• 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 20: MAC

Starlight Glimmer was the first out into the open, with Sunset following close behind. A crowd of visiting locals parted around them the instant Sunset emerged, with many staring or even removing cameras to take pictures. But Sunset didn’t slow down, didn’t even think about it.

The Crystal Heart floated in the air, well out of reach of even the tallest human. There was no case, no protective shell, and only a handful of guards scattered around, mostly mixed in with the crowd. Plenty of ponies had been swarming right up to it until their little group moved through.

Sunset watched as Starlight froze directly below it, and her horn started glowing. Sunset herself slowed to a stop—she had no magical senses, and so joining Starlight right under the thing wouldn’t make their task any easier. The best thing she could do was stay out of the way until Starlight finished.

Trixie seemed to have the same idea, because she stopped beside her, watching their companion. “Sometimes Trixie thinks this must be what it’s like for Twilight and her friends, when they’re off saving Equestria. Trixie did it herself once, but the adventure was scarier than she would’ve liked. She’s in no hurry to save the world again.”

Sunset turned, lowering her voice a little. She had no reason to be honest with this pony, but she couldn’t help but feel some strange kinship for her. “I don’t care for her much either. Princess Twilight, I mean. It’s nothing she ever did, I only ever saw her as a little filly wandering around the castle. But if we met I don’t think we’d get along.”

“There’s no reason to try,” Trixie muttered. “When I first made friends with her student, Twilight tried to ruin our friendship, even though she’s supposed to be the Princess of Friendship. But that’s never how it works—she’s the Princess of Friendship as far as having a fancy castle and all the fame, but that’s it.”

Starlight Glimmer’s horn stopped glowing. She spun back around, and teleported the distance between them with a faint white flash. “The mind magic is gone. My guess is the one producing it went through the portal.”

“There was only one unicorn in their group. Samil’s understudy.” Sunset couldn’t even bring herself to use the name, as though using it might summon her attention again.

“What do we do?” Starlight Glimmer looked up, at the crowd of desperate-looking crystal ponies. But the weight that had borne on them so heavy no longer seemed to be crushing them as it had. “Turn the portal off? They’re counting on us to power it from the other side. Then we could—”

Sunset Shimmer shook her head. While she did so, she was radioing Brad. “Sir Bradley, get out of there right now. Sprint back to the truck and move it.”

Sir Bradley wasn’t the sort of man to be obstinate about being told what to do. Yet she wasn’t the one in charge, and wasn’t the one who ever gave instructions. “Already moving. What did you find out?”

“You know how I told you the Crystal Empire was under magical attack? The one who did it just went through the portal. Either that, or their side switched off the magic at the exact second the portal went off. But that seems hard to believe. We may’ve just given our traitor exactly what she wanted.”

“We need to protect the Equestrian leadership,” Brad responded, his voice decisive. “I’ve ordered my household to evacuate and scatter. We already had a fallback position in mind. They’ll bring enough to keep things going without the truck. We don’t want the Federation bastards to know we’re onto them. Princess Cadance is the one running things—warn her, and keep her the fuck alive. I’ll send my last squire to you.”

“I don’t think it was all of them. Alexi’s actions don’t make sense for a traitor.”

“We can’t sort them out, Sunset. Just keep that princess alive. Since we’ve been here I learned the Empire is bigger below the ground than it is above, but the ponies don’t use most of that space. If things go to shit, find a sewer and take it down. Have the organics bring some food if they can manage it.”


All that passed in about two seconds of real time, in the same delay Starlight might’ve expected her to answer herself. “Princess Cadance,” Sunset said. “She needs to be told. It’s her decision to make, not ours.”

“Right, of course.” Starlight’s ears flattened, and she galloped past them again, towards the huge open gates of the great hall. Cadance probably wasn’t right inside, but that was the way that would lead to her. “I should’ve thought of that.”

“I’m glad you’re thinking, because I don’t have a clue what’s going on,” Trixie called, galloping after them with increasing frustration. “Do you think we could save the world a little slower?”

But Sunset didn’t get tired, so she ignored the complaint. If they had to run from one side of the Empire to the other, that was fine by her.

The great hall was packed with ponies large and small, each of them looking annoyed over something or other. But the throne at the far side had only a bedraggled looking white unicorn sitting beside it, his expression near hopeless as portioners approached him in a line. The princess’s husband, though Sunset didn’t know anything about him beyond that.

And he wasn’t the one that Starlight was interested in either. She hopped over the dividing fence, then gestured the guards away as they tried to stop Sunset and Trixie from following. “She must be in her solar,” Starlight called. “It’s a lot of running.” She stopped abruptly, glancing between them. “Actually, there’s no reason to run. I’ll teleport us up there. Assuming…” She glanced briefly to Sunset. “Can you do that?”

“This body acts like it’s inanimate most of the time,” Sunset answered, her voice only a little flat. “I can’t be healed, and I’m immune to mind magic, but teleportation should be fine.”

Starlight nodded, but then her eyebrows went up. “If you’re immune to mind magic, how did you know when—” She shook her head. “Whatever, close your eyes. Going up.”

The world flashed around them. Sunset Shimmer didn’t bother to exhale, but she did close her eyes out of habit. It was the first time she’d ever been teleported out in the real world with this new body, and she was in no hurry of discovering what it might see when cutting through Limbo.

The solar materialized around them a moment later, and what Sunset saw was hardly surprising. A massive bed stood in the back of the room, in the shape of a comically oversized heart. Tapestries hung along the outside wall, and an oversized desk took up one corner of the room, surrounded with books. There were several doors, one leading to a lavish bathroom, another a walk-in closet larger than many houses.

But the princess herself was nowhere to be seen. Starlight seemed to deflate as she glanced around the room, movements becoming increasingly rapid as her desperation grew. “She’s not here she’s not here buck why isn’t she here…” She vanished from in front of them, and Sunset heard a few pops coming from nearby. Checking the connected rooms, probably.

“I’m glad she’s the one who knows how to do that,” Trixie muttered.

“It’s an impressive amount of energy,” Sunset said, though she didn’t stay still. Instead she advanced on the single completely closed door, which had a little pony’s picture on the front. She reached out, swinging it open. A long hallway appeared on the other side, its magical crystal illumination springing to life near her. The lights notice me.

The lights noticed her, and she had been affected by mind magic. Not as much as the ponies of the Crystal Empire, or the refugees. They’d been wrung dry in just a few days, it seemed. But Sunset had felt it. “Twilight, are you there?”

“Yeah, for another minute or so. Apparently they’re moving the sim? It’s going suspended for storage. What happened?”

Sunset could hear the pain in her voice. But there was nothing she could do to make up for it now. She’d caused this, but it might also be what saved Twilight’s life. Unless we’re wrong, and we’re about to look like huge idiots.There’s a Federation traitor and she just passed through the mirror. I don’t know what she’s doing over there, but we gave her what she wanted.”

“That’s… bad.”

“Yeah.” Sunset listened down the hall for another moment, but there was no light in the distant chamber, nor the sound of a little pony’s voice. She shut it again. “You could say that.”

“Does the Federation know they have a traitor?”

“We don’t know it isn’t all of them,” Sunset answered. “Telling them might be the quickest way to get ourselves killed. They might all be ponies now, but there’s over twenty thousand of them here, Twi.”

“I guess so.” Twilight didn’t sound convinced. “Good luck, Sunset. Stay safe.”

“I’ll get you a body soon, Twi. This stupid war won’t go on forever.”

“I know. I l—”

Transmission terminated.

Sunset swore under her breath, turning back to Trixie. Just as with Brad, only a few visible seconds had passed for the entire conversation. Twilight running on their shard was far slower than Brad could get with his knight’s brain.

He gave away his armor. Sunset Shimmer didn’t even have a gun.

Starlight Glimmer reappeared in the center of the room, so close to Trixie that her friend withdrew with a squeak. “I don’t understand it! Cadance is always up here in the afternoon, answering letters from her subjects. We interrupted her with the portal. But she’s not coming up the stairs. I don’t—”

A shrill, piercing scream echoed from below them, soon joined by many others. Sunset Shimmer froze, not even daring to breathe. She heard pounding hooves, moving so fast that the whole palace structure shook.

Then she saw it—not coming up the stairs, but out the massive open balcony.

It wasn’t one thing, but three. Massive shapes blurred out of the castle below them, like dragons circling the city from above. But they weren’t dragons, they were too… ethereal, too pony.

The three of them stumbled towards the window together, watching as the creatures came into better view. They looked more like they would’ve been at home in the ocean, with streamlined bodies and tails instead of legs.

Then they started to sing.

Sunset Shimmer felt the magic strike into her like a physical blow, a hopelessness that made her knees give out and all the world turn gray. The whole city seemed to fade away—their war against the dragons, her hopes to save Equestria. There was only that song, and a vision of the endless expanse of nothingness that waited for her. Existence was dust, and it was blowing away around her.

But then the song promised relief. There was hope for salvation in only one place: obedience. Bow down, commanded the voice. Serve the only ones worth your loyalty. All Equestria will burn, and order will be left in its place. You can fight on the side of order. We will make a place for you.

Abnormal neurosimulation detected. Restoring from cortical recorder save state.

Sunset Shimmer’s world tore painfully in half. She wanted to scream, beg the only truth in her universe for help. The song was the answer, it would help her if only she would bow to it.

Sunset Shimmer had refused to bow to the greatest pony in the world. She’d known better even than Celestia. And when she finally met a good king, she hadn’t even bowed to him. I won’t.

Sunset Shimmer’s world came back. The shouts from the palace were gone, and she could see the fleeing crowd below, all frozen together in supplication to the spirits of the air. And it wasn’t just them—all over the city ponies had dropped down. Even the tiny figures in the distant refugee camp were bowing now. Even the unicorns on either side.

Still the song was in her ears, demanding that she bow. Sunset ignored them.

“Sunset, what the fuck is going on?” Brad’s voice, as pained as she felt. “I think something just tried to hack me. No one at basecamp is responding. Are you still with me?”

Sunset Shimmer nodded, though she knew he wouldn’t be able to see. She could feel the monstrous creatures outside, and she knew them. Knew them from the same legends that she had memorized when she had been seeking the mirror. “I’m here. Those are… they’re sirens. You have to…”

“Fuck the Greeks,” Brad said. “Ulysses already solved this one, I got it. Stay alive. I have to save my house.”

“Starlight, can you hear me?” Sunset stepped directly in front of Starlight and Trixie, putting herself between them and the window.

The ponies didn’t respond, didn’t even blink. “Starlight!” she yelled, but even her shouting wasn’t enough to cover up the sound of the hostile spell warping their minds. Of course it isn’t, stupid. They can still hear it.

Sunset turned, running into the royal bathroom, eyes scanning the counter until she found something she could use. A large tray of differently colored mane-wax, probably meant for the royal stylist. Sunset scooped into the whole thing with both hands, working quickly to soften it all into a uniform brown.

By the time she made it back into the bedroom, Starlight and Trixie were making their way out, struggling to get the door open. They moved sluggishly, as though only half awake. “I’m sorry about this,” Sunset muttered, though she didn’t expect them to be able to hear her.

Starlight Glimmer turned to face her, and Sunset heard the song shift. The words promising relief changed to prompt ponies rewards for helping everyone to embrace a purpose. Those who hadn’t heard had to be taught.

Sunset knew she had only seconds then, and so she smashed Trixie over with her shoulder, leaping on Starlight with all the force her artificial body could produce. She took the wax, cramming it down into Starlight’s ears and holding her pinned against the squirming.

Let go, commanded the sirens in her mind. You’ve fought for too long, give up. Let us do your fighting for you.

Sunset Shimmer didn’t let go, not until Starlight Glimmer stopped kicking. Trixie was pulling on her robe, but unicorns weren’t terribly strong, and despite her talent for the stage she wasn’t casting any spells. Sunset let go, taking the remaining wax and turning on Trixie.

“And I’m invisible!” she declared, her voice like a pony who’d had several glasses of cider too many. Sunset didn’t even have to fight her to get the wax over her ears.

She could almost feel the change in the ponies—where once they’d been watching with hostility, now they looked sick. Starlight Glimmer darted back towards the window. “There’s a counterspell for magic like this!” she called, much louder than her normal speaking voice. “Hold on, I’m thinking!”

“I’ve warned the king.” Brad’s voice came in over private radio. “I shorted everyone else’s ears, they’re back among the living. Camp has lost its fucking mind. Why can some of us fight and others can’t?”

Sunset tried to remember. But the myth of the sirens had only been incidental to the real mystery of the mirror, and her knowledge wasn’t nearly as detailed. “It’s something about magic, or friendship, or something.”

“Can’t make an immunity vector out of friendship,” Brad answered, voice distant. “Looks like they’re consolidating, whoever this is. We need to go to ground before they realize we’re not controlled. How fine do you think their power over people will get?”

“Very. The longer they’re under their spell, the more specific they get. These monsters were banished… ages and ages ago. Sent through…” Through the portal to Earth.

Then it all made sense. Ada had always unnerved her a little, but it was more than that. She’d been sowing discord between their factions since Normandy was established. Maybe a less disciplined point of contact would’ve escalated things to violence without any need of a hack. And when they arrived in the Crystal Empire, the whole city had felt hopeless.

This song was the same magic, taken to its conclusion. And now that she recognized it, Sunset could banish the feeling. A little datamancy, a simple program to recognize and ignore the emotions Ada was trying to inflict. Her hands blurred through the air as they hadn’t since she’d left the realm, putting to code what she had imagined. That traditional Tower education hadn’t been forgotten just because she was back home in Equestria.

While Starlight wrote a spell of her own, Sunset activated a debug run of some datamancy she’d just done.

A new icon appeared on her HUD, a simple warning that mind magic was at work and trying to influence her. She could still hear the song, but no longer understand the intentions underneath. That was the price of immunity. She wouldn’t be able to guess at the commands the sirens gave, but she no longer felt the pressure to obey them.

“Here’s your immunity vector,” Sunset said, sending the program. “I think my code might be a little dirty, but try that. See if you feel different.”

Brad didn’t respond for nearly three seconds, a veritable eternity of digital time. But when he finally did, his voice was relieved. “God that’s some fast work. You sure you’re not from Technocrat Counterintelligence? This code reads almost exactly as the Great War mimetic hotfix. No, wait. You couldn’t tell me anyway. Good work.”

Starlight Glimmer’s horn flashed so bright that for a few seconds Sunset wondered if she knew some spell to save the whole city right there. But no—a second later, and it was only her and Trixie that looked different. Starlight levitated the lumpy wax from her ears another moment later, wincing as strands of her mane went with it.

Guess I wasn’t terribly gentle going in, was I?

“Is it safe to take that out?” Sunset asked.

“Yeah…” Starlight panted. “We’re… safe.”

“Not if we stay up here,” Sunset whispered. She could hear hooves moving up the stairs. There were a lot of stairs leading to this particular bedroom, but they didn’t have forever. “The other Tower people are immune too. Sir Bradley has a good idea about where we can hide.”

As they started to move, Sunset Shimmer used the last of her spare processor cycles to reach out and send a message to the network. Jackie had been away for some time, who knew if she would ever get it. Maybe she was dead. But there would be no radio once they got underground. “Crystal Empire is compromised. Ancient monsters called the sirens have returned, and taken the minds of everypony for themselves. Cover your ears if you come into town. I’ll be hiding while we think of a way to beat them. If you can bring any help, now’s the time.”

“This is disgusting,” Bree announced, for perhaps the third time this hour.

Jackie tried to ignore her petulant tone, reminding herself that her companion had no way of muting her senses and had to stand in garbage completely unprotected. “Come on, there isn’t even some ugly worm trying to eat us. This is pussy mode.”

They were riding with the bin’s cover firmly closed, and Jackie crouched near the exit, searching for an opportunity to escape that wouldn’t get one of them killed. Had they both been fully prosthetic, they could’ve remained in place for days, jumped off buildings… whatever. But Bree was alive, and just now they were surrounded with dense tunnels and walls that crowded in around them. If they jumped right now, they’d be smeared into an oily stain on the walls.

Bree’s face brightened. “You like classic movies? Nopony ever appreciates what the masters did before the holovids came around.”

“I appreciate the first three,” Jackie muttered. “Less the other twelve. Selling good ideas to a megacorporation is always a mistake.”

They emerged from the darkness in a rush of motion that looked like it briefly sickened Bree, though Jackie felt it only as changing readings of her accelerometer. They were running on rails now, speeding through a dense jungle on both sides. She tossed the lid off above her, and felt the cool touch of clean air against her. The jungle was no less humid than the city, but at least she didn’t have to stagnate in the same air anymore. The odor was getting so bad she was starting to swear she could smell it even with her nose shut off.

Then she felt something else—a recorded transmission, a sound recording so brief she just let it play the instant it arrived. It was from Sunset.

Sunset, are you there?” Nothing. Well, maybe Sunset had got her own stored archives of life in Motherlode that she’d wanted to send after her antenna went out. It was something to hope for, anyway.

“Shit.” Jackie leaned against the metal shell of the dumpster, expression darkening. “No place is safe right now. The city wants to kill us, and the pony refugee camp isn’t any better.” She repeated the message to Bree in a few seconds, expression souring as she spoke.

“Is the one who sent that reliable?”

Jackie nodded. “She’s an… I guess you’d call her an uplifted native. She used to be a unicorn, but now she’s Tower. There was some drama when she took over a bunch of corrupted minds in the Realm and repaired them by rewriting them into ponies… but that isn’t really important and I’m not sure why I told you.”

“Repaired the… you mean the dissociated consciousnesses? I thought those people were just dead for good!”

Jackie shook her head. “They were pretty alive when I was there. One in particular, her assistant… I think it was just having more attention that helped her, but you wouldn’t have known she was a ghost from talking to her. But… do you know anything about fighting mythical creatures? Sirens… I think I’ve heard about them.” She did a quick search, but Jackie didn’t keep anything about myths on file in her head. The satellite was responding as slow as melting tar.

“Myth wasn’t really something I cared about while I was here,” Bree answered. “In a way, we’re the myths. The Precursors, they called us. There used to be some really advanced city called Carcosa, and all the Alicorns lived there, except it died and there were only two survivors… and you’re not listening.”

Jackie wasn’t listening. She was receiving a transmission again, though not an answer from Sunset Shimmer. It was a direct reply to an earlier message, from “SENDER UNKNOWN.” Text only.

“I didn’t know there were any other humans in Excellus. Where are you transmitting from?”

She didn’t even think about whether or not she could trust the questioner. Jackie was long past choosing their allies. “Just outside the city, riding the dump disposal railway towards… a dump probably. I think we got out without them noticing us.”

“You’re the rogue automaton they’re talking about, aren’t you?”

There was no sense avoiding it. “I am not an automaton, I’m a citizen of the Steel Tower. They attacked my friend, but I’m a better fighter than they are. I got away. I’ve got the recordings in my brain to prove it.” Jackie did her best datamancy on the transmission, trying to extract what information she could. She could determine that it had been sent by a very old model of tablet computer, with an ID… that couldn’t be right. That was an Avalon MAC address. Who the hell was she talking to?

The responses weren’t coming lightning fast, so she obviously wasn’t talking to someone from the Tower. The fact they’d mistaken her for an “automaton” supported that theory too. Anyone from the Realm would’ve instantly recognized the description of her for what it was. The Tower had no GAIs—her intelligence meant she was a person. “Who are you, anyway?” she asked, before they could reply again with another stupid question. “Evening Star? I bet she has equipment to talk to me.”

“Her? No. I don’t think she’s very happy with you. She advised me to leave the city immediately. My name is Avalon—I used to be the only human on this planet. But I know now that I am not—there is a whole city of them out in space, and I’m going to join them.”

There’s Avalon again. There’s no way you’re from the missing colony. Only human on this planet, what does that mean? “The starship? It’s here?” The fact that she didn’t hear an instant response was enough confirmation for her. “Take us with you, please. If they find us before I can explain things to Evening Star, they’ll kill me. And she might not even believe me…”

“Did you short circuit or something, Jackie?” Bree nudged her with one hoof. “I thought you were waterproof, but… maybe I didn’t seal something up as well as I thought…”

“No, I didn’t. I’m fine.” Jackie blinked, meeting her eyes. “That’s rescue I was talking to. Or… I’m trying to convince them. Someone named Avalon, says he used to be the only human in Equestria.”

“Far as I know he was a diamond dog, but I never paid much attention in school. I guess that might look like a human.” Then she shook her head. “Oh, we’re running out of track. Looks like… maybe twenty seconds left? Yeah, twenty seconds. So think about how you can jump us both out before…”

Jackie spun around, shoving past her to the other end. There was a massive opening in the earth ahead of them, where the contents of the carts were being dumped one after another. It looked like it had been a strip mine once, mostly concealed by the trees above. But it wasn’t even close to full, and the fall would certainly kill Bree.

“I’ll help you,” Avalon’s response came. “If you can prove you’re human.”

She clenched her teeth in annoyance, trying to solve both problems at once. Jackie reached into the past, taking her album of photos with Sunset and the Murciélagos, sending all of them. Then she got close to Bree, lowering her voice. “I’m going to have to jump us off. I’ll try to take the fall, but we need to get out right now.”

Bree nodded. “I figured. Just say when.” They were running out of time. A quick speed projection gave them ten seconds, then five. Jackie jumped, and Bree pulled free of her at the last second. Instead of going down on her back with Bree above her, the earth pony leapt on her own. She landed on the ground beside her with a crack of stone and wood, sending up a little crater of dust. Jackie herself tumbled several times, wincing with each impact until her mind finally projected a movement path that could get her on her hooves. She pushed off on a tree, slid a bit, then rose.

Didn’t seem like she’d broken anything this time, though bits of her artificial coat were torn up. I really need a human body. This is getting stupid.

“Okay,” Avalon sent. “I’m homing in on your signal. Keep broadcasting. I hope you don’t mind a trip to space, because that’s where I’m going.”

“At this point, we just need to get away.” She could only hope that Bree wouldn’t think about her family until they were already on the ship. Besides, Evening Star was a good pony. Even if she thought that the two of them had gone bad—something Jackie herself didn’t fully believe—she wouldn’t hurt a bunch of innocents who had nothing to do with it. “We’ll go with you.”