• 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 24: Secure Cell

“Well if that ain’t the craziest thing I’ve seen today,” Xavier muttered, finally shattering the timeless illusion that was their heartsong contact. “You still speak their language pretty well for not having a translation program in your brain, Sir Bradley. What I wouldn’t give for a core dump right now.”

Suddenly the harsh reality of their situation came crashing back down on her. Sunset couldn’t feel the glowing crystal walls anymore, or the sense of sourceless hope that had convinced her they were destined for victory. It was all gone, leaving only a memory. A memory of magic.

“That shouldn’t be possible,” Starlight Glimmer muttered, landing lightly on the ground. There’d been a little flying there at the end, even for Sunset. But she hadn’t stayed in the air like they did. Her eyes darted between Brad and Sunset herself. “You shouldn’t have any connection to Harmony, and you… you’re not a pony anymore. How can you use magic?”

“I didn’t,” Sunset answered, slumping against one of the rock walls, letting Brad’s guitar fall limp beside her. “I just sang along.” But even as she said it she knew it wasn’t true. That didn’t mean she stopped.

“No, you started it.” Starlight turned away, muttering something to herself. “This changes everything. We knew magic could affect other creatures. Twilight thought it was having an impact on you. But… you’re mechanical!”

“Substrate,” Brad said. He looked like he’d just returned from a pleasant vacation, eyes wistful and distant. His voice no longer sounded so hopeless. That song was for him. “Her mind is on digital substrate. Your mind is on organic substrate. Mine too, I guess. Point is… it doesn’t work any different. The simulation had to be so perfect that the one experiencing it wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. You think we’d have gone digital if the tech was as primitive as the Federation thinks it is? If ‘magic’ is possible for you… no. If magic is possible for humans, then it wouldn’t matter what form they were in.”

It went against everything Sunset had ever heard. There were plenty of constructs out there—necromancy could make them, or they could be built with crystals and clay. Either way, they could only simulate intelligence, and certainly never cast their own spells. Brad obviously knew nothing about magic.

But Sunset had cast the spell.

“Maybe…” Starlight Glimmer bounced up and down, growing more excited. “If you’ve somehow kept your magic, Sunset… then you may’ve just revolutionized everything we know about longevity. What the ancient liches couldn’t do… what Tirek couldn’t do… you did.”

“Excuse me,” Trixie said, her voice loud and grating. Their little song had apparently worn off on her the quickest. “I don’t see how this helps us. I’m sure a pony like Twilight would be fascinated by all this… mumbo jumbo about magic or whatever. But there are still Sirens up there. Our friends are still mind-controlled, and the army can’t get its supplies. Maybe we should focus?”

“Yeah.” Starlight sat back on her haunches, looking away. “Sorry, yeah. Even if Sunset had all her magic back right now, even if she was somehow a unicorn without a horn, that would only mean two powerful spellcasters against three monsters of ancient mythology. We’d still lose.”

Three! Trixie is appalled you could forget about her—powerful is in her name!”

“Sorry,” Starlight muttered. But she didn’t sound terribly sorry. Apparently she was as close to the end of her rope as Sunset felt.

“But… maybe it is the answer.” Sunset settled the guitar into her arms again. “I mean, having me be part of it doesn’t change the plan much. Maybe…” She frowned, thinking. “The Sirens are using a song to rule over the minds of the Crystal Empire. Even a princess, maybe. So… maybe we need a song to get them out of it again? Ponies join in heartsong whether they expect to or not, it’s a lot like the Sirens. Only… it’s Harmony’s magic. There’s no way it would keep them in control. All we’d have to do is get the Crystal Heart away from them before they could take the city back.”

“Excuse me, what the fuck.” Xavier was still clutching at his stump of an arm, but he wasn’t leaning against the wall anymore. After a bit of patching up from the emergency repair kit, his body didn’t wobble and shake with every step. But his injuries were still severe.

The ponies only stared at him—even Brad.

“I don’t…” Sunset began.

“Mind control I get,” he said. “But why are they calling you ‘Sunset,’ Natasha? And how do you know all this?” He glanced to the side. “Sir, is any of this a surprise to you?”

“No,” Brad answered. “She’s a pony. Our version of Second Chance, I guess. Like everything in the Tower, ours is better.”

Xavier nodded. “I guess… you wouldn’t be able to tell me. Official instructions. King must’ve told you.”

Brad shrugged. “You know now. I’ll apologize to King Richard for you if I survive this. Can’t imagine I’ll be a knight much longer now that I’m… disabled.”

“You are not,” Trixie interrupted. “Trixie knows Wonderbolts that don’t look as good as you. Most ponies have to work for a body like that.”

“Right…”

Starlight ignored them both. “Human… guy. Sunset is proposing using similar magic to counter the influence of the Sirens. You wouldn’t have to be involved. Though… we would need the entire city to hear, Sunset. The Sirens have magic for that… we would need something similar.”

“You mean a fuckin’ amp?” Xavier asked. “I might only have one good arm, but I can build you an amp. We’re not infoage anymore, even if we are stuck in a cave.” He glanced to the side, at the small box of Tower supplies. “With, uh… your permission, Sir.”

Bradley only nodded. “I don’t have a clue what they’re talking about. But I trust Sunset.”


“This is the only weapon you’re authorized to use,” the marine barked, for perhaps the third time in the last ten minutes. Jackie hadn’t seen his face—neither him nor any of the others had removed their powered-armor at any point during the conversation.

They stood in the Aegis’s drop-bay, which meant her companion now had a full suit of armor of her own. Jackie was frankly surprised they’d even bothered—pony powered armor must not be that common, why waste a suit on someone they thought worked with the enemy?

But she felt better to see Bree vanish behind the flexible layers of nanosteel and Kevlar. Jackie herself had been given nothing at all, except for one of the two launchers.

They weren’t guns in the traditional sense—if anything they were more like what she’d expect to be wielded by riot police. Pneumatic weapons designed to fling canisters of compressed gas.

“Many of the hostiles on the ground are our own people. Whether human or… otherwise.”

“The Aegis has been working on a way to get them back for a long time. Samil’s zero-day, these ‘Siren’ figures… should work just the same. The gas will incapacitate organics for twelve hours. No danger of overdose either, it’s real smart. But in case you need it…” The other figure in the bay with them was no marine, but a woman wearing a white atmosphere suit with a totally clear helmet.

Jackie took the little plastic case, cracking it open with the spindly grippers on her intact left hoof, ignoring their winces.

Inside were several clear vials, and a single nitrogen injector.

“That’s an antidote, in case you get a friendly. One thing we couldn’t test is how well it will actually treat the infected. Should be enough time for one of Samil’s people to system reset into autistic mode, if we worked the instructions correctly. But we don’t know if it will work on what these Siren creatures did. It’s possible they’ll sleep for the duration and become controlled again the instant they wake.”

The marine shoved past them, opening the door to the drop-pod. Jackie had never seen one—no one in the Tower had, since they hadn’t existed during the Great War. There were seats for eight inside, though it looked like all the standard weapons and gear had been taken away. A lot of empty shelves in there.

“You should know,” he said. “I’ve got experience with gas weapons—they’re shit. A nice cloud can fill up a whole street, make you think you’re safe. But the wind keeps blowing, and a minute later it’s all gone.”

“We’ve formulated this delivery system to be as dense as possible,” the scientist interrupted. “It should remain effective even in concentrations as low as—”

“Shit,” the marine said. “Your best bet is indoors, caves, that kind of thing. Don’t count on it being more than a distraction if you’re out in the open.”

“Right.” Jackie snapped the plastic closed, then slung the launcher over her shoulder. It was massive, and the adaptations for pony use were clumsy at best. Bree probably wouldn’t be able to carry one at all if she weren’t in the armor.

But then, poor Bree looked barely conscious now. The suit was keeping her standing, not any effort of her own. Jackie still didn’t know what was causing that—but the sooner she got the earth pony back on the ground, the better.

“Anything we should know about the pod?”

Their escort laughed. “Say your prayers before you get inside, because you won’t be able to think straight once you start decelerating. And you better be praying to the AI, because she’s the only one who has a chance of making sure you land alive. She’s putting you down outside the city. Get out quick, because they’ll see you coming down for a thousand miles.

He nudged her towards the open door with the side of his boot. “Oh, and we’ve never tested them with any atmosphere thicker than Mars before. So maybe some prayers that the Luna-7 engineers knew what the fuck they were doing.”

“Right.” Jackie climbed in, before one of these soldiers decided to do something more violent to her. The straps themselves were easy enough to secure, though she wasn’t sure she actually needed any.

Bree followed beside her, and her armor had mounting attachments in the structure, sliding into place with metallic clicks. Bree’s face was visible through her helmet, as ghostly and pale as she’d been before.

The doctors hadn’t been able to identify what was wrong with her—but then the only thing they’d done was flash a medical scanner in her general direction and call it good. Probably it would take a bit more than that to learn anything useful.

“You still in the world of the living, Bree?” Jackie asked, unable to keep her concern from her voice. “You still look like shit.”

Bree didn’t answer for several seconds, her eyes glazed. “The… armor is mostly running things. I’m glad. I wouldn’t… it’s good. I’ll be good. These things are quick, right? We’ll be down in… quick.”

“Yeah,” she said. The door behind them smashed closed with a hiss of air and a series of metallic noises. Flashing red lights began to shine in the tiny space.

“Thirty seconds until orbital deployment,” said a synthesized voice. “Secure your restraints and assume drop positions.”

“There you go,” Jackie said. “Should be down in… under an hour, probably. Maybe way less. I don’t know how fast flesh can accelerate without turning to goo.”

“Not fast enough,” Bree muttered, leaning forward so that her forehead pressed against the glass. “I hope I… get to keep this armor… Mom would think it was so cool… bet she could make something better.”

“Than the Federation? Sure, Bree. I’m sure True Silver would make something awesome.”

“5… 4… 3…”

Jackie reached out with another radio ping, searching for Sunset. But she couldn’t reach even the orbital satellites—not from within the pod. No doubt it had stealth systems in place, that could scatter detectors. Unfortunately that would also mean she would have to wait until they were on the surface again to let her friend know they were coming.

Assuming she answers this time. She didn’t respond when you called from the Aegis.

The blast of force and pressure slammed her down with enough energy that Jackie was momentarily severed from her body. Danger, acceleration warning. Body has assumed preservation mode. Please decelerate as soon as possible.

Yeah, because I can fucking decelerate after you lock up all my limbs. The default software could be monumentally stupid sometimes.

If only the Federation had put in a window for her to see the planet falling past them, or even a screen. But this was a military craft, not a civilian shuttle that took scientists and holovid stars between lunar outposts. There were probably screens in the armor they’d need to survive.

The pod felt as though it might shake itself apart, though that sensation was not painful for Jackie. She could hear Bree’s terrified noises from beside her, and thought maybe the earth pony might be experiencing things differently. She could hear her shrieks even from within the helmet.

Then she remembered—the entire reason Bree was wearing a helmet. So she could block out sound. “Come in Bree, come in. Jackie to Bree, over.” Jackie didn’t need to move to use her radio.

But her companion didn’t reply—not for several moments. If anything, the force pushing on them was getting worse. But despite Jackie’s own body completely frozen into the chair, and the crash-couch expanding all around her like a giant automobile airbag, Bree actually turned her head to face her.

“I feel like… I’m coming out of a fog,” she said, sounding much closer to her regular self. “You think that old man drugged me? Avalon… the real Avalon was a human in a fursuit all along. Or… guess we never saw the head.”

It was working, then. Not only that, but the acceleration of landing appeared to be returning her companion to conscious life. Could it be distance to the planet, somehow? Maybe… there’s some kind of radiation that ponies are sensitive to that we aren’t? Their ships were shielded against cosmic rays, and every other danger that was expected. If squishy organic humans could survive, why not an earth pony as sturdy as Bree?

Well apparently she had survived. “Now I know why I didn’t want to go to space,” she said. “It fucking sucked no thank you. Next time you want to run away from someone, find another way.”

“Sure,” Jackie said, grinning in spite of herself. “I’ll… do that. Another way.”

At least her brain never shut down from the acceleration. But like her power generation, it was entirely solid-state, so there were no moving parts to be disrupted.

Her chronometer told her almost half an hour had passed before the pressure on her body finally began to ease, and red lights flashed from the ceiling above them. “Landing in thirty seconds,” it said. “External temperatures -13 degrees Celsius. Wind speed thirty-eight kilometers per hour eastbound. Expected conditions: snowdrifts, permafrost. Local time: one hour after sunset. Local resources are: N/A. Brace for impact.”

Brace? What did it intend for them to do?

Nothing, apparently. There was a crash, and a sound like ice thrown into boiling water. The door in front of them exploded outward, like it had been shot out a cannon, and steam billowed in through the opening. Outside was an arctic night, and a dense crater of fresh ice and dripping snow. A bright streak still cut across the sky, probably from the rocket they’d used to slow down.

All Jackie’s seatbelts crumbled off her body like they’d been made of ash, and she sat up with a jerk. “Kay! Okay… I’m alive.”

She turned. “How are you feeling, Bree? Still with me?”

Her companion didn’t respond, though she did turn to look at Jackie.

Of course, she’s muted.

“Bree, tell me you’re in there,” she said, this time over the radio. “Everything working?”

Bree climbed out of the seat as easily as Jackie did, shaking her stiff limbs one at a time and flinging the launcher over her shoulder. “Yeah, I’m good.”

“Then…” Jackie was first out the opening, emerging onto a windswept sheet of ice with a brand new crater right in the center. Steam was still rising from around them, and she could feel the slight cold against her body, except from the dead leg.

Warning. Prolonged exposure to subzero temperatures is not recommended.

Her computer would be fine—it would be better than fine, actually. The RTG and her own brain both worked more efficiently with a colder external temperature. Unfortunately the same could not be said for her artificial joints and muscles.

She didn’t have to search blindly for this “Crystal Empire,” she had a map. And she turned, facing a distant bubble on the horizon. It looked like one of the Lunar domes, except that she didn’t think the polyglass of a Lunar dome was meant to bend that way. “Stay close. I’ll have to listen for both of us. Don’t take that helmet off. I don’t know how much of your briefing you remember.”

“I won’t take the helmet off,” Bree responded. “I remember that much.”

They set off through the snow, leaving the steaming ruin of their landing pod behind them. I’m coming, Sunset. I hope you’re still alive in there.


It was a long hike to the city. Eight point three kilometers, according to Jackie’s internal tachometer. But that didn’t matter—it wasn’t like they could go back. Not that she would have.

Every hour she tried sending another message through, and each time she got “USER NOT IN SERVICE AREA” errors. She didn’t flood Sunset’s inbox, that would’ve got future messages ignored. She could only hope she would eventually answer. I wonder where I’d find her if she doesn’t say anything.

As it turned out, the bubble she’d seen before wasn’t indicative of a dome city, as humans had built in many a hostile environment. It was, rather, a bubble of shimmering light, beyond which the icy cold of winter faded away and green fields shone under the moonlight.

This was the refugee camp then, where displaced from all through Equestria had been fleeing throughout the duration of the war. Jackie gestured for Bree to remain where she was, hurrying forward towards the edge of the bubble with her body low. Unlike her companion in her powered-armor, Jackie could move silently, though her dark fur would still be visible against the winter snow. If scouts had been watching for them, they would probably have seen for miles around.

Apparently they had been. Jackie could see them now—thousands and thousands of ponies were standing on the other side of the shimmering bubble, staring blankly out at nothing in particular.

She shivered slightly, trying to make sense of the image her eyes were showing her. She froze the picture, accelerating time a bit so she could investigate.

They were marshaled by thousands, as though preparing for an invading army. She’d seen blocks of people like this in plenty of war-reenactments in the Realm, though none with so many horses and so few riders.

Most of them were naked—many didn’t even have a stick to use as a weapon. Yet they stood in perfect ranks, ready to charge out against an army that wasn’t coming.

They saw us coming. But they didn’t know who we were.

Had they noticed her? Jackie kept her body low to the snow, frozen like a hornet had landed on her nose. But there was no motion—not even one of the army scratching their face. They didn’t laugh, barely even breathed.

Then she heard the song. It reached out through the bubble, like the distant strain of a brand new algorithmic pop song, perfectly designed for her particular taste. Jackie slowed, ears swiveling as she listened.

Process override detected, her watchdog program reported, helpfully. Isolate?

Obviously.

Jackie shook her head once, clearing the brief fog that had settled there. I’ve seen Intro to InfoSec students with better task override, but thanks for trying. Was that really what had taken over a whole city full of organics? How has the Tower not won this war like half a century ago?

Jackie probably shouldn’t think like that—she hadn’t been in a charitable mood towards the Federation since they’d been their guest.

“We’ve got a problem up here, Bree. Turns out they saw us coming. There’s about, uh… maybe ten thousand ponies over there? Lots of… all the tribes. Unicorns, pegasus ones, uh… you ones?”

“Earth ponies,” Bree supplied, obviously annoyed. “How’s the mind control thing?”

“Real. Not very effective against me, but I don’t see anyone resisting on their side. You probably shouldn’t risk it.”

“Wasn’t planning on it. I’m not really the hero type, anyway. I probably would’ve stayed in space if it wasn’t so…” She trailed off. “Not great. I think I might hang back. Do you need any of the gear I’ve got?”

“I’d love your armor, but you’d probably freeze to death without it.” Did Jackie feel safe leaving Bree out here? After everything that had happened, could she risk losing her to the enemy without being close enough to save her this time?

Tesla’s getting his engineer. Yeah, that’s the reason. Maybe if she kept telling herself that she’d believe it.

You might be safer if you came with me,” she said instead. “I have combat programs, you don’t. That armor is cool, but I don’t think True Silver taught you how to fight. Otherwise you wouldn’t have needed my help in Motherlode.

“Don’t remind me. But didn’t you say there was an army? What are we going to do?”

Jackie nudged at the edge of the bubble with one hoof, as slowly as she could. Nothing happened—it passed right through. It’s just for climate? Lucky us I guess.

Except it wasn’t like she hadn’t done anything. That single touch, however brief, caused thousands and thousands of ponies to turn. Every single one she could see went from staring blankly at nothing to watching her. All around them, the song was changing. Cheerful, upbeat pop music faded into something more like a marching cadence.

Jackie backed away, spreading her wings in supplication. “Hey guys, uh… I was just leaving! No need to do anything… rash.”

But they didn’t seem to hear her. They didn’t slow down, though they weren’t moving very fast. So many. Like a living organism.

“I, uh… bring me your launcher,” she called. “And… maybe be ready to fucking run. I’m not sure this is gonna go… good.”

Jackie lifted the launcher over her shoulder, using maneuvers that no natural pony would be able to manage. But her metal body could bend in ways they weren’t supposed to—she had no organs to damage.

She fired with an anticlimactic pop, and watched the first canister blur away from her through the barrier. She didn’t even think about what to do next, just let her brain calculate the dispersion based on the properties of the gas, and aimed at the next point to get maximum coverage. Another shot, and the launcher hissed in protest, apparently not wanting her to fire again so quickly. But she was already aiming at the third target. That canister actually managed to hit a pony, who didn’t even stop in their march as they staggered forward.

These ponies weren’t acting like an army, however much they’d stood like one. They shambled and lurched, like they were being puppeted by an inattentive master.

They were still closing, though, their first ranks nearing the edge of the bubble.

Clouds of thick brown fog exploded outward in a few quick bursts. Not fog like smoke-grenades she remembered from Counter-Strike servers—this fog seemed like a weightless fluid, somehow bound together in a layer about head-height along the ground. It congealed there like a transparent tumor, stretching and expanding outward in all directions.

Until it reached the bubble, when it began curving upward, without even a faint wisp drifting out.

Ponies started to drop. At first they struggled, trying to keep walking towards her. But they didn’t stay moving very long.

They didn’t even retreat. A marshaled army of thousands kept on marching, until they’d formed a wall of unconscious bodies.

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