• 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 12: Lyra

Ginny’s plan was every bit as awful as Star had imagined. At least the Commissar had been there quickly to put an end to the degeneracy and get them both in chains. The public trial was like stepping sideways into another reality, where Harmony hadn’t mattered to her and she’d cared about nothing but her own happiness. Only her horrified parents were missing to make the miserable affair complete.

She’d been right in her guess of punishment too—Commissar Golden Shine chose the pillory, where her and Ginny could be separated into their own districts to suffer alone. He slammed her in, settling an uncomfortable twine rope over her shoulders to dig into her back. “No magic during your sentence, criminal,” Golden Shine barked, loud enough for everyone to hear. “Or I’ll make sure your next punishment is much worse. Pain will help you atone for what you’ve done, and help you avoid actions that would bring disharmony on our city.” He twisted the lock into place, turning to face the market crowd. “When one pony steps out of line, we all do. Let this one be an example to each of you.”

He stormed off, leaving her entirely alone, and helpless. Right in the center of the market, with hundreds circling around her every moment. But she didn’t need to worry about being hurt—nopony got within ten feet of her, like her sin might contaminate them as well. There was no formal enforcement of district boundaries in Hollow Shades, but even the few griffons she saw in the crowd spared no compassion for her.

Princess, I hope I didn’t commit some crime you never told me about. If I was sent here as a punishment, just tell me. I deserve to know.

Hollow Shades might not have much imperial power, but it had top-tier public torture devices. The wood was rock-hard, grinding against her neck and forelegs. Not only that, but it occupied a place of prominence with actual sunlight beating right into her eyes. Closing them did nothing to fight the dehydration.

It’s just a day. Nopony ever died from that. I’m acting a role. This was supposed to happen. It’s okay.

As the minutes turned to hours, any confidence in the sanctity of her mission faded to pain. Higher callings could do very little when her shoulders and throat cried out, and every pair of eyes she saw was filled with contempt.

Star Orchid was delirious by then, though she couldn’t have said if it was from dehydration or the social pressure of so many angry ponies.

But then, when the crowd was thickest, somepony approached her. A little earth pony, maybe twelve or thirteen, her legs covered in loamy soil and her expression furious. She stopped just beside her, lifting her satchel up towards Star.

There was… a tube inside, like a straw she might’ve seen at a proper Concord restaurant. “Hey, this whole situation is shit,” she swore, in an accent so strange that Star woke.

This is it. Geist’s plan wasn’t stupid and self-serving after all. This is when we get recruited.

“Are you just going to stand there? Put the tube in your mouth and drink it before people notice.”

People? Another anachronism. But Star was thirstier than she was curious, and she latched on greedily. The water inside was much better than anything their cheap housing could give them, tasting as clean in her mouth as a Concord sink. Cold too, like she’d somehow captured ice in that satchel. It was heaven in her mouth—like the princess herself had called down Harmony’s love.

“What’s that word you people use, bucking? This is bucking insane. Punishing you like this because you’re in a relationship with a weird bird. I mean, I wouldn’t want to kiss a beak, but who am I to say you can’t?”

“What’s…” She stopped, looking down at the board around her neck. She felt so stiff, and it hadn’t been hung there for her. “What’s it say?”

The pony hesitated, glancing at it. Her ears flattened, and she looked away awkwardly. “Sorry, uh… sorry. I haven’t figured out how to read your language yet. Someone else will have to help with that.”

Finally creatures had started to notice. Ponies stared at her, suspicion obvious on every face. Even the young pony seemed to notice, because she flipped her satchel closed, straightening. Here we go. This is what we’ve been waiting for. The rebellion is trying to win me over by sharing some water and pretending to be on my side. Now’s when they pounce.

Some part of her was confused at such a young representative, but maybe that was part of their strategy. Young and stupid ponies were the ones most likely to be tricked into ruining their lives. “Don’t get caught next time, yeah? Maybe… not in public?” She left, vanishing back into the crowd without another word. No calling cards, no meetings, no request for repayment.

Was she just… trying to live the virtue of Kindness? Bold choice of venue if that was the case, where so many ponies would be angry at her for even getting close.

Her gift was a blessing and a curse from then on. She didn’t feel like the sun was cooking her alive anymore, but she also didn’t have the blissful ignorance of delirium to cover up just how embarrassing this whole situation was.

So close. That pony should’ve been the one for sure. She fit the profile in so many other ways—carrying some strange pack that might be enchanted, or might be Darktech. Her tone was like some ancient Canterlot aristocrat, twisted into the crudest gutter-talk. And she didn’t seem afraid that Star’s sins would rub off on her.

Apparently not, though. She drew plenty of eyes in the next few hours, but no more compassion, and no recruitment offers. When night came, Golden Shine came for her in the empty marketplace, with a key and a sneer of contempt on his face. He opened her stocks, letting her free at last.

“I hope you learned your lesson,” he said loudly. “Hollow Shades might be far from Concord, but Harmony’s eyes are never too distant to see a sinner.”

He glowered at her for a few moments more, then turned back the way he’d come, leaving her to find her own way home.

She found Ginny waiting just inside the boarding house, sitting alone at a corner table. The room fell silent as she entered, punctuated only with the occasional whisper of mockery.

“How was your side?” she asked, keeping her tone as neutral as she could. There were creatures watching down here—but just climbing upstairs after everything probably wouldn’t have seemed very authentic.

“Enlightening,” Ginny said, smiling at her for a moment. Just a few seconds, before she turned back to her drink.

Star got one of her own, drinking in relative silence. She half-expected the landlord to throw them onto the street, but… the unicorn never even looked at them. So desperate to fill this place that you’re going to let a pair of criminals live here?

After a few hours of whispering and staring, they finally made their way upstairs, into the shelter of Star’s silence spell.

“It worked,” Ginny declared proudly, positively bouncing with satisfaction. “Only two punishments—I was expecting that to take longer. And from what I heard, you got something too.”

She shook her head, slumping onto the bed. She lay the wrong way, her legs and head dangling over the side. “I thought I would, but no. Just some filly who felt bad for us. Didn’t like how harsh we were being treated.”

“And you… didn’t ask why?” Ginny stopped right in front of her, raising a skeptical eyebrow. “Some strange pony doesn’t care that you’re openly defying Harmony’s rules, and you didn’t even ask why?”

She giggled, climbing into bed beside her and laying her feathery back against Star’s. “It’s okay, I already got us an in. We’ll probably see her there waiting for us too.”

Star was silent for a long time. Her whole body ached, and she was still in shock over her day of misery and punishment. Of all the things she thought might happen for her one day, experiencing a life of sin in such vivid detail hadn’t been one of her plans.

It’s just a reminder of why we’re obedient to Harmony. That’s where I could’ve gone. Be thankful, Star.

“What kind of meeting did you get for us?”

Ginny sat up again, expression as smug as ever. “Exactly what you’d expect, basically. Every city outside Concord has their dissidents… but most of them aren’t plotting an armed revolt like this one apparently is. It’s not like we’ll get walked into the inner circle, though… we’ll be meeting with somepony who doesn’t matter, to test our competence and our wiliness to break the law. They didn’t say, but expect them to give us something… petty and stupid. Stealing records from the library, or destroying some public property.”

Star sat up, glowering at her. “You say that so casually. A forbidden but empty relationship to larceny or sabotage. No big deal. Will Golden Shine cut off one of our hooves if we get caught? I’m telling you right now, that is a bridge too far for this act.”

“Of course not!” Ginny puffed out her feathery chest, indignant. “I mean, Golden Shine would give us the same punishment as anypony else. But he’d have to catch us first. That’s what’s not gonna happen. Did you forget who I was? Rob an armory, or burn some records of the local dissidents… I could do that in my sleep.”

The longer Jamie lived in Hollow Shades, the closer she came to tearing off her rose-tinted glasses.

Yes, she was surrounded by other people. She had plenty of chances for long conversations with them. The emergency shelter was basically a gigantic tomb run by an angry computer—at least Hollow Shades was alive.

Her first week could’ve been worse, for sure. Shy had secured her somewhere to work after her third day, at a large rooftop garden in the Kindness district. They hadn’t ever had an earth pony before, whatever that meant, so they were eager for her help.

Unfortunately for them, Jamie’s help was pretty disappointing. She didn’t know the first thing about farming or even keeping a houseplant alive, a fact they would swiftly learn. It wasn’t like she killed anything. She didn’t mix salt into the soil or forget to water. But whatever magical success they expected, she couldn’t deliver.

But as nice as it was to start building a life here, exposure did not make her love the place more. Hollow Shades might be a remote outpost of the “Equestrian” government, but it seemed to suffer even worse than the Empire ever had. What kind of city had a fucking gallows in the center of town?

I need to know,” she declared, while she sat with Shy for dinner in her deceptively massive mansion. “What’s this ‘Harmony’ thing that people worship so much? I tried to ask about it at work, but everybody got super awkward.”

Shy tensed at that admission, staring down at her plate with a painfully nervous expression. “You don’t… How can you not know what Harmony is, Empathy? That’s like… Even griffons know what friendship is. Even minotaurs. Even changelings, now.”

Empathy. The name still sounded strange to her, and she often failed to recognize it when someone at work used it on her. She was getting better at it, though. At least she didn’t correct people with her real name. “We have friendship. We have love and families and all the rest of it. But I’ve never heard of Harmony. Ponies talk about it like it’s more than just a good idea you should look for. I know what the word means, but they say it like it’s a god.”

“Well…” Fluttershy turned over her salad with a fork, looking thoughtful. “I guess you could call Harmony a god. Or a goddess, since most ponies think of it as a female concept. Like a… great Alicorn, that rules above the princess. That’s as powerful compared to her as she is compared to us. So powerful that the rest of us would turn to dust if we got anywhere close to it, but that Princess Twilight Sparkle can talk to, and share information about what it wants.”

“So it is a god,” Jamie said. “A god who delivers revelation through its… chosen infallible representative. Are there creatures who don’t believe in this god? Are you allowed to worship something else if you want? Like are the Christians and Jews and Muslims and… that’s a stupid question. Forget I said that. I have no idea where you’d learn our religions with all the humans gone. Nevermind that last part.”

Shy never seemed upset when she said things that didn’t make sense, only uncomfortably curious. Jamie got the sense that one day Shy was going to strap her down and not let her get up until she explained every single thing she hadn’t understood. But she hadn’t done that yet because of an overwhelming sense of politeness.

“Other things?” She shook her head hurriedly. “You shouldn’t talk like that outside. According to the princess, the world only has two types of creatures. The ones trying to follow Harmony’s laws, and the ones who spread disharmony. Usually the ones who spread disharmony get a chance to change their ways, and to learn the truth. But it’s not the kind of thing that very many creatures would try.

“Every city has at least one Commissar, to make sure that Harmony’s will is respected even when the princess and Concord are far away. Don’t ever ask ours questions—ignorance is a crime they’ll punish.”

“I know all about the punishment part,” Jamie muttered, expression dark. “I saw what he did to that lesbian couple. Bloody barbaric. You think the Commissar will be upset I gave one of them water?”

Shy winced, pushing her still mostly-full plate aside. “Probably you… shouldn’t ever do anything like that again. And if you ever get arrested, just say you were following one of the Cardinal Virtues. Whichever one is closest to what you were doing. Loyalty, Generosity, Kindness… you remember. That can sometimes mean you get a lighter sentence.”

“For helping people.” Jamie shook her head, shoving away from her food. “Shy, I know… I know I probably shouldn’t say this. But don’t you think it’s… wrong, that the world is this way? A long time ago, people were treated this way… you know what happened? There were riots. Protests. Revolutions. Seems like this place is overdue for a revolution.”

All of Shy’s politeness evaporated in an instant, and she was on top of Jamie like a tiger. Shy shoved her back against a wall, stuffing a hoof into her mouth and holding her there. “Listen to me, Empathy,” she whispered, voice grave. “I don’t care what you say… but if you said things like that anywhere else in the world, you’d end up hanging from the gallows.”

Shy let go, and Jamie scrambled back, horrified at the strangely physical display. She backed away, but Shy followed close behind. “Twilight built systems to keep herself in power. She invented a religion, she erased history, she built police and secret police and a horrible undead army. We can’t stop her. If Discord couldn’t do it, then we can’t. I can’t watch another good pony throw their life away on something stupid. You’ll never win. Nopony can.”

She collapsed to her haunches at last, breathing heavily.

Jamie didn’t have a clue what half of that stuff had even meant, but she didn’t care just now. Her safe shelter, with the kind and supportive Shy, no longer felt quite so safe. She stopped thinking rationally, and she ran.

She reached the door in a few strides, then slipped outside into the chill night air. Hollow Shades was lit with only a few slivers of moonlight, barely enough to see where she was going.

There was probably a curfew, or something similarly oppressive. Maybe their whole fucking world was under martial law all the time. Jamie didn’t care about that just now, she just wanted to get away. So she ran.

Shy’s mansion was located near the “bowl” in the Kindness side, so she picked the steepest part of the slope and ran. Kindness was poorly maintained compared to the rest of the city, with deep potholes and trails of waste on either side of the street. But she ignored all that.

Running would’ve tripped her on her face a few weeks ago, but Jamie was getting better. She’d been a pony long enough that she would probably need more physical therapy just to walk on two legs again, when this was all over.

The streets weren’t totally empty. Occasionally she saw another figure, something wearing dark robes with head obscured. She sped up whenever she did, her hooves clopping painfully beneath her. But she didn’t care about the pain either, she just wanted to run.

At least running gave her some control over her future. When Jamie was human, jogging for even a few minutes would’ve made her lungs start to burn and her body scream in protest. But she felt none of that now. Her asthma was gone, she wasn’t short-sighted anymore. This stupid horse body had been built well enough that she could probably run forever.

Until she came to the edge of a cliff, and nearly ran right off into oblivion. She skidded to a halt on the rocky ground, trailing pebbles and little stones as she went. She squealed, kicking at the dirt—and finally came to a stop.

She stayed on the edge, panting from the effort of her run. She hadn’t felt it at the time, but as soon as she stopped straining her body, it was as though the weakness caught up with her all at once. She backed a few steps away from the edge, slumping to a sitting position.

Her stupid run had curved her around the edge of the city, so that she had a clear view of all Hollow Shades below her. In some ways it was beautiful, with its tightly packed houses and little lights visible from inside. But she could only pretend it was something beautiful. The planet isn’t dying anymore, now society is. Did we make the right trade? It didn’t seem like the Traditionalists had been right. A more primitive society was not free of oppression and misery.

I could keep my head down and just live out the rest of my life. I could learn their stupid religion and pretend to believe. It wouldn’t be that hard.

Somewhere far away, there were ancient idealists revolted by that suggestion. But Jamie could be practical. Was the truth more important than survival?

I don’t want to change the world. But if every other human left dies in a hole somewhere… Jamie hadn’t signed up for this. She didn’t want to be out here. But even so, knowing that her inaction had killed them, she wouldn’t be able to live with the guilt. We weren’t always the best, but we could be better than this.

The jungle all around Hollow Shades didn’t get cold exactly, nor did its persistent blanket of insects ever really go away. But Jamie’s new body was sturdy, and she didn’t seem bothered by that much.

She should probably go back to Shy soon. The pony had been nothing but friendly with her since her first moments, and now she would worry. Maybe if she hurried, she could make it back without getting caught. She would apologize, then… then she didn’t know.

Far to her right, the jungle encroached on the edge of the cliff, a tight wall of foliage untouched by generations of loggers. Jamie turned, straining her eyes—something moved in the gloom. She backed towards the path, a switch-backed-slope of rough steps cut in the stone, and kept clear of debris through many footfalls.

Had some jungle cat heard her distress? She didn’t have her gun up here, or any other human possession. She sped up, tucking her tail. But she didn’t run. Predators wouldn’t be able to resist if she did that.

“Jamie Sanders,” said a voice—a voice in perfect synthesized English, not the strange accents of the locals.

Jamie stopped, spinning wildly around. A shape stepped out of the trees, resolving in the moonlight there.

It was a search and rescue drone, the kind built in humanoid shape to navigate warzones and dangerous buildings. That meant it was taller than she was, covered in reflective tape in yellow stripes that caught the light of the moon down its sides. Its body was lightweight and skeletal, legs ending in hooflike stumps instead of feet. It remained constantly in motion, gyroscopes keeping it upright while it stood.

“Epsilon?” she asked, taking a step closer to it. She lowered her voice to a whisper, glancing back down the trail. She couldn’t see any pony coming, or any of the winged ponies in the sky overhead. “What the hell are you doing here? I thought you didn’t want to get caught?”

The drone made no approximation of human body language. It had no face to read expressions, and its head was nothing more than a constantly rotating lidar/camera array. “It was a necessary step, Jamie Sanders. All precautions have been observed. The chance that you would step outside this Correction Agent settlement could not be ignored.”

“What?” She moved a little closer, tilting her head to the side. “Epsilon, have you been reading what I sent you? These people are fucking insane. They’ve got a horrible religion, and a damn inquisition enforcing all their rules. And best of all, humanity has been cast as their Satan. We’re screwed, there’s nothing I can do.”

Epsilon remained silent for a moment, processing all that. It could understand human speech, but it also wasn’t a GAI. Its ability to reason was probably strained to the breaking point. “You have not explored all avenues. Determination: physically impossible.”

“Yeah, I know.” She turned her back on the machine, taking a few steps closer to the cliff and gesturing down at the village. “I don’t know, maybe we need to… build a spacecraft or something? Get up to one of the orbital platforms, colonize that instead? Getting self-sufficient will probably be a bitch, but I’m not sure what else we can do.”

“The emergency shelters were not constructed for space colonization,” Epsilon declared. “Their purpose is to reclaim Homeworld, once its terraforming is complete.”

She turned, nostrils flaring as she bared down on the stupid rescue bot. It didn’t quite have a human form, but it was still taller than she was, albeit uncanny in its glittering plastic shell. “Let me spell it out, Epsilon. The one in charge of this world right now has been waging a war to conquer the whole thing for the last thousand years. She won. She has an army, she has powers we can’t imagine. We can’t fight her. All we can do is run, and let our… great-great-grandkids figure out a way to fix this. Once we’ve recovered.”

“Delay is unacceptable,” Epsilon insisted. “The shelter’s preservation hardware is failing at a rate of .021% per year. The humans of emergency shelter 198.64-Beta must be preserved at any cost.”

“You have another way?” she asked, glowering at it. At least they were far outside the city. Probably her voice wouldn’t carry. “I don’t have a fucking clue what we should do, and I’m probably ten times smarter than you! Or hundreds, or… I don’t even know.”

“Affirmative,” it said, reaching back towards the satchel it was carrying. It held out something towards her—something with a sharp metal tip. Jamie heard a brief puff of gas, and a pain in her neck. Then the world started to swim. She slumped to one side, her body going numb.

“This plan failed. It will be iterated.”

Star moved nervously through the dark streets of Hollow Shades, conscious of many eyes on her. Of course she knew that there wasn’t any real danger to her being out here. She might not be a trained warrior, but she’d spent her entire life studying magic. If any creature thought they were going to attack her in the dark, they would swiftly discover they’d made a serious miscalculation.

“These wannabe rebellions,” Ginny whispered, so quietly that she had to lean in close to hear. “They always want to meet in the dead of night. This is exactly the time we’d be looking for them, but they just keep doing it.”

“This one must know something about staying hidden,” Star whispered back. Of course she didn’t have the same blazé attitude when it came to discussing their mission. She didn’t have Geist’s strange sense for other creatures, and certainty about when they were being observed and when they weren’t. “We haven’t found them so far.”

“And yet…” Ginny whispered. “What are we doing right now?”

They were making their way through the marketplace, every stall closed and boarded. Occasionally a member of the city watch would pass by, and they’d have to duck behind a cart or to a nearby street. But they didn’t seem terribly interested in catching anyone out after curfew.

“It’s just like Padlock said. They stay away from Kindness district. Even with a new Commissar in the city, the watch keeps to the old ways. Why do you think that is?”

Star answered by reflex, the same way she might’ve done if she was still at the Twilight court where she belonged. “One pony can’t run everything. Even the infallible Princess Twilight has only the same twenty-four hours the rest of us do. She has to delegate.”

Ginny rolled her eyes, then yanked on Star’s leg. She pulled her not towards any actual building, but a sewer grate. Star could see why even in the moonlight, and she shuddered inwardly at the sight. The sewer was unlocked, and rested just out of place. It was waiting for them.

“You’re bucking kidding me. They’re meeting down here? No way Golden Shine hasn’t torn the underground to pieces by now looking for them.”

“Can’t be there every night,” Ginny said. “Probably just a quiet place for a temporary meeting.”

A quiet and disgusting place. Star kept her mouth firmly closed as they slipped under the grate one at a time, following a narrow path on the side of a deep channel. The market was almost at the lowest point in the city, and here the waste flowed freely.

Her horn glowed, and a little bubble appeared around her face. The air cleared abruptly, all organic smells replaced with simple ozone. She could live with that.

“Hey, sweetheart, want to give me a little magic while you’re at it?” Ginny asked. “Since we’re so close and all, and we’ve been united through our terrible hardship.”

“Sure,” she said. “Just like how you carried me over the mud during the walk here. I remember how hard you worked to make the trip easier for me.” She kept walking, ignoring Ginny’s complaint. Apparently even changelings could be disgusted.

Her avian companion huffed loudly, turning up her tail and speeding past her. “Little unicorn girlfriend, always looking out for me. I’ve never seen a love as pure as ours.”

At least they didn’t have far to go. A narrow bridge crossed the gloomy corridor, taking them away from the channel and into a little chamber cut into the wall. While everything else down here was ancient and rotting, this one had a sturdy wooden door and a lock.

Golden Shine must know about this, right? It’s so close to the entrance.

Ginny reached the door, then knocked several times in a light, strange pattern.

For a few seconds only silence answered them, silence and the sound of an incalculably foul river.

But even Ginny didn’t have anything sharp to say, not when they were expecting someone to be waiting for them.

Finally the door swung open a crack. The faint glow of lantern-light emerged from within, illuminating a room of dense shelves and maintenance equipment. Shovels, spades, bags of cement—and a pony.

“You brought the unicorn,” said the voice. A mare, terse and skeptical. “We invited you.”

Ginny stepped back, wrapping a foreleg around Star’s shoulder and squeezing her close. “We’re a package, didn’t you see what they did to us? Take it or buckin’ leave it.”

Star couldn’t get a good view of the pony on the other side of the door. She had a pair of harsh gold eyes behind a flat wooden mask, which was covered completely by a dark brown robe. She sounded middle-aged, though that too was just a guess. “Unicorn,” the speaker said gruffly, turning on her. “Are you willing to work together with creatures that aren’t as harmonious as you? We’re a team in here—we don’t play favorites just because the princess does.”

As if Twilight had the power to decide Harmony’s words for it. She stiffened, then nodded. “I, uh… you’ve seen my girlfriend, right?” She leaned closer to Ginny for a moment, feeling none of her usual defensive revulsion. For once, this was part of the act. “Do I look like I care?”

“Fair point.” The pony stepped back, spinning around. “Get inside then, you two. Long night ahead for all of us.”

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