• 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 3: Man in the Middle

But it wasn’t just from Sunset Shimmer that Jackie extracted her knowledge.

However much she loathed her digital existence, however much she imagined she was a deterministic illusion, a data-corpse of a girl who had lived so long ago—persisting in the machine had its advantages. Knowledge was fractional, divisible, and no longer fundamentally entwined with the processor mechanism as in living humans.

There were many ways to gain knowledge when you were digital. When the information needed to be directly incorporated into the mind and personality, then teaching was done in a similar way. Often with time-manipulation tricks, so years of apparent training could pass without the subject ever feeling bored or overwhelmed.

But sometimes you needed information that hadn’t been anticipated, or information that you didn’t even want to be part of yourself. That was where simple hot swapping came in handy—the distilled wisdom of the gods, on numberless subjects.

It couldn’t be made part of the individual—that was the purpose of schools and accelerated time. But so long as the swap could be kept close by, that was all it took. Every individual had a different number of swaps they could keep at one time without losing access to individual sections. Jackie herself could process about a dozen, which put her in the upper ranks of neural plasticity.

And thanks to Tesla’s accesses, she could get her hands on as many as she wanted. So she spent several subjective hours after Sunset left her behind to visit the largest library, and to flaunt her executive-signed accesses to get copies of swaps she’d only dreamed of having before.

When this is over, I’m going to be the greatest hacker alive. But she archived most of those—architecture information and certificate reverse-engineering could wait for after she completed her task. Though I could probably get far enough away and break their chains over me without much trouble now.

She could do that, except where would she be if she made an enemy of the Tower? She’d never be able to get spare parts, and might not be on the run for hours before some hidden tracker in her body sent the vultures descending on her.

Besides, they’re letting me do something I wanted. I get to be around the aliens. She would be doing it to find some dumb engineer, but she could live with that. She was more than a little curious to meet the reverse equivalent of Sunset Shimmer—a human who had tried to conquer Equestria. We’re not all that different, really.

Jackie gathered all the pony-related knowledge she might need for a field mission, though it was sparse and of dubious quality. There was an entire swap teaching one combat on four legs, and several more on field repair. Even a few on pony medicine, and what little knowledge of their world had been extrapolated so far.

Eventually she had archived about as much as she could get away with without attracting undue attention. There were people who could handle fifty swaps at once, and the policy wasn’t to distribute any to be archived. If she wanted any more, she would have to prove how each one was necessary for her mission, which would probably lose her all the ones she actually wanted.

She wouldn’t be saying goodbye to Sunset Shimmer—the Tower’s satellites would let them stay in touch for her entire mission, even if it was limited to low band text and not full immersion copresence. Besides, it would be better to slip into the “Everfree” while it was still dark. The ponies seemed to have a fear of the dark, and she would exploit it.

So she woke up, and made her way to the quartermaster for a few more supplies. Convincing replicas of Equestrian currency mostly, though there was more as well. A traveling android required little in terms of physical supplies, but to be convincing she would have to carry most of them anyway. Tent, bedroll, typical camping gear that she now knew how to use. The extra strength of a mechanical body would have to compensate for wearing saddlebags with mostly useless contents.

The quartermaster was a stern-looking man with a fleet of hovering drones constantly cataloging, re-shelving, and shuffling things behind him. Every printer in the tent was humming quietly, growing limbs and torsos and rifles all from the same base materials. But Jackie wouldn’t need any of that. I wonder if I could convince him to make me human.

Probably she could, except that it wouldn’t help her mission. Being a pony was the whole point. “So, says here this is your first field assignment,” Sergeant Becker said, tapping two fingers on the invisible spot in the air where the part of the certificate that was public hovered. No organic would be able to see it there, of course.

“Yes,” Jackie said, shifting a little under the load of her new saddlebags. She had been about to leave, but from his eyes on her, she could tell that she wasn’t allowed to do that yet.

“Well, few words of warning. Your body isn’t standard issue. I can’t really say how it works, or its performance tolerances. Actually, I think I’ll have to forget this conversation when we’re done having it…” He looked mildly annoyed at that, though nothing more. “Anyway, be careful with it. I don’t know a single engineer who can fix it if it breaks. And if the damage compromises how you look, well… you’ll be frightening to the locals, won’t you?”

She shrugged. “I’m not doing anything hard. I’ll be back before I get damaged.”

“Says you. One more thing. You’re wired for field nuclear, yeah? RTG in your gut should keep you on your feet for… two decades, give or take. There’s a trade for that, though—you’re running hot. Your body will get less efficient and even shut down for awhile if you get too warm. And if the case gets damaged…” He shook his head. “Well, this place isn’t a shithole like Earth. The locals want it not irradiated. So try not to kill anyone, okay?”

“Sure.” Jackie saluted with one wing. “You got it, coach. I’m ready for the big leagues. Take me off the bench.”

Becker rolled his eyes, then waved her off. He would see the names on her certificates. He would know he couldn’t really keep her around without pissing off some important people. They both did.

She couldn’t really move through the camp without attracting attention, but she did her best to blend in. One of the things she’d obtained from Sunset was the design for a simple coat that would cover most of her body while she traveled, while preventing her from being easily identified. She wore it now, relying on the ident chip to inform every Steel Tower legionnaire of what she was. Friendly fire just wasn’t a thing anymore.

She could see how the Everfree might seem terrifying to the native population, an old-growth forest of strange trees and stranger creatures. All that old wood didn’t seem to be doing it much good against the log-grinders and excavators, which were eating their way deeper and deeper by the hour. This could be a pretty big city by the time we’re done with the whole thing. I wonder what they’re doing with the wood.

But she had a map, and so there was no real danger that she would get lost. After half a kilometer she’d lost sight of Normandy completely, though she could still hear the sound of mechanical saws as trees were devoured. She tuned that out, focusing on the sounds that might advertise danger. The Everfree was supposed to be a particularly supernatural forest, with creatures that could make travel for even experienced wanderers difficult at night.

But Jackie had played more than her fair share of medieval adventure games. When she had an infinite amount of time to explore the digital world, she’d tried almost everything once. She kept a modified rifle in one hoof at almost all times, with marksmanship abilities that she had obtained as a swap from the library. The instant she saw something and couldn’t verify it was a pony, she shot. Creatures with too many limbs, too many eyes, creatures that spouted fire or dribbled acid—they all died just the same. And after a very short time, word had apparently gotten around that Jackie was the superior predator, and she was not accosted again.

Ponyville had a road coming in from the north. After watching it for a time to make sure that there were no ponies who would see her, she emerged from the Everfree and onto the road, and took a moment to take stock.

A cobblestone path seemed to stretch as far as she could see under the moonlight. Bits of twig and wood were caught in her coat, which had torn at least once, and bits had even wrapped themselves around her mane. Jackie swore in annoyance, and pulled out the ones she could. Okay, maybe cutting right through it all hadn’t been a good idea. But it didn’t hurt—what were trees going to do to a mechanical pony, anyway?

Her destination remained fixed in her mind: the Ponyville train station. She needed to get to Motherlode before the war got going in earnest and the infrastructure broke down. So she started walking, playing a few of her favorite songs to herself, and watching as a little ranch house surrounded by an orchard gradually came into view.

It was almost dawn by then—her arrival was planned to be mere minutes before the morning western express arrived—and that was apparently late enough that a pair of farmers were already up.

This was the closest she’d seen ponies in their “natural habitat” before—real ponies, with honest-to-god sweat running down their backs. An adorable orange one with a stetson hat was kicking trees, and its little spawn ran around with baskets underneath. Somehow, the absurd method seemed to be working, because full baskets littered the ground behind them.

“Howdy, stranger!” the orange pony called, stopping in place beside a nearby tree. “Never seen an honest day’s work before?”

“Not in a long time,” Jackie found herself saying, taking a few steps closer to the fence. From the look of it, it ran most of the way into Ponyville, with trees going all the way to the stream she’d seen from the map. “Sorry to bother you.” She started walking again.

“Hey!” the pony called. “Welcome to Ponyville!” Something flew through the air. Jackie’s threat-detection system had pegged the object as an apple before it even crossed the fence, and she’d calculated the perfect trajectory to catch it in a few moments more. She opened her wings, caught it in their simulated flesh membrane, and looked back in confusion.

“Free sample,” the orange pony declared. “You won’t find anything better in Ponyville. And I know you bat types like fruit.”

“We… right.” Jackie shrugged, then took a bite.

She hadn’t had real food since the mind she’d been taken from had died. It was… less… than the idealized perfection of the Infinite Realm. Some of the juice from inside squirted as she chewed, and bits got stuck in her teeth. The flavor wasn’t perfect either—but in a way, its flaws made her slow down to appreciate them. It had been a long time since Jackie tasted a less than perfect bit of fruit before. That was bold in its own way.

“My family has a stall in town,” the pony continued. “My brother Big Mac will be the one running it today. But you tell ‘im I sent you and I’m sure he’ll give you a great deal.”

“Thanks,” Jackie said, setting off again. A little slower than before as she chewed. Full cybernetic bodies like hers could eat, though only the most expensive actually did anything with the food. Because she’d eaten, she’d feel a modest thirst, which would eventually drive her to drink enough to wash out her insides so that the food wouldn’t start rotting there.

But she could still taste it and enjoy it in the meantime. And wonder just how different the apple might’ve been if she had still had her real body. What’s the real difference between an organic mind eating this, and a digital one?

There was little time to rest for Sunset Shimmer, and less for Equestria.

Sunset could spend the subjective equivalent of several weeks in the few shards of the Infinite Realm that had come with them, where every one of the soldiers and many more she couldn’t see walking around the camp spent their time. But as she quickly discovered, the desolation of the Steel Tower side existed only to those who were trapped in physical reality alone.

It had been naive of her to assume that the Builders would either walk around on the outside, or travel completely into the worlds they had captured and tamed. Once Sunset was done with Jackie and her friend had wandered off to the library to get supplies for her trip, Sunset herself spent some time wandering through the bars and neighborhoods of the soldiers.

They really weren’t that different than any invading army she had read about. Just like the ancient griffons who had once tried to take Equestria for themselves, they had brought their families. Stored inside the space of a single tent was a city of at least a million people—and most of them weren’t even soldiers.

“You’ve been on the outside,” said a little girl, who stopped her on the edge of a seaside pier and tugged on her arm. “How is it?”

Sunset Shimmer was so confused by the child that she actually stopped walking. A little crowd of children formed around her, not just the one. “How can you tell, sweetie?”

“Your words,” said the girl. “You’re using a language package I don’t have. And I have all of them.”

“Oh.” Sunset blushed, though privately she wondered how they could talk at all if the child didn’t know her language. But her own curiosity extended to other subjects first. She’d never been close to a Builder child before. Some part of her hadn’t thought they even had them. They were so intelligent, so advanced, they probably grew that way spontaneously.

With an effort of will, she switched to English. There was very little difficulty in it, much less than the conscious effort it took her to remember the Old Ponish runes she had memorized during her time as Celestia’s personal student. Language was a setting, it was like her swimsuit or her colorful hair. Just something else to reconfigure.

“Everybody says that there’s no radiation out there,” said the little girl. “They say we’ll be able to live there one day. That it’s our new home.”

“It ain’t,” argued a little boy, wearing only a swimsuit and his skin darkly tanned from many hours on the beach. There were so many of the Builders around, but they let their children roam like it was a small town. Weren’t they worried about crime? “It’s already lived in, my mom says. She works for the king.”

“Well, lady? What do you think?”

“I think…” Sunset pondered for a moment. “I think there’s a fight going on right now, and nobody knows how it will end. If we win, there might be some space for humans to live. But we have to win it first.” She started walking again, hoping she wouldn’t upset them too much. But simply answering their question had been enough of a distraction that they were no longer watching her too closely.

She spent a day or two in the bars that catered to off-duty soldiers, listening to what they had to say about her home. If she was going to learn that Equestria was in danger of being invaded, this would be the place.

But that wasn’t what she learned. In her wandering, she met plenty of soldiers that saw themselves only as heroes—people that would help an innocent nation throw off its invaders. When she dared to ask a few what they would do when the war was over and whether they’d expect land or something in return, she got only suspicion and tight lips. After a few hours of wandering around, she found more and more of the bars knew to recognize her, and soldiers would answer only simple questions.

I’m not very good at this, am I?

“Hey, you,” a familiar voice called from down the street.

Sunset stopped walking, turning to let the knight approach. “Sir Bradley? I thought you were on perpetual duty or something.”

“I am, so what?” The knight had removed his helmet, but otherwise looked basically the same as when she’d seen him last. If the crowds of soldiers had looked nervous around her, they parted around Bradley. He was younger than many of them, but that didn’t matter here. Age was just another setting. “I guess you’ve made enough people nervous that they called the local stooge to check on you. Make sure you weren’t subverting the war effort.”

But Sunset was too stuck on how the two of them were conversing. She rested one hand on his shoulder, gesturing around them wildly. “Bradley, how are you on this pier if you’re on duty in Normandy?”

The knight looked confused. Then he grinned suddenly, rolling his eyes. “Right, right. I forget you’re not human. Or… weren’t human?” He shrugged. “What is human, anymore? There are people who live in construction drones. People who live in tunnel diggers, and reactors, and manufactories. You’re more human than they are, even if you weren’t when you were organic.”

She wasn’t quite sure what to say to that. The Builders saw her as one of them—should she be flattered, or offended? I did terrible things. Their king would kill me if he knew what I had done to his subjects. She now knew the man, knew that Richard was a good king. He had sensed the infection in his civilization in a way Princess Celestia had not. Maybe I’m better off as one of them. Maybe lots of ponies would be.

But however friendly this knight was, however polite and helpful, she couldn’t forget. Sir Bradley is one of Richard’s knights. If he ever learns what I did, then the king will find out, and I’ll be executed. I have to watch my words. “So how are you here and in Normandy at the same time?” Sunset asked. “Something you can teach me?”

“Easy,” he said. “Everyone does it, or… I thought everyone did. Augmented copresence is… well, basic stuff. But you’re new to the outside world too, and they don’t teach it much in the Realm. Not really a need. Join me outside, and I’ll show you on the way to your meeting.”

“My meeting to…”

“Oh, right. Normandy security council. Tesla wants you as his advisor. Our opposition has the older sister to some human-gone-pony the moon bastards got over here while our trousers were done…” He seemed to realize just how insane that sentence sounded about halfway through, because he started to laugh. “Anyway, all three factions will be there. Tesla representing us, some pink pony named Twilight for the natives, and the opposition…” He lowered his voice. “Admiral Alexa Colven.” He shrugged. “Get topside, we can walk there together. Policy is for someone as important as you to have an escort when it comes to the official stuff. Richard wants it to be one of us, and since our captain is being deployed…” He trailed off. “I’m not allowed to talk about it. Just… yeah, I’ll find you.” He vanished.

Sunset stared out at the place he’d been. If he’s this talkative around me when he’s trying to be friendly, maybe I should try to get him drunk. That would be some accomplishment for creatures that couldn’t really get drunk.

She woke up on one of the plain metal cots, with just enough space between her and the next one to slide out and onto her feet. Despite the coldness of the room, the lack of pillows or blankets, she didn’t feel even a slight soreness. We don’t really sleep. I was charging, that’s not the same thing.

She found Sir Bradley waiting just outside the girls’ tent, shuffling about like he’d actually been too embarrassed to go in. Even though there’s nobody naked inside. Their bodies didn’t sweat or produce other odors, so they needed far less clothing and bathing than the humans who pretended to live used in the Realm. “Hey, so the meeting’s in there.” He gestured across the invisible line, where a building that looked far more living than anything on their side had been erected. Sculpted stone in three stories, huge glass plates, and elegant steel curves.

There were guards outside it—human guards clutching steaming cups in their hands, humans that clanked in metal armor, laughed to each other, humans that had spent much of last night singing old war-songs and drinking cider. “Woah.”

“I know, it’s pretty shit we couldn’t get it. But building to organics hasn’t really been necessary since… well, forever. Our buildings are too uncomfortable for them. No aircon, too dark, that kind of thing. Richard says it’s polite to let the UEF host. I’m sure it is, but that doesn’t make it suck less.”

It wasn’t a long walk. But as they crossed, Bradley showed her the basics of what he’d described as “augmented copresence.” The builders genuinely could be in two places at once, overlaying selective aspects of the realm’s shards onto the physical world.

“Most people just use it to meet and talk with friends or staff who aren’t physical. As many or as few as you want, and your body will automatically interpret actions meant for them and keep them virtual.”

“Which explains why there are so many people just… standing around, staring at nothing for hours,” Sunset supplied. “Because they’re… doing that.”

“Right.” Bradley moved one hand through the air, snatching her control interface. It was completely virtual, but she’d given him access for this little instruction. Besides, the knight was obviously trustworthy. He’d probably have already told her by accident if he planned to do any hacking. “But that’s only the basics. Level two is… something more like this.” The world shifted… the world on their side of the line, anyway. Rows of identical tents and square buildings transformed to something that would’ve fit perfectly in the realistic fantasy sim the Tower had come from. Huge, luxurious tents spread further than the true space, with bright banners of their houses billowing in the breeze. Massive creatures covered in armor—the Earth equivalent of ponies—grazed placidly just outside of camp, in a place that had been towering trees moments before.

The solemn soldiers doing their patrols were replaced with huge crowds of scientists, scholars, families, and stranger creatures that filled the sky above the camp. It was as though their humble side had become a festival day in Canterlot in an instant. “Celestia above,” Sunset exclaimed, panting. “Turn it off!”

Bradley did. The rows of identical buildings returned, the soldiers became plainly dressed and boring, and the sky emptied of all but the clouds. “That’s what most of us are seeing when we’re not on combat duty. The reason our buildings all look so shit to the organics is that they don’t know how to see.” His grin widened. “And there’s no reason it has to be the same for every one of us. You’ve got total control of how you see it. If some designs don’t suit you, you can do the theming differently, exclude certain people who piss you off… so long as they’re not duty-related.” He tapped his chest with two fingers. “Duty is a cruel mistress. Having to do real work, terrible.”

A priority message appeared in Sunset’s vision, flashing with the tiny extended-armed logo of the Technocratic Order. It didn’t wait for her to open it, because of course Tesla had no respect. “I’m waiting for you, Sunset. The primitives have resorted to a level of insult I hadn’t imagined. Get in here before they convince the natives we all belong in toasters. If they do, you get to go in first.”

They reached a set of automatic doors, which slid open for them as they approached. Inside were more marines, and a woman behind the desk that looked as organic as everyone else. Sunset tried not to stare, but every one of them was a new fascination—gray hairs, bodies affected by age—but not as much as she might’ve expected. Now that she thought about it, she couldn’t actually picture any old organic Builder. None of the guards had been, or any of the ones working the machines. They all looked young, exactly like the Tower’s staff.

Sunset would file that away to ask them the first chance she got. But she didn’t think fraternizing with the “other side” would be much appreciated right now. And would probably break her cover too.

“Just down the hall,” said the secretary, eyeing the two of them the way a pony might’ve looked at a pair of dragons who had just walked into their library. Sunset tried not to feel offended by it, but that was a lot of effort. These humans had a factionalism that translated to fear of each other. How can one species become two? Were the pony tribes… no, because we don’t hate each other. They didn’t anymore. In fairness, Equestria’s tribes hadn’t always been peaceful.

“I’m not going to be able to go much further,” Bradley said, as they traveled a hallway lined with framed photographs. Actual paper, not the virtual ones that just hung in the air as in Tower buildings. Mostly they seemed to be the interiors, though some looked shockingly like they were taken in space. Obviously impossible. No magic up there to survive. Maybe they have something like the Infinite Realm? But how would it work if their minds aren’t digital?

For all that Sunset had lived with these humans for what felt like years of time, she didn’t actually understand how they worked. Their history was even more confusing, and the history she’d studied seemed so obviously doctored that she didn’t know where to begin with understanding it all.

“I’ll wait for you out here.” The knight gestured to a final set of doors, one that was already cracked open. Sunset could make out voices from inside it, one in particular that seemed frighteningly familiar to her. “I’m sure you won’t need my help. But if something terrible happens, know you’ve got a friend outside.”

Sunset nodded in thanks, then slid past him into the conference room.

The ground was projecting an image of Normandy, an image that even the organics seemed to be able to see. The two ponies in particular watched it with awe, though they looked like they were trying to hide it.

Sunset nearly came to a dead halt as she saw Twilight Sparkle, sitting with her hooves folded on the other side of a table. Twilight Sparkle, the apprentice to Celestia who had been only a child when Sunset did most of her studying. Twilight Sparkle, who was now an Alicorn. The title of princess wasn’t just a title.

The pain of it didn’t make it to Sunset’s face. She could shut off her muscles there, and keep back the tears, the betrayal. You promised me you’d teach me everything you knew, Celestia. Then when I discovered the truth about Alicorns you wouldn’t share it with me. Said it was too dangerous for anypony in Equestria. But look at her. Celestia had lied. Ultimately, it hadn’t been the entire population Celestia had judged unworthy—it was Sunset Shimmer personally.

“What do you think you’re doing staring like that?” Tesla’s lips didn’t move from the other end of the room, and he didn’t look at her with anything but mild curiosity. Even so, his voice over private radio was furious. “Get over here right now. Whatever this pony is to you is irrelevant to our conversations here. Sit down and make yourself useful.”

They noticed? Sunset thought, her mind suddenly racing. How had they known? What had they seen? But looking around the room for ideas would only make her discomfort more obvious. She hurried over to the empty chair beside Tesla, and sat down as gracefully as her body would let her.

“Welcome to our last participant,” Twilight Sparkle said. Her childhood lisp was gone, along with her old innocence. Sunset could almost see the little filly’s face—so young she’d barely been able to read. But she’d shown enough potential that Celestia had taken her in just like Sunset Shimmer. “Assistant to the Technocratic Order Seer...”

“Natasha,” Sunset supplied, her voice robotic. Using a default voice program would make her sound strange to the ponies in the room, and probably the humans too, but at least that way she wouldn’t get emotional.

“Natasha…” Twilight scribbled her fake name in a notebook. “Well, welcome to all of you. This is my captain of the guard here at Normandy, Amber Sands. The rest of you have already met, I take it?”

Sunset glanced across to the other end of the room, where two more organic humans were resting. One of them looked fairly ordinary, a woman with bright hair and a labcoat. The other… made her pause. The air above him was surrounded with red text, warnings so important they overrode her augmented reality settings. “DR. THOMAS SAMIL,” they read. “THIS INDIVIDUAL IS CONSIDERED EXTREMELY DANGEROUS. DO NOT RETURN TO A CENTRAL REALM NODE PRIOR TO A LEVEL THREE DIAGNOSTIC SCREENING. DO NOT ENGAGE UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES. OPERATE IN FULL AUTISTIC MODE ONLY.”

“Stars and stones,” Sunset muttered, looking sidelong at Tesla. “Who the hell is that?”

But Tesla ignored the question, just like he’d ignored so many other things that Sunset did. “We know each other,” he said out loud. “We’re ready, let’s get this over with. There’s no reason you needed to go so high in our chain of command for something this routine. One of the king’s knights would’ve sufficed.”

“Unfortunately…” Twilight cut him off, glaring at him to be silent. “Celestia’s instructions were clear. If our factions can’t work together in a conference room, we’ll never be able to work together on the battlefield.” She glanced to the side. “If we don’t need further introductions… Amber, let’s start with the guard rotation. Go over policy in its entirety, please.”

Sunset could feel herself losing interest before Twilight even finished giving instructions. But she gave them, and then her first meeting with a monster began.