• 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 40: Serpens

Jamie knew that Starlight Glimmer’s secret knowledge must be hiding far from the world she lived in. Obviously, her secret must rest somewhere that nopony else would ever go, or else it would’ve been revealed years before. But when she turned towards the train station, Starlight gently pushed her aside, gesturing to a trail leading east of town. “The Gem Caves?” she asked, eyebrows going up. “I thought you grew up in northeast Equestria. Wouldn’t your secrets be up there?”

Starlight didn’t answer until they had set off. “You have to understand, Jamie. This information is so secret, so dangerous, that I can’t imagine sharing it with anypony who wasn’t a princess. I haven’t even told Princess Twilight yet, and I don’t think I will. She has enough to worry about with all Equestria on her mind. It might be smart not to be burdened with the knowledge either.”

Jamie shook her head. “Burdened with knowledge” was the sort of thing Twilight would say, as an excuse to keep her from whatever she wanted to know. She hated that explanation, no matter who gave it. “I’ll keep your secret,” she said. “But I want to know. I don’t care how scary it is. Twilight and the Elements fought nightmares. My mom and dad fought monsters. I can fight them too.”

Starlight was unwavering and said nothing until they’d left the busy streets of Ponyville behind. Even her friendship school had faded into the distance before she would talk about anything relevant again.

“It wouldn’t be that scary if it was just about monsters,” Starlight Glimmer said, as though they hadn’t already been walking for half an hour. “Monsters don’t challenge us. Every creature realizes there are others out in the world who want to hurt them, that’s just part of growing up. There are dragons who can’t be convinced to be friendly. Spirits of the ice and snow who want to feed on disharmony, and spirits of chaos who need to keep things changing no matter what. Those creatures exist.”

“But if it’s not a monster, then…” Jamie furrowed her brow, wings spreading as she tried to figure out what this could have to do with cutie marks. “What could be scary to Equestria?”

Starlight Glimmer touched one leg to her shoulder, pointing her away from the comfortable trail and out into the abandoned mine. A single “closed” sign was overgrown with weeds, and the road itself was choked with undergrowth. Grass blanketed much of the pit, covering up holes of various sizes.

“The scariest thing a pony has to do isn’t fight monsters—it’s realizing that something they loved about the world was a lie. What do ponies care more about than our cutie marks? Everypony has their story—they brag about how their special talent has made them special or directed their lives. There are chapters of the CMC from Vanhoover to Trottingham for a reason.”

Oh. Jamie hurried to keep up. Rather than fight her way through the reedy brush, she lifted into a low hover, gliding until she made it over the thorns and onto soft grass. “So we’re wrong about cutie marks? They… don’t make us special?”

Starlight seemed to know where she was going, but Jamie couldn’t imagine how. An old mechanical digger lay in the dirt, rusting into nothing. Whatever attempt she might’ve made at navigation was made more difficult by seemingly random piles of dirt, breaking the grass in patches.

Well that’s odd. If this place is abandoned, who kept digging?

“I can’t say they’re wrong,” Starlight said. “What makes a pony special is up to them. If they feel like their special talent is something to give them purpose, they’re right. That’s as much as most ponies need to know.”

Jamie landed right in front of her, settling down onto her haunches. “So why did you want to come out here, Starlight? I don’t see how you would’ve learned anything here to make that village all those years ago.”

“I didn’t,” Starlight said. “That’s the flow of information backwards. I learned of the significance of this place much later. But we still have a long way to go—I’ll explain on the way.” She pointed down into a great wide pit, big enough that Jamie could barely see the bottom. Strangely it hadn’t collapsed, but there was an opening down there. A tunnel, held up with old wooden struts?

“Is it safe?” she asked.

“It gets safer as we get deeper. They want it to look as unfriendly as possible to ponies who wander past it. But a little further down and it’s all well-maintained, you’ll see.”

They. Jamie would’ve stopped right there if she were talking to anypony else. It was so easy to blame a mysterious other for all kinds of terrible things that happened around Equestria. But Starlight of all ponies wouldn’t waste her time. She was one of the few ponies who had bothered keeping Jamie in her life once she failed the entrance exam, and her intricately planned life went off the rails.

“First, Jamie… did you know there are ways to send messages across Equestria instantly, without dragonfire or the telegraph?”

Jamie lit her horn as she landed in the dirt. The mine looked the way she expected it to, with rusting tracks and a few overturned carts. In places the supports had collapsed, and the ceiling had caved in. But most of the area was clear, and that was where Starlight took her. “If you tell me there is, I believe you. Sounds like powerful magic.”

“That’s just it—it isn’t magic. About a decade ago, the Royal Institute of Sciences was studying something they’d learned while observing the telegraph stations. While attempting to boost transmission power to avoid repeater stations over long distances, they discovered that nearby metal surfaces sometimes picked up messages, buzzing and heating up without any contact to the telegraph line. After some experimentation, they discovered how to make these signals intentionally, sending them out in all directions.

“You might be aware that I had… similar luck, getting into Celestia’s school. But when Sunburst left me, I explored all the alternate avenues my city offered, including the outpost of the Royal Institute. They had a receiving station for these invisible waves, and they were experimenting with a sister station all the way in Canterlot, with the eventual goal of eliminating the need for telegraph wires entirely.”

Jamie shook her head. “They must not have succeeded. We’re always building new telegraphs, even today. I’ve never heard of, uh… what’s it called?”

“Radio,” Starlight supplied. “And you’re right in your observations, great use of critical thinking skills. You’ve just drawn the wrong conclusions. It isn’t that radio doesn’t work, it’s that it had other effects.

“The observatory in Sire's Hollow had to keep listening all the time, since they didn’t know when an experiment from Canterlot might be coming. It was their task to get as much as possible and copy it back as soon as they’d finished. When the old scientists got bored of sitting there doing nothing, they hired a few local ponies to do the listening for them, including me.”

She stopped Jamie with an outstretched hoof, blocking the widest path and pointing instead towards a narrow staircase. Jamie only shrugged and followed, though the area Starlight seemed intent on visiting looked increasingly dangerous the further they walked.

“It was the perfect job for a student who needed some bits. Most of the time I didn’t even do anything. The station had hundreds of magical textbooks for me to study while I sat there listening, collecting royal bits. But that doesn’t matter—what does, is that the radio listener started picking up messages when nopony was sending things. They seemed more like someone had left a hoof on the transmitter for a minute or more, but Canterlot always denied they were responsible.

“They never figured out where the messages were coming from, or what they are. But I lived in Sire’s Hollow, and I eventually did. They always came right when a pony got their cutie mark. I snuck off with as many recordings of these signals as I could, and eventually I figured out how they worked.

“I’m not going to teach you the specifics, so don’t ask. I made my mistake trying to control cutie marks. Just know that anypony could do it if they wanted. With the right signal, you could give anypony whatever mark you wanted, or take their mark away. That’s not a power Equestria would want anyone to have.”

Jamie glanced backward at her own mark, forever proclaiming her connection to the Crystal Empire and its creatures. Could somepony just come along and take it away? Yes. Starlight can. She did it to a whole town’s worth of creatures. It wasn’t just her, either. Celestia and Luna had somehow passed their powers to Twilight, to keep their magic safe from Tirek. So the power was known to the Alicorns at some level.

For a second, she felt content with the answer. But only a second. “That doesn’t explain anything about how cutie marks work, it only passes the question back one layer. Instead of ‘why do we get cutie marks?’ the question is ‘where are they all coming from?’”

Starlight patted her on the shoulder with one hoof. “What did I tell you, Jamie? Those ponies at Celestia’s school didn’t know what they were missing. You don’t just have power; you’ve got just the right attitude to break problems down.

“If you’re looking for the answer, well—my younger self didn’t know. I was a little curious, like you, but I only cared about things that would help me get the power I thought I wanted. I stole their tool, that was what mattered. I spent a few years ruining ponies’ lives, even if I did have the best intentions. But when that was all over and I was Twilight’s personal student, I had some time to think back on all the questions I hadn’t answered.”

“Including—” Jamie froze, her ears perking. There was sound ahead, coming from the same direction as a set of faint white lanterns glowing in the distance. Creatures moving towards them. “Buck. Something lives down here?”

“Lots of someones,” Starlight corrected. “Yes. That’s why we’re using the front entrance, instead of picking a tunnel at random. Don’t worry, diamond dogs won’t attack ponies. They’re actually quite friendly, if you know how to approach them.”

Jamie tilted her head to the side. “What’s a diamond dog? I don’t think I’ve seen any of those at Twilight’s school.”

Starlight set off again, towards the gigantic outlines closing in on them. “No, you wouldn’t have. They’re very private creatures and don’t talk with other creatures much. Or… not with ponies.”

Jamie fell still as a band of several armored figures closed in around them. She could see where their name had come from, even if she’d never seen one before. They were canines, with sharp teeth and fierce claws, along with thick metal armor and polished spears. “Ponies are lost,” said one of them, in a voice so deep Jamie couldn’t even understand him at first. “We will help you out. Little horses don’t belong down here.”

“Wait.” Starlight raised a hoof. “I’m here to see your Great Alpha. I am one she knows.”

The dogs reacted harshly to this news, glancing nervously back and forth, and down at Jamie. Finally one was brave enough to answer. “You will need Daisy’s blessing. Come with us.”

“We will,” Starlight said, nodding encouragingly to Jamie. “Right, Princess?”

“Right,” she agreed, folding her wings to her side, and letting her magical glow fade. “We’ll follow.”

They did. It became clear after only a short distance that the mines were far from abandoned. The tracks here were shiny and well maintained, and she could hear the distant sound of tools grinding against earth. Jamie thought about asking them why they were digging—after all, they wore little jewelry. But maybe they were like dragons, and they just ate the gemstones. It made about as much sense as a secret pack of dogs living near Ponyville.

They walked a winding path through identical-looking tunnels, and Jamie quickly became certain that they were trying to get her lost. She might’ve been scared that they’d never escape again—but Starlight looked so confident, no matter how far they walked. The sharp teeth and bulging muscles of these strange canines never bothered her.

After what felt like hours, they came to a clear section of cavern, where a natural hollow in the rock gave space for a center for the underground community. They passed a granary, a natural formation of stone filled with water, and lots of little dog-kennels with sleeping workers. A few played or fought in dark corners, though at their approach all village business fell still.

“Mistake,” some whispered. “Not again. Ponies are trouble.”

“Why are they here?” someone else asked.

Starlight kept her silence, so Jamie did too. You better not have been lying when you said this wasn’t about monsters. It looks an awful lot like there are monsters behind cutie marks.

She could smell the metallic taste of meat in the air, though the scent was so revolting to her that Jamie couldn’t identify what kind of creature had died to create it. It was on the breath of enough creatures here for her to know they weren’t like dragons after all. They weren’t eating the gems, not when they had so much once-living flesh.

Maybe you should stay down here, away from us.

“You better have a good reason for this, Oliver,” demanded a voice, harsh and feminine. Another dog appeared, pale with splotches in her fur. She stood taller than either of them, though not as massive as some of the guards. “Ponies, here?” Then her eyes found Starlight, and she retreated.

“You? Back again?”

Starlight nodded. “I know you probably weren’t expecting me. Maybe you were hoping you wouldn’t see me again. But I have somepony with me who needs to meet the Great Alpha.” She nodded towards Jamie, expression deadly serious. “This is Jamie. She’s just interested in a conversation with the Great Alpha, and she’s already sworn to secrecy. Aren’t you, Jamie?”

I am? She nodded hastily. “Yeah, obviously! I’m… the best pony at keeping secrets. Nopony in Equestria can hide things as well as I can!”

The leader and a few of the other dogs retreated, leaving the guards watching them closely while they spoke in private.

“Do all your visits go like this?” Jamie asked. “It doesn’t seem like they want ponies around.”

“They don’t,” Starlight said. “But once I found my way here the first time, they couldn’t really stop me. But lots of these creatures won’t remember, since, uh…” She lowered her voice to a whisper, though of course, all the creatures around them would still hear. But it was mostly out of politeness. “They have canine lifespans. Their pack leader, Alpha Daisy, I wasn’t expecting she would still be around. I’m glad. If we had to explain everything all over again, we might have to come back later.”

The guards listened, though none of them did anything to argue or interfere. Their helmets made it impossible for Jamie to guess what they might be thinking anyway.

Finally the alpha returned, loping over on four legs before rising onto two to glower at them both. “This is not a good time for visitors. There is pressure between packs, maybe fighting. Great Alpha cannot risk be outside. You go to her instead. I will take you there.”

Even Starlight looked surprised. “She didn’t let me do that last time. What changed her mind?”

“I don’t see another alpha here,” Jamie said instead. She hoped she didn’t sound too argumentative—she was just confused. “How do you know what she wants?”

The dogs looked uncomfortable again, but Starlight just rolled her eyes. “Radio, Jamie. Just because we gave it up doesn’t mean other creatures won’t use it.” She lowered her head to the dog, in a way that seemed almost respectful. “Share our gratitude with the Great Alpha for her generosity, Daisy. We will follow you there in peace.”

They left the underground village behind, with gasps and stares following them all the way down into the rocks. The guards did not follow, and soon they were alone with their leader.

If you’re such warlike creatures, why would you let us go off alone with your leader?

Almost at the exact moment Jamie thought that, the dog spun on them, removing something from a strap on her back. A little metal object, with rough cuts into it to accommodate her paws. “Don’t think I am helpless, ponies from the surface. The Great Alpha has favored me with power beyond even the magic you wield. In my paw is a weapon of instant death for all my pack’s enemies. If you fight me, I will defend. I must live so they live.”

“We won’t fight you,” Starlight said, though her eyes jerked instantly to the strange metal object and never left it. Did she recognize that thing in a way Jamie couldn’t? “I came peacefully last time, Daisy. I promise you; nothing has changed since then.”

She tried to get a good look at it herself, its many segmented parts and single round opening in the front—but the dog saw her stare, and quickly tucked it away again.

“Well, you smell like you not lying. This is good. No lying means no one gets hurt. Unless we fight somewhere on the way down. Other packs not like how good Great Alpha is to us. Want the easy job of digging for rocks, instead of hard job of hunting food without notice. Stay alert.”

They didn’t have to fight, though. Jamie watched with increasing nervousness as the mines gave way to strange canyons in the ancient rock, with braces and metal bridges occasionally spanning precipitous drops down into the void. There were no more lanterns here, but Daisy had one in her paw, glowing with strange, flickering white light.

Then they came to a final bridge, and across it, a wall of blueish metal Jamie had never seen before and couldn’t easily identify. Like a castle unto itself, except that its “drawbridge” was a set of vault doors entirely flush with the stone.

In the feeble light of the dog’s lantern, Jamie could dimly make out the words, stamped into the metal.

United Nations Emergency
Shelter 004.12-Psi

The door hissed, grinding upward with painful slowness. A vast metal weight groaned as it moved, and unseen fluid bubbled.

While Jamie stared, she felt another moment of vertigo, as what was clearly before her failed to match with her understanding of reality. Weren’t there no psi shelters still running? That was part of the reason Epsilon had taken over. There was no mind directing the terraforming anymore.

“You alright, Jamie?” Starlight asked, wrapping one leg around her shoulder. “How are you holding up?”

“Confused,” she admitted. “I thought you were going to teach me a few new spells or something, not…” She gestured at the door with a wing. “This. Do you know what this is?”

Starlight nodded. “Dawn told me she lived in a place like this. She wasn’t willing to let me see it for myself at the time. I guess she must’ve changed her mind.”

“I will not go with you,” the dog said, retreating across the bridge. “I will keep watch outside and guide you back to the surface when you are done.”

Jamie didn’t argue, just turned towards the doorway. As they opened, a thick mist sprayed out from within, accompanied with the hiss of pressurized air. “Welcome to Emergency Shelter 4.12, correction agents,” said a voice.

Some part of Jamie was reminded of a changeling, one who didn’t really understand what emotions were supposed to feel like, or how to show them. But another part of herself knew exactly what she was hearing. “Dawn is just down the hall, in the memorial room. Please follow the lights, and do not wander. It would be unfortunate if I had to neutralize you in the interest of shelter security.”

“Who are we talking to?” Starlight asked, crossing the threshold of interlocking metal teeth as they settled into the ground. The space beyond was massive, obviously not constructed for any pony.

Jamie was briefly taken with a strange mural painted on a nearly round ceiling, showing a creature unlike anything she’d ever seen, with arms spread wide in welcome.

Here we sleep, but not forever.

Lights on the walls directed both down to the right, through a doorway into a much smaller room. The walls were mostly naked stone, rising twenty feet up and several ponies long. It was completely covered in little scratch-marks, in regular rows on both sides.

Jamie stopped beside one, running a hoof down it. It was more writing, and it made her sick to look at. She shouldn’t be able to read it, no more than she had read anything else they’d seen so far. But of course she could read it—there was nothing complex or technical here.

Alex Gibbs - Don’t let the faucets leak, you’ll regret it.

Jacqueline Kessler - What rules did I break? You don’t know.

Gregg Frank - Frogs Frogs Frogs. Why are there frogs?

On and on went the names, along with a little text beside each one. None made much sense to her, though judging by the differences in how they were carved, she guessed that the ones to write each name had also written the text beside it. Her eyes glazed over as she turned, overwhelmed by how many people had been here. Hundreds, maybe thousands.

“Keep staring,” said another voice, distinct from the emotionless nothing that had spoken to them in the entrance. A figure emerged from the shadows in one corner, clutching something in her hands.

Jamie wobbled on her hooves as another moment of nausea passed through her. She felt horrified and confused by the stretched, too-thin body in front of her, but that impression just didn’t make sense. She was just looking at a woman, middle aged and entirely unremarkable in her standard issue shelter uniform.

“Dawn!” Starlight exclaimed, cantering across the room, and stopping not far away. “How have you been?”

The human grinned weakly at her. “Bored out of my mind, Starlight. But that was always expected. It’s what we signed up for. If the lottery picks you, then you spend your life down here making sure everything keeps churning until you get too old and you hand things off to the next sap in line.”

Who could build this so close to Ponyville without anypony noticing? Jamie’s mind raced, leaving a confusion that paralyzed her in place. There was as much metal here as a Manehattan skyscraper, except that it was underground. She couldn’t even guess how much deeper it must extend into the rock.

But then the human noticed her, and her emotions coalesced into a single point again. “Who’s this little cutie-pie? Those wings are gorgeous, you shouldn’t hide them like that.”

“This is Jamie,” Starlight said. “She wanted to know more about cutie marks. I was hoping you could explain to her what you told me.”

The towering figure stalked right up to Jamie. She froze in place, wings half-spread and horn glowing weakly. But she didn’t do anything, only sunk down into herself a bit as the creature loomed over her. She was so… big.

But as she got closer, Jamie realized something else. She wasn’t built like any of the other monsters she knew of. She had no scales, only pale furless skin. Her paws had no claws, and her teeth didn’t seem terribly sharp. She didn’t have a horn either, or any other magical signature. She didn’t even smell particularly threatening. Like cherry soap.

Then she bent down, dropping into a squat so she was at Jamie’s eye-level. “You wanna know about terraforming, huh? You came all this way for that?”

Jamie nodded, though she had no idea what that word meant. One thing both sides of her could agree on was just how incredible all this felt. Not even Aunt Twilight knows about this. Even Starlight didn’t come here. I’m learning things all by myself. “Yeah,” she said. “I guess so.”

“There’s a holodisplay over here,” Dawn said, sliding past Jamie through the door without doing anything terrible to her on her way. Why had she seemed so terrifying at first?

The ponies followed their strange host down the hall, past several doors that opened by themselves. Finally they reached an oversized… conference room? There were several chairs with plastic wheels, arranged around a cylinder of misty glass that rose to just over Jamie’s head.

“Have a seat,” Dawn instructed. “Oh, this is probably like… mega stupid of me. Core, how stupid is this?”

“That heuristic is not recognized,” the flat voice from before said, its voice seeming to haunt the room all around them. “The risk assessment of allowing a correction agent within this facility is extremely high, however. Even if these two do not know your location, their awareness of our presence here might translate to a search that would eventually locate this facility.”

“Yeah, I don’t think that’s true,” Dawn said, circling around until she was on the opposite side of the dark table. “I think my predecessors were wrong about the Inheritors. Or maybe there have been enough iterations that there’s no reason to be hostile anymore. Look at these two, Core. They’re fucking adorable.”

“That heuristic is also not recognized,” the voice said.

“Yeah? Well, create it. Define these two sitting in front of me as a perfect match. Then put North America into this holofield, circa… 1200 ACE.”

There was a flash of light, like a spell—but Jamie felt no magic. She shielded her face with her magic anyway, and when it faded… the glass had changed into a pen of captured magma, broken with the occasional jagged mountain range or vast stretch of black basalt. “Terraforming is the process of making an unlivable hulk into Earthlike…” She stopped, expression darkening. “You know, our definition might need to be updated. Let’s just say terraforming is making hell into somewhere you would want to live.”

Jamie watched from her seat, hooves pressed up to the glass as the world in front of her changed. Rain poured down on the molten surface for what seemed like an eternity, weathering it. Rivers carved new canyons, and soil slowly covered the surface. At first there was only sparse grass, but then she saw other things. Quadrupeds moved across that barren surface, and in their wake, flowers bloomed, and trees grew.

Dawn stuck her hand onto the glass, and the illusion froze. Jamie looked down at miniature pony villages, scattered across the land, and hovering in the clouds. She’d barely even noticed those.

“The surface of our homeworld was devastated beyond anything you can imagine,” Dawn explained. “You are the ones who have nearly finished fixing it all. I can only look at videos and photos, but I’ve seen how great it looks. You’ve done a fantastic job. But as your society gets more complex, the Governing Intelligence has to intervene more and more to keep you pointed in the right direction. Your marks are your work assignments.”

Jamie woke screaming.

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