• 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 3: Aquila

For all that she had just done, the princess seemed unchanged from her usual self. Star followed close behind, clipboard of interview notes still levitating along beside her.

The princess took them behind the throne, to where the castle was built not of shining crystal but reinforced stone. There were occasional cracks in the low hallway, or bits of metal stuck into the wall from ancient weapons. Equestria had not always been so pleased to serve under the princess’s rule.

“With that failure, Equestria is in dire straits,” the princess said, though she couldn’t tell if Twilight was trying to talk to her. “We’re so close to finally finding peace, and… we’re stopped dead. Setback after setback. I’m afraid we’ll have to try something more aggressive.”

“Princess, I don’t mean to question your wisdom… but how threatening can the diamond dogs be now? Their pack is gone. Even if a few individuals escaped the Unification Army, everything they built has been processed by Concord like everything else. They won’t be able to challenge your rule.”

Twilight slowed, one of her eyebrows going up as she stared at Star. Not anger, thank Harmony. “You think this was about the diamond dogs? Clearly I’ve neglected your education, Star Orchid.”

“Well, uh… I know that they had Darktech. And that it spreads disharmony wherever it’s used. If ponies ever settled on the surface above those dogs, their friendships would’ve crumbled under the weight of distrust and anger. Right?”

Twilight stopped dead, spinning around to stare down at her. Instead of answering the question, she said, “How long has your family served in my court, Star Orchid?”

At least this was a question she knew she could answer correctly. “Seven generations, Princess. While Concord was still called Canterlot. Before it could fly.”

“Well I think you’ve been ignorant long enough, Star. If I’m going to send you out into the world to help protect Equestria, I need you to know what you’re looking for. Repeating the Words of Harmony is good, but… those stories aren’t strictly true. They’re shorthand for what’s really going on, so that even a common pony can understand. But I think you’re ready for the truth.”

She hurried off again, so fast that Star had to canter to keep up. Instead of heading up the stairs to the princess’s private quarters, they turned into a length of blank wall. Then Twilight’s horn glowed, and they vanished briefly from one side, reappearing on the other. In a dark hallway even Star had never seen before.

How many secret passages are hidden in this castle, accessible only to those who know where to teleport?

It didn’t look any different than the construction of the rest of the castle, though it was dustier and more abandoned in its general outline. “The first thing you need to understand, Star Orchid, is that we don’t lie to Equestria by not sharing this with them. The Words of Harmony we’ve written are true in their conclusions, even if the specific events have been… creatively described. For example, I know you can tell me why our crusade is so important.”

“All of Equus depends on us,” she recited. “Disharmony can easily infect unwary creatures. Soon they’re destabilizing their communities, weakening their magic and causing evil to spread. Eventually there’s so little magic left that Devourers return from Limbo to retake Equus for themselves.”

Twilight nodded approvingly. “And that’s all true, just… not literally true. Most creatures just couldn’t comprehend what’s actually going on. Trying to inform them would be an incredible waste of time, and possibly only confuse them even more.”

They reached a heavy metal door, its frame covered in little symbols. She recognized each one as one of the cutie marks of the Exemplars. But here they were apparently a combination, because the princess tapped each in succession, and then the door split down the middle, opening for them.

Lights came to life from above, illuminating what she first took to be a private natural history exhibit. There were bones off to one side, cross-sections of geologic strata, and artifacts displayed in glass cases.

“Let me show you the truth, Star Orchid. Or as much of it as I’ve managed to reconstruct. The knowledge is very old, and… my predecessors were as complicit as seeing it hidden as any other creature.”

They walked all the way to the bones. Twilight didn’t mind them—the princess created plenty of corpses. But these were clearly ancient enough that she hadn’t been involved. She gestured at the first set. “See the form of our ancient ancestor.”

“So… big…” she stammered. “How could any pony grow so large?”

“Not ponies as you understand them,” Twilight corrected. “Just as I am mightier than any ordinary pony, so they would have been mightier than I. The firstborn of Harmony, creatures of pure friendship. So pure that their horns and wings were made of light itself, and so aren’t preserved in fossils. Long ago, the world was ruled by these creatures, united in a single tribe. They built incredible cities of glass and stone and metal, stretching all the way out into the sky. Cities that you can still see on the moon and flying through the air, if you look with the right telescope.” She gestured across the room with a wing, at several pinned photographs on the other side of the display.

Star Orchid wandered towards them, eyes widening as she got her first good look. It was exactly what the princess had said—ruins made of metal, settled onto the surface of the moon from far away. Or else ancient ruins, showing fantastic cities of vast size and incredible harmony. “Firstborn,” she repeated. “These… gigantic ponies. What happened to them?”

“They died.” Twilight gestured at the other skeleton—this one wasn’t quite as well preserved, with missing bones and some others that didn’t seem like they were put back correctly. It stood on only two legs, as tall as the ancient Firstborn, though that still made it much smaller considering it seemed to balance like an ape.

But looking at the skull, even that comparison didn’t seem right. Its eyes were larger than an ape’s, and its brain apparently enormous, with arms that didn’t seem long enough for the usual loping style that Star had once seen in the Exemplar’s wildlife sanctuary.

“The Devourers,” Twilight went on. “Their own history mixes with the Firstborn. Maybe they were created as servants, or… maybe they just imitated the Firstborn until they had learned the secrets of their magic.”

She led the way past their bones to the last exhibit. Carvings mostly, though there were some ancient photographs set into thin sheets of metal. Or maybe they were paintings? But they looked so real.

In those images, she saw a world destroyed. Cities crumbling to dust, whole oceans frozen into a single sheet of ice. “We don’t know the details, but we can figure some of it out. The Devourers went to war against the Firstborn, and didn’t care if they survived so long as they won. And in a way they did, because there aren’t any Firstborn left. But our… ancestors, trusted to Harmony, and even though they didn’t survive, their children did.”

“I don’t see why we’re so afraid, then,” she said. “The history of Equus was scarier than I thought, but Harmony still won in the end.”

“Well…” Princess Twilight opened a nearby glass case, settling the remaining pieces of poor Max inside. “I used to believe that. The princesses that came before me believed that. But I’ve seen different since then. Darktech… it isn’t just a few mining tools the diamond dogs probably found in old ruins.”

She clicked the case closed, adding it beside many others. Each one had body parts inside, or little devices, all just as inscrutable to her in their purpose. Darktech, some with centuries of dust on the outside. “You saw what happened, Star Orchid. Something has been done to the minds of these diamond dogs, something so powerful that even my magic could not force them to learn honesty.”

“You’re saying…” Star Orchid whispered. “You think the Devourers did it? You think they’re still around, after all this time?”

Princess Twilight nodded. “I know it seems hard to believe that anything could be wrong with a kingdom as perfect as Equestria. Every creature in the world who submits to my rule has a perfect life with all their needs met. They live in friendship, they learn from the tenets of the Exemplars.”

She turned away, back towards the entrance to the little exhibit. She didn’t seem interested in letting Star Orchid examine much of this for herself. She would just get a taste, and from here on she would have to trust the princess’s own interpretation. It was right, obviously. No creature in all the world had studied more and understood more than the immortal ruler of all creation.

“But despite what the creatures of Concord know, I’ve learned that disharmony is growing on the ground. There are rumors that a growing faction… disagrees with my rule.”

“Impossible!” she argued. “Everypony knows that Equestria is perfect.”

The princess didn’t take it as an argument, only smiling at her. “And that is why you’re perfect for this assignment. The diamond dogs would not tell us where the Devourers have gone, but we don’t need them to. Where disharmony grows, there we will find our enemy. And once they’re gone… there will be no new sources of disharmony. Equestria will remain perfect forever.”

“I’m honored to serve the court however the princess demands,” Star said. Though a part of her wished she didn’t have to. It sounded like she wouldn’t be in the court for much longer.

“Of course you are,” Twilight said. “Cooperation is harmony, as is obedience. More than that, your family might have served here a long time, but you haven’t. Not even two months. I have to be honest with you, I didn’t intend for you to replace my old advisor right away. You proved to me you had the right disposition for the task—and now you will go.”

“Where?” she asked, probably missing a little of the expected meekness. But it sounded like the princess was about to banish her. “P-please, Princess. I haven’t done anything wrong, have I? I haven’t… failed to live up to Harmony’s precepts?”

“Of course not!” The princess stopped, spinning to face her in the dark hall. She patted her gently on the shoulder with one wing. “It’s because you’ve done so well that I require so much of you. You have the chance to make Equestria safe forever. There’s a window in this palace waiting for you if you succeed.”

“Find the Devourers?” she said again. “Hunt down our… greatest enemy, the ones who murdered the Firstborn?”

“Find the creatures who refuse their place in Equestria,” Twilight corrected. “If I kept you here much longer, details of your name and appearance would spread too far. Secrets travel even outside of Concord, as hard as that is to believe.”

They reached another door before too long—the one that led to the treasury. Half a dozen Royal Guards waited inside, each one as heavily armed as any pony could be. They all bowed before the princess as they passed, and didn’t look up while Star was watching them.

“I’m going to leave you with everything you need. My Master of Information will accompany you, along with as many guards as you choose trained in stealth and infiltration. But I believe you should select a smaller group, so that you’re less obvious. Probably you should pose as dissidents yourselves, until you gain the rebels’ trust enough to be accepted into their inner circle. Once you can confirm you’ve found the Devourers at last, then you can return to me, and be welcomed back into my court with wings open to receive you.”

Twilight’s smile faltered just a little, betraying the hardness underneath. “You will not return to Concord until then, so work quickly. The more time you waste, the further Disharmony spreads. I will not allow it to spread like cancer through Equestria until no friends remain.”

Jamie’s duty began with learning how to walk.

It should’ve been a task so trivial that it wasn’t even worth considering. She would get out of bed, and her mission was done.

But humans weren’t meant to have four legs, any more than they were supposed to have fur and tails and stupid ears that moved whenever she didn’t want them to. At first it took great concentration for her to so much as drag herself along, and she saw herself as really crawling on her hands and knees. But the comparison was crude—her joints didn’t bend the same way, and even a slight break in concentration made her lose track of her legs and fall over.

The computer gave her a motorized wheelchair to ride into a recovery room, where physical therapy equipment became her home for the next two weeks. Elastic straps wrapped around her torso, keeping her upright while she pretended to walk through shallow water. Drone footage of the not-horses in action gave her something to use as a model.

Even so, the computer’s toneless voice made for feeble encouragement. “You’re doing so much better,” it intoned, for the tenth time that day. “Soon you will be able to move on to trotting.”

She slumped to the ground, not caring as the elastic straps of her harness strained to the breaking point. Below the modified jumpsuit she wore, she could feel her fur matted with sweat—uncomfortable enough that she could almost understand why the horses living on the surface wore so little clothing. “You keep fuckin’ saying that,” she groaned. “You don’t care. You don’t even have a name.”

Of course the computer had no indignance when it answered, but it did take a few seconds to respond. The reaction she’d learned meant it didn’t consider the response high priority. As close to being unhappy with her as a computer could be. “That is not correct. This intelligence has been given the designation Epsilon-Iota-198.64.”

She rolled onto her side, lifting two legs so they wouldn’t be tangled in elastic. “They just called you EI? How about… Epsilon. I’m going to call you that from now on.”

“Commands will now be accepted under the designation ‘Epsilon.’”

It couldn’t even stay surly at her. Moping was no fun when she couldn’t ruin anyone else’s day in the process.

Jamie bent down, grabbing onto the Velcro strap with her teeth, and pulling free. The harness came loose, and she scrambled out. Epsilon wouldn’t mind—any moving she did was practice she could use to further “calibrate her neural mapping” or whatever. She used the support poles to stand, which was fairly easy for her by now, hobbling towards the nearest automatic door and out into a stone corridor.

The shelters were built to last, with modular replaceable parts that the governing intelligence would service many times over their lives. But the normally swift pneumatics of the airlock took a moment to engage, and kept hissing for another moment once the door was open. Leaky pressure reserve. Jamie crept along past several flickering light-fixtures, bad controller board, to her solitary bedroom across the hall. Judging by its size and comfort, it would’ve belonged to the base’s lead doctor if anyone else was alive down here.

Now Jamie was the lead doctor, and the chief engineer, and the presiding military officer, and lots of other positions she’d never qualify for.

She used a plastic stepstool to reach her dining room chair, then pulled over the tablet waiting there and navigated to the menu. She might be having trouble walking, but she was getting quite good at using a touchscreen with hooves. She scrolled to the menu, then scanned it with a growing scowl.

“What the hell is this?” she asked loudly, flicking a hoof at the display. “Where’s my steak?”

Epsilon answered instantly; apparently it had been waiting for this. “Your physical therapy is nearly complete. The process of acclimation to conditions on the surface must begin. Dietary adjustments must be made to bring you into line with the civilization waiting for you.”

She opened a command prompt, and initiated a root reset of the tablet. We’ll see about that. While the device went through its first-time-boot process, she sat back in her chair, acting as casually as she could. “I don’t know how I could be nearly ready to go. We haven’t even talked about, uh… language! Yeah, language. Those horses must talk really weird. I know I sound weird.”

But she didn’t actually. Her mouth shape wasn’t human, but it had been carefully engineered. She was higher pitched as product of a smaller body, but that was all.

“A comprehensive survey is impossible,” Epsilon said. “But the surface population speaks in standard English. Speculation: the Core Terraforming Node intentionally cultivated this tendency early in the terraforming process, and maintained it against lingual drift.”

“Uh…” The screen popped back on, logging her in at last. She navigated to the menu. It was exactly the same as before. Worth a shot. She tapped whatever “Hayburger” was, and dropped it roughly onto her plastic table. “I don’t have a terraforming degree, but… what kind of sense does it make to have intelligent creatures terraform for you? Why didn’t the Core Node make, like… slugs?”

“Insufficient data to hypothesize,” Epsilon answered unhelpfully. “The Core Node cannot be reached for consultation on the subject. It was destroyed at least two centuries ago, perpetuating the collapse of the shelter ultra-low-band network.”

“I know,” she groaned, head flopping against the table. “Append my order. I want a Coke.”

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