• 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 19: Escape Character

Even Sunset Shimmer couldn’t help but admit that the portal was impressive. The formerly-human engineers had been working overtime, sourcing materials from the little bits of machines that they’d dragged over, or even from the city itself. Sunset hadn’t followed the process, but she’d seen dozens of them moving in and out of the city in regular shifts.

And now it was assembled. While Luna and her diminishing army fought in the south, the humans had found a way to reinforce in the north. Most importantly of all, the power source hadn’t killed everyone.

The mirror had been moved from the Crystal Empire’s secretive vault into a palace ballroom. Cables and wires had been strewn everywhere, all of which she’d been assured would “kill her instantly” if she so much as sneezed at them. So she stood well back, along with Brad and the two armored squires that would be taking on this mission.

In a move that would probably have angered King Richard if he heard about it, Brad had given his armor to Calvin for the mission. It seemed to fit well, though that was probably just thanks to the standardized body-sizes among the tower.

The portal itself was almost swallowed by machines, not all of them human-looking. She saw wooden actuators and thaumic converters among the flashing computer displays and makeshift servers cobbled together from laptops and music players. Then there was the portal itself.

It didn’t look like a mirror anymore, so much as a horizon of absolute darkness beyond which Sunset could see nothing at all. Darker than the bleakest cave, or the night sky in the coldest depths of winter. And they were about to go through it.

Ada seemed to be leading the human delegation, along with two bulky stallions Sunset figured had to be marines.

“It’s possible you’ll briefly be human again when you return,” Alexi was saying, her voice hushed as she spoke to her side. But there was no chance Sunset wouldn’t be able to hear, not in such close quarters. “Resist the temptation to receive the Nanophage again. We don’t know how it will interact with the portal while passing through it. There is transformation magic at work here—like what we used already. Make sure any volunteers who come back with you understand they might be ponies for the duration.” She glanced over her shoulder, towards their delegation. “The Tower people should be immune to that. As frustrating as it is, we’re going to be heavily relying on them for the manpower.”

“Frustrating is an understatement, ma’am,” said one of the marines. “We can’t trust them. Far as we know, they might be planning to shoot us as soon as we’re on the other side of that mirror, then shove us into a radioactive ditch.”

“That’s not a concern,” Ada said. Like the others she was wearing saddlebags with human clothing inside, intended to be worn as soon as they got through. There was no armor or other advanced hardware to spare, but there were at least uniforms and rifles that had made it across with the evacuation. That would have to do. “They follow mechanical laws. These work for the knight—that means they’re bound to obey his commands. He has already ordered them to cooperate with us and not to fire first in violence. Just don’t shoot, and the mindless automatons will be compelled to commit no violence.”

Sunset watched the engineers in front of her shift uncomfortably. She couldn’t hear their private radio conversation with Brad, though she probably could’ve eavesdropped if she really wanted to.

But she didn’t—she could already guess at their orders.

“Does it look like they’re gonna kill each other?” Twilight asked from over the radio. Despite Sunset missing their last engagement together, she didn’t seem too upset. Just a little more reserved than she’d been before.

“You figured out how to use the radio.”

“Figuring it out was never the problem,” Twilight responded, her voice bitter. “Those squires didn’t like what I did to them. They probably would’ve erased me if they could’ve, but since they didn’t have the permissions they settled for cutting off my access. It’s their system, so… I didn’t really have a way of fighting back.”

“And you didn’t say anything about it until now?” Sunset asked. Her voice carried all the anger and frustration it would’ve if she had spoken out loud, though of course no one in the room around her could hear. “I could’ve talked to Brad about it.”

“The knight? No. His involvement only would’ve made them resent me. Maybe when they get back from this mission they’ll feel less petty.”

“They’ll be journeymen when they get back,” Sunset answered. “Maybe messing with a civilian will be beneath them then.”

“We can hope.”

But she didn’t hear anything else, because Princess Cadance emerged from the hall behind her. A pair of crystal guards flanked her, though they weren’t armed and made no threatening gestures towards anypony in the room.

Sunset immediately shifted on her feet, moving just behind Brad, pulling up her hood. There would be no chance at all of being recognized, except that Starlight Glimmer had certainly told Cadance who she was.

No doubt the princess didn’t care about the secrecy she’d been maintaining for all this time.

Fortunately for her, she wasn’t the subject of her interest right now. “Admiral, and… knight? A word before this begins.”

Sunset was left standing alone by the wall as Sir Bradley advanced. He dropped to one knee for a moment in front of her. “Princess. An honor and a privilege.”

The Steel Tower’s customs might seem silly to a human, but they did have their advantages dealing with Equestria. Sunset could see the princess’s face brighten at the respect, respect that the other side just didn’t show. The Federation was egalitarian—they had no nobility, and no respect to show beyond politeness.

“Likewise,” Princess Cadance said, gesturing for him to rise with a wing.

As she’d expected, the Admiral only nodded politely to the princess. “Good to see you again. You were the last one we were waiting on for departure.”

“I just wanted to get something clear with both sides before this happens. You arrived in my city as refugees, and at the time we had to take you in. But I’m aware of your conflict now, that your factions have… disagreements. Whatever those are, they stay away from the Crystal Empire. Even after what happened in Normandy. The only reason I’m letting you do this is because we don’t have a choice.

“The Father of Dragons is marching north, and we won’t be able to stop him without you. But whatever happens… I want your promise to me that there won’t be any fighting in the Empire. If you want to fight on your own planet, that’s your problem. Equestria probably hasn’t told you about my magic. But I have it, and if anything happens, I’ll make every one of your ponies so deeply in love with each other that they’ll never think about fighting again. Don’t think I won’t.”

“You have our word,” Sir Bradley answered. “Not that you needed it, Princess. We’ve done nothing but honestly follow the treaty since our first moments in Equestria.”

Alexi winced. But she didn’t argue in response. “Very few of our people will be coming back today. But you have our word as well. Or… mine, anyway. I can’t compel my people to follow my orders, but I do expect it of them.”

“That will have to do,” Cadance said. “Good luck to you all. The Crystal Empire is depending on you, along with all of Equestria.”

“And we’ve waited long enough,” Ada said. “Follow me through, quick as you can. As soon as we start sending matter through, we’re going to strain the portal terribly. The other mirror has to draw enough for both sides… but we can replicate this on the other end, make it safe going forward. Get ready to run.”

And she did, galloping through the opening ahead of the others. The instant she vanished into the darkness of its event horizon, the whole portal began to spark and shudder in its mountings. Machines started spinning, coils of wire glowed orange, and the room was filled with a roar of air down through the portal.

Sunset Shimmer watched them go, one at a time, wishing she could go along. The Builders’ planet she’d seen had been dreadful, but there was no way that was the whole thing. The Federation were alive, so their parts had to be better. Maybe if she saw them she could have hope for Equestria after a war.

“I’m through!” Ada’s voice came over one of the radios, only slightly distorted. “The others are behind me. We’re human, or almost. Some minor… variations. Age differences. Inconvenient, but not essential. Got contact with Luna Prime, so we should be able to get a ride. Exposure reading at… nothing too severe. Yes, last of the robots is through. We’re cutting the connection so you don’t burn your side out. Plan on 72 hours. Out.” The straining equipment fell still abruptly, wires cooling as the swirling sparks on the surface of the void settled back into too-deep darkness.

“And that’s that,” Princess Cadance said, once the portal had cooled and the army of technicians rushed in from the side of the room. “If there’s any other help any of you can imagine, find Starlight Glimmer or somepony else from the court. Otherwise…” She turned back to Alexi. “Make sure my palace doesn’t explode, please.” She left almost before Alexi could respond, vanishing with her guards back out the ballroom doors and out of sight.

Sunset instantly relaxed—not just at having the princess gone, but Ada as well. She felt a little of the burden lift from her shoulders, as though a pack of bricks she hadn’t even known she was carrying had vanished.

Starlight Glimmer had been quiet for most of the events of the crossing, sitting beside Trixie near another door and watching everything closely. But her ears went up too, and her eyes caught Sunset’s. Was she thinking the same thing? “We’ll talk in a bit,” she sent across the radio to Brad, before crossing quickly to where Starlight had already risen to her hooves.

“You just felt that, didn’t you?” Starlight whispered. “Something changed.”

“Yeah,” Sunset answered. “I feel better. Less… hopeless.”

“We need to go check on the Crystal Heart.” She spun on her heels, gesturing at the door. “Guards, unlock this please. Sunset, Trixie, and I have somewhere to be.”

They hurried to obey. Trixie only looked annoyed. “You know it’s nothing, right? Of course you’re going to feel better, we’re finally doing something. That’s the only thing that really changed. We’re not curling up and waiting for the end anymore.”

As soon as the door was open, they were already moving. Starlight broke into a canter down the hall, and Sunset had to jog to keep up. Thank goodness for her longer legs, or she might’ve had trouble. But one thing she’d learned since becoming human was that their endurance was near endless. Even the organic humans could go for hours, if they were properly trained.

“It was the same way after Twilight beat me for the first time,” Trixie went on, following along behind. “I didn’t want to do anything, not even get up in the morning. But then I realized I could earn my way out of it, and I got a job, and… I felt much better.”

“You might be right!” Starlight called, as they passed up a flight of steps. Sunset could feel the cold outside air drifting down, a sign of what waited beyond. “But we have to check. If there’s even a chance I’m right…”

Jackie couldn’t know how long she spent shut down—even her mind was dormant during that time, without her usual refuge in simulation. There was nothing wrong with that—she’d never been one of those people terribly troubled by breaks in consciousness. She’d been dead from the moment she uploaded anyway, so why should a computer program that remembered being a person care?

She blinked, and found her body completely numb again. But since she wasn’t really alive, she didn’t need much of her body to be able to talk. “I’m getting fuckin’ sick of waking up like this.” She tried to look around, and found that she was in some kind of mechanical vice. The clamps around her neck weren’t tight, but she couldn’t feel a thing below them. That meant something was severed back there. Hopefully not permanently.

Bree appeared in front of her, grinning something between smug and shy. “Well that’s too bad for you. I’ve had nothing but shit-tier hardware since I woke up here. It’s a small miracle I didn’t tear any microwires with these lumps ponies call limbs. But here we are, making do with substandard materials.”

“Then go digital again as soon as you get to the Tower,” Jackie spat, not even pretending to friendliness just now. “Go ahead and give up the soul you just got back. Don’t take it from someone who wants it more.”

At first she’d thought the area around them was completely dark, but no. There were a dozen furred figures huddled close, wearing little vests with the same logo on it as on the front of the shop, sans neon.

“I wonder if you’d put your money there,” Bree said, stopping right in front of her and sticking her tongue out. “There’s no spell to make you human again, and organics don’t get to swap their shells like enlightened people. What if you could get one of those spells to make you alive? Would you take it if it meant being a pony for the rest of your life?”

“Obviously I would,” she said, before she could even think about it. “At least you’ve got a heartbeat. You get to eat instead of running on a fucking reactor. All the Datamancy in the world wouldn’t let me have a kid, if I wanted one.”

“Well then.” Bree sat back on her haunches. “That’s an interesting proposal, isn’t it? See, I happen to know the ponies who could make you organic again. Maybe… they’d rather not know me, but I’m sure I could work something out. I’ll go back with you to the Tower, but only if you change into a pony first. A real one.”

Jackie made a frustrated sound, trying to wiggle out of the clamp. “Is this really the time to be having this conversation? You’ve got a whole fan club watching you, and they don’t speak UN Standard. Unless all this is just buying time to hide that you fucked up my body…”

“Oh, no. Nothing like that. It has been a few days since we last talked… turns out the people here wanted some pointers. Would you believe their city has a small army of AO-3s? Thousands and thousands of them. That’s the secret to how they’re so advanced. They’re fully mechanized. But they weren’t able to progress any further—they have the one fab, and the day it breaks their whole industry turns to fairy dust and pixies.”

“AO-3? Those I-Robot looking pieces of shit? Those were discontinued when I was in grade school.” Then she stopped, collecting herself. “Hold on a minute. Days? Your mom is gonna fuckin’ kill me.”

“I went home, relax. She knows all about it. She let me come back. Says we owe you after saving our lives or whatever. I guess that is technically what happened.”

“Saved your life,” Jackie muttered. “Not hers. Your mom has her feet under her, she’d be fine. You’re the one who had to run into town right when those Hills Have Eyes fucks decided to get murderous. Stop stalling. I want to see the damage. If I’m going to be stuck in this body until… we get back to the Tower… I want to see the damage.”

But she wasn’t sure she believed it. So long as she could convince Bree that she meant it, she could always go back on her word once they were too deep for her to escape. She didn’t even have wings, she wouldn’t be able to fly away. “Please tell me you fixed my antenna.”

“Did we fix your antenna…” Bree said, suddenly speaking a little louder. And in Equestrian, rather than the Standard they’d been using. “Gather round, students. You’ll remember when I severed the arterial fibers. It’s time to reconnect them, and see if our replacement prosthetics are effective.”

A whole room full of ponies suddenly crowded in close. Jackie would’ve felt uncomfortable if this was her real body—but there was something white below her, like a cloth or a screen. But even if she could see it, it didn’t matter. It wasn’t her they were seeing naked, it was just a shell. A shell she might soon be rid of if she could get back to the Tower.

With her enhanced ears, Jackie could make out some of the conversations being whispered around her. “There’s no way it will work. It’s not one of the design templates.”

“Obviously not. But it will be worth it to see that dirtwalker eat her words.”

“But what if it did work? What if you can use other designs? We could build automatons that look like us. We could make them look like anything we wanted.”

“Wishful thinking. Just because we want something and we can make it sound plausible doesn’t make it true. Silver Spring is about to see that.”

Not all of them were hostile—and even those who were whispering to each other in angry voices were watching closely.

Right leg connected.
Left leg connected.
Right arm connected. Sensornet offline.
Left arm connected.
Left ERROR connected. Sensornet offline.
Right ERROR connected. Sensornet offline.
Transmission package connected.

That was it. No warnings about the RTG, no complaints that she was leaking fluid, nothing. The food simulation was still missing, but Jackie could live with that. Pretending to eat wasn’t worth having to wash herself out afterwards.

She tried the antenna hopefully before she even tried to move, sending a backlog of journal entries she’d written about what had happened during her time alone. But there was no response, no return ping from a satellite that signaled her message had made it to the server.

Of course not, idiot. You’re thousands of feet under an arcology city in the jungle. What kind of magic antenna are you running?

“Jackie!” Bree called, her voice annoyed. There were giggles coming from around them, and a few had escalated to jeers. “Jackie, I told you to demonstrate the right leg was working. Your audience is getting restless.”

“Your audience,” she said, in Standard. But if she wanted cooperation from this pony, making her look like an idiot in front of all these strangers probably wasn’t a good idea.

She moved her leg, and found it responded smoothly. It moved even better than the first time she’d woken up, in fact. “Could you move the screen? I can feel it under me, just… hanging there.”

“Not quite,” Bree said. “I’m demonstrating something about robotics having you unable to see the limb.” She was certainly demonstrating something now—her audience had gone completely still. All laugher died, and they crowded closer, looking at whatever was below the screen.

Bree was preening under the attention. “Now, could you move your wings for us? Both of them, like you were going to fly…”

“I’d love to, except they got fuc—” Then she stopped. She did have wings now. Or maybe it would be better to say that she had them again. She twitched both of them immediately, feeling just how strong and mobile they were. They didn’t feel anything like the useless bits of plastic she remembered. She couldn’t feel much, just their position and speed and the air resistance when she tried to lift them. Far more than there’d been with the others. She flapped them together, and almost felt her body lift.

No way. They’re too small to have any lifting power. This body couldn’t do that.

There was a smattering of hoof stomps from around the room. Ponies whispered to each other again. Though all the bitterness and anger was gone from their words. Instead Jackie heard things like “Impossible.” And “But we helped put them together.” “That wasn’t on template.” “Get master Horizon.”

One of the apprentices took off running without so much as a word of apology, vanishing off the edge of Jackie’s vision and probably rushing up some unseen stairs. But she couldn’t turn her head that far—even if she had the rest of her body back, she was still in the clamp.

“You’re freaking out over nothing, Jackie,” Bree said, moving forward with a wrench in one hoof, lowering the lens down over one eye. “I’ll have you out in a minute, quit squirming.”

For a moment that was what she did, falling still while Bree worked. She was impossible to tell from a native by the speed of her hooves alone—much better at it than Jackie, even with the help of the programs that had come with this body.

Master Horizon returned, joining the rest of the crowd of apprentices as they watched.

Threat detected, 60% probability of harm to allied asset. Near Horizon’s body lit up in bright red as he cut through the crowd of apprentices.

I do not need this in my life now, Jackie thought, stretching her limbs below her. She was being held by the clamp, but it was loose now, almost loose enough for her to get free on her own. If only Bree could twist just a little further…

She saw what the automated programs had noticed first—a glint of metal emerging from the folds in Near Horizon’s jacket. A needle, and he was going straight for Bree’s back.

“Get it off,” Jackie hissed in UN Standard.

Maybe Horizon thought she hadn’t noticed—she didn’t have to stare at him to watch closely, as an organic would’ve had to do. She wasn’t restricted to full resolution only at a tiny range of her vision.

But Bree wasn’t moving fast enough. If anything, Jackie’s words had slowed her down again, probably to say something snide.

She couldn’t wait any longer. Jackie leaned backward, then bucked against something metallic with all the force she could. The clamp around her neck dug right through her fur, then hit her endoskeleton and snapped like wood. Some part of her was surprised, expecting more damage to her own body—but she didn’t have time to think about it.

She smacked right into Bree, taking her straight down to the ground just as Near Horizon’s needle emerged from his jacket. Her companion squealed in surprise, swearing at Jackie in a language she’d never heard before. But she ignored that, reaching up with blurring speed to crush Horizon’s hoof sideways, jamming the needle into his own foreleg and smashing the plunger down in a single motion.

He screamed, eyes livid with rage, lashing out towards her with the injured foreleg. “Someone phone the Union! We have a rogue automaton!”

Jackie dodged out of the way as though he were moving in slow motion, which became increasingly literal as whatever he’d intended for Bree coursed through his veins.

Additional threats detected. Probability of intervention 81, 73, and 96 percent. Several apprentices were highlighted in red as they removed power tools from racks around the room, while most of the crowd ran for the doors.

“Fuck there is!” Jackie yelled, helping Bree to her hooves and shoving her back, towards the door she knew went up. “That’s your needle, asshole! Whatever you were planning on giving to my friend… well, that’s what you deserve.”

He dropped onto his haunches, no longer strong enough to even swing vaguely in their direction. He’d pulled the needle out by then—probably most of its contents not sent directly to his veins. It couldn’t be administered carefully when it was used as a weapon as she had. “Don’t let the machine… escape. Don’t break its head,” he ordered, before slumping limp to the ground.

“I see what this is…” Bree muttered, no longer needing Jackie to keep her backing away. “This is some kind of… industrial espionage, is that it?”

The nearest apprentice switched on the angle-grinder he wore in one hoof, advancing on Jackie. “Assembling automatons has never been within our reach until now. We couldn’t give up an opportunity.”

“I don’t want to kill you,” Jackie said, a little louder. Her body was naked, but she felt far stronger than she had been. That’s not a plastic skeleton in me anymore, is it? No doubt the clamp around her neck would’ve just snapped her. She spread her wings, getting as big as she could. “I’m not a machine, fucking idiots. I’m a person, and I’m incredibly dangerous. Bree and I are leaving now.”

She lowered her voice for just a moment. “Stay right behind me. Never get out of reach.”

Her plea went unanswered, and the two apprentices guarding the stairwell up only moved closer together. One had a power drill, the other the end of a coil of wire that emitted a steady stream of high-voltage sparks.

“The Mechanists have dealt with worse than you,” said the same apprentice who’d spoken before, a stallion with a black coat and little gray streaks in his mane. “It doesn’t matter what you say, you’re just a—”

CQC subdual program activated.

Jackie jumped on him in a single bound, hard enough that the cement cracked behind her. She dodged to the side of his feeble strike, driving her own hoof into the leg holding it right at the joint. She heard the crack, then kicked again, this time right into his vulnerable underbelly. He dropped, and she followed him down, snapping both of his wings. The pain she knew would follow turned his voice into mindless agony, and he didn’t move again.

She got up, ignoring the blood splattering her coat as she shoved past Bree towards the upper door. “Fuck out of my way,” she muttered. “Next pony who doesn’t move is dead instead of broken.”

They moved, dropping weapons and scattering to opposite sides of the room. She was pretty sure one of them had wet herself. “Alright, Bree. I think we’ve overstayed our welcome.”

Bree followed her instructions, though her ears had gone flat and her expression was obviously sick. She kept glancing back at the two ponies who Jackie had attacked. “What kind of combat program is that?”

“One that gets us out alive.” There were a few apprentices on the shop floor, and they screamed in fear as Jackie emerged first. Someone toppled a shelf in front of them, but Jackie just stuck out a wing, stopping Bree from advancing until it had crashed down.

But they weren’t just being allowed to flee, that much was obvious. Jackie could hear the apprentices shouting. One of them had gone running for “the shotgun” while the others seemed to plan on just following them out.

“This is too slow,” Jackie muttered, kicking the fallen shelf out of the way before breaking into a gallop. A few shopkeeper ponies were moving into her way, and she barreled them over as though they weren’t even there. Unlike the earth ponies of Motherlode, these bats had the hollow bones and light builds of birds. They couldn’t have stopped her if they tried.

“I don’t understand… why wouldn’t that bat pony friend of yours send us somewhere we’d be safe? This isn’t a warzone!” They stepped out into a walkway in the maze of underground corridors. But where an organic might’ve been helplessly lost, Jackie had the perfect memory of a machine. She pointed, and back they went towards the surface, past screaming, confused civilians. Shouts of “Rogue automaton, out on the streets!” followed, along with the rumble of a shotgun as pellets smacked harmlessly into tunnel walls around them. Whoever was using that gun couldn’t have hit the Tower from twenty paces, and they only fired twice.

But they couldn’t keep running the same way for long—that was straight up towards the surface, and Jackie could hear hooves pounding down the ramps from above. Maybe those were the Mechanist Union people that had been called, some crew specifically trained or armed to bring her down.

She scanned the widest paths, then picked one behind a long row of restaurants. Instead of continuing up the hall, she stepped across to the other side, toppled over a dumpster, then gestured the other way. They slipped across, dodging behind trash bins while the voices grew more distant. Bats though they were, the ones following couldn’t keep up with an earth pony and a robot.

“I have no idea…” Jackie said, scooping an old blanket out of an open bin and throwing it over her shoulder into an awkward robe. She hadn’t even got the chance to look at her new limbs, but on the surface she could see no sign that she was even synthetic. It was as good a job as Sunset Shimmer had done, with far more of a mind towards durability. “But we’re in a strange land. Bat politics… maybe she’s not in as much control as a pony princess. Or maybe she didn’t pick the workshop specifically.”

Jackie had plenty of mental resources to spare, and she turned some of those towards her repaired radio transmitter. “If anyone can hear me, we need help,” she called, over the standard distress frequencies. She wasn’t sure how deep they were, but it didn’t matter. She could set it on loop while they wandered and maybe she’d get a response eventually. “We’ve been attacked.”

That message going out, she returned her full attention to their path. There was a slope upward, with tracks and occasional carts moving up and down. An automated trash delivery system, lifting the garbage up towards the surface. Even as she watched, the bins in their alley started moving—it wasn’t an alley at all, but another track.

Jackie hesitated for a fraction of a second, then pointed towards a mostly-empty bin of rotten fruit. “Climb in.”

“You’re bucking kidd—” She didn’t even get a chance to finish her objection before Jackie dunked her into the peels, then climbed in herself.

Shouts followed them from the alley, along with the sound of metal boots on stone. But if anyone had seen the way they fled, they didn’t follow close enough to stop them. They had soon rolled up the ramp, and out of sight.