• 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 26: Digest

The next few days were a blur to Sunset Shimmer. Most of what had to be done involved her very little. First came the supplies to the front, refreshing the troops that were fighting off invasion from the south. A few days without food had crippled morale, but they had kept fighting.

The city itself had to be made secure, but Sunset had little to do with that. She wasn’t a warrior, so she didn’t join the squads of ponies tracking down the last of the changeling-like creatures and fighting them off. It was always fighting—they never surrendered, even against superior odds.

On the third day, Princess Cadance gathered together many of the city’s most influential ponies in the palace for a ceremony to honor the city’s newest saviors. Apparently there was a new statue going up beside the one of a baby dragon, but Sunset hadn’t stopped to look and blushed whenever she thought about it.

“These brave heroes returned our Empire to us,” she said, to a room packed with nobles, generals, and diplomats. “They will forever be remembered with gratitude in the histories of the Empire. If everypony here could show their bravery, then we would be certain to win our war against the Father of Dragons.”

They’d been dressed by a royal tailor, even Sunset herself in a stylish almost-dress that mixed garnet and citrine to complement her hair. The pony tailor had sewn her cutie mark on the side, as though it were meant to be a substitute.

Thoughtful, though she wasn’t sure she wanted it.

Cutest by far was what they’d done for Sir Bradley—they’d actually got him a set of guardsmen armor, with a pin for his own cutie mark. He still had the rifle, though it had been modified over the last few days to actually let him fire it. And he had, working with the teams clearing the city of the remaining invaders.

Sunset waited in the back of the line, hiding just behind the stage while the others were called up one at a time. Princess Cadence knew of them all by name, and apparently knew their individual contributions as well.

And she was last in line, right behind Jackie.

The bat had refused a set of armor, though she hadn’t said no to a fancy dark dress and a crystal circlet over her head. Sunset could practically taste the satisfaction she felt at being able to dress up, even if she couldn’t understand it. You always seemed so masculine. Why would you want to wear a dress?

She wasn’t brave enough to ask, and Jackie wasn’t volunteering. But while she couldn’t talk to any of the others without attracting attention, Jackie looked up and her voice came over the radio. “Bet Richard must be fuckin’ beside himself over this. You just gave him the PR victory of the war. Knight of the Tower and Technocrat Mystic save the whole fuckin’ town.”

“Empire,” she corrected, without even thinking. She wasn’t even really looking at Jackie right now, just staring out through the crack, listening for the next name. Xavier went out, his sleeve pinned to conceal the missing arm.

“Whatever.” Jackie rolled her eyes. “Come to think of it, there were… what is that, fifty-thousand Federation soldiers? Most of their army was here, wasn’t it? You saved them too. He’s really gonna owe you. Owe all of us.”

So that was where Jackie was going. It was about their debt. “I guess so. I haven’t actually talked to him. I guess I… probably should. Tell him what happened here.”

“Fuckin’ yeah you should!” Jackie bounced up on her hooves, suddenly energetic. “Make sure you mention my heroic arrival in that plan! Oh, and… how helpful Bree was in that Broadway thing we did. Brigid Curie. You can even mention her first.”

“Why?” Now it was her turn to be confused. It wasn’t like the earth pony hadn’t helped, though she had probably been the least important element in the song. Even Trixie was better friends with Sunset, and had more to contribute.

“Because she thinks she’s going to go to jail forever as soon as king Richard gets here. Depending on what happened to Tesla, she still might. He could’ve protected her. With him gone, we have to.”

“You care that much?”

Jackie nodded. “She’s my friend.”

“Good enough for me.”

“Jacqueline Kessler, please come forward!” Princess Cadance’s voice rang out in the throne room, without anything in the way of speakers or other magical assistance.

“This brave pony before you had a difficult task when she arrived in the Crystal Empire—she had to reach the castle through an army of your friends. But where others might not have hesitated to take lives in the…”

Sunset tuned out everything, interfacing with the repeater node in Bradley’s ATV. It was still working—the invaders hadn’t done anything beyond fencing it off for future dissection.

It was a mistake to think Sir Bradley would’ve done it. He probably doesn’t want to face the king right now. Either that, or there just wasn’t hardware for someone without implants to use their network. Considering they’d been deployed around the Federation, that was a real possibility.

Sunset Shimmer reached deep into her memory for the program the king had given her on their first visit, then executed.

The world fuzzed around her, and she felt her sense of time begin to accelerate. It started as a heat behind her ears, along with shallow, rapid breathing. But time was moving so sluggish now that she probably wouldn’t finish taking a single breath before it was over.

“Sunset.” There was a man beside her, a man wearing armor and carrying a sword. His body showed no transparency, though she didn’t have to guess about it being copresence. There was nothing else it could be. “I wasn’t expecting you to contact me. I’m glad to see you’re still alive.”

How friendly. She couldn’t move herself, not physically. But maybe she could… yes. Just a little datamancy, and she could layer her own projection onto the simulation. A projection of herself, just like the one she’d be using in the realm. They could talk, while Princess Cadance’s ceremony went on at a snail’s pace.

“The corruption wasn’t in your administration, it was in theirs.” Sunset didn’t even hesitate. “It was my opposite, Ada. She was a Siren—ancient Equestrian mythical creature banished to Earth.”

The king sheathed his sword, folding his arms. “I’m afraid that isn’t entirely true. Tesla—one of my oldest and most trusted friends… was compromised by the enemy. He’s been working behind my back on a dozen different secret projects for decades now, slave to that bastard Samil. But not anymore.” He looked down, eyes dark and resolved. “Tell me, Sunset Shimmer. What has befallen the Crystal Empire? What information was so critical that you used my zero-day program to make this call.”

She told him, reciting everything that had happened since they went underground. She spared most of the details, except around the knight. The king needed to know.

“That makes two of my best,” Richard said, when they reached that part. “Lost the captain of my guard, Sir Gray the same way. But the Equestrians can’t poach from me so easily. Organics rot, and cortical recorders are cheap. They’ll be back.”

Where was all the talk about the superiority of machine-life, and the backward stupidity of the Federation? He’s not Tesla. Maybe Tesla wasn’t even Tesla. But now that she thought about it, she couldn’t remember reading anything from Richard suggesting that he was so rigid. He was better than that.

She went on with her story, all while Princess Cadance finished the word “urgency.” Eventually she reached their final defense of the city, and she showed him a few recordings she’d made of the event. She didn’t think a human would’ve believed it without the proof, and that was probably a good idea.

“You got them all out,” Richard said, once she was finished. “All those Federation refugees. It’s not uploading a city, but it’s close. I’m glad to hear this from you before my meeting with Celestia in… a few minutes. It would be unfortunate if she thanked me for something I didn’t know had happened.”

It sounded like the king was just about done with her. But that was unfortunate, because Sunset wasn’t finished with him. She didn’t raise her voice or get angry, but she didn’t just bow and submit. “I was working with Tesla,” Sunset said, before he could vanish. “If he’s dead—”

“Not dead, though I suspect he’ll wish he was.” He trailed off. “The Crown will honor any agreement,” Richard said, waving one hand dismissively. “You saved the pony refugees from their own monster. Even if your battle was insignificant in the war, you’ll probably be one of its greatest heroes. What was he promising you?”

He was holding me hostage with the threat of telling you what I did. If I tell you, you’ll kill me. But the king hadn’t asked about her past, not even once. Maybe the secret was dead with Tesla.

So Sunset lied. The king listened, didn’t even blink.

“That’s it?”

She nodded. Should she have thought this out a little better?

The king snapped his fingers, and a set of signed certificates appeared in front of her.

“Done. But… I don’t know when you’ll be able to honor those requisition requests. We’re still deployed. My troops should reach the Crystal Empire in time to fortify it against the dragons, but they’re… greatly reduced. Tesla’s sabotage cost nearly all our resources on this planet. Rather like the Federation in that way, I suppose.”

He glanced up, frowning away towards nothing. “Oh. Out of time. Apologies, I have to cut this conversation short. Celestia’s messenger has arrived.”

You mean you don’t want to keep talking long enough for me to ask for more. But she didn’t call him out—Sunset didn’t want more. But for the ponies she cared about, she would take everything they were due.

The illusion vanished, and time caught up with her. Sunset began panting, feeling the searing air as she exhaled. Her few seconds of accelerated thought were a costly expenditure in energy.

“Natasha Wagner,” Cadance called. “Please join us.”

Sunset Shimmer passed through the curtain into the palace’s great hall. It wasn’t just the benches that were packed with ponies—there were hundreds sitting on the floor, and more packed in the balconies and on every bit of railing and support they could find.

Sunset winced at all the eyes on her, knowing full well what they were about to learn. She hadn’t spoken to the princess once since the end of the Sirens’ rule, but she knew. She just knew.

“Natasha here is worthier of praise than anypony else today,” Cadance said, once Sunset had settled into the indicated spot beside her. “It was she who recognized the Sirens for what they were—she who freed these others. She who devised the plan that ultimately defeated them. You might conclude—correctly—that every one of you owes their life to her.”

Princess Cadance lowered her head—not quite a bow, but a gesture of respect. The assembled ponies knew no such subtlety, however. The whole room shook as they dropped, heads going to the floor in their displays of respect. Starlight and Trixie bowed too, Starlight smirking all the way. You know how stupid this is and you’re still doing it.

“It is on behalf of all the Empire that I bestow on her the Image of the Crystal Heart, the highest honor our empire can give. There is only one other—dragon, who holds it.” She levitated something off a felt sheet—a miniature model of the Crystal Heart below them. It even glowed the same way as she pinned it to Sunset’s breast.

“Thank you,” she said, voice hoarse. She tried to put her thoughts into something more cogent, but… nothing came. “I only did what I would’ve done for my own family.”

At least this stupid performance was over.

Except… except the princess didn’t look done. She wasn’t getting down, wasn’t looking away. She just smiled, then went on. “One more thing—we want to make sure the honors go onto the shoulders of the right pony. Many of you—I suspect all of you—are aware that creatures from another world have become ponies. What you may not know is that the reverse has happened as well. There are ponies who look like humans. And one of those is…”

The curtains rippled out from behind her, and Sunset felt a sudden wave of heat from just outside her perception.

She didn’t have to turn around when she heard the voice. Even after all these years, she recognized it perfectly. “Sunset Shimmer,” Princess Celestia said. “A previous student of mine, one who saw the danger of this war to come and tried to prepare for it in her own way.”

Ponies were bowing again. They dropped right down onto their knees, gasps of surprise and shock. More than a little confusion from Sunset herself. Weren’t you with the king?

She dared a slight glance sideways—was that a smirk on Celestia’s face? Had she already been with Richard? Was Sunset getting pranked again the instant she had been identified?

But Celestia had also not told the world she was a criminal who had defied her, so…

“It seems there was more wisdom in her choice than I gave her credit for,” Celestia said, once the second round of bowing was over. “It is a pleasure to have her returned to Equestria at last.”

Then the party started.

It didn’t last terribly long—an invading army was on their way, including the Father of Dragons himself. Anypony with strategic relevance was needed to make those preparations. Sunset even caught sight of Princess Twilight, and some of her friends among the ponies waiting, though they didn’t have much to say.

The party overflowed from the great hall, with ponies packing the space beneath the palace for song and celebration. Mostly over their freedom—none of the ponies outside said a word to Sunset, or seemed to recognize her. But Sunset didn’t mind. It was enough to have been useful.

But once the ceremony was over, there was one pony she couldn’t escape from. And she didn’t try. “Princess,” Sunset said, as ponies poured out of the great hall towards the promise of food and drink. “I didn’t think I’d—”

Princess Celestia was one of the few ponies that didn’t seem small compared to her. Without anything like Sir Bradley’s armor, Sunset herself felt small by comparison. “We often don’t imagine where our future will take us, Sunset Shimmer. But often that place is precisely where we’re needed most.”

“But…” Sunset hesitated, her voice halting. “You… after I left. You sounded like you hated me. Like you’d be furious with me… forever.” She looked around, to see if anypony else was listening in. But she couldn’t see anyone. Not even Starlight Glimmer or Trixie were nearby. “I thought you’d want me in Tartarus or something.”

“There was… a time.” Celestia hesitated. “When I was less understanding of differences like yours. But I have come to see in the years since that flexibility is important, maybe the most important virtue. Besides…” She grinned slyly, sipping at her wine. “It pays to be right. If you had returned under different circumstances, you might’ve had a different welcome. But walking back into Equestria during the war you expected, just in time to save a city of ponies… that has earned you a little tolerance. The interesting question now is: what will you do with it?”

It wasn’t a rhetorical question. Sunset could feel the Princess’s eyes on her, fierce and unblinking. She didn’t give Sunset the chance to look away and escape.

“I, uh…” She winced. “I’m not sure it matters quite yet. The Father of Dragons is still coming. I won’t be able to help much with him.”

“No, you won’t.” Celestia didn’t try to dress it up, but she also didn’t sound disappointed or angry. She was only stating a fact. “I’m worried that all the magic in Equestria may struggle against him. But that is a problem for his arrival. What I do know is that our cause is a better one. That is what will grant us an ultimate victory, and safety for Equestria.”

Is that really the only reason Celestia thinks we’ll win? Because we’re right?

“So I’ll ask again,” Celestia said, with only a hint of sharpness. “When we win, what will you do?”

There was no easing the question, no offering suggestions that might allow her to escape with minimum offence. Just watchful eyes that didn’t even seem to blink.

Sunset had no choice but to answer. “I’ll… get bodies for my friends, and try to build somewhere safe for them. It’s what I owe them, after everything I put them through.”

Sunset couldn’t have imagined the Alicorn could understand her answer. But if Celestia had any confusion, she didn’t express it. “Then you have learned the most important lesson of leadership. I’m sorry I couldn’t teach you, but maybe… maybe you never needed me.” She walked away.

Sunset had no more awkward experiences at the party. She spent much of it with the humans, who were clearly out-of-place and given a wide window by the ponies all around them. It didn’t matter that one of them was a pony now, gold armor and all.

But maybe Brad just wasn’t interested in being social. At least that meant Sunset could get him alone easily.

“I hear you talked to the king,” he said, from where he sat on the edge of a balcony. His perch looked down on the party below, the streets still thick with Crystal Ponies. This might be their last night to relax before the invaders arrived, so it was hard for Sunset to judge them.

She wondered how many of the Federation’s humans were mixed in with that crowd. Alexi was down there somewhere, freed from Siren mind control. If she survived the coming battle, Sunset intended to make sure that her friend Jackie got to collect on her promise. But for now, it was the final moment of calm before the terrible storm.

“I did,” she said, smiling weakly. “Don’t worry, he wasn’t upset with you.”

Sir Bradley laughed. “I’m not so sure I believe that. One of his closest servants going organic? Not that… there’s ever been a treason like that before. It wasn’t possible.”

“Weeelllll.” Sunset settled into a chair beside him, resting one hand on his back. He didn’t protest or pull away, which was good since she wasn’t sure how she would’ve reacted. The chair itself was hugely undersized for her, but at least she wasn’t heavy enough to break it. “He said that the same thing had happened to another one of his knights. Some… gray pony… but he didn’t seem angry. Said that he would get you back eventually. Something to do with a cortical recorder.”

Bradley looked up, meeting her eyes. He laughed, this time more genuinely. “A cortical recorder. That makes it sound like he wants me to live out my whole pony lifespan before I’m human again.”

“What a tragedy,” Sunset said, rolling her eyes. “I can’t imagine how you’ll survive the humiliation.”

“It’s not that,” Bradley said, wincing slightly at her reaction. “There’s nothing wrong with…” He took a deep breath, and she could see from the position of his ears that he was embarrassed about something. “The lack of a digital interface is something that can be easily fixed. A few software revisions, some new hardware… that’ll be fixed when the war is over. Which… I guess happens in the next few days one way or the other. Maybe it’s a moot point anyway. Maybe we’re all dead.”

He looked back down at the celebrating ponies below, his wings opening and closing a few times in agitation. Sunset knew from long experience with humans that they probably would’ve seen him as cute. Maybe they would’ve pitied him. But Sunset didn’t see ponies the same way. She saw a tall, handsome stallion, who had fought bravely for the Crystal Empire even when he didn’t understand their plan. One of the bravest stallions she’d ever met.

“But—” she prompted.

“But I don’t want to be stuck as a pony when the people I care about are something else,” he finished. “You, Sunset. You’re human. That’s what I should be. I thought… I always planned, when this war was over… well, maybe you’d want to be part of a great house. Mine.”

Sunset shivered, clutching the railing tight in front of her. Under different circumstances, a comment like that might’ve amounted to a proposal. Like this… well, it obviously wasn’t. But it was close enough.

“Knights are… allowed? To do that?”

He nodded. “Most of the others are much older than I am. They were old enough to have children to go digital when everyone flipped the switch. Not me, though. Guess that’s… possible again. If I was interested.”

But not with me, Sunset thought. She nearly said so, but held back. There was no reason to ruin the last few hours of celebration before the enemy arrived with negativity like that.

“I have plans…” Sunset began. “Some things you might be interested in. I spoke to King Richard, and he made some promises to me. I’m guessing a good king like him is going to honor them.”

Bradley nodded. “Sure. Not always the way you expect, but somehow. What did you have in mind?”

“There’s these, uh… huge machines.” She would’ve sent him a picture, but as easy as cortical recorders might be, he didn’t have one yet. The Tower’s forces hadn’t actually arrived. “They mine a lot, and then they make things. Well, there’s one kind that’s specialized for making bodies.”

“You…” His voice faltered. “He agreed to give you a fabrication cell? How? No, wait, I know how. Equestria’s gigantic and you’re drowning in natural resources. Why? You already have a body.”

She hesitated. How much did Sir Bradley know about her crimes? Tesla was… something like dead now. If she said nothing, her past might die with him. But after what they’d survived together, she couldn’t bring herself to lie.

“A long time ago, I hurt a lot of people. I didn’t realize it—didn’t mean to. But I did. Now I plan on making it up to them. Taking… all the people I hurt and letting them live again. Starting with Twilight…” She clutched at the empty spot around her neck where her necklace ought to be.

“They’ll need lots of help if they’re going to rebuild. Somepony like me. Maybe you’d like to go there.” She lowered her voice, feeling her cheeks get warmer. “I guess you’re stuck for bodies, but I’m not. I plan on making a pony one too, since most of the people I’m helping will probably want to be ponies at first. If you want to try a relationship… that would be the place.”

“I need to see to my household,” Bradley said. “See that their minds are safely returned to the Realm. But after that… it’s possible the king might indulge me. You’re building what amounts to a colony for the Steel Tower. He might be interested to see how it does. Maybe he’ll think it deserves an official representative.”

“I’d like that.”

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