• 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 5: Pre-Shared Key

Sunset should’ve realized that the Builders didn’t eat—they had no need for food, so there was no reason to expect they would have breaks for that purpose. But Bradley was a knight, and that apparently meant a little leeway. Leeway to take an occasional sanity-break.

“I don’t know why he felt so… creepy,” Sunset Shimmer said, watching the knight as his fingers strummed along the guitar. He had apparently been carrying it the whole time, collapsed and out of the way. He played along to a relaxed melody, one that Sunset had never heard before but knew she wouldn’t forget. “You’d think… being machines like we are, we’ve given up all our magic. We shouldn’t be able to feel things like that.”

“Things like what?” Bradley glanced briefly towards the entrance of the empty tent, but the legionaries passing outside took one look through the open door and looked away again, pretending they hadn’t seen anything.

Not that the two of them were doing anything embarrassing. Just sitting in flat metal chairs and speaking quietly.

“Well, uh… I don’t know how much you know about Equestria. Or how much I’m allowed to tell you.”

“Anything,” Sir Bradley answered without hesitation. “Nothing is secret from the knights of the realm. We’re like… the highest branch of government. Those who serve the Tower directly keep even the lords and noble houses in line. Only the king sits higher than we do.”

Sunset laughed in spite of herself, though there was nothing mean-spirited in it. “Aren’t you a little young for that?”

Bradley’s eyebrows went up. “You haven’t been paying much attention, have you?” He held out his collapsible guitar. “Tell you what, we can trade. You tell me about Equestria, and I’ll teach you how to play this.”

“I, uh… fine.” Sunset couldn’t imagine why she would want to learn to play the Builder instrument, particularly with such an inefficient method. But if it was an excuse to spend more time around the knight, then… she would make it work.

Sunset took one last look at the door to make sure no one else was passing. Tesla and King Richard both had wanted her true nature concealed from as many as possible. Bradley already knew, but the fewer others found out the better.

“Okay, so. Magic is central to the life of ponies all over Equestria. Doesn’t matter what their tribe—everyone is using it all the time. Look at Ponyville just over your fence. Mostly an earth pony town, but they still manage to change the seasons, grow enough food for most of Canterlot by themselves… that kind of thing.”

“Kay.” Bradley turned the guitar over in his hands, adjusting the little knobs on the end. “So what does that have to do with Samil?”

“Lots of schools of magic,” Sunset went on, without waiting for him to say anything else uninformed. “Learning the specifics doesn’t matter. But not all of them are equally good. A few are inherently destructive. Either to the world around you… or to the user specifically. Samil felt like… someone who had been practicing dark magic for maybe two centuries. Princess Celestia and I found a pony like that up in the far north… she intimidated everyone around her, too. She had killed, but… not as many as Samil.”

“Dunno. Sounds like you’re really just sensing the evil to be honest. Lots of people get a sense for that kind of thing. People just… rub you the wrong way. Turns out it’s because they’re rotten to the core. It’s intuition—lots of little things your mind is using to make rapid estimates below the level of your conscious. Nothing supernatural about that.”

Sunset Shimmer groaned. “There’s nothing supernatural about magic, any more than there’s something supernatural about light or alchemy. Or… okay, maybe the word doesn’t translate that well into human. But ‘magic’ is the only one I can find.”

Bradley shrugged, then gestured for her to move closer. “Well, that’s enough to start. Let me show you a few chords. I think learning this is a little easier than learning ‘magic’.”

Sunset Shimmer didn’t argue with him, particularly his invitation to share his chair. Sir Bradley’s touch only felt warm. But even if their bodies were machines, his compassion was real. Accelerated minds and perfect coordination meant it didn’t take nearly as long as she would’ve liked to reach a basic level of competence, but even so the sun had risen nearly to noon by the time Bradley rose from the chair, collecting his guitar.

“Well, ‘Natasha,’ maybe next time you can tell me a little more about your world. Maybe your name. You already know mine.”

“Sunset,” she replied, without thinking. “Sunset Shimmer. But my friends just call me Sunset.”

“And my friends just call me Brad,” Sir Bradley said, grinning stupidly. “But when we’re out there somewhere on duty and there is anyone else around, they still call me by my title. You probably should too if there’s anyone listening. I’ll remember ‘Sunset,’ though. It’s… cute. Like Asian or something maybe, but translated. That doesn’t make any sense…”

He walked away, blushing slightly as he rounded the corner and vanished from sight out the tent door.

Sunset Shimmer reached up reflexively, clutching at the necklace around her neck. A few seconds of focus was all she needed to make the world of the tent vanish, replacing it with the little library.

Twilight was surrounded by books and plastic tablets, but her expression was unmistakably bored. At least until she noticed Sunset standing there, and she brightened up like a lamp. “Sunset! You came back!”

“Don’t be melodramatic, it’s only been a day.”

Twilight shrugged. “Feels like longer. Even if my time is synced with yours. I know it must be, tiny little processor like this to run on. Nine watts, did you know that?” She lifted up a single sheet of paper, covered in diagrams. From across the room, Sunset could still recognize it clearly as the necklace, cross sectioned to reveal all its working parts.

Sunset Shimmer didn’t have any instincts for how much that was, but from the way Twilight said it she was obviously supposed to be indignant. So that was what she tried to do, nodding supportively. “You’d rather be out in the real world?”

“Obviously! I know there’s… not much chance of getting me out. Tesla’s never going to give you an extra body when I’m one of the only things he has to lord over you. But if this is how I make myself helpful, then… nine watts it is.”

Sunset strode over to her, resting one hand on her shoulder in the seat. “I’m working on it, Twilight. I’ll get you free eventually. You’ll get to live in my world too.”

“I hope so,” Twilight said, though she didn’t sound convinced. So much for her blind faith.

“Sooner than you think,” Sunset went on. “I’ve got an idea. I don’t know how much of your memory is left, so you probably don’t know what I’m talking about. Augmented copresence?” At Twilight’s blank expression, she went on. “I just learned it from Brad a few hours ago. It’s a way of walking around with people in the realms at the same time as the ones in the real world, right? But I checked the protocols, and there’s no way it only works on the Realm.”

“So you could… bring me outside?”

“Sorta.” Sunset winced as she said the word, knowing how weak it sounded. She could hear someone approaching the tent again. The same legionaries? But she couldn’t speed up time in here. As Twilight had pointed out, the computer running this place was weak. Sunset could go faster, but Twilight could not. “It would still use my senses. So you wouldn’t be able to perceive anything I couldn’t. And… no one who isn’t meshed with me would be able to see you. But honestly, that last part might be an advantage. Most people around here don’t have any idea about… my mistakes. So only letting people I trust see you makes the most sense.”

“I want to be more useful,” Twilight said. “However we make that happen. Going out with you into the real world… anything to be out of this necklace. But if you’re coding things up, maybe you could figure out how to mesh me into your network node while you’re at it.” She tossed one of the tablets up into the air, where it stopped right in front of Sunset. Twilight was simulating unicorn magic, though she didn’t have a horn for it. “There are exactly fifty-one books in the default library. Even if all I could get was Project Gutenberg, that would help me from going completely insane.”

I can’t believe you’ve come so far, Twilight. It hadn’t been very long at all that she was just a program, with no personal desires at all. It still seemed as though the terror of Sunset’s magic had erased her original mind and personality… but at the very least, whatever remained was recovered. She’ll probably be ready to be a person on her own by the time this is over. Assuming Equestria and the Tower survive for there to be an end.

“I’ll work on that too,” Sunset said. “Or, heck, you could. I think I can keep SSH or something open. You can use that to… well, whatever. You’re better at it than I am. I remember.” She wasn’t going to point out that they’d used the power together to control an army of slaves and slave-nodes. The Element of Intellect was better left in the past.

Twilight nodded. “Oooh, that sounds great! I’ll start with a network link, then work on copresence next. I’ve seen the API, and it’s damn complicated. But bytes are bytes.”

“Yeah,” Sunset said. She still felt ignorant around Twilight sometimes, like maybe she had been the one to lose her memory. Before coming into the computer ruined your brain, I bet you were a genius.

Someone strode inside, and Sunset’s physical senses yanked her unceremoniously from the library. It was the same legionaries she’d seen earlier. Apparently they hadn’t gone anywhere so much as circled mindlessly around the tent a few times. Maybe they’d been waiting for Brad to leave. “Natasha?” asked one of them—both were armored and armed, though neither raised their weapons. There was nothing threatening about their posture either, just bored.

“Yeah?” She sat up, tucking the necklace into her shirt. “What can I do for you?”

“There’s someone waiting to see you… someone from the other camp.” It was a strange thing to see—their bodies were almost identical, with the same closely-cropped hair and dark eyes. But while one spoke with confidence, the other sounded shy, and shifted constantly from foot to foot in his armor. I bet they make standard bodies for all these guys. Too bad.

“Who?” Sunset asked, feeling her heart tense in her chest. Or… probably just a simulation of it. After treating the king, she now knew her circulatory system was nothing like that of an organic body. There wasn’t even one heart, but a continuous pressure system, fed by numerous tiny compressors. If it’s that monster guy…

“She’s apparently on the Normandy joint security council. Her name is Ada, and she seemed to think it was important.”

“Alright.” Sunset rose to her feet, straightening her hair with one hand. Ada hadn’t seemed nearly as bad as the one she served. “Let’s go see what she wants.”

Jackie thought about flinging herself from the edge of the Nightbreeze when nopony was looking. As they flew, she watched the natives perch up on the railings, then zip around as though they were lighter than air. She longed to join them, and one of the crew even suggested she could fly up and help with the rigging if she was going to lounge around on the deck anyway.

But however much Jackie might want to be up there, she knew she couldn’t. The natives to this planet were something special, something magical. By contrast, her and the rest of the Tower were just clever machines, some of which still pretended they were alive.

Not her, though. She knew she was no longer a real person, no longer responsible for her actions. She was nothing but the software and scans that had been taken of her mind. If she fucked things up, as she often did, it was just faulty programming. Nothing to be guilty about.

But in the end, the chance that she would land as a pile of rubble and explode into little bits of broken machines was just too high to risk, and Jackie didn’t try to get away. Maybe Evening Star is responding to me. Maybe I’ll have to tell her what I am, then we can have the most exciting night of my time in Equestria so far.

It wouldn’t exactly be stiff competition, considering she hadn’t really done anything last night but learn about her mission and get information from Sunset.

She found a marine waiting outside the upper door, and most of the ponies up here were dressed distinctly from the ones below. They wore fancy coats, officer’s hats, or other adorable accoutrements that marked their rank. But she was a civilian, and they apparently knew to expect her.

“Breakfast with the captain, eh?” asked the marine. “What did you do wrong?”

“Is it… usually a bad thing? I thought trips to the captain were a privilege.”

He laughed, holding the door open with his magic. “Yeah, you would like to think that, wouldn’t you?”

Jackie gulped, stepping inside and wandering down the hall. It wasn’t very long, and there was music playing from somewhere close by. Music she recognized—it was a classical piece, one she’d heard hundreds of times before. Human music.

Then she stepped into the captain’s quarters. They were at the rear of the ship, which meant a set of huge windows overlooking Equestria from behind. She could make out the sunset outside, staining the clouds a spectacular orange. The room itself had many workspaces along the walls, diagrams and sketches, and a handful of other strange things.

There was a single table near one wall that made Jackie’s eyes go even wider. There was a laptop there, with a gigantic keyboard obviously meant for hooves. A printer, and a strip of wire running out the window to where a flexible solar mat hung outside.

In the center of the room was a large table, and it had already been set for the two of them. It smelled like breakfast all right, with pancakes and omelettes and French toast. No meat, though there was some kind of pale sausage that was completely unplaceable to Jackie. It smelled like a dirty garage, but had been given a prominent place in the center of the table.

The captain was already seated, apparently enjoying the music. “Mute,” she commanded in English, and it stopped.

Jackie had already taken a photograph, and sent it back to Sunset to identify for her. Doing the search herself would take too much concentration when she was under scrutiny.

“You aren’t the first one to admire my equipment. Honestly, I was impressed by it too. Amazing what strides of technology can be achieved in so short a time.” She nodded towards the empty seat. “Please, join me. There is much to discuss.”

Jackie sat down. She’d practiced how to sit at pony tables, even if she felt decidedly unwelcome at this one. The captain had removed her jacket. Underneath she wore only a belt with a handgun settled in it.

A pony with a handgun.

Apparently Evening Star noticed her eyes here too, because her eyebrows went up. But she didn’t say anything at first, reaching out to start scooping food onto her plate. She started with the sausages. “You’ll want to try the saturniid first. I think you might appreciate it.”

From the gray color and the awful smell, she doubted that very much. But just like any sense, taste could be switched off. She obeyed. “Maybe you’ve figured out why I wanted to share this meal with you.”

Jackie shook her head, keeping as neutral as she could. “I thought about it, but I haven’t figured out yet. I think it might’ve been a mistake to try and… well, you’re on duty. That was impolite.”

“Impolite,” Evening Star repeated, finishing with her plate and settling back into her cushion to eat. “Impolite would be spilling some of this fine saturniid on my carpet. But you’re… something else.” She tapped her fork against the wood, eyes fixed on her. She still had the viewfinder over one eye, and for good measure Jackie sent a picture of that too.

Sunset still hadn’t responded.

“I try not to be,” Jackie said, and there was no need to lie anymore. “I’m just trying to survive this nightmare. Making it through a war… it’s never easy.” She nodded behind her, towards the table with the computer and speakers on it. “Looks like you have some of your own advantages for that. You just show that off to anypony who visits you?”

Evening Star shrugged. “I’m not sure why I wouldn’t. They’re just decoration to most who come through my halls. A few see them as enchanted.” She lifted the pistol out of its holster deliberately, settling it down on the table next to her plate. Not pointing at Jackie, but within easy reach. “I would love to know why a pony is traveling with an accelerator rifle and an RTG implanted into her chest.”

She switched completely to English then, watching Jackie’s expression carefully. “And cut the bullshit while you’re at it, please. I’ve already been up way too long, and I’m not in a good mood.”

Jackie took a deep breath, then switched to English too. She could speak it better than this pony, who still had a little bit of an accent. If anything, Evening Star reminded her of someone who hadn’t practiced a language in years.

“How much do you know about what’s happening in Normandy?”

Evening Star seemed impressed with her—maybe she hadn’t expected to be right, or maybe she’d thought Jackie would try to lie. But she didn’t do either of those things, there was no point. With so many scanners and machinery around, hiding her nature from this pony would be impossible. And the fact she speaks English means she’s been in touch with humans for quite some time.

At almost that exact moment, she got a message back from Sunset.

“I queried the intranet about the items. It’s an inexpensive computer made to be distributed in war-torn or impoverished areas, high reliability and low power. The headset is a military threat detector and communicator. Both are Federation made, prewar designs.”

Thanks,” was all she bothered sending back for the time being. Not while she was being watched.

“Both halves of humanity are there,” Evening Star said. “Both solutions to death, the organic and the mechanical. I know they fought, though I don’t know why. I guess they’re going to be helping Equestria now. But what I don’t know is what that has to do with you. Which faction are you working for?”

“The Steel Tower,” she responded. No sense trying to hide that if she had scans of the implants. For some reason she didn’t seem to have put together that Jackie was mechanical yet. She would figure it out, but in the meantime Jackie didn’t have to point out her obvious oversights.

“Why are you going out into the borders of Equestria? I thought you might be some kind of secret traitor, but there’s no reason to go out there. Mithril is important, but… it’s mined so slowly that we’ll never have a meaningful amount during the entire war. It will be a valuable target to seize after the war is finished. But during… it’s worthless. Sabotaging it makes no difference.”

“I’m not a traitor,” she said, smacking one hoof on the table so hard that her plate rattled. “A long time ago, the Steel Tower had some stupid fucking engineer here, okay? I’m just trying to find her and bring her home, that’s all. No Equestrian is even going to get involved.” She glowered at her. “What do you care, anyway? I’m not getting in your way. I’m not hurting your crew.”

“You could.”

True enough. Jackie wasn’t a warrior in the traditional sense, but her body had perfect precision and she had weapons designed for it. She’d slaughtered everything that got in her way leaving the Everfree without even thinking about it.

So there was no sense in lying. “So could you. You’ve got a handgun, a laptop, you’re listening to Beethoven and speaking English. You’re… one of the Federation’s transformed ambassadors, aren’t you? Serving as… a ship’s captain… running supply runs out to…” The hypothesis broke down rather dramatically at the end there.

Evening Star looked subdued. She turned back to her plate, slicing off a few bites of the weird sausage and grinning with pleasure at the taste. “I am not an ambassador for anyone,” she said. “I’ve been a pony… so long. More than a thousand years now… doesn’t feel like that many years. But I was something else, once. My name was Hayden.”

No one in the Tower knows about this, Jackie thought, her eyes widening. Then she saw the opportunity. Information was valuable. Information could be traded. She could get something for this, if she sold it. Ancient human contact with Equestria? And the years didn’t make sense either. Sunset Shimmer talked about ponies living for a few hundred years, but a thousand? There was something she hadn’t figured out here.

I’ll talk to Sunset about it once I’m alone. Her pony friend would be able to make sense of this. Maybe an old legend. “If you’re from ancient times, where did you get your computer? Hell, Beethoven wasn’t even born five hundred years ago, let alone a thousand. Your story doesn’t make sense.”

“Neither does yours,” the bat snapped back. “I suspect they’re both true. Eat your breakfast.”

Jackie did. She started with the familiar things, and found an experience not too dissimilar from the apple. The taste was good, but imperfect. The minor variations in the taste, texture, doneness in each bite… she quite liked it.

Except for the weird sausage. Whatever the taste was, she’d never had it before and didn’t want to again. It was positively awful.

“So you’re going to let me go?” Jackie asked, hopefully. “I swear I don’t want to hurt anyone. I’m just going to find my little lost lamb and bring her home to pasture, that’s all.”

“Maybe,” Hayden said. “I’m thinking about it. When I first landed here, I would’ve killed for a rescue party. But Earth never sent one, certainly not one going incognito. But I know I’m not the only pony like me anymore. If me, why not Chance? And if Chance, why not you?”

“Why not me,” Jackie stated. “Precisely.”

“I’ll let you go…” Hayden continued, as though she hadn’t even been listening. “If you tell me what you’ll do when you finish your mission here. Help with the war? Will you fight to protect Equestria?”

Jackie shook her head. “Hell no. I barely lived through the last war I was in…” And by barely I mean not at all. “I just want to live, that’s all. Escape, hide, survive. It’s what I’ve been doing since everyone I know died. I’m a survivor… if you’re really as old as you say, maybe you know something about that.”

Hayden pushed away her empty plate, then rose to her hooves. “Perhaps I do. I know that fleeing from your flaws will not help you to overcome them, Moire. I know the feeling in the air—this war is going to draw in everyone, no matter if they want to help.” She flashed suddenly through the air, and she was on the other side of the room. If Jackie hadn’t known any better, she would’ve thought she was back in the Realm, and the bat had just teleported.

But obviously that wasn’t possible. They weren’t digital right now.

The bat leaned in close, whispering into her ear. “Fate is a terrible goddess, Moire Pattern. Her will is inexorable. I can feel she’s wrapped her wings around you.” She straightened, turning away from her. “Resume playback.”

The music started playing again, though it hadn’t been paused and a different piece was now playing. Jackie didn’t recognize this one, but the style still seemed similar.

“Besides, I don’t think you could hide out in the edge of the world even if you wanted to. You’re on a rescue mission already, that isn’t the sort of thing a pony does who only cares about herself.”

I’m only doing this because it’s the only way for me to get my freedom back. But before she could get the words out, she realized she wasn’t sure about them, and so she said nothing. We’ll see. I don’t owe the Tower a damn thing. But you ponies haven’t done anything to hurt me. You didn’t scoop my brain out and turn me into a robot. Maybe if she wanted to join a new civilization, she would have to make some new friends.

The bat walked away from her, where she seemed to be watching the moon rise from outside. “We’ll be arriving tomorrow. I know it’s difficult, but get some rest if you can. Though… if you don’t care for saturniid, you might be able to sleep during the night, too. Guess that’s what happens to a pony who’s just been transformed. No taste, no common sense.”

Jackie didn’t argue, didn’t wait around any longer than she had to. She hurried from the captain’s quarters and back onto the deck.

The same soldier was waiting outside, and he seemed satisfied at her expression. “Told you.”

“Yeah.” She stalked away along the deck. “I guess you did.” She almost asked him if he knew that his captain was really a human—or had been. But of course it was an absurd question. The other pony she’d talked to hadn’t known what the headset did, so the chances that they’d know something so obscure were not good.

She headed straight back to her cabin, unsure if she should feel guilty about not admitting that she was a robot. Obviously not, don’t be stupid. I don’t owe her anything. I don’t even know her.

But it didn’t feel that way. Jackie might not believe that ponies could live that long, but Hayden really had sounded older and wiser than anyone she’d met so far. Almost like one of the near-religious princesses, except that she obviously didn’t have a horn.

“Hey, Sunset, can you talk?” She tried not to look too out of place walking back to her tiny bunk. She moved slowly enough that her mind could be elsewhere and she would still have enough time to react not to bump into anyone.

“Something wrong already? You?”

“Not wrong…” But even as she said it, it felt defensive. Being a pony was throwing Jackie right out of her confident groove. I need to locate her program that screwed with my drives enough to find these creatures attractive and strangle her. I just talked to a strange pony. She claimed to be, like, a thousand years old.”

“Not likely. Even Star Swirl didn’t live that long. The oldest earth pony I ever met was three hundred years or so. Unless you just met Celestia.”

Jackie reached her bunk unmolested, and crawled in. She checked on her gear—it hadn’t been opened while she was gone—and pulled it into bed beside her anyway. Then she covered herself up with a blanket, and stopped trying to control her body. “Her name was Evening Star. Ever heard of her?”

Sunset didn’t respond for over a minute this time—much longer than the radio delay. “I’ve heard the name. I guess your mystery pony knows some mythology too. Evening Star was an ancient general—the first bat pony who ever lived. The stories about her are all over the place, but the main one is that Princess Luna created her to give birth to the rest of the bats. Something about an invasion… but nopony knows for sure how the timeline quite lines up. Celestia doesn’t like to talk about it much… I was her personal student, and she would barely tell me anything. It’s common to see ponies named after historical figures, but if she’s claiming to be the same pony…”

“Do the legends say she was a human from Earth? Because that’s what she just told me.”

“Nothing about that,” Sunset said. “Princess Luna created the real Evening Star, either as one of her attempts to summon demons or while trying to make a tool that could defend Equestria. Depends on who you ask, which story you believe. The only Builders I know about interacting with Equestria are with Clover the Clever and Star Swirl. But I shouldn’t keep talking to you, I’m keeping someone waiting.”

Suit yourself.” Jackie disconnected, letting herself drift slowly off. She wasn’t sure what the point of lying to her would’ve been—she wasn’t the one with the power, wasn’t the one who needed to be convinced. What good would it do Hayden for Jackie to believe what she said?

So why lie?

She couldn’t let herself dwell on it. She’d be arriving soon enough—then she could find her missing engineer, and earn her freedom. Jury’s still out on what I do with it.