• 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 6: Cetus

Jamie could tell as soon as she stepped off the cargo truck that the jungle didn’t want her there. If it wasn’t the constant humidity overcoming the moisture capacity of her stillsuit, it was the cloud of mosquitoes, ready to swoop in and devour her if she so much as lifted the hood for more than a few moments. So she kept her visor down and helmet up, sipping on the stale-tasting water that the stillsuit fed her and keeping her eyes alert for danger.

“Are you sure nothing’s going to eat me up here?” she asked, for the third or fourth time. “You have no fucking concept of how giant this jungle is Epsilon. These trees are jacked, and I hate it.”

There was no way to judge Epsilon’s pleasure or frustration with her questions through simple delay anymore. The radio muddied all of that, and distorted its voice a little too. There was something with relays going on, probably several points of redirection. For some reason. Because the horses that make plants grow are going to trace an ultrasonic signal to a surface transmitter and find the base. That seems likely.

She knew better than to even try and argue with a computer like Epsilon. It just wouldn’t be capable of changing its mind, certainly not in response to something some dropout said. Maybe a system administrator, but… she hadn’t seen any of those awake. Or anyone else, for that matter. I notice you didn’t give me the full text of any of those UN directives either, Epsilon. What’s your game here?

At least it was right about one thing: nothing tried to eat her. There was plenty of violence elsewhere in the jungle—she could hear the predators calling to each other at night, and occasionally stumbled onto the consequences of their hunting covered in buzzing flies. But she was never forced to try and scramble to use the gun.

When night came, Jamie tacked up her emergency shelter against a tree, finally removing the stupid stillsuit and giving herself a chance to breathe. And anytime she heard something moving outside, she’d flick off the lights and huddle as small as she could, waiting for it to pass. Thankfully for her, it always did.

Epsilon kept her on-track for her destination, watching through the embedded camera in her helmet and probably more sensors she didn’t know about. But if growing up in the quantum age had taught Jamie one thing, it was that the less she knew about the sensors she wore, the happier she’d be.

“Am I the first pony you’re sending?” Jamie asked, mid-afternoon on her third day of hiking. “I mean, you seem to be starting me pretty far from this town. I bet if your previous attempts had been eaten you might’ve put them closer.”

“You are the first,” Epsilon said. “You were an ideal combination of related factors.”

She grunted, focusing on her climbing as the ground got steep under her hooves. Climbing down, which would seem easier except that her balance as a horse was still extremely poor. If she slipped here, she might tumble off a cliff. I wonder if Epsilon would airlift me to surgery, or just leave me to die in the jungle. “And what factors… were… those?”

“Sufficient competence for basic negotiation, disposability, and obedience. Other pods were as damaged as yours, some more so. But those contained within were either too valuable to risk in an experimental surgery, or unlikely to complete this mission once commanded.”

I should be insulted. Jamie started psyching herself up with an argument with the computer anyway, reminding it what its entire bloody point was and how valuable every human life ought to be—but then she heard a voice.

It was a pitiful thing, quiet enough that she’d almost missed it through the stillsuit hood. She froze in place, ears twitching as she reached up to unzip the hood. Immediately her skin breathed a sigh of relief, though of course the waves of mosquitoes would probably change her mind on that in short order. Except she didn’t see any of them yet.

“Please… help! If anyone’s out there… I could really use some help.” The voice sounded so pitiful, Jamie probably would’ve gone for them even if the computer had ordered her to ignore it. But Epsilon fell strangely silent as she replaced the hat onto her head this time, and followed the voice. It was coming from the edge of the trail, where the already steep slope became sheer and vines grew thick.

Jamie stopped on the edge, ears perked to listen. “Hello! Please, any creature? I could use a hoof! I’ll be… really grateful for your help!”

Could they have heard her approach? Hard to say, since Jamie herself couldn’t make out where the voice was coming from exactly. Maybe there was an overhang she couldn’t see, or an opening into unknown caverns below? Whatever it was, she nudged as close to the edge as she could, then shouted as loudly as she ever had with her unfamiliar lungs. “Hey! I can hear you, whoever you are! Are you still in trouble?”

A stupid question, but she wasn’t sure what else to say. Anything to keep them talking, and to psyche herself up for this. Saving someone could go a long way towards proving that we’re peaceful. I could finish my mission before even starting it.

Yes! There’s been a bit of a cave-in. I, uh… I don’t think I’m strong enough to get through it.” The voice came from far enough below that it was quite faint, and she had to freeze completely still to listen and understand her. “Are you a pegasus? The cavern entrance is just below the cliffside trail, and… it might be difficult to get to if you’re not. Unless you’re a really skilled unicorn?”

“I’m not either of those things, unfortunately,” she said. She reached to the side, flipping open her saddlebags and removing the coil of line from inside. The plasteel filament could probably lift a car, though it wasn’t much thicker than the threads in her uniform. She clipped it onto the bag itself, tightening the straps so it would serve as a harness, before searching around for something.

A set of mechanical grippers tightened around the line, and a faint voice spoke into the earpiece still clipped onto her head. “On belay.”

What the fuck am I doing. I’m not a mountain climber. I can barely run with these hooves, and I’m not sure I could save someone even if I was still human. But she didn’t stop—she couldn’t just leave someone out here!

“Oh, well… do you think you could run back to Hollow Shades then? Maybe they’ll send somepony. Or… something. They won’t just leave me out here.”

“If I can’t help, I’ll go,” she said, looping the end of the line around a sturdy tree before securing it with a clip to itself. At least she didn’t have to worry about knots—only slipping right off the edge to hang there until she died. Totally different. “I’m going to climb down to you.” And if this gadget I’m wearing doesn’t break or hang me, we’ll both live. “How far down is this cavern?”

“Maybe… I don’t know. Not very far. But you probably shouldn’t try to climb. Unless you’re a griffon, or… maybe then you could. But you don’t sound like a griffon.”

How she could tell that, Jamie didn’t pause to consider. She walked backwards towards the cliff, feeling the backpack grow tight around her shoulders. But while she was walking, the harness would spool out line for her without much difficulty. It was only when she reached the edge that it finally started giving resistance.

“On repel,” she said. It’s just like the climbing wall, it’s just like the climbing wall, it’s just like the climbing wall…

Only it wasn’t at all. Instead of regular rubberized handles to grip onto, the rock was broken and covered with vines. She might’ve been able to climb that anyway, if she had limbs capable of grabbing things. Maybe she could wedge things between her hooves to put a little pressure on them, but this was different. She would be depending entirely on the harness.

Nylon and plastic straps jerked as she pulled taut against them, then started descending. She walked backward over the edge, feeling the line spool out at a steady rate. Not so bad, so long as she kept the pressure of her body holding her to the rock. But if she lost grip for even a moment, she’d be left hanging there, and completely lose control.

She crossed over the edge, with a nearly vertical slope under her hooves. Don’t think about it don’t think about it don’t think about… she repeated, the mantra becoming meaningless in her mind. But then one of her back legs swung out into empty air, and she squealed. “Hold!”

She jerked to a stop, with one leg kicking out below her. She chanced a glance backward, and immediately wished she hadn’t. This was probably the overhang the speaker mentioned, a jutting stretch of rock covered in lichen and twisting vines.

“Uh… it sounds like you should give up,” the voice said again, a little feebler than before. “I really don’t want to be… responsible if you get hurt too. You don’t sound old enough to be out on your own.

Like hell I’m not. “You sound the same age!” she called, a little annoyance rising to the front of her mind. Enough to overcome her fear, anyway. “Resume,” she said, shoving forward with her back legs in search of the floor. For another few terrible moments she hung over nothing—then she found solid ground!

Well, crumbling dirt anyway, leading further down. She dropped over the edge, and suddenly she could see the cavern entrance. She kept sliding down, leaning to the side so she could follow the edge of the cave. “Prepare to stop,” she said, then, “Stop.”

She clambered onto the cavern floor, flopping limply there and shaking a little. Jamie was afraid of heights—she never should’ve been able to do that. She chanced a glance out the opening behind her, over nearly a hundred feet of rough stone before the leafy canopy below. She thought she could make out red tile roofs down there, poking out of the trees—but she was probably imagining them. In any case, she didn’t much want to look that way anymore.

“It sounds like you made it?” the speaker said, her voice now coming from much closer. Just on the other side of a rough pile of stones and rocks. There was a tiny opening near the ceiling, and Jamie made her way up towards it. She climbed cautiously, for fear that it might collapse under her hooves and bury her too. At least the climbing harness was smart enough to know that she wasn’t climbing anymore, and just spooled out for her as she walked.

She tossed her hat to the floor, then flicked the stillsuit’s headlamp onto its brightest mode to shine into the opening. “Hello? Someone in there?”

Rationally, she should’ve known what to expect. But being rational about a horse looking at her like it was a person wasn’t easy for her. It stood on a similar slope of collapsed stone on its side, though several larger rocks looked like they’d been shoved down as best she could. Stanger still, she had wings.

I wasn’t imagining things in the drone footage. They really do look like that.

Of course, this particular horse was covered in dirt and grime, and whatever color her mane had been was transformed to ashy brown. Her body was smeared with more dirt, which seemed to be the only thing she was “wearing.”

“Hey, you’ve got a flashlight,” the horse said. “But this shouldn’t be hard. An earth pony could move these rocks easy.”

Jamie scanned the opening, and the stones around the edge. “An… Earth Pony…” she repeated. “I guess that’s one thing you could call me.” She nudged one of the nearest stones through her boots. “Some of these are bigger than me. I might need to call for a winch to move them.”

She took a step back, fumbling with her radio. Of course, she didn’t know if Epsilon would actually do what she asked. Until she actually tried, she could live in the world where the AI cared about what happened to her and would take steps to protect her. Anything she did would shatter that illusion, and leave her with however Epsilon would really act.

“I might be a pegasus, but I don’t think you need a winch,” the horse said. “Just, uh… try pushing those rocks? Without causing another cave-in, I mean.”

Try pushing them, she repeated, rolling her eyes. Oh yeah, moving two-ton rocks is just how I start my morning. “What were you doing down here anyway? Uh… whoever you are.”

“Shy,” the horse answered, voice suddenly cheerful. “Pleased to meet you.”

Well you could at least tell me. “Well, Shy, I’m Jamie. When I was twice this size, I couldn’t even do a pull-up. I’m not sure how that would translate to being able to move rocks bigger than me.”

For a second Shy was silent. Ground crunched on something hard, suggesting that she might be pacing back and forth on the other side. Eventually she said, “Maybe you haven’t had the chance to use your magic much before. But, uh… I’ve never known an earth pony who wasn’t strong when they needed to be. And right now, I really need you to be. I have another friend who… might come for me. But I haven’t seen him in months. I don’t think he’ll get here in time.”

Of course, my magic! Why didn’t I think of that?

Jamie selected a nearby stone, shoving against it again with both forelegs. To her surprise, the rock jostled a little as she pushed on it—much more than she would’ve expected. Maybe it wasn’t as secure as she’d thought. “Hold on, Shy. I think I might have just the ‘magic’ we need.”

She wrapped both forelegs around the rock, holding as tight as she possibly could. Then she muttered, “Emergency retract, ten seconds.”

Her backpack began to groan, motor lurching against the straps. Was it strange that they didn’t snap right off her limbs, or yank her off the rock like a toy? Instead, her body worked like the winch she’d wanted, pulling against the top of the rock until it started to roll. It crashed past her a moment later, and she leapt to the side, before being jerked back towards the entrance to the cave a moment later. “Cancel order, cancel order!” she squealed, clinging to the cave floor as she was almost dragged right out into open air.

Then the moment passed, and she hastily unclipped the line, before it could decide to start pulling her again.

“There, Shy,” she said, dropping weakly to all fours against the wall. “Just, uh… is that big enough to fit through? You looked pretty scrawny.”

A second later, she saw a little yellow head appear in the opening she’d made. A set of shoulders followed, and soon there was a horse squirming through. How a four-legged animal could move like that, Jamie couldn’t imagine—but she wasn’t about to ask. The horse finally shoved her way through, sliding slowly down the front of the rubble before catching herself and rising again.

She wasn’t completely naked—she had a satchel of sorts, badly torn by her passage through the rocks, as well as a dirty cloth tying back her mane. She grinned, waving one of her wings at Jamie in a friendly sort of way.

Bigger than she’d expected, wide with huge yellow feathers dusted with dirt. How could she keep track of an extra set of limbs? “Well, that was unpleasant. Not my… happiest afternoon. But help came, and that’s what matters.” She finally seemed to really see Jamie sitting there, and her eyes went wide. “Those are some… very strange clothes you’ve got there. Did you… come south from Appleloosa?”

No way a place is named that. “No,” she said. Jamie considered if she should keep her information a little closer to her chest—but not for long. If Epsilon wanted an expert negotiator, it should’ve sent one. It had sent her, and so it would make do with the skill she had. Besides, she’d just saved the shy horse’s life. If anyone was likely to be on her side, it was her. “I’m here from somewhere closer… or I think it’s closer. We’re a new group of settlers trying to get permission to set up a town. I’m not sure how that works, but… maybe you could point me in the right direction?”

“Set up a town…” the horse repeated, making her way over and inspecting her a little closer. Her eyes lingered on the harness, and the open side of her saddlebags. But she seemed far more curious than predatory about it. “As far as I know, all the concentrated foundations are taken. The ponies who sent you can build wherever they want, but… that won’t stop Concord when it comes.”

Jamie tilted her head slightly to the side, utterly baffled. “Concord, is it some kind of… judge? Do I need to ask Concord for permission instead?”

Now it was Shy’s turn to look concerned. “Your parents didn’t teach you? Poor thing…” She reached over with a wing, squeezing Jamie in a way that was probably meant to be kind and affectionate. It came off as entirely too clingy, and she pulled away as soon as she could, glaring. She didn’t actually call out the horse for her behavior, though. Not while she still wanted her help.

“My parents taught me plenty,” she said. “InfoSec, and blockchain, and soldering, and FinanSec…” She trailed off at the horse’s blank expression. She might be taller than Jamie, but from the sound of her voice she was also too young to be very useful. “Look, did you come from the town near here? Could you help me find my way there? And maybe when we get there, you could direct me to, like… a government office or something. Whatever passes for authority in… Hollow Shades, you said?”

“Sure,” Shy said. “Uh, yeah, I can do that. They’re probably going to think you’re the strangest pony to walk into town in years. You sure you want to do it dressed like that? Even this far south, there are Loyalists. They might send a scroll about a pony dressed so strange. Even if… obviously you wouldn’t be doing anything bad. You wouldn’t have illegal Darktech, you’re… barely old enough to be this far from home. Do you even have your cutie mark yet?”

Who gave you the right to act like my mom? Jamie took a few steps away, zipping her saddlebag closed. “I have no idea what that is, but… I had several marks before my body went necrotic. They’re gone now. I didn’t think I’d get away with…” She trailed off. The more she said, the more confused this creature got. This pony got, apparently. She’d have to get used to that parlance. “Look, I think I have enough line to make it to the bottom of the cliff.” She swept one leg back, catching the cable and holding it out so Shy could see. “We’ll have to clip you to my harness, and hope the engine can lower us at the same time.”

“Lower me…” The pony stared in horror at the line. “With that? You climbed down here with sewing thread?”

“It’s stronger than it looks,” she suggested. “It’s, uh… magic. Yeah. And it’s strong enough for both of us.”

The horse followed her to the edge, then spread her wings while Jamie fiddled with reattaching the line. “I can glide down after you. I might not be that strong, but… with climbing gear like that, you need all the help you can get.” Says the one who got stuck by herself in a cave. This time at least, Jamie was in a little better shape. It didn’t even matter if she was hanging like a stupid puppet, so long as the line didn’t actually snap. It had to be plenty long enough for that drop, the spool was still almost unused.

“You can fly?” she asked instead. “That’s… awesome!”

The pony raised an eyebrow. “Not as well as some, but better than I used to.” She frowned, not taking her eyes from Jamie. “There aren’t any pegasi where you grew up?”

She laughed—anything to delay having to climb back out. She still didn’t know if the motor had even survived her misuse a few minutes before. “Can’t say there were. That’s kinda the whole point of me being here. I represent an old kind of people—or maybe a new kind, if that’s how you want to think of us.”

“You… probably don’t want to say that at a royal office,” Shy said. “You’re going to give them the wrong idea. Think you’re here as a…” She lowered her voice, though Jamie couldn’t tell if it was in mockery or fear. “Devourer.”

“On repel,” she whispered as quietly as she could.

“On belay,” the system returned. Her motor whined in protest for a moment, before holding taut again. She began walking out into the air, taking each step one at a time. At least until the harness jerked, and she slipped right over the edge. She screamed in fear for a moment, before an angry mechanical sound brought her to a jerking halt—suspended over open air.

“Mechanical fault detected,” her earpiece said, almost loud enough to hear over her terrified screaming. “Emergency brake engaged.”

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