• Published 27th Nov 2019
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Hour of Twilight - Starscribe

Twilight Sparkle was Celestia's chosen heir, and under her rule Equestria was destined to prosper. But then her friends passed, as mortal ponies always do, and she was left to rule alone. The years were not kind to her after that.

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Chapter 1: Andromeda

Star Orchid adjusted her dress, settling the high collar about her shoulders. She stared back at her reflection for several seconds, inspecting each crease and little gemstone. Her own nervous face stared back, with faint bags under her eyes and a few strands of her mane out of place.

There was nothing she could do about the former—it was what came with months of service in the Twilight court. It was a privilege to be around ponies of such power—but the proximity could use a pony up and spit her out. She reached down for her comb, running it through her mane with a few strokes of her magic. Here’s hoping this doesn’t go the way I imagine.

She hurried from her changing room and out onto the Royal floor, where vast crystal pillars overlooked a spectacular view of Concord’s skyline far below. Thousands of crystal buildings packed in close, each one more beautiful and perfect than the last. Ponies thronged the streets outside, oblivious to the work that kept Concord flying.

She slowed for a moment as she rounded the corner to the central elevator, smiling at everypony she saw. Most were servants, who did little more than bow politely and let her pass. Servants and royal guards got out of the way as the elevator opened, letting her in first.

An earth pony in a crisp purple uniform waited at the controls, watching her submissively. “Advisor Orchid, where are we going this fine morning?”

“Down,” she said, adjusting her little bow in the polished crystal reflection of the wall. “All the way down.”

He gulped, then worked the levers. The doors slid shut, and a faint magical hum followed them down. The elevator’s central window showed the castle blurring by for a moment, before they passed under Concord’s ground level, and into the metal service corridors and reinforced buttresses of the castle’s lower layers.

The operator’s usual banter was gone, and she couldn’t blame him. Even travel down to the bottom of the castle was its own reminder of the high price Concord paid for peace. A price ponies like Star Orchid paid more than any other creature.

“Dungeons,” he announced, as they slowed to a stop. “Shall I wait for you, Advisor Star Orchid?”

“No,” she said, stepping out and turning around to face him. Mostly out of politeness—she didn’t want to leave him with any impression that this trip was to do with him. “But be ready for a return trip soon enough. I have a feeling this one is going to the princess before too long.”

He nodded crisply. “Friendship protects us,” he recited.

“Friendship makes us free,” she returned, watching as the doors slid closed. The elevator hummed away, as fast as its crystal motors could go.

Half a dozen royal guards waited down here, two at each doorway. She made her way through the concrete passage, straight up to the doors labeled “Holding Cells”.

These weren’t the ceremonial guards of Concord either, with their silly colored armor and dull weapons. The guards down here wore metal armor dented and scratched with heavy use, and the lightspears on their backs looked polished and ready to fire.

“Advisor Star Orchid,” she said. “Here to interrogate prisoner, uh…” She fished into a pocket with her magic, removing a slip of paper. “D17-PV.”

One of the guards nodded to her, turning to the side and going for his keys. The other smiled faintly at her. “Last one. You about ready to get this business over with?”

She let herself return the expression. “As the princess wills, of course. But I hope she wills something else after this.”

“We all do,” said the other, as the door clicked open. “Buck, if they haven’t stunk up the holding cells forever.” He pushed the heavy metal door open with a grunt of effort, holding it that way.

“Don’t bother locking that,” she muttered, as she passed through. “I have instructions to take this one to the princess herself if this doesn’t work out. And you know how the other sixteen went.”

“Harmony have mercy on the unfriendly,” the guard muttered in response. “Good luck, sister. For his sake.”

She made her way along a hallway of identical holding cells, each one the same plain box without a window. The doors of most were open even so, only closing when they had a prisoner inside.

The lights of Concord briefly flickered overhead, going dark for a few seconds as the ground shifted under her. She stopped walking, resting one hoof on the wall, and waiting for the city to settle into place. She felt the hum of magic, and further away, the shattering of stone and tearing of metal.

A few moments later, and the city stopped moving. Its feasting done for another little while, she hurried the rest of the way to the only occupied cell.

There were more guards outside, jailers instead of Royal Guard. Both wore padded armor instead of metal, and carried clubs. There were no lightspears here, not when prisoners might be killed. “Good morning, Advisor Orchid,” said Dusky Ward, the head jailer. “I thought I’d cut out the time you’d waste looking for me. Friendship waits for nopony.”

She nodded briskly. You didn’t want me to do another one without you. You’re just sour you missed out on so many beatings. “I’ve got bad news for you, Ward. This will be a minimal interrogation—if this prisoner isn’t cooperative, the princess has ordered a personal delivery. She wants him undamaged.”

Ward tensed, and she could make out the fire behind those eyes. Anger at another missed opportunity, no doubt. She better be as sure as Harmony never to disappoint the princess, because she’d find no friends waiting down here. “Pity. We wouldn’t have come to this if you had used proper methods with the other prisoners. Your gentleness is no kindness to a creature already condemned.”

She turned away, not hiding her contempt. “Just open the door, Dusky Ward. Maybe this one will be different. In seventeen prisoners, there must be one willing to trade.”

The other guard waited for Ward’s nod, then began to work the door. It rattled and clicked, then swung open. “And bring the objects, if you would,” she added, before hurrying inside.

She could tell from the way Ward’s bat-wings shifted as he moved that he was unhappy with her orders to his own stallion—good. A pony like him clearly needed to learn a few of the important principles of friendship over again.

Prisoner D17 sat dejected in the center of the room, his thick neck collared with steel and chained to the cement floor. His massive limbs looked as strong as an earth pony, and his tail could’ve swung like a club.

But the initial riots were over. The captured diamond dogs were no match for the royal guards of Concord. And now only this prisoner remained. “Good morning,” Star said, walking around until she stood just in front of D17, where she would be out of reach if he decided to snap and get violent with her. “I’m here to have a word with you. I hope you don’t mind.”

The massive diamond dog opened both eyes, causing her to freeze and stare. One was dark brown, just like most of their drab kind. But the other had white around the outside, and faint, geometric lines of gold visible underneath.

Darktech. She shuddered, clutching one hoof about her collar for a moment. “Friendship protect me from the darkness and preserve me through temptation.”

Behind her, Dusky Ward laughed. “What, you didn’t know about this one? Touched by eviler than most of the monsters who ever fouled my dungeon. There’s more on its chest, see where the fur isn’t growing? Stitches. Darktech in its guts. I’ve had an exorcist waiting for the day it refused forgiveness. We’re ready to be pure.”

Through all that, the dog only closed its natural eye, watching her with the Darktech abomination. It didn’t glide smoothly like an eye should, but jerked to follow her, visibly twisting as it watched.

Focus, Star. You’re trying to save his life, remember?

She cleared her throat, then straightened. “Prisoner D17… do you have a name? Diamond dogs have names, don’t they?”

He grunted, and for a moment she wondered if this would be another conversation like 12 or 14. But then he said, “Max.”

“Max,” she repeated, tongue twisting over the strange name. “Do you know why you’re here?”

“Monster in the sky,” the diamond dog said. “Found our burrow when it ate the mine. No stone unbroken.”

“No,” she said, stiffening a little. She walked a few steps closer, where she could glare into his face. “You’re here because you were found guilty of promoting disharmony. Your forbidden settlement was using Darktech. You weren’t working together with Concord in mutual friendship. High crimes, I’m afraid.”

The diamond dog looked genuinely confused at her words. But he didn’t rise from his seat. “Not ponies. Why would Max and pack follow pony laws? We obey the Alpha.”

“Told you it was hopeless,” Ward said. “Are you certain you don’t want me to take over? I could get better results.”

“I am certain,” she said, turning to glare at him. As she looked, the guard returned pushing a cart covered in black cloth. Runes were sewn into the fabric in purple thread, each one bearing a powerful ward against the evil within. “Prisoner Max… it doesn’t matter whether or not you agree with our authority. As you can plainly see, you are subject to it. But you can have a future here, if you want. Friendship includes forgiveness. Would you like to be forgiven?”

He nodded slightly. “I think so. Max is a hard worker. Good digger. Good at smelling gems.”

It was as far as she’d gotten with any of the others. But never any further. She took another step closer to him. Now if he moved too quickly, he might catch her with those terrible paws—she’d have to keep her magic ready. “Diamond dogs don’t eat gems,” she said. Not a question. “So why do you mine them?”

Max seemed confused by her question. “For… the Alpha,” he said. “We must find gems. Dig gems. Bring gems. Great rewards.”

“From who?” she asked. “Who rewards you? Your forbidden settlement had no wealth of gemstones. Where did they go?”

Max opened his mouth to answer—then twitched slightly, and shut it again. His eyes glazed a little, and no sound came out.

“Just like the others…” she muttered, furious. “It’s like they’re all… enchanted.” But there were no spells on the prisoner. That was why a unicorn advisor was sent to do interviews like this. She knew mind magic better than most ponies ever cared to.

“Listen to me, Max,” she said. “Princess Twilight Sparkle, Regent of Creation, has ordered you give us the answers to our questions. If you don’t, she’s going to ask them herself.” She lowered her voice to a whisper, though Dusky Ward and his guard would be able to hear just fine. “You don’t want that to happen, Max, and I don’t either. The princess isn’t very gentle. You’re better off telling me.”

“Tell you… what?” he asked.

“You have a very strange eye,” she said. “How did you come by it?”

“Accident,” Max answered, after a few nervous seconds. “Cave in. Dogs died. I was not dead, so the Alpha healed me.”

Maybe this isn’t hopeless after all, she thought. The Alpha—it was a title, anyway. Their Darktech fugitive? “Tell me about the Alpha.”

“Strongest dog in the pack. He is—” and his expression went blank, just like before. His mouth hung slack, exposing frightening canines. Then he recovered, and shut it again, looking as though they hadn’t been speaking.

“Are you sure you don’t want any hardware?” Ward asked. “This is painful to watch.”

“I’m sure,” she said, marching past him to the tray, and carefully pushing the cloth aside. Several objects lay underneath, those that had been discovered with the prisoners. She lifted one in her magic, carrying it over.

“What is this?” she asked, turning the oversized rod through the air out of his reach. There was a large handle on one end, with controls better suited to a diamond-dog paw than a pony hoof. The other end had a flat plate, connected to the central rod with coiled wire.

“Digger,” Max said. “Shatters rock. Easy tunnels.”

“Liar,” Ward snapped. “It’s thinner than a pony’s foreleg. It would snap as soon as you swung it. Just be honest—you’re not getting out. None of the other dogs did. Nopony escapes from my prison.”

Max jerked at his collar, pulling the chains taut as he lurched. The chain groaned against the cement floor—then held. He snapped and barked at Dusky Ward. “Alphas will make you pay for the puppies you killed! Never forget what you did to us!”

Star Orchid winced, walking calmly back to the cart and replacing the Darktech “digger.” Once they got like this, any chance of learning useful information was gone.

This is your fault, Dusky Ward. What happens next is on your conscience, not mine.

Jamie’s world was frozen. Not the occasional shiver of a wintery day, but the bone-deep ache one step away from death. Her mind flickered on the edge of a precipice, one that seemed to be reaching its tendrils up to get her.

She could perceive her body only in flashes—naked flesh in a coffin of plastic and not-water, tissues saturated with antifreeze. A heart that didn’t beat, and lungs that didn’t open. Yet there was something of thought and memory there. She had lived an eternity in the cold, trapped in a body that couldn’t move and a brain that crawled along at glacial pace. No sight, and only the occasional hiss of chemicals into her body every hour. Twenty-four ticks to the circuit, three hundred sixty-five times, and a thousand thousand times more.

Don’t put me back there. I don’t want to die.

“Colonial refugee Jamie Sanders. Please direct your attention upward.” The voice had no emotion, not even a hint of variation to its cadence. A simple speech-synthesis program, without many resources invested in running it.

If any part of her body still worked anymore, it wasn’t anything she could control. But she could hear the voice, or maybe imagine she heard its thoughts. Anything was better than the hiss of chemical and the slow feeling of her body boiling in its own radiation.

“Jamie Sanders, I am required by protocol to inform you that your cryostasis pod has become critically damaged and no resources are available to repair it.”

No. Please. I don’t want to die.

Long ago, along patterns of neurons that felt thick with ice, she could remember tossing the last of her possessions into a little plastic bin, and resting one hand on the edge of the pod. A coffin, really, for herself and the rest of her species. She’d thought the odds of ever leaving were small. Now maybe she was right.

“According to the terms of the UN: Emergency Powers Declaration for Mechanical Intelligence, I am required to provide enough information for you to grant informed consent. In the first case, life support to your remaining non-necrotic tissue and your pod will be allowed to empty, then be scrapped to maintain other pods.”

No, she screamed, without a voice. I’m not ready!

“Emergency shelter 198.64-Beta is facing critical shortages that require significant intervention to mitigate—intervention of a human specialist. Evaluation of your personality profile and civilian service record indicates you pass the minimum competence requirement to qualify. In the event you do not wish to allow your pod to be terminated, you may volunteer to be revived early.”

Yes! she thought, mind racing. Her pulse would be too, if she still had one. But the unfeeling electronics keeping her alive didn’t really care how excited she was—she’d get exactly as much life support as the system allocated to her.

The machine was still speaking. “The terms of the Declaration for Mechanical Intelligence require consent be obtained for any alteration to your body. The resources to repair and replace necrotic tissue will only be spared in the event you grant consent. Note: your consent will constitute agreement to the terms of the UN: Emergency Service Compact for the duration of your assigned mission, or your natural lifespan, whichever comes first.”

Jamie was hardly awake enough to feel resentment towards the ancient authors of those documents, who thought they were so clever in penning protections against virtual tyranny by artificial intelligence. But in the eons since, at least one of those identical emergency intelligences had found a way to press her into indentured servitude. Agree to everything it wanted, or it pulled the plug.

How can I even answer you? At least if her body was necrotic, that explained why she couldn’t see anything, couldn’t really even feel anything. She had sound, but that was a simple sensation to simulate. Or maybe the program had reconstructed just enough of one ear for that.

Concentration on that was more than the faint wisps of life-support could manage. Her mind started to waver, and she began to drift.

“Consent is required, colonial refugee. Are you willing to allow alterations to your reconstructed body, and do you agree to perform the duties that will be explained to you once you have the mental capacity to understand them?”

It didn’t matter what the computer was asking. It might be pressuring her into a life of slavery, or maybe it was just changing the color of her hair. Either way, only death waited at her refusal. She had the mental capacity to understand what it meant to feel cold just fine.

Yes! she thought, as loudly as she could. I consent, I agree, whatever! Don’t kill me!

For a long time, she felt nothing in response. It was like talking to someone on a phone who suddenly couldn’t seem to hear you, but a thousand times worse.

Her fears were in vain, however, as the voice finally returned. “Processing of observed scan readings indicate consent. You will be returned to suspension while necessary replacement tissue is fabricated.”

Wait, no! Don’t send me back to the cold! But this time her thoughts were in vain. The chill crept in around her, slowing her mind to that terrible crawl where only the hissing of chemical substrate mattered, and even her memories were so crusted with ice that she couldn’t bring them back.

Compared to the eternity she had suffered in the void, she might’ve only been put back for an afternoon. Finally, after a little forever slowly rotting in the dark, she felt warmth again. It didn’t even matter that warming up brought a capacity for agony she hadn’t thought she’d known. It didn’t matter that she wanted to scream in horrified pain, but that her lungs didn’t respond. It was something, anything different from the cold. She’d take the torture if it meant she would live again.

Another eternity later, she did.

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