• 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 22: Transition Function

As it turned out, Sir Bradley had prepared more than food down here. Without anything better to do, they took the time to open all the crates, revealing bedrolls, tents, basic cookware—an entire camp’s worth of supplies.

Of course Sunset and any other Builders there wouldn’t have needed it, but that didn’t mean she couldn’t help. They set up everything, arranging the sleeping bags before making a cooking circle with chunks of crystal and the crates themselves as fuel. While Trixie cooked a batch of “trail-cakes,” Starlight and Sunset sat largely in silence, only half listening to the show pony recount stories of her life on the road.

Sunset called for Jackie, for Sir Bradley—for anypony she could think of who might be able to help. Maybe a mechanical pony could make it through magic shields?

But it didn’t matter, because no one answered her call. She was too far underground, and radio wasn’t magic. The crystals down here might even be worse than simple dirt, since they did strange things to her signals sometimes, even when she only spoke to the emergency node.

She couldn’t have said how long went by in the dark—it felt like hours, anyway. The ponies ate, then slept, and still she was left sitting there. At least she had the presence of mind to walk over to the portable charger and sit there instead, where she could give her batteries another three days of operation. Maybe I should’ve pushed for a military sleeve when they made me, even though I wasn’t going to fight.

Something told her Tesla wouldn’t have given her what she wanted, even if she’d understood the right way to ask. Military sleeves could operate for long periods without infrastructure. Even Bradley’s squires had them.

And yet he brought the portable charger down here. I’m the only one who needs it, but it probably took him a whole trip.

If she was organic, she probably would’ve dozed off like the others. But simulating sleep would be a waste, when her brain could just keep her from feeling tired in the first place. It was all old instincts and old habits, stuck thinking she was a pony.

And it was a good thing she hadn’t slept, because that was when she heard the transmission. She could detect it only faintly, which unlike an overheard whisper with organic ears meant that it was fuzzed with static and her certainty about its contents dropped dangerously low.

It came with Sir Bradley’s identifier tag, which was the only certain thing in the entire message. “Sunset… on our way… ambush. Sent… after us. Household… please.”

Sunset rose, beginning a signal trace even as she marched over to the metal crate and lowered her hand to it. The lock went green, and clicked open.

There were a dozen accelerator rifles inside, set into hard black foam and packed with extra ammo. She grabbed the first one, smacking a plastic magazine into place.

Firearms were a required mastery in the Realm, so far as range shooting and basic operation of this rifle. Sunset had been confused at the time, but now she knew why. At least she wouldn’t shoot herself in the hoof with one.

“What are you doing?” Starlight asked. Trixie was still curled in her own sleeping bag, apparently dreaming away. But Starlight watched her, eyes weary.

“Sir Bradley is down here. Sounds like he needs help.”

“Are you… a warrior too? The humans taught you how to fight?”

“No,” Sunset admitted. “But I have to try anyway.”

“Then I’m coming too.” She glanced briefly at the other sleeping bags. “Probably best if we leave her here. Where are we going?”

Sunset sent the open signal to the metal door’s crude mechanism, then waited for it to rotate out of their way. “I’m… not sure. I’m getting a signal, but it’s faint and these crystals echo it back from all over. Hopefully Brad’s listening to me.”

Sir Bradley! I’m coming, where are you?”

She ran. Even the direction of the signal was doubtful, but she had to be moving. At least if she was doing something she might be helping, instead of being trapped in a corner to hide while the world ended.

If Clover’s prophecy ended up coming true, and the world was doomed to die, she would make sure she died first.

It felt like she was going the right way, because Sunset rarely had to duck or crawl anymore. If Brad was going to pick a hideout, he probably picked one that was easy for a human to reach. The ones trying to follow us would be ponies, so they’d have the advantage fighting in small spaces.

The larger space did mean she had to slow down for Starlight to keep up—those short pony legs and the unicorn’s existing tiredness just didn’t make it easy for her to keep pace through the dark.

“You’re… faster than you look,” Starlight panted, after they’d been running for a few minutes. “Looking at you… all thin and stretched. Wouldn’t think… you could move like that.”

“Humans evolved as hunters,” Sunset answered. “They’re the best endurance runners on their planet. Ran their prey to exhaustion.”

“Delightful,” Starlight said. “That’s exactly the kind of friends I want to invite into Equestria when we’re already being invaded.”

Sunset shrugged. “They don’t do it anymore. But their whole planet is irradiated, so animals big enough to be worth hunting don’t survive anymore.”

“You’re coming the right way.” It was Brad’s transmission, much clearer this time. “Not… make a difference. Xavier and I are the only ones left… not much longer. Losing fluid…”

She was very close now. Sunset broke into a full sprint, relying on her body’s electronic balance to avoid slipping on the uneven crystal and tumbling away. Starlight Glimmer squealed in protest at being left behind, but Sunset was barely listening.

“Who is it? Royal guards? Who’s fighting you?”

“No, monsters. Some kind of… zombie ponies or something. So many…”

Sunset could hear the struggle now, echoing down a distant hallway of nearly clear crystal. And reflecting forward from up ahead, she could see the fight, greatly distorted and mirrored by the many reflections.

Sir Bradley stood without his armor, surrounded by a mountain of corpses. They looked like changelings, except that their bodies wept reddish slime and their eyes were empty.

She took the hallway in a few leaps, emerging in the doorway with the rifle already raised.

There had been hundreds of them, from the look of it. The room was a massive cathedral of crystal spires, with ancient carvings on the walls and pony-sized benches arranged to block the floor in places.

Changeling corpses littered the ground from the entrance on the opposite side, stretching back towards her. She couldn’t have even counted the dead, but at least a dozen were still moving, surrounding Bradley in the center like the perverse worshipers of a blood-cult.

Sir Bradley’s body had been badly damaged—his clothing was shredded, his skin had whole sections torn out and exposing the mechanical muscle underneath. He dribbled white mechanical-lubricant from every wound.

Even so, Sunset learned in that moment exactly what made him one of Richard’s knights.

Sir Bradley fought like Flash Magnus returned to life. Though his body had been beaten and torn, his one good arm wielded a unicorn sword—a toy at his size, yet with each blow another enemy lost a limb. But for every attacker he killed, two more struck from his flanks.

Around him were the corpses of his two remaining squires, torn apart so thoroughly that Sunset couldn’t have identified them. And against the wall, clutching at his chest, was Xavier. The only survivor.

“Down!” Sunset shouted, out loud this time. Bradley apparently heard, because he flung himself to the side, landing with more protesting metal.

There were dozens of monstrous changelings in the tunnel with her. How much ammunition did she have for the rifle?

Sunset felt the weapon snap back in her grip, but she held on. The gun had its own marksmanship program, and since she wasn’t firing at anything remotely “human” looking, it didn’t seem to care what she shot. She dropped to one knee, firing at the changelings as they came. Sir Bradley was forgotten on the ground as they charged unthinkingly into her rifle’s line of fire.

One magazine clicked empty, and they were still coming as she smashed the second into place and kept shooting. She could feel the accelerator getting hot in her hands, see the barrel start to glow orange, and she kept shooting. Until the last of the changelings crumpled to the ground, mere inches from her.

Starlight Glimmer appeared behind her in a flash of unicorn magic, expression grim. “I guess we know how they get us outside the reach of their music.”

“Yeah.” Sunset dropped the gun, stumbling forward through the still-steaming corpses.

“S-Sunset…” She could barely even see him, his body broken and deformed and half-covered by the dead. She shoved a few dead changelings out of the way, following his voice. “You need to…”

And there he was, with one of the corpses right on top of him now. His body was mangled beyond recognition, though curiously his right arm had been left completely intact. Everywhere else the skin had been shredded, and metallic bones and organs were visible under matte black artificial muscle.

“What, Brad?” She tried to pull him into a sitting position, but his left arm came right out of its socket, steel shredded by changeling teeth. “What is it?”

“Cortical… recorders.” He reached up with his right arm, and the limb shook as he pointed towards the back of his head. “Four of us… here. Take them… to the node. Richard will… find me.”

Sunset caught his arm before he could fall over backward, feeling the weight of the pony bracelet against her skin. The magic burned there, hot even as his body had gone cold.

“Do it yourself,” she said, wrapping her forefingers against the delicate metal chain. “I’m not leaving you here.” She yanked. Where she could probably have bent steel or shattered glass without difficulty, the tiny metal chain strained and squeaked in protest, causing Bradley to look up at her again, pained.

“What are…” His eyes settled on the bracelet. “O-oh, that. Pony… religion, huh?”

“Wasn’t religion for the Federation,” Sunset said, tugging again. Without success. “Hey, uh…” She lifted his arm towards his mouth. “Maybe use your teeth?”

“Sunset, we don’t have…” Starlight didn’t seem to have the courage to wade into a room full of corpses. She’d made it as far as Xavier against the wall, and had helped him into a standing position, though he didn’t look like he’d be moving without her.

“I got them all!” Sunset shouted, desperate and afraid. “Brad, please! We lost almost everyone! I need… someone.” If only she’d kept Twilight’s necklace, then she’d be… where was she, anyway? Idiot, she’s probably in the emergency node. Where else would she be?

“Will you…” His body was failing, even his face had started to twitch erratically. It wouldn’t be long now.

“Yes,” she said, holding the chain up to his mouth. “Break it, Brad. Please.”

He did. The chain’s thin lengths easily snapped in his teeth. Sunset knew she shouldn’t have any senses to feel the magic, yet the warmth on her skin was unmistakable. She backed away as the spell took effect, watching as the few corpses close enough to touch Sir Bradley puffed away to ash, while the other changeling bodies began to smoke and char.

Necromancy? Who in their right mind would combine two mythical evils into one? But there was no time to wonder about that. The magic got bright enough that even she backed away, covering her face with one arm. Changeling blood splattered against her skin boiled away to nothing, at least in the direction facing Bradley.

And then it was gone, and a pony stood where a knight had once been.

Only his severed arm remained, smashed and broken on the ground in front of him.

He’d become a pegasus, bright orange with a blueish mane. He also didn’t make it two steps before falling over sideways.

“Shouldn’t…” His voice was much the same, maybe a little higher for being a pony now. “Native customs… fully prosthetic…”

“Shut up,” Sunset muttered, hurrying over to him. “Help me find the rest of your house, Brad. You said something about cortical recorders? Let’s get those.”

“You’re fucking kidding me,” Xavier croaked, staring in horror. “It actually worked. Hephaestus in his own forge couldn’t have done it. That’s flesh and blood.”

“Not if we stay here,” Starlight called, glaring at them all. “Glad you’re alive and everything, but there’s no way that was all of them. We need to get out—leaving those bodies behind might make them think both sides lost. Mutual destruction won’t give them anypony to look for.”

“Right,” Sunset said. “Then get in here and help.”

Jackie watched the distant outline of the Aegis growing closer and closer in the window.

These ships were what had ultimately secured the Federation a future, even when their enemies decisively held Earth and were physically superior in every individual way.

She couldn’t look at its approaching outline for long without her eyes glazing over and her stomach turning in her gut—objects that large shouldn’t move so fast! Yet it moved, coming up on them so fast that she almost felt they would be smashed against its metal windshield.

Capital hypercarriers were never meant to enter atmosphere, and so aerodynamics had obviously been no part of this one’s construction. It was blocky and square in regular sections, with uneven protrusions of various lengths extending from it without any sort of pattern.

Even the old man Avalon was awake as they came in to dock, though he still spoke to them from his acceleration chair. “Your presence on my ship is incidental,” he said, his voice sounding through the PA system again. “I expect both of you to be completely cooperative and not to interfere.”

“Fine,” Jackie answered, sitting up from the chair and staring up at the ceiling. “So what are you going to tell them? You’re still physically human, we’re not.”

“The truth,” he answered, without hesitation. “I can’t vouch for either of you, or any part of your story. You just claimed to be humans in need of rescue like I was. Your English is good enough…”

System standard, Jackie corrected, though she wasn’t quite bold enough to say so out loud. It didn’t feel… fair, to make fun of someone’s ignorance who had obviously never had a proper education.

“What are you even doing here?” Bree asked, rising with a yawn from beside her on the cushion. “You said something about Nightmare Moon, didn’t you? That was a long time ago. Are you carrying the Nanophage? I guess a thousand years was a bit optimistic for how long it could make us live.”

“Nano… no, I’m not. They asked me that same question, and I didn’t understand it from them either. But they seemed relieved with my answer.”

“Because the Nanophage is being used to spread a digital disease,” Jackie said, feeling increasingly stupid the longer she called answers into the air at a PA system. “Look, I’ll just come to you. Might as well be in the same part of the rocket when their marines rush in to arrest us.”

And so she returned to the chairs, though this time she didn’t actually situate herself in one. Docking was a much smoother process than takeoff had been, and the acceleration she felt was comparable to walking on the deck of an airline during a turbulent passenger flight. Nothing her artificial body couldn’t handle.

“A living human without the Nanophage,” Jackie said, when she had climbed up into the station beside him. There were a pair of drones there—each one generally human in outline, with ancient-looking metal frames and jerky movements. They seemed to watch her as she approached, though neither stopped her. “I guess it makes sense. Why you’re that old.”

“Be careful,” Avalon said, extending a wrinkled hand to the controls. “I’ve known humans before. Do not lie to me.”

“I’m not lying.” Jackie felt the seat shake a little as Bree climbed in behind her. But she didn’t try to send her away—they were both about to be behind enemy lines, might as well be close to a friend. “The Nanophage is so important we give it in the third trimester. Nobody’s born without it anymore.”

“And yet, I have not heard of it,” Avalon said. “All the resources of the Avalon colony, and yet it didn’t mention it.”

Jackie shrugged. “Maybe it’s a relic. You called yourself Avalon, and that station vanished before I was born. But after the great War it got even more important—the birth rate is really shit on Luna, so that’s how people have stopped from dying out. Just… don’t die.”

“But what does it do?” Avalon asked, banging one frustrated fist on the desk in front of him. “I’ve craved contact with my own kind, since… the beginning. Yet now that I find them, it’s all they think about. Is it a disease? A… treatment? What?”

“A healthcare system,” Bree answered from beside Jackie. “It’s the best organics could come up with to keep their bodies working, instead of just replacing them with systems they could maintain indefinitely. They keep a person’s body alive, repair injuries and help cure disease.”

The floor rocked under them, right about the time the tiny screens showed metal walls surrounding them on all sides. There were a few loud, reverberating clicks, and it felt as though they’d stopped moving.

“Welcome aboard the Aegis,” said a voice from the console, female and polite but somehow artificial. “Official representatives are on their way. As Equestria is reported as victim of a serious infection, you will be escorted to medical for evaluation and possible quarantine. Prepare to be boarded.”

“We’re prepared,” Jackie muttered, mostly to herself. But then she spoke up, leaning towards the microphone. “You should know that one of us is a Steel Tower full synthetic. Me, the bat. Tower assholes got me in London, and I’ve been made of metal ever since. I’m not trying to be a spy or anything.”

There was a long silence. For a synthetic-sounding voice, that was more than a little strange. “The Tower has cybernetic ponies?”

“One,” Jackie muttered. “A former pony designed them for herself, and…” She trailed off. “You could just come in and talk to me.”

“I cannot ‘come’ anywhere,” the speaker said. “OMICRON-class AGI’s are prohibited from operating mobile manipulative apparatus.”

Another brief pause, long enough for Jackie to catch Avalon’s angry glare. “Whatever you’re doing, if you’re trying to stop me from meeting them.”

“I’m trying to stop us from getting thrown into a cell,” Jackie responded in a hiss. “I’m mechanical, they don’t even need a scanner to tell that. But I also fucking hate the Steel Tower, and I’ll literally tell them anything they want to know, so…” She tapped the panel in front of her. “Hope you’re still listening.”

“Closely,” the speaker answered. “Or as much as I can. We have numerous other concerns.”

Somewhere below them the door opened in a rush of gas, and a pair of figures appeared down the ramp. Both stood at full human size, their bodies completely covered by dull metal. But after weeks surrounded by ponies, there was something more than a little strange about seeing the same sort of humans she’d spent her life fearing.

These were the villains of many Realm holovid broadcasts, and simultaneously the ones who had failed to save her when the world ended. Both were armed, with plastic rifles painted yellow and black. Ship guns, that wouldn’t pierce the hull. “Come to us,” one of them called, their voice distorted by the suit’s speaker system. “Do not bring anything with you. Cooperate and you will not be harmed.”

“I am coming,” Avalon said, rising from his seat and clutching against the drone for support. Acceleration gravity was barely enough to encourage them down this time. But his limbs shook as he crawled, down the winding ramp towards the lower level. “We will cooperate.”

And they did, down to the airlock instead of the now-sideways boarding ramp. The marines started with Avalon, scanning him with a handheld device while the other kept their weapon close, always ready to point at Jackie but not quite threatening her with it yet.

“No Nanophage,” the marine said. “Christ it’s true. What backwoods did you crawl out of, old man?”

Avalon only laughed, his voice distant and sad. “You couldn’t imagine. And you wouldn’t believe me if I told you anyway.”

He shrugged. Well, he gestured to the hatch, which opened at his command. More marines waited on the other side, along with several white-suited medical people and a waiting stretcher. “Doesn’t matter now. The Lunar Navy will take care of you.”

Avalon nodded, and didn’t so much as wave as he slipped through the hatch. That left the two of them. “Now, one of you is a Tower automaton,” the marine said, slipping his medical scanner back into its holster. “What in sweet fuck possessed you to try and board a Federation carrier?”

Jackie raised a hoof, spreading her mechanical wings. Those were the easiest to spot as fakes, since the plastic just didn’t imitate skin very well. The Tower could do a much better job when they wanted to, but her Steel Tower wings hadn’t been able to fly, so…

“Because the natives were going to chop me up for parts,” she said. “And the Great War was fucking ages ago. We’re past it, aren’t we? All I want is for you not to kill me. Is that so hard?”

“And you’re organic?” he asked, turning towards Bree. “No implants, no modifications…”

“Yes,” she answered, her system common so thickly accented suddenly that Jackie wondered if it was intentional. “Am… healthy.”

“Healthy.” The marine slung his rifle again, and aimed the scanner at her instead. “Well… the two of you are waiting here, I’m afraid. Orders from acting captain. If you need refreshments, or… spare parts, ask Edison with the radio. That’s more than I’d give you if it were up to me.” He turned away. “And if you’re really not involved in any of this, we’re sorry pony. But we just lost an entire land army to your magic. Staying in here is the safest thing for both of you.”

He turned away, and the pair of them vanished through the hatch. It sealed with a definitive rush of air, leaving the two of them alone in the gloom.

“Well… that could’ve gone worse.” Jackie sighed, sprawling out on the cold, steel floor. “In the holovids they would’ve shot both of us. Me for being robotic, and you for being a subversive reactionary.

Bree rolled her eyes. “So where did the propaganda end and the entertainment begin?”

Jackie had no answer to that—and no desire to defend the state-mandated entertainment. The holos were much more entertaining when she could watch them from inside, the Realm certainly had that advantage on the Federation. But that was about the only nice thing she had to say.

“Maybe they could send us back,” Jackie muttered, after a few moments of silence. “Sunset Shimmer… needs help. Their people too. You think they’d believe the message if I showed them? Or maybe they’d just think I was trying to trick them for no reason. Even though we’re on the same fucking side here.

“That depends on what the message is,” said a voice from the rocket’s PA. The same one they’d spoken to before, synthesized but still plainly emotional. “We lost contact with our captain on the ground without warning. So far as we knew our military assets were… safe, if disabled. Can you explain what happened in the Crystal Empire refugee outpost?”

Jackie rose, wishing there was at least a screen for her to talk to. All this talking to disembodied voices made her feel like she was losing her mind. “I can send you my memories if you want. Let you see what really happened.”

“I cannot interpret Tower memory imprints,” the voice said, almost annoyed. “But I can decode your transmissions, regardless of their level of encryption. Transmit to the following shipboard frequency. If there’s anything even remotely hostile in your message, I’ll jettison that rocket and turn it to slag.”

Jackie rolled her eyes, then put together Sunset’s last transmission and sent it. Her software was less than pleased with her destination, filling her vision with “UNKNOWN DESTINATION” errors. But she ignored all that. Sunset Shimmer probably wouldn’t mind her passing a call for help to someone else. At least she hoped Sunset wouldn’t mind.

“That is… interesting,” the voice eventually said. “The message is authentic, anyway. I can’t verify its contents, but… are you asking for our help? Most of those affected by this would be our own personnel to begin with.”

She only shrugged, and didn’t even care that the speaker probably wouldn’t be able to see her anyway. “I was just trying to escape from some evil ponies. Now we got away, and maybe I want to help a friend next. If I end up saving some Federation people along the way, that’s fine too. I didn’t want to be part of the Steel Tower. I hate everything they fucking stand for and I’ve been trying to undermine them in any way I could since the whole thing started. My real name is Jacqueline Kessler. I’m probably listed as a casualty in the Great War in your computer. I was an exchange student in London, when…”

Maybe the computer couldn’t see her, but Bree was sure staring. That was uncomfortable enough.

“And while I’m here… fuck it, I don’t care. Can you check to see if any of my family are still… they were living in New Hampshire, and I know there were a few bunkers there. Mom’s name was Denice, dad was Lee. And I had—”

“I shouldn’t share this information with you,” Edison said, before revealing it anyway. “I’m sorry to say that your mother passed away. She was a volunteer medical technician, and is listed here as a casualty of the third Pan-American airstrike. It… hit the whole eastern seaboard.”

“What about my dad? My s-sister?”

“Alive,” Edison answered. “Father is an engineer in the Albany shelter. Your sister has become a nurse, and is serving aboard the Aegis. This vessel.”