• 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 4: Dorado

“I’ll see you tomorrow morning,” Geist said, slowing to a stop beside Star outside her family’s flat. There was nothing to identify him as Equestria’s most dangerous pony in existence—he was just a bat like so many others, with a dark coat and a mane so light it was almost white.

Instead of courtly fashion, Geist wore only a plain black cloak. Obtrusive during the day, but soon curfew would arrive, and all the lights of Concord would switch off.

“Tomorrow morning,” she repeated, returning his smile as best she could. “Guess that’s enough time for you to say goodbye to your loved ones too.”

He laughed, voice bitter and mocking. “For your sake, don’t flee. At least in service to the Crown we have a chance to do something good. The deserters I bring in… never do anything for anypony again.”

“I’ll see you tomorrow morning,” she said, cheerfulness gone. “First bell, at this gate. I’m a loyal servant to Equestria. I’ll be here.”

Star turned her back on him, then lifted the gate into her family’s flat in her magic and made her way up the path.

The weather in Concord was always perfect, and so were her father’s flowers. The state approved tulips and petunias, growing in the precise mixture of purple and pink required for a pleasing arrangement.

Star slowed a little to appreciate the view of the high city, spiraling down in open sky towards the other five districts and where citizens of decreasing harmony were housed. Naturally a servant of the court would be here in Twilight’s own district, hence the purple everywhere.

There was little traffic in the sky this close to sundown, only a dozen heavy cruisers in their patrols above Concord. Cannons bristled from every side, and scouts in armor surrounded each one like a swarm of bees. Anypony trying to get in or out without permission would feel quite the sting.

Behind her, Geist wasn’t waiting at the gate anymore. He wasn’t walking down the street, or gliding through the sky over the neighborhood. He just… wasn’t there anymore.

She shuddered, hurrying the rest of the way up to the house.

Her father swung the door open. “Hey Star! Didn’t expect you’d be leaving the castle today. Good news?”

She embraced him, barely suppressing a whimper. It wouldn’t be proper to make a public display of weakness in serving Harmony’s duty. There was nothing but joy in bringing friendship to Equestria.

But once the door was shut, and she smelled her mother’s familiar hay fries cooking in the kitchen—then she let herself cry a little. “I guess it’s very good news?” her father asked. “Or… bad.”

“I don’t know.” She stumbled back from him, almost smacking her rump into the royally mandated picture of the princess, flanked by the Exemplars of each Harmonic virtue. She didn’t, thanks to the magical spotlight illuminating her even when power to the rest of the house was out. “I guess it’s good news if I do well. Bad if I don’t.”

“Sounds like life to me, sweetheart,” called her mother, Corona from the kitchen, settling a tray on the table. “I always cook enough for visitors. Why don’t you eat with us?”

That was what she did. She did her best to talk about Twilight’s plans for her as little as she possibly could, not bringing up the princess herself even once.

But it was the first time she’d visited her family in months, and she couldn’t get away with saying nothing after so long.

“Where is the city flying next?” her father, Hawthorne asked, near the end of their meal when their plates were finally empty. “Spending all that time with the princess, you must have some idea.”

She nodded. “Did you hear about those diamond dog rebels the Unification Army brought in?”

“We…” Corona’s face twitched, just once. “There were a few mandatory public displays, yes. Terrible business. To think that any creature could be fighting against Harmony in our current age… it boggles the mind.”

Right. The place my prisoners go when I’m done with them. “Well, the princess wants to be sure there weren’t any others. So the city will continue to circle around…” She lowered her voice to a whisper. “The Immortal City.”

“Praise to the Exemplars,” her parents repeated, heads lowered in respect, before Hawthorne added, “Seems hard to believe that creatures as tainted as those could get anywhere near the Immortal City. Shouldn’t they… catch fire or something?”

“I’m sure they would,” Star lied. “If they actually got near its walls. The princess thinks they’ve been exploiting our complacency, surrounding it as they have. We all know the Immortal City is incorruptible, so we don’t look at the land right around it. Their day of reckoning arrives.”

“Our little filly, helping advance Harmony’s cause across Equestria,” Corona said. “You know how proud we are, whatever your news from the castle. If you’ve been… Whatever happened, we know you could never abandon the path of friendship.”

It was now or never. It wouldn’t be very friendly to leave them so conflicted over her. “I haven’t,” she said. “I’m not being punished, but the princess has given me a special assignment. There’s… danger involved. I’ll be traveling outside of Concord.”

The weight of her words hit the two of them like a blow. Hawthorne clutched Corona protectively for a few seconds, while the mare shuddered at the implication.

“The ground?” she finally stammered. “Around those… castoffs and disharmonious… traitors?”

“Not everypony who hasn’t earned a place in Concord is a traitor,” she corrected, more defensively than she probably should have. “But there are forces down there that need to be stopped. The princess needs a pony like me to be the one.”

“Wow,” Hawthorne said. “That’s… incredible trust from the princess. And I know… I know she chose the right pony. Of course she did. The princess always chooses perfectly.”

“Your father has been to the ground before,” Corona said, still on the edge of panic. “Tell her something useful, Hawthorne. It’s not so bad, right?”

“It’s… not perfect,” he said. “Not like Concord. So far from the princess’s light, creatures don’t see the rules the same way we do. They don’t understand how much better their lives would be if they were better at observing the friendly trait of obedience.”

Hawthorne rose to his hooves, gesturing for her to follow. “Into the study, Star Orchid. There’s something I’d like to give you.”

Even though she hadn’t been to the family’s flat for months, she knew where to follow him. Her own study was in the exact same place. Everypony lived in the same perfect home.

Hawthorne removed something from the wall, where it had been secured to a plaque by straps. He turned it around, holding it out in front of her. “Take it, Star.”

She took hold in her magic, drawing the thin dagger from its sheath. The silvery blade was well-oiled even now, unaged despite its years. “I don’t know how to fight,” she said weakly. “I’m not… I’m not going to be that kind of pony. I’m not an assassin.”

“I know,” he said, pushing the knife up to her anyway. “And I’m sure our princess knows that too. But down there, life is different. Less controlled, more dangerous. This weapon was made for me by a griffon’s hammer down on the surface. Bring it with you.

She thought about arguing for another moment, then just hugged him and took the knife. I guess I don’t need to know what I’m doing with it to use it as a prop.

The next morning, Geist was waiting for her with the first work bell. She emerged from inside with one last hug, clutching a heavy cloak about her shoulders. It would quickly become uncomfortable in the perfectly-conditioned streets of Concord, but there was no telling how things would be in… wherever they were going.

“Are you surprised?” she asked, shutting the fence behind her with a click. The streets weren’t empty now—dozens of creatures emerged about the same time, heading to their work for the glory of Concord. Her parents were retired, and the wealth of royal service meant they didn’t have to work. But most did. “Or just disappointed you don’t have to hunt me down?”

“Neither.” Geist hadn’t changed at all from the day before. Even his mane looked exactly the same. “The princess knows ponies better than anyone alive. If she thought you would make a good choice for this assignment, then she would’ve known you could face the rigors of leaving Concord behind and still make the correct choice.”

She nodded. “Obviously I would obey her commands.”

“Yet—what she cannot know is how you’ll respond to difficulty. Your perfect life ends, and now we enter a world of disharmony and strife. I can travel there and return at will—but not many ponies can. If you desert the cause, I expect that would be after… some time on the ground to lose your nerve.”

“It won’t happen,” she declared. “Concord is my whole world. Service to the court is the only thing I’ve ever wanted. They’re worth fighting for.”

Geist laughed again. “They all say that. Let’s see if you mean it.” He gestured, and the two of them walked together to the end of the street, catching a public trolley when it came and riding all the way to Grand Central. The air station was packed with airships big and small, each bound for some other district in Concord—but instead of any of them, they walked through a heavily-guarded archway into the Military Port, where ponies bound for service in the Unification Army would travel.

“I don’t know where we’re actually going,” she said conversationally, as they passed through a long cement tunnel away from the sound of civilian voices. “But aren’t we trying to find a rebellion? If we land in a warship, won’t everypony in the town know who we are?”

“Unification warships can’t travel far from Concord,” Geist said. “Twenty kilometers perhaps. But they’re also the only way out of the city. We’ll ride to the ground, then walk. Sections of the ancient railway are still intact, so we’ll use those. Pose as refugees from Concord.”

The tunnel opened into a port several times the size of Grand Central, though it looked nothing like it. There were no crystal chandeliers or gold decorations, only unadorned cement pillars and rows of identical boarding ramps.

And of course, the smell. The Unification Army always had a bit of an odor to it. Not just the sweat and musk of a royal guardspony who had been on duty too long, but an artificial, almost laboratory smell.

There were no coffee shops, no pleasant conversations between creatures and their friends. Instead, these soldiers came in only two groups. The veterans with identical gray in their manes and blank looks, and the terrified-looking recruits. Each wore the same saddlebags, even while they sat down. So far as she knew, they never took them off.

In their plain cloaks, with color in their manes and uneven steps, the two of them stuck out like unpreened feathers. Before they’d made it a dozen paces, a small squad of military police approached them, each one stepping in perfect time.

“Identification,” said a griffon, extending a gloved claw towards Geist. “State your business.”

Geist offered him a little leather folio, unmoved by the slight smell on his breath. Apparently the soldiers of Unification didn’t just wear the strange perfume, they put it on their food as well. “Court business,” Geist said. “Two require transport to Immortal City Station.”

Star whimpered in surprise, freezing in place. None of the military police seemed to care, though. The army didn’t pay much attention to things that weren’t a threat to Harmony.

“Immortal City,” the griffon repeated, offering the folio back. “Transport leaves on the hour. Platform seven.”

Jamie wasn’t terribly eager to go anywhere. Her reflection was ridiculous, and didn’t get easier to see the more times she saw it. With enough practice she could learn to walk, and carefully balance objects with her hooves in order to use them, but that wasn’t the same as just being normal.

The one question she wanted Epsilon to answer most of all, “Why can’t a human ambassador go up to make the treaty for a human city?” went unanswered.

All it ever told her was “Significantly greater odds of success are projected if you approach the correction agents from a context they understand. Explanations of the nature of our settlement and what its residents will accomplish can follow once initial rapport is established.

She delayed as long as she could, demanding time to learn and practice trotting and running alongside walking. She refused to go until she had time to learn the different foods the horses ate, and familiarize herself with what she could see of their culture from distant drone footage. All that Epsilon would indulge, but even the computer had its limit.

Eventually a drone delivery arrived at her door with an entirely new set of clothing—an elastic tan jacket and trousers, along with wide brimmed hat and a backpack that was probably more properly called “saddlebags,” already heavy with something. “The sun will soon rise on the surface,” Epsilon said. “You will depart at dawn to begin your mission.”

She sighed, settling the tablet down in front of her and letting the game pause itself automatically. Online gaming just didn’t have the same excitement now that she was really playing alone. It’s either this or die in the cold, Jamie. You’re saving humanity. It’s worth doing something hard.

“I guess this way I can… finally amount to something,” she said, crossing to the doorway and taking the plastic box by the handle. She didn’t trip as she moved this time, though it still took concentration to dodge around her oversized furniture. “If we really are the last shelter left, then… this treaty kinda saves the whole world.”

The clothes came with new underwear as well, a complex plastic under-suit she recognized well, even if she’d never seen one made for horses before. This was a stillsuit, the domain of explorers who might be traveling weeks into hostile territory. With the hood zipped up over her face, it would capture every drop of water she drank, and recycle most of it for reuse.

“Don’t you think this is… overkill?” she asked, stopping short of tearing open the plastic. “That’s a rainforest. How desperate for water do you think I’ll be?”

Epsilon spoke from the speakers in the delivery drone, though it could’ve picked any others it wished. “You will be deposited a significant distance from this facility, to prevent hostile actors from tracking your movement back here. This might involve travel through hostile terrain. Proper equipment will make your trip more comfortable.”

“I don’t think I’d call drinking from this thing ‘comfortable’,” she muttered. But she tore the plastic open, and shrugged it on anyway. If nothing else, maybe she could trade it away or something.

She expected the suit to be uncomfortably warm against her skin and fur, like a portable sauna—but instead she felt pleasantly cool. It was that feeling of first crawling into bed at night, before the sheets warmed up—only following her around.

She did the trousers next, and finally the jacket. “Don’t you think I’m going to look weird dressed this way? The horses seem to have their own customs. Like… nudist customs.”

“You may alter your manner of dress however you like to secure cooperation,” Epsilon said. “But it is easier to remove unnecessary formality than acquire more when not provided. You will not be returning to this shelter at any point until your mission is complete. No retrieval will be attempted, and no resupply will be possible. You have thus been provided with any resource that might be necessary.”

That sounds an awful lot like you’re kicking me out.

She dumped the box out onto the floor, flattening out the backpack. It did indeed come in two major halves, with straps that would hold it secure on her back while she walked. At least being a stupid beast of burden would mean that she could carry a lot. She opened one of the oversized zippers, inspecting the contents.

Each side was basically the same—water filter packets, food rations, a few electronic devices, a gun she had no idea how to use, and a plastic box filled with shiny metal cubes.

Jamie went instantly for this last, pulling it out with her teeth and opening the lid. There inside were measured slips of gold, each one imprinted with its purity designation. These weren’t currency, they were fabricator stock, probably for making circuitry. “What’s this for?” She wanted to pick one up and taste it, see if it was really soft enough to bite like all the old movies. But she didn’t have fingers, so she just closed up the box.

“Exchange, if necessary. The civilization above has been observed possessing a functional economy, using coins of dirty electrum as a medium of exchange. Observation sufficient to determine the nature of their economy cannot be conducted without risk of discovery. But in the likely event value is assigned to rare metals, samples of what we can provide are included for trading purposes. You may also wish to familiarize yourself with the full production reports downloaded to the ruggedized tablet.”

“But… you’ll be there, when I actually do any negotiating, right?” She closed everything back up, packing the metal back where she’d found them. “I’m not a diplomat. I don’t know what you’ll accept.”

“That is correct. Little actual negotiation is anticipated. We are not attempting to annex part of their city for our own use. We wish only to secure a guarantee of their inaction when we begin to settle this jungle territory that no civilization is currently using. What you bring is meant to reflect human goodwill and a guarantee of cooperation into the years to come.”

From the ones who tried to purge them when they’d done their job. Better not mention that part. Jamie thought about fighting, but in the end she just didn’t have the heart. Epsilon was poor company, and the shelter wasn’t much fun by herself. She couldn’t even enjoy most of its recreation systems with her stupid horse body.

She shrugged into the backpack, then crossed the empty hallway one last time toward the illuminated central lift. “It’s gonna be fun,” she said. “It’s like… first contact! A god with their creations. Only… I’m not much of a god.”

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