• 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 4: Past Permutations

Jackie didn’t have the time to visit the Ponyville market, unfortunately. As much as there was some part of her that wanted to vanish into the native civilization and never surface again, she knew that was impossible. Not only that, but Jackie hadn’t lasted as long as she had with poor survival instincts. She could feel the imminent conflict. Thanks to her past experience, she also knew that the best way to survive a war was to make herself someone her government couldn’t afford to lose. Doing some mission for the Steel Tower meant she would be invaluable until she completed it.

After that… well, she gave it even odds that setting her free would be with a bullet unless she was careful.

“Just the one ticket, young mare?” asked the pony behind the counter. “That’s an awfully long way for a pony as young as yourself to be going alone. Are you sure you wouldn’t rather go somewhere closer at hoof? Canterlot’s lovely, and the express will be here in an hour.”

“No, Appleloosa.” Jackie tapped one hoof on the counter, a little annoyed. She had lived so long in the deathless world of the Infinite Realm that having ponies suddenly concerned for her life was more annoying than anything else. I’m an adult, geez. And a stranger. Why do you care what happens to me?

“I’m serious,” the clerk insisted, flicking her tail in agitation. “There’s a war on, young mare. Or there will be. Now’s not the time to go wandering. If you haven’t heard…”

“I’ve heard,” she said. “I’ve got family on the west coast, okay? This is the first leg of the trip to see them again.” That by itself wasn’t enough to shut the salespony up—they wanted to know where her family lived, what they did, how long the trip should take. Jackie delayed on the first question long enough to make a network connection with Sunset.

“I need a plausible story,” she said over the radio, time rapidly accelerating within the confines of her mind. She couldn’t do it for as long with a nuclear body—there was already competition for her heatsinks, and her body was small enough to have fewer to begin with. But a little quick-thinking for conversation was still well-within her abilities.

“You’re from Seaddle,” Sunset suggested. “You were studying in Manehattan when you got the news, and so you’re trying to get back as quick as possible.” Jackie dutifully repeated all the lies. Eventually she’d satisfied the ticketmaster's curiosity, and he was filling out the form.

“Name, young mare?”

“Moire Pattern,” she said, passing over the bits.

Soon enough she was clutching her ticket, clambering onto the train, and waving goodbye to Ponyville. The train took her again through the cheerful little orchards, and she tried her best to spot Applejack’s farmhouse. No luck, though.

The trip took a few hours. Jackie wanted to find her way to the dining car and flirt with as many of the aliens as possible, but that would’ve made her attract attention. She’d already had enough eyes on her just getting onto this train. Once I get lost in a big city I can do that. I just need to vanish somewhere. No more scrutiny, and these adorable little farm animals will never see it coming.

She arrived in Appleloosa a little before noon, and spent a few more of her fake bits at something called a “salt lick.” She wasn’t exactly sure what the point of any of it was, but the locals seemed to enjoy her stories and playing cards with them, even if her basic software suite made counting them a trivial task and victory a near-certainty.

“Next airship comes in tomorrow,” said Braeburn, after losing a third hand of stupid metal bits. Jackie had just about recouped the cost of the train ticket down here from these foolish ponies. A little more pushing her luck, and she’d have the money to do something really stupid. “We’re the best-connected junction in most of Equestria, and a good source of fresh miners. What’s a mare like you doin’ trying to get to a place like… which town was it again?”

“Motherlode,” Jackie supplied, licking at the edge of her strange drink. It was mostly powder, and whatever it was didn’t do to her what it was doing to them. The ponies looked like they were one step away from getting drunk, but she didn’t even feel buzzed. They could’ve been serving straight ethanol and she wouldn’t feel it, though.

“Flank of nowhere,” said a mare on the other end of the table. They’d been sharing knowing looks for at least an hour now, though Jackie knew nothing could come of it. Her body was good, but there was no chance in hell she could pass as organic during sex. She had the right bits, but the experience wasn’t the same without specialty hardware. The alien who designed this body obviously hadn’t done it with long-term viability in mind. “You’re much better off with somewhere like San Palomino. I’ve got a friend who knows about some good stakes right on the coast. Real gold, too, not more cheap gemstones. You’re young enough to be thinking about your future.”

“I’ll think about it,” she said. “But I’ve got to see Motherlode first. I’m a real mithril-is-forever kinda mare, ya know? I hear it’s the only place in the whole world you can mine it.”

Braeburn shrugged. “Doesn’t do you much good if you go all the way out there and never find any. You could make your fortune in an afternoon, or you could work for half a century and never turn up anything but diamonds and emeralds.”

“Uh… yeah…” Jackie filed that one away to ask Sunset about as soon as her friend got out of her stupid meeting. “I wouldn’t want that. I won’t stay too long. The miners who fly out of here go that way, right?”

“Pretty sure,” Braeburn said. “Never got off somewhere I knew I wouldn’t make any money. And uh…” He lowered his voice. “Not to be impolite, Miss Moire, but you should keep your coat on when you go there. Real, uh… traditionalist town. Bats in particular have a… bad reputation.”

“Backwards, primitive town you mean,” said the mare, settling down the cards in front of her. “Dealer stands. Beat a twenty, batty. The rest of you are already out.”

Jackie shrugged, flipping her other card. “Nineteen. You win.” She rested back into her cushion for a moment, taking in the little bar. For all that these aliens were… well, alien… if she’d been talking to them all through a radio or a phone she wouldn’t have been able to tell the difference. So who’s connected to who? Did life on Earth come from their world or did their life come from ours?

The answer might be neither. But whatever it was, it didn’t matter to her. She collected her chips, cashed out, and headed down to the miner’s guild to buy a ticket on tomorrow’s airship.

Sunset never would’ve admitted it, but she was relieved to see Sir Bradley waiting outside when the meeting was over. Tesla had some final details to discuss with the guard captain—something she didn’t understand about how the Tower’s shift rotations would work and how they wouldn’t interfere with anything the living creatures were doing. But he wasn’t making her stay for that, and she wasn’t going to argue.

“So how was your first taste of how the other half lives?” Bradley asked, once they were on their way out of the building. The frightening Federation scientist and his assistant had left another way, so Sunset didn’t have to spend more time around them than she wanted. They were using private radio, even though they couldn’t see anyone around them and it didn’t seem like they were being observed.

Sunset wasn’t sure how to answer. She still wanted to see what ordinary humans were like, because most she’d met that day had been— “Disturbing,” she said. “They had someone named Dr. Samil opposite Tesla in there. I guess his assistant wasn’t the worst person I’d ever met, but there was something off about her too. Like she was humming a tune I knew and getting every other note wrong.”

Sir Bradley had been nothing but perfectly cordial and dignified so long as Sunset had been with him. But she caught the split-second delay as she said the name “Samil”, and a brief glance down at his sword. Of course, it was just metal out here, lacking any of its supernatural properties from the Realm. He took a step closer to her, wrapping an arm through hers as though they’d suddenly stepped into hostile territory. “I assume Tesla was running InfoSec the whole time?” he asked, voice grave. “He’s one of three or four people in the realm I know of who can handle a bastard like that up close. Holy fucking shit. Why not bring in fucking Hitler while they’re at it? Maybe Stalin could be their security chief, and Mao could handle their food distribution.”

Those names were only distantly familiar to Sunset, considering how little of pre-unification history had been covered. The automatic door opened for them, and Bradley hurried them across the invisible line into Tower territory. “We’re getting screened, right now.” With his other hand, Bradley took his own controls. “Do this.” He was suddenly speaking out loud. “It’s called autistic mode. Totally kills radio in both directions. Technocratic Order bodies are almost as good as the ones we knights use, but we can’t be too careful. Bastard like that…”

Sunset did as she was ordered, filing away this new piece of knowledge. That their school didn’t teach. The Tower doesn’t want their citizens to know how to disconnect. As soon as she switched it, most of the glowing, floating indicators in the world around her just disappeared. The labels outside tents, the paths of soldiers and patrols. Only the basic borders of the camp remained. “Why are we doing this?” she asked, and had to actually lower her voice and whisper to do it.

“Because Samil is the most ruthless, monstrous creature in all the world. He killed more people than anyone else alive. Only the old tyrants could do more damage to the human race.” They kept going, straight into the edge of camp. The tents looked a little larger and fancier than anything Sunset had seen elsewhere, though the difference was slight. We’re near the king’s quarters, aren’t we?

Activity here was just as intense as anywhere else in camp, though most of them weren’t wearing legionaries armor or the colored robes of the Technocratic Order. These people all wore white jumpsuits mostly, with a sword patch near the collar and nothing else to see. Sir Bradley led them through one of the tents into a medical lab that resembled so many others in camp, except that the technicians were different and body components were already prepared in sorted, illuminated sections. There were two diagnostic beds in the center of the room, and one of those was already occupied. With a naked, face-down figure. There was a single curtain to separate the two sections, and the tent was already a flurry of activity.

“Sir Bradley? What are you doing here?” Pause. “Problem with your radio?” The man who spoke was taller than Bradley, with olive skin and black hair. Not quite so well-built as the king, but his body did look like it barely fit in the white jumpsuit.

“Nothing like that, Xavier.” He gestured two fingers at the two of them. “Both of us have just been exposed to potential catastrophic cyberweapons. Start with Natasha, her exposure was more severe and she’s less familiar with her hardware. I can wait.”

“Of course, Sir Bradley.” He gestured to Sunset. “If you could lie down on the diagnostic bench, miss. We’ll make this quick.”

Sunset Shimmer hadn’t needed to be tested like this before, but at least this information was taught in the Builder school. She stepped into the booth, and turned her back on both the men as she started removing her clothes. Not that her old self would’ve been the least bit bothered by it, but… she knew it was the thing to do.

She wouldn’t have admitted it to anyone, but she was starting to enjoy the human sense of modesty. It was more privacy than she got in her old life, and that meant there was something more private and intimate to share if she ever got close to anyone.

Fortunately the service ports didn’t require her to remove anything else, and there were a handful of female technicians to join her in the privacy of the repair booth. They helped her down onto the bed, where her body was opened near the center and thin cables connected. There were several boring minutes then, trapped in the bed and unable to use the radio to contact anyone. At least she didn’t get uncomfortable with her skin out in the cold and the metal beneath her.

“Sir Bradley… maybe you can tell me a little about Samil. You said he… killed people? You think he’d attack us even though we’re allies now?”

The knight had made his way into her stall once she was situated and no longer exposed. He had removed his own robes, his armor, and even his shirt, apparently waiting for his turn for diagnostic. “The UEF can make allies. They can sign treaties and break them. Mostly they’re just people, same as in the Tower. But… not Samil.” He stared down at the floor, both hands clenching into fists. “I can’t believe they didn’t space the bastard after all he did. Guess whoever’s up in their chain of command doesn’t have a damn spine.”

Sunset remained silent, only dimly conscious of the diagnostic as it searched her mind. Mostly it manifested in reduced ability to access anything but core functions. She couldn’t accelerate time, and one by one her limbs would go numb, then come back again. Like everything the Tower did, it didn’t hurt, but there was no getting past just how unnatural the whole thing felt.

“Way back in the day, before my time, Samil was part of the original expedition to… okay, doesn’t matter. He was part of the original research team to study what they found there. Him, Richard, Tesla, Hunt, Flynn… basically all the biggest inventors of the last century. There were two major breakthroughs to come out of their team, the Nanophage and the Russell-Conway computing model. Samil was the one who helped get the former off the ground… and he understands it better than anyone in the world.

“Fast forward a bit, and all those big innovators splint right down the middle. Both factions use both types of technology—the Federation’s AIs are built using the same basic architecture as our cybernetic brains, and we use something like the Nanophage to scan and download new minds. But Samil… during the war, he used everything he knew about how artificial minds worked to kill… well, nobody’s sure. At least a million people. He corrupted an entire shard and everyone inside. And he had other things… mnemonic patterns, like visual viruses—all you had to do was look at them, and in a few hours you’d go completely fucking nuts. Those vulnerabilities are mostly patched, but…”

“She’s clean,” said Xavier. “Get your shirt on, kid, make room for the knight. Not that there was any doubt, eh Bradley? If my father was there, he would’ve called ahead if the Federation was going to declare war today. It doesn’t make sense as an opening volley. Would have to be decisive.”

Sunset glanced up once to make sure they had looked away, then sat up quickly. She pulled on her top, relaxing a little as she made room for the shirtless knight. Not bad looking, for a biped. They were all muscular and confident, so she would have to remind herself not to use that to judge. Easier said than done. Bradley had also made himself incredibly helpful, and was genuinely polite and charming too. Don’t you do it, Sunset. Don’t you dare.

“Hey, I’m not saying your dad isn’t good at what he does,” Sir Bradley said, as Xavier shoved him face-down into the chair. “You don’t do what he’s done for a hundred years without being damn good. But I’m a knight. We have to make sure even if we don’t think anything happened.”

“Yeah, yeah.” Xavier went back to his panel. Sunset thought about asking why, but she could guess. Probably the information from a scan like this is too private to send through the air. Or too high bandwidth.

Bradley continued, his voice muffled. “So even now that our architecture has been patched out of any obvious vulnerabilities, even now that our servers are amorphous and error-correcting, still can’t be too careful around a mind like that. He’s probably got a few good zero-days in his back-pocket, just waiting to fuck up as many of us as he can.”

“You said… a million people?” Sunset almost tripped over the word. “Are you sure about the… you can’t be remembering that right.”

“More,” Xavier said gravely. “Doctrine of the Federation says we’re not people. Just… automatons who keep going through the motions of the ones we were before we got scanned. Samil was the asshole who came up with that interpretation. And he took it more seriously than anyone else. You should hear him go on about the difference between murder and sabotage. Disgusting.”

Another few seconds, and he gestured. “You’re clean too, Bradley. No intrusion attempts, nothing festering in that subconscious of yours. Assuming there’s ever anything there to begin with.”

“Very funny.” The knight sat up, catching his robe when Xavier tossed it to him. “We did the right thing to check. That’s how we stay alive.”

“Right.” Xavier pointed out the entrance. “We’ve still got a few upgrades to run on the new fabs. Take your girlfriend and get out of my garage.”

Was he actually blushing as he shrugged into his robe? No way, Sunset was probably imagining that. “Thanks for your help,” Sir Bradley said, collecting his weapons from their hook on his way out. “Well, Natasha… I guess that’s all there is. I’m not sure what Tesla has planned for you the rest of today, but it doesn’t involve me.”

Sunset shrugged. “You busy? Maybe we could… get some lunch or something? You get time off, right?”

The knight grinned back at her. “I think I could spare a few minutes.”

The airship put down a tiny distance outside of Appleloosa, where a raised platform and a few mooring pylons had been erected near a field wide and spacious enough to accommodate its vast size. It reminded Jackie a little of the ancient zeppelins she had seen in old pictures, but she hadn’t been into the steampunk shards enough to see any of them up close.

Now she did—with a crew of ponies dressed in sturdy clothes, moving together and shouting back and forth with all the coordination of a single organism. The ship itself was probably about as long as the old passenger airliners, but much less graceful and aerodynamic. As they touched down, the crew in deep blue uniforms helped connect the bottom of the airship to the rail with a long ramp. Four large cargo cars rolled down the ramp, drifting slowly to a stop just a little distance from the railroad.

Jackie herself waited on the passenger platform as a handful of miners walked past her—and she immediately felt her heart sink with concern. These ponies looked nothing like her. They wore sturdy clothes, suspenders or pants mostly, some even had hard hats or satchels full of handheld mining tools adapted for pony hooves. They walked past the embarking line—really just a wooden rail between the two sections of platform, staring at her as though she were someone’s pet rabbit that had wandered up and pretended to be waiting for a ride.

An older male native—a stallion in the local parlance—stopped near the back of the line, gawking openly at her. “Miss, I think you’ve got the wrong airship,” he said, scratching at his old white beard with limbs shriveled with age. From the look of him, he hadn’t found his way to a shower in quite some time.

“Right one, unfortunately,” she said, nodding politely to him. “This is the one going to Motherlode, isn’t it?”

“You? Motherlode?” He laughed again, setting off down the ramp at a slow pace. “I hope you bought yourself a round-trip ticket. There ain’t no stake in Equestria tougher than Motherlode.”

Too bad I can’t ask him about that. Jackie would’ve loved to fly into this place with more information. Could you tell me more about the five foot Irish robot? Even a smaller, comparatively modest human should’ve still seemed frightening and alien to the ponies of Equestria. But so far as Jackie had been able to extract from the population of Appleloosa, there wasn’t anything strange about Motherlode except for the metals they mined and the racism of its residents.

The loading ramp above her finally thunked down in front of her. The pony waiting on the other side wasn’t wearing a civilian conductor’s uniform like the train staff had done, but an adorable naval officer’s uniform. She also had a wafer of glass and a viewer over one of her eyes, and a tiny personal computer tucked behind an ear.

But more than any of that, the bat was easily the most attractive pony Jackie had seen yet. She was a foot taller than Jackie, with proportions that had to be the equine equivalent of a supermodel. Rich blessings to whoever had designed pony clothing, but the coat and jacket that was the uniform actually left her rear exposed. Few ponies wore pants. I didn’t know bats got that tall. There was no guessing at the pony’s age—mature, but not old. It was the way Jackie imagined the pony royalty looking, if only she ever met them.

“Not much of a line today. That’s good. Not so many to disappoint.”

Jackie realized she was staring. She picked her jaw up off the floor, then produced her ticket from her saddlebags. “I, uh… one for Motherlode…”

“Our first stop.” The pony took her ticket with a wing, demonstrating a little more of the insane pony dexterity the natives seemed to have universally mastered. “I’m sorry to say the civilian charter has been canceled thanks to the war. This is the supply vessel Nightbreeze.”

“Please—” Jackie took one step onto the deck, so that she was half on the ramp and half aboard the airship. “I don’t need much space… I won’t be a bother! I can work, too! I have to get to Motherlode before…” She lowered her voice, glancing over her shoulder. “You can see what’s happening here. You probably heard about Canterlot.”

The bat frowned to herself, glancing briefly down at the crew that was at that moment opening box-cars that had been waiting on the tracks, and preparing to push them in. “It wouldn’t technically be allowed,” the pony said. “But you seem… desperate.” Her one eye danced over the glass data-screen, though Jackie couldn’t read anything written on it.

The pony was so attractive she almost hadn’t noticed just how out of place her equipment really was. Is that a scanner? How many ponies were outfitted like this? She’d heard rumors around Normandy that the UEF had played them, somehow. The portal technology had been theirs, and they were the first ones to have a man on the other side. Will they turn the ponies against us? Good for them. Jackie wanted to see the real humans win this. Even if she would eventually end up in the junkyard with the rest of her faction.

Where I belong.

But if the bat captain was using her device to scan Jackie, it didn’t find whatever she was looking for.

“Since it’s just you… I suppose we can make this work.” She passed back the ticket. “But this won’t be a civilian charter. This is a supply mission. We might be attacked along the way, or diverted into a warzone before we arrive. I cannot guarantee your safety or that our flight plan will be the one you paid for. Still want to take my ship? It’s possible there will be another one. Check the schedule.”

She had, and there wouldn’t be another leaving from Appleloosa for two weeks. If this was really the edge of a war, then she certainly didn’t have that long to wait. If I don’t get on, I’ll have to take a train west and hike days through the mountains. The trip wouldn’t be as deadly for her as an organic in her place, she wouldn’t get tired, cold, or hungry. But it would still add tremendous delays.

“Yeah,” she said, taking another step forward. “I’m Moire Pattern.”

“Captain Evening Star.” The bat took her hoof. She frowned as they shook, as though she were on the edge of commenting about how strange it felt. But then she let go and shrugged. “Welcome aboard the Nightbreeze.” She stomped one hoof, and in an instant another bat had arrived beside her.

This one looked far more mundane compared to her, with slightly uneven features and jowls that drooped. “Ma’am.”

“Moire Pattern here has joined us for this leg. Find her a bunk and get her situated.”

“Ma’am!” he saluted, gesturing towards a stairwell at the far end. “Follow me, Moire.”

She did, waiting until they were out of Evening’s earshot before muttering in a conspiratorial voice, “What is she wearing on her face?”

The pony’s expression darkened to suspicion, but in the end he answered anyway. “Some kind of information device. Goes all the way to Truth. Do you know what that is?” Jackie shook her head, and the sailor went on. “Truth is how we’re gonna win this war,” he explained. “It’s the best, fastest magic for talking there ever was. That’s all you need to know.”

Jackie did her best to be observant and unobtrusive during the next hour of departure preparation. The sailor hadn’t even got her a private room, but at least the hammock was tucked away in a back corner of a lower deck where it wouldn’t be too loud. Sea Legs introduced her to the crew down there, walked her through the basics of where she was allowed to go. That boiled down to “not the cargo holds, not in anypony’s way.”

“And in case it wasn’t obvious, you don’t have permission to disembark without captain’s say so. Unless she orders you, or gives you permission, the only way you get off this ship is using the ramp. Don’t get cute and think you can fly away halfway there—as this is wartime, you’ll be suspected of spying and recaptured for investigation. On the other hoof, you do everything you’re told, and it will be a relaxing trip. Two days, nowhere near the front, no problem.”

“No problem,” Jackie agreed. If I tried to fly away I’d just fall to my death anyway. Her wings were a decent simulation of the real thing, but there were plenty of reasons she kept them covered. They weren’t really skin, and whatever magic the natural ponies used to fly with such small surfaces for lift, she didn’t have it. If this thing catches on fire and we need to evacuate, I am so fucked.

They were in the air within the hour. As soon as they were moving, Jackie found her way to the bow, where she could lean out over the open air and watch Equestria go by below her.

Her old hacker senses couldn’t help but itch as they left the city behind. I probably should’ve taken a less direct path. Straight from origin to target is stupid. But at the same time, the Equestrians didn’t have any kind of record system. She hadn’t left a paper trail, hadn’t shown ID. It was just about handing over the bits and getting what she wanted.

As she watched a green countryside pass by below her, she kept checking her geo-ID, just to be sure she hadn’t connected to some realm without realizing it. She’d never seen the UID prefix before, but… the coordinates were real world every time.

Below her the land gradually transformed from desert into sprawling forest, without a trace of the near-lifeless wastelands that she knew waited back on Earth. There were no corpse-cities down there, and the signs of civilization at all were sparse. Villages had only a few dozen small homes, wrapping with the land instead of bulldozing it. I wish I was still alive. This would be a great place to retire. The natives weren’t so bad, at least not from what she’d seen so far. Maybe she could find that captain…

Someone tapped the railing beside her. Jackie blushed, straightening a little. It was Evening Star, still wearing her naval uniform, though she looked a little more worn than she had been a few hours ago.

“I can feel it,” she said, settling against the railing beside Jackie without invitation and letting her forelegs droop off the edge. “I remember this feeling, right before a war. The tension in the air. I think everyone can feel it, deep in their bones. The smell of change.”

Jackie looked up. “I’m up for a change anytime,” she said, before she could stop herself. “My cabin or yours.”

The captain’s eyes hardened, practically boring holes into Jackie’s head. Jokes on you, just a computer in there. Of course, she’d be royally fucked if the captain actually said yes. Her body wouldn’t pass that kind of inspection.

“That sounds very interesting,” Evening Star said, the glass over her eye constantly flickering with new information. She didn’t seem to be looking at Jackie specifically. “I actually had a few questions for you, and a more relaxed setting would make them easier.” She pointed to the upper deck. “After evening watch begins, just through those doors. I promise the breakfast in my cabin is better than the dinner they’re serving in the galley.”

“Right…” Jackie muttered, trying to think of a graceful way to back out. But her mind kept right on spinning, and no answers were forthcoming. In the end she just nodded again. “Right, sounds great! Breakfast with you.” Must be a bat thing. Sunset Shimmer, why the hell did you shut off your radio? But Sunset wasn’t answering, and hadn’t been for several hours now. Then again, maybe there’s a receiver in that headset. Being up close for long enough might let Jackie get some scans of her own. Maybe she could figure out exactly what the ponies had been armed with. “I’ve got all kinds of interesting stories. And I’m sure you do to… captain of a big ship like this. Maybe we could swap a few. And… do whatever else inspires us.”

The captain laughed. “Yes, I’m sure we will.” She tapped on the railing again. “It isn’t a request. Don’t make me send the officer of the watch to find you.” She left Jackie on the deck of the Nightbreeze, not sure if she were about to be solicited or arrested. That tongue of yours is going to get you killed one of these days, Jackie.

So much for not drawing attention to herself.