• 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 25: Tone Lock

“I’m not sure how long this works!” Jackie called, without even stopping to look over her shoulder. “But we need to move, right now!”

There was now a solid wall of bodies in front of them, with thick brown smoke congealed around it like mortar. But even looking at it from a distance, Jackie could see that the Federation marine had been right. It wasn’t going to last long—the wind was blowing and soon it would be gone. They couldn’t just wait here for the entire city to march into it.

Jackie started to run, enough that she dared a jump up to the edge of the wall. To her surprise, her wings caught the air, and a program she’d not known about before switched on. The “flight subroutine” was a clumsy, awkward bit of code, that could barely keep her gliding straight. But that didn’t matter—she was gliding!

“Are you still with me, Bree?” she called over the radio. She glanced over her shoulder, searching for her friend.

Bree was, though she had to slog up and over the unconscious ponies and seemed to be doing her best to hurt them as little as possible.

Now that she was inside the barrier, Jackie could see the city was modest by Earth standards, but some quick math told her it could probably house two million ponies, not counting the ones living in tents. And how many is this, twenty thousand?

The army had seemed like it was the only thing between them and reaching her friends. The reality was… otherwise.

And she could hear them—the song that echoed through the streets at every moment, demanding that everyone who could hear it turn their attention north to “defend the city from invaders.” The whole thing seemed to shake under the force of so many hooves all dropping what they were doing, and turning on her. They want to rip us apart. How in god’s name am I supposed to find some stupid Federation Admiral in all of this?

Bree reached the ground on the other side of the wall a moment later, calling up at her. “What are we gonna do, Jackie? Do we have enough rockets to gas the whole city?”

Jackie landed beside her and started to reload. “No beating physics. Whatever that brown stuff is, it still has mass. How heavy was the launcher? You think that’s enough to neutralize the whole city?”

Bree didn’t answer, because she didn’t need to. They both knew.

Ponies started to trickle out of the nearby buildings, joined by an ever-widening flood out the main thoroughfares. At the front were ponies in gold armor with spears and crossbows, the ones called the “Royal Guard.” A trivial challenge for Jackie, except that they were innocent people who didn’t deserve to die for being mind-controlled.

“Sunset Shimmer, are you in here somewhere? I brought reinforcements! Also we probably shouldn’t be here and we’re about to fucking die.” Either they would be torn limb-from-limb by the enemy’s ponies, or somehow forced to join with whatever magic was compelling them. She wasn’t sure which would be worse. I wonder if they know that my mind would survive that. Maybe someone could dig up my head in a few months, bring me back. But then again, Sunset Shimmer probably didn’t know that either. With Tesla MIA, who else could possibly know to send engineers looking for her?

There were a few, terrible seconds of silence, where Jackie led Bree sideways along the city, rather than straight in. She kept her eyes open for shelter or defensible positions, but mostly she was just trying to get away from the forces pouring out of it. She didn’t fire the launcher again, counting out her seven remaining shells. Seven shots to get her back to wherever safe place Sunset had found, against an enemy that worked together with perfect coordination and apparently shared information instantly. Not terribly good odds, are they Jackie?

Then she heard her friend’s response. It was quiet in terms of signal strength, attenuated and distorted as though transmitting through a thick medium. She’s underground. “Jackie! You’re alive out there, thank Celestia!”

Not for much longer unless we do something!” The signal was too weak to support images, and could barely even support the sound of speech itself. “That alley right there looks good, Bree! Follow me!” She didn’t fly again—there was no sense in it, when it would only leave Bree behind. Besides, there were plenty of the enemy ponies in the air too. They stayed above their own forces, rather than rushing to engage. But when the cloud got there, it would be as thick as the army on the ground.

Is that why they’re… Jackie, this is perfect! We were looking for a distraction to get us near the Crystal Heart, this will do perfectly! If you could just… keep them away for a bit, that would let us deploy these amps without getting mind-controlled.”

Amps? She knew the word, though hearing it here didn’t make much sense. Did Sunset want to put on a concert? Didn’t they have bigger things to worry about? But there was no time left to question her. “I don’t mind helping, but I do mind getting killed! What are we supposed to do when we’ve finished… distracting them, you said? What’s this plan of yours anyway?”

In real time there would never have been enough bandwidth to communicate so much, what with a crowd of numberless enemies closing in on them all the time. But Sunset’s signal was getting stronger, and even a weak signal could transmit at the speed of light. Sunset Shimmer seemed to realize this, because her reply came in text-only. Clever girl. Look who payed attention to her datamancy.

The Sirens use music to control the minds of the ponies here. I’m… reasonably certain we should be able to use some Equestrian magic to counter it—heartsong. We’re setting up amplifiers so as much of the Empire as possible should be able to hear it. We need to be close to the Crystal Heart for it to do any good.”

“So you don’t actually need me?” Jackie responded. “Sounds like you already know what you’re doing. No use for a robot-bat when you’re doing magic.”

“Not much use for me either,” Sunset responded, just as quickly. “But you should try to get back to us anyway. There’s a large underground network, look for the blue grates in the street. The sound of the Sirens’ music can’t get down there, so if they send anyone they won’t be able to follow directions and they should get control back pretty quickly.”

“Distract them until you finish,” Jackie repeated, just to be sure. “Then we go underground and try to reach you. I assume you have a map?”

Sunset sent one. It wasn’t perfect, and most of it was dynamically generated from sonar data, nothing actually made by ponies. But it was better than just running away and giving up.

Not sure if I have any chance of finding that pony the AI wanted. But maybe if we free the whole city, that will be good enough. Instead of giving back one pony, she could give back them all.

That whole conversation had taken only an instant, but still she had so few of those to spare. Jackie scanned the streets around her, and saw a promising direction ahead, what looked like a long street between several closely-packed crystal buildings. She fired once as they got close, on a timed fuse so that the ponies dragging themselves along behind would be completely surrounded when the bomb detonated.

A cloud of brown smoke flooded the alley on both sides, spreading out down every entrance and exit. Ponies entering from ways she hadn’t seen or flowing in from above dropped unconscious beside so many others.

“Six,” Jackie said, this time over the ordinary radio. “We have six shots left. You see a good opportunity, go ahead and tell me.”

She took aim, firing at the rapidly nearing exit. It looked clear over there—but just because it looked clear from where she was running didn’t mean that was actually true.

“Make that five! Five left!”

“Plus the injections. Like what they gave me, right?”

“Right.” They emerged on a main thoroughfare, into a waiting crowd of unconscious ponies. More descended from the streets, packed so tightly up ahead that they wouldn’t be able to walk through. Jackie fired another projectile dead-center into the street, then turned them back. They couldn’t go any further into the city without being overwhelmed by the numbers.

I sure hope you’re going quick with those amplifiers!” she called. “We’re running out of empty street out here!”

Almost!” came the response. “We’re on the surface now, had to deal with a few guards. Looks like the Sirens had a stage set up, so we’ll just use theirs. We’re figuring it out.”

“Figure it out faster!” She didn’t send text that time—there was no attenuation to the signal anymore, it came through clear. She couldn’t have sent augmented copresence, but voice was no longer a problem. “I’m dead in… two minutes! Or Bree is, if I fly away without her.”

But she wouldn’t do that, even if it might be the smart thing. Jackie no longer cared about what Tesla had promised, but she wasn’t going to abandon this pony. She’d got her this far—Bree was going to survive, no matter what it took from her.

“We need to start looking for a way down!” Jackie called, firing another of her shells directly at their hooves this time. The swooping pegasus guards hit the ground hard all around them, but missed their attack. Hopefully they would live to wake up. “Sunset says they have blue sewer grates, leads down into some tunnels we can use. I have the map.”

“Like that one there?” Bree pointed at the center of what looked like a marketplace, or what had been one before the city fell. Ponies were pouring out of it towards them, but less than came from the inner city. Worth a shot.

Jackie took aim, and fired three of their remaining shots in calculated patterns. The marketplace began to fill with brown fog, and the ponies within fell. She had one rocket left.

They galloped together for dear life, passing into the cloud just ahead of more pursuers. This time ponies stopped at the edge, surrounding the space from all sides. Only a few got too close, and any who touched the gas slumped forward in unconsciousness.

“We will wait,” said a voice, near the edge of the group. “Your magic wears off. When it does, then you will hear their song. They’re singing for both of you.”

Jackie ignored them, shoving a cart of rotting fruit aside with her mechanical strength, then searching for something she could use to pry the grate open. “Dammit, dammit… where’s a crowbar when you need one?”

Bree smashed one hoof against the steel, so hard that the whole thing dented, before going flying over their shoulder and out of the way.

“Right. Earth pony.”

“No!” called the same voice, from just outside the cloud. “They cannot escape to join the others! Stop them!” Jackie didn’t even glance down the tunnel, she just jumped.

They fell together into the gloom. Though many of the ponies seemed to be piling up on the ground, Jackie could see shapes getting close as she took one last glance over her shoulder. She set the timer on the last rocket for thirty seconds, then fired it with minimum speed, tossing the launcher aside.

“It’s this way!” she yelled, gesturing. “Follow me! It’s not too far!” They ran.

Sunset Shimmer looked out on the empty capital of the Crystal Empire. Ancient buildings rose up around them, their glittering shapes no longer so imposing with the crystal ponies who were supposed to live here. An incredible relic of the past had been discovered during her absence, and what was becoming of it? It was burning, along with its ponies and all its secrets.

“That’s the last one!” Xavier yelled, his voice nervous. His amplifiers were small machines, each one made to attach to a single contiguous surface. They would use the buildings of the Crystal Empire as their speakers, so that everypony in town would hear. These ponies would soon be free.

Or we’ll be dead. But at least we’ll go out with a bang.

It was a completely insane plan, made slightly more so because so far as Sunset knew, there wasn’t any way to force Heartsong to happen. Even the best musicians could give hundreds of performances and only experience it once or twice in a lifetime. It’s crazy, but we don’t have any other choice.

They were all here, either gathered on the stage or lurking near the edge. For all their control over the city, the Sirens either couldn’t or hadn’t moved the Crystal Heart, because it still hovered above them—black now, and brittle. Like it was one sharp tap away from shattering. Guess we could try that if all else fails. At least they won’t have anything amplifying their magic.

And the Crystal Empire would lose its way to protect itself from the outside. It wouldn’t be a safe place for refugees anymore if its last defenses failed.

“We, uh… don’t have many instruments,” Starlight said, hurrying over. “Just your guitar. Will that be enough for your song?”

“My song?” Sunset raised an eyebrow. “I’m not a pony, at best I’m here as emotional support. I gave that song the tune, but the magic must’ve come from Brad. It wasn’t me.”

Starlight Glimmer’s eyebrows went up. “And if you believe that, I’ve got some great snake oil I think you’d be interested in.” Sunset opened her mouth to defend herself, but the pony silenced her with a glare. “No, stop it. I know as well as you do it seems to violate every rule of magic. But… so do you, when you think about it. The Tower turn themselves into machines, they should act like machines. But they don’t. They still love, and hate, and… everything. Maybe the ancient sorcerers just weren’t as good at making machines as the Builders are.”

“I don’t mean to interrupt,” Trixie said, in a tone that suggested she wanted nothing more. “But there’s a lot of ponies coming. Guess they… gave up on that friend you were talking to?”

Or they caught her. Sunset’s last message from the mechanical bat had come when they went underground—they were now too deep to get a signal. As they got closer they should come close enough that the emergency node could start repeating it, but that hadn’t happened yet.

They weren’t running. The ponies drifting in from all directions flowed as the mind-controlled always did, like zombies being puppeted only with difficulty. But when they got here, they would be overwhelmed.

Sunset ran the numbers on the approach of the lead ponies in the group—it would take them about two minutes to reach the stage, unless others appeared from somewhere closer.

“I’m sure Jackie will be fine,” she said. “She’s a survivor. But we won’t wait for long.”

“Where do you think those… creatures are?” Sir Bradley wore a rifle slung over his shoulder, though he had no visible means to actually fire it and hadn’t yet. Where a handful of those not-changelings had been waiting to stop them when they emerged, he had joined in the fight by beating them to a pulp with his hooves.

“They’ll be here,” Starlight said. She remained seated in the center of the stage, eyes closed in concentration. She hadn’t moved since the fight was over. Sorry I’m asking you to keep so many minds clean. But we shouldn’t have to work once this starts. “They’ll want to stop us from taking the empire back.”

“And they’ll do… what?” Xavier asked. He had no rifle, but he did have a sturdy hammer resting in his one good arm, wet with changeling blood. “We’re fighting mythical monsters with a song and dance. I hope you realize how stupid this is.”

“Trixie suggests the metal man shouldn’t worry too much. We’ve fought worse, and Starlight always wins in the end. She’s got some secret backup plan in case the stupid one fails, you’ll see.”

“Uh…” Starlight opened one eye, glaring at her. The massive empty space around the castle was now filling up with ponies, so dense that they would not be able to flee into the city anymore. They came from all directions, their desire obvious even though none of them spoke. There was a near-ravenous hunger to reach the stage, to cement the Sirens’ control over the Crystal Empire. “I don’t have a backup plan, Trixie. You were in that cave too. If there was any smarter alternative, we would’ve done that.”

“Well we’re probably dead then. Unless mythical creatures like magic shows. You think they’d hire me?”

“No,” Starlight and Sunset said, almost in unison.

Then the nearest stairwell into the palace banged open, tearing off its hinges as the wood exploded into fragments. Jackie emerged from within, covered with bits of wood and dust.

She was in bad shape—one of her ears had torn off, revealing a metallic glint underneath. Her coat was torn in a dozen places, and bits of crystal and wood were stuck into her body in ways that would’ve caused a living pony agony. But for her, she didn’t even slow down.

“We’re here!” the bat announced, spreading her wings and grinning. “Had to do a little pest control on the way over.”

We can do this.

“Get up here!” Sunset urged. “Your friend too! We need everypony we can get.”

Sunset could see almost nothing of Jackie’s companion—she was encased completely in steel, with a mirrored faceplate that hid even the color of her eyes. But from no bump for a horn, she wasn’t a unicorn. But then her visor went up, and a young pony’s face was visible from within. Not one she recognized, but at that age she probably shouldn’t have expected to. Would’ve been a foal when she left to visit the Builders’ homeworld.

“Trixie suggests you hurry,” she said from beside them. “They’re, uh… getting close. And trust me to know when a crowd isn’t happy with your performance. These are the sort of ponies who chase you miles down the road after they run you out of town, just to knock over your caravan.”

Thousands of eyes, all settling on her. They all had their microphones—or the ponies did. Sunset just needed a radio connection. Starlight Glimmer rose to her hooves, visibly shaking from the effort of fighting the Sirens’ mind-control. Bradley barely even standing on his four hooves, clutching a gun he couldn’t fire like a stuffed animal. The one-armed engineer, glancing back at the opening to the underground with increased frequency. And Jackie, the one she’d kidnapped.

I wish Twilight could be here. But her friend’s mind was stored on the emergency node, without enough computation to even wake her up. If we win here, we can get back to the truck. There’s bound to be a working computer on there somewhere.

But they had to win first.

The ponies all around them abruptly stopped in place, perhaps fifty feet from the stage. They were packed in so close now that even a pegasus would have a hard time getting through. Yet the crowd parted, and a pony emerged. A pink Alicorn, still wearing her armor.

Princess Cadance looked like she hadn’t had a royal bath in days. Her mane was disheveled, and one of her armored shoes was missing. The Sirens apparently didn’t care much about the condition of their slaves. Probably shouldn’t be surprised. They can always get more.

“You’ve come back to us,” she said, her voice shaking. Like she was fighting every word—but still losing. “It is good to see you. I wondered where you had gone, Starlight. And Sunset—your knowledge of the Tower will be useful to us. It was wrong for you to keep them all for yourself. But what I don’t understand is why? Did you grow tired of living in the cave? I see you found a bat. We have something special planned for her, after the inconvenience she caused.” That was the voice of the Sirens then, twisting the will of this Alicorn so closely that she had no choice but to say the words given to her.

“I’ll pass,” Jackie said. “I’ve got a strict policy against crazy. Looks like you’ve got more than your fair share without me.”

“It’s now or never,” Starlight hissed from beside her. “If they knew what we’re doing they’d already have killed us. Let’s do this.”


Sunset’s mind spun, desperate and afraid. She reached for the words to a song, something to give back the ponies of the Crystal Empire their will. But she couldn’t force the magic! That wasn’t how Heartsong worked.

“Because we…” She picked up the guitar, switching on the transmitter. “We wanted to perform for you. Well… mostly for them. But you too.” Her hands moved, without the help of any guitar program, and the entire square filled with the sound. A few of the ponies gathered in the crowd seemed to blink, glancing around with fresh confusion. Enough noise would disrupt the Siren song, if only for a moment. But they would have to do better than that if they wanted to actually break the spell.

It was a good thing Sunset wasn’t on her own. Brad started to sing. Then Starlight, Trixie, and even Jackie. They’re human. They’re still helping us. Even Jackie, who should’ve had the least birthright to magic of all.

A distant roar went up from somewhere far away, and brilliant light appeared on the horizon. Glowing shapes, speeding towards them through the gloom. Sunset could dimly hear the Siren song getting louder, demanding with evermore urgency that the crowd rush the stage.

But the ponies all around them didn’t listen. They didn’t turn and fight, just froze right where they were, watching.

It was just like the last time—music that came from nowhere, words that were always there when they needed them. Music that reverberated out around the Crystal Empire, with some of the nearby buildings visibly shaking as the sound filled them.

And the sirens appeared. There was no pretending any of them were human this time. Translucent, ethereal shapes rose above the crowd, filling the air with their own music, demanding to be heard.

Their magic was powerful, but their voices couldn’t get nearly as loud as Xavier’s amplifiers.

“Damn if this isn’t working,” he muttered, apparently the only person in the entire Crystal Empire who wasn’t affected by one song or the other.

But Sunset didn’t stop, couldn’t even think about it for fear of losing the tune. The others could only hit things for percussion, and had only her to harmonize. Unless… was that a keyboard? She could hear it, apparently coming from Jackie. The bat wasn’t moving, only standing in place and looking smug.

Sunset could practically see the music around them, a radiant physical force that expanded outward into the square. How am I perceiving an active spell? I don’t even have a horn! But she would have to keep wondering, because the song wasn’t going to tell her.

Above them, the Crystal Heart pulsed one final time with green light, then went blue. The cracks and splinters of crystal vanished in a single, solid piece. Then their song really got loud, as a thousand pony voices joined them.

Could she even see the Sirens anymore? She searched, listening for their discordant voices in the crowd. But there was nothing there.

The song finished a verse later, with what was probably the largest Heartsong in Equestrian history. There might be a million ponies singing with her, their voices so loud that the very snow collecting on the streets melted in a wave of fresh warmth.

The music died, her last few chords of guitar echoing out of a blown-out amp. Apparently the machines hadn’t survived for a second performance.

She heard it again—faintly, from somewhere close by. The Sirens’ unearthly melody echoing through the streets again. But where before the ponies had frozen still to listen, now Sunset could see the faces contorting with disgust. Compared to the music they’d just experienced, what could a melody like that offer?

Sunset turned, glaring up at the spectral forms hovering behind the stage. She wasn’t sure she even had a proper weapon to fight them—whatever magic she’d just used was nothing she could fire at them like a unicorn’s attacks. “Get out,” she said, and her voice echoed out from all around the city, stretched and distorted in different ways by each speaker. “Right now.”

They did.