• 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 47: Gemini

Star Orchid found the familiar shape of the Harrow appearing in the distance to be a strangely comforting sight. It had only ever held Equestria’s undead armies in her lifetime—but she knew it didn’t now. What would another flying pony city look like, with the rebellion designing it instead of Equestria? Hopefully nice, since until they beat Equestria it would be the only home Star Orchid would ever have.

She crammed in beside Windbrisk in their single window to stare at the ship as they approached, searching for signs that something had changed.

The massive warship hadn’t been structurally redesigned—it was still a top-heavy mountain, with cannons bristling from its upper levels and support and storage sections in the bottom. The rebellion had done nothing to its basic design, but they had made changes. A pair of huge banners ran down its sides, tacked down so they wouldn’t be too jostled by the wind. Star had seen their colors before, though only in history books.

The Harrow was flying Celestia’s and Luna’s colors, with a gigantic sun glyph on one side and moon on the other. I hope you never find out I’m here, Mom and Dad. Maybe Geist will be sentimental enough to leave you out of this. Maybe the princess will be content thinking I died.

Their aircraft was one of four identical ships, and they were the only one to approach the top deck for a landing. As they were dropping down, a knock sounded on the door beside them, before it swung open. A pair of humans in white stood there, holding medical equipment. “Star Orchid, are you in here? Sunset says you volunteered to assist with her transplant.”

All eyes turned on her. She nodded, hopping down from the oversized human chair and making her way over. “Yeah. Is that happening already? Have we moved everything onto the Harrow yet?”

“No, and we won’t be.” The doctor stepped aside, gesturing into the hallway. “We’re just picking up a doctor. Our facilities are better than yours, so we’re doing the transplant here. They’re already preparing the surgical theater.”

“What are you going to do?” Windbrisk asked, following her out. He stopped in the doorway, watching her. “I thought you didn’t know any medical magic.”

“I don’t. I think I’m just there for moral support. I’ll let you ponies know how it goes.”

“Hopefully Sunset will do that,” Sweetie said, setting her human reading device down on the desk in front of her. “After everything Twilight did, we need a pony like her.”

Unlike Christy, these doctors showed no shyness around her, and started jogging through the hall as soon as they were out. She followed, keeping pace as best she could. But those human legs were so long. “Have you people… ever brought a dead person back to life before?”

They slowed, and the woman fell back slightly to keep better pace with her. “In some ways, it’s as routine as a vaccination. Every time we wake someone, we’re reviving a frozen corpse. Even with the best cryo-protectants, there’s always some damage to repair. I do not know how the ‘magic’ used to keep this pony’s body working compares. I know there was research into brain preservation, ways that would let it keep functioning when the body should otherwise be clinically dead. But I don’t know if any of it ever got as far as the Rogue did. It’s just easier to keep your brain inside a body. Most people tend to prefer it that way, so…”

“We won’t be responsible for the outcome,” said the other doctor, falling back enough to join the conversation. “We’re offering our facilities and our assistance. The patient insists on having a—I don’t even know what he is. Let’s go with a genetic anomaly without a medical license or any formal training.” His tone made it clear just how much he disapproved of the choice.

“I helped Discord do something similar a few weeks ago,” Star said. “But it was putting a human into a pony body not… the other way around.”

“So not only is the patent’s chosen surgeon unlicensed, but he’s clearly ethically unfit to practice as well. God only knows how many conventions that would violate. Putting a human brain into an animal body… absurd. At least we’ll be uplifting the animal today. If we succeed.”

Star wasn’t sure what that word meant either, though from his tone she guessed it was condescending. She kept quiet the rest of the way in, finding herself feeling grateful that Discord would be operating on Sunset, instead of a mean doctor she’d never met.

The same medical area that had been deserted before was now a flurry of activity, with a dozen humans packing the hall. Many of them held equipment, or just storage boxes of supplies. All parted for them as they approached, passing beyond all the little hospital rooms until they reached the door at the end of the hall. It was surprisingly small, barely large enough for the three of them.

“Prepare for decontamination,” said a soft, neutral voice, before blasting all three of them with thick smoke. It burned at Star’s face and throat, and she began to hack and cough—but only for a second. Then they were through, emerging into a spacious operating room. It was the same shape as the one Discord had built for himself—but where most of his tools were shoddy or held together with whatever the rebellion could dredge up, here every shelf was full.

Sunset and an unconscious human body were already there in the center of the room, both covered up to their heads. The human body was wired into a similar machine to the one Discord had used in the last operation—probably some kind of life support. Sunset had only the Unification Army gear attached to her, settled next to her on the operating table.

“Unfortunately for you, you’re dead. There’s no sedative on this ship that will put you out for this operation. What do you think it will be like to have your brain encased?”

“You could… really work on your bedside manner, Discord,” Sunset croaked. Her voice was as thin and raspy as ever—maybe even worse now that she was completely exposed. “I thought you were supposed to make me feel better. Assure me that you have the skill to do this.”

“I’m quite certain there isn’t a being alive or dead with the skill for this operation,” Discord said. He had a new doctor’s coat and gloves, matching the uniforms the human doctors were wearing. But they kept their distance from him even so. “That’s the fun of it. We’re blazing a new trail! Can we repair Twilight’s butchery? He that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live.”

His claw reached into a pocket, spinning a razor-sharp scalpel along the back of his hand like it was a toy. Finally his eyes settled on Star. “And here she is—the spark that makes this all possible. I don’t believe she fully understood what she was agreeing to. You will owe her your life, Sunset… if you get one back. Guess if you die, you can owe her two lives. Or would that be three…”

“Doctor,” said one of the human staff—an older woman with silvery gray hair covered in a net. “We’ve already exposed the cranial cavity of the recipient. We have ten hours before the body becomes non-viable. Perhaps we should begin.”

Discord glared back at her—but the ancient master of chaos didn’t react with the anger she might’ve expected. He only sighed. “We do have to take some joy in our grisly work, do we not? Besides, Star Orchid does need to understand her role.” He gestured, and Star made her way through the crowd of nurses and doctors. They parted for her, watching skeptically but not interfering.

“You have better ponies than me for the job I did last time,” she said. “I hope that’s not what you want me to do.”

“Sunset might prefer it that way, but tragically I’ll have to overrule her. These are the foremost experts in their field. My role here will be more… supervisory. We are all treading new ground here, but I can adapt to changing conditions far faster than any human brain. Or pony.”

Star could see the crowd of humans react to his words, watching Discord with a little more respect as he said it. Either manipulating them, or psyching them up for the operation. Either way, Sunset could probably use all the help she could get.

“But you’re the only one in this room with any magic. I don’t believe we have any chance of a successful transplant without a spark to rekindle what Twilight so cruelly extinguished.”

“Magic,” someone muttered, near the back of the crowd. “Organic industrial equipment. Does he actually think that word means something?”

Discord spun on the speaker, dropping his knife from one paw and catching it in the other. At once, the humans parted, exposing the guilty party—a male nurse, with sandy hair visible through the net on his forehead. “You confuse function with nature, human. Not an unexpected mistake from your kind, but perhaps one tonight will disabuse you of. Just because your cousins exploited magic to terraform your planet, does not mean that magic is no different from tractors and solvents. We must create life where none existed. What Sunset needs is nothing short of a miracle.”

“I’m right here,” Sunset said, raising her voice a little. “Do you think you could at least try to be optimistic about this. I know this body would fall apart either way, but… I’m not just blowing myself up.”

“I’m highly optimistic.” Discord turned away from the objecting human, returning his attention to Star Orchid. “You’ll need to stay close. Do not leave this room, no matter how exhausted you become. When the moment of truth arrives—we may have only seconds.”

The crowd of humans muttered their shared disbelief. But Star didn’t doubt him—she only felt a growing fear. “I don’t know any medical spells. I certainly don’t know how to create life with my magic.”

Discord nodded, though his expression was dismissive. “Don’t worry about the specifics, Star Orchid. Just remain close, and be attentive when I call for you. There may be an awful lot of screaming.”

“I don’t feel pain,” Sunset snapped, her tone almost defensive as she spoke. “That’s part of what Twilight did to us. Her Unification Army just keeps fighting until we’re destroyed.”

“Well that’s one of the things we have to fix, isn’t it?” Discord stalked off, towards a storage rack with more tools against the far wall. “Begin the procedure, Dr. Ramirez. I’ll be watching.”

“Right.” Dr. Ramirez stopped just in front of Sunset, her back to Star Orchid. Star retreated towards the side of the room, where several human chairs rested against the wall, out of the way. But she could still hear the doctor’s every word. “This procedure will take place in two parts. First, your brain must be converted and provided with an intermediary shell. This protection insulates your brain from damage, and provides emergency life-support should your body be damaged or destroyed.

“From our dissections of Unification Army soldiers, it appears that the Rogue already implemented something similar with you. We will be forced to adapt the shell as we apply it. Once fully encased, the second half of the procedure will begin, and your brain will be implanted in the waiting cavity of this new body. If we reach this part of the procedure, it is very likely to complete successfully.

“Ordinarily we wouldn’t be able to perform a surgery like this for ethical reasons, as the odds of success cannot be determined. But those ethical rules only apply to human patients, which you are not. Still, as you’re an intelligent adult, I’d like to confirm your consent to proceed before we begin. Once we start, the procedure cannot be halted. Do we have your permission to begin?”

Sunset nodded sharply. “My body is trashed, it won’t keep working for much longer anyway. But I can’t go back for Twilight to fix it, or she’ll put me back under her spell. I’d rather die as myself than live while still asleep.”

She raised her voice, twisting slightly in her restraints towards Star. “If I don’t make it through this, Star—scatter my ashes on Canterlot Mountain. Promise you’ll do it.”

“I have no idea where it is,” she said. “But I’m sure Sweetie Belle does. I promise.”

“Then we begin.” Dr. Ramirez gestured, and an orderly slipped a plastic mouthpiece between Sunset’s lips. “Your brain doesn’t have pain receptors, but your head does. My crew will work better without the screaming.”

They closed in around her, leaving an empty spot between the two operating tables for Discord. He stood with arms folded, watching silently as the humans set to work.

They weren’t wrong—Sunset did start screaming. Even through the gag, Star tensed and shuddered at the sound as they cut into her. Thanks to the humans’ massive size, she didn’t see very much herself—just an occasional spray of black ichor, and the grinding sound she guessed was cutting bone. The longer they kept working, the quieter it became, until at last Sunset stopped struggling.

In almost that exact moment, the humans began to panic, and Discord took the place of Dr. Ramirez. Whatever they’d been muttering back and forth to each other in the back of the surgical theater, now they watched in awe, as he moved with the same confidence and purpose that had driven him during the Iron Lord’s procedure.

“Star Orchid!” he yelled, his voice booming and urgent. Not angry, but fierce enough that anyone not gathered around the bodies withdrew. “Get over here!”

She did, practically tripping over her hooves to get to Sunset’s bedside. She found herself grateful that human tables were so high—the smell of preservative fluid and rotten ichor was thick enough to make her gag as she got close.

“What do I do?” She stopped beside Discord, looking up with wide, frightened eyes.

“You were given a gift,” Discord said. He held a knife in one hand, and a strange fibrous tool in the other, ending in many little glowing spots. “You chose to share that gift with these others, including Sunset. It is bound to you still.”

“What?” She shivered, shaking her head once. A medical monitor beside Sunset blared a droning siren, louder and louder by the second. “What are you talking about?”

“Cast your spell!” Discord yelled again, pointing at Sunset. “Weave your strands together now, or she’ll be dead forever!”

Star Orchid had no idea what Discord wanted. What spell? But there was magic already here, somehow. Something on the bed in front of her, half-finished and waiting to be cast. She couldn’t see anything on the surface, but she could feel the magic waiting for her. All she had to do was focus her will, and the spell was complete.

Seconds later, she collapsed motionless to the floor.

Jamie’s revivals were never pleasant. Returning abruptly to her body, which had sat in place and barely even been breathing for hours, throat parched and stomach turning. It was probably worse than the disorientation of feeling like she was someone else.

She didn’t just collapse to the floor, her body sore all over and struggling to breathe. This time, Twilight Sparkle loomed over her, wings spread and eyes as dark as any robotic monster.

“You’ve returned. I suppose it’s no fault of yours how long the memories hold you. Not that Equestria will take any solace if we’re destroyed.”

Her wings folded to her sides, and she took a single sharp step back. “You will come with me, now.” She spun, stomping away down the hallway.

Jamie struggled to her hooves, unused limbs aching with the effort. She found her wings actually responded more quickly, and she flapped them a few times, lifting herself to a standing position before scampering off after Twilight.

The strange overlap of her own experiences and the ancient Alicorn’s might be wearing her down in other ways—it was hard to think of her own kind in any positive light—but at least she could fly now.

“I thought I had three days to learn,” she said. Then she caught Twilight glaring back at her, and she added nervously: “Regent Twilight. Did something change?”

The Alicorn laughed, her voice bitter and distant. “Did anything change, she says?”

They stormed past a few familiar priests, including Solar Lens, waiting in the hallway. He reached once towards Jamie with a hoof, then lowered his head silently to the princess. Apparently asking questions wasn’t part of his duties either.

“It was all a ruse, young Alicorn. All a diversion. I do not know how the enemy discovered you, but they used you all the same. While the Concord was flying to investigate your ascent, their army reached the Immortal City.”

At least Jamie’s limbs were waking up, and it was easier and easier to keep up with the princess. They reached the outside of the Well building, then headed straight to the bridge back into the castle.

Jamie took one last look over her shoulder, and nearly objected. She’d watched Flurry Heart’s studies, and learned more than she ever could’ve imagined. But at the same time, any of the really useful stuff hadn’t happened yet.

There were clouds overhead, otherwise warm and comfortable looking. They were moving so fast now, blurring away behind them. Jamie could feel no acceleration, no rush of wind—yet they must be moving.

Maybe she should be grateful not to have to see how the story ended. She could still be hopeful this way, and think that more of the pony population would make it.

Even if now she knew the truth. There was only one city—the rest of the world were hovels like Hollow Shades. That’s not just our fault. Twilight erased one of them because they fought back against her troops. How many more have died over the years because of her? Humans aren’t the only bad guys.

“Warning, citizen Jamie Sanders. You are passing out of transmission range. Ferris Abrams orders you to remain in the core of Concord and prepare for instructions. They will be in touch.”

Its voice was already distant and distorted, but Jamie could make out the words well enough. I’m not sure if helping you is a good idea after all. AIs didn’t just ruin my life, they ruined a whole civilization.

She hurried up the bridge, though she was soon short of breath and had to slow down. Twilight glanced back at her again, before something lifted Jamie right off her hooves. Her whole body was frozen, rigid in the air, dragged along behind Twilight.

At least she could still talk. “I hope you’ll forgive me, Regent. I don’t know what that is. But if you’ve suffered a defeat… I want to help.” She didn’t even have to lie, this time. If the Alldeath was attacking Equestria again, a terraforming AI beyond its purpose and raging with bloodlust, then she wanted to destroy it too.

“We will soon put that to the test,” Twilight answered. “There may have been other opportunities, but this will measure you as none before.”

They passed back into the castle, through guard posts and staring servants. All watched Jamie, looking confused and frightened by her treatment. But none said anything. She couldn’t really blame them.

“The Immortal City was where we hid the source of our protection. So long as the city stood, Equestria was surrounded with a shield that couldn’t be broken. With it destroyed, we are vulnerable.”

She slowed, her seemingly infinite stamina finally showing its first cracks. Yet getting closer to her was no relief for Jamie—the princess’s eyes were wild and staring. “I don’t know how they discovered this weakness. There will be much done to determine the corruption in my household.”

She spun Jamie in the air, until they were facing each other. “Y-yet you could not be part of it. You were the very distraction used to draw Concord away. So you will be spared interrogation.”

There was a brief, blinding flash, and Jamie struggled for breath. Then the world returned, and air came rushing into her lungs. Twilight dropped her limply to the floor.

It wasn’t a torture chamber, but Jamie’s own living room. Basal even waited by the wall, wearing her uniform and holding a serving tray. She squeaked in terror at Twilight’s appearance, retreating from them both.

“Bring us some tea,” Twilight said, apparently not noticing or caring about her fear. She had eyes only for Jamie now. “Equestria must retaliate, swiftly and brutally. We must show the loyalists of the Devourers that our will to survive is stronger than their hatred of all things harmonious.”

Jamie stood back up, brushing her mane straight with her magic the way Flurry Heart always did. “Y-yeah, right. Of course! Do you need my help?”

The princess nodded once, striding past Jamie towards the strange sculpture in the corner of the room, the one covered in human writing. “I had hoped to move more gradually. I hoped we had more time. But our enemies won’t give us that time. They’ve slaughtered thousands of my soldiers. They murdered an entire town. And now…”

She tensed, curling up on herself. Her voice cracked, and little black growths appeared on the ground all around her. Jamie felt the surges of magic now, each one strong enough to make her recoil. But instead of screaming at her, the princess was crying.

“Now they’ve destroyed the last thing I managed to protect. They want to take everything.” Her voice dropped to a desperate, fearful growl. “We won’t go gently. Equestria has survived so much worse. If they think they can take the planet from us, we’ll… salt the fields under our hooves. We’ll poison the ocean, we’ll fill the air with more toxin than they ever did.”

The black crystals around her splintered and cracked, then shattered to a fine powder on the floor. Twilight looked up, as though she barely even recognized Jamie standing there. “But we haven’t lost yet. We can turn their weapon against them.”

She gestured to the artifact, and Jamie made her way up to it, avoiding the broken crystal bits on the floor. There was no telling what she’d do if she touched them—she’d never seen a spell like that before.

“What do you mean, Princess Twilight? I’m no kind of weapon. Until your Well, I didn’t even know magic. Not that I don’t want to help… I want Equestria to survive too. I just don’t know how.”

Twilight shook her head. There wasn’t anger on her face, or even disappointment. “It is likely you don’t understand. They had to be careful with you—too much of their corruption, and Harmony would reject you. You never could’ve become an Alicorn. But I see their touch on your mind. I hear their voice when you speak. If I can sense it, then their ancient machines will as well.”

She touched the edge of the monument with one hoof, right beside the first of its oblique commandments. “Have you seen anything like this before?”

Yes. Her mouth formed the word “no,” but she could see Twilight tensing, and she stopped herself. She might not be a changeling, but Twilight had her own magic. She had threatened Jamie with a spell that would kill her if she lied. Could she have cast it without Jamie realizing?

“I’ve never seen one myself, but I know the concept.”

Twilight gestured with a wing, and she continued. “The, uh… Devourers… wiped themselves out, long ago. When they could see the end coming, but before they were gone—they wanted to make sure whoever came after didn’t make any of the same mistakes.”

She circled around the obelisk, skimming over the commandments left there. “I don’t understand what they thought they were accomplishing. The idea was to warn future generations not to make any of their mistakes. But how could they do that? There was no telling what language future generations would speak. Still, the… idea was just to leave as many warnings as possible, so they could shape a developing civilization.”

She had to strain, reaching back into painful memories that she didn’t want to re-live. But after seeing the end of pony civilization, her own apocalypse felt somehow secondhand. “I think there were some plans to build more than just warnings, but to hide long-lived machines inside them. So that the cultures that were loyal to sustainable ideals would have an advantage over their competitors. Or… something like that?”

Twilight did not interrupt her. She looked increasingly surprised as Jamie kept going, but she let her finish even so. “That is quite illuminating, thank you. It seems you were learning more than your masters would’ve guessed.”

Her horn glowed, and Jamie vanished again. Her world went dark for a second, then reappeared right beside Twilight, looking up at the monolith. “There is magic hidden here, not some unfeeling machine of the Governing Intelligence. But you were deceived. Don’t feel guilty—they are better at it than any other creature alive.

“The Devourers did not place these monuments to warn us against their own mistakes—they were placed by the peaceful elder race the Devourers destroyed. That is why you can read their words. They knew one day their children would grow wise enough to understand them. They wanted us to have a future.”

Jamie didn’t say anything now. It was patently absurd—she’d seen designs for these monoliths on television. Humanity had been building something like them long before their war had its first casualties. So all she did was nod.

But now that she was invested in her story, Twilight barely seemed to care if she was listening. “They knew their ancient magic would be tempting for any creature who discovered it, but that it needed to be saved for the terrible day when the Devourers threatened again.”

Her horn glowed, and the monolith began to rumble and shake. Twilight’s magic shuddered through it for a second, and it lifted a few centimeters from the ground—then it dropped again, unchanged.

“Its lock will not open to me. I have not been corrupted by the Devourers’ touch. I believe they made it for a pony like you—that way, only when the time was right could the ancients’ brave descendants rise and take back their inheritance.”

She settled her wings around Jamie’s shoulders, pushing her right up against it. “Equestria needs you to open this, and recover the weapon inside.”

Jamie was frozen in place, up so close to the stone that she could barely read it anymore. She touched it faintly with a hoof, as though there might be a button or switch waiting for her. But there was nothing. Her touch didn’t activate some ancient magic hidden by primordial ponies either. Nothing like that existed.


Twilight shrugged one shoulder. “Prove your devotion to Equestria, Jamie. Show you are more than the ones who abused you. Give us the weapon we need to defend ourselves.”

There’s no way there’s a weapon in here. The Preservation Anchor and all the other little doomsday cults had only wanted to pass knowledge to the next generation. If there was anything inside, it would be designed for primitive humans. Maybe a few carefully preserved geneseed crops, to feed a struggling population. Maybe the secrets of sanitation.

As Jamie stared uselessly at the stone monolith, she found something reflecting back at her. It was a faint touch on her mind, yet strong enough to make her gasp.

Twilight was right, there was something magical in there. Starlight Glimmer would’ve called it a spell trigger—the faint wisp of magic waiting to activate something.

But what was it looking for? Her own mere presence obviously wasn’t enough.

Twilight loomed over her, eyes intense. “You feel it there, Jamie. Open it.”

“I can’t!” she squealed. She backed away from the princess, wings flaring on either side defensively. Of course she wouldn’t be able to escape from her, not in here. “I don’t know enough about magic yet! I learned a little in the Well, but… not enough! I need more time!”

Princess Twilight followed her, matching her step for step. Her horn glowed a brilliant purple, about to enact some terrible retribution for her failure. But then it went out.

“I did allocate Solar Lens three days for your training. It wouldn’t be right to expect you to be ready before that.” She turned her back on Jamie, striding towards the door. She continued right past Basal, ignoring her tray of tea completely. “I will send the guard to escort you back to the Arcanum Well. You will have your last day of training… but Equestria cannot wait any longer.”

She slammed the door shut behind her, leaving Jamie alone with the bug.

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