• 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 8: Encrypted

“Uh…” Jackie wasn’t thinking about how it might look to True Silver if she happened to notice—really, she didn’t care anymore. She’s completely organic. She knows everything about how prosthetic bodies work, she built advanced technology, I haven’t seen any sign that she’s hiding a human. “That’s not possible,” she said, lamely. “You’re organic, I can see that. There’s not even an ident in your arm. You’re as natural as everyone else on this mountain.”

“I… yes.” Silver Spring—no, Bree—stopped with the cupboard in front of her open, blankets spilling out onto the ground around her hooves. “I am currently, yeah. But that doesn’t mean as much as you think.” She lowered her voice, glancing briefly down the stairs. “I don’t know how long you’ve been here yet, Moire, but… these ponies are magic. Not comedy show disappearing ball magic. Not even Infinite Realm supernatural server performance magic. We’re talking about the real thing here.”

“Any sufficiently advanced technology,” Jackie rehearsed, though she stopped short of patronizing the teenage pony. Instead she stepped into the little bedroom, clicking it shut behind her. “Alright, how? Wait…” Sunset Shimmer had mentioned something like this, hadn’t she? She’d been upset that Tesla wouldn’t let her use some pony magic that would make her a pony again.

But Jackie hadn’t believed the claim. Ponies lifting objects around her, that was one thing. Technology could do that. Lighting up horns, sending messages, even walking on clouds—all that was within the realm of possibility. But she hadn’t had the heart to point out it was probably just some stupid piece of religious bullshit.

Apparently not. “Before this goes any further, I want some fucking proof. I don’t want the story, I don’t want explanations. Just… prove you are who you say you are.”

“That’s…” Bree looked confused for a minute, then her face brightened. “Alright! Here’s an idea. What’s your real name? Not just the one you’ve been using around Equestria.”

“Jacqueline Kessler,” she supplied. “But just call me Jackie, everyone else does. I’m not sure what me telling you that is supposed to prove.”

“Nothing.” Bree brightened. “I don’t know how much you knew about me in the Realm. Most people don’t even stop to think about what forks they’re using, and where.”

Forks. She’d known a Bree before… a Bree she’d thought had been a member of her gang. But she’d been a fork the whole time. She’d discovered that near the end of the terrible wreck that had ended with her as a robo-pone in ponyland. “That’s true, I guess. What are you implying?”

“Well… I know who you are, Jackie. I know about the Murciélagos. I know about that scam you ran that gave you a knight’s sword. I know you were using the old induction center for extra processor cycles for… well, years. You’re quite the criminal. Everything short of mind-smuggling. And your churro recipe… absolutely delicious. I might have to try and cook it for my mom. I bet True Silver would love it.”

Jackie stared, speechless. Bree was right about everything, and right to think that sharing information only her fork would know would be convincing. But she hadn’t mentioned anything about Sunset, or her conversion and appropriation of minds. Hadn’t talked about her escape plans, or her later rants against the king and his powers.

“Your information is out of date,” she finally said.

Bree nodded. “Obviously. You think I’m getting data package deliveries in a meat brain living in a little house in a pony mining town?” She lowered her head, scooping up the blankets and tossing them onto the bed. “Make it yourself. You’ve probably got more dexterity than I do. And you don’t need to sleep, so this whole exercise is pointless.”

It was good enough to be convincing. It would probably convince Tesla too, which was the important thing.

“I found you.” She sat back against the wall, breathing a sigh of relief. She almost couldn’t believe it. She’d made it all the way here, without anything catastrophic going wrong. She hadn’t been blown to pieces, hadn’t been banished by the Tower, hadn’t found out her family were being tortured. Something actually went her way for once. “I did it.”

“Yeah, sure did.” Bree slid past her, opening the door. “I’ve got lots of intelligence for you to send back… tomorrow. I’m bucking exhausted right now, and I still smell like sulphur. So do you. If that thing’s waterproof, you may want to use the shower when I’m done.”

“Wait, I—” But Bree was already leaving down the hall.

Doesn’t matter. That return ship is our best chance to make it to Normandy, and it won’t be here until it finishes its delivery rotation anyway. Jackie had two weeks before they had to leave. And she’d already done the hard part of locating her missing engineer.

Maybe if she’d been a loyal servant of the Tower, she might’ve transmitted a report right away. But she didn’t—once it had really gotten dark, and the organics had both gone to bed, Jackie lay awake atop her perfectly-made bed and considered what she had learned.

“Hey, Sunset,” she sent. Waiting for the satellites to get her message back was a painful delay. She counted the seconds.

“Yes? Are you safe out there, Jackie?”


“Motherlode didn’t run you out with an angry mob? I thought those ponies were pretty backward.”

“They’re even worse than you told me. But no, no angry mob. And I found someone who would give me a place to sleep for a few days. Hopefully I’m on my way back before that.”

“How soon until you make it back?”

“Well… my ride flies back in two weeks. It’s another day back to Appleloosa, then the train home.” All that was assuming that nothing went wrong, which seemed unlikely based on Jackie’s previous experience.

Apparently her expectations had been right. “Try to get back sooner with your engineer. I’ve heard from some ponies I met today that they think the first big push of the war will happen in a week. On the west coast, just a little north of you.”

“No way it makes it into the mountains. Motherlode is nowhere. There’s nothing here, nothing but a few salty miners and plenty of dirt. Even if the war does start, they’ll just pass us by.”

It was hard to tell over radio, but it sounded like Sunset’s voice was doubtful. “Motherlode isn’t as unimportant as it sounds. It’s not salt they mine. Almost all the mithril in Equestria comes from there. Everything else they mine is just a handful of bits, but… it’s the only source we know of. The dragons are part of this war, and mithril is their favorite thing to eat. They think that if they eat enough, they’ll be invincible.”

Great. There was no arguing with Sunset’s local information. If she thought they were in danger, she was probably right. So much for having as much time as I want to get this done. But that didn’t mean she had to give up or anything—the mission was still going well. Maybe they could charter a local ship. Or maybe they could ride in the cargo carts that hauled ore down to the valley floor, then walk to the nearest town.

It was a bridge she could cross the next day.

“What about you, Sunset? Everything going alright as Tesla’s advisor? Don’t want to kill yourself yet?”

The answer took a little time in coming, more than the few seconds of transmission delay. “I went into Ponyville today, met some of the locals. The way they stare at me like I’m something strange… it’s not my favorite. But maybe I’ll get used to it, or maybe they’ll get used to having me around.”

“Both,” Jackie answered, trying to be sympathetic. She could hide her envy, anyway. Sunset’s position was the easiest thing she could think of. And most enjoyable—meeting new people, maybe more than meeting them… But it was hard for Sunset, and she didn’t need to be that harsh. “Maybe when I finish my mission here, we could trade. You get to be a pony again, and I get to be human. I wish they’d let us do it beforehand, but…”

“I think I’d like that,” Sunset said. But she didn’t say anything else. They wouldn’t sleep in Normandy, so probably she’d been called away to work again. Jackie would’ve popped into the Realm somewhere to entertain herself until morning, but there was no way to get highband out in the middle of nowhere. There were lasers that could do it—kits that the wealthy had been able to bring with them on camping trips or yachting expeditions. But those days were long over, and she hadn’t been issued one. Assuming any even existed.

So she just put herself to sleep, with a scheduled wake as soon as she heard any movement in the house around her.

In the Realm, she would’ve been annoyed to be woken before noon. But out here there was no sense of tiredness, even though both ponies in the house with her rose at around dawn.

She did take Bree’s advice to use the shower, which gave her the extra opportunity to wash out any sign of the food she’d previously eaten. That, and all the smoke. These bodies were waterproof, and hers was even treated to function at depth… but she doubted an ability like that would ever be useful.

And much of her work was undone a few minutes later, when True Silver invited her for breakfast and there was no longer a convenient excuse to escape it. She ate as little as she thought she could get away with, making small talk and trying to be polite while she waited to get Bree alone again.

The teenager wasn’t making things easy. She had gone well above and beyond just a convincing act—she seemed to have a genuine relationship with this pony. When you say she’s your mom, do you mean that literally? Is that how you became organic? She hadn’t asked Sunset about the mechanism of the transformation, and didn’t plan to.

It still didn’t make sense. No matter how powerful the magic was, it couldn’t bring back the souls of the dead. Right?

“You picked a strange time to travel Equestria for an academic visit,” True Silver said, startling her back to full attention. “You’ve heard about… what’s been happening, haven’t you? If news made it all the way out here, you must’ve heard.”

“About the attack on Canterlot? Yes. I know about that.”

“And the invasion.” True Silver lowered her voice, as though someone might be listening in. But so far as Jackie could tell, none of the miners leaving their homes outside were going anywhere near this cabin. “Well, the invasion that’s about to happen. Everypony’s talking about it. The royal army starting back up, chances there might even be a draft. It’s not as crazy as it sounds!”

It doesn’t sound crazy,” Jackie said. “I know war is possible. I don’t think Equestria would be trying so hard to make friends with creatures like humans if we had any other choice.”

“Yes! Exactly!” True Silver glanced sideways at Bree, nodding enthusiastically. “What have I been saying this whole time? I’m glad you’ve been making such sensible pen-pals, Spring. It’s a breath of fresh air after living around ponies who just think the might of Celestia is going to protect us from any threat. Motherlode would be a lot safer if they would just accept more of Spring’s help.”

“So you think it might be a target too, huh?” Jackie asked. She probably should’ve stayed quiet about it, but… once she started, it was hard to stop.

“Might be… yes.” True Silver glanced over her shoulder, towards the front of the house. There was a shop there, and beyond that a blacksmith’s workshop. Jackie had only glimpsed it the night before, not looked in detail. “Obviously. Motherlode is only here to begin with because of the mine. Last I checked, dragons value metals as much as ponies do. Maybe more.”

“I don’t think Moire wants to talk about politics, Mom. I think she’s just being polite.” Bree eyed her, her expression harsh enough to make it clear just what Jackie was supposed to say.

But she didn’t have to listen to this engineer. She was the rescuer here, she was the one who was going to get her back to civilization. Everything else was secondary.

Unfortunately for her, Bree seemed to be thinking a little quicker, organic brain notwithstanding. “Actually, I was just talking to her last night. Moire was telling me how she’s so excited about my work, she wants to help me do more of it. By… taking over my delivery route.”

“Really?” True Silver’s eyebrows went up. “She’s a bat, sweetheart. She’s probably not strong enough to pull a cart full of coal. I’m sure if she said that, she didn’t know just how hard it would be.”

“I… didn’t,” Jackie said, without actually contradicting Bree. “But I do want to be helpful while I’m staying with you. The ship I meant to ride out of Motherlode won’t be back in town for another two weeks or so. It’s either here, or trying to convince the inn that I’m not some kind of traitor because I have wings.”

“Good luck with that,” Silver muttered. “Well, that’s a very productive attitude, Moire. I don’t think you’ll be able to take over all my daughter’s work, though. I’ve put her earth pony magic to use ever since she got her cutie mark, and you just aren’t going to have the back for it. But… you could still probably help deliver commissions for me. Not to mention having you work for me would make it impossible for anypony to say you came here as some kind of thief. I’m sure you heard some of that. Tribalist nonsense.”

Jackie nodded. “I… did. A bit.” But it hadn’t been anything new for me. I am a thief. It was just that the primitive natives didn’t have anything she wanted to steal. Except maybe their company.

She didn’t get another chance at Bree for at least another hour. “You’re going with her,” True Silver said, glaring down her daughter.

“But you gave her the map! She doesn’t need me. If she can find her way here, then she’s obviously great with directions.”

“It’s not just about directions,” Silver cut her off. “I’m sure Moire Pattern is great with directions. But having you with her proves to the town that she’s really working for me. Once word gets around, I won’t need you to go with her again.”

“It’s basically the same as making the deliveries myself,” Bree said, pouting. “It’s the same amount of time.”

“Would you rather not have her help?”

That finally silenced her. Soon enough they were on their way up the path. Jackie had been harnessed to an old wooden cart, while Bree carried a notepad. The cart was quite light to her—she might not have earth pony strength, but she had mechanical strength, and that was almost as good. She had to breathe pretty hard, and it might have been worse if they were somewhere warm, but with the chill of the mountain air she felt like she could go on forever. If she needed to.

“I don’t understand why you’re so committed to the act,” Jackie said, as soon as they were far enough from Silver’s house that they wouldn’t be overheard. There were other earth ponies on the path ahead of them—carrying pickaxes or rolling carts of their own on their way to the mine. But none of them got close. One look at Jackie, and they walked as fast as they could. “I found you, Bree.”

“No, I called you,” Bree countered, cutting her off. “I’ve been sending out transmissions for months now. Presumably whatever covert mission you’re on… you just heard them and came straight here, right? You want the intelligence I’ve gathered. My mission reports.”

Jackie shook her head. “What, no? I’m not on a covert—” She trailed off at Bree’s look of disbelief. “Okay, well, maybe I am. But the Tower isn’t. Even your mom knew about humans when I mentioned them. There’s a war on, or there will be soon. My mission is to rescue you.”

“Rescue.” It wasn’t a question. “Who sent you, precisely? Richard?”

Not King Richard, Jackie noted. “No. Your superior with the Technocratic Order, Tesla. The way he put it, you’re one of his best engineers, and he really wants you back. Hence why I’m here. I’m supposed to get you back to Normandy in one piece. He never mentioned collecting any intelligence. Maybe he wants you to deliver that yourself.”

Bree stopped walking, right about the moment they met one of the edges of the switchback trail. It looked off the side of the mountain down at nothing, though the drop wasn’t as dramatic as the one at trail’s end. “Here to rescue me. I’m… amazed Telsa even remembers me. It’s been so long. Long enough to grow up. Long enough to make a life here.”

Maybe someone else would’ve laughed at the little engineer. After all, the life she was discussing was a lie, surrounded by tiny ponies and trapped in a tiny, racist town. Shouldn’t she want to escape?

“Well he remembers you,” Jackie said. “He remembers you enough that he wants you back, and I’m the one he sent.”

“If you… if he…” She shook her head. “Look, my message was clear. I didn’t call for rescue. I don’t want to go anywhere, or do anything.” She lowered her voice, her ears flattening. “I… I messed up here, Jackie. Messed up worse than you ever did. I suggest you take what I’m willing to give—what I’ve learned, as much as possible to help the Tower. Because that’s all you’re going to get. I’m not going.”

She walked away, leaving Jackie struggling to keep up with the cart. Acceleration warning. Remove resistive load. She grunted, kept pushing—but the body wouldn’t let her break it. She trailed behind Bree the rest of the way back into Motherlode.

A few days passed in Normandy much as those before. Sunset Shimmer spent most of her time in meetings of one kind or another, either with the “other side” or to explain important Equestrian concepts to their own people. There were few breaks—the Builders required no food, and only a few hours of recharging a week. That meant that even the ordinary chances to take time off were denied to her, and she had to keep doing what Tesla wanted.

Well, at least in reality. There were still plenty of spare processor cycles, extra computation time she could use for whatever tasks she wanted. Mostly she used it to spend time with Twilight, helping with their copresence attempt. It took about a day of work before she finally got it right, and a ghostly image of Twilight walked with her wherever she went. No one else could see or hear her, not even the other members of the Tower—they’d made sure that she was still running locally on the necklace, with inputs processed directly by Sunset’s own brain.

That meant that, if nothing else, she still had a friend. A friend she could talk to even when she was around other people. Her own brain knew when she was talking to her passenger, and any action she did to interact with Twilight would happen only in virtual space. Trying to imagine how any computer could manage the position of a virtual body and a real one at the same time hurt her brain—but she didn’t have to know how it worked to use it.

Most of her meetings were with the same person, the human scientist named Ada. Occasionally there were a few others involved, more scientists that demonstrated almost as much contempt for Sunset as their leader.

“This is completely wrong,” Ada said, taking a whole stack of paper-printed reports Sunset had brought from the night before and dropping them into a conference room dustbin.

“It’s…” Sunset twitched once, involuntarily. “Weren’t they right, Twilight?”

Behind Ada, Twilight made a face at the scientist. “Perfect. The formatting is exactly like the one you described to me. Completely to spec, thorough, and informative.”

“I asked you not to staple it,” Ada said, propping her feet up on the table across from her. There was no one else in with them today—no creepy scientists, or even Tesla behind her to back her up. For better or worse, most of the meetings weren’t important enough for the other national leaders. It was all Sunset and Ada. “And if you can’t get something that simple right, you obviously haven’t done any of it correctly. I don’t know how you expect us to work with you with your incompetence sabotaging the war effort.”

“She never said anything about… staples.” Twilight walked over to the garbage, lifting out the report. It came out transparent, a subtle reminder to Sunset that everything the copresence did was virtual. That was more useful when Twilight moved chairs, or opened doors. “She’s wasting our time, isn’t she? What a jerk.”

“Yes,” Sunset agreed. But even with time moving unpredictably, she didn’t get a chance to say more. Ada rarely gave her time to think—no sooner had she finished one outrage than it was time to move on to the next.

“But that’s alright, we are here to help Equestria. I sent the requisition orders without your input. I already knew something like this would happen.”

“You… what?” Sunset’s hands clenched into fists. “Half of the soldiers will be ours. How do you expect to make sure they’re given the supplies they need if you don’t even read the report?”

“It can’t be much,” Ada said, not even looking up anymore. She seemed fascinated by what was on her little computer in her lap—though Sunset often suspected it was nothing at all. “You’re just machines. Electricity is more than enough. You don’t have supply lines.”

“That’s… maybe the dumbest thing I’ve heard today,” Sunset snapped, rising from her chair. “It’s fine, I’ll just…” She reached down, snatching the real report out of the trash. “I’ll go talk to the Equestrians myself. I’m sure they’ll be able to tell which of us is trying to sabotage the war effort.”

Twilight winced as she said it, looking away. But Twilight wasn’t really much for social situations—at best, she would sit quietly and try not to bother her. When it came to genuine confrontation, she often looked like she wanted to run away. Sometimes she did—back into the crystal.

She didn’t run this time, even as Ada rose to meet her. “You won’t do that,” she said. “You wouldn’t want them to think we can’t get along, would you? Disloyalty in the ranks?”

“I wouldn’t want them to think a lie,” Sunset said. “Meeting over. Enjoy your afternoon.” She stalked out, ignoring Ada’s calls of protest from behind her.

“I never thought I’d meet someone who deserved actual violence,” Sunset muttered to Twilight as she stalked down the hall. “But now I have. If I see her face one more time, I’m going to break her nose. See how much she brags about that organic blood when it stains that perfect lab coat.”

“You don’t really mean that,” Twilight said, as she stormed down the hall and up towards the front of the building. “You like humans.”

“Humans are fine,” Sunset muttered, mostly under her breath. “But Federation scientists… I don’t know where they find them. But they should put them back.”

Sunset rounded the bend and left through the lobby, past a set of suspicious-looking Federation marines. At least they didn’t try to force her through the scanner again. Yes she was wearing metal. Yes her body was made of metal. No she couldn’t take it off.

She stalked away from the building and towards the Equestrian barracks. The ponies had taken the time to make the bottom floor tall enough for a human to walk in—almost. She would still have to stoop once she went inside, but at least she didn’t have to crawl.

“I think you should try to meet civilians,” Twilight said, trailing behind her. She didn’t walk, just stood in place and appeared beside her again whenever she got too far away. “It would be better if you didn’t blame all of them for the actions of a few.”

She trailed off as Sunset reached the front of the building, just in time to see Starlight emerging with a stacked set of reports. “Starlight!” she said, waving her down.

The pony looked up, eyes narrowing a little, but at least she stopped. “Natasha,” she said. “I didn’t expect to see you today. Your friend at the Federation took care of your portion for you, didn’t she? Very generous of her.”

“Not quite.” Sunset offered the report. “I had no part in writing that report—she did the whole thing without our input. It doesn’t accurately reflect Tower soldiers or our needs.”

“Oh.” Starlight took the report in her magic. “That’s… strange. Why would she do that?”

“I get the idea that she hates us,” Sunset said. “Maybe making sure our soldiers are unprepared every time they deploy with ponies would make her happy. She can imagine more of us will die, or whatever. But it’s my job to make sure that doesn’t happen.”

Starlight opened the report, flipping through it a few pages. But there had been nothing in the trash-can, so there were no stains or other signs it belonged there. “Sometimes I forget you two are still at war. It’s… a strange idea for a pony to think about. Ponies haven’t fought with each other for thousands of years. Nobody really remembers what it’s like.”

Sunset almost interrupted her, thinking to the late nights she spent getting messages back from Jackie. From the sound of it, there were still plenty of ponies who knew exactly what it was like. But she didn’t point that out. She shouldn’t know about backwards little villages in the mountains.

“It’s stupid and makes no sense,” she agreed instead. “It’s like eating your own arm. But we’ve had a hard existence. You should read a natural history book about Earth. They didn’t just fight each other, they fought everything. And they won. So maybe they’re still the kind of ponies you want on your side in a war. Even if they’re incredibly disagreeable sometimes.”

“Yeah.” Starlight Glimmer spent another few seconds eyeing her up and down. “What about… did you ask about that tour? I’m quite interested in seeing how you overlap your camp with multiple realms, without any magic. I’ve seen the remains of what it took for you to cross just one realm, so I want to see what you’ve figured out that we haven’t. And I think Trixie just wants to get to know you because you’re strange.”

Sunset laughed. “I got permission for you. But you were right about the easiest way being… invasive.” She reached back to her neck subconsciously, feeling the little grooves in her skin that would open to data-interface ports. The highband docking connectors she used whenever she went into the Realm without actually transferring herself there. “But there’s some really old tech we can use to show you—it’s called AR. They’re adapting some hardware to the shape of the pony head. You’ll have to wear some glasses, and some headphones, but that’s it. When you’re done, you can just take them off.”

“Glasses, huh? I guess that makes as much sense to enchant as anything else.”

“Yeah.” Sunset looked away. “Set some time aside, then just come in anytime after tomorrow. Whatever I’m doing, I… could use a break. I’m sure they’ll give it to me if I’m doing something diplomatic and important.”

“Then I’ll make sure we come down,” Starlight said. She took a few steps closer, lowering her levitating reports. And her voice. “I don’t know what you’re hiding from us, Natasha, but I’m not like everypony else around here. I’m going to figure out what it is.”

Sunset shrugged. She almost said exactly what she was thinking—why shouldn’t they have a pony advisor? The Federation already had one—one of Twilight’s apprentices or something. But however much she was tempted, she kept her mouth closed. “I don’t have any secrets you would be interested in,” Sunset said, honestly. “Nothing you haven’t seen before. Just a past I’m not proud of. But helping the Tower… helping Equestria… gives me a chance to put some of that right. Maybe you understand.”

That did it. Starlight retreated, looking away. “I think I do.” She left, taking the boring reports with her.