• 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 20: Perseus

Jamie knew she was gambling with her demands, and there was no way they would lead where she wanted. But anything more direct, and it would be too obvious. Given Shy’s position within Hollow Shades, and the uneasy relationship she had with its ruler, that probably wouldn’t be a good idea. Her presence should be seen as a punishment for her, while he prepared something better.

“I’m not sure what I should call you, uh…” Golden Shine said, stumbling. At least they were walking to the Kindness district. So far, her plan was working. “We have only one Alicorn princess. Are you something similar? The… princess of the sky?”

“No,” she said hastily. “Not princess. Call me, uh… Emissary. I’m only a messenger for things greater than myself. I’m not here to claim I’m… the same as yours.”

“A holy messenger,” said somepony else. One of the guards, with their purple armor. “Are all ponies Alicorns where you come from? A kingdom of… perfect harmony? Do you think that is what our princess is trying to build, Commissar?”

“I don’t know,” he answered, pensive. “I look forward to hearing her perspective on all this in person. I expect the princess will want to give you a proper welcome, Emissary.”

“No,” said Epsilon into her ears. It seemed as though the computer was right there beside her, but none of the ponies reacted. The sound of its commutation simulated real speech so perfectly she hadn’t been able to tell them apart. “Avoid this event as long as possible, Citizen Jamie. We do not know how their despot will react. You lack the diplomatic training to resolve such an interaction in a positive way.”

No fucking kidding, she has a religion that cast technology and humans as fundamental evils. What was she then, a princess made with “Darktech?” Maybe she’d get her own name in the lore after they executed her. “In time, I cannot wait to meet her,” she said. “But for now, I don’t require anything of Concord or the rest of Equestria. I will explain it all tomorrow.”

They reached the carved entrance to Shy’s house. Bright pink flowers bloomed in the doorway, a new addition since Jamie had vanished. And what are you going to think about me, Shy? Golden Shine might not have recognized me as an Alicorn wearing a dress, but you will.

“This is a home matching your description,” Shine said. “Unless you’ve changed your mind and would rather stay in the hall of justice. Or I could find some other citizen to suit your needs.”

She shook her head. “This will do for now, if the owner approves of a guest. I won’t be staying long. Just… enough time to rest from my long journey. We can speak again in the morning, yes? I have been sent with a message for you, Golden Shine.”

His eyes widened, and he seemed to finally catch on to the fact that she’d used his name. He nodded. “I understand. I’m quite certain this local pony can be made to cooperate, one way or another.” He banged on the door with a hoof, like the police about to break into a building. “Open the door, citizen! Your presence is urgently required!”

It didn’t take long. Shy would have been asleep by now, except for Jamie’s absurdly dramatic arrival. The locks began rattling in the wood, and Shy’s voice echoed from the other side. Even now, she barely yelled. “You, uh… you know which house this is, right?” she asked.

“Yes, yes. This isn’t a search, and you aren’t under arrest. Just open the door,” Shine said, voice frustrated and annoyed. He turned to Jamie, nodding respectfully to her. “Forgive me, Emissary. But the home you requested is host to a creature of ancient privilege. You may find it fails to meet your expectations for hospitality.

Jamie shrugged. “If it does, I won’t feel it is your responsibility, or that of Equestria. I can blame the one who lives here.”

“Good.” Golden Shine stepped back from the door. “She could use a little more blame, really. Remember who it is who offended you and why.”

The door swung open. Shy stood in a thin robe, her mane in silly wooden curlers. An exaggeratedly sleepy outfit, with weariness that never reached her eyes. She saw Golden Shine first, and her expression hardened as she looked from soldier to soldier. Then she finally saw Jamie, and she nearly fell over. Her eyes jumped up to Jamie’s forehead, and the exaggerated openings for her wings on her back.

“W-what…” Shy stammered. “What’s going on?”

“We have a visitor,” Shine said. Despite as confident as he always acted, he made no move towards the open doorway. “The sounds you heard—an Emissary from some… heavenly realm. She wished to stay underground, in this part of the city. Your home was the only one that can provide what she requires. I would love to tell the princess that you refused your hospitality.”

“What? No, err…” Shy’s mouth opened and closed a few more times, muttering something. Looking to Jamie for an explanation more than the Commissar. Please don’t say anything. Don’t give me away. She’d fooled the city enough not to recognize her—as another species, in the dark, dressed up like royalty. But how long would her disguise last if Shy decided to give her away?

“My home is open to her,” Shy said, stepping to the side. “And her alone. No guards, and not you, Golden Shine.”

“See what I mean about her hospitality?” he asked Jamie. “I could try to find you somewhere else to stay, if you would wait a little longer. You must deserve better than her.”

“I am too weary to wait any longer,” Jamie said. “But thank you, Golden Shine. I will remember your, uh… your kindness, and… and how great… yeah.” She stepped through the doorway, pulling the flowing train of her white and orange dress along with her. “I expect to see you in the morning.”

“Then you will.” He nodded again, not deep enough for a bow. “I’m sorry to say it may take some time for the princess to learn of you here. There are no telegraph lines into Concord. I’ll send a messenger with daylight, but no pony knows the city’s route until it arrives at its destination. You may have to wait before you meet a creature with any real power to decide.”

She shrugged, looking as casual as she could. “I understand, Golden Shine. Take as long as you need. You may wish to delay your messenger long enough for our first conversation, so you can include my requests in the message. Rather than sending two ponies.”

Assuming you haven’t already sent someone after I landed.

“Yes, that seems… wise. I’ll wait until tomorrow morning. But no longer. I will speak to you again in the morning, Emissary. Welcome to Hollow Shades.” He turned and walked away, taking most of his soldiers with him. Jamie didn’t wait outside to tempt things into getting worse, instead nodding towards the door for Shy to close it.

Finally she did, locking each of her different seals in turn. She didn’t turn away until it was closed again, and she could finally stare at Jamie. “Am I crazy?” Shy asked. “I feel like I know you, but I don’t want to…”

Jamie answered with a hug, sudden enough that the pony balked and retreated, spreading her wings in surprise. “It’s Jamie. Under all this stupid makeup and this oversized dress.”

At least Shy didn’t pull away, instead letting her enjoy what little comfort she could find. Eventually she did let go. “Empathy? Forgive my language… but what the buck is going on here? You vanish into the night without a word, I think you’re dead… and the next thing I know, the whole city is shaking, and you’re dressed up pretending to be an Alicorn?”

“It’s a long story,” Jamie said. “Could you make some of that mint chamomile tea? I could tell you.”

“You bucking better,” Shy snapped. “And yes, I can. Follow me.”

She led Jamie to the kitchen. Of course she already knew where it was, but it was a relief to be back all the same. Nothing had changed in the weeks of her absence. There was still fresh fruit on the counter and an icebox in the wall.

While Shy boiled some water, Jamie began the arduous task of extricating herself from the dress. “The night I vanished—I was kidnapped. Dragged off to…” Should she be insinuating that Epsilon couldn’t be trusted? Screw the computer, it sent me here to die. Why should I cover for it? “The one who sent me here. It knew I wasn’t following its mission, so it didn’t give me a choice.”

She tossed her satchel onto the floor, then she got the zipper undone and she squirmed out of her dress onto the stone. There was another layer underneath, some kind of self-glowing fabric. The secret to what made the dress light up with embers. It might’ve been beautiful, if a horse wasn’t wearing it.

Shy turned to stare, eyes getting wider as she spoke. “You’re serious,” she finally said. “You didn’t just… that’s not an excuse. Somepony actually kidnapped you?”

Jamie nodded, shambling into one of the kitchen chairs. She didn’t bother removing the next layer down. This was enough to stop her from sweating. Though… it was probably her horn and wings Shy was staring at, not the outfit. “Yep. Or… not a pony exactly. It’s a… thinking machine. I used to think they were really advanced, but… clearly I was wrong. This one ignored everything I told it about how your world worked and turned me into this.”

One of her wings twitched, opening on its own. Maybe that was for emphasis, except that it didn’t feel like she had much control over it. She had to close her eyes and focus, touching one leg against it—then she could get it to close.

“How?” Shy asked. “I… you can’t just make an Alicorn, Jamie. They’re… it’s a process. Twilight took years to figure it out. It isn’t just something you can decide to do.”

“I didn’t decide!” She rose from her chair, and her stupid wings opened again. “I told it not to! But it didn’t listen. It… I’m not sure how the actual process worked. But if I had to guess, it must’ve taken my genes, and samples of the Orbital Correction Agents, and… sorta mashed ‘em together until they don’t reject each other? That’s really the best way I have of explaining it. Then it used a cellular dissolving agent, and a little bio-bond, and…” She posed. “Voila. One freak, fresh from the biopod.”

“This is bad.” Shy slumped onto her haunches, expression bleak. “You don’t… you can’t know how bad it is, Jamie. You’re not from here. And Golden Shine already knows! Stars above, I need to tell my husband. He’ll know what to do.”

“Husband?” She raised an eyebrow. To some part of her, it felt completely absurd to ask about something so inconsequential. That was probably why she had to ask. It was the only normal thing she could get her fingers around. “You didn’t seem like the kind of girl to marry off so young. Why would you—”

“I didn’t.” She rolled her eyes. “I was almost thirty the first time.”

Behind her, the kettle started whistling. Shy stomped one hoof, then took a deep breath and took the mitt in her teeth. She could say nothing while she worked, though it sounded like she was muttering to herself the whole time. Finally she set a tray down on the kitchen table. “You relax, Jamie. I’m going to call him. He’s the only one who might know what to do.”

She left before Jamie could object, actually lifting off into the air and flying up. There was a little door near the ceiling, one Jamie hadn’t even noticed. But now Shy slipped through it, vanishing from sight.

For a moment Jamie was left entirely alone with a cup of Shy’s familiar tea. “Can you hear me?” she asked the room, just a little louder than a whisper. Then she waited.

Only silence answered. Hiding underground didn’t just mean she would be brought to the one creature she’d thought might be able to help her—it also meant the stupid AI couldn’t hear. It wants a path to the sky. Whatever implants it hid in me aren’t strong enough to transmit through five meters of rock. Suck on that.

“Epsilon, can you hear me?” she asked again, a little louder. “I’m trying to talk to you.” More silence. After recent developments, Jamie no longer thought it was anywhere near smart enough to trick her. That meant it wasn’t there to listen, and she was safe. “Maybe there will be a way to escape. Shy can help me find a train to another city or something.”

But the next question followed naturally from that: and do what? She wasn’t just one of the horses anymore. She was a freak, a demigod to them. And she’d introduced herself directly to the enforcer of the ruling class here. If enough time went by, she could bet that Twilight herself would hear about her. If she’s even a tenth as powerful as everyone thinks, she’ll be able to find me anywhere I run.

Jamie was fucked.

The little door banged open again, and Shy drifted out, landing a few feet away with her ears flat and tail hanging limply. “H-he… he didn’t answer,” she said, voice shocked. “He always answers.”

She didn’t want to risk sounding insensitive, not to the creature who was trying to help her. But that didn’t mean she understood. “How are you calling him, anyway? You think technology is evil, don’t you?”

Shy shook her head. “Harmony does, not me. But it’s not… it’s older than that. There’s a… a tube, through the rock. It goes straight to where he works, a long long way down below us. But he didn’t say anything. None of his nurses were there either.”

So he’s a doctor. You married young, but at least you married smart. “So he’s not there,” she said. “Maybe something happened? If it’s just a tube going to one place, then all it would take is for something else to be going on, and…”

“I guess so.” Shy looked away. “I could go down there. But it’s a long way, and… with you here, Golden Shine might come back anytime. It would be better if he didn’t think I was connected to the old city through the house.”

“If you want to go, I’m coming with you,” Jamie said. “I’d rather get lost and starve in some empty cave than dragged out and hanged by an evil cult.”

Shy laughed, her voice bitter and strained. “Your master picked a strange way to keep you safe, Empathy. This is… about the stupidest thing it could do. After all these years… what will Twilight even think?” She shivered. “The last time she found an Alicorn, they went into her castle and never came out again. Okay, no Discord. Think, think…”

“I’m not sure why you wouldn’t have me,” said a voice from the hall. Male and confident, but somehow amused at the same time. “I haven’t gone anywhere, Fluttershy dear. Where else would I be?”

Your name was short for something? Jamie turned to stare, momentarily taken aback by the strange creature who had just arrived. Not a pony, not… anything she could easily identify. Like someone had taken body parts and fired them out of a shotgun until they stuck long enough to come to life. Then there was the scar burned right into his face and chest, that could’ve just as easily been from any number of magical girl shows. Except that it was burned right into his flesh like a brand, where no fur had grown back.

But while she stared, Shy embraced him. You’re a little young for someone like this, aren’t you? To say nothing about their other obvious physical differences. They weren’t the same species, or even remotely related species. Heck, this thing stood on two legs. Were you human before too? Maybe she wasn’t Epsilon’s first attempt after all.

“I’m going to take a guess and say that this is the reason for the earthquakes and thunder,” he said, once they broke apart. “Spectacular entrance, little Alicorn. I hope you know what you’re doing landing here. We’ve got ourselves a bit of a dictator problem. Did the Ordus Mundi send you to clean things up?”

“I have… no idea what that is,” she said flatly. “And I’m not even really…”

“She’s not a real Alicorn,” Shy supplied for her. “Something called Epsilon made her, according to her story. She’s the visitor I was telling you about, last month? The strange pony who saved this body from getting trapped in a cave and starving.”

“Is that so?” He stuck one strange paw toward her. “Any friend of Fluttershy’s is a friend of mine, then. Even if your arrival has likely cost us everything. But one disaster at a time, yeah? World’s already ended twice, so it can’t get much worse. I’m Discord, and you must be Jamie.”

She took the offered claw, or at least touched it with one of her stupid useless hooves. The whole “shaking hands” thing had never really made much sense to her to begin with, but maybe it did for him. “Sure am. I’m afraid I have… no idea what I’m supposed to do to help you.”

Discord pulled out a chair for Shy, then second for her. “Why don’t you start by telling me everything you know.”

“Well, uh…” Jamie sipped at her tea, buying herself a few precious seconds to collect her thoughts. What did a creature like this want to know, anyway? What could I possibly know that will help the people of this town? Even if the answer was “nothing,” that didn’t mean Jamie wouldn’t cooperate. Anything short of admitting to the shelter and helping the ponies find it. It didn’t matter how much she hated Epsilon, that wouldn’t translate into putting her fellow humans at risk. “About what, exactly? I was never very well informed about… anything.”

Discord was still smiling, despite his dire predictions. Maybe thinking the world would end was just another day for him. Do those burns still hurt? “Start by telling me where you’re from. I saw your pod falling. Which Orbital? Did the Mundi send you?”

You know about the shell? There was no reason to try and keep it secret, anyway. Any creature with a reasonably good telescope would be able to recognize the underside of the shell for what it was. “Persephone Platform,” she answered. “My parents lived on Luna, though. I wanted a little space after primary school, where they couldn’t control me. You know how teenagers are.”

“Persephone,” Discord repeated. “I haven’t heard it called by that name in eons. You really aren’t from the Mundi. So things aren’t well in heaven.” He sighed exaggeratedly. “As above, so below.”

“You didn’t say you knew where she was from!” Shy said, settling her own empty glass on the table between them. “You could’ve said that a month ago!”

“I didn’t know a month ago,” he said. “And I still don’t know how she exists. What a delicious wrench in Twilight’s perfect little nationstate. At least we’ll be able to smile when Hollow Shades burns, knowing Twilight is furious every moment. Unless… the one who sent you can do something about it. Why are you here, exactly?”

No sense hiding what I’ll ask for publicly tomorrow anyway. “We want Hollow Shades to look the other way while we build something about ten kilometers from here. Out in the jungle, far enough that it shouldn’t get in anypony’s way.”

“And why would you want to do that? All that space up there for the taking. Why come back down?”

Jamie sighed. “Because we never left. I’m from Persephone, but I evacuated when everyone else did. That was… thousands and thousands of years ago. Before ponies existed. Back when everyone walked on two legs and their bodies actually made sense.”

“He was right,” he whispered. “I tell you, Fluttershy. Ever since I lost my magic, I’ve been losing my touch. Apparently you can cast spells with the sheer force of wishful thinking. We’ve been living below our station all these years.”

She didn’t laugh. “He… the one leading Stygian’s Gate? Is that why you’re back in the middle of the night?”

Discord nodded eagerly. “When your friend here dramatically fell from heaven, he called everyone together. To him it wasn’t the end of the world, with Twilight finally noticing our little hideout. It was the chance for real allies. I suppose it might be, if you’ve come to build a city. Those would be more allies than we had before. But can you fight a god? Things have become well and truly out of control since you tried to fumigate the planet and clear off the organic terraforming film. But is that our fault or yours?”

You know what’s actually going on. Discord spoke with certainty, and even seemed to know about the plan the emergency shelters had meant to carry out. “What happened?” she asked. “I know I’m supposed to be… helping you not die. But what happened while I was asleep? How the fuck is there an evil dictator murdering everyone who doesn’t believe in her stupid religion? How did everything get so out of control?”

“What’s terraforming?” Shy asked. “It sounds familiar, Discord. But I can’t… quite remember where I heard it.”

“Unpleasant memories, sweetheart. You’ve probably been trying to forget, and I don’t blame you. I would too, if I could.”

At least this was something Jamie could actually answer. “In my time, we were… fighting a war, with ourselves. It started off small, but the more people died the worse it got. Eventually the planet became uninhabitable. The orbital platforms were worse, the outer colonies were all dark… so some smart people put a plan in place to fix things. Anyone who was still alive could crawl into a shelter and sleep, while all the engineers and inventors and biologists in the world poured their lives into a great machine. We gave it total control of the orbital platforms, at least the ones that were still left. The living sections were all poisoned and boobytrapped, but it wasn’t alive. Besides, it would have all the time it needed. Thousands of years.

“And it must’ve worked. There’s green down here again. The water isn’t poison, the air isn’t suffocating us. So after all that, the plan worked! If it wasn’t for the evil dictator thing, this would be perfect!”

“Oh.” Shy seemed to sink a little lower into her seat, ears flattening. She glanced sidelong at Discord. “Is this the same… machine? The one that…”

“CTI,” Discord said, reciting the acronym like a curse on his tongue. “Central Terraforming Intelligence. Let’s just say it developed some… unique ways to accomplish its goals, Jamie. Next thing you know Dear Princess Twilight had completely lost her mind, Equestria was in turmoil, and no one really understood what they had just defeated. But the dead were still dead, and the wounds it inflicted festered and rotted. Yet… it can’t have created you. We destroyed it, saved the world. Or what was left of it, anyway.”

“It didn’t,” she said. “My… my shelter did say the governing intelligence wasn’t responding, presumed destroyed. I guess… that’s why I was woken up. Not to hurt anyone living on the surface, but to rebuild. See… we’ve been frozen a long time. Even our best construction, our most advanced self-repair and maintenance… it still rots. If we don’t start waking up people, then the population will die. Probably the last humans left in the world.”

Shy nodded, patting her foreleg with one of her hooves. “I’m sorry, Jamie. That sounds like a lot of weight for one pony to carry.”

“But you’re not the last,” Discord said, as soon as she’d finished. “Ferris Abrams… leader of Stygian’s Gate… that’s at least one more. Granted, his shelter was completely destroyed, nothing down there but people soup. He’s… nearly soup himself, honestly. Maybe you can use your new Alicorn powers and fix that? I would’ve done something about it myself, but as you can see…”

Her eyebrows went up. “I don’t have any powers. The emergency intelligence in my shelter made me, like I said. Because it thought you would respond better to negotiating with an Alicorn than a regular horse, the way I was last time. It was too stupid to realize how insane that was, even when I pointed it out.”

“You are an Alicorn,” Discord said flatly. “That means you have their abilities, regardless of how you got there. But clearly you don’t know how to use them, so… maybe not the route the Iron Lord needs.”

“Wait a minute…” She rose, turning her tail on them and pacing to the end of the room. Moving helped her think, though the weight on her shoulders now still felt overwhelming. “I almost missed… you said I’m not the last? There’s someone else? Ferris Abrams. That’s… you know another human? Where? I want to meet him! Does he know the secret to coping with being a horse? Maybe… I could use all the help I can get.”

Discord laughed again. “I’m sure he would be just as happy to meet you, summer fledgling. Then you can be the one to tell him that you’ve destroyed everything he’s working for by attracting the wrath of a god. Better you than me.”

“Discord, that’s not very nice,” Shy chided. “She was a victim too. Sent against her will…”

“I don’t know what I’ve revealed… I don’t even know who you are,” Jamie said. “But I don’t want anyone to get hurt on my behalf. If there’s a way for all of us to live through this, tell me. I’ll do what I can.”

Jamie was no hero, and no adventurer. But Epsilon hadn’t given her a choice.

“I’ll return to the underground and share what I’ve learned,” Discord said. “But it would probably be best if you didn’t go yourself. Or… spent too long in this home, for that matter. Not to be unfriendly, but—”

“Twilight already hates me,” Shy supplied. “And she’d kill my husband if she could. Staying with us is going to guarantee she thinks you’re fighting against her. We need to think of something better.”

“I leave in a rage?” Jamie suggested. “When they come back tomorrow, I can say how much I hated it, how badly I was treated… not sure how I can work with you on anything after that, though.”

“Simple enough.” Discord folded his arms. “Rebellion has ponies who can get in touch with you. Just spend plenty of time in public to make yourself accessible. I… don’t know the specifics, that kind of work is beneath me. But they’ll find you.”

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