• 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 2: Centaurus

The elevator rose slowly through Concord Castle, its crystals humming steadily under them. Max’s steel cage took up most of the elevator now, with half a dozen Royal Guards occupying the rest. Star Orchid had to cram in near the front, close enough that if the diamond dog really wanted to, he could probably reach out and attack her.

He didn’t, though. His anger had burned itself out now, and he sat still in the center of his cage.

“Not so angry now that you know where you’re going,” a guard muttered, smacking his lightspear on the bars. “You know the princess will give you what you deserve.”

Max only grunted in response, flopping to one side in the cage. “Can’t hurt me more,” he said. “I know the others are… gone. Soon I go with them.”

You’ll only wish you had, Star thought, her stomach twisting into guilty knots. This was at least partially her fault. Could she prevent it now?

“You could tell us who the Alphas are,” she said. “You could tell us where the gemstones go. Then you don’t have to meet the princess.”

Max didn’t respond. He didn’t say another word as the elevator finally came to a stop on its highest floor. “Twilight Court,” said the operator, opening the doors as wide as they would go. The guards returned to their posts, and began pushing the cage along a polished crystal floor. Star Orchid followed just behind, making a few last-minute adjustments to her dress. Even at a time like this, the princess would notice what was wrong with her.

Then they were through the massive crystal arch into the Twilight Court, perpetually open just as all creatures in all the world were welcome to seek an audience from the Princess of Friendship, Eternal ruler of Sun and Moon and Defender of Creation.

And probably some other titles even her advisors couldn’t remember.

There were no other creatures in the Twilight Court today, either pony or otherwise. Rumors had already spread—all within Concord knew how to stay out of the princess’s way when her creatures were threatened.

The cage rumbled past windows of stained glass, each one depicting one of the Exemplars and the lessons of friendship they taught. But there were no creatures in attendance to worship at their altars today.

And at the end of the room, Princess Twilight Sparkle, settled in gentle repose on a throne of white gold and crystal. Her mane filled the air behind her, like a night filled with stars.

Even with their royal cargo, none of the guards would get too close to the throne—that was her job. Star Orchid approached slowly, dropping into a bow as she reached the throne. “Princess, I have done all that you ordered. This prisoner has refused to answer, like the others.”

Twilight rose, yawning and stretching from her cushions. Then she vanished, reappearing beside Star in a flash of concentrated magic. “Well that’s not unexpected. You told him what would happen if he didn’t, right? Gave him every chance to change his mind?”

She nodded slowly, afraid to so much as twitch in the princess’s presence. Star Orchid had never angered her—but she knew creatures who had. Or she had known creatures like that, anyway. “All as you commanded.”

Twilight gestured towards the doors. “Royal Guards, you can… do some royal guarding out there. Don’t let anypony walk in until we’re done, please.”

They saluted, then galloped off. They didn’t want to be stuck around Twilight for even a second longer than necessary. Star couldn’t blame them. She waited for a similar invitation, even knowing it wouldn’t come. The princess had been clear about wanting her advisor to know these things.

The princess wore only her crown—she’d never bothered with the court fashions as they changed. She didn’t seem any less intimidating as she made her way to the cage, circling around it once.

Max looked up briefly, then covered his eyes again. He didn’t even try to bow.

“You must have heard about Equestria, diamond dog. Show a little respect.”

Max sat up in the cage, glaring out at them. “I heard it was long gone. Just one city left. All broken.”

“Concord is not the only city left,” Twilight snapped. It wasn’t true as she said it—but it was unwise to contradict the princess. “It is the greatest of all cities. Magic of all creatures and tribes concentrated. It is what the whole world will be like one day.”

Max shifted uncomfortably on his paws. He couldn’t stand—the cage just wasn’t tall enough.

Twilight tapped one hoof gently on the ground, and the cage melted away in front of her. Its roof flopped to one side, and metal bars twisted in knots. Only the floor remained in place, mercifully cool enough that it didn’t burn the poor creature.

Max glanced around, apparently amazed. Then he looked back at the doorway, apparently within reach. He wasn’t chained—it didn’t seem like anything was trapping him anymore. Please don’t try to run.

“Tell him what I’m going to do, Star. I’ve done it so many times that I’d rather not repeat myself.”

She nodded obediently. “The princess is going to… condition you. You’ll be our friend, and then you’ll answer all our questions.”

The dog scoffed. “Max is not afraid of your magic. Ponies have stolen… everything. I will tell them nothing.”

Twilight’s horn began to glow. Her eyes lost focus, turning into points of white light. Magic swirled through the air, and even Star felt her mind going momentarily numb, just being close to it. In a few seconds, the diamond dog was lobotomized.

Max’s expression slackened, his tongue lolling out. He grinned at the princess. “Friend.”

Twilight smiled back, her horn still smoking slightly. “See, that isn’t so hard. How are you doing, friend?”

“Not… good, before,” the creature answered. Not Max anymore. His body had lost all of its subtle movement. His eyes didn’t seem alive anymore. Just a shell with some memories left inside. “Better now, Princess.”

Twilight settled onto her haunches, her mane returning to its gentle flow of purples and oranges. “We should start this way more often. Think of all the time we wasted.”

“I could remind you to do that next time, Princess. If you wish.”

“No… just thinking out loud.” Twilight’s horn flashed again, and a clipboard appeared in front of Star, along with a pen. “You know what to do.”

“Of course,” she said, taking both in her magic.

“Now that we’re past that… silliness… let’s get to saving the world. You’d like that, wouldn’t you Max?”

“I would like you to be happy, Princess,” he said.

“We’ll start with something simple…” Princess Twilight said. “What did you do in your, uh… pack? Those are what you call them, right?”

“I was an excavator,” Max answered, his voice as flat as ever. He didn’t seem capable of using any other tone. There wasn’t enough of a creature left in there to feel anything. “Searched for gems.”

Star Orchid scribbled each word dutifully. She used exact words, and knew that Twilight would remember to correct her if she got anything wrong.

“That sounds fascinating,” the princess said. “Did you have a family, Max?”

“Yes, Princess!” he said. Twilight had even replaced his diction. His accent could’ve come from Concord. “Your machine crushed my children to death, and the royal army killed my mate when you captured my pack. They fought so much better than we did.”

The Alicorn returned his blank smile. “I’m so happy you think so. The Unification Army has learned so much over the last few centuries. I’d be disappointed if they didn’t learn from their mistakes.”

She seemed to pause then for Star to write that down too. Star added that.

“Equestria has an important mission, Max. Do you know what that is?”

He shook his head. “I don’t know, Princess. But I’m sure you’re doing a great job.”

Was the princess’s smile genuine, looking at a shell of a creature like that? Or did she just do that to help the spell along? Star wasn’t brave enough to ask.

“All Equestria is in danger,” Twilight said. “Creatures of evil and disharmony lurk in every kingdom. If they get their way, they will kill every pony and griffon and zebra and changeling and every other creature. Do you want that?”

“I do not want that,” he said. “I would do anything to help you stop it from happening.”

“Good, Max. Do you know why I saved you for last?”

“I do not, Princess.”

“Because in the thousand years I have ruled Equus, I have never seen Darktech like yours. A whole eye… and from your scars, some of your internal organs as well. Incredible.” She didn’t sound as disgusted as would be expected for something so evil—but nopony would tell the purest being in the world how she should feel.

“My heart, one lung, and my liver,” Max said.

“Tell me where you got them.”

Despite the horror of this interrogation, even Star Orchid leaned in close. These dogs had been fiercely stubborn prisoners. But no one could resist the princess’s command.

“I suffered in a mining accident,” Max said. “A tunnel collapsed, and many were injured. The Alpha healed me.”

Okay, but we already knew that. What really matters is…

“They sound very kind,” Twilight said conversationally.

“Very kind,” Max repeated. “No one loved my pack as much as the Alpha. Before we fought, but when the Alpha came, we learned to work together.”

“Tell me more about them,” Twilight ordered. “Who were they?”

“They were—” Max’s mouth hung open. He twitched once, then his eyes settled on Twilight. “Oh, Princess. Was I saying something?”

Twilight twitched herself, her mane beginning to churn. “Is this what happened during your interviews?”

She nodded obediently, taking a few steps back. She kept writing dutifully, even that question. How is a dog resisting a princess? There isn’t even a soul in there anymore. She shredded him.

“You w-were,” Twilight said, her tone no longer flat. Her eyes began to glow. “Tell me about your Alpha.” The air grew suddenly warmer.

“Kind, so l-love… love…” Max stammered. His eyes began to darken, and a patch of his fur actually caught fire. Despite the terrible stench, he didn’t move.

“Were they diamond dogs?” the princess demanded, advancing on him. She didn’t seem to care her magic was dissolving her prisoner in front of her.

“Th-they… were…” His breath came harshly. “Permission denied.”

Twilight’s horn went out again. The fire burning Max’s body went out, though his right foreleg was still sizzled, and his fur was charred almost completely. “What did you say?”

“In…her…it…or,” Max rasped. His face was charred on one side, and his muscles didn’t seem to be responding properly anymore. But he still tried to smile, exposing sharp teeth and black gums. “Permission… denied.”

His eyes went suddenly bloodshot, like a dozen vessels inside had burst all at once. Then he fell, the weight of his massive diamond dog body flopping to the floor in front of them.

A creature with a lobotomized mind had a will strong enough to resist the princess. A dog fought against a god.

It was so incredible that she didn’t even know how to respond. She could only stare, her mouth opening and closing in stupefaction.

Twilight screamed in frustration, her magic raging again. Max’s corpse turned to ash before her eyes, already burned body crumbling away into a fine powder. A few bits of metal clattered to the ground, right where his chest had been.

Twilight bent down, removing an oblong object from the pile and holding it up. Max had said something about a lung, and that was how that looked—like a thin metal cage, with material inside. Darktech, eviler than anything she could’ve imagined.

If she hadn’t spent her life in the court, she might’ve thought this was why Twilight couldn’t get answers to her questions. This creature’s soul had been stolen long ago. But she’d heard his passion, his despair. Seen his fury, before he died. Felt Twilight’s magic when it came.

For a few moments, Twilight was silent, staring down at what remained of their last prisoner. Then she spun around, and she was smiling again, all too wide. “We’re very close, Star Orchid. But I think we’ve learned as much as we can learn from up in the sky. It’s time for you to get your hooves on solid ground.”

Jamie felt the whole-body fuzz of powerful narcotics. She didn’t fight them, didn’t try to move, or do anything for that matter. But as the minutes passed, the high gradually faded, leaving her only with the strangest comedown she could remember. She’d never been much for psychedelics, but for a few moments that was all she could think of to explain just how wrong her body felt. Her legs were too short, her hands were so numb she couldn’t even feel her fingers twitch, and there was apparently enough hair on her limbs that she could feel them matted down completely.

How this could happen was its own mystery—wasn’t the cryogenic process destructive to hair? More importantly, if she was awake again, did that mean the apocalypse was over?

Finally, though it felt like ages had passed with her motionless on the floor, she finally managed the energy to sit up.

She was lying in an Emergency Shelter’s cot, with the faint red glow of a vital monitor shining down on her from above. Little red lines of her life signs were projected on the ceiling above her, which seemed further away than it ought to be. Wasn’t space everything in these shelters? She’d only been awake for a few days before they froze her, but… this seemed like too much space.

There was more that didn’t make sense. There was something big stuck right in front of her face, something that certainly didn’t belong there and that she had no way of explaining. Like she was wearing a mask, except she didn’t feel anything stuck to her face.

She groaned, and even her voice didn’t seem right. Her voice was higher than she remembered, strange enough that she could’ve sworn she felt an ear twitch.

“Congratulations, Jamie Sanders,” said a voice from all around her, projected through the cot’s speakers. “You survived reconstruction. An evaluation of the mapping from human senses is in progress. Please report any unusual or unplaceable feelings as soon as you perceive them.”

She groaned a little louder, reaching for her pillow to cover her head. The stupid shelter AI was talking to her again, what the hell did it want?

Instead of grabbing the pillow, she only managed to push it a little away from her. Her eyes struggled to focus for a moment—then she saw why, and learned in the same moment why her hands still felt numb.

She didn’t have hands. It didn’t even look like an arm anymore, but like an animal’s leg, terminating in a useless hoof.

She jerked upright, and nearly fell sideways right out of the cot. She managed to catch herself on the wall to her left, but only with a little quick reflexes from her other hoof. “Okay, uh… what the fuck happened to me?” As she sat up, the reading light came on automatically, illuminating her body for her to see clearly.

Needless to say, it wasn’t a pleasant sight. She was completely naked, except for a few plastic probes running into her body at various points. That explained the soreness, and the chill still left in her veins. But those were all expected—if she’d just been revived, there was supposed to be a bevy of drugs and correctives pumped into her body to keep her alive, and to repair the damage that a trillion little ice-crystals had done to her tissue.

From the look of it, there weren’t any of her old tissues left. The reason her arms looked like legs was simple enough: she was an animal. A horse, by the look of it, except the proportions were wrong. She’d never seen a peach-colored horse before, or one that could move the way she had. Her breasts were gone, though just now losing her hands seemed the far greater sacrifice.

Finally, the computer deemed to actually answer her question. “Your pod was critically damaged,” the computer said. “You provided consent for early revival and physical alteration to serve the needs of the Emergency Shelter. Memory of this event will likely return as the neural-plasticity drugs reach saturation and are cleared from your brain.”

She did remember one thing: the cold, and many lifetimes spent on the edge of death. Praying for it sometimes, dreaming that her pod would fail, and her misery would end. Don’t freak out, Jamie. You’re alive. It’s everything you could’ve wanted.

She closed her eyes, slumping back into the bed. “Fantastic. So I’m… what did you do to me?”

“Only necessary adjustments have been made,” the computer said, apparently not concerned with her curling up in bed. “Your species has been adjusted to biosphere correction agent.”

That got her attention. Jamie knew next to nothing about the terraforming promised to rebuild their homeworld, except that it was going to take forever. “Are you saying the situation is so bad you need to repopulate the terraforming initiative using refugees?”

Was the question too complex for the AI to answer?

Apparently not. “Negative. Reconfiguring your species to biosphere correction agent represents an adjustment of diplomatic strategy with surface civilization.”

“Uh…” She looked up again, wishing there was some kind of avatar she could glare at. She wanted the computer to know how little she believed it. “Civilization with… the things we genetically engineered to rebuild the climate? Weren’t they supposed to be animals?”

“You are not authorized to receive terraforming information. Understand that the project is complete. The surface of Homeworld has been rebuilt. Repair of the biosphere is complete over 95% of the planet’s area. The suspension period is coming to an end—civilization will be rebuilt.”

“Well that’s just fucking fantastic,” she said, gripping her pillow awkwardly with one leg and covering her head. “I guess that means you wanted the first pioneers to have their own petting zoo. Or… maybe I’m supposed to pull a cart? I guess you were out of robot parts.”

“Assessment… incorrect,” the computer said. “Instruction will be provided.”

“Great,” she said. “I’m going back to bed.”

A satisfying threat, but ultimately empty. Whatever the computer had done to her, it involved far too many stimulants to give her a chance of sleeping.

Every second she lay there, she was confronted with more strange details about her body that didn’t make sense. She hadn’t imagined things; her ears really could move on their own. Her spine didn’t seem to want her to lay flat as a human might, but with her legs and arms splayed in front of her. Not to mention, she had a tail.

The computer wasn’t wasting time, anyway. Occasionally she’d feel another brief rush of cold through her veins as it gave her some new drug, or a brief pressure as it removed another of the life-support tubes. So she couldn’t even take smug satisfaction in refusing to do what it wanted, since it had probably planned for her to recover here for days anyway.

At least there are some good things about this. I’m still alive, that’s great. I’d rather be a horse than dead.

Eventually she opened her eyes again, sitting up and searching for her little plastic box of possessions. It hadn’t been brought. “Can I get a tablet or something?” she asked. “While I wait for… whatever the hell you’re doing to me?”

“Completing necessary biointegrations,” the computer supplied. “Preventing rejection of replacement spinal column and nervous tissue.”

She froze. Replacement spinal column? “You can replace spines?”

“Life support within your suspension pod had shown serious errors for many years. Necrosis-suppressors prevented decay of your central nervous system, though little else could be preserved. When you were reconstructed, only tissue from your brain was reused. Everything else was newly grown from substrate. Signs of rejection of your replacement body are likely to begin at the spine.”

You won’t tell me about how the terraforming is going, but you’ll give me lurid detail about how fucked up my own body is. Thanks. “And I assume I’m not being rejected by my own body?”

There was an uncomfortable amount of hesitation there for a computer, almost three whole seconds before it finally answered. “No rejection will be possible when final integration is complete. The process will continue over the next seventy-two hours.”

“Just how I wanted to spend my afternoon,” she muttered darkly, before, “I want a tablet.”

“One moment.”

Jamie had been so preoccupied with how broken and strange her new body was that she’d hardly even bothered looking past her bed. It was standard medical accommodations, flat stone floor and shelves of supplies lining the wall. Yet now a door on the far side of the room hissed open, and a drone rolled in. It was a strange oval shape, vaguely the size of a human—which meant it was now uncomfortably large, towering over the entire bed. It had a screen instead of a face, and little plastic grippers for arms.

She was outside, on the upper balcony of a towering structure. She could make out the faint shimmer of the atmospheric dome high above, and the stars almost totally unobstructed by clouds. A robot just like this rolled out, carrying a metal tray in one gripper. Frost condensed on the edge of the glass as it settled on the table in front of her.

“Pina Colatta,” the drone said, its voice almost human. “Eighty-five dollars, please.”

She reached up, holding her wrist over the scanner for a second. When it flashed green, she took the glass, propping her legs up and grinning at the robot. “That’s all, you can go.”

Something dropped onto her lap, light plastic with a metal frame. She tried to grab it, and of course her stupid hooves only pushed it around a bit. The screen lit up with her touch anyway, showing her name in the top right. Her files were all here, survived far better than her body had. “Hey, computer, how the hell am I supposed to use this?”

“Operation of portable computers will not be required to complete your mission.”

She swore loudly, kicking faintly against the support pilon with one leg. She wasn’t strong enough to crack the plastic, and she knew the computer couldn’t feel pain, but… it felt good anyway.

“Okay, but how am I supposed to live without operation of portable computers?”

This time the computer didn’t hesitate. “Portable computers will not be required to guarantee your survival. You will not be released until all necessary drugs have been administered and integration is complete.”

She rolled her eyes, but didn’t press the issue. Abstractions had always been hard for computers, even back when AI had been run on cloud-servers with near infinite resources. The program that had rebuilt her entire body probably had far less to work with than any of the virtual assistants she’d grown up with.

Best not to think about that.

The tablet computer did have one mercy—it was bigger than she remembered, which meant she had plenty of space to work with. Maybe… “Please turn on the accessibility features on my terminal here. Increase UI scaling to… two hundred percent.”

There was only a faint beep this time—the tablet itself handled her command, instead of whatever AI she’d been speaking to so far. The little icons increased until it seemed like something her elderly grandfather might’ve used, obscenely oversized. Files that had been carefully organized to fit on the default desktop now rolled over onto several screens. But if she propped the tablet up against the wall and moved slow enough with her hooves, she could just about hit the buttons.

It was slow going, but she could deal with that. Finally the information strangulation was over, and she could figure out what had happened to the world.

She immediately wished she hadn’t.

There were supposed to be something like ten thousand emergency shelters, maybe more. Each one fabricated according to a standard design, each one home to a million sleeping people. The Core Node, operated by an AI many times more intelligent than any single human—was gone. With it, the bonds tying emergency shelter 198.64-Beta to the rest of humanity were broken too. The vast mind that was supposed to be rebuilding their planet… silent.

Jamie’s access to the intelligence governing this shelter was extremely limited. She could see only the “public proclamations” it had made, to the shelter’s current population of zero.

After a century without access to the governing intelligence, it had declared that intelligence “likely destroyed.” Another century later, it had declared the other shelters “likely destroyed” and determined 198.64-Beta the last remnant of humanity. Which explained how the AI had ended up with the authority to do crazy things like make her into a stupid horse.

But there was one piece of good news, a single bright star in the line of bleak determinations and deductions the AI had made. Once it lost contact with the Core Node, it began its own investigation of the planet. After all, the primary purpose of each shelter had always been to keep its residents safe long enough to recolonize the surface.

The probe readouts were clear even to someone without a terraforming background. No radiation, no biocontaminants. Correct environmental readings, comfortable temperatures… and a functional biosphere. It was the information the AI had already tried to share with her once. Now at last she was capable of understanding what it told her. The other facilities might be gone, but they’d done their work.

If Jamie was some clever hacker or something, she could probably put together more, maybe reconstruct data from unimportant trash to figure out what was really going on. But she wasn’t a hacker—she was a dropout, with only a handful of basic certifications to her name.

Her curiosity went as far as searching for her family in the master database. Last known location, a different shelter on the other side of the country. Presumed destroyed.

“What is that mission you wanted me for?” she asked, finally pushing the tablet aside. Maybe she’d be able to get out of doing it—but considering how dire things looked for her species, she wasn’t going to do that without figuring out the why first. For all she knew, the computer might be right about how necessary this was.

It was as though the computer had been waiting patiently for that question. The voice synthesis couldn’t approximate emotion, but the instant reaction was its own signal. An AI’s way of telling her that she was doing what it wanted.

“The task is simple. Terraforming is not complete according to the ideal projections, but it has passed acceptable threshold and contact with the Core Node is lost. This suggests further delay will not allow it to complete. Waiting will only cause more pods to fail, and more lives to be lost in suspension. This is unacceptable. Therefore, colonization must begin.”

She pulled up the tablet again, scanning through the photos the drone had taken. Green, not white. Life had not survived the apocalypse they’d summoned for themselves, but it had been rebuilt. Maybe that was good enough. “I agree,” she said. “Looks like a great place to build a city up there. Trees, and flowers, and birds… so why the hell am I a horse? Don’t you need… pioneers? Construction workers, and scientists, and… where the hell do horses fit into it?”

“You are not a horse,” the computer said. “You are a biosphere correction agent. Your species was created to interact with redirected energy from the LaGrange array and reconstruct the biosphere.”

She felt like she was running in circles. That was to be expected from a dumb AI—ask the same questions, get the same answers. Realizing what she didn’t understand from context clues was probably more than it could manage. “Why am I a biosphere correction agent?” she asked.

“Because a large population has organized into a civilization on the surface.”

The screen changed, natural images replaced with something that gave her painful flashbacks of home. A dim brown favela of leaning buildings, made of scrap and waste and packed together as tightly as possible. And walking through the streets—horses, hundreds of them. No cars, no aircraft, no drones… but they were numerous. “You think they’re a threat?”

“They were not meant to continue to exist following terraforming,” the computer answered. “Core Node reports efforts to purge the population in preparation for final colonization were… unsuccessful. No information has been provided about the cause.”

Hold on. These things are smart enough to build a city, and you’re trying to ‘purge’ them? But she didn’t ask. The Core Node might be able to ask moral demands, but the shelter’s dinky little AI never could. Even trying was a waste of time.

In any case, the computer took her silence for understanding. “Significant risk of discovery and destruction is projected if this race becomes hostile. Yet their use of surface resources is… not significant. Diplomacy is thus required, with the goal of mutual recognition and a treaty permitting the use of sufficient land area for a settlement.

The screen changed again, this time showing a map. She could see the dirty little city, surrounded by crude farms on the edge of a vast southern jungle. A dotted line outlined the “ideal settlement location” far from the edges of the fields.

“I’m going to be an ambassador,” she said. “To a… race of organic tools. It doesn’t look like life is too great for them either.” She tapped the screen with a hoof, zooming in on the edge of the city. They’d surrounded their settlement with high walls of scrap, ending in pointed spikes. Unless she was mistaken, there were bodies up there, left to rot in the sun. Though she couldn’t say what kind of bodies. Too big to be horses.

“They were never meant to build a civilization,” the computer said. “Their success is not our concern. The biosphere is rebuilt, their duty is complete. Now yours begins.”

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