• 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 19: Horologium

It had been a long time since Twilight heard the bells of warning toll through the ancient castle. So long, in fact, that she wasn’t even sure they were still working. She learned then just how well they were doing as the ringing disrupted her concentration and caused a spell she was working on to fall apart.

At least I don’t sleep anymore. If I still did that, I would probably be annoyed. When Twilight grew annoyed, her choices became… suboptimal. Her castle staff were probably happier that she didn’t waste her time with it.

Twilight was already in her laboratory, now staring down at a glowing pile of wire melted together with the failed spell she was creating. I still have the design. I’ll try again when this is resolved. She settled her goggles down on the table in front of her, replaced the little welding crystal, then concentrated on her bottom floor.

Here in the basement, not even physically attached to the castle by any passage that hadn’t been sealed, was Fortress Shining Armor, headquarters of the Unification Army. Its many crystals glittered in the light of her horn, though somehow they always seemed to be covered with dust and debris. No matter how many times she sent somepony down here to clean, things never got better.

Probably her soldiers were killing them before they finished. She should really look into that.

The war room had an even mixture of high officers like General Pike and ordinary soldiers, with their saddlebags and identical expressions. Both saluted to her in turn, though she could tell from the slight differences in angle and attitude which of them were actually her soldiers, and which were only pretending. But if they didn’t pretend hard enough, she would save them the trouble and dissolve that distinction herself.

“Princess!” Pike was already here, his uniform half-on and his mane disheveled. But considering the circumstances, she wasn’t upset. “That was faster than I expected. I was just about to send a telegram to the castle.”

“No need. I have spells in place for events like this… I suppose I should be relieved they’re still working.” She strode through the control room, past a gigantic map of Concord, built on three overlapping levels. It was so large that only a unicorn could effectively move the pieces around on it. Or would’ve been able, if the map wasn’t enchanted. Twilight had built something better than the Cutie Map, without any of the stupid tree’s magic. Every group of soldiers was here, including the large numbers all packed in tight in the bottom level. “What have you learned?”

Pike removed a slip of paper from a nearby aid, holding it in his magic and squinting down at the writing there. One of Twilight’s own ancient machines had printed that output, translated into her own personal format of dense dots. That every pony who worked this close to her had to learn, naturally.

“Single object. Traveling at… rainboom 3? What does that even mean, Princess?”

Her eyes narrowed, and she snatched the little slip of paper. Getting him to explain what he couldn’t understand was a waste of her time. Single object, smaller than any carrier. It had probably been a cargo drop. She barely had to glance at the location to see that it confirmed everything she suspected. She would have to consult a map, but these numbers seemed to directly line up with Hollow Shades.

They’re not even trying to hide it anymore. Don’t they realize I’m going to come for them? Their ancestors made peace impossible. It didn’t matter that those ancient warmongers were dead, and everything they’d wanted to accomplish. Twilight would never forget what they’d taken from her.

“What does it say, Princess?” Pike asked. Not demanding or disrespectful, just curious. He needed her cooperation to do his job, and she wasn’t going to deny him.

“A single very vast object approached one of our cities traveling several times the speed of sound. It wasn’t an attack, but slowed before it hit. I’m guessing it was carrying supplies for somepony there.”

Pike took that in, then the paper too as soon as Twilight offered it back to him. “Why would they do that in one of our cities? Are they… insane, Princess? Now we know where they are! Why not… why not hide away, and receive their delivery in secret? Surely this enemy must not all be fools, or you would’ve defeated them long ago.”

She nodded. “It is… strange. I can’t decide if it speaks of desperation, or overconfidence. Something this loud would wake the entire city. There would be no hope of concealing their presence from the local ponies. I wonder if this is the beginning of another war.” She turned to the side, past General Pike. There were some commands that surpassed even him. Secrets she kept from anypony, since there was no way to know where the spies in her own organization might be. Only by trusting the knowledge exclusively to her creations could she be sure it would remain hidden.

“Officer, identify.”

“Captain 133-Unicorn-S,” she responded, voice entirely flat. There was nothing about her rank that was remarkable, except for that last letter. Under that bleached mane and gray coat, 133 had once been Twilight’s friend. A general who had done incredible things in service of Equestria. Before her death. There was almost no trace of that pony left, of course. Only the occasional twinkle of recognition. Twilight was probably imagining even those.

“Is your company ready to deploy, 133-Unicorn-S?”

She saluted. “My company is ready to deploy.”

“Mobilize now. You will receive orders by wire in a few minutes.” That way Pike doesn’t find out what I’m doing.

He watched from just over her shoulder, confusion visible on his face. But despite how much he obviously wanted to ask, he kept his mouth closed. Pike understood the importance of trust between them.

“Yes, Princess.” 133 Saluted, then turned to march away. Twilight waited for her to vanish down the hall before she returned her attention to Pike. “I will be giving the drive corps a new heading. We’ll approach this location, but on a gradual arc along Equestria’s border that does not make it immediately obvious we’re heading for them. I have ponies on the ground, and I will wait for their report before I commit. I want you to ensure that Concord is ready for a war of any size when we arrive. You saw what our enemy looks like.”

“I will call every soldier to service,” Pike said. “But Princess—you saw the powers they wield. I fear we may suffer many losses if we do not change our strategy.”

I would’ve been closer to solving that if that alarm hadn’t ruined my spell. Of course that wasn’t Pike’s fault. He hadn’t had anything to do with it. She could explain to the criminals how they’d wasted a day of her spellcasting time before they were hung. “We have fought enemies like this before,” she lied. “We triumphed then; we shall find victory now. I will have replacement weapons made available to you when the time comes.”

He saluted, then vanished to obey her orders. He wasn’t the sort of pony to stick around and need her to micromanage him. Otherwise she would’ve replaced him long ago. As soon as she had a moment of privacy with a telegraph, she sent her orders through the Unification Army’s own relay system. “Deploy to outside Hollow Shades and wait for my scroll. Pack for an incursion into a city. Detain any you find leaving until I arrive.”

I hope I don’t have to burn another city down. It had been so long since Equestria went to war with itself; those were not memories Twilight was eager to dig up again. But if these rebellion ponies forced her hooves, she wouldn’t hesitate. If my own creatures are working with the enemy, I’ll probably have to burn the whole town and start fresh. Write soon, Star Orchid. Share what you know while I’m still listening.

Jamie groaned, shaking off the soreness and confusion of pharmaceuticals. There was no getting around just how potent they were, yet she couldn’t have said exactly what had happened, or why. Her memory was slow to return, always hovering just out of reach. She could almost remember how she’d got here, but when she really pressed her mind, the information just didn’t come.

Wherever she was, it wasn’t very large. Whenever she moved to one side or the other, she felt dense padding. Impact foam, with fluid giving underneath. Wait a minute. I know this stuff. The one time she’d paid for an orbital trip she’d gone like this. Instead of a comfortable two days, she’d made the trip in an hour, packed up in foam like cargo.

Foam she was packed in now. The shell can’t still be habitable after all these years, can it? Otherwise we would’ve just kept living there. At least she was so drugged for the trip that she wouldn’t feel the impact. Instead of a rapid deceleration in a waiting gravity tether, she’d smack into the underside of some unknown piece of steel, just another chunk of orbiting debris until gravity eventually brought her back.

Sound roared outside, the walls of her pod shaking and tumbling. For an orbital trip, she would be one of thousands all stacked up. But given how violently she was listing to both sides, she suspected something smaller had been used.

This doesn’t feel like going up. Am I falling already?

“There’s… nowhere to send me,” she croaked. She wasn’t sure there was anyone to hear. Epsilon? Why would it be listening after ignoring her for so long? “You can’t ship me to another base. You said so yourself.”

To her surprise, the AI actually answered. Apparently it was listening after all. “You are not being sent to another base, Citizen Jamie. A suitably dramatic entry into the native settlement was prepared for you. The process is nearly complete.”

Shit. She tried to sit up, but of course she couldn’t. There was nothing in front of her but black, not so much as an emergency light in her pod. What was she supposed to do if something went wrong, anyway? These things were barely even mechanical. If they failed, you died.

“Stop. Whatever… whatever you’re thinking, it won’t work.” Entirely futile. She was fairly certain that Epsilon wasn’t going to do what she said, no matter how much she begged. But she still had to try.

“It’s too late to stop,” Epsilon countered. Its voice was clear despite the noise all around her. “You’re traveling along your descent vector now, that’s why you’re waking up. In less than five minutes, this capsule will open, depositing you near the center of town.”

“What?” She twitched, feeling the alien sensation of her wings wriggling behind her. They answered to her brain, but that sensing organ didn’t seem to know what to do with wings. “Minutes? That’s… at this point, what’s to say I don’t tell them how evil you are? Maybe the natives need to be warned about you, if you’ll capture and use your own survivors this way.”

“Your psychological profile suggests you would not abandon the population of Shelter 198.64 because of the actions of a computer. It’s still not too late to incinerate the re-entry pod if you believe that judgement to be in error.”

Could you even do that? But given one of the last things she remembered was the AI pointing a gun at her head and threatening to shoot her, she probably shouldn’t be making any judgements based off what she thought it would or wouldn’t do.

“I’ll help,” she muttered, begrudging. “Or I won’t screw the other people in there because of you, anyway. Wish I could light you on fire in the process.”

“Noted.” As ever, the AI lacked any emotion. As complex as its reasoning sometimes seemed, that was really just in the perception. “You may wish to be made aware of the other elements of the plan. You are running out of time to accept such information, in any case.”

Because you fucking drugged me for trying to run away. Instead of figuring out this body. If she’d signed up for this, Jamie would probably feel a little guilty about trying to escape. But the trade had been her cooperation for her life, there was nothing fair about that. “Tell me everything. Quickly.”

“You’re being dropped on the native settlement. You were moved a sufficient distance prior to that launch, so attempts to track your origin will not lead investigators to the shelter. Your pod has been made to resemble a falling star, to compliment the ‘Twilight’ imagery of the despot. It will incinerate fifteen seconds after opening, so make it a priority to exit quickly.”

Maybe you should’ve told me that fucking first? There wasn’t enough time to argue. Even through the thick foam, she could hear the roaring getting louder. That was probably air brakes, maybe parachutes too. “Anything else important? You want me to get permission for the city, don’t you?”

“Affirmative. You have records attached to your body, in non-electronic form. The city will not be built directly above the settlement. It is, in fact, already under construction, as it is where you were launched. Even if you do not secure permission, all that is required is a delay. Complicate their response, introduce debate. The longer they take to decide what to do, the stronger our position becomes.”

“You’re not smart enough to build a whole city on your own,” she countered. She was running out of time, she knew that. How much did she have left? “You’re going to have to wake up other people eventually, aren’t you?”

“Affirmative. The initial stages of acquiring biological resources and minerals does not require human intervention, however. The shelter’s supplies will be fully replenished, and its systems repaired before any further survivors wake. In this case, the chances of those who remain asleep are maximized.”

Lucky them.

During the remaining few moments, your landing may become uncomfortable. Please remain calm until the restraints are released, then exit promptly.”

“No fucking kidding, you just said the pod would—” Even lying down, surrounded by compression foam and probably juiced up on blood thinners and anti-coagulants, Jamie felt the deceleration like sprinting dead into a wall. She bit painfully into her tongue, while her sight went deep red despite the total absence of light. Even if she had been able to move, she would’ve been totally overwhelmed. Even twitching a leg took more strength than she had.

The roar of sound was all she knew, the violence of air-breaks and who knew what else used to slow her approach. There would be no waiting gravity net on the surface this time, no traffic controller AI to monitor every passenger and correct mistakes fast enough to make a difference. If anything in her pod failed, she’d be a crispy red smear on Shy’s roof.

Jamie had no awareness of time in that state, except to know that it felt paradoxically as slow as molasses and too rapid to keep track.

But as quickly as the deceleration came, it was suddenly over. Light blinded her, the bright orange of chemical fuels with the accompanying acrid smoke. All at once the grip on her body was released, and she flopped beside the opening.

The door had already opened for her, showing what she had somehow knew would be waiting beyond. The marketplace of Hollow Shades, deserted thanks to the curfew and the late hour. Except that there were already some eyes on her—citizens of the nearby houses, patrolling city watch. This wasn’t some stealth drop by parachute in the middle of the night. Epsilon meant for her to be seen.

Exit at once,” Epsilon said, its voice louder than the background fuzz. “The landing craft will be destroyed before it can be investigated. Flee now, or you will burn with it.”

Jamie moved, hobbling jerkily out of the opening and into the freezing air. She was dimly aware of something all over her body—she’d been dressed without ever doing it herself, and not with a drop suit either. Was it a dress? She didn’t want to slow down.

We should’ve at least rehearsed this. This is completely ridiculous.

There was no time for second guessing now. Jamie staggered forward a few more steps, straightening a little with each one.

The further she got from the pod the more alert she felt—probably her body was clearing away the last of the drugs she’d been dosed with. “Do not be alarmed. As you could not carry communications equipment, you have been implanted. You can reply, but probably should not at this time. Invent an identity for yourself and improvise. Seek line of sight with the sky if you wish to communicate.”

Like I’ll ever want to talk to you. She almost said so anyway, defying the eyes of so many creatures on her and daring Epsilon to try and find a way to ruin its plans. But as stupid as this seemed, going along with it was her only hope now. That was probably why she’d been kept unconscious in the first place.

“Ponies of Hollow Shades!” It sounded so stupid why was she doing this maybe she could run. Jamie tried, turning to the side to try and flee. But she was wearing a dress, and instead of breaking into a run she only fell into the dirt.

That was why she felt so heavy—Epsilon had made her a gown. On a museum dummy or in an illustration somewhere, Jamie probably would’ve called it beautiful. Layers of white and gold cloth overlapping, with a strange dark symbol embroidered on the center. She’d seen that mark before, though she still didn’t know what it meant. It was the one tattooed on her body, what the locals called a “cutie mark.”

The circle of watching ponies closed in slowly, as more of the staring natives were replaced with city watch in their uniforms. Somewhere in there was the Commissar. Did he know Jamie well enough to recognize her now that she looked like this?

“Ponies of Hollow Shades!” she yelled again. Without any effort on her part, her wings spread wide to both sides. By instinct maybe, or just the way her body moved when she felt threatened. “I have come from, uh… from heaven, yeah! I’ve fallen, no… I’ve come down from heaven with a message! I demand to be heard!”

Hopefully they kill me fast. Maybe they do firing squads.

There was no possible way these creatures would respond to her dinky horn and oversized wings. She was a mistake of genetic engineering and grafting. She was everything wrong with the first generation of gene-seeded babies.

Behind her came a sudden explosion of flame, bright enough that she felt the heat on her back and stumbled away. A few of the stalls along the market’s edge were too close, and vanished into the explosion of bright orange.

Then ponies began to drop. Not somehow blasted away by the force of the explosion—they were bowing to her. One by one the guards lowered themselves, until she saw the single figure she was looking for. If Hollow Shades had any authority, it came from the Commissar. Even he was bowing now, overwhelmed by what he was seeing.

Jamie didn’t much care what he thought—she really just wanted to meet up with Shy again. Maybe that pony would know what to do about her new mutations.

But she couldn’t do that now. Jamie marched over to the Commissar, gesturing for him as confidently as she could. “You are Commissar Golden Shine. You’re the, uh… honored representative of the princess and servant of Harmony.”

As she’d expected, that got his attention. My only chance is making them think that I’m part of their world, instead of here to fight it. But were they far enough from its center to stand a chance?

“You aren’t her,” he said. He was the first to rise, though he still kept his head low. Like a pony who wanted to show respect, but wasn’t sure if he should. “There are no other alicorns in all the world. The way of Harmony—teaches… that only one is needed. Why are you here?”

Shit. He was taller than she was by at least a head, and his polished armor reflected the light of the burning comet tail she had left to the city. “It is true that there was only one until… I arrived.” No, that’s too passive. “I’m not here to rule the world of ponies. Your, uh… your princess is perfect and great and wonderful and…”

His eyebrows went up. Clearly he expected more dignity from an Alicorn, and she was coming up short. This is my only chance to make a good first impression. If he doesn’t believe I’m legit, he never will.

In that desperate moment, she could think of only one thing: the truth. “I’m from Persephone, a city far in the sky. I’ve come as their envoy.”

“Oh.” He considered that a moment, glancing back to the guards on either side. But they were as confused as he was. Apparently there was nothing in their theology that explicitly forbid any of that. How far could she take that loophole?

“Commissar Shine,” she said again, before he could realize what she was doing and potentially take this in a direction she couldn’t control. “I am weary from my long journey. I would ask the hospitality of one of your residents. Somewhere cool and underground, where I could, uh… where I could… rest and stuff. Far from the center of the city. Until tomorrow, when I will meet with you again and I can explain the message I have brought.”

“Of course. I can think of one pony who would just love a visitor like you.” Was that a sneer? Was the intimidation of literally falling out of the sky wearing off already?

It didn’t matter. If he did what she demanded, then everything would be fine. At least until the real Alicorn catches wind of all this. I have one day to come up with a good story.

Jamie followed the commissar and his soldiers from the marketplace, leaving the burning wreckage of her landing pod behind her.

“Everypony out!” Wellspring called again, her voice echoing through the living area. “That’s right, you too city unicorn! No I don’t care how formally you’re dressed! Go, go, go!”

Star felt like she hadn’t even been asleep an hour when the banging started. There was no resisting it, though—if they wanted to keep their disguise, they’d have to keep following their orders. Besides, anything this loud had to be important. Had Commissar Shine found the Undercastle without her help after all? Even with what she’d learned, that wouldn’t make her look good to the court.

As they wandered out into the hallway, Ginny caught her eye, turning one leg just slightly. There was a dagger concealed there, made of a yellowy metal that blended into her claws. Could it really be that much sharper than what nature had given the griffon to begin with?

“What’s going on?” she asked, as Wellspring shoved through the crowd of drowsy ponies. They were all moving towards the central chamber, the crowd getting thicker as creatures from other passages and burrows joined them.

Even Wellspring seemed worried. “Iron Lord ordered it. He’s never done this before, so it must be bad. He didn’t tell me what was going on.”

“Oh.” Star fell back, rejoining Ginny near the rear of the crowd. The bird let the rest of the creatures here get some distance from them before saying anything, whispering into her ear. It probably looked like her lover was reassuring her, though the words were nothing at all comforting. “Did you do anything that could get you caught, Star? Are we compromised?”

She twisted to glare back, and felt the brief peck of beak on her lips. A kiss, though there was nothing like passion in it. For once Ginny was just acting, and it didn’t upset her. The old routine actually made all this feel more authentic. “Of course not. I didn’t go anywhere without Windbrisk. There’s nothing to catch.”

Ginny shook her head, but didn’t get a chance to reply. They were running out of time, and apparently there were things more important to her. “If we have to run, stay close to me no matter what I look like. Most creatures don’t know how to face an enemy that keeps changing shape. I won’t hurt you by accident.”

The Undercastle’s central chamber was already packed with creatures by the time they arrived, crowding several of its levels. They were up on the third floor, which meant they could barely see the outline of the Iron Lord at the bottom. He wasn’t like the princess, who was never far from her royal guards. He sat alone on his wheelchair in the center of the stage, completely unprotected. If an assassin came for him, he’d be bleeding out in the dirt before anypony in the room could react.

Maybe that’s how this is going to end. You would like to leave their leader mysteriously dead on our way out, wouldn’t you Geist? But shouldn’t she too?

“That will have to be enough,” he said, voice booming through the space. Magic might’ve amplified it, but there was no greater strength. This wasn’t the Royal Canterlot Voice, this carried every rasping cough and the hiss of his breathing machine. “The context of everything we’ve been working for has… just changed irrevocably.”

His hands shook as he fumbled with a piece of glowing glass, slipping for a moment before obeying his will. The space on the wall behind him was suddenly filled with… maps? Not the way Star was used to—if anything, this looked like the ancient carvings she’d seen beneath Hollow Shades. The planet’s surface and Shades atop them were only a single layer on the map.

“I believed, and I said, and then you believed, that I was Equestria’s only friend. It appears I was wrong.”

He gestured at the image, and the map came to life. A little burning trail cut through the sky, falling from… another planet layered above them? The sky? But there was more sky above it, and more above that? What was this? “I have… limited sensor coverage in the sky above Hollow Shades. I don’t know which of the platforms this evacuation… fell from.”

If Star could take solace in anything, it was that the crowd packing the balcony around her seemed just as bewildered as she was. For every one pony that seemed to comprehend, there were ten more whispering quietly to each other trying to figure out what he was saying.

Apparently Wellspring finally noticed, because she stepped up onto the platform beside him, whispering something they couldn’t hear. There was more muttering from the Iron Lord, before Wellspring took something from in front of his face. Now her voice boomed instead.

“Our noble leader called this meeting to give us hope,” she explained. “The sky has seen our need, and knows he will not remain with us forever. We must reach them before Equestria’s agents can destroy them.”

“Every field agent,” the alien creature continued. “See your supervisors. We must find my cousin before they’re killed. Everything else is secondary. Find them, and bring them here.”

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