• 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 27: Carina

Shouting sounded from down the hall, accompanied with a hissing and squawking from Kondrak’s helmet. More of that almost-magical communication called radio, perhaps?

Star Orchid would’ve been completely lost, except that the Devourers spoke the same language. “They’re coming back!” shouted a human voice. Not terrified, but urgent. “Kondrak, they are marching. Drones say it’s even more than last time!”

The human straightened, twitching towards the exit. “It seems this conversation will be cut short, I’m afraid. The army of automatons is marching, and we must depart.”

“You bucking realize what that means?” Wellspring asked, suddenly harsh. “We don’t even have a leader until he recovers from surgery. We haven’t evacuated any of the most vulnerable, and our troops are barely hanging on. If they get here, we’re all dead, and everything we have will be taken back to Concord.”

Kondrak froze, glancing over to one of his companions.

Landon shook her head. “They’re cute, sir, we want to help them too. But we can’t win a land war with a country. We’re down to our last box of curatives. Next soldier to lose their armor will be fighting as naked as the horses.”

The aliens retreated uniformly, towards the passage upward, taking any hope of survival with them. Kondrak moved the slowest, his helmet still under one arm. “I want to help you,” he said flatly. “But my ship must survive. Protecting its crew is the only thing I’ve ever done right.”

“You don’t have to fight a whole war,” Star snapped. Every word was another little betrayal—here she was, revealing the secrets few in Equestria knew to the very monsters she had feared for her whole life. She spoke anyway. “The Unification Army… shouldn’t even be out here. They have weaknesses you can use.”

Kondrak stopped, extending one hand to the others. They turned back, watching expectantly. “We already know much. They’re algorithmic in their thinking, they can’t survive without the life-support they carry on their backs. But it takes days for them to rot once their support gear is broken, and there is great security in the error-checking they rely on to determine orders. Even projections and voice simulations of their leader fail. They act as Concord’s army, and so we’ve tried everything we can think of to exploit their flaws. Their creator has proven to be one step ahead.”

“Nothing like that,” Star said. Every second she stayed out here was one where the Unification Army got closer. If that wasn’t enough, there was probably an assassin lurking out in the city, waiting to leave her gutted and finish her work. “The army can’t leave Concord, not more than twenty kilometers or so. I’m guessing that the Harrow contains some… miniaturized version of what the city does. There’s powerful magic on there somewhere to keep the army alive. Destroy it, and all those soldiers stop fighting too.”

“Escalation,” Kondrak whispered bitterly. “Neutrality dies along with these soldiers. They represent only a small number of Equestria’s full strength, but they will be enough to provoke a war. She will never stop hunting the Hippocrates after today.”

“She already won’t,” Wellspring offered. “Unless you plan on killing all of us before you go, those soldiers will interrogate us, learn about you. Devourers living and fighting her… she’ll never allow it, no matter how balanced and neutral you think you are.”

Hopson moved swiftly, lifting the weapon hanging from her shoulder and taking it in both of those strange human limbs. “I like the side where we help the innocent people, Captain. Rest of the crew thinks the same, promise. Having boxes of ammo in stores doesn’t help us if we aren’t going to shoot any of it.”

Are you Devourers, or aren’t you? Star thought, staring at the captain. This would be the moment to show us what you’re really like. Act like you’ll help us, but really you just wanted something for yourself. Now that you can’t get it, you’ll abandon us.

Star Orchid had betrayed the princess… betrayed everything she’d ever known was true. It would be appropriate for that betrayal to kill her soon after. At least I won’t have to face the princess. The Unification Army won’t be able to tell me apart from the rest of the rebels. If I’m holding a weapon when they get here, I’ll die too.

“My second,” Kondrak said, meeting Landon’s eyes. “Will you consent to this choice? Our lives exchanged for aliens.”

She nodded curtly. “It’s a stupid reason, but we’ve been in orbit long enough. Let’s go.”

“On one condition.” Kondrak pointed towards Star with one gloved hand. “You bring this new information, but you are a stranger. The artifice you call magic is… not well understood by any member of my crew. If you wish us to fight, put your life in the same peril as we do.”

A dozen different objections ran through her head—essentially the same ones she would’ve given to the princess to stay in the court, if she could have. How different Star’s future would’ve been if she’d managed that. But Twilight never changed her mind. Once she was sure about something… it was absolute.

“I am not a soldier,” Star said, advancing towards them. “I would only slow you down, and put you at more risk. But… if that’s the exchange, then take me anyway. My life in trade for all the creatures I put at risk down here.”

She glanced over her shoulder, meeting Wellspring’s eyes. “If I come back, we’re even.”

Wellspring nodded her approval. “I’ll tell Windbrisk what happened. If we can hold out long enough for it to matter.”

“Come on then, small horse,” Kondrak said. “You may be no warrior, but all of you can run. To the surface we go.”

Jamie felt the deck jerk as they accelerated, a sudden burst of force that rattled everything in her room. She walked all the way to the back, where a set of windows gave her a commanding view of Hollow Shades as the ship retreated. Even if she’d been able to fly, the window wasn’t quite large enough for her to climb out into the sky. Maybe if she was a contortionist she could’ve squeezed out.

But even if she could, it would just be to fall to her death.

This army had not been gentle with Hollow Shades. From up here, the damage it suffered was even clearer to her. The dense favelas might’ve been easy to build, but they were also apparently flammable. A whole city block had burned, and the ponies who lived there were occasionally visible cowering in the jungle, little bursts of motion as they kept their distance from the Unification Army.

This is all my fault, she thought, as the green and brown of towering jungle trees blurred together beneath them. They wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for me. If I’d just let Epsilon kill me, nopony would be dead.

It was an uninvited thought, and part of her balked. Why should the actions of an evil dictator be her fault? She hadn’t sent an army of strange monsters rampaging through the city, attacking ponies regardless of their loyalties. Twilight had done this, and maybe Epsilon too. If only it had been a little smarter, maybe it would’ve listened when she told it that its plan was braindead.

Jamie sighed, drawing the curtains closed with her mouth. There was nothing she could do for those creatures now. If anything, it might be about to get worse. I’m not some Peacekeeper Commando. I can’t resist torture.

Epsilon had been right about one thing. Jamie didn’t know where the shelter was buried. She couldn’t get them killed, only a living human and the last vestiges of a frail rebellion.

That soldier had told her the truth—these really were comfortable accommodations, made for a ship’s captain. Or even a princess. A single chandelier lit the space with dozens of little glowing stones. The furniture was carved from fine hardwood, with an oversized bed in one room and an elegant writing desk in another beside a library with dozens of heavy books. In the center of a room was a fine dining table with four seats, though it was entirely bare except for a cloth.

She might’ve taken this opportunity to learn more about the ones who were about to torture her to death, except that she couldn’t read the text on any of the covers. All except one.

Desperate for anything to distract her, Jamie leaned down and took the book in her mouth, settling it on the table. The spine wasn’t like many of these other books—it was printed with a graphic instead of foil stamped, in bright colors she’d never seen from a pony book.

Principles of Electrical Engineering, 8th ed” proclaimed the cover, its edges worn and pages yellowed. She hooved through them and found the book nearly crumbling to dust at her touch. Yet flipping through led her to exactly what she might’ve expected. It was a college textbook, ancient and missing some pages, and not even pretending to be made by ponies.

Of all the relics to survive, why this? Jamie hadn’t attended any University; she didn’t qualify for it. But even in her day, physical books were rare.

She spent a few minutes in Twilight’s chair, reading Twilight’s relic for the simple glimpse back into something familiar it could give her. None of it made any sense to her, and from the scribbles in the margins it didn’t seem like it had made much sense to the last one to use the book either.

Whoever had written them hadn’t been using English, so their meaning was impossible to discern. Their writing was neat and precise, each one a masterpiece of calligraphy. I wonder if this made more sense to you than it does to me.

Jamie thought about trashing it—then maybe moving on to the porcelain pony busts resting on the bookshelf. But she dismissed that thought quickly—trashing the place wouldn’t make them turn around, it would just end with her in a worse cell. Assuming they didn’t just decide to beat and kill her right there.

I’m not ready to die.

She was alone for hours after that, long enough for the sunlight streaming through her covered window to turn orange, then fade. She moved from the seat to the bed, contemplating what tortures might wait for her in Twilight’s castle.

She would probably rate right up there with some of the great evils of her own world—enslaving the planet, torturing dissidents, suppressing information. What would all those brave revolutionaries think about the world they made?

She wrapped her forelegs around the pillow, sobbing quietly into it. Jamie just wanted to go home.

She woke abruptly, to a polite knocking on her cabin door. She sat up, wiping away the slime from her face. Sunlight streamed through the curtains now, faintly purple with the dawn.

The knock came again, and this time there was a voice to join it. “Emissary Empathy,” it called—Pike again, though his polite visage had returned. “I would be flattered if you would take breakfast with me. Would you mind?”

“Yes,” she snapped. “Go away.”

The door opened, and he entered. Not flanked by soldiers as last time, but a group of other creatures—coats of shiny yellow and red and blue, more like shells than fur. Their eyes were entirely inhuman as well, broken into dozens of alien facets.

“Forgive my imprecise language,” Pike said, stepping inside and gesturing to his servants. They brought trays, hurrying over to the table and spreading them there. Jamie’s nose was assaulted by smells—fresh bread and eggs, apple juice, and other horse-foods she couldn’t quite place. “I meant that I would be eating here, and I would be flattered if you chose to join me. If you choose not to, that’s up to you. Stay in bed if you wish.”

She tried, though she couldn’t stop hearing the clanking trays. Pike’s servant bugs unloaded plates and utensils from their pushcart, laying out two place-settings on opposite sides of the table with food in-between. A single glance told her there was even more here than she’d initially thought. They were trying to torture her with this stuff.

Then Pike began eating, and she swore he was making as much noise as possible with that fancy silverware. He ate without shame, his back to her, with only one servant left. Could she overpower him?

Maybe if she had a gun.

She rose, shaking herself out, and running a hoof through her mane. She stalked over to the table, grabbing a roll in her mouth. She started to spin, leaving the whole arrangement behind—but there were fresh carrots on the table, oranges already peeled, a plate of soft pastries…

She grumbled, then took the only remaining seat. Pike’s servants had already pushed the other chairs away. “This isn’t a very polite way to treat an emissary,” she grumbled, as soon as she’d swallowed the roll. “Dragging me out of the city and locking me up like this.”

Pike raised an eyebrow, inclining his head slightly. “Forgiveness, Empathy. I thought that providing you with the finest of everything at my disposal would be enough to satisfy your tastes. I will endeavor to do better if we encounter each other again.”

She reached across the table with one hoof, snatching the entire bowl of carrots and dumping them onto her plate. He watched intently, one eye never seeming to blink. But he didn’t stop her. He didn’t so much as twitch in his seat, in fact.

Maybe she should’ve worried about this stuff being poisoned, since she hadn’t watched them set any of it up. But she found it hard to care. Pike could kill her if he wanted, he could force her to drink poison or throw her into some horrible horse-torture machine. Why should he bother hiding his evil when she couldn’t escape no matter what he did?

“You’re a creature like nothing I’ve ever encountered,” he continued, unconcerned with her anger. “Equestria has spent centuries waiting for another Alicorn, did you know that? The princess has always known that one would arise to succeed her, just as she arrived to succeed the ancient sisters. Do you think that could be you?”

Jamie burst out laughing, her voice high and awkward. She kept going for several seconds, with Pike and his bug staring at her. “Me, rule a country? That’s insane. I couldn’t even keep my bedroom clean back home. I couldn’t even stop myself from getting kidnapped twice. I don’t think I’m fit to succeed your princess’s janitor.”

I’m not sure I know how to clean up an evil dictatorship after its ruler is overthrown, either. I’m sure there’s someone in the rebellion who knows more about political science.

Pike nodded, scooting his chair out from the table an inch or so. Was that fear on his face, or just surprise? “I’m sure there are ponies in Equestria who will be disappointed to hear that. Maybe even Princess Twilight herself.”

Jamie shrugged. “I don’t mean to disappoint. But it would be worse to lie. I’m an ambassador, not a king. I just came with a message.”

Jamie turned back to her plate, scooping on a few pastries next. Golden Shine had given her nothing but bland boiled vegetables and oatcakes every day, but this… this almost made up for it.

“And what message would that be?”

The same one I told Golden Shine. You must know what it is. She glowered up at him, but saw no sign of recognition there. Finally she went on. “My people want to build a city on Earth, in the position we asked for. We want to be allowed to live there, so we can experience life on the surface again.”

“Earth?” Pike repeated, one eyebrow going up. “I’m afraid I don’t know where that could be. There’s earth everywhere, except the oceans. But probably at the bottom of those too, if we could get down deep enough.”

Dammit. She wasn’t a very good pretend ambassador. “It’s what we call the planet we’re on. I think you call it, uh… Equus! Yeah, that’s right. Shy said that when we—” She stopped abruptly, ears flattening. “When I stayed at her home. The night I landed.”

All of Pike’s annoyance was gone, replaced with simple curiosity. “You say it like there are others. Equus is our universe, large enough for hundreds of cities if we grow harmonious enough to be worthy of building them. We need not aspire to more.”

“One of eight,” Jamie answered. “There weren’t people living on most of them. There are gas giants out past the belt, can’t really build on hydrogen. But they had moons, and the good ones had a few…” She shook her head, wincing. “My message is for the princess. I shouldn’t be sharing these, uh… secrets of heaven. With the unworthy. Not that… I know anything about you. But she’s the princess. She’s real harmonious, that’s what you all say!”

“Princess Twilight is Harmony’s speaker. She’s the only pony to have fully rid themselves of chaos, and become ordered in Harmony’s way. Her influence has saved all good creatures on Equus more than once. Her hardships overcome are an inspiration to ponies in every caste.”

Shine said things like that, but it mostly seemed memorized. Do you believe this? Jamie almost asked—what more could they do if they were already going to torture and execute her? But there was still a chance she’d walk away from this, however vanishing it might be. There was no sense in inviting them to kill her.

“I can’t wait to meet her,” she said instead. “That’s why I was sent, after all. Meet the princess… Do you think she’s going to grant my request? My people would really like to come down here. Equestria has, uh… great… cooking! Yeah, this stuff is fantastic.”

She lowered her head and took another bite, getting half her face smeared with orange glaze. Embarrassing enough without the general of an evil army staring at her.

“I’ve given you silverware,” he answered, nodding towards it. He hadn’t been selective with it either, there were two knives and three forks here, in shapes that weren’t quite familiar to her. “You don’t have to eat like an earth pony. So long as you don’t use your magic to harm my crew or try to escape, feel free to cast whatever spell you wish.”

Now he was grinning at her, infuriatingly smug. He knew she couldn’t do it, all right.

Fury boiled in her gut. At his stupid attitude, and the flaming ruin he’d left behind where his army moved. Her napkin lifted off the table, glowing faintly green. She dabbed at her face, then dropped it.

Shame she didn’t have a camera to capture his shock. Or know what the hell she’d just done, that would’ve been great too. “Thank you for the permission, General Pike. I usually don’t, because… because not everyone on your world can. And it doesn’t seem polite to show off. If everyone else can deal with how awkward and clumsy and stupid it is to have bricks for hands, I can too.”

Pike rose abruptly, chair scraping as he stood. “We’re making good speed towards Concord with the wind behind us, Emissary. We should reach the city by nightfall. Please make yourself prepared to meet with the princess before that time. I know that she’ll be waiting for us when we get there, and Princess Twilight loathes tardiness.”

He left, stalking out the door. His bug-servant stared helplessly after him, one hoof still resting on the edge of the cart. Then the door slammed and locked, trapping them inside with Jamie.

Star Orchid hadn’t been much for athleticism back on Concord, beyond the morning’s mandatory calisthenics. Life in the field had taught her differently, and now she was ready to run. Through an enlarged tunnel in the rocks, cut straight through the maze concealing the Undercastle below Hollow Shades. The humans in their massive armor had to get down on hands and knees and crawl through the rock, occasionally brushing it mechanically aside.

Then they emerged from the wreckage of a burned building out onto the streets of Hollow Shades, and Star was momentarily frozen with horror.

Some part of her had known, instinctively, what the Unification Army would do. But seeing it in person—dozens of little fires burning, and the dead scattered before her eyes. They hadn’t been hunting creatures down—rather, they’d killed anything that got remotely in their way. The army was precise in its obedience to instructions, but less precise in its ability to recognize threats.

Or maybe they just choose to kill everything they can, because they know that we’re alive and they can’t ever be again. Maybe it’s revenge.

They were near the marketplace, and Star could see that no parts of the city were safe. The Magic district with its greater harmony had done no better than Kindness—in fact it was right in the path of the storm. Those fires seemed to burn directly to the Hall of Justice, where they stopped completely.

But the city hadn’t been killed yet. Star caught more than one set of eyes peering from the shadows of still-intact buildings. All of them stared at the object in the center of the marketplace.

It looked a little like a beetle made of spun gold, delicate and beautiful. Multi-jointed metal opened to expose a boarding platform as they entered, with a dozen oversized chairs against the walls and a silver door leading to the smaller “head” section.

Kondrak spoke silently to several of his companions from within his protective shell, then turned back towards Star. Even through it, his voice was urgent. “I have seen men at the edge of their fighting strength before, Star Orchid. Those below will not survive the hour if the army reaches them. We can make the trip to that vessel far faster—but can you assist us in locating this weakness soon enough that the numbers do not overwhelm?”

He gestured around, at the gaggle of hulking figures. There were eleven of them in total, most wearing armor that was beaten and scratched and many-times repaired. “My ship had only a dozen marines when we launched. Three of them are buried now.”

“I don’t…” She shivered, feeling the eyes of many hidden ponies on her. She’d now been seen consorting with the Devourers. If she survived today, even if the rebellion somehow escaped, knowledge of this would make it to the princess sooner or later. Keeping Hollow Shades safe would be her own undoing. “I know exactly where the princess would keep her new magic—there’s only one source of power strong enough, the float core. I know the way—but I don’t know how nine soldiers could possibly get you there. Even on a standard ship, the reserve would be there to preserve the core. There will be at least a hundred fighting mares and stallions in our way.”

“Just a hundred?” said another human, voice strangely cheerful. “Come on, Captain, you gotta let us go now. The Rogue is begging us to take her fancy ship away.”

Kondrak didn’t delay this time, just gestured sharply off to one side. Either one of his human companions was watching, or maybe the splayed beetle itself, because the walls closed abruptly around them, settling into place and hissing faintly for a second. Without a word, the other armored figures moved to the massive seats waiting for them, which reached out with little metal claws to grab and support them. All except Kondrak, who gestured down the hall.

“Come, Star. You must direct the pilot.”

The door opened for them with an almost living contraction of metal, into a hallway of polished silver. The ground itself was painted yellow and black around a sphere near the center, with wires covered in frost leading in from all directions. Star pointed with one hoof, unable to hide her confusion. “Is that… you use lift crystals too?” Now that she stared at it, Star realized she could feel it. With her eyes closed and mind relaxed, it felt like a spell—one being cast by a novice with very little magical experience. The matrix was fragile, balanced seconds from collapse. A single failure in concentration would tear the whole thing apart.

It was there in the center of the restricted space, shielded protectively in a metal cage lined with coils of wire. Metal supports connected to it, each one as thick as a human’s body, though still elegantly curved.

“That’s not what we would call it,” the human answered, his helmet becoming transparent. His voice still echoed slightly, even if he obviously wasn’t trying to intimidate her. “Gravium is an absolute nightmare to work with, but the alternatives are a nightmare to maintain. Maybe one day we’ll figure out the ‘magic’ you ponies use on yours. Until then, don’t get too close.” In that moment he extended one armored hand between her and the space, stopping her firmly. “It likes to rip lungs out. Keep yours in your chest, yes?”

Star shuddered, hurrying past the cage as quickly as she could go. Given how fragile this spell felt to her, she no longer had any desire to be near it. Or even in the same ship.

Star Orchid thought she knew what to expect from a helm. There would be a large wooden wheel, and other controls for the other axes of rotation. Twilight had standardized the design long before she was born, so pilots trained in one airship could adapt to others with minimal effort.

The room was narrow, particularly at the doorway, where only one of them could pass at a time. Inside was another human—the same one she’d seen earlier with his heavy clothing, but no metal shell. A harness wrapped around his face, connected by a golden thread to the ceiling. He didn’t recline before the helm, but stood within a marked section of the bridge, his body held in the air by a dozen little metal grips. As he moved, the ship responded, as though he were outside flying with real wings.

“How can you see where you’re going?” she asked, horrified. “There aren’t any windows in here!”

“You brought the horse?” asked the pilot, his voice skeptical. “If the Rogue interrogates her, she might track the make of the Hippocrates, Captain.”

“We’ve elected for a total investment in their success,” Kondrak declared. “Give us a projection of the enemy vessel, Renfield. She’s going to tell us where to hit.”

“Trusting her too,” he said, clicking his tongue. He didn’t look away from his flying—it would be hard to move when the whole airship reacted almost instantly to even his small movements.

But then something did appear, an illusion painted in the air behind the pilot. It was marked with hazy green lines, becoming fully visible only as a faint mist passed through them. Yet between them Star could clearly make out the shape of the ESS Harrow, as though captured in a strangely geometric painting.

She circled around it to the other side of the cockpit, her legs wobbling briefly as they turned.

“Where is this float core you mentioned?” Kondrak asked. “So we can plan the strike.”

And this is the moment where I explain to Equestria’s greatest enemies how to destroy a warship. But the alternative was the death of everyone in the Undercastle. At once what she’d been sent to do and a possibility she didn’t want to imagine.

Star jabbed a hoof into the map. “Right there, that’s the core. It’s… in the center, six decks from the landing bay at the bottom and the poop deck on top. Our best chance is landing here and…”

Kondrak waved her off, reaching forward with one hand. He matched the position she had indicated, and a sphere appeared in the center of the ship, glowing bright blue. “Right here?”

She nodded. “It won’t change how we go in though, will it? We must fight our way down. And… get past their defensive spells. I don’t know what it will have running—probably not very much, since we’re so far from Concord. They’ll be using all their spare magic to keep the soldiers alive.”

The pilot laughed—though how he could see or hear what they were doing, she couldn’t guess. “The horse thinks we’re going to use the front door, that’s cute. Get her a seatbelt, Captain, this is going to be bumpy.”

Kondrak nodded, then folded something out from the wall—a chair, with straps coming down and ending in strange fasteners. “Hop up here, Star Orchid. We don’t have the hardware to make more armor anymore, so… a seatbelt will have to do.”

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