• 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 18: Overflow

They were all assembled on the deck now, every one of the refugee ponies from Motherlode. Jackie kept close to True Silver and Bree, with those not affiliated with them clustered near the other side of the deck.

Evening tapped one hoof on the deck for their attention. “Welcome to Excellus,” she said. “Unfortunately we have no way of removing your memory of this place—and it wouldn’t be humane to keep you in a closet with a bag over your head until the war ended. This means it may be… difficult… to get permission for many of you to leave. When the war ends, I’ll have a conversation with Celestia about arranging for a Geis, or…” She shook her head.

“That’s thinking too far ahead. I’m sorry your homes were destroyed. If it’s any consolation, my ponies here in Excellus once knew exactly how you feel.”

“So we’ve gone from one slave master to another,” someone called from the gathered ponies. “You were working with the murderer this whole time, weren’t you? Tricking us here… we should’ve stayed with the griffons. At least they’re honest about being monsters.”

Evening Star’s crew shifted uneasily, their attention focusing on the pony who’d spoken. It was Sifting Flour, a waspish gossip who’d never said a kind thing to Jackie once during all her time in Motherlode.

“If you want to think of yourselves as prisoners of war, I suppose you could,” she said, walking right up in front of the earth pony as though she had nothing but contempt for her magical strength. She wore no armor now, and flying ponies were fragile compared to their earthbound cousins—but she showed no fear.

“But it would be better to think of yourselves as our honored guests. You won’t be forced to work, you won’t be half-starved and left sick, you won’t be beaten. I’ll arrange the finest quarters I can. If you wish to earn some spending money or extra rations, I suggest signing up with one of the mining outfits in town. Your racial abilities could allow you to rise high here.”

“Just not leave,” Sifting Flour snapped.

“Not leave,” Evening Star agreed. “Our existence is a secret from Equestria. Your expressions on the way in suggest we’ve done a good job keeping that secret. Assuming the council still cares about maintaining it when this war is over… well, Celestia knows about us. You can petition her yourself, how’s that sound?”

She didn’t wait for an answer. “Officer of the watch, bring that group to the resettlement office. Make sure they’re housed in the capital district—the outskirts might not be as kind to dirtwalkers.” There was a little spite in her voice, however brief it lasted. Jackie didn’t know what it meant exactly, but she didn’t have to ask. The crew’s satisfaction was the only answer she needed.

The Motherlode refugees were led away, leaving only their small faction by the landing ramp.

“We don’t need a lecture,” True Silver said. “We’ve already discussed it—we’re willing to cooperate with you, so long as you’re helping Equestria. It’s enough that we’re fighting on the same side. We won’t fight you or try to escape.”

Evening Star relaxed, eyes scanning between Silver’s horn and Frostline’s wings. “I suspect you already know what it’s like to be an outcast. I apologize that you… may encounter a little more of that here in Excellus. Resentment towards the rest of Equestria has survived all these years. But considering how rare it is to have visitors, I’d expect people to be more fascinated by you than angry. I’m afraid we have no use for weather magic—our climate regulation is more mechanical than that. But we’ll be eager to accept whatever help you have to offer. Yours in particular, True Silver. Unicorn magic is a rare and valuable thing, and the city does use some enchantments in need of repair.”

True Silver winced visibly at the suggestion. “I… I’d be happy to help in any way I can, but… my horn doesn’t work. I have no unicorn magic. That’s the only reason the ponies of Motherlode tolerated me. They knew I couldn’t bewitch them, and without their strength… I was easy to push around.”

“You were not, Mom,” Bree hissed. “You just had to fight back in other ways.”

But Silver ignored her, and so did Evening Star. “I’m sorry. Our medicine is advanced, but… we know nothing of how to treat unicorns. I doubt there’s anything we can do. By way of information, my fleet is planning to deploy to the Equestrian front in two days. You’ll see signs of mobilization everywhere you go. If any of you”—and her eyes lingered on Jackie—“want to help defend Equestria directly, speak to any of the naval representatives here in the capital.”

She turned again. “Sea Legs, take these to the housing office—the other group should be gone by now. Make sure they’re housed somewhere far away from those other ponies, if you would. I get the feeling they weren’t friends. And once they’re situated, send a mechanist.”

Jackie caught Hayden watching her as they were led down the ramp into the massive palace structure.

Sea Legs escorting them was nothing if not polite, and there was no army of soldiers following them. Jackie doubted that the other group had been treated as politely. But True Silver wasn’t lying—they were going to cooperate.

The central structure was not the lavish palace she had imagined from the outside, though architecturally it was certainly interesting. It reminded her a little of the art-deco construction of the 1920s, with lots of pillars and arches used to conceal the structural elements holding it up. It was bats on every side, with lots of unprotected balconies and whole sections of the building that had to be flown to.

The interior of the structure was dimly lit, with strange blue plants growing in planter boxes and in carefully sculpted walls trickling with water. Despite the jungle heat outside, the interior of the structure was cool enough, though not even one percentage point less humid. Some of the mirrors and windows were a little foggy from it.

“There’s only one stairwell,” Sea Legs explained, when they finally reached it. “Don’t get a lot of visitors, as the princess told you.”

“She wasn’t a princess,” Sandstone said, though not so much angry as it was confused. “Is she?”

“She is the immortal founder of our race,” Sea Legs said. “Princess is her office, not her species. She doesn’t have any magic we don’t, unless you count magic swords, mastery of the dreamworld, and command of the automatons with only her will.”

“It’s too bad you didn’t live here,” Bree muttered to her mother, as they twisted down what had to be at least the thirtieth flight of stairs. “I think I would’ve liked living here. They could’ve made me a bat.”

“Does seem a little selfish,” True Silver said. At the sergeant’s raised eyebrows, she went on a little more respectfully. “You can do all this—we could too, yes? Equestria could have cities like this, if you shared.”

“Equestria could’ve had cities like this,” Sea Legs said, his voice just a tad louder and more defensive. “If they hadn’t killed and banished our ancestors. You have blame backward, pony. We wanted to live with everypony else, all those years ago. They rejected us.”

“No, I understand that,” True Silver said. “If you talked to a city pony… someone out of Manehattan, let’s say… they’d never believe you. They’d say you were inventing a lie to justify it, that ponies would never treat each other different based on their tribe. But that’s because they don’t know just how backward and mean ponies can be. I lived in Motherlode—I know. But the ones who mistreated you… they’re all dead, aren’t they? Maybe it’s time to forgive.”

Sea Legs grumbled, but he didn’t seem to have any coherent retort.

“It’s not just ponies,” Jackie whispered. “Separating out into tribes over stupid things is something our world did too. Silver Spring and I… were both victims of that.”

“Speak for yourself,” Bree said. “Going digital was the second-best thing that ever happened to me.”

“Second best.” Jackie grinned. “Are you about to say that going native was better? You realize that shits on your whole case.”

The little engineer made a frustrated sound, stuck out her tongue, then fell back behind Frostline to sulk.

They reached—well, not the ground floor, but at least the jungle’s surface, emerging out the bottom of the capital amid thronging crowds. Mostly soldiers from the look of it, or at least ponies in dark green uniforms surrounded by their relatives.

It was exactly the sort of thing Jackie had seen before a hundred wars, families and lovers bidding their relatives farewell. Though—there was a surprisingly large number of female ponies in uniform here. She thought about asking about it, but eventually just shrugged.

Excellus didn’t have automobiles, but it did have a subway, with little aluminum cars like something out of the 1980s trundling along electric tracks in black caves. They went one stop, sat around for a few hours in a boring office, before being led to a set of apartments in a building across the street from the capital.

“There’s not as much variation here as I thought when we first flew over it,” Frostline said, as they rode the elevator up to the top. “This building, there’s another twenty exactly like it all next to us. One of them would be pretty, but… not all these.”

“It’s mass production,” Jackie said. “They’ve got a lot of people and limited space. I guess their way of dealing with that is making lots and lots of the same stuff.”

Sea Legs had left them behind at the office, but now they had a mousy little bat, younger than Bree even. But she wore her housing office vest with dignity, and puffed out her chest even more whenever she caught somepony looking at her. She also hadn’t flinched at Jackie’s prosthetic, which was even more impressive.

Tracer tapped one hoof impatiently on the elevator’s plain tile floor. “I don’t know how ponies live out in Equestria, but our instructions were to provide you with some of the best housing we could. Bats would love to get a place this close to the capital. All the best restaurants are downtown, the best shows… you’ll love it.”

“I’m sure we will,” Cirrus said. “But I’m not sure any of the bats will love us. Our wings are wrong.” She shifted uncomfortably, feathers ruffling.

“Dislike is overstated,” Tracer said. “It won’t be as bad as you’re imagining, promise.”

The elevator stopped, leading out onto a fancy hallway with more paintings and columns. Jackie could see she hadn’t been lying when she said they’d be given somewhere nice.

When they finally made it to the suite, she saw something that almost could’ve been home. Electric lights, running water, a radio in one corner of the room. She was half-expecting a flat screen hanging on the wall or maybe a projector, but apparently they weren’t that advanced.

“I’m supposed to take one of you to the… mechanist,” Tracer said, as soon as she was finished leading them through, showing off the amenities and such. “I’m guessing it’s you, Moire Pattern. I’ve never seen a leg like that, but that doesn’t mean nopony can help you.”

“I’m going with her,” Bree called from her shared bedroom with True Silver, just around the corner. She skidded to a halt next to them, resting one hoof on Jackie’s back. “If that word means what I think it does, I’m a mechanist myself. She’ll want me there.”

“Earth pony mechanist…” Tracer muttered, as though she were suggesting that gravity worked backwards as well.

“She’s right,” Jackie said quickly. “I don’t know how it compares to how things work, but Spring isn’t from here, neither am I. She might surprise you.”

Tracer shrugged her wings. “Suit yourself. Do you think you could find your way back here on your own, Moire Pattern?”

“Yes.” She nodded. “I-87 Mongoose, floor 32, unit C. It’s all in here.” She tapped the side of her head. “Let’s go, before something breaks.”

True Silver emerged from the bedroom behind them. “You’re not going to be gone long, are you sweetie?”

“No Mom,” Bree called. “I’ll stay with Moire the whole time. We’ll be back as soon as we’re finished.”

“Okay.” True Silver met Jackie’s eyes. “Don’t let my daughter do anything she’ll regret.”

They left together, riding the same elevator back down and catching the subway again. This time Jackie noticed some of the subtler details—the music sounded nothing like the noise earth ponies played in Motherlode—if anything, she recognized some of the chords. Soft rock and moderate pop music played through speakers in their subway car, barely louder than the grinding wheels and tracks outside.

“That sounds familiar, almost,” Jackie muttered, staring up at the ceiling. “Wait a minute, is that a Beatles cover? But in… whatever this language is called…”

“Beetles are for soup,” Tracer said. “Or maybe burritos. I know a place that serves excellent beetle burritos. It’s real new, real cool. We could stop on the way if you want.”

“We’re not hungry,” Bree cut her off, putting one hoof on her knee so she couldn’t get up.

“Right!” Tracer blinked, ears flattening. “Ponies only eat grass, don’t they?”

“Grass is awful,” Bree said. “But we don’t eat bugs. We eat normal stuff. Fruits, vegetables, bread… normal stuff.”

“Normal,” Tracer repeated, expression confused. She wasn’t the only one staring at them both. Jackie in particular seemed to attract a lot of attention. Not terribly surprising, given the strange look of her exposed replacement limb. At least it was mostly fascination, not disgust. Everypony else on the train kept their distance and stared in their direction, but they hadn’t been threatened once. Maybe it was the shiny gold pin on Tracer’s hat.

They arrived a few stations later, then descended down instead of up, through a few dimly lit caves. The sidewalks were flat, but still Bree tripped over her hooves, swearing under her breath about the darkness.

Then they rounded a bend, into the brilliant blue glow of neon. It was only the front of a shop building, cut into the cave like so many others, but this one was brighter than all of them by far. “Imperial Technomancy” it said, with a smiling bat drawn in neon behind the glass. Its wings “flapped” every few seconds, like an old-fashioned display sign.

“That’s… gaudy,” Bree muttered. “Mechanist sounded so official… we’re not taking my friend to a VCR repair shop, are we?”

“You don’t like the display? Isn’t the light… strange? That glow, it’s almost like magic… but it isn’t magic, it’s electrical!”

“I know,” Bree muttered. “That’s an excited plasma. That shade of blue… maybe mercury? I don’t know. Just need some high voltage and vacuum tubes, and…”

“Well maybe you are a mechanist,” Tracer said, a little annoyance creeping into her voice. “I’m just a public servant, so forgive me for being impressed.” She pushed past them both, to the set of flap doors a little like an old-fashioned saloon.

Jackie followed close behind, into the brightly lit electronics shop. There’s no way in hell these ponies have the spare parts we need.

Some parts of being mechanical were harder to adjust to than others. One of those—which Sunset’s body felt like she should be fighting against with every moment, yet she never did—was her need for sleep. Her body had limited power, in some ways not that different from an organic.

But she didn’t have to spend her time charging locked into a docking station. She could, or she could reel out a cable and stay out in the real world.

“Come on Sunset, please. I haven’t gone off duty for days. Let’s do something musical.” He tossed the guitar from one of his large hands to the other, strumming a simple cord. “Or did you give up on learning?”

“I didn’t give up…” Sunset protested, though her voice sounded weak even to her. “It’s just… everything that happened… I didn’t think about it.”

“And that’s why you should come. It doesn’t matter how urgent things feel out here—you can’t forget what you love. Otherwise, what makes us different from forks? We can’t be people if we give up doing the things that make us who we are.”

Sunset thought about her companion—Twilight would be waiting for her, and probably want to do something similar. But she’d spent plenty of time with Twilight over the last few days, and Brad never got time off.

She followed him out of the van. “Fine, but I still need to charge.”

A Tower tent had been erected just beside the armored car, covering its exit and giving them the appearance of privacy. Most of the space was given over to Xavier’s workshop, mostly stowed at the moment from non-use. But there were chairs at least. And power cables running to the single plastic printer. It had made the furniture, though it didn’t seem to be able to make anything that wasn’t made of the same opaque plastic.

Brad yanked on the spool, pulling it away from the van until it went tight, then handed her the end. Sunset took the cable in her hand, feeling its tiny metal end. “There’s enough energy in this to power my whole body for days?”

Brad pulled over one of the chairs, tuning his guitar. “What else are you expecting? There’s three hundred amps in that thing, don’t disrespect it. Lick it and it’ll short circuit your whole head.”

Sunset kicked him, though with only light slippers against his military body, she doubted he could even feel it. “What if I’d done it before hearing what it would do?”

“I’d shut off the generator,” he said, not looking up. “But you’re not an idiot. I wouldn’t have followed you out here if you were. Wouldn’t have…” He trailed off, expression reddening. “Well, pull up a chair. Music is good for the soul, that’s what everybody says.”

Sunset plugged the cable in. She half-expected to hear Twilight’s jealous voice in her ear, but that fear was in vain. “Music is magical,” Sunset Shimmer said. “Even humans must know that. You know… when someone comes up with a really good song, and the whole town joins in, without anypony telling them the words, and…” She trailed off.

“You mean Broadway? I guess plays can be pretty good. I couldn’t sit through very many myself. So much talking.”

Sunset had to search the term. He would see her lift her hand to do it, the little twitches as she spelled it out. Even then, now that they were gone from Normandy she no longer had access to the near-limitless depths of knowledge the Tower database contained. There was a shard in the van though, and “Broadway” was apparently not a specialized term. Little windows appeared around her, depicting builders on a stage under spotlights, singing and dancing.

“Yeah, like Broadway!” She pushed one of the images across the room towards him, where it hung in the air in front of them both. For a few seconds, they sat in silence, listening to a strange man and then a whole town sing about “Tradition.”

“Wherever those ponies live, they’re doing heartsong. That’s how it feels. Usually more uplifting songs than that, but I’m sure I could find—”

Bradley reached over, setting one hand on her wrist. He was grinning at her. “Sunset, that isn’t a town. That’s a performance.

“Of course it feels like a performance,” she argued. “That’s how it feels to outsiders! Only if you’re part of the magic will the words come. Even a very good recording can’t convey the magic, otherwise ponies might never be able to get anything done. But they’re good for remembering the words, and the songs can sometimes turn into—”

He reached up, pushing her head slightly so she was meeting his eyes. “No, Sunset. It’s a performance because those people are actors. They train for years to sing and dance that way.” He offered her another recording—one of the same song. But instead of showing a quiet little village, it showed a stage surrounded by thousands of Builders, many bright lights. Different people, singing the exact same song. Then they finished, and the people in the audience clapped.

“It’s a play,” she said, when the recording was finished.


“Equestria has plays. There can still be magic at a play. Just not as often. If you want it, you have to catch it opening night.” She snatched the guitar from his hands. “I’m telling you, Brad. Music is magic. Equestria has been saved by music before, more than once. Lots of spells are little rhymes or melodies. It’s a shortcut to the soul—gets the emotion all twisted into the magic.”

“Well I’m sorry we took it away from you,” he said. “With our… artificial bodies. When this war is over, I’m sure we’ll be able to find a good substitute. The Order has some excellent engineers, even if lots of them are assholes. They’ll give you your magic back.”

“You really… believe that?” She tried a few chords on the guitar, trying to play the little melody he’d taught her last time. It didn’t come out right at first—but she could remember it perfectly, and she could keep trying. “In Equestria, if a unicorn breaks her horn… that’s it. Her magic’s gone. I’m sure that would happen to an earth pony or a pegasus too, but it’s harder to lose all four of your legs or two wings.”

He shrugged. “Of course, why wouldn’t it? We don’t understand magic yet, but it’s been… what, a few months? While we’re fighting this damn war, I bet you money everyone in the Order, from the lowliest novice to the highest Technocrat… they’re all trying to find a way to use magic like ponies do. Figure out what it means, what it feels like.”

“That’s easy,” Sunset responded, without thinking. “I designed a perfect simulation of pony life in the Realm… I’ve still got all the files.” She tapped her head with two fingers. “I wasn’t going to let all that work go to waste. If you wanted to feel it, you’d just have to go into our shard and give me some space to work with. I could have it running in five minutes.”

“That sounds… interesting,” Brad said. “Maybe useful, if I’m going to keep playing diplomat here. But probably not a good idea to vanish into a simulation right now. Not when we’re sitting in enemy territory, surrounded by thousands of strangers. Not that I don’t think my squires can keep an eye on things—but I know the king wouldn’t be happy.”

“We’re not surrounded by enemies!” Sunset protested, tossing his guitar roughly back to him. “This is the Crystal Empire! Equestria is on our side! Or we’re on their side.”

Brad rested one hand on her shoulder, pushing her gently back into her chair. “Settle down, Sunset. I’m talking about the Federation. The refugees here—they’re still the enemy, no matter how cute or pathetic they seem. Shock doesn’t keep an enemy suppressed forever. Might be hard to believe, but we know that the mind can adapt to changing species like that. Their ambassador to Equestria was transformed.”

Sunset did relax, even if she didn’t want to. She forced herself not to think about it, focusing on the music for a few minutes. The instruments might be different, but there was something comforting about the similarity in human and Equestrian music. If music was magical, it meant they weren’t all that different. But she’d already learned that lesson, after her expectations of the near-divine Builders had been shattered by reality.


Brad nudged her with a leg. “Did you catch that?”

“Oh, no. Sorry. Say it again?”

“I was asking if you smell anything rotten in this plan to sneak reinforcements in. I can’t help but picture all the different ways they could try to screw us. Like… the Federation are the reason Normandy is empty. They’re the reason we aren’t decisively winning this war. Do you think some of the traitors might’ve changed when the innocents did, that way they could fuck us again?”

Sunset nodded without thinking. “Starlight Glimmer told me there’s hostile magic working on the Crystal Empire. Started the second we got here—she’s pretty sure the refugees brought it somehow.”

He swore again, rising to his feet and removing the rifle from his shoulder. He checked the magazine, exposed the battery so he could see the glowing indicator, then relaxed. “Dammit. So we know there are traitors. Alexi, you think?”

“No chance,” Sunset stopped playing. “I may not be a changeling with perfect emotion-reading, but she has a pony sister. And besides—if she was bad, all she’d have to do is not send the message out. Then all the humans would’ve been mind-controlled instead of just the ones who were far away.”

“I guess that makes sense,” Brad muttered. “So not her. Do we know if she came up with the Earth plan? If it wasn’t her—maybe it came from the same one who’s been using… hostile magic, you said? What does that even mean?”

“Some kinda mind stuff,” Sunset said. “No, don’t. Mind control magic is dark stuff—explicitly forbidden. I studied under Celestia personally, so I never learned any of it. I don’t have a clue how it works.”

“Oh.” He deflated. “Should we try to stop it? I know people on the other side are already mobilizing. We’ve got an entire mechanized unit waiting to come across to deal with our rogue Federation people. I’ll feel a hell of a lot safer with the Germans behind me. They’re great at holding ground, too. If we have to defend the Empire from other threats, no one else we want at our backs.”

“There’s too much to gain. We can’t stop it. We just have to… keep an eye out. Like… maybe we should both go over with whoever they send.”

Brad shook his head. “Can’t do. King Richard won’t let either of us over, not when we might get stuck on that side. I’ve got a pair of squires I was getting ready to promote… this will be their trial. Calvin, and Jesse, you may’ve met them. Good people. I promise there isn’t a soldier in the Tower who can aim a rifle straighter.”

“Assuming we don’t just blow up when they try it,” Sunset muttered. Now that she knew what was really powering it… “Antimatter… it’s insane you thought that was a good idea. Should’ve left it where you found it.”

Brad shrugged. “Can’t pin that one on me, the reactor was built before I was born. But it’s… really the same technology we used to cross to this side in the first place, you know. Antimatter is a fuel, not an energy source. The only way we can generate power with it was from punching into another universe.”

Sunset shook her head. “It’s insane. Every builder is insane.”

Jackie didn’t know if she was impressed or annoyed with the so-called mechanist’s shop. The outer area reminded her of what she might’ve imagined for an electronics shop on Earth, before the internet had killed them all. They even had those annoying plastic clamshell packages, that made it difficult to steal (or just to open things you’d legitimately bought).

But the upper shop was closed “until sundown,” because Excellus ran backwards and everything was in the opposite state she expected. But there was a workshop under the upper inventory, and that was where Tracer led them.

Jackie ran one hoof along the stone walls, which had been smoothed and plastered over to almost look like the walls of any other building. Almost.

“Do all your buildings have to be so dark?” Bree asked from behind her. “I feel like I’m going to lose my vision down here. Barely see ten meters in front of my face, and I don’t need glasses. This is getting stupid.”

The working floor below was all tools and machines, though Jackie couldn’t have said how advanced they were. From the way most of them obviously had braces and handles for ponies’ hooves, she guessed they weren’t that advanced. The best Earth fabs required no human involvement at all to go from order to finished product, and that was even true in the Federation. What she wouldn’t give for a Cornucopia machine right now…

“Excuse me,” called a voice that sounded like it had just been woken up. Jackie turned, and saw an older looking bat emerging from a stairwell on the other end of the shop. He even had a beard, and most of his coat had gone gray. “I would love to know why there are strangers in my shop after hours. You aren’t apprentices of mine, are you? No… Outsiders? I expect an explanation.”

Tracer hurried over, handing a few sheets of paper and exchanging words in a hushed whisper. Jackie could’ve listened in, but just now she’d become too ambivalent to care. Whatever the ponies wanted to do, they could knock themselves out. She’d already fought far enough, escaped from danger that would’ve swallowed up a less capable pony. So far as she was concerned, she was owed her body back. It was just a matter of finishing the last leg. If racist earth ponies and murderous griffons couldn’t do it, what were these almost-human bats going to do?

“You’re here to repair an… intelligent automaton,” the old stallion said, walking past their guide and offering his hoof towards Jackie. “I’m Near Horizon, this is my shop. I understand the princess herself sent you here. The best-equipped and most capable mechanist’s shop in all Excellus, she said. And her credits are good, so… I suppose we’ll be working together.”

“Moire Pattern,” Jackie said, not wanting to waste time with the real thing just now. “And this is Silver Spring. I’m the intelligent automaton. No, you can’t look at the things that make my brain work. It’s all sealed, not user serviceable, and not sturdy enough to survive… machines like this.” She pulled back the cloth wrap from around her leg. “This, on the other hand…” She glanced to the side. “What do you see, Bree? Can you work with these parts?”

Bree laughed. “I worked with nothing to get you here. These are… maybe information age level stuff? So no hardware integrated microcontrollers and mesh processing cores. But they’ve got a good lathe, and that’s real wire there instead of the shit I made. I could give you an upgrade, anyway.”

“I promise you this facility is ten times better equipped than anywhere you’ve seen in your life, outsider. But from the sound of your words… you’re a mechanist yourself, is that right? An apprentice perhaps? Who trained you in our methods?”

“No pony trained me,” Bree said. “I’m a traveler from a far country, an alien. Equestria trapped me as a pony as a punishment.”

“Is that so?” Near Horizon sounded skeptical, but he didn’t actually argue the point. “Certainly an… interesting group that visits my shop today. Will you need help, Silver Spring? I shall remain here to supervise in any case, but I could summon the apprentices if that would speed the process. I’ll… need you to be out by dawn regardless.”

“I don’t need help,” Bree said. “Except… yeah, one pony. Someone who can tell me how to turn this non-integrated hardware on when I need it. How organics survived before the Mesh I still don’t know.”

Near Horizon didn’t seem to know what to make of that, but at least he didn’t try to throw them out.

“Then let’s do it,” Jackie said. “We’re still not back with the Tower. Sounds like Hayden is our only way out.” She frowned. “Can you do anything about my leaking RTG while you’re tinkering around in my guts? Being at half juice all the time is getting old.”

“Maybe.” Bree looked over her shoulder at Near Horizon. “Do you keep lead?” She didn’t even wait for an answer, just tapped an empty worktable with one hoof, nodding towards its surface. “Go on then, Jackie. If I’m overhauling your power, I’ve got to shut you down.”

“Just don’t let the primitives put my parts on a shelf,” Jackie whispered, in English.

“No promises,” Bree said, but there was humor in it. She didn’t mean it. Jackie hoped.

Lights came up all around them, shining down on Jackie from racks in the ceiling. Then Bree reached up behind her head, and everything went instantly black. She didn’t even dream.