• 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 44: Chamaeleon

Star didn’t leave her bed for what felt like days, though she knew it couldn’t be nearly that long. Occasionally Sunset appeared to change the bags of fluid running into her, never explaining what they were or what their purpose might be. Star could only assume they were just treating her, and not some more nefarious Devourer purpose.

Most of her time she spent alone with her thoughts, and the respiration of her companions. None of them had fared particularly well, though Sweetie had been the furthest from the blast and seemed the least burned.

Instead of necrotic flesh, they each had fresh skin in patches, with the first hairs of new fur growing in. Unnatural white skin on her own back changed over the course of a day, until it matched her natural shade. When she brushed up against it with a hoof, she could feel that contact. What she couldn’t do was explain how that was possible.

You humans are so incredibly advanced. You could bring back a Unification soldier, and heal creatures with life-destroying burns. Your captain gave his life and his ship for us without thinking. How could you make something as evil as the Alldeath?

There was no one to ask, of course. Star hadn’t been awake when they made their escape from the now-unshielded Immortal City. She could only imagine what that mechanical mind would be doing now.

Does it still have armored dogs to fight with, or did it throw them all away to get us to plant the bomb? Maybe it didn’t want them knowing about its secret shelter either.

Star couldn’t feel anger for those Diamond Dogs, even if she probably should have. But now Sunset Shimmer would be a deformed monster until her spells gave out and she finally became inanimate.

“I can see you staring,” Sunset said, after she got together the energy to recharge her animation spell. “I know how horrible it looks. I can’t feel it, promise.”

Star felt the bandages on her foreleg, where the IVs had just been removed. “If we hadn’t been betrayed, I probably could’ve teleported us to the surface.”

But even as she said it, she knew it wasn’t true. Teleportation with so many passengers was already next to impossible for her. In a totally unfamiliar environment, with dark magic draining her life force by the second and a demon from ancient Equus bearing down on them—it wasn’t realistic.

Sunset didn’t have eyebrows anymore, but somehow Star could see skepticism in that little head-tilt. “You saved the ones who mattered,” she said, more confidently now. “That was the last thing I needed to do. This body has kept me going for far longer than it should. It’s time to find a nice patch of bare rock, where I can’t poison everything for a few centuries… and burn it.”

Star jolted upright, her exhaustion at the recharge spell vanishing. Even Windbrisk twitched in his bed, though he was still restrained and mostly covered with bandages. He’d been standing directly under one of the bombs, after all. “You can’t just give up and die! We haven’t saved Equestria yet! We kinda let loose the only thing that ever killed as many ponies as the Regent.”

“I know,” Sunset said. “But hey, I never said anything about giving up. This was always the plan: you needed a Unification Army soldier to get you into the Immortal City. After that…” She tapped her head with one hoof. “Kondrak made me a promise, and I know he’s not the creature to break his word. I’ll burn this old body myself—once I have a new one.”

“Even though he’s dead?” Star asked. It wasn’t that she wanted to take away Sunset’s hope—but Landon had seemed so confident. She shouldn’t move forward hoping for something that could never happen.

“There’s another creature who can do it,” Sunset said. “Didn’t you help? Windbrisk said his Iron Lord was just like me. Kept alive with machines, rotting away… and Discord still gave him a new body. I’m sure he’ll do the same for me. He’ll know that once he does it, I’ll use my new body to finally kill Twilight Sparkle.”

Star could only hope the resistance were ready to use the opportunity that Star and the others had worked so hard to give them.

She didn’t know how long they flew, but eventually the broken crags and sparse moss outside gave way to towering trees. Not the jungle she’d known living in Hollow Shades—these were skinnier, with a deep red color and largely bare trunks up towards their tops.

Somewhere else due to be scoured by Concord, she thought, watching bitterly through the windows. They touched down in the center of a shady camp. It was mostly just oversized metal rectangles, tucked under a concealing canopy draped between trees overhead. Two-dozen tents were arranged in neat rows, each one made of seemingly random splotches of green, brown, and gray.

“They’re so ugly,” Sweetie Belle said from beside her, peering out the window. The older unicorn was slower to recover, but all of them were back on their hooves now. “Why make them like that?”

“So we can’t be seen from the sky,” Landon said from her chair. She’d pulled her dirty uniform back on, but hadn’t done much to make it look presentable otherwise. She didn’t button it all the way, and her sleeves were still rolled back. “You horses can fly, remember? These shapes will confuse an organic eye at distances greater than a few hundred meters. To see us, you’d basically have to smack into us by accident.”

Star wasn’t sure about that—with a camp this ugly, she could imagine Twilight wanting to send the army with fashion advice, nevermind trying to burn them down. But she didn’t say as much. Her role in this war was over now, and all that was left for her was to watch and wait for the dust to settle around the good and evil creatures. Hopefully the right side would win.

A ramp descended from beside them, and together they stepped out into the searing afternoon sun. A small group of humans waited just below. They didn’t wear armor, but uniforms like Landon’s. But rather than dirty and disheveled, they were each perfect. Gold buttons gleamed in the sun, and despite the lack of a road there wasn’t a patch of dirt to be found.

One stepped forward, a square-looking man with a huge red beard held in place with a few black rings. He offered something to Landon, a little blue case. Star squinted down as it opened, revealing round pins shaped like Equus from high above. She’d seen them before, on Kondrak’s uniform.

“Captain Landon,” he said. “These belong to you.”

Landon retreated from the doorway by a few inches, wobbling on her boots. She glared out at the crowd, face reddening. “You really think I can take his place? After all these centuries of hiding? The Hippocrates is already gone. The fleet won’t recognize me.”

“What fleet?” A younger woman near the front was actually crying. Come to think of it, most of these people were. Heartless monsters here to devour the planet. “Who else do you reckon would do it, Ellie?” she asked. “I don’t know how to run a ship. You’re our best hope.”

Star just watched, as silent as the others. This wasn’t their ship, and they didn’t know these people. Nothing moved, and only a nearby bird broke the silence with a few cheerless chirps.

Landon stepped out, straightening her collar. “Put them on then, Hopson. But these First Officer pins I’m wearing are yours. Don’t think you’re getting out of this that easy.”

He didn’t argue, removing the bars from Landon’s shoulders one at a time, and replacing them with little globes.

“There’s no admiral here to give you your oath,” someone else said. A man in a white and black uniform, with more of those red plus symbols all over him. “But we all know you’ll keep it anyway. Won’t you, Captain?”

She stepped out into the sun. “We all knew the old bastard would do something like this eventually,” she said, her voice echoing through the trees. A few soldiers chuckled. Others just watched, faces grim.

“He sent away the only one who would’ve stopped his insane plan. Or… who would’ve taken his place. I can’t replace Yeoman Kondrak. Father of mercy, always seeing the best in all of us. He gave up fighting, but the rest of us aren’t done yet. The Hippocrates might be gone, but her spirit is in all of us now. Together, we’ll make this god-forsaken rock back into the place Kondrak saw, instead of the hell we’re all living in.”

The forest shook with their cheers. A few dozen humans, most feeble and skinny compared to Landon with her toned muscle. But they all cheered together, lifting weapons and fists as high as they could.

Star wanted to join them, but she couldn’t quite bring herself to do it. The Alldeath’s blue eyes still watched her, freed at last from its prison. “Is there any room for ponies in Kondrak’s world?” she asked. She wasn’t loud, but every one of the humans stopped dead, staring. Landon turned slowly around, bending down in front of her so she met her eyes.

“I don’t know, Star Orchid. What did Kondrak say about you when you fought with us?”

“I, uh…” Her memory fuzzed, and her ears pressed flat against her head. There were so many beady little eyes watching her. “I don’t—”

“He said you were twice as brave per pound as any human he’d ever met,” Landon supplied. Then she stepped aside, pointing at the doorway. “My companions went into hell and back to destroy the Rogue’s protection. They succeeded without any help from me, at great personal cost. I think there’s plenty of room for you, Star. In fact…”

She spun, sticking out her hand to Hopson. “Where’s that Major pin, Captain Hopson? Star Orchid here is about to get herself a field commission.”

Jamie’s next few trips to the Well proved to be more in line with what she had expected from a promise of “preparing her to fight.” Through her own memories, she watched as the ancient princess crammed in as much magical preparation as she could, determined to master her abilities when the invasion arrived.

Jamie could feel only sympathy for the Alicorn, who had thought that with enough study she might be able to “recapture” the Sun and Moon, before humans could steal them away.

Everything you think you know about the world was created to terraform. You don’t have any of those abilities, Flurry. All the practicing in the world is only really teaching you to interface with the machine, not to accomplish it for yourself. If the Governing Intelligence wanted, it could stop all your magic from working on a whim.

That was apparently what it had done to the peace-party, though she heard only the secondhand stories from the few survivors. Everyone beside Twilight who had been in that room lost their magic instantly, and what she believed to be a pair of star-marines armed with plasma weapons burned through the crowd like they were scorching trash off a street.

“I don’t understand these memories,” she said, after her first full day in the Well. Some part of the strength of Alicorns must’ve been true about her, however illegitimate her body was—because she didn’t feel like her mind was unraveling. It was more engrossing than any fully immersive VR video, but when she woke up she was back in her own body just the same. Are regular ponies really any worse at surviving the magic, or is that just an excuse Twilight uses to keep the truth from them?

She sat in a private dining room across from Solar Lens, devouring enough food for several horses all by herself. But Solar didn’t judge her—if anything, he looked sympathetic. He had probably been through what she had.

“You’ll understand everything in time,” he promised. “Equestria was a very different place all those years ago, even for a princess. I know it might seem strange not to be obedient to Harmony—but if you survive the memories long enough, that time will come.”

“No.” She shook her head, swallowing another mouthful of roasted veggies before continuing. “If magic is all coming from the Governing Intelligence, how could ponies have done all this to fight back? If it really thought you were a threat, it could take away all the magic of your whole species, all at once. Clearly it would want to, with what the Regent is doing to the planet. Tearing up new soil as it forms, murdering people in shelters…”

Solar’s expression was unreadable. “Ah, I see where you’ve become confused. The ancient Flurry believed that she knew the source of all pony magic. She believed that we had been created by one of our most determined enemies. The name you cite is not one any creature would recognize. We call it Alldeath, for that is what it brings. You should use the correct name with other creatures if you can remember it.”

“She was wrong?” Jamie asked. She kept her voice as plain as she could, though she didn’t believe it for a second. Flurry Heart had felt just as confident then as she did now—with the added benefit of understanding the terraforming plan as a pony never could.

“Yes,” Solar said, as casually as repeating the right command to invoke on a new operating system. There was nothing of actual belief in his voice. “Later memories contain proof that the Alldeath’s plans included psychological warfare as well. Undermining our trust in Harmony was the only way it could subvert the magic of friendship. It mixed the truth of its intention to invade and slaughter with lies, so we would see its reign as inevitable and submit. But ponies were too strong—we kept fighting, thanks to brave creatures like Princess Flurry.”

She didn’t ask anything else until she had emptied her entire plate, and all their leftovers as well. Given her next meal would be flat hay crackers again, she didn’t intend to let a drop go to waste in the meantime. “What happened to her, anyway? The regent has been searching for more Alicorns for a long time, right? You weren’t even sure there could be any more. Where did Flurry go?”

“Alicorns live forever, and Flurry isn’t in Concord,” Solar said, genuine sadness in his voice now. “So you can guess that it won’t end well. Obviously her final memories cannot be stored in the Well, as she could not have come here to leave them. The others you see should make her end apparent.”

Jamie nodded, turning towards the window. The ponies of Flurry’s world had lost control of the sun, but that wasn’t a problem anymore. We’re losing so badly, why are you letting the ponies do this to us?

“I’m afraid tomorrow will be much worse,” Solar finished, as they left the dining room behind. “You will be seeing the Umbra as it reaches its crescendo. This is when the Alicorn mastered her powers, but it was a terrible time in our history. I would not show you if we had another choice.”

“I understand.” She crossed into her plain bedroom, spreading her wings as she passed though. They obeyed her now, instead of twitching and moving at random wherever they wanted. When she wanted her horn to light up to illuminate the gloomy bedroom, it did. She was learning. “Thank you for your kindness, Solar Lens. You could’ve made this much worse for me, I know.”

He smiled back. “Perhaps. When the war is won, and the Alicorn’s place is secure, you could return that kindness with a story of your ascension. If the regent will allow it.”

He turned, leaving her alone. Despite his obvious interest in her, he didn’t press for her company. At least Jamie could have that much peace.

She circled her bedroom, feeling the magic of the place as she never had before. The memories of a long-dead Alicorn were in her now, showing her how to use magic in a way that the AI who modified her never could.

She wasn’t quite confident enough to try very much yet, but there was one thing. She felt around for magic, and found none. There were no spells near her bed, listening to her. No eyes were watching. Or if they were, they used traditional methods.

She wandered into the shower, turning it on and scrubbing away at the slime and sweat of her day as best she could. With the sound covering up her voice, she whispered, “I, Jamie Sanders, consent to participate in digital communications with Emergency Shelter 198.64-Beta.”

Only the sound of falling water answered her at first, splashing and steaming her bathroom around her. Part of her had known that might happen, though—maybe the AI’s specific interpretation of that privacy provision would require her to consent to messages in person. Which obviously wouldn’t be happening, since she didn’t know where the bunker was hidden. Even if she had known, she would just be exposing it to attack.

“You are still alive,” said a voice into her head, so quiet it was almost a thought. But in some ways it was, vibrating her bones without visible sign on the outside. Having fur all over your head sure does wonders for hiding implant scars. “This should not continue. Please destroy yourself before you can reveal critical information and compromise the location of this shelter.”

That didn’t take long. You’re not very clever, are you? She would have to spell it out. “If you advise me to harm myself, I’m going to revoke my consent for further communication. I called you so I could ask something productive.”

This time the silence stretched much longer. Even with the transmission delay, Jamie figured it was considering her ultimatum for some time. The emergency intelligence wasn’t really a person and couldn’t have a mind, but that didn’t mean it couldn’t get stuck in cognitive ruts. “Why did you contact the shelter?”

“Why didn’t the Governing Intelligence take away pony magic? That AI’s first purpose was to protect human life. We aren’t being protected if Twilight’s city murders everyone in their sleep.”

“Access to that information is limited to intact data-clusters in local storage, as the Governing Intelligence is not responding and is believed destroyed. Do you wish to hear the answer based on incomplete data and speculation?”


She stuck her head fully into the water, but it made no difference. She scrubbed at her coat with the brush they’d given her, though she wasn’t nearly dirty enough to need it. Maybe if this took too long, she could do the wings next. Those feathers were itching like crazy.

“The ability you describe as ‘magic’ was perfected and selected for over thousands of simulated generations before the first physical correction agent was bred. Their codependence with the orbital infrastructure and the breadth of their abilities are not well understood by the system itself. A brief note from the Persephone’s geneticist described it as an ‘emergent property, similar to the Governing Intelligence itself.’

“The mechanisms of this codependence are not explained, and based on your competency test results it is unlikely you would understand them if they were. Your suggestion that the Governing Intelligence would have assessed the correction agents as a threat and eliminated them does seem correct, however. It must therefore be concluded that the correction agents became resistant or immune to whatever method of containment the Governing Intelligence devised. Your observations of their civilization seem more likely to contain the answer than any incomplete data archive from the terraforming project.”

You don’t know either, she realized. Epsilon agreed with her, it hadn’t come to the conclusion independently. She was talking into a mirror. I’m not going to get answers this way. But it wasn’t the only reason she had called. “You gave a communicator to Ferris Abrams,” she said. “Is he still in contact with you?”

“Yes,” Epsilon answered. “In command of a warship with a sizeable population. Nevertheless, he does not believe there is sufficient strength aboard to successfully siege Concord in time to save this shelter. Assuming the city does not deviate from its current search-spiral, it will locate this shelter long before any effective resistance can be mounted. For security purposes, you will not be informed of the time required, though it has been precisely projected.”

Well at least you can do one thing right. Even if it wasn’t smart enough to realize that she wouldn’t kill herself, it could at least stay focused on keeping its location private.

But just because Jamie had guessed with her nascent magic that there was no one listening didn’t mean she was going to push her luck. If she stayed in the shower long enough to give a report to someone who wasn’t there, they’d probably assume the obvious. What information was the most important?

“Tell Ferris about me,” she said. “I’m alive, and have a degree of freedom in Concord. I might be useful.”

“The message will be delivered. Understand that it may place you at greater risk. The security of Ferris Abrams’s intelligence administration cannot be tested.”

Jamie didn’t reply. There were no guards waiting for her outside—so if they had heard her side of the conversation, they were keeping quiet about it. She didn’t sleep soundly, exactly, but that didn’t matter.

You were right, Flurry Heart. Twilight was wrong. If only she’d listened to you, maybe we wouldn’t be living in a dystopian hellscape right now.

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