• 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 21: Linking Map

Jackie began to doubt her decision the instant she saw the starship’s outline behind the trees. It wasn’t as though they had any other choice, and she pointed and started running towards it as though it was an exciting relief.

But she’d seen the old Merlin ships before in museum sims about the early history of space, and she was hardly filled with confidence. The distinct hump of its main hydrogen tank rose along its back side like a tumor left to grow untreated for decades.

Bree seemed to be thinking much the same thing, because she stopped dead in her run, and not from the blast of hot hair shooting back towards them. “I’m not seeing what I think I am.”

“Looks like it,” Jackie agreed. “A Merlin? Chemical engine, no shield or magnetic bottle, no gravity… real historical piece.”

“Fantastic,” she said. “We’re going to die in space.”

“Would you rather be killed by bats? I don’t like our odds of getting to Evening Star before the lies about us do, if they haven’t already.”

The rocket touched down on a set of metallic stilts, standing up vertically like the artifact it was. The ramp extended slowly, thumping to the ground a hundred meters or so ahead of them.

“Might as well not keep our death waiting.”

Up the ramp was an old and battered airlock, with scratches and dents in the walls and distinct claw marks around the inner door. The first door shut behind them, and a voice came on from around them. “You don’t look like the pictures.”

“I have a fully synthetic body,” Jackie answered. “I was undercover, trying to help the ponies without being noticed. Only these ponies decided the best way to help us was to kill my friend and take my brain apart for science. No fucking thanks.”

“Excellus is a tribe of nomads and wanderers,” said the voice—its accent was strange, completely unplaceable. Yet she could still understand it. “They lived with hatred for so long that their empathy towards others can be damaged. I would not retire here, even though they know they owe me their lives. Or… their ancestors do. Not them.”

The inner airlock opened with a hiss, revealing a ladder leading up into the rocket. Fortunately for both of them there was a disability/cargo lift, because neither of them had the primate limbs required for a ladder to make sense. The stepped on, then sat back while the painfully slow motors started to whir.

“I’ve just received a message,” came the voice from up above—Avalon’s voice, apparently. “Warning me that there are dangerous criminals loose, that I should tell them if I’ve encountered anyone.”

“I hope you told them you didn’t,” Jackie answered, without thinking. “Because that’s exactly what they’d say if they wanted to keep us in their lab. I did hurt some ponies, but only the ones trying to stop us from escaping. I could’ve killed them all.”

“Is that really a good idea to tell him?” Bree asked, nervous and a little annoyed. “Total stranger?”

Jackie shrugged. “He’s got a computer. He can look at my memories for himself.” Unlike Bree, she wasn’t trying to whisper. Acting and hiding took energy and frankly her supply of both was nearly depleted.

She needed to get this damn mission done, so she could go back to being human again. Sunset could be the pony, and she would be real. Bree doesn’t have to know I’m not going to take her offer. That lie would be easy, it was the same one she’d been telling her whole life.

The interior of the rocket was cramped, or it would’ve been if they had human proportions. But at pony height they could stand fully erect without any discomfort, even at the top of the elevator.

A Merlin was meant to carry five passengers, so there were fire acceleration chairs. The one at the top was occupied, and surrounded with a handful of ancient-looking automated drones.

“Did Equestria have a museum?” Jackie called, waving cheerfully at the old man in the chair. She couldn’t see much about him, just the thick beard of white and tiny eyes vanishing behind glasses. Everything but his face and hands had been swallowed by the acceleration chair.

“A museum?” he repeated, though she could only hear the amplified voice. He was using the ship’s PA, which boomed so much louder than his natural voice she couldn’t even hear it. “No, I don’t know what you’re talking about. I haven’t been conscious for many years, if you’re asking. I slept in medical stasis since the days of Nightmare Moon.”

“You mean…” Bree sounded fearful. “You mean your rocket is a thousand years old? And we’re flying in it?”

The old man smiled down through his beard. “It’s been maintained the entire time. My workshop remained functional while I was frozen. Excellus traded resources with the governing intelligence in exchange for drones, and… I’m not delaying my reunion with my own kind any longer. Strap in, or I’ll let you off, but this conversation is over. A starship approaches, and I intend to board.”

Jackie separated from her companion, sliding into one of the lowest acceleration chairs. It was built for a human’s general shape, but it was also made of flexible, moldable material that could conform to her body as soon as she settled down inside it.

“I’ve never been to space before,” she said, once she was belted in securely and could only move her forelegs. “I thought it was crazy. Even with, uh… safer ships. Taking your fate into your hands like this.”

Avalon laughed, and a distant roar began somewhere below their hooves. “If this frightens you, be thankful you did not live a millennium ago. We made many sacrifices to contain the apocalypse.”

But then acceleration hit them like a freight train, and the organics stopped moving. Jackie felt no discomfort in her chair, though her own body did numb the limbs that couldn’t fight against the acceleration as a sign to her that she had to wait. From the pained sounds Bree was making, even earth ponies weren’t built to enjoy this trip.

But it can’t be that bad. Avalon’s an old man, and he used this before. It might be chemically fueled, but the days of Earth’s space cowboys were still long gone.

It wasn’t a short trip, either. Jackie had seen plenty of pirated Federation holovids, and most of them included space travel at some point or another. It was all about Mars and Luna, so characters often had to get between them. Yet those movies rarely included the half-hour trip through the atmosphere, until gravity finally released them and the pressure into her seat became more manageable.

Jackie heard the radio message through her own controls, even though she hadn’t used them once. Curious that Avalon didn’t shut us out. We could’ve caused real trouble if we wanted to.

“Aegis flight control to ASV Triandafillov, we are making contact with your guidance computer now.”

“You have… my permission,” Avalon said, sounding as though he’d just run a marathon. It wasn’t as though they were released to float around the cabin—they were still flying, and that acceleration made the rocket still feel like it had a floor. So long as the engines kept burning, that would stay the case. “How long?”

“That would be… twenty-eight hours, Triandafillov actual. Pattern is locked. Please do not deviate from the approach vector or activate any of your ship’s weapon systems. Flying an artifact like that you wouldn’t even dent the windshield, but Edison’s quite particular about keeping us safe. Don’t give her a reason to use our defenses.”

“No problem,” Avalon said. “We will do nothing of the kind. See you in… hours.” And he was asleep.

Jackie looked to her right, and was unsurprised to see Bree was sturdier than the ancient human above them. She pushed out with her forelegs, and the acceleration chair let her free. Jackie’s body would let her move as well, which had to mean that they weren’t moving fast enough to damage her.

She pressed the release, sitting back in her chair. “Ever been on a Federation starship before?”

Bree shook her head. “Had to run away from one once, on Hermes base. But they let us transmit home.”

Jackie scanned the rocket around them. There was a crew deck, somewhere—there it was, a hatch not far ahead. She slid past Bree over to it, taking the wheel in her mouth and twisting. “You were… oahah Mercury?”

Bree nodded. “Position is relative. Before we lost Hermes I was a hardware girl. Pretty harsh place to live—mushroom habitats, ore crawlers… I built the best. And the Federation got to take it all because they had Luna’s shipyards when the world ended instead of us. No fecking justice.”

The hatch finally opened. The room inside wasn’t large, a table with lots of cabinets and drawers on almost every surface. Most seemed to hold packages of food or other supplies. Jackie ignored them all, just spread herself out on one of the padded benches. If something went wrong with the rocket they wouldn’t be at the controls—but if something went wrong, what were they supposed to do about it?

“I guess you had to find something else to do, when there were no more extreme-hazard drones to design.”

“Something,” Bree repeated. “Until the Equestrian mission.”

“The one where you invaded. Still… not really sure how that could happen. You think it was bad enough that Richard would execute you?”

Bree winced at the use of the king’s first name sans honorific, but didn’t protest. Most of her attention seemed focused on extracting the foil-wrapped ration packets from a cabinet with various springs and latches holding it shut. No easy task, apparently. “I’ve never heard of the king executing someone. But he might shut me down. Maybe a few centuries, maybe forever. Depends how upset about it Equestria still is. I did save them from a damn invasion, maybe they’d show a little gratitude.”

“I’m sure he won’t do anything—not after hearing how much of a hero you were to Motherlode. I saw everything you wanted to do to protect them. Some ponies are still alive now because of you. Sure wasn’t anything they did, wanting to destroy your towers.”

Bree shrugged. “Whatever. At this rate I’m not sure we’ll ever get back there. This rocket is so old it’s got Avalon insignia on the wall. It’s so old it burns liquid hydrogen. Odds are good we explode before we even get to the Aegis. And if we don’t… that’s a Federation ship. They’re going to lock us up and throw away the key.”

“Lock me up,” Jackie corrected. “You’re organic. You could just be the pony that’s been helping me. Or maybe you’re my girlfriend, I could probably convince them.”


“Sure!” Jackie grinned in response. “You’re organic now, Bree. Everybody knows once you go digital you don’t go back. There’s no reason for them to think otherwise unless you tell them to. I won’t if you won’t.”

“That doesn’t sound wise.” Bree climbed up onto the bench beside her. Close enough that Jackie could feel her weight there on the seat, feel her warmth against one of her wings. “You’re giving me an out. What happens if they think you manipulated me, used me… and I’m just an innocent Equestrian? You might go to prison for both of us.”

Jackie shrugged, doing her best impression of unconcerned. Bree was exactly right, and she might even succeed. But Jackie had known plenty of engineers in her time, and none of them were very good actors. “I don’t think you’d do that to the one who saved your life today,” Jackie said. “You might think about it, but then you’ll remember what it was like to almost get a needle in the back, and have a whole city trying to kill you. And you’ll decide that you can’t send her to jail.”

Bree made an uncomfortable grumbling noise, the only admission Jackie needed.

It was amazing how fast the Crystal Empire could go from a bastion of comfort and luxury to a terrifying nightmare reflection of itself.

Sunset Shimmer had once imagined her return to Equestria after many years in obscurity, and even then she had not pictured such terrible things. But what had she been thinking during her worst years with the Element of Intellect? She’d be returning with an army then, to make Equestria prepare for the end whether it wanted to or not.

I wouldn’t have treated them like this.

There was no deceiving the occupying force, no dressing up in their colors and pretending they were loyal. They seemed to be able to spot a pony who wasn’t under the influence of the evil magic just at a glance—and more importantly, Sunset was no pony.

The original plan—sneak into the sewers, then lay low until they could figure out what was going on—proved a more difficult task than she had imagined.

Unfortunately for them, they happened to start in what was certainly the least convenient part of the castle—the royal bedroom. Starlight Glimmer knew the servant’s corridors and back-ways, but still they encountered many suffering ponies along the way. Starlight blasted them with her horn, leaving a trail of unconscious ponies in their wake.

“Why aren’t you treating them?” Trixie asked. “Your spell worked on us.”

“My spell is working on us,” Starlight corrected through gritted teeth. “It takes more of my concentration the more ponies I use it on. Two is hard enough, I think I might be able to manage three. It’s a good thing Sunset doesn’t need it, so I can save my magic for the princess.”

“You think evil would work on her?” Sunset asked.

They clambered down a tight ramp, probably in one of the building’s spires. Sunset could barely fit, having to stoop and crouch and lean the whole way. If this gets much smaller I’m gonna get stuck down here. The servant’s quarters obviously hadn’t been built with bipedal aliens in mind.

“If she wasn’t prepared,” Starlight answered. “She has a mind too—emotions that can be manipulated. I don’t think it would work on Celestia or Luna, they’re both too old. But Cadance is younger than you, her mind isn’t any stronger than ours.”

“We might have to fight,” Sunset whispered, hoping that her tone would set the example for them. “I know you don’t want to hurt anypony, but…”

“I know,” Starlight said. “My sleeping spells are working so far. That’s… the disadvantage of taking a city by warping all the minds inside. Doing this exposes a pony to… other kinds of manipulation. Don’t know how long until their grip gets too strong.”

“I don’t understand why somepony would want to take over now,” Trixie said, not lowering her voice even a little bit. “Don’t they know there’s an invading army coming this way? If they stop us from… sending the supplies, or whatever… the Crystal Empire will fall. They can’t be princesses if dragons eat everypony.”

“I bet they’re on the same side,” Sunset said. “The timing is perfect to try and undermine Equestria. No Alicorns here who could resist them, but the army depending on us. All the refugees escaping north are ending up here, perfect to be made into slaves. Or… whatever it is evil overlords do when they win.”

Starlight stuck out a foreleg, stopping them as they emerged onto a landing. Fully underground, with a few crystal lights glowing and a handful of royal guards half-dressed milling about. A heavy iron door faced outward, and several were watching it warily. “Are they… no, they aren’t.”

Sunset hadn’t realized it until then, but the castle above them and the thick stone all around had completely muffled the singing.

These guards haven’t heard it. They’re still themselves. But for how much longer? There were stairs leading straight down from the castle, and other servants had to know there were guards down here.

“Starlight Glimmer!” A stallion hurried over, hastily dawning his helmet and saluting her. “The third watch should’ve reported down here twenty minutes ago. What’s going on up there?”

“The Crystal Empire has been overpowered with mind magic,” Sunset said, without so much as a second’s pause. Ponies gasped, rose from where they’d been resting or playing cards, reached for weapons and shields hanging on racks.

But Starlight stepped in front of the stairs. “If you go up there, you’ll be taken too. But if you come with us, we could…” She frowned. “Figure something out. Earplugs, probably. It’s magical sound, so you’d all have to wear earplugs.”

“How did you escape?” asked the only unicorn in the group. Half a dozen guards, and only one of them had a horn.

“Because we have her.” Trixie pointed at Sunset, who had to stoop in the low room. “She covered our ears so we couldn’t hear it.”

“Right,” the unicorn said, dubious.

They’re going to go up anyway, and reveal that we’re down here.

“Come with us,” Starlight ordered, her voice suddenly commanding. “We’re going to try and free Cadance, so she can help the city. But we can’t do it by just charging up into danger. We need to think, stay hidden, plan carefully…”

A pair of ponies—the ones who’d been guarding the metal door, stepped up to her, weapons already drawn. “You’re getting out of the way,” one of them said, crossbow lifted just a little. He wasn’t bold enough to actually point it at her, though the difference seemed slight. Just a little higher… “You’re not actually in the chain of command, Starlight. Maybe if Shining Armor came down here and ordered us to stay, we would. But not for you. The Empire needs us.”

“The Empire needs you to stay here,” Starlight said. “At least stick in some earplugs before you go! Otherwise you won’t even make it halfway up the stairs before you’re in their control.”

“We don’t keep earplugs,” another guard said, as though Starlight wouldn’t know.

Sunset Shimmer stood as tall as she could, feeling the ceiling brush against her forehead. “You’ll all be doing your princess no favors if you charge up there and become slaves like the rest. We’re not running away because we’re afraid, we’re running away so we can stay free. We’ll solve this, but you can’t help us if you’re mind-controlled.”

The guards leaned close together, speaking in hushed whispers.

“What do we do if they go?” Trixie whispered. “They’ll just tell the monsters where to look!”

“Hopefully they come with us,” Starlight muttered. “Keep your eyes on the ground, Trixie. Maybe you too Sunset, not sure if mind magic works on humans.”

“We’re going,” said the same guard as before, this time raising his crossbow and pointing it at the door. “Our armor is enchanted, and we’re loyal. Manipulation can’t break us. So get out of the way, or we’ll make you.”

Sunset looked away. There was a flash, so bright she could practically feel the warmth of a spell against her synthetic skin. Then the ponies dropped to the floor, each one as limp as death.

“There.” Starlight Glimmer was panting now, her ears flat and sweat dribbling down her face. “That’s… more magic than I’ve done in a week. Wherever we find to hide better be silent, because I won’t be able to keep up a counterspell much longer.”

Sunset looked up—the ponies were still breathing, actually they still seemed to be conscious. Their expressions were glazed, like she’d just dosed them with something.

“Trixie hopes you didn’t hurt them too badly.”

“Just scrambled their brains for a bit,” Starlight muttered. “You probably shouldn’t talk about it after today. It’s kinda a completely illegal school of magic and I just used it to attack officers of the Crown, sooo.” She shoved a pair of limp guards away from the door, then gripped the handle with her mouth. Guess she doesn’t have the magic left over for levitation. She’s more drained than I thought.

Trixie just stood there while her friend struggled, so Sunset reached out and took the wheel with her hand. She felt her body strain a moment, then mechanical muscle overcame and it started to spin.

“I’m not really sure about what that plan is gonna be,” Sunset said, as the door finally clicked and swung outward. “There’s… maybe half a dozen of us, against a whole city. Possibly even an Alicorn.

There was a damp stone hallway beyond, without so much as a candle to light it. The smell of mildew and damp earth brushed past them, along with the cool air of the underground traveling up.

Starlight looked up, confused. “Half a dozen? Are there that many?” she glanced between the three of them, and Sunset could practically hear her counting in her head.

“Oh, the other humans are all okay,” she said. “My immunity, they have it too. Sir Bradley is trying to get into these caves. If he’s anywhere nearby I’ll hear his beacon, or he’ll hear mine, and we can meet up. Knowing him, he’s probably already got gear stashed down here. Said it was a—fallback position, in case the Federation ponies turned like they did in Normandy.”

They set off through the open door, squeezing past just far enough to push it closed behind them. There’d be no locking it, but Sunset took the largest loose rock she could see and settled it right in front of the door. Hopefully that would stop it from swinging open on its own, anyway. “Will those guards remember us when they wake up?”

Starlight shook her head. “They won’t remember anything since sunrise. But they’ll still want to go up and check on the palace eventually, and they’ll get taken like the rest.”

They hadn’t saved anypony yet. What was worse, they couldn’t even fight—these ponies were being mind-controlled, so hurting or killing them would mean hurting regular ponies who didn’t know what they were doing and didn’t want to be doing it.

The tunnels below the palace were cut into what looked like solid crystal. More accurately, it seemed like they’d been carved into the flaws between different gemstones, widened carefully until they were big enough for a pony to use. That meant lots of cramped spaces, spaces that Sunset could barely fit through. The path wasn’t flat, and broke randomly into forks lit by a dull glow through the rocks. Starlight didn’t seem to have a destination in mind—whenever they hit a fork, she just turned and wandered.

“We need some way to counter their magic,” Sunset said, after they’d been walking in relative silence for ten minutes or so.

“Obviously,” Starlight said, her voice a little annoyed. “I’m all ears if you’ve got some brilliant plan for it. But those Sirens, they’ll have the Crystal Heart by now. That’s going to give their grip a kind of permanence that it wouldn’t have otherwise. Maybe they’ll even be able to send ponies down after us, keep control for a few minutes once they’re out of the sound. Maybe it will make them powerful enough that they can write over the ponies that used to be, and everyone we knew in the city is dead.”

“No,” Sunset cut her off. “Don’t think about that, Starlight. It didn’t happen. We’re saving them. We’re… the only ones they have.”

“It’s not the first time,” Trixie said, apparently unconcerned. “Changelings captured the princesses last time too, remember? But we still won.”

“If Discord is listening, we’d just love to have his help…” Starlight said, apparently to the walls. Only silence answered. “Yeah, thought not. I wouldn’t count on any kind of outside magical help. The heart is a shield, one of the most powerful shields ever made. Now evil monsters are using it to keep out our allies. If Luna comes back for supplies, she’ll smack right into it and not be able to come in and help either.”

Maybe not all their allies. Sunset heard something—the quiet pulsing of a network node. “EMERGENCY BROADCAST: STEEL TOWER. DANGER CODE: 001. Rendezvous at this position immediately. Message repeats.”

Sunset stopped dead, barring the passage ahead of them with an arm as she turned to face the node. Map requested, she sent back. Tower asset needs directions.

The node responded, either comprehending the request or with the same directions it would’ve given anyone. “Machine-generated sonar map is attached. WARNING: You have reached the effective range of sonar mapping. Remain in signaling contact at all times to avoid losing node connection.”

“Trixie wonders if the human is finally losing her mind.”

“No.” Sunset folded her arms. “I’m getting a signal from the fallback position. If I know Brad, he’ll have supplies waiting for us. Might even be fortified. He expected a Federation attack to follow us down.”

“How?” Trixie asked. “You aren’t a dragon. I don’t see any magic scrolls.”

“Not magic, radio,” she explained. “It’s… a machine in my head. We all have it.”

“Sounds painful.” Trixie winced. “Weren’t you a pony before? That sounds like it hurts.”

“It probably would hurt, if she wasn’t a machine herself,” Starlight supplied. “All their pieces are mechanical, they can change them out, fix them, get better ones… wish there was an easy way for ponies to copy that part.”

Now Sunset was leading the way, following the directions of a map and getting constantly-updating feedback from the node. She sensed no intelligence from it, and there was no variation in the words it used each time. It was a fork, like the teachers at the Builder school.

But after twenty minutes of wandering, which took them gradually into wider tunnels more accommodating of Sunset’s oversized human frame, they passed into a long hallway lined with machines.

She recognized the mechanical turrets from her “basics of automated warfare” class, and knew that a single mistake would turn them permanently to goo.

“IFF accepted,” said a mechanical voice from the end of the hall. Just past it, a metal blockade stood between her and a doorway. “Identify these others.”

“Friends,” Sunset said. “They’re Equestrian citizens.”

“Authorization accepted, Natasha.” The turrets all relaxed, barrels slumping. A metal slab slid to the side, and cool light shone out from within.

The safehouse had been built into one of the many dead-ends of the crystal caverns, though this one was spacious enough to fit a hundred humans easily. Water dribbled down from the ceiling and collected in a pool so clear she could see all the way to the hexagonal chunks of green minerals at the bottom. There were a dozen crates scattered in one corner, branded with the sun and moon mark symbolic of the Equestrian military. Set against the wall, with cables running out past the door, was a portable generator and a few personal chargers, along with a single locked box with “Sir Cornelius Bradley” stamped into one corner.

That was it—their entire safehouse. The last refuge of the Crystal Empire not conquered by the sirens. And since the Empire was the place all displaced ponies were fleeing to, in a way it was also the last vestige of Equestria.

It wasn’t supposed to end like this. All Sunset had sacrificed—her magic, her position, her life even… hadn’t been enough. She’d returned too late to make a difference. Clover’s prophecy was coming true.

“Well, it certainly is… clean,” Starlight muttered, as the massive steel slab smacked shut behind them. “Who did you say set this up? Someone immune to the Sirens’ magic?”

“Yeah.” Sunset made her way over to the first of the crates. Fairly small compared to her, though she’d seen their like before while a pony and never would’ve been able to open them. She nudged the side of one with a foot, then leaned forward and yanked. Her body strained for a moment, but mechanical bodies were strong. Maybe not as much as an earth pony—but strong enough to yank off a crate’s lid.

Inside she could see packed dry oats, in the clay jars used by the Solar Army’s stockpiles. So far as she knew, regular ponies couldn’t even buy supplies like this. I guess he figured we might have some organic allies. Wonder how he got all this down here.

She tossed the wooden lid onto the floor. “So, mind-magic expert. Any idea how we cure the city?”

Starlight laughed, tone bitter and distant. “Not while they have the Heart. And I’m not sure how we get it back when they have every pony in the whole city enslaved.”

“Yeah.” Sunset slumped onto a nearby still-closed crate, lowering her head into her hands. “Me neither.”