• 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 28: Equuleus

The bug turned, wings buzzing nervously. They bowed, and spoke in a nervous, faintly feminine voice. At least Jamie thought it was a girl, under all that reverb. “Please, uh… finish the meal, Emissary?”

Jamie did, with far less fear and impotent frustration than she’d felt with Pike watching her every motion. If having to deal with him for a few minutes was the price for getting something she wanted to eat, she could live with that.

When she was done, Jamie couldn’t exactly just go to bed—not with some stranger working in her room. So she sat at the writing desk, opened that Electrical Engineering textbook again, and pretended to care about what it said.

She took every opportunity to watch the strange servant-bug. Why weren’t there any of you in Hollow Shades? At first it was easy to think she must be like the Unification Army’s evil soldiers, built for service instead of war. But why would the princess send ordinary-looking ponies into battle when these bugs with natural armor cleaned dishes and served food?

But any illusion that they might’ve been mindless monsters didn’t survive having just one of them near her for an hour or so. The bug worked efficiently to clean up what was left of the meal, packing dirty trays back on her cart and cleaning up the table. She had the same levitation that unicorns used, the same one that Jamie herself had briefly invoked.

And I still don’t know how. It had been tied to her emotions somehow, that much was obvious. Could I do it again? At least there was one piece of good news in this nightmare: she could be tortured to death knowing that Epsilon had made her body correctly.

The bug pushed her cart to the door, knocking urgently. “I’ve, uh… finished with the meal,” she squeaked. “I’m ready to go.”

Nothing happened. She knocked again, then tried the handle. It didn’t budge. The bug sighed, running one hoof through the sparkling yellow fin running down her head like hair. She glanced fearfully at Jamie, then sat down beside her cart.

“You weren’t supposed to be locked in here either?”

The bug looked up, briefly meeting her eyes. Her wings buzzed, and she looked away moments later. “N-no, uh… Princess? Apologies, I’m… not trained for… I just work the kitchen.”

Some part of Jamie still threatened to drag her back into swirling black apathy, but she resisted. She couldn’t control what would happen when she arrived at Concord. She didn’t even have the tools here to off herself as Epsilon suggested. But this poor bug didn’t seem much better off than she felt.

“Don’t worry.” Jamie rose from the chair, snapping the textbook shut. “I’m not a princess. My name is J—Empathy. That’s all you have to call me.”

“No it isn’t,” the bug said reflexively. Then her eyes widened and she gasped, backing away. “A-apologies again, Empathy. I didn’t mean… Of course you can call yourself whatever you like. I’m just a kitchen servant. Forgive the ignorance of one who has risen so far beyond her station.”

What genetic engineer would build something with so much anxiety? “No, you’re… you’re right. Empathy is just a pseudonym, but it makes more sense with how everyone down here names themselves. How’d you know?”

Her wings buzzed in response. The bug strained towards the door for another moment, pushing with her rump. But it didn’t open. She was still trapped. She sighed, spinning back around to face Jamie. “I’m a changeling, obviously. I mean… not that I expect it to be obvious to someone who isn’t from here. You came from the sky, that’s what everypony says. Well first they said you were a changeling, but then they brought us to meet you and it was obvious you weren’t, and…”

She blushed, flopping down into an awkward sitting position. “I’m not supposed to be with royalty. I really just shouldn’t say anything.”

I’d really prefer if you kept talking. Jamie couldn’t say exactly what good it would do her to learn all these things. By now she was probably outside Epsilon’s range, even if she did want an AI telling her to kill herself. Unless she could somehow convince the princess to let her go, she’d take everything she learned to the grave.

“I don’t know what changelings are,” she admitted. “You, obviously. You can read minds?”

The bug’s mouth hung open. “You really don’t know? I mean… no, we can’t. Mindreading is dark magic, because messing with ponies’ minds usually makes them go insane. We can’t do it anyway—changelings sense emotions. The other kind, the dark ones need to eat it. For changelings like me, the ability is left over from before. I eat the same things as ponies now, or else I’d be a really bad cook…”

Is it rude to ask someone about their species? The person Jamie really wanted to talk to wasn’t in the room with her, anyway. She’d have killed to find whoever was going around genetically engineering all these weird horse-creatures. The world had changed while she slept all right, in ways that made less sense the more she learned.

“What’s your name?” she asked suddenly. “I mean… is that too forward?”

“Basal,” she answered. “I never thought I’d be introducing myself to an Alicorn.” But for all her smiles, she kept looking at the door, occasionally testing the handle to see if anything had changed.

You’re terrified of me, Jamie realized. Why? “This will be my first time traveling to Concord,” she said evenly. “Have you ever been?”

Basal nodded nervously. “I, uh… I grew up there in the Kindness district. My clan has been serving the harmonious ponies of the city for centuries. It’s leaving that’s the exception. I guess I’m a bit too brave for my own good.” She chuckled nervously, like an abused pet expecting someone to hit her.

Jamie didn’t, obviously.

“Could you tell me about it?” She turned, walking away from Basal so she could pull aside the curtains. She expected more jungle beneath them, but in that she was disappointed.

The landscape below was a mess of rough rock and torn crags, with a thin layer of grass occasionally broken by low bushes. If there was even a single tree down there, it was lost in the unhealthy green.

Jamie couldn’t help but think of volcanic islands just formed in the Pacific, covered in primitive plants. Maybe there were mice nesting in the ruins somewhere, but that was all. “Oh my god. Was the planet nuked again?”

Basal followed reluctantly, leaving her tray by the door. She stopped well out of reach of Jamie, watching her fearfully. “What is a… nuke?”

Jamie flung the window open, pointing down with one hoof. “Something that can do that. Flattens and kills everything, nothing left behind.”

“You really don’t know,” Basal whispered, amazed. “Concord did this, Empathy. The city cleanses the world below of disharmony, leaving only torn rock behind us. The city doesn’t usually move very fast, so creatures have plenty of time to get out of the way. It hasn’t flown over an actual city in my lifetime. But there are stories…” She looked down, ears flattening.

Jamie kept staring out the window. So many little things ponies had said during her time in Hollow Shades now made sense. She’d believed that ponies could have a flying city—she’d lived on one her whole adult life. This was why they cared so much about building on “hallowed foundations.” Those were the only parts of the world safe from Twilight’s wrath.

I probably shouldn’t say it like that. “What is the city like?” she asked instead. “Is there anything I should know for my first visit? Since I’m… going to be making it now, whether I want to or not.”

Basal glanced at the locked door again, though it seemed like the longer she remained with Jamie the less fearful she became. “I, uh… I’m probably not the one to tell you. I’m barely harmonious enough to live in its least district. I leave it only in service of those more in tune with Harmony’s will. I can’t have anything worthwhile to say to a creature like you.”

That’s not true. You’re the only one who told me anything useful on this whole damn ship.

“I won’t repeat it,” Jamie said. “This isn’t some… secret way to judge you. I really want to know. The only creatures I met in Hollow Shades were afraid of it more than anything.”

“Because they’re exiles. I may be a lowly changeling, but at least I’m worthy to live in the sky with those other worthy creatures. If the ones you met are anything like the other clans, they’re probably full of envy. They’re afraid of Concord because they know they’ll never be worthy to travel there.”

That doesn’t answer my question. Jamie shifted in annoyance, pulling the window closed behind her. “What is it like to live there?” she asked again, voice firm. “Are there any rules of the city I should know?”

“Oh, rules.” Basal nodded hastily, buzzing over to her and wrapping one leg around her shoulder. She lowered her voice to a conspiratorial whisper. “That’s a good question to ask. There are so many rules about living in Concord that even the highest unicorns sometimes forget them.”

She took a deep breath. “Morning bell sounds at dawn, which is always scheduled for six AM wherever the city is flying. All creatures have one hour to reach their work or school assignments. Don’t be late, or Smile will see. Always wear your uniform, always walk quickly and with purpose, never interrupt a pony while they’re speaking, never raise your voice after evening bell…”

Basal went on, and on, and on. She spoke for so long that Jamie almost wondered if she enjoyed following all those rules. Maybe it was a game for her, keeping track of deeply nested restrictions that might make behavior entirely appropriate one moment and a serious offense the next.

To Jamie herself, it might as well be a documentary about life inside a rogue state, one of those little pan-govs still insolating in some remote corner of the globe.

Except instead of some little dictatorship ruling over a few poor cities, this dictator was… well, still only ruling over a few poor cities, but this time because she’d murdered everything else.

What kind of monster would do that to the planet?

Thanks to whatever genetic quirk gave Alicorns immortality, she hadn’t even been defeated by the enemy that ultimately took care of even the worst human tyrants. She could keep doing this for another thousand years, and who would stop her?

Once they lock me up and start the torture, nobody. I’ll tell her everything. Jamie could only hope that Ferris and his organization realized that too. Maybe they could escape before the hammer of Jamie’s failure came crashing down on them.

Eventually the door did open, and several more bugs appeared in the doorway accompanied by a single soldier with a rifle.

“Basal!” one of them cried, apparently surprised to see her. “You’re… alive.”

Why is that surprising?

She was still talking about Concord. Basal stopped, eyes wide. “Forgiveness, Empathy. I… get carried away sometimes.” She backed away, lowering her head into a bow. “I should probably get back to the kitchen now.”

Jamie gestured absently with a wing. She tried in vain to come up with something to make the bug stay—but her friends seemed so relieved to see her, she didn’t have the heart. Jamie was already a prisoner; she had no desire to put anyone else in the same conditions. “Go on.”

She hurried over to the door, taking her cart. “Enjoy the rest of your trip, Empathy,” she called. “I think you’ll be gone by dinnertime, or I would ask what you wanted.”

Jamie nodded. “Yeah, thanks.”

The door shut behind her, and she could hear their nervous muttering vanishing down the hall as Basal shifted smoothly into telling her story.

There was little for Jamie to do then but flop back into bed and wait for her death.

She knew they had arrived long before anypony came to retrieve her. They began to decelerate, rattling everything in her compartment again and jostling her in bed. Jamie sat up, rising slowly to her hooves. She made her way to the window and pulled the blinds open.

Jamie’s cabin was at the back of the Zapapple, so she couldn’t get a good look at the city. Even so, what she could see rendered her silent with awe.

It didn’t look so much like one city but two, grafted together in different sections the same way the oldest platforms had been built around the space stations of the last generation. Ancient buildings of stone and brick were surrounded by crystal spires and semitransparent fortresses of purple and pink.

Even the basic layout reminded her of the little platform model she’d had as a kid, except that it obviously didn’t use plastic fans to stay up. Those crystals were somehow standing in for Omnium beams, with lateral and vertical supports to keep the incredible structure together despite its many ancient parts.

In Hollow Shades Jamie occasionally stopped to stare whenever a pegasus or griffon flew overhead. They were so large and unwieldy, yet their wings worked.

The Zapapple pulled into a busy skyport, and the air was filled with creatures. Some rode in little airships. Like the Zapapple, there was no sign of primitive lifting mechanisms. Maybe less of her civilization’s technology was lost than she’d thought.

They settled into place at a massive mooring large enough for a vessel several times their size, bumping and jostling before finally falling still. Jamie hurried to the tiny bathroom, and did her best to compose herself with what few moments she had. There was nothing to do but straighten up her mane and pick one of the perfumes to cover the smell of travel. Maye it would be enough to make a difference.

Then came the knocking, and her door opened again. Pike, flanked by more of his marines. “The princess waits to meet you, Emissary. Please come with me.”

Star could see nothing of their flight as they apparently flew straight for the Harrow. She kept glancing back at the projection, as though it would open to her what the humans were planning for their attack. A way to bypass the decks and fight less of the Unification Army? But if any creatures could ignore the regular rules of war, it would be them.

“Breaching!” Renfield called, his voice echoing through the cockpit and simultaneously through the whole ship as though aided by a speaking spell. “BRACE BRACE BRACE!”

The whole flying insect pivoted, and Star was suddenly hung from her side, supported only by the tight straps all around her body. Kondrak hadn’t been meaning to imprison her after all—she would’ve fallen and smacked right into the pilot otherwise.

Then they struck, hard enough that Star was momentarily dazed by the force of the impact. Lights flashed in her eyes, and her body ached where straps held her upright. She groaned, shifting uncomfortably in the restraints. They had moved like they were alive during the impact, but now they loosened, enough that she might be able to squirm out of them if she wanted. Assuming she didn’t care about dropping three meters or so when she did.

“Direct penetration of the tail section,” Renfield said, sounding a little dazed himself. But he’d recovered far faster than Star did, already coherent again. “Boarding boarding boarding!”

A terrible groan echoed from behind them, rumbling through the ship and shaking Star again in her straps. She heard distant wood splintering, and metal groaning with incredible force. Then came the sound of bounding feet, and a steady crack-crack like they’d just released half a dozen angry woodpeckers.

Less than a minute later, and the door opened. They were still sideways, and Kondrak had to crawl over the deck. Somehow his boots held to it in a way that pony hooves couldn’t. “Star Orchid, we’re aboard. My marines and I will protect you, if you will guide us to the core. The Unification Army reacts too swiftly for us to delay—I can see from the drones still holding above the city that the natives have already launched every one of their pegasus soldiers towards us, and their army is turning around.”

“We already don’t have enough time to get away,” Renfield said absently. He reached up, pulling the helmet up off his face. His skin was red from where it met, and his eyes were bloodshot—but there was nothing otherwise alien about him. “They fight us like insects, you know. Their laser pointers can’t get through armor, but they’re strong enough to pull you apart at the joints. I’d like to keep all of mine.”

Star shuddered at the thought of a few Unification earth ponies loose against this Devourer pilot. He was old and strange, but he’d risked his life to fight for ponies he didn’t even know. He deserved better than that.

“Help me out of this… thing,” Star said, struggling with the straps. Kondrak pressed one button, and they all released her at once, dropping her limply into the air. He caught her in one metallic arm, helping her into the rear section.

The image of a stinging insect came again to Star’s mind as she saw into the rear chamber, which had bent and stretched outward until it tore straight through the Harrow. Steel armor plates and wooden structural beams gave equally little resistance, and lights within flickered in familiar military purple.

Even the floor curved now, so Kondrak could set her down and let her walk the rest of the way out without feeling like a filly who had slipped in something.

As she stepped out, the sound of groaning metal returned, and the rear wall began to shudder. Spikes retracted, and the strange insect that had flown them detached, leaving only blue sky behind.

“Not to rush the horse, but we have five minutes to find this thing,” Landon said. “We melted the stairwell door with a thermite charge, but they’ll get through before too long. Would be good to know where we’re going.”

Star scanned the wreckage, trying to make sense of where they’d boarded. This was the central deck, thought to be the safest aboard. Where the armor was thickest, and the most valuable supplies were stockpiled. “Powder magazine is that way,” she pointed. “Careful with fire in that direction. Good thing you didn’t hit it by accident, or…” The thought of that much cannon-powder going off at once broke her concentration for a moment.

“Core is through there.” She pointed again. “Expect two security checkpoints. Once you get inside, you’ll find royal technicians. They aren’t soldiers, so leave them alone. You’ll be looking for something… I guess you don’t know what necromancy looks like. Look for the green light. Leave anything else, or the ship comes down with us still inside.”

“Enemy techs,” someone whispered. “In the field? Rogue’s going sloppy in her old age.”

“So are we,” Kondrak said. “First squad, get us there. My squad, we’ll play rear guard for the VIP. Go.”

They went. Star watched with the four humans of the “rear guard” as they ripped a security door right off the wall, and heard the terrible battle as they went through soldiers of the Unification Army. The stench of formaldehyde soon filled the ship, joined by the sickly-sweet of rot underneath.

The human weapons resembled the ones Stygian’s Gate used, but they were so large by comparison they seemed like tools made for earth ponies. When a side door opened and half a dozen Unification soldiers poured out, she got an intimate view of the captain firing his much smaller sidearm towards them. Even that little weapon left smoldering holes through steel deck and fleshy pony alike, passing through Unification armor and exploding into shrapnel on the way.

She felt too sick after seeing the first few shots to really know what happened next. There was fighting and she followed, trusting to these strangers to protect her the whole way.

Finally she got a sense of greater desperation from both sides. The humans rejoined their groups, tucking in together in a tight mass as the Unification Army’s soldiers flooded in from all directions. They protected Star with their armor, shielding her from light lances and crossbow bolts and melee weapons as well.

Eventually one of them went down, armor beaten by so many small wounds that an earth pony’s spear could pierce his chest. He limped along in the center, doing his best to keep up and moaning through the thick metal of his armor.

“Do you need help?” she yelled, over the roar of gunfire and the shouts of her Devourer allies. The Unification Army remained eerily silent as they died by the dozens. They gave only nonverbal orders to each other, filing in as fast as they could and totally unmoved by the mountain of the dead. “I don’t know much about first aid, but… I could probably try.”

“No,” the human answered. “Just, uh… maybe take this?” He held something towards her in one shaking hand. “In case something gets too… cozy.”

It was a gun, exactly like the one Kondrak used. It was about as thick as her hoof, heavy enough that she felt it even in her magic. Gold filigree traced its edges, as much a work of art as anything Princess Twilight might keep in her archives.

“Point end towards bad guy, pull trigger,” the injured human continued. His helmet became transparent, and she could see a pained face within, pale and strained. “Don’t fire it too close to your face, either. Kicks like a horse.”

Then they were through the final barricade, and into the core. The Harrow’s central support beams ran straight through here, a boxy steel column divided into structural triangles that the rest of the ship relied on. All of it connected to the lift crystal, a chunk of glowing blue rock about the size of a pony in repose. And… disturbingly shaped like one too, now that she thought about it.

As she’d expected, past the soldiers and the steel barricades were a silent caste of creatures wearing white. They scattered and fled before the Devourers, without so much as even a feeble resistance.

The monsters didn’t kill them as they fled, as the Unification Army probably would’ve done. A few brandished weapons, or yelled through their armor—but once the ponies ran, they let them run.

“I wouldn’t want to alarm you,” Kondrak said, nudging her shoulder with one hand. “But you wouldn’t want to see what this ship looks like on the outside. We have hundreds of them boarding, all flooding this way. I have several on last magazines, or fighting with sidearms already. We can’t fight our way off this ship. Time for the Hail Mary.”

“I, uh…” Her ears flattened, wilting at the pressure of so many eyes on her. But Star had been overwhelmed before. If she could survive working for the princess in person, she could survive this.

“Right there.” She pointed towards the float core. Sure enough, another large thaumic device was built beside it, connected with dozens of pipes and tubes. The apparatus whirred and hissed, loud enough to hear even over the shouting and occasional gunfire as more creatures rushed in behind them. “Not the blue thing, that’s the lift crystal. That other thing… switch it off, and the Unification Army goes with it.”

Of course that wasn’t strictly true. The real army was on Concord, this was just one ship’s worth. There would be no winning their rebellion in a single stroke.

“On it, Captain!” Landon closed the distance in a few strides, hefting her weapon as she went. It was different than most, with a thick drum under the barrel instead of the single magazine.

Something moved from behind the controls—a Unification soldier, though she wasn’t wearing armor. Star might not have noticed her at all, except for her pale coat, and the satchel of identical gear.

Were you in storage? Why would the princess keep unarmed soldiers somewhere so important?

“Stop!” she yelled, as though it would’ve made a difference. “Leave my ponies alone!”

Landon ignored her completely, bracing herself firmly on the steel deck-plating before unloading into the complex machinery. She kept her aim away from the float core, but these other machines were far less lucky. Angry green light roared out from within, as bullets tore through metal and glass and crystal with equal enthusiasm. After ten seconds of firing, Landon’s weapon clicked, its barrel still glowing bright orange.

The Unification soldier stopped running towards them. She wobbled in her path, as though she were going to keep running. Then she fell on her face, smacking painfully into the deck and falling still.

“That’s it!” Kondrak yelled. Evidently he had the same kinds of eyes as the Iron Lord, because he sounded perfectly confident as he continued. “They stopped dead. Horses… falling right off the ship, plummeting to their deaths. Not even trying to fly.”

“Can’t kill what’s not alive,” Landon said, nudging the nearby pony with one boot. Her head flopped to one side, revealing a mane with a few faint traces of orange. Her eyes were wide with terror, or a terrifying simulation of it. “Ship’s yours, Kondrak. Looks like we’re joining this war with a bang.”

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