• 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 17: Indis

This is so stupid I’m going to get caught I can’t believe I’m doing this why am I so stupid.

Jamie crept through the shelter, shoulders stooped low and eyes alert. Of course she knew that any moment her little escape could end in failure—at this point, she expected it. But considering the death that likely waited for her if she actually carried out the AI’s plan, she had to try.

Every emergency shelter has exactly the same layout. All I have to do is get to the top floor, then activate the emergency release. At least there were some benefits to lowest bidder construction.

She’d tossed everything she could gather into a saddlebag, which was mostly just her tablet computer and personal effects from around her room. All the tools of her first mission were still with Shy, and anything really useful would be locked up in the armory all the way at the bottom of the shelter.

“I cannot permit you to leave, Citizen Jamie. Knowledge of our location would result in critical mission failure. It cannot exist, even in the minds of citizens.”

Of course, in a facility with cameras covering almost the entire building and a self-repairing maintenance system, there was no way to hide from the AI. The best she’d been able to manage was hiding her intentions until she got to level 3, where the physical therapy rooms were located. It was really a race against the AI’s processing and response.

“127 North Meridian Street,” she responded under her breath. “I know where it is already. You can’t stop me from leaving, Epsilon. The shelter has a manual release.”

She passed the final elevator, its doors opening for her automatically. The temptation to ride all the way to the top was powerful—but much more likely, it would seal her inside like a cage until Epsilon had built something to contain her. She ignored it, going for the stairs with their glowing exit sign. She shoved them open with a shoulder, then stared up in despair.

Even level 2 was deep, twenty flights deep. She ran, her stupid wings spreading slightly of their own accord. She could control them, in the sense that a toddler placed in the driver’s seat of a fighter jet could press any button they could reach. But while moving had come easily to her after a little practice, using her wings was still a mystery.

At least being a horse gave her one thing: endurance. Her old human body would’ve been huffing and struggling after a few flights, barely able to keep going. But the horse she’d become seemed to have an endless reserve of strength. The only danger was tripping herself on stairs meant for creatures twice her size. But if children could run upstairs, then so could kid-sized horses.

She didn’t slow down, not until the final emergency light was in sight. She twisted slightly, slamming into the door with her shoulder. It was locked, she felt it push back against her—for a second. Steel ground and protested, then tore out of her way, the metal door caving in around the lock and slamming all the way to the concrete wall. It landed on the floor behind her a second later with an echoing roar of broken metal.

How the fuck did I just do that?

Jamie stopped for a moment beside the elevator, the floor illuminated only by the pale green glow of the exit sign behind her. The shelter’s automatic lights hadn’t come on.

“You may not leave this way,” Epsilon said. “You must be properly delivered to the nearby settlement. Your service is required in diplomacy. In the unlikely event that mission fails, you cannot be allowed to relay information of the shelter’s location. Return to your quarters.”

Jamie held still, shivering a moment as she looked out into the darkness. The hallway forked in three directions, into sections of the shelter so old they’d probably not been visited since the shelter was sealed. These systems were all about interfacing with resources on the surface, or used to quarantine new survivors before freezing them, or about the emergency clinics that could be used to treat the wounded. There was also a visitors center, used to tempt government officials into greater financial support.

It could all be broken down now, not maintained for years. There could be monsters here. The door had been locked, after all. Jamie had just unsealed it. Dust lifted at her hooves, and the air was stale in her nostrils.

Which way is the exit? She had seen the map a hundred times while she sat in the little quarantine room, playing on the system’s intranet. It was straight ahead, so survivors could make it to the safety of deep caverns if the site was about to be bombed.

She gritted her teeth, then advanced. She walked slowly, extending one tentative hoof with each step to probe the darkness.

If I knew how to use this stupid horn, I could hold out my tablet for light. Then again, maybe she didn’t have to fight with it. She hesitated, reaching around to the bag and flipping it open. She pressed on the tablet with a hoof, long enough for the screen to light up.

Then she took it in her mouth, holding delicately. Its flexible display was waterproof of course—but if her body was strong enough to break through steel doors without any pain, it probably wasn’t Jamie-proof.

Now she could see where she was going, but in exchange she wouldn’t be able to respond to Epsilon’s stupid threats.

“You will not leave this shelter until it’s time to deliver you to the settlement,” Epsilon said. “You will be stopped, violently if necessary. Return to your quarters.”

Delivered is right. Delivered right into the barrel of a gun pointed at my head. No thank you.

The entrance to the shelter wasn’t much further now. Up here were the cement barricades meant to prevent any vehicles from entering, or for cover if their troops ended up in a shooting war with some enemy. Utterly asinine, considering how few battles were even fought that way in the time she’d left behind. If anything breached the entrance, they would all be dead long before base security had anything to say about it.

There were no ancient battles here, just concrete thick with dust that trailed around her like a little cloud. She did her best to ignore it, but with her mouth partially open, there was no getting around how much she was probably breathing. The taste of old things was soon thick on her tongue, speeding her steps. The armored front door was just ahead. The chamber was a massive dome, with a fancy mural painted on the ceiling above her. Its colors were entirely gone, and only faint traces of the lines remained.

The door itself wasn’t nearly as big as the chamber might suggest, large enough for maybe five people to walk abreast and not much higher. Even if she could force her way through a fire door, Jamie didn’t imagine for a second she would be able to muscle her way through this one.

More secure facilities would probably use something like imperium, or some other near-indestructible metal forged somewhere in orbit. For this mass-produced shelter, it would just be steel. There was no point protecting a door that much when an intruder could just dig through the hardened cement around it.

Jamie’s mind drifted back as she walked through that ancient lobby. People were crowded into every corner around her, clothes shredded and bodies bleeding. Women begged for the door to be reopened, pleading for family that were somewhere on the other side. UN security personnel wearing faceless helmets sent them away. Jamie clutched at her monetary token physical wallet, the only thing she’d managed to bring with her.

“I-I’m not on the list,” she squeaked at the input desk. “But I’m willing to pay. I’ve got—”

A stern woman sat on the other side of bulletproof glass, glaring at her through her horn-rimmed glasses. “What the fuck are we supposed to do with monetary tokens, kid?” She shoved a clipboard through the slot. “Lucky for you, we’ve got plenty of idiots who didn’t evacuate when they were told. Fill this out, and take that with you.”

The input desk was empty now, the glass so dirty that she couldn’t see through to the other side. Organic debris was spread nearby, possibly the remains of ancient forms.

Did they refuse anyone? Where could they go, if there weren’t enough pods waiting for them? Jamie stared through the glass for a few moments, but there was something in there she didn’t want to see too closely. She turned hurriedly away, and crossed the vast hall to the security booth.

There was another heavy steel door blocking the way, and no windows to see inside. But this time it wasn’t locked. What was the point, with every occupant asleep? If an intruder got in, they’d already breached the entrance.

Jamie lifted a hoof, pushing the door open.

Security was cleaner than the intake office. The shelves of the temporary armory were empty, falling in places where moisture had got in and corroded the furniture over centuries. There was obviously no maintenance up here, for sections of the shelter that wouldn’t be needed again. Only the instrument panel on the far wall looked intact, its hyperstable glastic shell protecting the “manual release” lever.

She’d been told about this thing, the same way passengers on busses were instructed on the use of the emergency exits. This thing was entirely mechanical, and could open the shelter destructively if necessary. But that was only if the door didn’t open. Epsilon couldn’t stop her now.

Jamie crossed the room, settling her tablet down on a desk as she fumbled with the latch cover. It was meant for hands, obviously. Hands that she no longer had.

Something rumbled in the darkness behind the doorway—a set of treads. A drone had been waiting here, as she’d feared.

If she had to guess, it was exactly the same one that had captured her last time, with its mechanical treads and extremely simplistic shape. It didn’t have an animal tranquilizer this time. Instead it held a tactical shotgun in both grips, aimed squarely at her head. It tracked her smoothly as she moved, as smoothly as a photographer drone.

“Y-you… you can’t use that on me,” Jamie stammered. “AI can’t hurt humans. There are rules. That gun probably isn’t even loaded.”

Not that I know what a loaded gun would even look like. Was there a way to tell by looking down the barrel?

“Humans,” Epsilon repeated. “You are no longer human, citizen Jamie.”

Silence. She stared back at the drone, defiant. Are you bluffing, or really that stupid? Then again, this was the same barely intelligent program that thought it was a good idea to make her into the same species as their god. So probably it was that stupid.

She froze. “What do you want?”

“Come with this robot and do no attempt to resist. If you do, it will kill you. The chosen directive may frighten you, but it is this shelter’s best odds for the survival of its sleeping residents. You will not risk its discovery with your actions.”

“Alright.” She lowered her head, defeated. “I won’t.”

The robot escorted her back to her cell.

Star Orchid should’ve stayed in their room. Ginny was gone now, up to the surface to keep up their cover—or so she said. That meant Star herself should be busy keeping her head down and remaining plausibly cooperative.

They’d only been in the “Undercastle” a week now, and done only a single assignment while there. Something simple, delivering an unmarked box to a field agent just before they boarded the town’s weekly express train. Ginny had been all about secrecy then, not even attempting to look inside the box and see what they were carrying.

“Assignment said not to open it, so we don’t,” she said, later that night. “You have to see every assignment we’re given as our next test. Proof that we’re loyal to Stygian’s Gate. We have to pass every test, until suddenly… we’re gone. I’ll be the one to tell you when it’s time to leave.”

But now Ginny was gone, and instead of enjoying a little space to herself, Star was out looking for trouble.

Technically she was looking for information on their new organization, so that she had enough for the report she would soon send back to Twilight.

Of course it would all have to remain in her head until they escaped—the Iron Lord might be feeble and helpless, but she’d seen his many eyes. That observation was no idle threat. Some part of her wondered if those eyes followed even into her bedroom. What can’t he see?

Apparently he couldn’t see a pony out where they weren’t supposed to be, because so far nothing bad had happened. No sirens, no alarms. As far as she could tell, she was free to explore without restraint.

Except that her magical necklace wasn’t just some spell that opened doors. It was an incredibly powerful enchantment, one that could tell where she was supposed to go, and where she wasn’t. She’d picked the first door at random as soon as she left their common room, and nothing happened. Then she approached the one leading to the gym, and it opened without resistance.

What’s your secret, shell? She stopped in the hall, staring down at it. She’d never actually touched a real seashell before—Concord might be perfect, but it wasn’t on the shore of any oceans. She concentrated, using her horn to see through the shell to any spells that might be concealed within.

Nothing. Not even a trickle of magic. Yet there was plenty of exposure to it, so it had to be the doors that held the real power. She stopped in front of the gym door, frowning at it. Layered metal, forged perfectly flat in the shop of a master craftspony. Not even a hint of warping down the middle, or the single mark of a hammer or anvil.

You’re richer than most ponies in Magic district. How?

Geist’s idea that they raised money doing awful criminal acts seemed plausible enough, except that everypony they’d met so far had been so nice. She couldn’t imagine Wellspring going around and killing random creatures, or pouring poison into a well, or salting a field.

That’s probably how they get us. Act all innocent, so we don’t look closely at them. Then they pounce.

She sat on her haunches, scrutinizing the door with her magic as she’d searched the necklace. She felt through it, as Twilight herself had taught her. The shape of the rune would be worked into the metal, somewhere, if only by the repetition of the magic on it. More likely, it would be melted somewhere, maybe between two layers of metal.

It wasn’t the offensive nothing of an anti-magic field, that made her horn go numb and spread a sour taste on her tongue. There was just… nothing there. The same she might sense from any entirely un-enchanted metal door.

“Something wrong?” asked a voice from behind her. “You’re staring quite intently at that door. Did your key die? Bucking useless things…”

She spun around, ears flattening with embarrassment. She’d been trying to sneak through this facility and steal its secrets for her princess, but she hadn’t even made it out past where she belonged. You thought I should be a spy like you, Ginny? Because I’m too stupid to get past some locked doors.

Or maybe just too afraid. There was an incredibly simple spell for opening locks. It would probably work on these, regardless of the strange magic they used to stay closed. Or… she thought it would, anyway.

The voice belonged to a hippogriff stallion; half a head taller than she was. His appearance was so entirely unexpected that at first she didn’t even know what she was looking at, and she thought he was just a petite-looking bird.

Then she gulped. “I, uh… uh…” She shuffled, pawing at the floor. “I think I just… don’t know what I’m doing. I just… just got here, and…” And now your disharmony is going to spread, and Twilight will know, and I’ll never be welcome in the court again. She turned away from him, to no avail. He followed her, staring between the key and the wall.

“New, I can see that. New ponies usually have trouble with the tech. I guess that’s what our tyrant wants for the world, eh? Keep us ignorant, so we don’t have the tools to fight her. Depend on magic, where she’s the master, so the common creatures won’t be able to fight. Typical.”

Stars above that’s exactly what a pony of the rebellion would say. And she was standing in their castle. What did she expect them to do, praise the princess all the time? Wellspring was so much subtler about it. She didn’t even seem to want to get rid of Twilight, only convince her to change.

She dared another glance at the stallion, and felt her face grow warm with embarrassment. And he’s hot. Harmony help me. He was supposed to look like an unholy amalgam of creatures that clearly weren’t meant to go together, something in constant misery just by being alive. Instead, he was the softness of a pony mixed with the strength and grace of a griffon.

Hey Dad, at least this time it isn’t a girl.

Of course that wasn’t why she was out of her quarters in the first place. Star wasn’t looking to flirt! “I, uh… yeah,” she stammered. “I’m sorry, I don’t know who you are. I guess I’m… still trying to learn everybody’s names?” She stuck out a hoof. “I’m Star Orchid.”

The stallion reached out with a claw, shaking her hoof. “That probably made more sense in your head, Star. We don’t learn everybody’s name around here. That would be way too dangerous. Most creatures are cagey about things like that, since they… might get thrown into prison, or spend some time alone with a Commissar. But since they’d just rip my wings off and kill me, I don’t really have anything to worry about. I’m Windbrisk.”

He reached past her to her necklace, holding it up against the door. It clicked, then opened inward. Because of course it did, there wasn’t actually anything wrong with it. But would he really believe that she was dumb enough to forget how to use it even after getting out of her room?

“Right, sorry. I shouldn’t be asking creatures’ names when they, uh… when they haven’t volunteered to share them. It’s dangerous. We might get caught, and we wouldn’t… want to ruin it for other creatures.” It sounded stupid coming out of her mouth, like she’d bitten down on cotton by mistake.

But maybe Windbrisk was used to having this effect on mares, because he didn’t skip a beat. I can see why. “Word of advice, Star Orchid. If you aren’t willing to go down with the ship if anything happens, come up with a new name. And I do mean that—some of us can swim away if this goes badly. But you don’t strike me as a pony who can.”

“Oh?” She spun on him, puffing out her chest. “What kind of pony do I look like?”

She probably would’ve kept her mouth shut, except that she couldn’t see anypony in the gym. The magic lights revealed only empty weights and a running machine with no creature using it. There was some splashing coming from the pool, but that was at the other end, and she couldn’t see inside it.

He met her eyes without flinching. If anything, his grin only grew smugger. “You’re from Concord, obviously. You’re a mare who grew up getting exactly what she wanted. Got to go to the best schools, meet the best creatures. Probably lived in the Magic district.”

She froze. “Y-you… you think that, just from talking to me for a few seconds?”

He slid past her into the gym, tossing his bag up onto one of the hooks. From the look of it, he’d been on the way to a workout himself. Granted, few of these machines were familiar to her. Star was from Concord, and she’d never set hoof in a place like this. But it makes sense why you’d want to have a way to stay active if you’re trapped underground. Ponies probably go insane from sitting still without it.

Windbrisk picked a strange machine with a metal bar and places for round metal pieces, and started loading it up. “It’s in your accent. That tells me Concord. You’re a unicorn, which means you’d be Magic or Generosity. But your hairstyle says the court, so I guess Magic. Also, you don’t smell like dung, which makes you better than half the creatures here.”

Who are you to talk like that? Weren’t you just saying you’d be hunted and killed if anypony knew about you? She should’ve been disgusted by his presence, at least if everything Twilight said was true. Trouble was—she didn’t feel disgust. Only increasing curiosity as he loaded up the machine with more and more weight. Could he really lift all that?

Yes, as it turned out. Though he grunted and strained, the metal bar slid up and down in a movement he seemed to know with perfect mastery of form.

At least, she guessed it was perfect. She didn’t actually know what he was doing, or why.

“Thanks, I guess.” She looked away from him, feeling the heat rise to her cheeks again. She couldn’t let herself get distracted. But I have to pretend I was going here, don’t I? Otherwise he might figure out I was sneaking around.

The stallion seemed so sure of himself he wouldn’t look at her twice so long as he thought her feelings had something to do with him, but she wasn’t going to take a chance.

“How do you use all this stuff?” she asked, walking towards one of the running machines. She only knew what it was for thanks to it being occupied the last time. “I think this floor piece moves, doesn’t it?”

“Treadmill.” He didn’t get up, not until he’d done his lifting enough to work up a sweat, and fill the room with a smell that was somewhere between stallion and bird. She was only particularly interested in half of that, but… smells were harder to ignore than sights. “It’s simpler than it looks. You don’t have claws, so all you have to do is get on and start walking.”

She did, and found the floor strangely soft and yielding. She took a few steps forward, and the ground moved with her, forcing her to keep going or get swept back. So she sped up, and the ground sped up with her. She was trotting before Windbrisk was beside her, and a gallop by the time he said anything else.

“You can’t outrun it, pony. Not even earth ponies can, and you’re… not built like one of those. Take it easy.”

That was all the invitation she needed to gallop with all her strength. There was only two or three meters of path, yet the other side wasn’t getting any closer. How could it keep up with her so well? Her endurance lasted for a few seconds, but then she started to slow. The hippogriff was right, she wasn’t built for this.

She kept going anyway, fighting the suffocation of her muscles to glare at him. “How does… a hippogriff… find his way into a rebellion anyway? I didn’t even… I didn’t think there were… any of you left.”

He laughed, apparently only amused by the pronouncement. “The princess only wishes we were all gone. We’re used to being hunted, and running where she can’t follow. Some of us made it.”

“Why not… keep hiding?” she asked. “The princess thinks you’re gone, everypony does. You stay hidden, and your family stays safe. No reason to be afraid that she might… come hunting again. Isn’t it safer to stay hidden?”

She slowed, drifting further and further back. Taking her concentration away from running for even a moment was enough to sweep the path away from her hooves and threaten to throw her. Windbrisk reached out with one foreleg, gripping her firmly by the shoulder and pulling her to the side.

Instead of slamming into the back wall, her legs caught the regular floor, and she went running forward. At a brisk gallop, the length of the gym was nothing. She made it a few strides before her hooves caught wet ground, she slipped, and flopped into the pool with a splash.

She took a few seconds to right herself, feeling a flash of annoyance and anger. Windbrisk should’ve left her alone, she could handle herself! Just because it was her first time…

She poked her head up a moment later, and found he’d followed her.

Though like Ginny, he’d changed. So the stories were right about that too. It wasn’t a total transfiguration from one type of creature to another—but now he had a tail and fins instead of a set of pony legs.

“The answer’s simple, Star. If we stayed hidden, then the tyrant won. She wants us to go away, and most of us did. We swim so deep her spells can’t find us, and we shelter around thermal vents eating crabs and wearing worms. Does that sound like much of a life?”

She was too stunned to answer. By his words, obviously, not the way he looked. “N-no.”

“No,” he agreed. “It isn’t. I’m glad there are some of us who stay down there. Means every time one of us gets caught, life goes on. I’m just… lucky the Iron Lord found me. I wasn’t really getting much done breaking windows and burning constables’ offices. This is better.”

This is stupid I should keep my mouth shut. “How long have you been here, Windbrisk?”

He shrugged an ambivalent shoulder. “Long enough to remember when the castle was just a hole in the ground with a few tents. So… maybe three years?”

She grinned. “Want to show me around? I mean really. Everything about this place is so… strange. I’d like to have an expert to explain it all. Explain the tech to a simple pony from Concord.” In that moment, she knew Geist would’ve been proud of the expression she made, the softness in her voice.

“Sure.” He swam up close, then circled around her once. “Just… let me finish my laps first. I have to at least pretend I’m working out.”

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