• 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 2: Block Cipher

Jackie was bored.

Even as she realized this, there was something in her that rebelled at the thought. Here she was, among the first human travelers to an alien universe. She was one of the first to have befriended one of the aliens, and even had one of their bodies. How could she be bored?

All around her, two camps were rising. Across an invisible gulf were the people she had wanted to rejoin for her whole life—the people to whom she was probably just a vanishing statistic in the casualties of war. But she wouldn’t be allowed to wander from the Steel Tower, not just because of what they probably thought she would reveal, but also because the real humans wanted nothing to do with her.

But there was one direction the legionaries and UEF marines didn’t watch—back towards the pony settlement.

That was the one element Jackie could explore at her leisure. So long as she didn’t let any of them look at her too closely in her modified Technocratic Order robes, she would probably look just like they did. Thanks to Sunset Shimmer their language wasn’t much trouble for her either.

So she wandered, away from the synthetic people and their synthetic camp.

This was the alien part of the alien world. There was no sense staying cooped up in a human city when there were so many more interesting things so close.

As it turned out, the natives were just as active in their own way. Carts full of wood were arriving from down a dirt road, pulled by ponies all the way.

They looked just as Sunset’s illusions had made her expect, with a few distinct varieties and possibly an informal caste system to go with it. And Jackie knew more about it than almost every human in the camp.

She kept glancing over her shoulder, looking to see if any of the Technocratic Order or its legionaries would come to drag her back. But so far, none of them had. She wandered closer to the ponies.

There were soldiers here too, though she hadn’t noticed them at first. She’d thought they were actors, or maybe serving a ceremonial role. They wore gold armor, and carried spears and shields. No guns in sight. But they were big and strong compared to the other ponies, and the natives clearly looked at them with respect. This isn’t the pony army, is it? No wonder they got invaded.

Some part of her wondered if maybe she should do something about it. She knew what the Steel Tower was like—the real invasion would be theirs, taking away the lives and magic from all these natives, turning them into robots like herself. Empty, soulless husks.

“Excuse me,” said a voice from beside her, surprising her enough that she spread her wings and jumped a little. Whoever it was spoke in the Equestrian language, not one of the many butchered flavors of English.

Jackie turned, and her eyes widened as she saw the one who’d spoken. A pegasus, with a gray coat and blue eyes. Real, feathery wings, and… lots of other things. Well I guess that solves that. Yes, they can be hot. If her old self had heard that thought, she might’ve puked.

How is this worse than the furry servers? Or anywhere else I’ve been? I’m just a damn robot anyway.

“Hey,” she said, straightening and trying to look more confident than she felt. “Know anywhere to get a good drink around here? I’d love to buy you something.”

The pegasus choked back a sound that wasn’t quite a laugh, shaking her head. “I, uh… I’ve never met you before, Miss…”

“Jackie,” she said, advancing towards her. She wasn’t quite as tall as the pegasus—probably something to do with being a bat—but she thought she probably looked okay by comparison. If only she wasn’t wearing such a bulky robe. “And hey, problem solved. What’s your name?”

“On duty,” she said, raising an eyebrow. “I was going to ask you how you got through the security perimeter, Miss ‘Jackie.’ But I’m getting the feeling that you might not be from around here either.”

“I’m not.” She flicked her tail towards the camp. “I’m pony designation 0x001. We are the Borg, lower your shields and… you sure you don’t want a drink?”

“More now than I was.” The guardspony reached out with a wing, but it was only to pull Jackie’s hood down, staring into her eyes. “Damn, that’s impressive. You’re a robot. That disguise is almost as convincing as…” She trailed off.

“It’s not a disguise!” she argued, raising her voice a little in her frustration. “It’s the only body I have, and it’s quite frustrating.” She held up one hoof. “Look at this. You know there aren’t any claws hidden in this. No retractable fingers, nothing. It’s just… flat. What you see is what you get. I don’t know who designed this, but it’s a joke.”

The guard shook her head. “Well, Miss Jackie, I’m the new official liaison to Normandy. My name is Amber Sands—which you’ll only be using in an official capacity. I’m supposed to introduce myself to the powers on both sides and make myself available for their needs.”

“I’ve got a few needs,” Jackie said at once, before she could realize how silly it sounded.

Amber ignored her. “I probably don’t need to remind you that you aren’t allowed to leave the designated boundary for Normandy without signing out at the barracks and in the company of an official escort. You’re two meters across the boundary right now.”

“Oh.” Jackie glanced over her shoulder, and there was indeed a bright red line now surrounding the camp. Whatever it represented, its official existence had only just been recognized. “That wasn’t there before.”

“Maybe you didn’t know,” Amber said, gesturing again. “So I’m telling you. Either go back to your side or sign out at the guard barracks. Which will… be built by tomorrow, I’m pretty sure. It’s mostly just a guard tent now.”

Jackie beamed at her. “Alright, Amber. I’m sure we’ll talk again real soon.” She turned and left, before she could make any more of a fool of herself. I wonder if I could sneak into town without getting caught. I guess I’d have to worry about that guard catching me.

If they kept her here for much longer, they’d probably have to put a leash on her. Or I could figure out how to make these wings fly for real. Stranger things had happened.

“What do you mean I can’t have one?” Sunset Shimmer probably sounded a little childish as she asked. But she was so suddenly upset that she didn’t really care. A few centimeters through the glass was an end to all her struggles with her body—everything she needed to have her magic back, and to be alive again, and everything else. She couldn’t feel the magic radiating from them, even though she could read the powerful runes with ease.

This was Imperial magic, magic that could make her a pony again. It was within reach, just through a thin layer of glass. And on the other side of the counter was a mad demigod, who clearly knew why she wanted what he had made.

“Sorry there, uh… Natasha.” He snapped something onto the counter before her, practically beaming at her. “But if you look right here, you’ll see you aren’t on the list. You can talk to your superiors about that, because it’s not my decision to make.”

She spun around, glaring back through the doorway at Tesla. He was wearing one of the damn bracelets right now, she could see the metal on his wrist. He stared down at it as though it were a spider perched on his arm, ready to bite at any moment. No, there was none of the mockery with him. Tesla understood magic in a way that most of the Steel Tower did not. It wasn’t superstition to him. “That’s what I’m trying to do.” She stepped back outside. “Tesla, go on. Tell him to give it to me. Put me on the list.”

He shook his head, though his reply didn’t come out loud. “We both know what would happen if I let you put that on, native. Don’t try to suggest otherwise.”

Sunset folded her arms, not caring if she looked a little childish as she did so. “I could still help you, Tesla. I could still give you all the information you need. I want my magic back.”

He shrugged one shoulder. “The instant you become one of them, you again become useless to me. Think of what you were able to do a few hours ago—I could assign someone I trusted to care for the king, instead of a stranger. You were able to master and perform complex surgery in a few minutes. On the flight over, we covered all the sociopolitical factors of significance.” He leaned closer to her, resting a peremptory hand on her shoulder.

“Do not think of your desire to be returned to your previous body as a state that will exist in perpetuity. It is true that we cannot give you one now, but that is only a matter of time. When this war is over, there is no reason we couldn’t use your own designs to finish producing one. Perhaps there will be improvements by then—maybe even a way you could have your ‘magic’ without sacrificing any of the advantages of digital existence.”

Sunset Shimmer glowered at him, storming back into the bracelet room. “Come on, Discord. I know your face. I know your statue. Weren’t you all about breaking rules before? Growing wheat in the dead of winter, the dead coming back to life, all that…”

The human figure with his patchy suit did not physically resemble the old statue in any way Sunset could’ve quantified. But the look in his eyes—there was no mistaking it. She really wanted to get her hooves on a history book, see what else had changed since she left. There were several significant things—a new Alicorn, treaties, so much that didn’t make sense. But she hadn’t had the time to sneak off to the library, not yet.

There’s one in Ponyville. I can read up on everything there.

“Chaos isn’t breaking rules, Natasha. If that was the case, then very quickly the broken rule would be the new requirement and the old way would be the interesting change. Chaos is about unpredictability, about change, growth, and life. Maybe the change you need isn’t in this room?” He grinned at her. “Go on now, you’re holding up the line. I only want the officers.”

One thing that didn’t happen as she left Canterlot behind was a meeting with Princess Celestia. They were never even in the same room together, though her name was constantly referenced and Tesla had plenty of questions about her. Sunset mostly lurked with the legionaries and other soldiers, searching for an opportunity to sneak off that never came.

Eventually the hexacopter returned, and it was back to Normandy in a more formal way. “We’re going to have a conversation, you and your creation and I,” Tesla said, as they soared back over an Equestria that seemed relatively unscathed for the attack the night before. “I have discovered information of interest, and I do not think I’ll keep her at the camp.”

“You mean Jackie? Whatever it is, I could go with her. She doesn’t know Equestria any better than you do.”

Tesla shrugged. “Sorry, Natasha. Afraid I need you here. You can send a fork with her if you like—that’s more generous than I should be, but I understand your concern.”

Sunset Shimmer shivered visibly, clutching at her necklace. She had enough experience with forks to last a lifetime. “Maybe not. Where are you sending her, anyway? You know she’s not a warrior. She’s a hacker, and not even as good as any of the ones who work for you. We got caught.”

They landed with a thump. The walls slid open, revealing a Normandy that had grown tremendously in the day since Sunset had left. Their side was packed with tents, each one machine-identical to the ones beside it. Unlike the ramshackle affair on the other side, with dozens of buildings scattered more in loose groups than in anything that made efficient sense. Because real people did it, not machines. Organic Builders, that’s so weird.

“I am aware of her limitations. I think you’ll agree the mission is within her abilities. I only need your help… motivating her. She’s your friend—how can we pay her?”

“You, uh…” Sunset didn’t say anything until they’d unloaded, and the crowd of soldiers and technicians around them cleared enough for her to see Tesla’s face. Still they spoke only over the private radio, just like so many others here. Come to think of it, the only sound she could hear from their side of the camp was machinery—all the voices and conversation were from the other half. I want to meet them.

But she couldn’t tell Tesla that. He’d probably just say something insensitive about how useless and weak organics were. And maybe he would be right, but those Builders are much closer to ponies than these. They’re imperfect, mortal. If she were going to learn useful lessons to take back to ponies, maybe she should be looking to them instead.

“You pay ponies?”

“Did you think there were slaves in Richard’s court?” Tesla’s eyebrows went up. “Every soul here works because he chooses to. Conscripts are really only useful for dying, and drones are cheaper to mass produce. Bodies are so precious and rare than anyone who doesn’t want to assist is better off sent back into the Infinite Realm, so whatever apparatus they’re using can be given to someone who will use it better. But I will not threaten her, either. You gave her the body, it isn’t mine to take away. So how do we make her work?”

Sunset Shimmer wasn’t sure about the answer. But then—most of what she thought she knew about the world was turning out to be untrue. There were multiple Alicorns, the Builders hadn’t come to conquer Equestria, and there were still organic Builders living alongside those that had overcome their physical limitations.

But there was one thing she could think of. “You have me tell her instead of you,” Sunset began. “Because she bucking hates you, and she’ll probably refuse anything you try and make her do out of spite. Even if I’m there saying it’s a good idea.”

“Okay.” Tesla didn’t seem bothered by this information, or even to be listening that closely. Sunset guessed that there were thousands of information feeds all around him, following him through the air. Tesla was one of those who was so good with their robotic body that they could interact with invisible objects—perform Datamancy—without any visible signs. Except for a little inattention. “Would that be enough?”

“No,” she continued. “The thing Jackie wants most from you is to leave. If you really want her to do something for you, then promise her she can keep the body when she’s done. So long as you aren’t asking for something evil, I’m sure she’ll do it.”

“Evil,” he said, shaking his head in disbelief. “How we clawed our way out of the dirt, I’ll never know. Fine. Resources like that might’ve been impossible to promise a few months ago, but this is Equestria now. The soil is rich, the mines are vast.” He reached into the air, and a little cube of compacted data appeared in his fingers. He tossed it to her, and Sunset caught it. “These are the mission parameters. It should probably go without saying, but I forbid you from telling anyone but her about it. She should know the… severity… of the consequences if she shares that information as well. Anything she needs before she goes, she tells you, you tell me, and I’ll see that she gets it.”

He turned away, apparently angled for some random, distant point in the camp.

“Wait, what about me?” Sunset called after him, though her voice didn’t actually have to get any louder thanks to the radio. “Shouldn’t I be getting an assignment too? Advisor stuff, or…”

“That’s your first assignment,” Tesla said. “When she is gone, we will discuss. An advisor that requires my advice on how to accomplish even basic tasks in the service of the Tower is not terribly useful to me.”

His implications were clear enough, and Sunset didn’t try to follow. She muttered a quiet curse, then started wandering through the camp.

She began unpacking the data cube as she walked, distracting that part of her subconscious with the information it contained. Perhaps it shouldn’t have surprised her that there was actually something interesting inside. The Builders had been in contact with Equestria after all, and the last representative they sent had not made a good impression.

The Steel Tower were barbarians. Jackie tried to find the cantina in their little war camp, but of course it didn’t exist. She tried to find the karaoke bar, the cafe, and so many other things. But these too didn’t exist. Their camp was a dreary, spartan mess of exactly four dozen identical tents, each one with ten charging pods. For all the humanity the legionaries seemed to have, they might as well be a force of war drones sent to subjugate every person in Equestria.

But as the hours passed, Jackie’s boredom finally prompted a little curiosity. First to try and get into places she shouldn’t—but that quickly lost any appeal once she discovered that: A) nobody cared where she went with a body like hers, and B) it would just be boring weapons and vehicles anyway, and she had no use for any of that.

But a few more hours, and she finally decided to ask someone what everyone was doing with their time.

She found herself the most important-looking figure she could—a knight in white robes and silvery armor, who also happened to be the only person she’d seen so far with any kind of personal effects. A collapsible guitar wasn’t exactly proof that he had a soul, but it was more than she’d seen so far.

“Hey, you! Sir Rock-and-Roll, I want to talk to you!”

Jackie had removed her Technocratic Order robes by then—mostly because once they were off, it was easier for all the Tower people to realize that she was one of them so they would stop suggesting that she’d gotten lost in their camp.

“Sir Bradley,” he corrected, adjusting the box under him until it was something like a chair, then strumming a chord on his guitar. It almost sounded in tune. “What can I do for you, strangest citizen I’ve seen today?”

“Well, you didn’t ask me to get back to the fence, so that’s an improvement over the way the legionaries talk to me.”

He shrugged, though already this was the most casual conversation she’d ever had with a knight. And he wasn’t even trying to lock her up. “That’s because they didn’t look at your ident.” He gestured in the air, and her tag appeared above her.

Jacqueline Kessler, Technocratic Order Special Assignment, Do Not Interfere.

“Oh.” She blushed, pawing at the ground. “Right. Guess that makes sense. Anyway, I have a question for you, Sir Bradley. What the hell is everyone doing? There’s no way every random soldier and technician works for twenty-three hours, charges for thirty minutes, then does it over again. I’m out of the loop here—where does the good shit happen?”

Sir Bradley mouthed the words ‘good shit’ with apparent amusement. “For a Technocratic Order assignment, you don’t seem to have much experience outside the Infinite Realm. I’m guessing this is your first assignment?”

She nodded in annoyance, shifting uneasily on her hooves. She didn’t want to give him any detail that might prompt curiosity about just why that might be. Once he found out he was talking to a hacker, that would probably be the end of friendly contact.

But either Bradley didn’t look her up, or he didn’t care, because his expression remained friendly. “Normandy has three Realm nodes active all the time, maybe… ten million people in all? It looks like everyone works all the time because we’re using these bodies on shifts. Whole squads rotate out at the same time, so it seems like everyone is always coordinated and trained to work together. The only ones who aren’t hot-bunking are the other knights and a few top brass in the Order. I’m guessing… you’re one of those, since you didn’t know any of this.”

Yeah,Jackie admitted, her tone a little distracted. It was so obvious she should’ve looked for it sooner—she should’ve expected that was where everyone would go. Steel Tower people weren’t mindless robots, despite what she might sometimes curse. And all it took was a little focus and she could bring up the three nodes and the augmented reality map of various locations around her.

Three nodes did not present a lot of variety to the intrepid explorer—the realms were not infinite here. She read the tags in an instant—one was a standard pre-war simulation of Earth, one was a hyperconnected university sim, and one belonged to the most popular fantasy sim, the descendant of that same simulation that had been such a powerful influence that the Steel Tower had a king and medieval-style guild.

“Thanks for your help, Sir Bradley,” she said, relaxing at last. “I think I’m going to… see what people are up to.”

He shrugged. “Find a charging pod while you do it. Don’t sleep on the ground at your size, or else somebody might run you over.”

Jackie opened her mouth to say something smug about how her body was field-nuclear and didn’t need charging, but then she realized that would be stupid to say and so she just nodded her thanks. It was the most respectful she’d been to a knight of the realm in a long time—but considering she was out in the real world now, she didn’t see the need to make enemies pointlessly. This wasn’t the Infinite Realm, where she could always get away no matter how many people hated her.

So she found herself a quiet corner of one of the tents, near to the realistic simulation node. Jackie had nothing but loathing for that stupid fantasy world and the university would just put her to sleep in fantasy space anyway.

By the time Sunset Shimmer found her, she was human again at a beachside bar, resting under a cabana and planning her next conquest.

“That’s where you’re hiding,” Sunset said, pushing the edge of the hammock with a flip-flop. “I’ve been looking for you for over an hour, you know. Real time.”

Jackie shrugged, then sat up. “You could’ve just sent me an email. I’ve been…” She gestured into the air, summoning up her messages. There were sixteen from Sunset Shimmer, all asking to meet. She’d had the mail system muted, and Sunset wasn’t savvy enough to get around blocks like that. “Oh.”

“Nice wings, by the way.” Sunset touched the edge of one of them, where they emerged from the back of her bikini. “I didn’t think humans went for those. Everyone else here looks… pretty normal.”

As normal as anyone in the Infinite Realm ever looked, with impossibly perfect features, adaptive clothing, skin colors that didn’t exist, and a variety of other things. The variety was much wider in other sims, but since this one was meant to faithfully recreate Earth…

“Eh, different bodies give you a little leeway to use visual signals. I picked wings, and the girls think they’re awesome. Obviously, because they are.”

Sunset shrugged, then pulled her back down into a sitting position. “I’ve got some bad news, Jackie. Well, maybe it’s bad news. I dunno. You tell me.”

“You’ll have to tell me the news first.” Jackie gestured, and an identical margarita appeared in her hand. Terrible shame that being on-duty meant all she could do was taste it. Stupid endless Technocratic Order assignment…

Sunset Shimmer waved one hand through the air, doing a little Datamancy of her own. The two trees and patch of sand they were resting on bent suddenly outward, until it rested in the middle of the water. The bar and its many attractive occupants were now too far away to hear them.

“First thing’s first,” Sunset Shimmer began. “We’re not allowed to talk about this with anyone. Lots of threats if we do, you know the drill.”

“Yes,” she said, not even trying to keep her annoyance from her voice. “Very well.”

Sunset at least had the good sense to blush, conjuring a few books into the air in front of her. Equestrian history books, by the look of it, recently digitized. The spine of the first one happened to be facing Jackie, so she could read Return of Tirek and the Evil Queen of the Underground.

“Well, you and the others aren’t the first humans to come to Equestria. Apparently they’ve been trying to make contact for a long time. A few years ago they succeeded, and they sent someone over. She was apparently one of Tesla’s best engineers, so he wants you to find her and bring her back.”

Jackie had the hammock to herself, so she stretched out, getting a little more comfortable as she drifted back and forth in the sea breeze. It was always comfortable, no matter how late at night it got here. “You’re saying she went AWOL? One of Tesla’s top engineers just got to Equestria and ran away?”

“Well… not quite.” Sunset flipped through the book a few pages, then pushed it forward through the air towards Jackie. “Equestria wouldn’t tell us what happened, wouldn’t even acknowledge she’d been here. But somehow we got our hands on some history books, including this one.”

Jackie tossed Sunset her margarita—an impossible task in the real world, but here in the Infinite Realm she knew Sunset wouldn’t spill it. “You finish that, then.”

She read. The account was obviously written by ponies, and was full of claims Jackie never would’ve believed. The ponies couldn’t tell their own mythology from reality, and the two mixed on almost every page. Even so, she could glimpse some truth through the insanity. There was a little pamphlet stuck inside the book with information that was almost as interesting. Not mythology, but the official mission briefing. Not just the certs she would need to make requisitions, but more information on her engineer. Brigid Curie.

Hello creator of my imposter fork. I would like to meet the real you, maybe ask why you were spying on us. I wonder what your real self got herself up to...

Apparently an attempted coup of an alien nation, if Sunset’s book was right. During an attack by a creature that had gone around harvesting magic from every pony it met, another creature had attacked Canterlot with an army of her own. They had been armed with modern weapons and armor, and they had easily beaten the magicless Canterlot City Watch. The Queen of the Underground was described as a pale figure on two legs, who had commanded her diamond dogs with absolute authority. She had eventually been defeated by someone called “Truth,” then banished to live out her days in solitude and shame.

Jackie snapped her book closed. “So let me see if I’m understanding this right. Steel Tower tried to send someone to open up diplomatic contact with Equestria—but instead of that, she raised a fucking army, waited for a national crisis, and tried to use it to seize power?” She tossed the book onto the sand. “Sounds fucking unhinged to me. Maybe she’s better off wherever the Equestrians banished her.”

Sunset Shimmer had probably been waiting for subjective hours while Jackie read—she wasn’t exactly fast. She’d changed into a swimsuit, and was now sitting with her feet in the surf, sipping at one of the other mixed drinks from the bar and watching the moon track its way across the sky with a pained, distant expression.

“Hello?” Jackie got to her feet, then kicked sand in Sunset’s direction. “Earth is paging horsegirl. Earth to horsegirl, do you read?”

“Oh.” Sunset blinked, then glared, splashing back with a kick through the water. Her aim was better than Jackie’s and she ended up soaking wet. “Sorry.” She paused for another second—probably looking back at what Jackie had just said. Even if she hadn’t been paying attention, her memory was still recording. “Yes, probably. I would have to talk to Celestia to know for sure. There’s not much in there. Maybe she reformed, or maybe she had a good reason. Maybe the history books are using her as a scapegoat, and she wasn’t really guilty of anything.” She folded her arms. “Don’t trust the Equestrian justice system, Jackie. I’m with Tesla—your engineer might be innocent.”

“Might,” Jackie repeated. “And she’s not my engineer. Sounds like a shitty mission to me.”

“Well… you’re the one who looks like a pony,” Sunset said. “And Celestia won’t say a word about her to King Richard. Won’t even confirm if she’s still here. But… let’s just say we know where she is, or we’re pretty sure.”

She gestured again, and this time an entire map appeared in the air beside her, with glowing lines representing various important locations in the native country. Jackie took it all in—the physical resemblances to North America were obvious, and even some of the names had disturbing similarity. There’s a connection here. I’ll find it. Sunset pointed to a distant mountain range, where a tiny red dot glowed. “This little town is called Motherlode. It’s where all of Equestria’s mithril comes from, but other than that isn’t very important. Don’t ask me how Tesla found out she was there, because his files didn’t say and he wouldn’t tell me either.”

Jackie brushed the water off her chest, walking up to the map. “So I’m supposed to… travel across a country I’ve never visited in the middle of a war… find some bunghole in the middle of nowhere, and rescue a human criminal that got banished there for a crime she might actually be guilty of. Does that sound about right?”

Sunset nodded. “Yeah, I guess. But when you put it like that…”

“I don’t know why I should. Let Tesla make another body, he has the plans. Let him send someone else. I don’t want to help him.” But for all her words might be resisting, Jackie couldn’t fake her anger very convincingly. I could get out. See the world, meet real people.

“I told him that,” Sunset said, folding her arms. “And got him to offer something you might like. If you can do this—if you can bring her back, then he’ll let you go in exchange. No more working for the Tower unless you want to, body yours to keep. Everything.”

She probably should’ve done something to hide her eagerness. But Jackie had been through a lot in the last few weeks, and her acting skills had suffered as a result. “Okay, okay. Fine. But I’m going to need your help. I can already guess he isn’t going to let you go—you’ve got too many friends in Equestria who could make you disappear. Too many resources to use against him. But I’ve never lived here before. My first attempt to make friends didn’t go… the best. I think I’ll need your help.”