• 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 23: Memory Mod

“I’m going to see her,” she announced, rising to her hooves and marching straight for the airlock. “This conversation is fucking over.”

Of course, the hatch didn’t open. Despite Jackie’s confidence, an AI like the OMICRON Core couldn’t be intimidated so easily.

“You will not be permitted aboard,” Edison said. “I’m sorry, my acting captain’s orders are absolute. You are too much of a security threat. We do not know what abilities the Tower has developed since the war. A single individual may be able to do catastrophic damage to one of a limited number of capital ships.”

Jackie dropped to her haunches in front of the locked hatch. “And Avalon could’ve had a fucking nuke on this ship. You didn’t know until he got here—seems like you were already taking risks.”

“No,” the voice responded, sounding suddenly annoyed. “Avalon permitted me full access to the ship’s sensor logs, and control of its drones. I performed a thorough search myself before takeoff. The diversion to carry two additional… passengers… nearly cost him landing clearance. But interrogating the last survivor of Avalon station was worth the risk. A family reunion for an individual that may very well be an imposter—and is certainly a digital recording in any case—is not.”

“Could you at least tell her I’m here? Forget about me—she’s one of your citizens. A loyal… nurse, apparently. Doesn’t she deserve to see her family? Thought her mom and her older sister were dead all this time. I thought OMICRON Cores were supposed to care about their people.”

Now the speaker finally sounded angry—she was distinctly louder than she had been before. “More than you can possibly imagine, construct. Our relationship with humanity is something no Tower automaton could comprehend. No matter how accelerated your thoughts, how accurate the simulation of humanity becomes… you sacrificed what we never had.”

“Had it stolen,” Jackie muttered, not even trying to suppress her own anger. “I’m not some fuckin’ traitor. King Richard can eat glass until he’s shitting sausages.”

But if she thought just swearing at the AI would make a difference, she was sadly disappointed. “You cannot come aboard,” Edison said, a little more calmly. “I will consider telling your sister about you. Your intelligence on Equus’s surface is more interesting. Considering we are not yet able to land for fear my crew would enter into the influence of Samil’s zero-day, we may need to resort to other methods. Feel free to rest aboard that rocket, but know I may have a use for you.”

“Might be more like the holovids than I thought,” Jackie muttered, before turning away from the entrance hatch. “Guess you probably should get some sleep, Bree. Maybe a shower while you’re at it.”

The pony glared at her, but didn’t actually correct her. “You smell like garbage too, you know. We were both in there.”

She shrugged. “Save me some hot water then.”

It was a long wait. Knowing that her family was still alive—some of them, anyway—should’ve been a relief. But suddenly a chapter of her life that had been closed only in pain was now torn violently open again. She could no longer take solace at being alone in the world, because she wasn’t. The Murciélagos had been a surrogate family, but she hadn’t seen them since Sunset, and might not for some time to come. But this…

Would she even want to see me again? Katie probably made peace with me being gone when she was still a kid. Now I’m back, and I’m one of them. Not only that, but she was a pony android of all things. Would that make things easier, or harder?

She found out a few hours later, when the voice of Edison startled her from her own mind. Jackie had gone to the crew quarters with Bree, even though she had no need for sleep and hadn’t been that excited about a shower.

“Jacqueline Kessler, are you awake?”

It was using her name now, that was something. She made her way over to the screen, and this time was surprised to see it was using the entire thing, not just the speakers. A dark-skinned woman in plain white naval uniform sat there, her eyes a deep, unnatural purple. This was the Edison core’s avatar, then, the one it used to interact with humans. “You’re going to cut me up for parts like the ponies wanted to? This is… when you tell us.”

“No.” She sounded annoyed. “I’ve come to propose an exchange.”

Fucking great. The OMICRON Cores might be AGIs, but they didn’t seem that different. This was just like what Tesla had done to them. Those in power could always find a way to justify taking from the ones underneath if they called it a deal. But she wouldn’t get a choice in agreeing to it. “Tell me, then.”

“We’re still working on a patch to Samil’s zero-day,” the AI said. “But our war assets are in danger. There are no troops for me to send to help. There are a number of drugs that might be useful in treating the effects the ‘Siren’ creatures have produced, but I can’t deliver them.”

“What are you proposing, exactly?”

Edison smiled slightly. “I have the two of you. Your friend is organic, she could be the first test of the inoculation. Then you—you’re immune. I could drop you into occupied territory. And when you get there, you will find my captain and free her mind.”

I’m not sure how much good a drug will do against pony magic. But Jackie knew so little about magic, maybe she shouldn’t question it. Maybe the OMICRON Cores already knew how it worked, and it was just another science to them.

“That sounds like a lot of work,” she said, doing her best skeptical indifference. It wouldn’t exactly help her case if she made it obvious she’d wanted to go there and help Sunset herself. Might as well let them pay me. “What do I get in exchange?”

“Your sister wants to see you,” Edison said. “I’ll give you ten minutes by videophone. And if you succeed, I’ll reinstate your citizenship. You can see her as much as you like after that.”

“A digital citizen?” she repeated, breathless. “I didn’t think that was… possible.”

The woman laughed. “Then what am I? There’s no minimum intelligence requirement, fortunately for you. You may be limited in your selection of bodies… but that’s a small price to pay.”

“Yes,” Jackie answered. “I’ll do it. Put her on.”

The woman smiled. “When this conversation is over, marines will be there to escort you to the armory, then to the drop. We’ve never done an orbital drop with a pony before… are ponies sturdy enough to survive it?”

Jackie glanced over her shoulder, at where Bree was resting. The earth pony had survived worse. “This one is. Put Katie on.”

The screen went dark for a moment, the AI’s avatar vanishing. When an image finally returned, Jackie could tell it was obviously from a real camera this time, located in a sickbay of some kind. There was a row of cots in the background, and various flashing and beeping machines taking up most of the space.

The one sitting in front of the screen looked much like Jackie had, once. Same bright hair and dark eyes, same lean build, similar face. But she wasn’t as tall, and her expression wasn’t so calculating. Even now, Katie had become a kinder creature than Jackie could’ve ever hoped to be. Maybe you never saw the world the way that I do.

“Edison warned me I would be talking to a pony,” she said. “Guess that’s the new thing now. Relatives vanish and pop back up months later on four legs.”

“Y-yeah.” Jackie could barely put the words into her mouth. This girl scarcely seemed eager to see her. There was none of the joy at their reunion she would’ve imagined. But she was still a pony, and they were still only talking over a video phone. “It’s a new thing for me. I expected to have a human body, but… you don’t always get what you’re promised.”

The girl tapped her fingers on the desk in front of her, leaning forward to stare at her screen. “How, Jackie? How are you still alive? London got gassed. Real horrifying stuff… flesh-liquifying nightmare.”

Jackie nodded. “I was inside, stayed there. Nanocloud takes a long time to get inside—eats the wood first, the rats, the bugs… by the time it got in, we were all digital. D-dead already, guess you’d say. Richard had rescue crews… saving as many as he could. If you could call it saving.”

“You don’t know? You went through it.” Katie leaned back in her chair, glancing over her shoulder. The lights behind her went from bright blue daylight simulations to a dull amber. Apparently the watch had just turned over. “Are you alive?”

Jackie shrugged. “You know what they used to say. A simulation can think it’s real. When you get scanned, it’s not really going to sleep in one world and waking up in another. It’s dying for a copy.”

“It’s been…” Katie trailed off. “God, Jak. So long I wouldn’t even remember. You speak with her voice… but that doesn’t mean you’re really her. Were you…” She frowned. “What were you studying? No, that’d be in public records. How about this. Why didn’t dad approve of your studying abroad? Beyond the whole ‘war might be tomorrow’ thing?”

“Easy.” She didn’t even hesitate. “He was afraid I would come home with a girlfriend. They couldn’t keep an eye on me, so he couldn’t stop me anymore. Probably smart of him to be afraid—I would have. I know for sure Chloe burned, though.” She sighed, looking away. “RIP in peace, Chloe.” Too bad she didn’t have any sort of offering to give the dead. But she’d made peace with that death a long time ago. In some ways, Chloe not following her was its own kind of relief. At least she could’ve died as the person she was, not living on as some copy.

“Damn,” Katie muttered. “I was hoping you’d get it wrong. If you were some trick, I could hate you and not feel guilty about it.”

Jackie shrugged. “You don’t have to like me, Katie. Maybe you’ll never speak to me again… I get it. I didn’t wake up today thinking I’d ever see you again. Just knowing you’re alive is enough for me. Congrats on… finally got your nursing thing, that’s great. I’m sure you help a lot of people.

Her sister blinked, turned away and clutched at her face for a few seconds. Her voice faltered, breaking a little. “Don’t talk like that.”

She ignored the command. “Your AI is about to send me back behind enemy lines. Airdrop… actually looking forward to that part. You hear all those stories about the sky marshals, guess I’ll get to be one for a day. You think they might give me one of their caps as a souvenir?”

Her sister didn’t laugh, though she could see Katie relax a little at her words. She was helping to ease away the tension, and that was something anyway.

“When the war ends…” Katie muttered. “What happens to you then? Are you… some kind of… s-slave process? For King Richard?”

This time it was Jackie’s turn to laugh. “Richard is an asshole, but… not that particular flavor. Actually he doesn’t have anything to do with this. He might be pissed if he knew… but for all I know Tesla isn’t even alive anymore. My original missions might all be pointless. Ah well. The devil gives you enough lucky breaks, and eventually he collects his due. Maybe my time is up.”

“If it isn’t…” Katie spoke slowly. “You should visit the embassy. When it’s over, there… there’s bound to be one. Maybe we could… get lunch or something. I could bring you oil to drink and some metal bars to chew on. That’s how robots are, right?”

She laughed again. “Something like that.”

It wasn’t even a little like that, but Jackie didn’t care. Katie was willing to see her again—that alone was almost worth surviving. If she could.

The screen went black again suddenly, though it didn’t stay that way for very long. Edison’s face was back, looking completely unabashed for having interrupted them. “Ten minutes. Now the marines are on their way. And before you ask, I’ll make sure one of them gives you a hat.”

She vanished too, leaving only a blank screen behind. At least Bree hadn’t woken up—there was no one to see her tears.

Sunset Shimmer half expected to find their fallback position choked with more corpses and everything inside it destroyed. But here at least there was some mercy—the turrets still sat motionless, at least until they came around the corner.

“Identified, Tower asset Natasha, imperial technician Xavier, and two unknown individuals.”

“Friends,” Sunset called, before the turrets could actually point in their direction. Poor Brad, looking up from pony head height directly into the barrel of his own guns. They did not appear able to identify him—but why would they? So far as any computer was concerned, he was something totally different. Sir Bradley was alive again.

The metal door on the far side ground and creaked open, revealing an extremely cross Trixie on the other side. At least her glares were only for Starlight—Sunset wasn’t sure she wanted to deal with her right now.

A few minutes later and they were securely inside, with the door shut behind them and at least temporary safety restored.

Sir Bradley was walking on his own now, if it could be called walking. He stumbled like a newborn, tripping and splaying his wings like they would somehow help with his balance. His expression had gone dark, and he hadn’t spoken to Sunset once since they arrived.

As much as it hurt, she left him to his own devices, prancing in slow circles while she joined Starlight and Trixie near the far wall.

“Of all the stallions to rescue…” Trixie muttered, as soon as it was just the three of them. “Where did you find one so… simple?”

Starlight glared, cutting her off. “He’s the Tower knight. They all got killed fighting their way here, but Sunset talked him into using Discord’s magic. Instead of…”

“Well, then he made the obvious choice. Even if it does make life harder for us, can’t tell apart who’s really a pony and who’s just pretending.”

“Are you sure there’s a difference?” Sunset asked, removing the little metal objects from her pocket. There were two of them—one for each of the dead squires. Dark metal rectangles, with rounded edges and every appearance of mechanical strength. Cortical recorders—it was like holding Twilight’s necklace all over again, only for people the Tower actually cared about protecting. “When I lived with the Builders, they didn’t know I was really a pony. I bet they could do the same thing in reverse, if you gave them enough time.”

Trixie looked over her shoulder, watching Bradley stumble and splash into the edge of the water. “Trixie is not so sure. Maybe ponies are just smarter than they are—more adaptable.”

“He has more to adapt to,” Sunset argued. “And anyway, think about Alexi. She wasn’t a pony for an hour and already she was leading her refugees. It’s not her fault the Crystal Empire got taken over by Sirens. Those are monsters from our world, not hers.”

Neither Trixie nor Starlight seemed to have any response to that. They stared in awkward silence, or just looked away.

“I’m glad you got to rescue a friend,” Starlight eventually said. “But are we any closer to saving the Empire? Our troops on the front need our supplies, and they aren’t getting them. Now apparently the Sirens are letting monsters into the city—at least we can hope that the mind-controlled ponies up there aren’t being attacked. They’re all on the same side…”

“Unfortunately… not,” Sunset admitted. “You saw the way he fought—Sir Bradley would’ve been amazing to have on our side.”

“Maybe. But he lost, and now we’re no closer than we were before.” Trixie rose, her horn glowing for a second. “Trixie cannot stay hidden underground while her audience needs her on the surface. We need to go up there and save everypony.”

“Sure,” Starlight agreed. “But we need to have a plan before we do. Otherwise we’ll just get overwhelmed and mind-controlled like everypony else. Except Sunset and that other human—they’ll just get ripped apart.

“We’ll think of something,” Sunset muttered. “Just… keep on it. If you have any great ideas for spells, tell me. Otherwise… maybe we’ll get help. I called for a friend, she might make it. Assuming Jackie is still alive.

“Great,” Trixie muttered. “More robots.”

But for all Sunset said they should spend their time trying to come up with a way out, she herself could think of very little. She spent a few minutes with Xavier, discussing his ideas for technical cures for the mind-control.

“Only one,” he said, unhelpfully. “It’s the obvious one, really. Upload. Digital mind has integrity protection, meat one doesn’t.” He glanced to one side, where Sir Bradley was still off by himself. He’d gone through the military crates, stolen a pony tunic that royal guards might’ve worn under their armor. It didn’t help with human conceptions of modesty, but he still wore it. He’d gone to sit by himself off in the corner of the cavern, trying to play his guitar. Needless to say, his efforts had not been encouraging so far.

“I don’t think we can upload a whole city,” Sunset replied, a little annoyed. “Most of them probably wouldn’t want to be. Lots of Federation people up there.”

The man only shrugged. He still had one good arm, though unlike Brad he had no transformation bracelet of his own. His other arm had been stripped to the artificial muscle, and he kept it wrapped in cloth. Thank Celestia we can control when we feel pain, or that would hurt. “Humanity has always had Luddites. They slow things down for a while, but… the real secret to our success is that the important advances work better. You can’t say no to what’s better forever. Couldn’t stop the enlightenment, couldn’t stop the automobile, and you can’t stop digitization. Maybe this is the catalyst.”

Sunset shivered at the idea—all of the Crystal Empire, thousands and thousands of ponies, all ending up in that school. What would happen if a princess tried it? “Doesn’t matter if we think that’s a cure,” she said. “We don’t have the machines for that, do we?”

Xavier glanced down at the emergency node and its backup generator. “Unfortunately… no. We don’t.”

They were back to where they started—now with a few more desperate survivors to add to the pool, but that was it. What they really needed was a miracle. Or a princess to come save us. Isn’t that what Equestria always does?

But just because Sunset couldn’t go back to the surface to magic all their problems away, that didn’t mean there was nothing she could do to help from down here. There was at least one pony who needed her help.

It had been… a few hours by then, probably, and Brad hadn’t opened up. Hadn’t done anything to interact with them, just stayed in his corner and avoided making any sort of contact. Sunset couldn’t blame him, really—she’d been disoriented too when she first arrived in the Realm.

But she could still remember meeting Jackie for the first time. That had been what made her feel alive again.

So she marched over to where he moped, alone with his guitar, and sat down on the ground beside him. She still felt huge, though compared to a stallion like him Sunset’s old self would’ve been quite a bit smaller, more modest.

He glanced briefly up at her, ears flattening. No easy concealing his emotions without being digital.

“This war is shit,” he said, tossing the guitar roughly to the side. It smacked into Sunset’s leg, then turned over on the crystal floor.

“Worse than the last one?” Sunset picked up the guitar from where it had fallen, brushing away the dirt with a finger. “Your whole world ended.”

He kicked towards the little pool of clear water, sending a splash out at nothing in particular. “We were fighting each other. It made sense it would go to shit—we’ve spent thousands of years finding ways to make our wars as awful as possible. But… all that technology, all those advancements… they should’ve made this war easy. What good is it all if we can’t help some fucking primitives fight storybook monsters who want to eat them? It should’ve been simple. War should’ve lasted twenty minutes. But that isn’t what’s happening. Now it’s turning into a more decisive defeat than we ever faced back on Earth. The Federation is still there. The Tower is still standing. But there might not be any survivors when this is over. It’s… turning into one of those classic military defeats. Never invade Russia in winter, and leave the horse planet alone. Only way something so stupid could still exist is if it’s dangerous in ways you don’t understand.”

He slumped forward on the rock, sprawling uselessly.

“You don’t believe that,” Sunset said. She tried one chord on the guitar, then winced and adjusted the tuning a little. “You didn’t come to Equestria because you thought it would be easy. You’re here because it’s right.

“I’m here because King Richard thought it was right,” he corrected. “My household… in danger. They were counting on me—relying on me. And now I’m… well, worse than useless. You should’ve just yanked my recorder like the others.”

Sunset shook her head. “We need you too much, Brad. Look at us. Pretty… pathetic little band of rebels we got here. Three ponies, one broken engineer, and me.” She prodded him on the flank with his guitar. “Do you know what that is?”

He turned to look, then rolled his eyes. “The strangest accident evolution ever made.”

“No,” she said. “It’s a cutie mark. They’re not evolved, you aren’t born with it. They’re given by Harmony itself… and having one means that Equestria has a purpose for you. You’re not just a stranger, changed by accident. You have something to give.”

“Not sure what that could be,” Brad muttered. “Every ability I had, every training and competency—it’s all useless now. I can’t work with software, I can’t interact with hardware. Not with stumps like this…” He smacked one hoof onto the ground, then winced. “Stupid body eats and shits like it’s the 21st century all over again. Probably needs to sleep too.”

“You get used to it.” Sunset settled her hands on the guitar again, and this time she found playing came easily. It wasn’t even the same chords that Bradly had taught her. It was something different, something… deeper.

Maybe the ancient crystals of the Crystal Empire were interacting with her radio receiver. Or maybe it was something else.

Sunset’s eyes widened as she recognized the silence in the room around her—all three ponies stared, other conversations forgotten. Was that… yes. She’d started singing.

It had been years since Sunset was a pony, and much longer since the last time she’d experienced heartsong for herself. Her first day in Celestia’s academy, when a new batch of students ended their orientation with a song apparently nopony had planned, but everyone had joined. Even her.

Heartsong was a little different when it was only the four of them, clinging desperately to life while Equestria burned above them. A song of hope around a dying fire, of never giving up. Like Harmony had heard their desperation, but agreed with what Sunset had promised to the newly-transformed Bradley.

Or maybe it had nothing at all to do with her. Whatever the reason, Sunset wasn’t going to doubt it—she couldn’t, not while the magic surrounded them. I’m part of it, she realized, and almost stopped singing through her tears.

Magic was still there, despite her transformation. Despite being human… despite everything.