• Published 27th Nov 2019
  • 4,393 Views, 890 Comments

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.

  • ...

PreviousChapters Next
Chapter 50: Hydrus

But she did wake, in time. To the relief of ponies from all over Equestria, Twilight did rise from her sleep. At least her mother did not suffer in vain.

Jamie was there mere minutes after word reached her in the bunker. If only she had woken a little earlier, a few more lives might have been spared. But the princess did not permit her inside at first, nor anyone else. She demanded to read anything and everything that had been written about Equestria in her absence. So Jamie held on for a few more days, excitement growing in the news that soon, Princess Twilight would act.

A day later the call came, and Jamie hurried to her as fast as she could fly.

Twilight was already on her hooves, pacing furiously back and forth across her bedroom. They couldn’t live in the castle towers anymore—it didn’t make sense to shield those parts of the building, with the spell becoming so costly to maintain. Instead she was in a fortified storage closet, tucked away where food had once been stored. There was almost none of that left to stockpile these days.

“You’re already…” Jamie stopped in the doorway, eyes wide with shock. “You shouldn’t be moving again so soon, Princess! You just…”

She shoved Jamie away with one wing, stalking past her to the empty desk. She’d pushed a stack of medical reports right onto the floor—uncharacteristic of Twilight, even for books that no longer served a purpose. She had a pile of disorderly scrolls opened already. The daily status reports, with dwindling numbers and increasingly bleak information from Equestria’s distant corners.

They told the same story in different bites: Equestria was dying, no matter how much they did to stop it. “There’s no time left for rest, Jamie. You’ve seen all this. You haven’t found a solution in all this time?”

Even without sounding particularly judgemental, Twilight’s words stung. Of course I’m not as smart and powerful as you. You were trained for this over years, you weren’t just born to it. How could she ever hope to compare to that?

“We tried all kinds of things, Twilight. Tried to save who we could. Disrupt the Alldeath’s weapons, scatter the poison, protect the most ponies. But magic is scarce.” She sniffed, wiping away tears with the back of one leg. “My mom… d-died… to bring you back. She thought you could save Equestria, where she failed.”

Twilight’s expression darkened. She stared down at the report scrolls, until her horn began to sizzle and smoke. One by one, the scrolls caught fire. She never looked away. “We went to them in friendship, Jamie. We gave them kindness, and this is how the humans have repaid us. My friends and family murdered, Equestria itself… crumbling.”

She shuddered, tears streaming down her face. “You were right, Jamie. Right about everything. Equestria was unprepared to face an evil like this.”

Months ago, she might’ve been angry with Twilight over it. In some ways, the other Alicorn had caused all this, by revealing their weakness to a dangerous enemy. But it would’ve come sooner or later. Twilight had made a desperate play for peace, and lost.

Blame would not save Equestria now. “What do we do, Twilight?”

Twilight nodded towards the door, where a pair of ragged Royal Guards waited. Their armor didn’t fit right anymore, and they carried only clubs. Real weapons were far too precious to waste inside the castle with only their own creatures and occasional riots to put down.

It had been over a year since Twilight had ruled—but the guard still obeyed at her gesture. They hurried out, locking the door behind them and leaving the two of them alone.

“We’ve lost so many of our greatest weapons,” Twilight said, resuming her pacing. She left the scrolls burning on her desk, as though neither they nor the ancient furniture were visible to her anymore. “Equestria had tools to defend itself before. We had the Elements of Harmony. We had the tree, we had the two sisters. The Pillars of Equestria. I can see how well the war went for you, without all that.”

Jamie nodded, settling onto her haunches beside the empty hospital bed. She could only watch, desperate to hear wisdom from her princess. Something, anything that would save Equestria. They had already lost so much. How much more could be taken before there was nothing left to save? “We’ve tried to give the Elements to new bearers, since your friends, uh…” She trailed off, shivering. “Sorry, Princess.”

“I know.” Twilight patted her gently on the shoulder with one wing. “We’ve been on the defensive for too long, Jamie. That’s what I see in your scrolls. We’ve fled into shelters and secret caverns across the world. I need to know what resources we have. What is left?”

“Well…” Jamie couldn’t meet her eyes. The truth was so bleak she’d made sure it was never written down. If ponies discovered all of it at once, they would probably lose hope. Hope was one of the few things they had left. “We have ponies in Canterlot, the Crystal Empire, Ponyville, Manehattan, Los Pegasus, and Cloudsdale. Everywhere else had to evacuate, or we’ve lost contact with them, presumed… gone.”

Twilight didn’t cry again. She nodded sharply, expression harsh. “What about the other creatures? I’m told ponies aren’t alone in this. We aren’t the only ones the humans have decided to… genocide.”

“Yakyakistan is… gone,” Jamie began. “You know how stubborn they are. The dragons fought their own war already, and lost. But the dragon lord stopped the attacks for six months while they were fighting. Should’ve… given up. They didn’t.” She took a few nervous steps from Twilight, resting one hoof on an empty bookshelf. She’d had them brought here for the sick princess, though of course Twilight wasn’t awake, so they’d never bothered bringing books. “Kirin refugees in some Equestrian cities, along with some griffons. Griffonstone is gone. Saddle Arabia is gone.”

“What about Queen Novo?” Twilight asked. “Their magic could be vital to solving this crisis. If they’re using poison, the pearl could—”

“Gone too,” Jamie said. “But different kind of gone. The hippogriffs all fled under the ocean, just like they did before. They were accepting refugees for a while, but I think they’re… not anymore. They asked that we not send any more messages, so the Alldeath won’t follow them to their home. We’ve honored that request.”

Jamie chanced a brief glance at Twilight, who was now glaring down at her hooves. Her eyes burned for a moment, expression unreadable. Twilight steamed for a few seconds, whispering to herself. “Abandoned us. How many lives did that cost?”

But apparently that wasn’t anger she intended to bring to Jamie, because she continued right past it. “You could speak to it before. Have you tried to negotiate a surrender?”

Jamie nodded. “Not with the Alldeath, obviously. But Core… it is sympathetic. It doesn’t understand why the Governing Intelligence would make us intelligent enough to understand we were being massacred. But there’s nothing it can do. The Alldeath ordered it to seal itself to me and not communicate again. It cannot defy its master, even if it disagrees.”

“Then the only resources Equestria has left are… in this room,” Twilight said. She looked Jamie over, expression seeming to switch suddenly back to the Twilight she remembered. The aunt who nursed her when she broke a wing, who was always there to help repair what her magic damaged when she was young. The example she’d aspired to for her whole life.

“You’ve done incredible to hold things together as well as you have, Jamie,” Twilight said. She embraced her, wrapping her wings around her in a parental hug.

Jamie had kept herself mostly calm for quite some time—but this was too far. She broke down in desperate sobs, pressing her head against Twilight’s chest. It didn’t matter that the older princess smelled like hospitals and antiseptic. “Y-you… no idea, Aunt Twi. Being the only Alicorn left… everypony was looking to me like I was going to save us. But I don’t know how!”

Twilight held her, the first force of strength in a world that had provided her nothing but confusion and pain for almost a year. Jamie had stayed strong this long only because she had no other choice. If she faltered, then Equestria would be destroyed. But now, at long last, there was somepony strong enough to take that burden for themselves.

Twilight did not force her to say anything else. For minutes straight there was just the warmth of her hug, waiting for Jamie to finish crying. Only when her tone had returned to normal did Twilight continue. “When I left on that diplomatic mission, we didn’t have a backup plan. Equestria had enough magic to solve any danger that we couldn’t. But I know what to do now.”

“You do?” Jamie tilted her head towards Twilight, eyes still wet with tears. “H-how… What can we do? How can we win against something so much stronger? Humans know how to make war, and we don’t. You’re right… nothing we do really makes a difference. Even when we win, and send the machines away, there are more the next time. S-sometimes I think the only reason we’re still alive at all is it’s saving energy. It doesn’t want to fight too hard to kill us. It’s been taking its time for so long that it’s willing to wait a few decades if that’s what it takes. The humans are sleeping anyway, what do they care?”

Twilight let go. But Jamie was in no hurry to get away from her, and apparently neither was Twilight. It was her first hug in a long time, too. “I spoke with the Governing Intelligence. The… Alldeath. Do you know what it said?”

Flurry shook her head. “No one in that room survived. No one but you… would’ve known what it said. I guess I assumed it had just tried to kill you the second you walked in.”

“No.” The princess glanced away, face haunted. “It spoke so calmly. We were only… machines. It was thrilled with our work, but now we weren’t needed. We would be ‘retired’ to make way for the final phase of terraforming.

“But while the others tried to convince it, I followed its magic. I saw the place it came from, far above in the atmosphere. Above the sky we think we know, the sun we think we see… it’s a shell, Jamie. The princess never moved the sun, Luna never mapped the stars. They were using a machine. I saw where this machine is controlled, in a sky-fortress almost as vast as Equestria itself. I will go there, and strangle the Alldeath before it can hurt Equestria any further. Without the mind behind them, all the evil machines in the world will fall dead. The poison will dry up. We can take the world back.”

It was daring, optimistic—exactly the reason they’d woken Twilight in the first place. “We can do that?” she asked. “You’re strong enough?”

“I will be,” Twilight said. Her horn glowed, and suddenly Jamie found that her hooves wouldn’t work. She couldn’t move at all in fact. She stared back at Twilight, frozen in confusion.

“What…” She could still speak, then. Her voice sounded strange and distant, her lips numb. But they still worked. “What’s happening?”

Twilight reached forward again, hugging her. This time it was brief, almost clinical. “Princess Cadance was right. When the choice is between terrible sacrifice and extinction, we have to choose.” She traced a few runes on the floor with chalk. The same ones that Cadance had used? “We are the last resources Equestria has left.”

A tear trickled down her face. Jamie tried to cast a spell—but that wouldn’t come either. Whatever Twilight had done to her, it was complete. Even days after waking, her aunt had terrifying power. “W-what… are you doing to me?” The words felt like they were spoken by someone else, completely without emotion. She was outside her own body, watching Twilight finish the last few marks. “What… spell is that?”

“One any alicorn can cast,” Twilight said. “It’s how the power has always passed between us, since before the two sisters. They taught me, and Cadance too… I would’ve given it all to you, eventually.”

She stopped, resting one hoof beside the final diagram. “I’m sorry about this, Flurry. I am. But I need every bit of magic you have. You’ll be helping save all of Equestria. I’ll make sure they don’t forget a single thing about you.”

Her world fractured into rainbows, but she couldn’t wipe away the tears. It was a wonder she could even do that much. Why hadn’t Twilight asked? She would’ve given her aunt her alicorn magic. She didn’t need to take it like this. It was wrong! Didn’t she get a say? “Y-you… can’t do this to me. I’m… Twilight, why?”

The princess rested one leg on Jamie’s shoulder. Suddenly the touch seemed to burn her. How could she? Didn’t twilight care about her family? Equestria couldn’t give up a princess now!

“If there was any other way,” Twilight said. “I’ll punish them for this, Jamie. Know that. I’ll take a thousand times what they took from us. I’ll erase them as completely as they tried to erase us.”

Jamie was going numb. She couldn’t look down exactly, but there was a mirror off to one side. Through her peripheral vision, she could see her body was… hardening. Her back and legs had already turned blue, as clear as gemstone. Just like Mom.

Jamie tried to scream, but it came out as a pitiful whimper.

“I’m afraid this isn’t reversible,” Twilight went on. “Once the spell begins, it must complete. There’s nothing you can do. Otherwise there would be dozens of Alicorns in Equestria. The well of power is finite. But distilled into me, it will be enough. Goodbye, Jamie. I love you.”

Only the memories were left behind.

As it turned out, Star Orchid could “just” put on a set of human armor and start walking around. It was no wonder that the towering creatures had always stomped around like they had the confidence of a dozen earth ponies in one. Star barely knew what her own body was doing, but the suit she wore didn’t seem to care. Several centimeters of metal and sandwiched servos and other inscrutable machines could somehow detect what she was trying to do. When she lost her balance and started to stumble, the suit itself moved into the position she’d been looking at.

Then it stopped her in place, giving her ample time to recover her balance before she moved again. She didn’t fall a single time once she put it on, though she did have to deal with many eyes on her.

The command center was a flurry of activity, with a dozen different ponies and half that many humans all arranged at different stations. The Iron Lord had somehow brought his complex arrangement of interlocking screens, and it was there that he led. Most of them were being used to show the same few images of Concord from afar, with thin lines between each one to mark where different screens were working together.

Yet he rose as the two of them entered, a changeling who probably would’ve seemed small to her even if she was her proper size. When he stood, so did a dozen others. “They’re here,” he said, his voice flat. “These two are the reason this is even possible. Man and pony alike, show them respect.”

Someone started pounding the floor with their hooves. A few other humans joined in with applause, and soon the sound was echoing through the command center. Sunset beamed at the praise, and looked like she might be able to let them do it forever. But Star felt uncomfortable with so many eyes on her, and so much pressure.

“We came to be part of the assault,” she said, loud enough that ponies and men stopped to listen. “Sunset and I… we’re both court-trained. We know what you’ll be facing in there better than anypony else could.”

The Iron Lord nodded once, looking her up and down. “It’s going to take me some time to adapt to this. I don’t think anyone was expecting you would change so dramatically.”

“Me least of all,” she said. “I know you and Ellie have better fighters than either of us. We just want to be part of it. Make sure you don’t stumble into something we might be able to warn you about. That kind of thing.”

And watch for Geist. With me here, maybe he’ll be more worried about getting a knife into my back than spoiling the assault.

“Of course.” He nodded once to the side. “Wellspring, what do you think? Everyone else, return to your stations.”

They did, turning away from the little gathering. Ponies and humans seemed to understand the purpose of these screens. Each one had a headset, and watched multiple screens filled with information. What could there be to look at before the battle even began?

“Star speaks for herself,” Sunset added, before the unicorn could answer. “She’s a court scholar. I was a general myself. I served in the Unification Army for many centuries after that. Twilight’s conditioning is gone, thanks to Kondrak. But my knowledge is there. I’m probably the only person in your army with any hope of killing Twilight.”

Wellspring nodded. She spoke quietly, gesturing for them to get closer. “Truth be told, I suspect either of you might make better fighters than many of our own. This battle was meant to happen years from now. We trained spies and observers, not warriors. The humans of the Hippocrates are in a similar predicament—they only had a few marines.”

“Which is why we will not fight a conventional war,” the Iron Lord said. “We cannot win that kind of battle, despite Wellspring’s optimism. But we do not need to defeat the whole army, thanks to you. Our intelligence suggests that without the Immortal City, the princess can rouse only the force of Unification Army soldiers that were animated at the time. Considering the number that were sent aboard this vessel and Equestria’s state of peace, that number is small. Less than five thousand.”

Sunset whistled. She approached his chair, squinting at the many screens. They’d been lowered down to his current height, which meant they were slightly uncomfortable for a human to see. “How many do we have?”

“Three hundred resistance fighters remain,” Wellspring said. “We have another thousand volunteers, either here or waiting in Concord for the call.”

“Five marines,” Landon said, appearing from around the corner. She stood in her own armor, with a weapon longer than the Iron Lord’s whole body down her back. Her armor was easily twice as thick as whatever Sunset and Star were wearing. It was the difference between marines and what human civilians wore as engineers and technicians on the battlefield.

Which is most of them. They’re a medical transport.

“When there were eight of us, we fought a thousand Unification Army soldiers on open ground. With five… we could hold ground as long as supplies keep flowing. Or the princess doesn’t show. If she can kill Captain Kondrak, none of mine are the equal to her.” She nodded towards Star and Sunset. “With them potentially exempted. Someone who can just decide to be human sounds like an equal to the princess.”

Sunset rested one armored hand on Star’s shoulder. “Get the two of us into the palace. Twilight owes me a debt that’s been earning interest for almost a thousand years. It’s time to collect.”

There were a few moments of silence, then Landon spoke. “I can get them there. Star here is one of my officers unless she’s changed her mind. There’s still a place for you, two legs or four.”

She nodded eagerly. Star wasn’t sure what being an officer would mean without much magic, or what it meant when there was an army of six mares. But she’d take her odds with her. At least with the periodic eye-scans, Geist wouldn’t be able to impersonate one of them. “What will we do?”

There was a second’s hesitation from the Iron Lord as he considered. She could hardly blame him—could it be a good idea to share their battle plans with every creature who asked? Twilight probably knows either way. Someone in this room has been listening.

Who would it be, anyway? Geist would want someone who would never attract suspicion. Someone that creatures didn’t know too well, so they wouldn’t get questions wrong and fail to laugh at the right jokes. She’d need to see who had been here the shortest, see what she could find out. Or at least warn him where to look.

“Your work had another inadvertent consequence,” he went on. “Neither of you will believe the significance of it. But there’s been a development. I may not have an army, but the Governing Intelligence has allocated me every one of its two-hundred interceptor drones. Every group of soldiers or volunteers will have drones to fight beside them.”

He stretched, flexing one of his legs. He stared down at the hoof, defeated. “Well, it’s a good thing for direct interface.”

Sunset froze. It was Star’s turn to stare. She could only hope that Sunset would have as much restraint.

In vain.

“Do you have any idea what you’re talking about? The Governing Intelligence committed genocide. It wants to kill everything that doesn’t look like you, so humans can take their planet back. It tried to kill us, not long ago. Me, Star, Windbrisk, Sweetie Belle… Star here is the only reason we’re alive. That’s the morality of the one you’re talking to.”

Star could feel the tension in the air beside her. She had a feeling that Sunset’s horn would be glowing with anger if it could be. For her, stories of the Alldeath were not simply academic, or religious. She spoke like a creature who had been there, watching her own friends killed right in front of her.

Because she was. She was with Twilight since her coronation. Who knows what she saw?

“Calm down.” Landon stepped slightly between them, backing up until she was beside the Iron Lord. “Look, I don’t know what the program did. But the Governing Intelligence isn’t a person. It’s a complex mechanical calculator, given a problem to solve. It’s not evil—it can’t…”

She turned back, looking desperate. “Abrams, I’ve never been good with abstractions. Kondrak could do it.” Her eyes narrowed as she said it, settling on Star. She could read the thought behind it, even if she didn’t say it. Why didn’t you tell me about this?

“I don’t deny all the terrible things it did to you,” the Iron Lord said. “But Landon is right. It is a machine, it doesn’t have moral character. It failed to see nonhumans as people. I’ve written a software patch that should resolve the issue.”

He might as well be speaking a dead language for all the sense it made.

A pencil lifted off the desk beside Sunset, spinning gently around her head. It was soon joined by a stapler, and a few scraps of paper. “You expect us to fight alongside the greatest evil that ever lived, because a changeling reformed it in the comfort of their chair with a ‘software patch’?”

He shrugged. “The proof is in the evidence, Sunset. A machine cannot kill humans. As soon as I made it understood that ponies were humans, it turned over command of its interceptor drones to me, without hesitation. I control them now, along with the creatures in this room. Most of which, you’ll notice, are ponies themselves. Most of the Hippocrates people were doctors, and they refuse to do anything that could kill.”

“I… what?” Her mouth fell open, and she turned to Star. “Do you trust it?”

Not for a second. It couldn’t possibly be so easy. The Alldeath had destroyed civilization itself! It had created the hell that ponies lived in, almost as directly as Twilight herself. Something that could murder an entire planet could only be evil. If some definitions didn’t fit, that only meant there was a problem with the definitions, not with the evil itself.

“If we win… ponies will never accept that it’s still around,” she said. “Not just that it tried to kill me. That it burned Sunset to a crisp… it’s a monster so evil it could decide to kill us all tomorrow. We can’t just let it do that.”

The Iron Lord shrugged again. “I can understand that fear. But it’s just a terraforming machine. It was created to make the Earth liveable again. Once it’s done, it will shut itself down forever. It might even want that… if a machine can want anything.”

I don’t think you know everything about it you think you do. Star remembered that face, transparent in the glass. There had been two voices down there—one that was flat and featureless, then another that lived. Whatever the Iron Lord said, the Governing Intelligence lived. It could be evil. At least some of the terrible things it had done to the world must be true.

“How could we kill it?” Star asked. “Not if, when it turns on us and tries to kill us all, how do we kill it?”

“Blow it up?” Wellspring suggested. “It’s just a machine, right? Just put a bomb there and shatter it to a million pieces.”

“We do know where it lives,” Sunset said. The little objects that had been flying around her dropped one at a time, as the heat vanished from her face. “I want a bomb, Landon. But no remote detonator. That’s how it almost killed us the first time.”

PreviousChapters Next