the radio. Something about mind control…” For perhaps the thousandth time, Jackie tried to send a message to Sunset Shimmer, to check if she’d made it out okay, ask what she should do. But her antenna was still broken, and her body responded with a simple error code.

“I don’t know the specifics,” Hayden said. “But yes. The human soldiers of one faction started fighting ponies. They took Canterlot so fast that the guard couldn’t even mobilize. I don’t know how many ponies got out, but now they’re… helping clear the way to the Crystal Empire. That’s the last refuge, the last seat of Equestria’s government. When it goes, the war is over.”

“You think it will?”

Evening Star rose, turning away from Jackie. “Excellus will do everything she can to prevent that outcome. But there aren’t many of us, even if we’re a bit more sophisticated than the rest of Equestria. Our fleet is going north anyway. Divided, we stand no chance. But perhaps with us, Equestria’s odds get better.”

“That’s very noble of you,” Jackie said. “As for us, fuck war. I think my new friends and I have earned a little rest. Or… probably more likely, you’ll have us working in some factory, won’t you?”

Evening Star nodded. “All Excellus is mobilized to protect itself from destruction. We thought it might be Equestria invading us, so… having the threat be external has removed any anxiety some individuals held about the war. But any work you receive won’t be too difficult. Certaintly not compared to what Motherlode’s ponies were exposed to before their rescue. Who knows—we might even be able to do something about that leg.”