• 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 9: Signature

But Starlight didn’t come back—not for another few days, long enough that Sunset Shimmer started feeling like she might be going insane. If it hadn’t been for Twilight, she probably already would have. The not-pony was someone she could talk to, even during the most intense duty shifts. Eventually these humans are going to learn everything they want to know about pony culture, and they’re going to let me leave.

So she thought, but so far that moment hadn’t come. There was always some new principle to explain—cutie marks, complexities of language, marital customs—the list went on. Sunset couldn’t figure out why they cared about most of it, which had nothing at all to do with Equestria’s ability to fight a war.

But Tesla never explained. “We’ve had the advantage of many years to observe the Federation,” he said. “We know how they think, because we know everything they do. Every aspect of how a culture is structured speaks to something about it. Every custom arises from somewhere, or reflects a value that can be better appreciated.”

That sounded an awful lot like she was helping humans take advantage of ponies somehow, but since she couldn’t exactly figure out how… she couldn’t say no.

But she wasn’t completely alone in the Builder camp. She’d made a few friends, like Sir Bradley. He was always nearby, always a shout or radio call away. And not just for official business.

“Try again,” he said, settling the guitar into her hands. “I think you’ll get it this time.”

“You’re just waiting to see if I rip out another string,” Sunset muttered, expression dark.

The knight just laughed. “That was pretty impressive too. But I’d prefer you didn’t break it. I don’t have any more spares.”

She sat beside him in one of the many plain tents—except that to them, it looked like a cliff somewhere on Earth. Somewhere dry and barren, with huge rock formations in the distance. They sat in a cafe on the edge of a canyon, looking down on a distant world that Sunset couldn’t see very well.

There was no one else in the cafe with them, even though they weren’t alone in the tent. It was a little like copresence, but in reverse. Which meant that Twilight couldn’t follow her without the knight knowing, so she’d stayed behind.

“How about…” She trailed off, closing her eyes and letting her fingers feel the strings. There were musical programs she could download, of course. Swaps that would let her reproduce sheet music perfectly. But Brad had practically shouted at the idea of her using one of them.

She started to play. Just one chord, strummed back and forth. The sound echoed around her, off the furniture. The low-burning cafe candles and the sky full of stars made her feel almost like she’d actually accomplished something.

Or maybe that was the knight. He clapped, grinning. “Well, nothing broke that time. And it sounds like you have an ear, because that was perfect. Now try putting two of those together. That’s all most guitar playing is—the progression of one chord to the next. Timing, tune, volume…”

“That’s more than just chords.”

“Yeah, well…” He laughed again. “I guess so. But you said it.”

She just stared, but he didn’t cave. Sir Bradley could probably stare down a dragon without flinching.

He walked her through the next few chords, and the progression of a simple melody. A human song, with a folksy vibe to it, though he hadn’t told her the name. “Where are we, anyway?” she asked, once she’d passed the guitar back. She was making good progress—but then as soon as he had it back in his hands, Brad would play something wonderful and make her efforts look childish.

But he froze as soon as she asked the question, expression darkening. “We’re… in history,” he said. He got up, walking a few steps away from her. She didn’t call for him to stay—though she wanted to.

But he didn’t leave her behind. Apparently her question hadn’t been forbidden, just uncomfortable. He stopped on the edge of the wall, right on the edge of the canyon, then sat down opposite her.

“My family owned this place, before… when Earth was still nice. Playing the guitar was how I helped out. Just quiet stuff in the background, while people ate their meals…” He started playing another song, and sang along with it for a few bars before trailing off. It sounded like Spanish, but Sunset couldn’t tell for sure. It was still hard to tell human languages apart, particularly when she had plugins for most translation.

“It’s an amazing location,” Sunset said. “Right on the edge of… is that the Grand Canyon?”

He nodded. “Yeah. We’re one of the only places this far out. Family is indigenous, so… maybe none of that matters anymore.” He switched to something else—a melody much faster, angier. He got up, pacing back and forth in front of her. “I was supposed to inherit this place from my father—keep it in the family, you know?”

“But you didn’t get to,” Sunset supplied. “It got blown up.”

Bradley laughed. “God no. They didn’t nuke the whole planet, Sunset. But just because the building is still there doesn’t mean it will ever exist again. The canyon is dead. All this life… well, it’s all scrub and fungus now. No coyote, no vulture, no lizard.”

“I’m sorry.” She lowered her head, looking away from him. “I didn’t mean to hurt you, Brad.”

He tossed her the guitar again—so suddenly that the old Sunset might’ve missed it. But new Sunset had much better reflexes, and she snatched it without even thinking. “I’m not hurt. I wanted you to see it. I think… I think maybe when this whole thing is over, I’m gonna find a place just like this. There are some parts of Equestria warm enough, I hear. Some interesting places for tourists to visit. Do you think ponies would come and eat at a human cafe?”

“Absolutely. They love novelty. Just don’t try to feed them any meat.” Sunset went back to strumming. “How long do you think it will take? Nobody will tell me anything about the war. I know it started… I think it must’ve gone badly. All those little ships flew away, and only a few came back. But I guess I’m just not trustworthy enough to talk to.”

“It’s not that,” Sir Bradley said, in a tone that told her it was exactly that. “You’re an unknown element to most people. Your record is so secret that they can’t even look at it.” He gestured in the air beside her, and a set of overlapping documents appeared there with helpful category names. “Education,” “Early Life,” “Awards,” “Competence Certifications” and others. Each stack had no actual text visible, just a bright red ribbon around the outside, and a padlock in the center. Brad touched one of them, making the whole thing light up and expand.

Text filled the air beside her, text so dense that she almost couldn’t see him through it. She tried to read—but there was just too much. A few glances were enough for her to get the gist, though. It all said that she was effectively beyond questioning, that her abilities had been vouched for by Tesla himself and she was on assignment in Normandy with “unlimited authority and dispensation.”

“Of course they’re scared of you,” Brad finished, banishing it all with a wave of his hand. “They think you’re Telsa’s fucking kid with qualification like that. Nobody wants to piss him off, so they all keep you at arm’s length.”

“Except you,” she observed. The chords she was practicing sounded better and better the more time she went over them. She was mastering the timing. “You’re not afraid.”

“I’m a knight. He can’t touch me without pissing off the king.” He shook his head. “You could probably find out anything you wanted about the war. But I can tell you, so long as… well, so long as it doesn’t get out. We need all kinds of forms and permissions to share it. With other Tower representatives, with our allies. Even with the innocent little ponies.”

“My lips are sealed,” she said, though she wasn’t actually sure she’d keep them that way. If something put Equestria at risk…

“I can only tell you what I know. My commander… Sir Gray… he’s the best knight you ever met. While my friends and I were enjoying our retirement, he was out hunting slavers. When High Lord Rayleigh told him to shoot down an evacuation ship, he told Rayleigh to fuck off instead. That kind of knight.”

“I… I think I met him,” Sunset said, remembering a young adult beside a statute of the king. “He was…” She trailed off. I probably shouldn’t tell him about Jackie stealing the sword. “Respectful to me.”

Brad laughed. He seemed to be able to tell she was keeping something—he watched her a little longer, eyes lingering on her hands and leg. I need to stop twitching when I lie. “Yeah, that. Well, we all thought he was immortal. But apparently not, because he went out with a whole detachment of ponies on some kind of counterattack. But it was a slaughter. A dozen ponies died, and both knights. He… died to save them, like the bastard he was. Guess who’s next in seniority?” He didn’t give her time to speculate. “Yep! And since I’m captain of the guard, I can tell you anything I want.”

He sat back down beside her, leaning close. Sunset tensed, her heartbeat racing. Was he about to… no, he was just whispering. “No one has a fucking clue how some primitive barbarians out in a desert on the other side of the world managed to kill two knights and two dozen drone fighters. Equestria shouldn’t have the technology to do it, and you were the most advanced ones on your planet. So explain what happened.”

He pulled back, relaxing a little. “Actually, that’s not hypothetical. Maybe you can explain what happened. That would be really great for me, Sunset. Since the king wants a report, and I don’t have a clue.” He gestured, and a model of a drone fighter appeared in the air off the side of the cafe. It was massive—as long as the entire wall, made entirely of gleaming metal, with weapons bristling from every opening.

“These things can pull hypersonic and still use half their weapons. They can deploy for eighty hours straight. They can detonate their entire payload with nearly a kiloton of subnuclear force. Explain to me what kills twenty of these with two of our best pilots?”

“Where were they?” Sunset asked. “I can… think of a few things.” Granted, not a whole lot of the words he’d just said made sense to her. It was harder to look them up covertly when he was sitting against her like this. He’d notice her little twitching motions, and then she’d have to admit that she didn’t know. “But they’re all about location.”

“Typhon,” he answered. “I’m probably not supposed to say that, even to you. But pretend I didn’t and just answer the question.”

“Dragons,” Sunset muttered, settling both hands in her lap. “That… that’s probably how they died. Didn’t a few of your soldiers already get killed by dragons? You must’ve known you were going to their city.”

“Yeah,” he admitted. “I think we did… I don’t know for sure, since I wasn’t captain back then. Everything about Equestria is…” He made a frustrated gesture in the air in front of her. “Confusing. All these years we’ve lived with laws we understand. Where we come from, living creatures don’t survive machine gun fire. When something can fly, that means it’s weaker, not tougher. But we never had a person be assigned to move the sun around, so…”

“So learn quickly,” Sunset finished for him. “You’re still powerful warriors. Your help could make the difference for Equestria. Without it… we won’t win this war.”

“We’re all helping,” Brad said. There was no lack of sincerity in his voice now, and he straightened the flowers on a nearby table, pushing in a stray chair. “Seeing a planet like yours, it’s like being home again. Everyone who’s living out here in the real world, everyone who still cares about what that means—they want to see you win this. Like you said, we’ve already had soldiers die. We’re ready for that. Humans have always been willing to die if the cause is right. That’s what being a knight is about.”

But for every moment like that, there were plenty more wasted in the company of people she wanted to see locked in Tartarus. Every meeting with the scientist called Samil made her skin crawl, and his favorite underling wasn’t much better.

It took about a week for her to get a message from Trixie—inviting her to the performance the show-unicorn had bragged about. Sunset had no way of replying, since neither of them had radio—but it was probably good that she couldn’t.

“I’ll be performing just before sundown outside the Orion amphitheater. I think that might be on the other side of camp, so you might need to ask permission or whatever.

I hope you can come.”

She didn’t have to ask—the Orion amphitheater was located near the center of both camps, though in practice it was filled with Federation soldiers almost all the time, drinking and cavorting and playing cards. But she could already see as the time for Trixie’s show got closer that the showpony had spared no effort in making her work special. She’d scattered the usual crowds, hanging colored banners from the smooth metal shell and wheeling in carts of supplies.

But Sunset watched from a distance, well out of sight of the handful of ponies setting it up, or even the crowd of Federation soldiers gathered around to stare.

“She doesn’t need me to come,” she muttered. “Look, she’s already got a huge audience. There probably won’t be enough seats for all those soldiers.”

Twilight seemed unimpressed with her logic. “That’s more reason for you to go, not less. Remember what you said when we first got here? You wanted to meet them! You wanted to see what humans were really like.”

“I met them,” she said. “I’ve seen as much of Ada as I ever want to.”

Twilight tugged her by the arm, though the gesture couldn’t really force her to do anything. “Come on! Ponies are magical, I want to see what a pony magic show is like.”

Sunset stumbled forward, away from the Tower side of Normandy. Once she’d made it the first few steps, she had no choice but to keep going. Twilight was right. “Not that impressive,” she answered. “We don’t usually… have them. Maybe centuries ago unicorns could impress earth ponies with their feats, but these days everypony knows what we can do. It’s still powerful, but it isn’t magical.

Twilight squinted at her through her glasses.

“Okay, it is magical. But you know what I mean.”

“Natasha!” Trixie exclaimed from up ahead of her. “Oh, I’m so glad you could come. For a minute there I was afraid you’d forgotten about me.”

“Not a—” But Trixie didn’t seem to actually care what she had to say.

“Oh, I’ve got a seat reserved for you up in front. You’re going to be very impressed. I know your world has nothing like what I’m going to show you.”

Some part of her wanted to correct her—but it wasn’t worth ruining her cover. Almost. “I’m sure it doesn’t,” she said instead. “I’ve been looking forward to this all week.”

“Right here,” Trixie exclaimed, pointing at an empty seat in the very front row. There was no one around it, no one sitting anywhere near the front. “Guests of honor go up front. You were right about not many Tower humans being interested… but I’m sure after you tell them about what you saw, we’ll have better attendance at the reprisal show.” She stepped back, nodding towards a little rolling trailer near the back of the stage. “Anyway, I should finish getting ready. See you at the afterparty!” She vanished in a flash, dramatically enough that the humans all around stopped to stare at the place she’d been.

She must’ve developed her own version of the standard short-range teleport rote. I’ve never seen so much smoke.

Sunset sat down in the front row. There was another sheet of paper beside her on the seat, with a name written on it, but no one came to use it. No one sat anywhere else on the bench either, not with her there.

Trixie had understated things when she said that the Tower was less interested. She was the only digital person here.

“Now’s your chance to talk to someone,” Twilight said, appearing next to her without any exaggerated flashes of light. “Just turn around, maybe the soldiers behind you will want to say something. They sound fun.”

They did sound like they were having fun—and that they were already at least a little drunk. “I don’t think I can learn anything from them,” Sunset muttered. “I already knew that humans liked cider.”

Someone was coming down the aisle. Starlight Glimmer, conversing with someone.

“I don’t know if I can believe anything like that could exist without seeing it with my own eyes,” she said. “It’s not that I don’t think you’re right, but… that’s challenging all the fundamental assumptions we have about life. It means all of Equestrian science is wrong.”

Starlight passed her in the aisle, with a single human following close behind. Another organic, in a crisp black and white uniform. She removed the coat from her shoulders, settling it on the concrete bench before sitting down directly beside Sunset.

Sunset didn’t have to stare to get a good look—a second was all she needed, then she could review the image without looking strange. She was obviously a high officer, maybe the highest member of the Federation military she’d ever seen. Her uniform was covered with ribbons, with the name “Colven” stitched above the breast.

“Who is this, Twilight? Mind running the—”

“No, I don’t mind.” Beside her, a tablet appeared in Twilight’s lap, and she started working on it. In reality, she would be using Sunset’s own communication systems. But they’d already worked things out so the requests would look like they came from Sunset.

Other builders could do their own data requests at the same time as they interacted with one another. But Sunset was still new at this, and so having someone else to do it helped take the load off.

“I hope you don’t mind the company,” said the military woman, glancing back at Sunset for the first time. She did a little double-take as her eyes settled on Sunset’s face—but it was almost imperceptible, and if what she saw bothered her, she was very good at hiding it. “Alexi Colven.”

Sunset took the offered hand. “Natasha Wagner,” she said. “I guess you must’ve met Trixie and Starlight too.”

“Star Admiral Alexi Colven,” Twilight supplied from beside her, reading off her tablet. “Current suspected commander of the Imperial Capital-Class Aegis. Her ship is… bigger than the whole Tower. Buck me this is insane. Apparently she was… they’re calling her the ‘Scourge of Mercury,’ since her fleet dismantled the Excalibur battlegroup, and secured the Federation’s dominance of the solar system.”

Sunset tensed, then realized she was still holding Alexi’s hand and quickly let go. The human hadn’t noticed—time moved slowly for her frequently, so Sunset could get away with a few faster seconds here or there.

“I think it would be truer to say that they met me,” Alexi said, chuckling politely. “But I’m always eager to get to know the natives better. I would just talk to my sister, but she flew off in that primitive airship and hasn’t come back. Family, right?”

“Yeah.” Sunset probably sounded flat, but it was only because she was trying to keep herself from panicking.

“So I’m sitting next to… some kind of evil warlord? Like Samil?”

“No,” Twilight said. “I mean… no, doesn’t look like it. She’s an admiral, yeah. She must’ve been quite young at the time, based on this… but that’s it. She didn’t attack cities, or innocents. Looks like she… yeah. When she destroyed the Mercury forges, she gave the engineers two full days to evacuate. She’s an enemy, but not a warlord.”

From the front of the stage, Trixie’s voice echoed—though Trixie herself wasn’t visible. So she could throw her voice, or use a few simple sound spells. Either way, the humans seemed unimpressed. Of course, they just think it’s a speaker.

“Can…” Sunset lowered her voice to a whisper, but Alexi seemed to be listening. “Can your people understand that? Even though she’s speaking Equestrian?”

Alexi nodded. “You must’ve forgotten how the Nanophage works. It’s been a long time, can’t really blame you. We have translation programs too. Equestrian is a standard template by now.”

“Oh, good.”

Trixie appeared in another flash of light and smoke, and this time it was enough to make most of the chatting soldiers fall silent.

It wasn’t the show Sunset was expecting, that was for sure. None of the standard unicorn spells were there, and instead she seemed to be relying primarily on slight-of-hoof and misdirection.

Whatever it was, the humans were enjoying it. Even Alexi in the front row.

“This is just like a show I saw in Vegas once. You ever make it to Vegas, Natasha? There were these two magicians who performed at the Rio… I think their tricks might’ve been a little better thought-out. But maybe less sincere. That little unicorn really means it.”

Sunset shook her head. “Can’t say I ever made it there.” But that wasn’t the point, and Alexi barely seemed to hear her.

The audience didn’t shower Trixie with roses or deafen her with applause, but by the time she’d finished there was a sizeable crowd beyond the seats, even including a few Tower legionaries.

“I hope you liked it,” Starlight said, as soon as Trixie had vanished backstage. “Trixie has been talking about this all week now. Practicing in all her spare time, perfecting her best tricks. She’s really passionate about impressing you.”

“It was the most familiar alien magic show I’ve ever seen,” Alexi said, scooping her jacket off the chair, brushing off a little dust, then slipping it on. “It sounds like it kept the enlisted entertained, too. So you won’t hear any complaining from me.”

“It was wonderful,” Sunset said honestly. It was much less impressive than real pony magic could be, or even the fake magic Builders could use in the realm. But the quality of the performance came from more than that. “Trixie has a real talent as a showpony. I wouldn’t have believed you if you’d told me that the first day we met.”

Starlight nodded. “It’s her special talent for sure. Trixie makes for an excellent performer, even in the absence of… more productive interests. Or common sense. There was this one time—”

Trixie emerged from around the stage, no longer wearing any of her costume. She still attracted a crowd of onlooking humans, but she pushed her way through until she stood beside them.

“I know you two wouldn’t want to disappoint me after such an excellent show,” Trixie said. “Stage crew and I usually have an afterparty somewhere nearby—today the guards loaned us their barracks. I know it won’t be as exciting as some of the places I’ve performed, but… you should definitely come.”

“Absolutely,” Alexi said, before Sunset could answer. “It was a great show, Trixie. I can’t wait to meet some of the other ponies who helped you put it on.”

“Sure,” Sunset agreed. “I wouldn’t mind a party.” There would be humans there—but at least now she’d met one she didn’t want to strangle.

Jackie trundled down the switchbacks of Motherlode, her cart heavy with ingots of steel and copper. She’d spent most of the day making deliveries, worked so hard that parts of her back fur were peeling, and she could feel her joints give a little with every step.

They could make bodies to survive anything—bodies that could self-repair, bodies that could work in space. But she was a first-generation pony, with every flaw that an early adopter suffered.

“This is it, Sunset. This stupid engineer deserves to be left behind when the dragons get here. Tell me why I shouldn’t just leave her here.”

Sunset’s responses were slower incoming than they had been. Jackie guessed that Tesla and his ilk were working her unfairly too—but she had no way of knowing that for sure. Even if her suspicions were right, what could she do? Sunset was on her own. And she seemed to be adapting to humans pretty well, considering.

“Don’t you want to be free? Bringing her back is how to make Tesla leave you alone. Maybe even be human again. We were going to trade, remember?”

“Do you still want that?”

“Maybe. Are there people with multiple bodies? It seems like it would be silly to have just one. Like wearing a different dress to a different party.”

Jackie almost laughed out loud. Except that there were plenty of suspicious earth ponies watching her, mostly adults with children. A shadow was descending on her from above, which could only mean one pony. Jackie kept on her path, and did her best to ignore it.

“That’s a rich thing to say. Before the war, that was way more common. There was a kind of tourism in the Tower-aligned states, body renting. You could send your mind to any country you want, basically for free, then rent a body by the hour to go out on the town. The way real people rent bikes. And there were plenty of rich people who kept a body ready in multiple cities, or… multiple planets. I’ve never heard of someone keeping bodies for different species before, but I guess we didn’t really have any before now.”

“I could be the first,” Sunset eventually responded. “Being human has advantages. I wish we had hands like you. I’m spoiled after having them for all this time.”

“She says. But we’ve never had magic. I bet there are some people who would trade. I know of one—this stupid engineer.”

Sunset’s voice sounded confused. “She’s stupid? How can she be an engineer?”

“Not like that. Brigid Curie is supposed to be one of the loyalest, most faithful people in the Tower. She basically wrote the forking library on her own. Lots of the new drones were her, too. So why is she running?”

“I don’t know why I would have to tell you this. Would you go back to being alive right now if you could? Give up all the advantages of being digital?” She didn’t actually wait for a response. Up above Jackie, Frostline was coming in for a landing in front of her, pulling something along behind her. “Wouldn’t she have to go back to being digital if she came along with you? Maybe she sees being digital as dying, like you.”

“She shouldn’t,” Jackie pouted, but she couldn’t keep her voice from sounding a little petulant. “She’s already crossed the threshold once. She knows it’s possible. And if it is, then she knows she still had a soul.”

“Hey Moire!” Frostline exclaimed, touching down on the path just above her. “Having fun pretending to be an earth pony?”

Jackie stopped the walking program, glancing over her shoulder. “Oh yeah, it’s a blast.”

“I can see that.” Frostline’s eyes narrowed. “You should really sleep more. You look terrible. Anyway…” She reached behind her, at the thing she’d been carrying. It was dark and angry, with a fluffy, cold exterior. “I think you’ll like this.” She tossed it at Jackie’s face.

She was more than fast enough to catch it, whatever it was. It flew slowly, like a balloon. But then it hit her, dissolving into fog and puffing away in less than a second. “The heck was that?”

“I have… an idea.” Frostline started at her, dragging the rest of the dark mass forward so Jackie could see it. It was a cloud, or a piece of one, packed so close it seemed to leak snow as she dragged it. Frostline reached in, and took a huge bite. “Little piece of thunderstorm like this… they’re delicious. But we almost never get any with the mountains.”

She held it out to Jackie, and she leaned forward to do as the pony had done.

There was nothing there. The cloud puffed away around her, though it did light up her HUD for a second. “Electrostatic exposure warning! Minimize exposure or risk permanent damage.”

She pulled her face back. “I can’t say I’m a fan.”

Frostline shook her head. “I’ve… never seen a cloud do that, even to an earth pony. Must be… faulty or something.” She shrugged shoving the cloud upward. As soon as she let go, it started to drift. “I’ll find you a better one next time. Check it on my mom first.”

“Sure,” Jackie said. “If you want, I guess. I don’t really need clouds. I’m perfectly happy on the ground without any.”

“Yeah, I believe that.” Frostline shoved past her, jostling the cart. “I can see it in your face. You’re trapped here. You want to be up there, where you belong. You know my mom could help you.”

“I’m sure,” Jackie agreed. “The offer is kind, but—” There’s no chance in hell this body could fly. We need more engineering for that. “Not right now. I’m just here to help Silver Spring.”

“If you say so.” Frostline walked past her, skipping down the path. “Have fun taking the cart the rest of the way, Moire. I’ll see you there.”

And she took off, gliding down the slope with an infuriating grin on her face.